Photo Essay: Izembek Refuge Is A Wildlife Spectacle, Even By Alaskan Standards

Photo essay by Gerrit Vyn
June 22, 2020
Tap the play arrow for a video exploration of Izembek in all its wild beauty.

From the Summer 2020 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

At the far end of the Alaska Peninsula, where land gives way to the Bering Sea, sits a little-known backwater that few Americans know exists, and even fewer visit: Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Despite its remote location and its distinction as the state’s smallest national wildlife refuge, Izembek has been recognized for half a century for the ecological value of its unique wetlands and their importance to migratory birds. And its list of recognitions and protections is a long one.

Izembek National Wildlife Refuge lies where the Alaskan Peninsula meets the Aleutian Islands—home ground for millions of seabirds.The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge lies where the Alaskan Peninsula meets the Aleutian Islands—home ground for millions of birds.

More than two-thirds of Izembek’s 310,000 acres are designated as federally protected wilderness. It was the first place in the United States to be designated under the RAMSAR Convention as a Wetland of International Importance, and it is recognized as an Important Bird Area of global significance by Audubon and BirdLife International.

In 2018 the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Conservation Media program mounted an expedition to document the wildlife and wilderness of Izembek, most of it for the first time. They arrived in August, armed with little more than the knowledge that Izembek is a mecca for migratory waterfowl. What they found over six weeks is that Izembek isn’t just about the birds. It protects a place that is grand even on an Alaskan scale—an intact wilderness encompassing vast wetlands, abundant wildlife, and a volcanic landscape as spectacular as anywhere on earth.

Abundant Birds

Majestic Mammals

Untrammeled Wilderness


The Shishaldin Volcano and nearby lagoon are surrounded by Izembek’s federally protected lands. Such protection by The Wilderness Act preserves “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” and does so “in such manner as will leave them unimpaired … as wilderness.”

Gerrit Vyn is a documentary producer, videographer, and photographer with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s Center for Conservation Media.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology

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