Why Go Birding in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor?

There is one answer to that question: Whiskered Auklet.  Well, maybe two: World War II history.

Whiskered Auklet (© Kirk Zufelt)

Whiskered Auklet (© Kirk Zufelt)

The Whiskered Auklet is a smashing bird located in a very narrow range along the Aleutian Islands and a bit off the coast of Siberia. Named after those two peculiar whiskers protruding from its face, little is known about the species but the birds are often seen either feeding on fish as they concentrate in near-shore areas or sitting on a single egg atop a rocky crevice. Its remote and limited range makes it sought by serious birdwatchers.

Dutch Harbor, in the Aleutians, is one of only two accessible U.S. locations (including Adak) where the Whiskered Auklet can easily be found. Generally, it’s a more reliable location than Adak because boat transportation is more often available. Short of taking a boat trip all the way to Attu, the farthermost island in the Aleutian chain, Dutch Harbor also affords the best opportunity to see three species of albatross: Laysan, Black-footed and the rare Short-tailed Albatross.

Laysan Albatross (© Forrest Davis)

Laysan Albatross (© Forrest Davis)

Short-tailed Albatross near Chelan Banks, Dutch Harbor. The Short-tailed Albatross is a rare species with an endangered status. (© Steve Bird)

Short-tailed Albatross near Chelan Banks, Dutch Harbor. The Short-tailed Albatross is a rare species with an endangered status.  (© Steve Bird)

Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters; Kittlitz’s, Marbled and Ancient Murrelets; and Pelagic Cormorants can all be seen on one exciting boat trip. Other nearby landbirds of interest are the Pacific Wren; the Aleutian races of the Song Sparrow, Rock Ptarmigan, Rock Sandpiper; American Dipper; American Pipit; Lapland Longspur; and Snow Bunting. Occasional vagrants, such as Tufted Duck and even Oriental Cuckoo, have been seen here as well.

The town of Unalaska that includes the port of Dutch Harbor is surrounded by snow-covered volcanic mountain peaks. The scenery here is spectacular!

Unalaska is an old fishing port in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Unalaska is an old fishing port in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

The town has relied on fishing for centuries and continues to do so. Aside from the birding, Dutch Harbor is a fascinating destination on its own. It is the largest fishing port in North America and is featured in the popular “The Deadliest Catch” TV program along with St. Paul Island on the Discovery Channel.

The Port of Dutch Harbor is the only deep draft, ice-free port between Unimak Pass west to Adak and north to the headwaters of the Bering Straits. The port provides a year-round refuge for disabled or distressed vessels. Fish processing is a huge industry with much of the millions of pounds of pollock and king crab among others flash frozen and shipped throughout the world. When possible and time permits, my groups tour a fish-processing plant. Most visitors find it fascinating to watch the process by which a McDonald’s fish sandwich is made. The Japanese partner with Dutch Harbor producers to develop their own energy source; they turn the fish by-products into fish oil and use it to power the plant. Some of it is even sold back to the city of Unalaska!

Dutch Harbor, Alaska. (© Marianne Phillips)

Dutch Harbor, Alaska. (© Marianne Phillips)

Also of interest as well are the World War II (WW II) museums and the Museum of the Aleutians. Unalaska hosted the primary air base for US planes targeting the Japanese during the war. Attu and Kiska had both been overrun by Japanese forces, and their fleet operated around the Aleutian Islands. Dutch Harbor was bombed by the Japanese with a significant loss of life. The WW II museum chronicles the Aleutian theater campaign during the war. In addition, it offers an interesting and disturbing film about the forced evacuation of native Aleuts from their homes in the Aleutians and St. Paul Island to the US mainland where many of them died of disease and neglect.

The Museum of the Aleutians tells the story of the settling of the Aleutians, the lifestyle of the Aleuts, and the encroachment of the Russians, followed by the Americans. It has many interesting artifacts and displays so it’s well worth a half-day’s diversion during your birding trip. My groups, for instance, take a full day to do land birding on the 27 miles of roads, which usually leaves part of another day to enjoy the island.

The best time to find the Whiskered Auklet is in May and June, and the weather is most cooperative in mid- to late-June. Storms are more common in May, and the seas can be quite dangerous. I recommend you select a guide that employs a highly experienced captain with a seaworthy boat, plus a cabin for staying warm. A typical trip may last about seven hours. Our groups typically head for the Baby Islands first so we can find the large flocks of Whiskered Auklets that feed in the tidal rips between the Baby Islands and the main island. Other auklets and murrelets join them in a feeding frenzy. After observing these tiny auklets, we motor out into the Bering Sea and the Chelan Banks. The banks are located where the sea drops off and many fish can be found in the upwelling. Here, we often see thousands of shearwaters feeding along with albatross and, if we’re very lucky, the very rare Mottled Petrel.

Due to its remote location, it may cost a pretty penny to put Whiskered Auklet on your life list. However, you’ll get much more for your money if you take time to explore this unusual and beautiful island. It feels a bit otherworldly and unrepresentative of the United States as citizens know it.

Besides, as many birders will tell you, “The birding is worth it!”

Forrest Davis

Forrest Davis

Forrest Davis is owner and founder of High Lonesome BirdTours. In 1994, following a varied career that included a tour in the Marines, several years at NASA, and career as a health care executive, he Read More

Leave a Comment

  • neil December 28, 2015, 19:40

    Hi Forrest, my wife and I will be in Dutch Harbour for one day in October and wondered if the birding would be any good at that time of year. Would you be available to guide us and if so what would you charge. We will be arriving by cruise ship. Regards Neil.

    Reply
    • Forrest Davis December 28, 2015, 20:14

      Sorry, but we’re not there in October. You can check with the following: “Year round birding with resident guide and naturalist Suzi Golodoff. Come add to your life list and sense of adventure by birding in Unalaska. 907-581-1359 and/or 907-391-2345 [email protected]
      Good luck and Happy New Year!
      Forrest
      President
      High Lonesome BirdTours

      Reply
  • Noriaki Konno June 9, 2016, 12:16

    I am very found of to watch a sea birds and very keen to see a Whiskered ouklet. In 2014,I had a crousing Vancouver to Alaska but can not see a Whiskered

    ouklet. and this year(2015) I have just returned from birding in Norway/Finland.

    Please tell me ,when is the best timing to see Whiskered ouklet in2017.
    Members are about 4 persons.

    I am looking forwared to hear your favourable reply soon.

    Best regards,

    Noriaki Konno(Japanese)

    Reply