Strategy for Seabirding the North American Pacific Coast
The west coast of North America is going to be an essential stop for anyone interested in world seabirds or for those interested in a big North American list. Nineteen of the worlds 23 species of alcid breed along this coast several being endemic. A few endemic Storm-Petrels, an excellent variety of shearwaters along with three of the four “northern” albatrosses and a smattering of pteredromas, tropicbirds, boobies, skua and such make the west coast a diverse seabirding opportunity.
Essentially you could divide things into 3 or 4 zones depending on whether you include Baja, Mexico -which I will. The four zones running north to south include 1. Alaska, 2. the mid Pacific states (Oregon & Washington, 3. California & 4. Baja
Alaska Alaska is of course an amazing seabirding location but logistically it can be a nightmare and pelagic opportunities have been slow to gain popularity with North American birders. John Puschock with Zugunruhe Birding Tours has been pioneering long range expeditions from Adak to Attu(see full report in Expeditions section) and shorter trips into the Gulf of Alaska with great opportunities for such hard to find species as Whiskered Auklet, Short-tailed Albatross & Mottled Petrel. Laysan Albatross is abundant in the Aleutians and Black-footed Albatross is relatively common in the eastern third of the Aleutians. Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel is seen here and there throughout the Aleutians as is Leach’s Storm-Petrel. Adak is a great spot for viewing both Kittlitz’s & Marbled Murrelets as they float around Clam Lagoon. Ancient Murrelets are commonly seen not far off shore. A Long-billed Murrelet was seen in 2006. Long-billed Murrelet, Adak, May17,2006 -John Puschock
High Lonesome Bird Toursoffers spring pelagics out of Adak & Dutch Harbor for Whiskered Auklet and on occasion Short-tailed Albatross. Many of the alcids can be seen best at their breeding locations which are visited every spring by numerous tour operators.
St.Paul in the Pribilof Islands may be the most famous with wonderful opportunities to see and photograph Parakeet, Crested & Least Auklets, Horned &Tufted Puffins, Common &Thick-billed Murre, light morph Northern Fulmars as well as Red-faced Cormorants and Red-legged & Black-legged Kittiwakes.
Parakeet Auklet, St. Paul, Alaska
Gambell on St. Lawrence Island is a most unique location and is best accessed through one of the several tour companies including High Lonesomethat visit each spring and fall. It has sveral unique alcids for western North America including Black Guillemot and bizarrely breeding Dovekies. Along with these oddities thousands of other breeding alcids fly by the seawatch daily and nest on the nearby cliffs. Light morph Northern Fulmars and in the fall millions of Short-tailed Shearwaters parade by. This doesn’t even take into account 5 species of Loon, 4 species of Eider, all 3 Jaegers, Emperor Goose and for the larophile the chance of Slaty-backed, Vega, Ivory & Ross’s Gulls.
Least Auklets-Gambell, St. Lawrence Island,Alaska Long-tailed Jaeger-Gambell, St. Lawrence Island,Alaska
Ivory Gull, Gambell- St. Lawrence Island, Alaska
Visiting Gambell is a unique experience in many ways not just for birding but culturally as well and it usually leaves a lasting impression on visitors. Along with millions of seabirds Orcas, Bowhead Whales, Ringed Seals and Walrus might all be seen. Our group watched a pod of Orcas devour a Grey Whale not more than 50 yards offshore
Whale bones and seal meat part of the “Gambell Experience” Looking a bit dishevelled after a couple of weeks on Gambell
Unfortunately no one location in Alaska has all the Alaskan alcids. A trip to Gambell and Adak would allow for opportunity to see all the Alaskan alcids as long as your Adak visit included a pelagic to Little Tanaga Strait for Whiskered Auklet. However the unique alcids at Gambell-Dovekie and Black Guillemot being mostly Atlantic Ocean species may not really be target species for many birders visiting Alaska. St.Paul Island in the Pribiloffs is of course an excellent location and this combined with some efforts on the Kenai Peninsula would allow one to see all the Alaskan alcids other than the two Gambell specialties and Whiskered Auklet.
Adak- key seabirding location in mid Aleutians, Alaska
A Birder’s Guide to Alaska by George West covers other potential seabirding opportunities in Alaska including the Ferry to Kodiak and Dutch Harbor, Gulf of Alaska by cruise ship and ferry and seabirding strategies around the Kenai Peninsula (a short drive from Anchorage) probably the most accessible location for Kittlitz’s Murrelet for those not going to Adak.
Laysan Albatross Common Seabird in the Aleutians
Alaska is one of the premier birding destinations in the world. It is also very large with many remote and difficult to access locations and thus is quite expensive. Although with considerable effort one can bird virtually all areas by ones self -Alaska is very well serviced by many very experienced tour operators with years of experience and many connections. This can be incredibly important especially when visiting the native communities in the Pribiloffs and at Gambell and when going anywhere in the Aleutians.
Alaska is very conducive to a long multistage trip. In 2009 my first trip to Alaska I left in mid May and went to Adak then Gambell & Nome,followed by the Pribilofs and subsequently Barrow. During layovers in Anchorage I visited the Denali Highway and parts of the Kenai Peninsula. This took about 5 weeks in total. One may see nearly all the Alaskan seabirds and specialties with this type of approach. Short-tailed Albatross & Mottled Petrel however generally require a more specialized effort. Part 2- Washington to California -coming soon