Searching for seabirds in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, August 04, 2002

Finding birds is not always easy. Some birds, such as ptarmigan, require long hikes into alpine areas to find them. Others, such as owls, may require a lot of skulking around in the woods when everybody else in your family is asleep. With enough dedication and persistence, however, many of the birds that occur in Southeast Alaska can eventually be located.

Seabirds, however, are another story. Birds like shearwaters, albatrosses, storm-petrels and their kin require a boat to find them, and a skiff won't usually do the job. Finding these birds requires a large boat capable of traveling several miles offshore where they feed.

As interest in birding has grown, "pelagic birding trips" have been developed to help birders get to sea to look for seabirds. They are now being offered at several locations in North America. The American Birding Association recently compiled a list of 63 such trips that are offered in Canada or the United States.

In Alaska, a few commercial companies have started offering wildlife trips aboard boats that take tourists to offshore bird rookeries or feeding areas near Sitka, Seward or Dutch Harbor. But the Alaska Marine Highway System presently provides the only way for birders to get very far offshore to areas where birds such as albatrosses will be found. Thus, birders are often found on the monthly trips the Kennicott takes from Juneau to Seward, or aboard the monthly Tustemena trips from Homer to Dutch Harbor.

Such trips can be expensive, however, so when I received an e-mail from World Explorer Cruises last November asking if I would be a naturalist on a two-week birding cruise aboard the Universe Explorer, from Vancouver to Seward and back, I jumped at the chance.

The only problem was the requirement that I had to give four lectures on topics related to birding. This was solved when Bob Armstrong agreed to share the duties with me. Thus, World Explorer got two naturalists for the price of one, and Bob and I got the opportunity to look for birds in a variety of areas we might not otherwise visit.

The main allure for me was the opportunity to look for seabirds as the vessel crossed the Gulf of Alaska 20 to 60 or more miles offshore.

The trip occurred in June, and was a great experience. Being on such a large vessel solved one of the banes of sea birding: seasickness. My eyes were also opened to the amazing concept that birding at sea could be carried out perfectly well from a piano bar lounge above the bow of the ship, with margaritas and peanuts, music and good cheer, while black-footed albatrosses and an array of other seabirds were seen flying by.

As soon as Bob and I got on board, folks started asking us questions. Even before the vessel untied, avid birders were asking us to identify the gulls that were sitting on the docks. Since many of the travelers were from inland states, or East Coast locations, virtually everything they were seeing was potentially a new species.

For the next two weeks Bob and I were constantly "on duty," trying to identify every speck that somebody with a spotting scope had picked up at the far limits of human sight.

But the trip was a huge success. For passengers who only wanted to see some of the more charismatic species, viewing tufted and horned puffins up close was the highlight of their trip. For birders who had come hoping to check off large numbers of new species, each day brought new highlights. One 68-year-old birder from England, who has been birding since childhood, added more than 40 new birds to his life list.

Passengers who spent a fair amount of time birding from the rail were able to see all of the common species of Alaska seabirds including shearwaters, fulmars, albatrosses, storm petrels, cormorants, jaegers, gulls, terns, guillemots, puffins, murres, murrelets and auklets. Perhaps the "best birds" were two south polar skuas, seen about an hour apart, as we were cruising offshore of Vancouver Island. These birds breed in the Southern Hemisphere, spend the rest of the year at sea, and hardly ever come near shore in the Northern Hemisphere. South polar skuas are not common in the North Pacific and any sighting is cause for celebration.

Birding from the decks of a big ship such as the Universe Explorer provides a great opportunity to find seabirds. It also offers a choice of bars to celebrate in after finally seeing a bird that you had spent years looking for.

Steve Zimmerman is president of Juneau Audubon Society. Contact Audubon members at

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