Festivals throughout Alaska offer education, art, tours, photography opportunities
A few weeks after moving to Alaska, I boarded a ferry bound for the Alaska Bald Eagle Festival in Haines. I didn’t know what to expect, but I’d heard you could see lots of eagles. The next day I drove out the highway, winding along the Chilkat River in the November rain. Spotting a few people with binoculars at one of the pullouts, I stopped.
Dozens of bald eagles worked at stripping salmon carcasses on gravel bars and along the riverbanks. Some perched on logs or the ground, looking regal—and too stuffed to fly. I didn’t grasp the full magnitude of the gathering until I scanned the trees. The white heads and tails of the adult eagles stood out like beacons and the juveniles were dark shapes matching the wet bark. I started counting the eagles I could see. I lost track after several hundred.
The eagles gather to feast on a late salmon run, made accessible by spring-fed sections of river that remain ice-free longer than other places. Observers have counted up to 4,000 eagles during late fall, providing the reason for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve and the perfect resource for a bird festival.
Alaska boasts more than a dozen bird festivals statewide, spanning April to November. Some tout vast numbers of birds migrating through, some focus on a single species, but they all share one common theme: the vast reaches of Alaska offer habitat for millions of birds. That’s worth celebrating.
Migrating birds generally travel along four major routes called “flyways” across North America. Birds from all four flyways plus other continents all stream to Alaska for the breeding season. Some species stop along the way to refuel during the grueling journey, others gather into flocks in the fall before heading south, providing excellent opportunities to experience the prolific birds of Alaska.
Dozens of bald eagles worked at stripping salmon carcasses on gravel bars and along the riverbanks. Some perched on logs or the ground, looking regal—and too stuffed to fly. I didn’t grasp the full magnitude of the gathering until I scanned the trees. The white heads and tails of the adult eagles stood out like beacons and the juveniles were dark shapes matching the wet bark. I started counting the eagles I could see. I lost track after several hundred.”
Bird festivals are a great way to tap into local experts’ knowledge of where to see birds. For visitors, it’s a fun way to cross paths with Alaskans. For locals, it’s a chance to learn more about the incredible birds around home. Festivals offer workshops to hone your bird-watching skills, learn about scientific research, photograph birds, view local artwork, and, best of all, take local tours. By drawing visitors and offering community events, festivals also offer economic and social benefits to the cities that host them.
A Thumbnail Guide to Alaska Bird Festivals
The two early-bird festivals of the year are the Alaska Hummingbird Festival in Ketchikan and the Stikine River Birding Festival in Wrangell, both in April.
Although the Ketchikan festival is named for hummingbirds, for nearly 20 years it has celebrated, with various activities, the return of a variety of migratory birds. A juried art show draws submissions from artists around the state. Leslie Swadda, of the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center, says weekend bird walks offer “very diverse opportunities for birding: Gravina Island for shorebirds, Ward Lake for temperate rainforest birds and downtown Ketchikan for birds along the waterfront and in the shrubs.”
The Stikine River festival originated in the mid-1990s when the Wrangell sawmill closed. In an effort to create new jobs, residents looked to the growing Alaska tourism industry. “We knew we had the birds,” said Carol Rushmore, economic development director for the city. A festival was a natural fit. Although snow may still remain in April, that’s when the waves of migrating birds pass through: swans, shorebirds and one of the largest springtime concentrations of bald eagles. The Stikine is a massive river with a large run of hooligan, a small fish many birds find delicious.
“One day, we have thousands of eagles in town, then the next, they all leave for the hooligan run on the river,” Rushmore said.
In late April and early May, the communities of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kodiak and Tok participate in International Migratory Bird Day, with a variety of activities for families.
May is when bird migration peaks in Alaska. Shorebirds head north by the millions, some from as far away as South America or New Zealand; many species stop to refuel. The Copper River Shorebird Festival in Cordova and the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer celebrate these marvelous fliers.
The wide flats of the Copper River offer a buffet for up to 5 million western sandpipers. Huge flocks of the sparrow-sized birds are visible on the tidal flats along the road from town. The birds may be a twittering mass on the beach: napping, bathing and feeding. When something spooks them, thousands rise in a tight flock that undulates like a ribbon in the wind. You can ride a state ferry through spectacular Prince William Sound to Cordova to enjoy the 23rd year of the festival.
The Kachemak Bay festival is one of the largest in the state, drawing more than 1,000 attendees. Now in its 21st year, the festival offers activities for all ages and skill levels. Although it showcases shorebird species, you can also view seabirds: a raucous nesting colony of black-legged kittiwakes (a small gull) at the Alaska Marine Highway ferry dock or Pacific loons and surf scoters along the narrow coastline of the Homer Spit. Use a boat to take advantage of the numerous opportunities to view birds around the bay; see nesting common murres and maybe even a red-faced cormorant, a bird found only in Alaska and Russia.
The birds may be a twittering mass on the beach: napping, bathing and feeding. When something spooks them, thousands rise in a tight flock that undulates like a ribbon in the wind.”
In mid-May, the Kenai Birding Festival offers an interesting mix of inland birds along the Kenai River and seabirds coming close to land. Hudsonian godwits, a large shorebird, and bald eagles often nest near the wildlife-viewing platform at the river. Across the river from the platform, it is possible to spy on a colony of about 10,000 glaucous-winged and herring gulls. Local bird experts provide spotting telescopes and expertise at the platform and there is a children’s art show and activities.
The Yakutat Tern Festival is the newest Alaska bird festival. Started in 2011, it celebrates one of the largest and southernmost nesting colonies of the graceful Aleutian tern. Little is known about this species, which lives only in Alaska and eastern Russia. Yakutat is at the forefront of research about these northern birds. The festival includes field trips to view Aleutian terns, children’s activities, Native cultural events and an art show.
After a summer lull when birds are busy raising chicks, there are two August festivals: the Autumn Wings festival in Anchorage and the Tanana Valley Crane Festival in Fairbanks.
The Autumn Wings festival is hosted by the Bird Treatment and Learning Center, which helps rehabilitate injured wild birds and presents education programs. Government agencies and local vendors are among the partners that participate in this festival. The specialty of this festival is the live-bird presentations involving birds that include hawks and owls, jays and songbirds. It’s a great opportunity for young birdwatchers to get an up-close look at the fascinating creatures.
The Crane Festival offers a rare opportunity to view and photograph sandhill cranes before the chicks embark on their first migration with their parents. More than 1,000 cranes gather at the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. Started in the late 1990s, the festival is held in late August, only a few weeks after the crane chicks have learned to fly. At this time of year, the youngsters look different than their parents. The vocal cords of the juvenile birds haven’t fully developed, and this is one of the few places you can hear their high, peeping calls intermingle with the trumpeting of adults.
Whether you live in Alaska or are planning to visit, a celebration of Alaska birds is a treat you shouldn’t miss.
Beth Peluso has worked for Audubon Alaska for three years and enjoys the camaraderie of attending bird festivals. Learn more about Alaska’s amazing birds at www.AudubonAlaska.org.
Calendar of Alaska Bird Festivals
Alaska Hummingbird Festival
When: The month of April Where: Ketchikan
Contact: Southeast Alaska Discovery Center at (907) 228-6220, www.alaskacenters.gov/ketchikan.cfm
Stikine River Birding Festival
When: April 25–28 Where: Wrangell
Contact: (907) 874-2829 or 800-367-9745, www.stikinebirding.org
International Migratory Bird Day
Throughout late April and May, in various communities
Spring Migration Celebration
Where: Creamer's Field, Fairbanks When: TBA
Contact: Arctic Audubon Chapter, www.arcticaudubon.org
Upper Tanana Migratory Bird Festival
Where: Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge, Tok When: TBA
Contact: (907) 883-5312, http://tetlin.fws.gov/news_room.htm
Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival
Where: Cordova When: May 2–5
Contact: (907) 424-7260, www.cordovachamber.com Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival
Where: Homer When: May 9-12
Contact: (907) 235-7740, www.homeralaska.org/visit-homer/events-homer/kachemak-bay-shorebird-festival
Kenai River Birding Festival
Where: Central Kenai Peninsula When: May 16-19
Yakutat Tern Festival
When: May 30–June 2 Where: Yakutat
Contact: Susan Oehlers, (907) 784-3359, www.yakutatternfestival.org
Autumn Wings Festival
When: Aug. 17 Where: Anchorage
Contact: Bird Treatment and Learning Center, (907) 562-4852, www.birdtlc.net
Tanana Valley Sandhill Crane Festival
Where: Fairbanks When: Friday–Sunday, Aug. 23-25
Contact: (907) 452-5162, http://www.creamersfield.org/Crane_Fest_2012.html Alaska Bald Eagle Festival Where: Haines When: Nov. 11-17
New weeklong schedule in 2013
Contact: (907) 766-3094, http://baldeagles.org/festival