Kodiak by Kayak – A Birding Experience Explored From the Water

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Of Alaska’s 6,640 miles of coastline, some of the most ruggedly beautiful encircle Kodiak Island. Clusters of islands and rock outcroppings rise up from just beyond its jagged shoreline, while massive cliff faces with their craggy-ledged complexions share the island’s coarse coastline with long, narrow beaches of black sand and expansive tidal flats fanning out from the mouths of mountain-fed rivers that empty into the North Pacific.

It’s a kayaker’s paddling paradise offering an oceanic menagerie of wildlife. Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game ranks Kodiak among the top 10 birding destinations in the entire state. The checklist of the most common critter sightings ranges from myriad shorebirds to sea lions, sea otters and on rare occasions, a fleeting glimpse of a whale blow or an orca fin cutting the surface. Brilliantly colored sea stars, anemones and other invertebrates are revealed in shallow, crystal-clear tidal pools or clinging to rocks and ledges blanketed in seaweed and barnacles as the tide runs its course from high to low—all viewable at a safe and respectable distance from the exposed cockpit of a sea kayak.

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DOG BAY BREAKWATER

Launching from the boat harbor on Near Island (officially named St. Herman’s, but known by locals as Dog Bay), I point my bow toward the breakwater near the southern end of the island. Ahead, a lone pigeon guillemot glides lazily across the glass-smooth water of the inner harbor. Skirting the ends of the docks jutting out into the harbor’s narrow passageway, I pass within a dozen yards of several sea lions hauled out on a nearby floating platform. A huge bull, surrounded by his harem, lounges in the sun, while yearlings frolic in the waters, playfully curious of my passing boat.

CHINIAK BAY

Paddling out through the staggered entrance walls of the breakwater into the open ocean of Chiniak Bay, I hear the squeeze-toy squeak of several dozen black oystercatchers as they saunter along the outer rip-rap embankment. A lone puffin flutters across the sky on stubby wing beats. Beyond the high ridge at the island’s southern tip, I get a glimpse of soaring kittiwakes, circling high above one of several rookeries.

POPOV ISLAND

It’s a short open-ocean paddle to the far side of Popov. I’ve often seen sea otters in this stretch, even the telltale fin of a minke whale one summer, but today my eyes are attracted to the pure white beach near the eastern end of the island. Protected from the open ocean by clumps of shale rising up a dozen yards from shore, the soft crushed shell sandy beach is a favorite overnight campsite for kayakers.

CROOKED ISLAND

The lush green-topped plateau on Crooked’s southern headland is an apartment complex of shore and sea birds. Herring and mew gulls nest in the uppermost tall grasses, while a scattering of black-legged kittiwakes build tiny half- basket nests below on narrow rocky ledges. Cormorants stand like idle sentries along the rocky, wave-lapped base. Several times throughout summer, a great blue heron is spotted in the grass atop one of these rocky stacks of shale.

KULICHKOF ISLAND

Long before I can actually make out the markings on these small gull-like birds, I can hear the screeching cries of the thousands of black-legged kittiwakes roosting on the pillbox of rocks called Kulichkof Island. Hundreds of nests scatter along narrow ledges of rock throughout the speckling of whitewash along the cliff face. Rounding Kulichkof towards its seaward side, I come upon several pigeon guillemots and cormorants roosting on shelves and ledges on its exposed face. Two harlequin ducks scurry along the rocks at water’s edge and quickly disappear into the dark shadows of the deep gray shale rock.

TRIDENT BASIN

The channel between Crooked and Holiday islands serves as a water entrance into Trident Basin, Kodiak’s floatplane base. At low tide this tiny waterway is a showcase of maritime life on display. The Medusa-like tentacles on several mounds of sea anemones sway in the ebbing tidal currents while sea stars in shy pastels and vivid hues of reds and blues adorn the rocks. As I glide alongside the tips of random rocky mounds that tickle the surface of the water from below, I catch movement along the shore and turn in time to see a gigantic bald eagle launch itself skyward from a pinnacle of rock at water’s edge.

HOLIDAY ISLAND

Turning back out along the string of islands, I approach the high cliffs on the seaward side of Holiday. Puffins, both horned and tufted, raise their young until the chicks are ready to leave the nests, which are tunnel-like dens burrowed into the soil just below the grassy carpet that caps the top of these lush green-covered upsurges of shale. Roosting on the slimmest of footholds, puffins seem to literally fall off the cliff to glide out over the water. And from where I sit on my kayak, they sometimes glide a few scant yards beyond my bow. Dotting the surface like bobbing bathtub toys, the colorful beaks on a cluster of horned puffins add a splash of rich orange and yellow highlights to the landscape.

BIRD ISLAND

Approaching the final island in this mini archipelago near downtown Kodiak, I detour slightly out and around Bird Island. Like Popov, it offers a small sandy beach where rock sandpipers and black turnstones leap-frog across the rocks near shore. As I head across and back down the Near Island Channel toward the boat ramp, I’m already planning my next trip out.

 

Photos Marion Owen and Tom Watson