Wildlife in Alaska

Alaska hoards wildlife likes it's going out of fashion. Most people come for the bears – black and brown (including grizzlies), plus polar bears in the far north. Whales migrate up from the west coast of North America, with salmon-seeking bald eagles, orcas, sea otters and porpoises close on their tails. Moose are often easy to spot, mooching into the suburbs to strip the leaves off gardeners’ prized fruit trees.

Bear watching

Alaska is without a doubt bear country. With tens of thousands of the beasts up its sleeve, sightings are near guaranteed at the right time of year – especially if you travel with a conservationist at the helm. Black bears tend to be the easiest to spot, often rooting around forests for berries or roaming into the tempting suburbs of the cities. Don’t take the descriptor as gospel, either – brown bears can be brown, ginger (mainly south), blue-tinted (nicknamed glacier bears in the Yakutat area) or even white-blonde. Their sure noses lead them to the rivers and forests to chow down on berries and salmon.
Brown bears include your storybook grizzly. You really do need a guide to seek them out – if only to learn how to avoid prompting them into the 65km per hour sprint they power into when threatened. Kodiak brown bears are even bigger than grizzlies, with males sometimes weighing in at over 600kg. They stick to coastal areas, where spawning salmon teem upriver from May to November.

Bears are largely lone rangers – but that all changes in salmon season. Then it’s a free for all. This is when you’ll find them tussling for the best spot on the river, waiting (sort of) patiently for the chance to slap a metre-long salmon out of the water.

Whale country

Humpbacks, belugas, grey, blue, minke, Baird’s beaked, fin, North Pacific right, sperm, sei – Alaska is a veritable social club for whales. It’s all down to the warming, plankton-packed spring waters that prompt many species to migrate north en masse from May to September.

It’s not all about the showy flipper slaps and tail flukes of the whales, though. A boat trip will also reveal a watery world where sea otters snooze hand in hand and porpoises surf the waves. As for the writhing sea lion colonies, you’ll hear (and smell) their roar before you see them.
Alaska’s abundance of fresh (or not so fresh) grub means that 40,000 bald eagles live in Alaska – that’s over half of North America’s eagle population.

From eagles to albatrosses

Popping up on seals, dollars and signs, it’s fair to say that the USA is pretty fond of its national animal the bald eagle. And too right – this predator bird rules the skies, instantly recognisable as it coasts the air streams on its two-metre wingspan. Shamelessly opportunistic, bald eagles scavenge as much as they hunt, so you’ll see them flocking around fishing boats or lurking by rivers, waiting for bears to drop a salmon.

As for the secretive great grey owl, you’re more likely to hear it than see it: a hoo hoo hoo that booms over meadows and forests. But if you do see it, its flat, full-moon face and 1.5-metre wingspan make it pretty unmistakeable. The rest of Alaska’s birds represent the greatest hits of the aviary arctic: puffball grouse and ptarmigan, clifftop puffins, eider ducks and both black-footed and short-tailed albatrosses.
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The 640km migration of caribou to their calving grounds is one of nature’s greatest wonders.
Herds of caribou roam the treeless tundra throughout summer, shifting to sheltered boreal forest in winter. Once they get going, caribou can hike 80km a day in the hoofprints of their ancestors. Many remote Alaska Native communities rely on this predictability, which in recent years has been impacted by warming temperatures turning powdery snow to impassable sheets of ice.

It sometimes seems that Alaskan animals come in two sizes: L and XL. The bison are built like quarterbacks and crowned with a pair of killer horns. There are only four herds of these, having been hunted to near extinction in the late 1800s. Muskox are just as impressive, huddled into woolly mammoth-style coats against the cool north-west corners of Alaska. Forget quarterbacks – mature muskox bulls are built more like the Incredible Hulk, standing up to 1.5m tall.

Although moose might be an iconic Canadian animal, they also know no borders and mooch freely into Alaska. These northern beasts are the biggest of their kind, weighing in at up to three quarters of a ton. The males have formidable battle antlers to boot – impressive for an animal that lives off birch twigs.
The size of the moose makes them a target for trophy hunters, who ‘harvest’ over one million kilos of meat a year.
Of course, where there are caribou, bison and moose, there are predators. Wolves come in all hues, from grey and black to white and auburn. They’re pack animals, incredibly capable of bringing down moose, deer and caribou. But they’ll also branch out to beavers and aren’t averse to fishing, especially when a mother has pups on her heels.

Lynx are more partial to snowshoe hares, whose crashes and rises in population directly affect the lynx’s. They’ll also make do with caribou, Dall sheep, grouse and ptarmigan when times are hard. Lynx are so shy that little is known about their population, but their range covers the whole of Alaska’s forests.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Paxson Woelber] [Intro: skeeze] [Bear watching: skeeze] [From eagles to albatrosses: Mark Mitchell] [Herds of caribou: pxhere] [Moose: Ryan Hagerty]