Mendenhall Wetlands —
State Game Refuge
Fish and Wildlife
Plants and Birds
The Mendenhall Refuge encompasses a series of estuaries created by the numerous streams originating in the surrounding mountains. As mountain streams flow into the marine waters of Gastineau Channel, fresh and saltwater nutrients blend to form a rich environment for terrestrial and aquatic plant life.
As tides ebb and flow across the wetlands, much of the refuge becomes alternately a pasture, then a shallow sea. Distribution of plants in the intertidal area is governed by their varying tolerance for salt. Within the course of a year, the diverse plant communities feed or shelter more than 140 species of birds, nearly a dozen different mammals, eight anadromous fishes, and an abundance of other marine life.
Spring bird migrations peak during April and May. By June, most of the waterfowl and shorebirds that stopped to feed have moved on to northern breeding grounds, and the number of birds on the refuge drops dramatically. Relatively few species of birds nest on the Mendenhall Refuge.
The wetlands do remain an important feeding station for non-breeding birds over the summer. After the breeding season, the refuge serves as a stopover for birds traveling south to their wintering grounds. Shorebirds arrive first, stopping to feed on mollusks and other invertebrates in late July. Waterfowl begin arriving in late August and September, often feeding on the abundant seeds provided by sedges, grasses and other plants.
The sedge meadow is the most extensive plant community on the refuge. Many species of waterfowl and shorebirds feed at the meadow's edge as the tide moves in. Mallards, pintails, green-winged teal, northern shovelers, American wigeons, and several species of sandpipers feed in the areas of Jordan Creek, Lemon Creek, and Switzer Creek. Both mallards and common snipe nest on the refuge in the upper sedge and grass meadows where there is less saltwater flooding.
Beach rye grass grows in sandy soils at higher elevations, beyond the reach of most high tides. The highest sand islands in Gastineau Channel support upland plants, such as Sitka spruce. In season, the grasses provide shelter from wind and tide for American kestrels, northern harriers, semipalmated sandpipers, western sandpipers, least sandpipers, Arctic terns, short-earred owls, and savannah sparrows. Spotted sandpipers and Arctic terns nest on the islands, and bald eagles and gulls seek protection in these sanctuaries.
The spruce-hemlock forest surrounds much of the refuge. Forest stands can be found at the mouth of Fish Creek and east of the airport runway. Bald eagles, common ravens, and northwestern crows depend on the forest for nesting and perching sites. Among the many songbirds that summer and raise their chicks in the spruce forest are the American robin, hermit thrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, and the family of warblers that includes yellow, yellow-rumped, and Wilson's warblers.
Upland marsh vegetation creates a transition zone between the sedge meadow and the spruce forest. This habitat can be seen near the floatplane basin dike at the airport and along the east side of the Mendenhall Peninsula. Many shorebirds and songbirds feed here.
Aquatic habitat on the refuge ranges from shallow ponds to tidal mudflats to open saltwater. At low tide, large numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds linger at the mouth of the Mendenhall River. In varying seasons, the open waters of Gastineau Channel and Fritz Cove harbor goldeneyes, buffleheads, scoters, pigeon guillemots, loons, grebes, scaup, mergansers and marbled murrelets.
The most visible waterfowl population on the refuge is the Vancouver Canada goose. This large, brown and black goose with a showy white chin strap is a resident of the rainforest of southeast Alaska and British Columbia. When sedge flats are frozen in winter, the resident population of 400 to 600 geese stays on open water near the mouths of Fish Creek, Salmon Creek and the Mendenhall River. As the flats thaw in February or March, the geese feed on root-stocks of sedges and other marsh plants. In April, the large flocks break into pairs as the older birds move to nearby islands and coastal bays to nest.
Many Vancouver Canada geese nest on the ground, but nests have been found up to 75 feet high in spruce trees. Young geese are often raised in the forest. Immature birds stay on the refuge to feed until July when they move to Glacier Bay to molt. In August, both adults and young return to the refuge to feed on the abundant sedge crop. During the fall hunting season, geese gradually learn to seek protection in outlying bays and inlets by day and return to the wetlands under the cover of night.
The Vancouver Canada goose is one of six subspecies of Canada geese found in Alaska. Other geese migrating through the Mendenhall Refuge in spring include the cackling Canada goose, lesser Canada goose, white-fronted goose, and snow goose.
Mammals found on the refuge include harbor seals, Sitka black-tailed deer, black bears, muskrats, river otters, mink, short-tailed weasels, snowshoe hares, red squirrels, porcupines, little brown bats, deer mice, long-tailed voles and masked shrews. The smaller mammals are important in the diets of hawks, falcons, owls and shrikes. Marine mammals that occur within refuge boundaries are harbor seals, northern sea lions, and humpback whales.
Seventeen freshwater streams flow into the refuge providing spawning areas and habitat for sockeye, coho, chum and pink salmon, Dolly Varden char, and cutthroat trout. The refuge is an important nursery rearing area for juvenile salmon and other marine fishes.