More than 300 Pacific Flyway bird species funnel through Southeast Alaska each spring, crowding the skies in numbers sure to inspire even a casual birder.
By Ken Marsh
Salmon Bay Lake on Prince of Wales Island was alive with birds that late-April evening, proof that even here in Southeast Alaska no winter lasts forever. In the cedars away from the shoreline varied thrushes trilled and Pacific wrens sang, while across the water a pair of common loons called in their high-pitched, howling way. Woodpeckers in the hills above the lake tapped rhythmically against dead spruces and the sky seemed a country of its own where winged creatures passed in droves, honking, quacking, and tweeting.
Roy and I had taken a skiff down the lake to scout for fish, returning at dusk by the guiding light of a campfire Tony had built on the beach. The air smelled of skunk cabbage and wood smoke, and by the time we’d joined Tony at the fire the stars had come out. Flights of geese passed low overhead as we settled around the coals, talking quietly. Even after midnight when we entered our rented U.S. Forest Service cabin to sleep the geese continued flying; we listened to them all night long, yelping and whooping in the darkness.
Over the years I’ve traveled many times in April from my home in Anchorage to Southeast Alaska, always for the same reasons and always with the same results: To search not for birds, but for spring steelhead – big, bright sea-run rainbow trout. Yet on every trip birds – not fish – have proven the common denominator. Cued this time of year by the mild days of an advancing spring, they descend upon local wetlands, coastlines and forests, often in startling numbers. On these trips, fly rod in hand, I’ve come to count on watching birds, listening to their calls and identifying as many species as I can, whether or not the tides bring fish.
Southeast Alaska extends some 600 miles from Icy Bay northwest of Yakutat to Prince of Wales Island’s southernmost tip just north of Prince Rupert, British Columbia. A wet, temperate, coastal region where sunken mountain ranges off the mainland rise from the sea to form hundreds of islands and islets, Southeast encompasses more than 35,000 square miles of land area and nearly 10,000 miles of shoreline. The region is home to the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest – the largest national forest in the United States – and is a natural thoroughfare for more than 300 species of Pacific Flyway birds.
Waterfowl, seabirds, shorebirds, songbirds, raptors, even tiny hummingbirds arrive between late March and early May, many en route to breeding grounds a thousand miles farther north. Some stay on to nest and raise young in the region’s seaside bluffs, estuaries, and rain forests. Mixed in with the snowbirds are familiar resident species like bald eagles, great blue herons, Steller’s jays, and sooty grouse.
The migrants’ return is a celebrated spring event in many Southeast communities. From Ketchikan’s April-long Hummingbird Festival and Wrangell’s Stikine River Birding Festival to Yakutat’s Tern Festival in late May and early June, the birds are welcomed, logged on checklists, and captured in pictures and art contests. Meanwhile, beyond the region’s isolated fishing hamlets, legions of winged things pass unheralded through the far-flung, out-of-the-way places.
Back at Salmon Bay Lake next morning I sat outside our cabin sipping tea in the sunlight. The geese had passed in the night, but thrushes still sang and an early-rising woodpecker knocked on a hollow spruce nearby.
I’d pulled on my waders and my steelhead rod leaned against the cabin, rigged and ready, when a flash of color caught my eye. Not two feet from my nose a rufous hummingbird hovered, its metallic-raspberry chin patch glowing in a sunbeam. Drawn by a splash of hot-pink embroidery on my ball cap, the diminutive bird paused on buzzing wings before breaking off and vanishing into the forest.
I can’t recall now whether I hooked a steelhead that morning; they’re fickle fish to be sure. But I’ve never forgotten the hummingbird. Perhaps that says something about me, that I’m more birder than angler. Or maybe it speaks to the power of Southeast Alaska and the spectacle of color and sound delivered here each spring on millions of northbound wings.