Alaska is possibly the best state for birding in the United States as it attracts vast numbers of migratory waders, massive congregations of Bald Eagles, an abundance of seabirds that pass by the coastline and contains ample pristine nesting habitats for a wide range of birds. The greatness of Alaska as a birding destination is due to the wildness of the state and the vast areas of untouched wilderness.
A total of more than 550 bird species have been recorded in the state – many of which are vagrants that have not been seen in the states further south. The rich bird diversity comprises a few apex bird species that dominate the skies – the eagles.
Eagles are large birds of prey belonging to the Accipitridae family, divided into several genera. Eagles symbolise peace and freedom – soaring graciously through the air. They are known as the kings of the skies because of their high-flying ability and muscular bodies.
Eagles are the most powerful birds; their mighty talons can pick prey heavier than themselves. Eagles have excellent vision and are excellent hunters that feed on various prey items, from tiny insects to large mammals and fish. Sexual dimorphism usually occurs amongst these birds of prey, with the females being larger than the males.
In North America, four species of eagles have been seen, and all of those occur in Alaska. However, only two – the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle are resident species, while the White-tailed Eagle and Steller’s Sea Eagle are rare vagrants from Asia. These are the largest birds of Alaska.
Planning a trip to Alaska can be logistically challenging. Still, it is certainly worthwhile, with big names such as the famous Denali National Park and Kenai Fjords National Park being potential destinations. Along with the previously mentioned locations, some of the best birding locations in the state on the mainland are Juneau Mendenhall Wetlands, Glacier Bay National Park, Copper River Delta, Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, the towns of Anchorage, Fairbanks, Nome, Homer, Gustavus, and Ketchikan. The state contains many islands off the coast that are top birding destinations, such as Saint Paul Island, Gambell, and Kodiak Island.
In the following sections, we will look into the four types of eagles in Alaska in more detail and provide locations where to find them.
1. Bald Eagle
- Scientific name – Haliaeetus leucocephalus
- Lifespan – 20 years (average), 38 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 27.9 to 37.8 in (71 to 96 cm)
- Weight – 105.8 to 222.2 oz (3000 to 6300 g)
- Wingspan – 70.8 to 86.6 in (180 to 220 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Bald Eagle is a very large bird of prey with a dark brown body and wings, a white tail, a white head and a white neck. The large bill, eyes, legs and feet are yellow. The claws are black.
The juvenile Bald Eagle and immature Bald Eagles are dark brown overall with white mottling on the wings. The tail has a dark band on the edge and is mottled. The bill is dark, the eyes are brown, and the feet are pale yellow. The call made by this species is a weak series of shrill whistles sounding like kweek-kik-ik-ik-ik-ik-ik.
Bald Eagles often nest in trees (usually the tallest conifers), but they may use the ground or cliff ledges when no trees are available. They use deciduous trees, cacti and mangroves as nesting sites in the southern part of their range.
The nest is placed near the top of the tree or cliff. The nest is a large stick nest lined with moss, grass, lichen, downy feathers or cornstalks. Nests on the ground are made using any available material, such as driftwood and kelp.
The same nest is often reused annually. The female lays one to three eggs per clutch. The eggs are a dull whitish colour and are incubated for 34 to 36 days. The chicks remain in the nest for 56 to 98 days after hatching before they fledge.
Bald Eagles feed on a variety of fish almost exclusively, such as salmon, herring, catfish and shad. They are not limited to fish and may prey upon reptiles, birds, amphibians, crustaceans and small mammals. They feed on prey items alive or as carrion.
The Bald Eagle is a species that has shown an immense recovery over the past five decades, with annual increases in population size of close to 4% being recorded. The breeding population is estimated to comprise 200,000 individuals.
Bald Eagles were trapped, shot, poisoned and affected by pesticides in the 1900s, leading to a drastic decline in their numbers and being listed as endangered. The banning of DDT and the reduction in persecution allowed the population to start recovering in the late 1900s, and by 2007, numbers had increased to the point where this eagle was no longer endangered.
They are still vulnerable to many threats, including habitat and nesting site destruction due to development, collisions with cars and buildings, lead poisoning, and pollution.
Bald Eagles occur in forests near lakes and other large bodies of water during the breeding season. They can be seen close to human settlements when food is plentiful in the area. They are often seen at dumps, fish processing factories, and at dams where there is a gathering of many fish.
In winter, this species is found in additional habitats, namely dry open uplands near open water. Bald Eagles can be seen all year round in Alaska, but their peak abundance is during winter from September to May, when up to 30,000 birds may be present in the state. They are partially migratory, but the patterns observed are complex as it depends on food availability, age and breeding location. Individuals move to coastal Alaska during winter to take advantage of the open water and food sources away from the frozen lakes and rivers.
Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, Kenai Fjords National Park, Denali National Park, Glacier Bay National Park and Copper River Delta are some of the best places to find this species.
2. Golden Eagle
- Scientific name – Aquila chrysaetos
- Lifespan – 23 years (average), 31 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 27.6 to 33.1 in (70 to 84 cm)
- Weight – 105.8 to 216.1 oz (3000 to 6125 g)
- Wingspan – 72.8 to 86.6 in (185 to 220 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The Golden Eagle is a very large raptor with dark brown plumage overall. The nape is golden, and the flight feathers are pale. The bill is blue-grey with a dark tip, and the eyes are golden-yellow. The feet are yellow with black claws.
Juvenile and immature birds are primarily dark brown with white feathers on the tail and primary bases. The nape is golden, and the eyes are darker. This eagle is usually silent, but they do make barks and mewing sounds.
Golden Eagles nest on steep escarpments and cliffs in shrubland, grassland, chaparral and forest environments. Occasionally, they nest on the ground, in trees, on platforms, observation towers, and windmills. The nest is built using sticks and plant materials mainly, but they may also utilise antlers, bones, wire and fence posts.
The nest is lined with grasses, yucca, leaves, bark, moss, and lichen. It is thought that aromatic leaves are sometimes used to keep pests away. A pair may use the same nest for many years. The female lays one to three eggs per clutch: white, cream or light pink with brown blotching. The eggs are incubated for 41 to 45 days, and the hatchlings develop for 45 to 81 days before they fledge.
Golden Eagles feed mainly on mammals of small and medium size, including rabbits, hares, ground squirrels, marmots and prairie dogs. They also feed on larger prey occasionally, namely deer, swans, livestock, mountain goats, seals, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, fish and cranes. They also prey on carrion.
The Golden Eagle is a ubiquitous species whose population is considered stable. The population is estimated to consist of 130,000 breeding individuals. Golden Eagles are threatened by trapping, shooting, and poisoning, leading to approximately 70% of Golden Eagle fatalities.
Many eagles perish after feeding on poisoned prey items. Collisions with vehicles, electrocution or wind turbine collisions are also a significant threat. Wildfire regime changes and development also impact their nesting and hunting grounds.
Golden Eagles occur in open and semi-open areas containing interrupted forests, mountainous regions, canyonlands, rimrock areas, bluffs and cliffs. Golden Eagles are not very common in Alaska and are localised and migratory. They are seen most frequently in summer, between March and October, but some remain throughout the year.
The best place to see Golden Eagles in Alaska is Denali National Park, but other good locations are Nome, Katmai National Park, Kodiak Island and Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.
3. White-tailed Eagle
- Scientific name – Haliaeetus albicilla
- Lifespan – 21 years (average), 32 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 26 to 37 in (66 to 94 cm)
- Weight – 123.4 to 246.9 oz (3500 to 7000 g)
- Wingspan – 70.1 to 96.4 in (178 to 245 cm)
- Status – Least concern
The White-tailed Eagle is a huge raptor with dark brown plumage overall. The head and body are paler brown, and the tail is white. The huge bill, legs, and eyes are yellow. The claws are black. Juvenile and immature birds have brown plumage overall, a white-streaked tail, and a dark bill. The head and eyes are dark. This eagle typically produces a raucous krick-rick-rick-rick-rick call.
White-tailed Eagles nest on sea cliffs and tall trees. The nest is usually placed on a rocky ledge or close to the tree trunk. The nest is made with sticks and branches, lined with moss, twigs, grass, lichens, wool, seaweed and ferns. The female lays two to four eggs per clutch. The eggs are dull white. The eggs are incubated for 34 to 46 days. The hatchlings fledge after 70 to 80 days in the nest.
The White-tailed Eagle feeds mainly on fish. Occasionally, this species eats small mammals such as rabbits and rodents and large mammals like goats and deer. Prey can be alive or carrion. Birds are also preyed upon, and those include seabirds and waterfowl.
The White-tailed Eagle has an extensive distribution, but drastic declines occurred in the 19th century when many local populations went extinct. These eagles were reintroduced to many areas during the 20th century, which brought the numbers back up.
The population is estimated to be 58,000, and the trend is increasing. The threats this species faces are poisoning, hunting, shooting, trapping and habitat loss because of wetland draining and deforestation.
The White-tailed Eagle occurs in aquatic environments, including coastlines, rocky islands, marshes, rivers, and lakes. This species is partially migratory, with the populations in the far north of its range moving south during winter. They are rare visitors to Alaska from Asia. They have been seen near Nome, Kodiak Island, St. Paul Island, Attu Island, Alaid Island, Kiska Island, and close to Lopp Lagoon.
4. Steller’s Sea Eagle
- Scientific name – Haliaeetus pelagicus
- Lifespan – 20 years (average), 25 years (maximum recorded)
- Size – 33.4 to 41.3 in (85 to 105 cm)
- Weight – 172.8 to 335.1 oz (4900 to 9500 g)
- Wingspan – 76.7 to 96.4 in (195 to 245 cm)
- Status – Vulnerable
Steller’s Sea Eagle is a massive bird of prey with a large head and a huge, distinct yellow-orange beak. The plumage of adults is brown overall, with a white belly, tail, rump, thighs, forehead and shoulder patches. The eyes are yellow, and the feet are also bright yellow with black claws. Juvenile and immature birds are darker, with buffy-white shoulder patches and tail feathers. The bill is blackish, and the eyes are dark brown. This species makes a ra-ra-rau-rau barking call.
Steller’s Sea Eagle often nests close to river mouths, near lakes, coastlines, and on cliffs next to the sea. This species builds a large stick nest on the top of a tree or a cliff ledge. The same nest is usually used by a pair annually. The female lays one to three eggs in a clutch. The eggs are greenish-white. The incubation period is 38 to 45 days. The young birds remain in the nest for 70 days before they fledge.
Steller’s Sea Eagle feeds almost exclusively on fish – particularly salmon and trout. Occasionally, they may eat seabirds and small mammals. Prey can either be alive or carrion.
Steller’s Sea Eagles or uncommon to rare throughout their range, and very little is known about them. This protected species is considered a “National Treasure” in Japan. The population appears stable and is estimated to consist of 5000 individuals. The threats this species faces include habitat destruction, pollution and contamination of food sources from industries, and persecution.
Steller’s Sea Eagle, as its name suggests, lives near bodies of water and the sea. It is frequently seen on coastlines and along rivers in forested valleys. It is a rare visitor to Alaska from Asia – breeding in Russia and migrating south to Japan and Korea.
In Alaska, they have been seen at Saint Paul Island, Saint George Island, Unimak Island, Kodiak Island, Attu Island, Amchitka Island, Dillingham, King Salmon, Lower Noatak River and Taku Inlet.
The wild state of Alaska’s sky is dominated by the eagles mentioned above. The most common eagle is the Bald Eagle, while the only other likely species is the Golden Eagle which is less common and localised in the state during summer.
Birding in Alaska is exciting because you never know when you may turn a corner and see the might of the Steller’s Sea Eagle or the grace of the White-tailed Eagle – both rare vagrants to Alaska from Asia.
Eagles like the Golden and Bald Eagles are revered and considered sacred in American Indian traditions and religion. They are given high levels of respect and honoured greatly.
Eagles have been persecuted for centuries because of their threat to livestock. They also face many other dangers in the form of poisoning, shooting, hunting, trapping and habitat destruction – leading to many species being close to extinction at specific historical points. Collisions with cars, buildings and towers are also a threat to many birds of prey.
While some species, like the Bald Eagle, are tolerant of humans, others, like the Steller’s Sea Eagle, do not adapt well to human encroachment and is now listed as vulnerable. Eagles are mesmerising as they float graciously through the air or perch regally on tree tops. They are often a highlight among most birders on a trip, even if the species seen is common.