The opportunity to view wildlife in its natural habitat is one of the prime attractions of Alaska. Bear, moose, caribou, eagles, sea lions, puffin... the list of Alaskan wildlife is a long one.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing: Bears
Wildlife Habitat: Black bears are found in forests; inland brown bears (commonly known as grizzlies) generally in open, treeless areas; coastal brown bears in forested and mountainous areas.
Wildlife Viewing Tips: Bears are most commonly seen during evening hours, feeding on vegetation in late spring and fishing for salmon in summer and early fall. Look for them on beaches, in alpine tundra, and in lush sub alpine meadows.
Alaska Wildlife Facts: Black bears despite their namecan range in color from light cinnamon to blue-gray; brown bears range from blond to black. Adult black bears range in weight from 200 to 500 pounds; brown bears may grow as large as 1,500 pounds. A brown bear is distinguished from a black bear by a characteristic hump over its shoulders; long, straight front claws; and a sometimes concave face.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing: Dahl Sheep
Wildlife Habitat: Open, alpine ridges; meadows; steep slopes with rugged cliffs.
Wildlife Viewing Tips: The best time to observe sheep is during May and June, when they descend to the snow-free slopes of lower elevations. Observe which way sheep are traveling and let them graze toward you. Hot spots include Denali National Park; Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula; Sheep Mountain along the Glenn Highway; Atigun Pass on the Dalton Highway; and Windy Corner on the Seward Highway.
Wildlife Facts: Male Dall sheep have massive curling horns, the rings of which can be counted to determine age. Ewes and rams live in separate bands and seldom associate, except during the mating season. Rams clash horns to establish dominance. The sound of the impact can often be heard a mile away. To protect themselves, the male sheep have skulls an inch thick over their brains.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing: Caribou
Wildlife Habitat: Arctic tundra and alpine tundra near or above the timberline; taiga forests in winter.
Wildlife Viewing Tips: Wildlife viewers can easily find small numbers of caribou to watch; viewing large numbers generally requires the use of aircraft, since Alaska's largest herds inhabit remote, roadless areas of the state. Hot spots are the northern section of the Dalton Highway, Denali National Park, the Denali Highway, the Richardson High way between Sourdough and Paxson Lake (August, September, October, and April); the Glenn Highway near Eureka (winter); the Alaska Highway between Tok and the Canadian border (November to March); and the Kenai River Flats (mid-April to mid-October).
Wildlife Facts: Alaska is home to nearly a million caribou in 32 herds. Caribou travel greater distances each year than any other land mammalup to 3,000 miles. Their large, concave hooves spread wide to support them in snow and soft tundra and function as paddles when they swim. Newborn calves can walk within an hour of birth and can outrun a person within several days. When startled, caribou hop on their hind feet, emitting a scent to alert other caribou that danger may be imminent.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing: Moose
Wildlife Habitat: Spruce forests; freshwater marshes; willow thickets; Interior river valleys.
Wildlife Viewing Tips:Look for browsing areas in the early morning and at twilight, especially along highways where roads are close to rivers and ponds. Moose are commonly seen in the Mat-Su Valley, on the Kenai Peninsula, and in the Anchorage Bowl.
Wildlife Facts: Weighing up to 1,600 pounds, moose are the largest deer in the world. They can run at speeds up to 35 mph and can swim at 6 mph for up to two hours. During the breeding season (or rut), males joust with one another by bringing their massive antlers together and pushing. Cows with calves can be fiercely protective; don't come between them. Moose are prized by hunters for their delicious meat; Alaskans harvest 6,000 to 8,000 annually.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing: Wolves
Wildlife Habitat: A wide variety of habitats from the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska to arctic tundra.
Wildlife Viewing Tips: Look in large, open river beds and tundra areas. Search for tracks in soft soil and snow. From mid-May through August, most wolves center their activities around den and rendezvous sites. They are usually active during the early morning and evening. Listen for wolf howls, especially during the breeding season in February and March. Hot spots include the northern mountains and foothills of the Brooks Range, the Alaska Range (including Denali National Park), and the Chugach, Wrangell, and Talkeetna Mountains.
Wildlife Facts: Wolves may eat 20 pounds of meat at a time, then go for a week without food. They are able to travel great distances, occasionally covering more than 40 miles during a day-long hunting expedition. Historically, wolves inhabited nearly the entire land mass of North America and Eurasia, a larger area than any other mammal except the Pleistocene lion. They are thought to mate for life. An estimated 8,700 wolves live in Alaska.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing: Bald Eagles
Wildlife Habitat: Throughout Alaska, except the Far North; especially plentiful along the coast in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
Wildlife Viewing Tips: Eagles congregate around water front food sources, particularly in places where fish are spawning or schooling, and are most active in the early morning. Hot spots include the Chilkat River Valley (late October to December); the Stikine River Flats (spring); and Admiralty Island and Prince William Sound (summer).
Wildlife Facts: Bald eagles weigh up to 15 pounds and have 7-foot wing spans. About 30,000 bald eaglesthe largest population in the U.S.make Alaska their home. Eagles mate for life and may return to the same nest year after year. The eyesight of these birds is so good that they can spot a single fish from a mile away.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing: Sea Otters
Wildlife Habitat: Shallow coastal waters from Southeast Alaska to the Aleutian Islands.
Wildlife Viewing Tips: Look in protected bays and inlets, especially near kelp beds. Mothers often anchor their young in kelp while foraging. Check rocks in the tidal zone during low tide for hauled-out otters. Hot spots include Prince William Sound, the outside coast of Southeast Alaska, Kachemak Bay, Kodiak Island, and the Kenai Fjords.
Wildlife Facts: Sea otters eat as much as 25 percent of their body weight daily. They collect clams, crabs, and mussels, pile them on their chests and crack them open using small rocks. When not busy feeding, mothers rest their pups on their bellies while they float on their backs. Often called old men of the sea, otters played a critical role in the Russian settlement and, ultimately, sale of Alaska. Demand for their luxurious fur nearly led to their extinction. Today, Alaska is home to more than 100,000 sea otters, roughly 90 per cent of the world's population.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing: Humpback Whales
Wildlife Habitat: Near shore waters along the southern coast of Alaska.
Wildlife Viewing Tips: Look for the clouds of vapor humpbacks force from their blowholes as they surface and exhale, and listen for the explosive whooshing sound. When humpbacks dive, they often lift their flukes (tails) out of the water. In Alaska, the largest concentrations of humpbacks are in Southeast, in Prince William Sound, near Kodiak and Barren Islands, between Semidi and Shumagin Islands, in the eastern Aleutians, and in the southern Bering Sea.
Wildlife Facts: These massive sea mammals have the capacity to stay submerged for up to 30 minutes. Females average 35 tons; males 25; newborns 2. Most Alaska humpbacks spend the winter near Hawaii, where they bear young. Humpbacks often feed cooperatively, herding their prey, exhaling columns of bubbles to concentrate it, and lunging to the surface with their mouths wide open. Ventral grooves allow the whale's throat to expand and take in a large volume of water, which the whale then forces out across baleen plates that retain food. More than 23,000 whales were taken in the North Pacific before whaling was banned in 1966. Scientists estimate that between 1,000 and 1,200 humpbacks are alive today.
Alaska Wildlife Viewing Hints
Choose the best season.
Many species of Alaska wildlife appear only during certain seasons at any given site. They may hibernate in the winter, migrate during the spring, or use special nesting areas during the summer. Check site write-ups and call site mangers for detailed information before arrival.
Dawn and dusk are the best times to view most wildlife. Areas that are barren of wildlife at midday may have been teeming with various kinds of animals during the early morning. Those who arrive early and stay late see more wildlife.
Learn the animals feeding habits.
Many Alaska shorebirds, marine birds, and waterfowl follow the tides in their daily feeding cycle. Other wildlife, including bears, spend large amounts of time during the summer near salmon streams and berry patches. Knowing the feeding habits of Alaskan wildlife will help to find them.
Use binoculars or a spotting scope.
These tools will open a new world of Alaska wildlife viewing. For instance, with a 20-power spotting scope mounted on a tripod, it is possible to watch the activity of a mountain goat standing 1.5 miles away.
Move slowly and quietly.
The best thing way to improve chances of seeing Alaska wildlife is to slow down and stop periodically. Animals often disappear when people arrive but may return shortly. Listen carefully to locate birds. Use peripheral vision to spot movements in trees, thick brush, and water.
Fade into the woodwork.
Wear natural colors and unscented lotions. Hide be hind vegetation or boulders. Relax and avoid staring; animals can easily detect tension and may interpret a direct stare as a threat.
Look for animal sign.
Tracks in the mud or snow, unusual scents, vegetation that has been recently browsed, and scat are all clues that wildlife has been in the area. Look for these clues as a way to find animals or appreciate them when they're out of sight.
Use field guides.
Many good field guides are available to help identify various Alaskan wildlife - mammals, birds, fish, and other fauna and flora. Knowing what you're looking at greatly enhances the wildlife viewing experience.
Ask an Alaskan wildlife expert.
Some viewing areas have on-site staff. Don't be afraid to ask for advice. It can often make the difference between a disappointing visit and a memorable one.
Allow enough time in the field. Even in Alaska, where wildlife is abundant, it can take years, if not a lifetime, to see all the species that live here.
* portions excerpted from the Alaska Dept. of Fish & Game, Div. of Conservation