My father and I took an Alaskan cruise on the Westerdam (Holland America) from August 24 – 31, 2008. The cruise was roundtrip out of Seattle. About 12 months prior to the cruise, I had agreed to lecture at a conference being held on the ship and had initially intended to bring my wife. However, we recently had a new baby and Holland America does not allow infants less than six months old. Thus, my wife stayed with the baby and my dad came with me. This report focuses on bird opportunities on a southeast Alaska cruise.
Aug 24: depart Seattle
Aug 25: cruising in the Pacific Ocean off British Columbia.
Aug 26: Glacier Bay National Park - cruising
Aug 27: Juneau
Aug 28: Sitka
Aug 29: Ketchikan (half-day - morning)
Aug 30: Victoria (arrival around 6:15pm)
Aug 31: return to Seattle
Guides: We were self guided for the entire cruise.
Timing of the trip: Cruise ships go to southeast Alaska from May to September. Fall bird migration is underway in August and September.
Weather & Clothing: Southeast Alaska had a lot of rain during the summer/early fall of 2008. It rained heavily in Sitka (essentially washing us out). We had light rain, intermittently in Juneau. It was sunny in Ketchikan (reportedly one of their few sunny days that summer). Obviously, rain gear (umbrella, rain jacket/pants) is necessary.
Biting animals: We had no problems at this time of year. I brought DEET 20%, in case of mosquitoes (which can be bad in portions of Alaska).
Advice: The Alaskan cruises offer nice scenery and a chance to see a few species of birds while having the niceties of a cruise ship.
Pelagic birding: The conference at which I was lecturing was set up such that all the lectures were on “sea” days and that days at port were “free” from the conference. Thus, I frequently had to be in a lecture room during periods of time at sea. However, I was able to spend several hours of pelagic birding from the ship. These large cruise ships allow you to bring a scope (if desired) and you can search for pelagic birds with the scope (I would recommend a scope if feasible). I had read a prior trip report which suggested looking for pelagic species from lower decks of the cruise ship. I spent time on the 3rd deck (where there is some protection from the wind), 4th deck (no protection from the wind), 9th deck (complete protection from the wind), and 10th deck (complete protection from the wind). I would recommend looking for pelagic birds (with binoculars and scope, if available) from the highest protected vantage point possible. We spent most of our time looking at the sea from the protection of the 10th deck (Crow’s nest bar). We could identify most everything and had much better visibility and stayed warm.
Juneau area: We rented a car at Juneau and drove ourselves around looking for birds. Renting a car can be a little tricky when coming in on a cruise ship to Juneau. I would strongly suggest renting from “Rent-a-Wreck” (address: 2450 Industrial Blvd # C Juneau, AK 99801, (907) 789-4111). Rent-a-Wreck will come and pick you up and drop you off at your cruise ship (for free). This is important because the cruise ship docks in Juneau and all the rental car companies are based 10-15 miles north in the Mendenhall Valley (most at the airport). I called several of the rental car companies based at the airport (Budget, etc) and none of them would pick us up at the cruise ship dock for free. These companies said that I would have to get a taxi ($20 each way) to the airport. Plus “Rent-a-Wreck” was about $20 cheaper for their rentals (compact car for $54/day). Our car was older but did fine.
I would suggest looking at the Juneau Audubon Society website. I would also suggest looking at EagleChat (this is the Juneau bird email list). A Juneau bird checklist can be found at:
Also check the following websites:
There are multiple sites for birding in the Juneau area. We birded at the following locations:
Eagle Beach State Park: This area is about 30 miles north of Juneau on the Glacier Highway and is well signed. Just drive north of Juneau on the main road. If you get to mile marker 30, you have gone too far. The area can be good for shorebirds, ducks and Eagles. We birded the east side of the road (toward the mainland) where there are several trails (look for the church campground) into the forest. We had a nice mixed species flock near the bridge over the river and we also had two flocks of White-winged Crossbills here.
Auke Recreational Area: The recreational area is in Auke, along the main road (Glacier Highway) after you leave the Mendenhall Valley area. It is well signed (left side of Glacier Highway as you are heading north). The area has multiple trails and campsites. You can walk down to Auke Bay from here. We had some information that Northern Three-toed Woodpecker was there but we did not see it.
Mendenhall Glacier: If you are driving around, you should drive yourself to the Mendenhall Glacier. Directions are simple. Take Mendenhall Loop Road either from Glacier Highway or Egan Drive (in the Mendenhall Valley part of Juneau). This loop road will take you to the glacier.
Mendenhall marsh: This area is near the airport (west, southwest of the airport) and just east of the Mendenhall River. It is excellent for shorebirds. Take Radcliffe road (south from Glacier Highway) to the end (Radcliffe road actually changes names to Robertson Road and then to Mendenhall Refuge Trail Access Road before it ends in a parking area at the start of the trail). Park in the parking area and walk the trail to the marsh (the trail skirts the west end of the airport). This levee trail appears to be very popular with walkers and their dogs. After about 0.5 miles on the trail, a trail goes down the levee (to the right) and heads out to the mouth of the river. We took this trail through the marsh (mostly dry) and found a good variety of shorebirds as well as two species of longspurs along the trail.
Juneau pier: The pier in Juneau is good for gulls.
Sitka area: You will be tendered from the cruise ship via a tender (small boat) to the dock in Sitka. There is a map available of Sitka on-line from the National Park Service (For the Sitka National Historic Park). See the National Park website for the link to the map. http://www.nps.gov/sitk/
There are a couple areas of interest to the birder within walking distance of Sitka.
We went first to the Sitka National Historic Park. It is about 0.5 mile walk from the area where the tender lands in Sitka. The Park offers a museum and has nice coastal woods behind the buildings. The trails are free to the public. It costs $4.00 to walk through the museum. There is a checklist of the Birds of Sitka National Historic Park available at the museum and also on-line. We walked the National Historic Park trails and shoreline. The area looks promising but due to heavy rain, we saw little and finally gave up.
Bird checklist at this link:
You can also walk along the shore in several areas (especially along the rock jetties) and look for rock-loving shorebirds and ducks. During our stay, the rain hampered this aspect.
Finally, many people will go to the Alaska Raptor Rehab Center. The center is located on Sawmill Creek Road which is the northeast boundary of Sitka National Historic Park. Cost is $12/person and in addition, to several birds of prey (Bald Eagle, Hawks, Falcons, and Owls) they have exhibits and a souvenir store.
I would suggest getting off the ship on the first tender and walking along Lincoln Street to Sitka National Historic Park and birding the Sitka Historic park initially in the morning. After birding the park, cross Sawmill Creek Road and go to the Alaska Raptor Rehab Center. Then walk back into Sitka (the raptor center can call a cab, if you do not want to walk) and look at the shops or the harbor and shoreline.
Ketchikan area: We did a salmon fishing trip (organized by the cruise ship). Booking the tour through the cruise ship was expensive but logistically was the easiest. We only had a half day at Ketchikan, thus the salmon trip took up our entire time on Ketchikan. My dad and I caught 7 salmon and we had them shipped back to my house in Sacramento.
Pacific Loon: two seen in Glacier Bay National Park
Common Loon: several seen migrating south
Laysan Albatross: one bird seen well from the 3rd deck on our first morning at sea. Remarkably, this was the first albatross we saw.
Black-footed Albatross: about 15 seen on the first morning at sea
Northern Fulmar: one seen on the first morning at sea
Pink-footed Shearwater: most seen on the morning of Aug 25, but several birds seen on Aug 29 (Hecate Straight) and Aug 30.
Buller's Shearwater: 4 birds seen on the morning of Aug 25
Sooty Shearwater: hundreds seen, mostly on Aug 25 (open Pacific Ocean) and Aug 29 (Hecate Straight)
Leach's Storm-Petrel: hundreds seen on the morning of Aug 25. At all times, there were 5-10 birds visible when scanning from the 10th deck. None seen at any other time.
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel: two seen on the morning of Aug 25
Double-crested Cormorant: at Sitka
Pelagic Cormorant: at Sitka and Glacier Bay
Great Blue Heron: Sitka
Canada Goose: several at Ketchikan
American Widgeon: Eagle Beach State Park
Green-winged Teal: several birds in the Juneau area
Mallard: common in Juneau
Harlequin Duck: one bird at Sitka
Black Scoter: only one seen although two others may have been but too far off for definitive identification
Surf Scoter: seen at all stops
Common Merganser: large flock at Sitka
Bald Eagle: common at all stops
Sharp-shinned Hawk: one seen along the edge of the Mendenhall marsh at Juneau and one in Ketchikan
American Kestrel: one at the Mendenhall marsh
Peregrine Falcon: one flying around the ship as we entered Glacier Bay National Park
Black-bellied Plover: Mendenhall marsh
Spotted Sandpiper: Ketchikan
Greater Yellowlegs: Mendenhall marsh
Lesser Yellowlegs: Mendenhall marsh
Black Turnstone: Sitka
Western Sandpiper: Mendenhall marsh
Least Sandpiper: multiple locations
Pectoral Sandpiper: Mendenhall marsh
Buff-breasted Sandpiper: juvenile at Mendenhall marsh
Red Phalarope: small groups on the morning of August 25
Red-necked Phalarope: seen at several locations with large flocks off Glacier Bay National Park
Mew Gull: multiple locations
California Gull: Seattle area
Glaucous-winged Gull: most common gull of the trip
Thayer's Gull: singles at Glacier Bay National Park and Sitka
American Herring Gull: small numbers at multiple locations
Bonaparte's Gull: multiple locations
Sabine's Gull: several on the morning of Aug 25 and 2 on Aug 30 at sea
Arctic Tern: morning of Aug 25 at sea
Pomarine Jaeger: several on Aug 29 and Aug 30
Parasitic Jaeger: 2 adults on Aug 29
Long-tailed Jaeger: 2 adults on Aug 25
Jaegar/Skua sp: we had multiple birds that were not identified to species (however, none were suspicious for South Polar Skua)
Common Murre: common on departure out of Seattle and in Sitka
Pigeon Guillemot: Glacier Bay National Park
Marbled Murrelet: several small murrlelets seen close to shoreline but I could never definitely identify. This is the expected murrelet in this area.
Cassin's Auklet: several on Aug 25 at sea
Rhinoceros Auklet: several on Aug 24 after departing Seattle and Aug 25 at sea
Tufted Puffin: one on the afternoon after departing Seattle, two in Glacier Bay national park
Rock Pigeon: common in Ketchikan
Rufous Hummingbird: one bird at a feeder just north of Ketchikan
Belted Kingfisher: one in the Mendenhall valley
Barn Swallow: three recently fledged birds in Ketchikan and also in Juneau
Golden-crowned Kinglet: in all wooded areas
Ruby-crowned Kinglet: in all wooded areas
Winter Wren: Juneau area.
Swainson's Thrush: one at Auke Recreation Area
Hermit Thrush: several in Juneau and Sitka
American Robin: multiple locations
Varied Thrush: several at Auke Recreation Area in Juneau and in Sitka
Chestnut-backed Chickadee: multiple locations
Red-breasted Nuthatch: one at Auke Recreation Area in Juneau
Brown Creeper: Auke Recreation Area in Juneau
Steller's Jay: in Juneau and Sitka
Northwestern Crow: at all stops
Common Raven: Juneau and Sitka
European Starling: on the pier at Juneau
Warbling Vireo: Eagle Beach State Park, north of Juneau
White-winged Crossbill: Eagle Beach State Park, north of Juneau, flock of 10, either it or a different flock was seen a second time about half mile north of the original sighting
Orange-crowned Warbler: Auke Recreation Area, Juneau
Yellow Warbler: Eagle Beach State Park, north of Juneau and Sitka
Yellow-rumped Warbler: Eagle Beach State Park, north of Juneau
Townsend's Warbler: Eagle Beach State Park, north of Juneau and Sitka
Savannah Sparrow: multiple birds in Mendenhall Marsh
Song Sparrow: multiple locations around Juneau and Sitka
Lincoln's Sparrow: Eagle Beach State Park, north of Juneau
Dark-eyed Junco: Eagle Beach State Park, north of Juneau
Lapland Longspur: small flock along the trail at Mendenhall Marsh
Smith's Longspur: one bird with the Lapland Longspurs at Mendenhall Marsh
Red-winged Blackbird: Mendenhall marsh