Alaska Excursions

Alaska Excursions

A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.

Iditarod 41

Photos and stories from the last great race.

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It's a plane! Or is it a bird?

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Bird-watching

A young trumpeter swan beats its wings as the evening sun warms the landscape around Potter Marsh in south Anchorage. Alaska is the nesting site for 80 percent of the world's trumpeters, the largest species of swan.

Alaska's 246 native species have birders flocking to the state.

Alaska's loons

A common loon moves across Long Lake near Palmer.

The entire state of Alaska is home to loons of one species or another -- common, Pacific, yellow-billed, red-throated and arctic.

It's a plane! Or is it a bird?

A giant winged creature, like something out of "Jurassic Park," has reportedly been sighted several times in Southwest Alaska.

Birdwatchers flock to shore towns

An arctic tern hovers over a marsh as it looks for small fish.

They come by the thousands. No, make that the millions.

Skeptical biologists say people are probably reporting a Steller's sea eagle

A giant winged creature, like something out of "Jurassic Park," has reportedly been sighted several times in Southwest Alaska.

Villagers in Togiak and Manokotak say they have seen a huge bird that's much bigger than anything they have seen before.

A Dillingham pilot says he spotted the creature while flying passengers to Manokotak last week. He calculated that its wingspan matched the length of a wing on his Cessna 207. That's about 14 feet.

Other people have put the wingspan in a similar range.

Scientists are puzzled

Scientists aren't sure what to make of the reports. No one doubts that people in the region west of Dillingham have seen a very large raptorlike bird. But biologists and other people familiar with big Alaska birds say they're skeptical it's that big.

A sighting of the mystery bird occurred one morning in early October 2002 when Moses Coupchiak, a 43-year-old heavy equipment operator from Togiak, 40 miles west of Manokotak, saw the bird flying toward him from about two miles away as he worked his tractor.

''At first I thought it was one of those old-time Otter planes,'' Coupchiak said. ''Instead of continuing toward me, it banked to the left, and that's when I noticed it wasn't a plane.''

The bird was ''something huge,'' he said. ''The wing looks a little wider than the Otter's, maybe as long as the Otter plane.''

Warning to children

The bird flew behind a hill and disappeared. Coupchiak got on the radio and warned people in Togiak to tell their children to stay away.

Pilot John Bouker said he was highly skeptical of reports of ''this great big eagle'' that is two or three times the size of a bald eagle. ''I didn't put any thought into it.''

But a week later while flying into Manokotak, Bouker, owner of Bristol Bay Air Service, looked out his left window and 1,000 feet away, ''there's this big . . . bird,'' he said.

''The people in the plane all saw him,'' Bouker said. ''He's huge, he's huge, he's really, really big. You wouldn't want to have your children out.''

As big as a Super Cub?

To Nicolai Alakayak, a freight and passenger driver from Manokotak who was flying with Bouker, said the creature looked like an eagle and was as large as ''a little Super Cub.''

Comparison to an eagle, certainly. Super Cub? Probably not, scientists said.

''I'm certainly not aware of anything with a 14-foot wingspan that's been alive for the last 100,000 years,'' said federal raptor specialist Phil Schemf in Juneau.

Schemf, other biologists, a village police officer and teachers at the Manokotak School said the sightings could be of a Steller's sea eagle, a species native to northeast Asia and one of the world's largest eagles. It's about 50 percent bigger than a bald eagle.

The Steller's eagle has occasionally shown up in the Pribilof Islands, on the Aleutian chain and on Kodiak.

Sea eagle has been seen before

A bird known to be a Steller's sea eagle has been spotted three times since May and in August of 2002, 40 miles up the Nushagak River from Dillingham, according to Rob MacDonald of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another Steller's eagle took up residence on the Taku River south of Juneau for 10 summers starting in the late 1980s, Schemf said.

The fish-eating Steller's sea eagle can weigh 20 pounds and have a wingspan of up to 8 feet. It has a distinctive and impressive appearance, Schemf said, with a pronounced yellow beak, a black or dark brown body and large white shoulder patches.

''It's hard to mistake it for something else,'' he said. It's clearly an eagle, though more ''like a giant bald eagle.''

People who observe animals ''don't always have the sizes right, but this is very different because the people in that area know what eagles look like,'' said Karen Laing, also a federal biologist.

''I don't know of any bird that's three times the size of an eagle,'' Laing said. ''What would that be? An ostrich? What bird occurs here that would possibly be three times the size of an eagle or the size of a Super Cub?''

More about Steller's sea eagle

Some biologists think the huge bird spotted in Sowthwest Alaska could be a fairly rare Steller's sea eagle.

Habitat: Forests along coastline, large river valleys never far from coast.

Range: Nests in Kamchatka and neighboring coast, winters in Korea and Japan.

Description: Large dark brown and white bird weighing up to 20 pounds. Has a large, arched, yellow bill. Body has white shoulders and white, wedge-shaped tail.

Body length: 42 to 45 inches.

Wingspan: Up to 8 feet. A wandering albatross holds the record. Its wings were actually measured at 11 feet, 11 inches.

Diet: Fish, carrion, invertebrates, sable, fox, young seals and birds.

Life cycle: Adult birds often return to same nest or one nearby. Nests are made of available material and can be 6 to 8 feet across. A brood of one to three eggs is laid and incubated for 38 to 45 days. Chicks can fly in about 70 days.

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