UTQIAĠVIK— A flock of brants took off from the surface of the Arctic Ocean in Utqiaġvik, and Eben Hopson named them without blinking.
“There’s the way they fly. There’s their wing shape,” Hopson said. “It’s the way they take off from the water. Long-tailed ducks like to run on the water to get speed to fly away, but brants and geese like to get up and go.”
An avid Utqiaġvik photographer, hunter and fisherman, Hopson knows the wildlife in and around his hometown. Sometimes he uses that knowledge to guide tourists, including birdwatchers visiting Utqiaġvik to see snowy owls or all four species of eider: the common, king, spectacled and Steller’s eiders.
“At times, there may be three or four different birder groups that are here that fly in from the Lower 48 and from all around the world to see these — you know, for me — everyday birds. But for them, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these groups of birds that migrate from thousands of miles away,” Hopson said. “And to me, that’s pretty cool.”
Birding is considered one of the fastest-growing, nature-based tourism types in the world, and Alaska has a lot to offer. Drawn by a chance to see rare species, hundreds of thousands come to the state yearly, boosting the local economy and supporting the conservation of bird habitat, according to research by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Audubon Alaska published this month. About 300,000 birders came to the state in 2016, spending about $378 million and supporting roughly 4,000 jobs, according to the study.
This type of tourism also promotes a unique way of traveling: Birders usually travel in smaller groups and show interest in visiting roadless and remote regions, such as Utqiaġvik. They spend more, stay longer and engage in more activities, according to the report.
Aaron Lang, an Alaska guide who has led birding tours all over the state and on the North Slope for the past 20 years, has watched interest grow, especially in the last five years, and said that “trips are filling perhaps more easily and earlier.”
In Hopson’s experience, the number of birders who visit Utqiaġvik fluctuates.
“There’s people that come up here to see the same birds every year and there’s people who come to see one specific bird only once in their lifetime,” he said.
Hopson usually guides one or two bird enthusiasts at a time. He said he drives them in his truck around town, “stopping every 25 feet to look at every single bird in that area.” If they’re looking for certain species, he takes them to places where he spotted those birds recently — for example, Nunavak Bay 3 miles south of Utqiaġvik to see snowy owls, or tundra mounds and ponds to see eiders.
Recently, “there were a few birders all the way from Barcelona, Spain. I gave them a tour around town to go to see king eider ducks, and although we didn’t see any, it was pretty cool to hear stories of their group,” Hopson said.
In Utqiaġvik, birders can see eiders that spend summer and fall on the shore before they fly south for the winter. During the same season, long-tailed ducks are neighbors with Pacific loons, and brants can be spotted alongside white-fronted geese, while in fall, birders can spot rare Ross’s gulls by the thousands. The North Slope area is home to about 278 waterfowl and shorebird species, according to UAF research, and Alaska overall is a global breeding hot spot for hundreds of migratory species.
When in the field, some birders can sit at locations for spotting birds for six or seven hours of the day, Hopson said, with their high-end cameras and big telephoto lenses ready to capture the birds’ appearance and with their waders on to get into the water.
“They go in those lakes and ponds, and they look for the birds, and they take pictures of the birds and then they just get back on their way to wherever they flew from,” Hopson said. He said that birders often act similarly to hunters: Both try to be quiet approaching birds and to imitate bird calls — with voice or by playing a recording — to bring them closer.
Lang said that “a lot of the shorebirds people are familiar with — they migrate through various regions in the Lower 48. But they’re not in their showy plumages and they’re not displaying and singing, so when you see them on the breeding grounds, it’s really like seeing a different animal.”
Birders visit Nome and other places in Northwest Alaska to see high densities of breeding waterfowl and shorebirds such as dunlins, western sandpipers, red knots and bar-tailed godwits. According to Lang, in a four-day trip to Nome, they can routinely see from 100 to 115 species of birds.
Other lesser-known locations are rewarding birders too, but at a smaller scale, according to UAF research biologist Natalie Dawson.
“The issue is not the number of birds or bird species; the issue is whether or not people have the knowledge of the place that makes them feel comfortable enough to travel there and actually go birding,” Dawson said. “To attract tourists, you have to market that experience.”
Lang said that a certain sector of his clients like going to places that are “out of the way, places that seem novel and new, that they don’t know anyone’s gone to.” Communities, he said, can attract these types of tourists by emphasizing the unique aspects of their culture and life — such as ivory and bone carvings in Gambell or the history and economy of Nome.
“There are people that are interested in more than birds, that might be interested in seeing what your average winter season is like in Kotzebue,” Lang said. “Not everyone just wants to go to a sterile hotel, rent a van and go see the birds and ignore the city.”
With the help of birding, cities and villages can “diversify an economy in a way that’s healthy for that community over time,” encouraging the preservation of bird habitat, Dawson said.
“This industry runs on our ability to provide an experience of beauty and on inspiring nature that is not available in other parts of the country or the world,” she said.