During the summer, an estimated forty million seabirds nest throughout the Aleutians. Our ice-free coastal waters shelter tremendous flocks of wintering waterfowl, and spring and fall migrations regularly bring Asian strays into the islands. Unalaska, which is much more accessible than Attu or Shemya, gives birders the opportunity to add to their “life lists” a number of Beringian endemics, species seldom seen outside the Aleutians. A leisurely walk around town, a drive or tour along the road system, or a hike along the coast will take you into the varied habitats of a broad list of birds. Layers, light rain gear and waterproof boots are always a good idea.
Readily seen during the summer months are all the alcids; puffins, murres, guillemots, auklets and murrelets. This is the time to seek the tiny Whiskered Auklet, found only in the Aleutian and Commander Islands and Central Kuriles. It is possible to see them from the ferry crossing the pass between Akutan and Unalaska Islands, or by taking a charter to the nearby Baby Islands. Be advised to give yourself extra ‘weather days’ for getting out on the water, as gales are frequent even during the summer. Other offshore species include shearwaters, petrels, fulmars, Laysan and Black-footed Albatross, and occasionally Short-tailed Albatross and Red-legged Kittiwakes. Easily seen nearshore are Black-legged Kittiwakes and three species of cormorant, including the Red-faced Cormorant, seen only in Alaska and Northeast Asia.
A handful of songbirds are year-round residents here, among them are Common Redpoll, Snow Bunting, American Dipper, and the Aleutian subspecies of Song Sparrow, Pacific Wren and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch. Bank Swallow, and Savannah Sparrow. Accidentals and casual migrants include Brambling, Wagtails, Warblers, and even the occasional Hummingbird and Robin. Bald Eagles, year round residents, are always seen about town, and are tallied in the hundreds during the community’s Christmas Bird Count.
Among shorebirds are the resident Rock Sandpiper and Black Oystercatcher, and the breeding Least Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover. If your timing is right, you’ll see Bar-Tailed Godwits in the spring, and during fall migration Ruddy Turnstones, Wandering Tattlers, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper.
The challenge of winter birding has its rewards in the great flocks of waterfowl and sea ducks filling the local bays. Aleutian specialties such as the Emperor Goose, whose entire world population winters here in the Aleutians, and the handsome Steller’s Eider, are easily seen and photographed from the roadways. Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, and Harlequin Ducks are also very common.
Fresh water ducks include the Eurasian subspecies of Green-winged Teal and large flocks of scaup which on occasion include closely related Tufted Ducks, casuals from Asia. During a winter walk around town, you may see Peregrine Falcons chasing Snow Buntings, and Rock Ptarmigan come down when the snows get deep. You can also see ptarmigan with their broods during summer months. Aside from the pelagic species, almost all our birds are apt to be found close to town along the roadways, so the birding is always great (even if the weather isn't).
by Suzi Golodoff, Author and Aleutian Naturalist