When you think of wildlife in Alaska, odds are you think of the grizzly bears. And probably wolves, moose, and other big game that are both dangerous and compelling. But there is so much amazing wildlife in this untamed wilderness that is often overlooked — species that are so much a part of the landscape and aura of Alaska that they are relegated to "oh yeah, and …" status. We're celebrating a handful of those species, from the mighty grizzly to the Harlequin duck.
First, we have to acknowledge the grizzly bear. Really, no showcase of Alaskan animals would be complete without this iconic species. (You can check out more photos of coastal grizzly bears here.) For now, we're moving on to another iconic species.
The red fox. Cunning and curious, sly and opportunistic, this species can be spotted throughout Alaska. It is even present in tundra regions, where it shares habitat with its cousin, the Arctic fox.
While cautious, the red fox has little fear of humans, and it does well living in and around human habitations. A fox not used to seeing humans will maintain some distance, but curiosity often brings them in closer and those used to people can be quite bold.
Harbor seals are a common sight in Alaska, but that may not be true for long. They are listed as an Alaska Species of Special Concern, meaning that the species has entered into a long-term decline but the reasons for the decline are unknown. It may be because of a loss of food, or they may be particularly sensitive to changes occurring along with ocean warming.
While they haul out in large groups to rest, harbor seals are solitary in the water. And they are rather skittish — a smart trait since their main predator is the killer whale. They also have to look out for sharks, sea lions, and even bears and wolves while on land.
Another marine mammal often spotted in the waves is the adorable sea otter. After being hunted to near extinction by the turn of the 20th century, a strong recovery effort has helped bring numbers back up and the adorable sea otter is slowly recovering. However, the sea otter is still listed as an endangered species, and 90 percent of the world's sea otters live in coastal Alaska, making this a vital habitat for the species.
The sea otter is actually a member of the weasel family. Their fur is incredibly thick — in fact it has the thickest fur of any mammal with as many as 1 million hairs per square inch of skin. They are able to survive in the frigid waters of Alaska because of their amazing insulation. (It is also no wonder they were almost hunted to extinction for their luxurious coats.)
The bald eagle was once listed as an endangered species in the United States starting in 1967, due to the impacts of habitat destruction and more notably the use of DDT (primarily in the lower 48). After DDT was banned in 1972 and recovery efforts put in place, the bald eagle was removed from the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the lower 48 states on June 28, 2007. Luckily for those living in Alaska, the bald eagle is about as common among the waterways as pigeons are in city streets.
The bald eagle has striking plumage, but it takes about five years before an eagle will display the distinctive coloring. Juveniles look like their elders only in size and shape, but have a mottled brown and white coloring during their first years.
One of the most beautiful yet comical birds of Alaska is the puffin. Here, a horned puffin takes off from the surface of the water. With their short wings, getting lift can be hard work if their bellies are full of fish and weighing them down. Some birds can't take off if they've consumed too much during one feast, and you'll see them try for a running start, give up and sit back on the surface of the water.
Horned puffins breed on rocky islands and cliffs ranging form Siberia to British Columbia. While they summer near the shore to raise their young, they winter out at sea. A threat to the species is introduction of rats to some of the islands where they breed, and populations have declined.
Among the shorebirds of Alaska, you may spot the black oystercatcher. It is an unmistakable bird with its long, vibrantly orange beak. Though it is not listed as a threatened species, it is a species of conservation concern as its numbers are estimated at only around 8,900 to 11,000 individuals. Conservationists are keeping a close eye on this species, as its decline could indicate environmental problems elsewhere in its range.
Of less concern in Alaska is the Harlequin duck. Here, two females rest on the rocks along Alaska's Katmai shores. This sea duck loves frigid waters, and ranges from Alaska across North America to Greenland, Iceland and western Russia. However, while the western population of Harlequin duck is large and healthy, the population in eastern North America is in serious decline, possibly as a result of hydroelectric projects or coastal oil spills. These ducks also prefer to live in some of the most remote and rugged habitat, which makes them somewhat hard to spot despite their vibrant and beautiful plumage.
Gulls. You'll find the species everywhere and as result, some people are not huge fans of the rather obnoxious birds. However, their role in the ecosystem could not be more important. They're a key player in cleaning up the messes of other hunters, such as grizzly bears. When the bears toss unwanted fish parts aside, guess who's there to swallow up the pieces? Yep, gulls. Making quick work of leftovers, gulls (and other scavengers) help keep down rot and disease.
If you have the opportunity to visit Alaska and take in its wild spaces, you will come home transformed. Alaska is one of the few untamed places left, with pristine wilderness and a broad diversity of unique and beautiful wildlife. It may very well be one of the only places future generations can go to get away from it all and see wilderness in its purest form.
All photos: Jaymi Heimbuch
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