Step ashore at almost any port in Southeast Alaska in early summer and the air is filled with the calls of songbirds, courting and nesting in the lush coastal rain forest. Some of the birds that are common in Southeast Alaska are unusual outside the West Coast, offering a prime opportunity to see and hear new birds.
The chestnut-backed chickadee is one example. This locally common year-round resident inhabits a narrow strip of land along the Northwest coast. Look for the distinct reddish-brown back - in contrast to the gray back of the more widespread black-capped chickadee found across the northern United States and Canada.
The varied thrush is a close cousin to the American robin. This songbird with vivid orange and black markings favors the rain forest of the West Coast. It ranges into California, Oregon and Washington for the winter and nests in Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon in the spring and summer. Its song is a distinct, two-toned whistle, reminiscent of the blast of a gym teacher's whistle.
The winter wren is a familiar temperate rain forest songster; this tiny brown bird delivers a rapid, cascading barrage of hundreds of notes trilling up and down the scale. The beautiful, spiraling, flute-like songs of Swainson's thrush and hermit thrush carry through the summer forests as well. The "cheer-up, cheerio," song of America's best known songbird, the robin, is a familiar sound in summer.
Other songbirds to listen and watch for include the bright yellow Wilson's warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, American dipper (a year-round resident found along freshwater streams), Pacific-slope flycatcher and fox and Lincoln's sparrow. Tree and barn swallows commonly feed and nest near the waterfront and rufous hummingbirds sip nectar from beachside blueberry, salmonberry and columbine blossoms.
A number of birds such as kingfishers, great blue herons, and gulls favor intertidal areas, harbors and beaches, and can be seen in port year-round. Harlequin ducks, striking, colorful sea ducks, may be found close to shore. In winter, sea ducks such as common and Barrow's goldeneyes, buffleheads, and surf and white-winged scoters favor Inside Waters.
For a checklist to help identify and record Alaska bird sightings, see www.birding.alaska.gov.