Remote town of Hyder offers Southeast's best bird viewing

Posted: Sunday, July 20, 2003

Part of the adventure of bird watching involves traveling to new areas to see birds that do not occur where you live.

Alaska's best-known birding destinations are in the western and northern areas of the state, and include places such as Attu Island, the Pribilof Islands, Gambell, Nome, Barrow and Prudhoe Bay. In Southeastern Alaska, the premier birding location is the small and little-known town of Hyder.

Hyder, with a population of about 100 people, bills itself as "The Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska." The streets are not paved, and many of the buildings need painting. The mining industry, which led to the development of Hyder, is no longer evident, and its water-bottling plant has gone out of business. Life seems pretty slow, but during early summer the birding is nonstop.

Hyder is the easternmost town in Southeast Alaska. It sits at the upper end of 70-mile-long, and narrow, Portland Canal, which may serve to funnel migrating birds into that area. Its easterly location also provides proximity to the interior of British Columbia, and birds may reach Hyder by flying down the Bear River or other topographical openings to the coast. As a result, birds from the interior of western North America that are rarely found in Alaska occur commonly in Hyder.

Alaska birders who wish to add these birds to their lists have begun taking summer trips to Hyder to see what they can find.

The most notable of the birds is the American crow. This bird is common in Hyder - the only location in Alaska where American crows have ever been found. (The crow found in Juneau is the northwestern crow.)

Hyder is also the best place in Alaska to look for black swifts and magnolia warblers. Birds such as Vaux's swifts, warbling vireos, American redstarts, MacGillivray's warblers, western tanagers, chipping sparrows and cedar waxwings - difficult birds to find in most of Alaska - can be found most any day from mid-June on just by walking around town.

On June 2 this year, two other birders and I flew to Hyder on the mail flight from Ketchikan. Over the next three days we canvassed the area for birds.

One of the most interesting things we observed was the apparent late arrival of at least three species. MacGillivray's warblers were not seen or heard on June 2 or 3, but were singing all over town and out the road toward the Salmon Glacier early on June 4. American redstarts were not heard or seen until the morning of June 5, when we found three birds. No chipping sparrows had appeared by the time we left in the afternoon of June 5, although these birds are normally quite easy to find in Hyder after they arrive.

All of these birds have been found in Hyder as early as May 25, so it would seem that this year's arrivals must have been later than normal. Unfortunately, no one in Hyder keeps track of this sort of occurrence, so the arrival dates of migrating songbirds have not been well documented.

In addition to being one of the best places to view birds in Alaska, Hyder is one of the best places to view bears. Brown and black bears commonly are seen along the Salmon River when salmon begin running in early July.

According to a recent article in the Anchorage Daily News, an estimated 40,000 tourists travel to Hyder each year, via the Cassiar Highway, to view the bears and the run of very large (up to 30 pounds) chum salmon they feed on. We were there too early to see this phenomenon, but we did spend a lot of time birding along the 600-foot-long elevated bear observation platform six miles north of town.

Steve Zimmerman is past president of Juneau Audubon Society and an avid birder. Contact society members at

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