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PHOTOS: Birds of spring return to Alaska

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 4, 2014

Alaska's avian summer visitors are already here: sandhill cranes, arctic terns, lesser snow geese, common goldeneyes, mergansers and many others.

Among the most impressive are the majestic sandhill cranes, which have paused to feed in fields near Palmer, Anchorage's Potter Marsh and other spots. Alaska's largest game bird features a distinctive red head patch. They use two migration routes to Alaska. The Pacific Flyway population nests in Upper Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula and numbers an estimated 25,000 birds. But the Mid-Continent population is perhaps most visible to Alaskans because the birds nest over a broad swath of the state, with some cranes stopping at the popular Creamer's Field in Fairbanks during spring and fall migrations. Altogether, more than 200,000 sandhill cranes pass through Alaska.

Cranes mate for life and biologists say they can survive some 20 years in the wild. In flight, they are stately and dignified, forming great flocks, with their honking audible miles away. But some find the cranes' mating dance on the tundra comical. The ritual starts with a deep bow followed by great leaps, hops, skips, turns, and more bows. This dance can go on for many minutes.

The common goldeneye is a sea duck that forages underwater for insects and crustaceans. Goldeneyes breed on the taiga and nest in tree cavities. They're returning from winters spent in the coastal waters of Southeast Alaska or the Lower 48.

Most of the snow geese seen in Southcentral Alaska during the spring migration are pausing to feed and rest enroute to their feeding or breeding grounds farther north. A huge population of more than 300,000 snow geese eventually gathers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in September. During their Southcentral stopover, a favored spot of snow geese is the mouth of Kenai River.

Here are some Southcentral Alaska birding organizations you may want to hook up with this spring:

• Mat-Su Birders:

• Alaska WildBird Rehabilitation Center:

• Alaskans for Palmer Hay Flats:

• Anchorage Audubon Society: