Kayak Birding at Kodiak Island, Alaska
by Thomas A. Watson
April 15, 2010
Like cradling hands, a gentle swell on the ocean’s surface gracefully lifts my kayak up and over a barely submerged rock. The boat glides effortlessly into a small garden of bull kelp. The surface settles back down to a glassy smoothness that extends as far as the eye can see. As I look shoreward, the spruce-topped cliffs of Holiday Island loom like an avian high-rise apartment complex. Surfbirds flit along the lower sections, fluttering from one exposed rock tip to another. Farther up its craggy face, shelves of fractured shale provide mini-ledges for scores of Black-legged Kittiwakes perched all along the vertical wall. Still higher, Red-faced Cormorants stand as though poised for sentry duty.
Swinging the bow of my sea kayak around, I cruise parallel to this menagerie of seabirds. Spruce trees crowning this cliff have carefully woven their roots throughout a narrow band of soil capping the rocky island. Within that thin layer of decomposing coniferous loam and sand-textured volcanic ash Kodiak’s two resident species of puffin—Tufted and Horned—burrow tight-fitting tunnels in which to raise their young. The birds are easily spooked by activity outside their nests, so I glide into stealth mode to get a glimpse of these entertaining “sea parrots” as they fly awkwardly to and from their burrows.
Such casual but deliberate positioning is basic to a successful stint at bird watching from a kayak, especially off the coast of Kodiak Island, where each rocky outcropping might reveal a handful of different species of birds that spend summer along the rim of the North Pacific ocean.
Developed several thousand years ago by coastal hunters, the sea kayak is the perfect watercraft for northern waters. Although its reputation as a tippy, often unforgiving “boat” may be fundamentally true, it has many virtues as a watercraft from which to hunt (its original purpose) or to view wildlife. Unlike longer, wider, and more cumbersome crafts, the kayak is sleek, quiet, and highly maneuverable. It is a craft of stealth, able to sneak in between the rocks at low tide or ride a cresting wave, enabling access to hidden coves and backwater estuaries.
Alaska is edged in more shoreline than the combined coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Gulf of Mexico in the Lower 48 states. That’s thousands of miles of places for shorebirds and open-ocean soaring birds to thrive on the rich bounty of these northern waters. And Kodiak Island is one of the best places for birders and photogaphers to get close-up views of many of these species.
The kayak enables a conscientious observer to glide along nearly motionlessly—directing any necessary course changes with slight, undetectable movements of a foot pedal that controls the rudder. Such changes are far less noticeable with a kayak than with a canoe or larger vessel. Kayakers easily gain access to abundant populations of birds and other wildlife (sea lions, coastal deer, whales), but it is critically important to maintain a respectful distance whenever possible.
So, what birds might you expect to encounter during an afternoon—or twilight, dawn, dusk paddle? The closer and quieter you can cruise just offshore, the more likely you’ll be able to enjoy some close encounters with both indigenous and transient bird populations.
Throughout summer, you can find a variety of sandpipers, particularly at river mouths and estuaries at low tide. It’s often best to run the kayak bow up onto the sandy beach and explore these areas on foot. Expect to see Western, Rock, and Least sandpipers, along with Semipalmated Plovers, both Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, and more.
Sanderlings and Surfbirds can often be seen flitting from rock to rock ahead of an approaching kayak. Equally plentiful are Black Oystercatchers, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Glaucous-winged Gulls, and Mew Gulls. Alcids are common but not always easy to view closely. But opportunities abound to get respectfully close to Common Murres, Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemots, and the ever-popular Horned and Tufted puffins. Because of Kodiak’s tidal difference—more than 10 feet on average—most coastlines offer several opportunities within the same six-hour period to observe birds throughout the full high-low tidal zone.
Observing land birds, such as Bald Eagles, from a kayak provides yet another exhilarating experience for paddlers. Perched high in the dark blue-green branches of a Sitka spruce, an adult Bald Eagle sometimes appears as a welcoming beacon as sunlight reflects off its pure white head feathers. Watching an eagle pull salmon and trout from a river mouth is also enhanced when it’s viewed from the front row position accessible to a paddler in the shallow waters offshore.
The abundance of wildlife on the island and its surrounding waters means that a kayaker will never run out of opportunities to see wildlife while literally sitting right down on the water. Coupling birding with remote island hiking, berry gathering, and fishing expands and heightens the overall attractiveness of the Kodiak experience even further.
Learning proper technique and safety skills is a prerequisite for any boating activities, especially kayaking—particularly in a place where conditions will be as varied and as unforgiving as the open ocean. You also need the right equipment. Although “recreational” kayaks are the most popular with beginners—because they are short, wide, and stable—serious birders would probably do better with a longer, narrower boat that can handle the choppy, windy conditions often encountered in Kodiak’s waters.
Proper clothing is also a vital consideration. Water temperatures rarely reach even 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the summer, so it is vital to be adequately dressed in paddling gear. Modern synthetic fabrics keep kayakers warm yet allow the freedom of movement to paddle and maneuver with relative ease.
Kayaks are inherently seaworthy crafts; it’s the skill of the paddler that will often determine how stable the boat will be. Maintaining an even keel and steady position is important when trying to observe birds from a bobbing kayak. Just like their landlubber counterparts, on-water birders depend on binoculars to view and identify birds. Although some kayakers will argue that smaller, lightweight binoculars work best, I contend that a heavier pair, supported by a good elastic neck strap, is easier to hold steady in a rocking kayak. In either case, waterproof (and not just water-resistant) binoculars are essential equipment.
Anticipating what species you might encounter can make bird sightings more definitive. A good reference book or a laminated bird identification card is a must-have. Books can be kept in watertight food storage bags and stowed under a bungee cord on deck. Waterproof bird ID cards easily slide securely under other items on deck for quick reference.
Because of the constant changes in lighting and glare from the surface of the water, the true color of many birds in the field is hard to discern even through binoculars. For that reason, a good choice for an on-water reference book is one that uses actual field photographs as reference images. Also, Kodiak’s short summer season means that many birds may be in a variety of seasonal plumages sooner (or later) than you might expect from that species at more southerly latitudes.
Many of the birds we enjoy during spring and fall migrations in the Lower 48 spend their entire summer in Alaska—a fair share residing in the Kodiak Island area. Fall duck viewing is especially rewarding. You can expect to see Harlequin Duck, Common and Red-breasted mergansers, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, Bufflehead, and many other species.
Offshore birding by sea kayaking is limited by the sea conditions several miles from shore and the remote distances from coastal access points. Sightings typically include jaegers, scoters, shearwaters, and, less frequently, auklets and other alcids. Sometimes it’s not the variety of species but the sheer numbers of birds concentrated in any one area that is impressive. Few birding experiences compare with watching the massive flow of a colony of Black-legged Kittiwakes as they launch from the vertical faces of their offshore rookeries. The fluid motion of a broad, cascading descent of 1,000 birds arching out over the water in one flowing mass is breathtaking.
The islands and coastline of Kodiak Island beckon birders of all levels of experience. When coupled with the lure of sea kayaking, these two activities form an adventurous bond for bird enthusiasts of all ages.
Thomas A. Watson is a freelance writer and photographer—and an avid kayaker—based in Appleton, Minnesota. Visit his website, tomwatsonwrites.com.