A new book for Alaska bird watchers

Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2003

Alaska has become a prime destination for birders. From the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean to the far-flung islands of the Bering Sea, from Attu Island at the westernmost end of the Aleutian Islands to Hyder, the most easterly town in Southeast, birders can be found scouring the state looking for new birds to add to their lists.

During the summer Alaska abounds with species that breed here, but are hard to find elsewhere in North America. Every year vagrant species from Asia overshoot their normal migratory destinations and temporarily end up in Alaska. There also are species such as the red-faced cormorant, whiskered auklet, and McKays bunting that are found primarily only in Alaska.

For many birders, finding new birds is almost an obsession. The impact of birding tourism on state and local economies can be huge.

For instance, the Texas Department of Economic Development estimates birding added $90 million to the economy of the Rio Grande Valley in 1998. Several years ago the discovery of a Steller's sea eagle along the Taku River led to a rush of North America's leading birders to Juneau. For about a week motels, helicopter companies and restaurants had a surge in business resulting from the desire to see one of the world's most spectacular eagles.

In order to capitalize on birding opportunities, people need to know where to go to find the birds they are interested in.

Until recently, there were few resources to help birders do that in Alaska. This has changed with the recent publication of the American Birding Association's "A Birder's Guide to Alaska."

This 586-page book is a monumental accomplishment. Edited by George West, former vice president for academic affairs at the University of Alaska statewide system, the book describes virtually every birding location in Alaska.

Detailed descriptions of more than 60 areas, including how to get to the birding hot spots, the species likely to be seen, when to be there, and where to stay, have been written by expert birders from each area. Also included are descriptions of where to look for birds along the Alaska Marine Highway System. More than 100 maps are provided to keep people from getting lost.

In addition to describing birding hot spots across Alaska, the book contains an amazingly complete, annotated list of all the birds that have occurred in Alaska and where each species has been or can be found. Also included are checklists of birds from all of the major regions of Alaska, a list of all of the mammals, reptiles and amphibians found in Alaska, a list of all organizations that might be of interest to birders in Alaska, and a gazetteer and pronunciation guide for those folks who wish to know how to pronounce place names in Alaska.

Additional sections on the biogeographical regions of Alaska, climate, Alaska Native cultures and safety precautions provide visitors to Alaska with the background needed to safely pursue their birding obsession without offending local residents.

Even if you are not a birder, "A Birder's Guide to Alaska" is a good reference book to have on hand. The introductory section to each chapter provides a wealth of information about every location covered. The logistical sections take the guesswork out of trip planning. The maps provide easy directions on how to get around in a myriad of locations. Many of the best trails to hike, or areas to look for wildlife are described.

And George West's very lovely illustrations of birds and butterflies grace many pages. This book will help residents and tourists alike to perceive how biologically diverse Alaska is, and how much variety there is in bird life, habitats, and natural history across the state.

Steve Zimmerman is past president of Juneau Audubon Society. He wrote four of the area descriptions for this book: Juneau, Gulf of Alaska by Ferry, Forrester Island and Whiskered Auklets from Dutch Harbor.

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