Seasons of Wildlife
As daylight swiftly increases, thousands of migratory birds appear. Seabirds mass offshore near the cliffs where they will raise young. Swans collect in the Naknek River near Refuge headquarters, pairing off and re-occupying the tundra’s pothole lakes as they thaw. Naknek River is a way station for geese and ducks, some moving farther north, others preparing for the nesting season nearby. Swallows arrive as the insects hatch. Bears wake from hibernation, hungry, as do smaller mammals like marmots, all taking advantage of newly emergent vegetation. Ptarmigan shed winter white for summer camouflage, raucously calling from atop brush. A slow, delicate flush of green touches the landscape as buds begin to open.
Summer on the Refuge is a busy season. All birds, fish, and mammals are out and about. Close behind them are researchers studying their habits, anglers trying to catch a couple of fish, and lone adventurers with cameras in hand. Insects swarm by the million, supporting young birds and fish. Flowers bloom quickly and form fruit, in haste to stay ahead of winter. Temperatures can occasionally soar to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, but are more commonly between 40 and 60 degrees. With the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Bering Sea’s Bristol Bay on the other, summer’s warmth is tempered and often damp. Dustings of snow and touches of frost can happen even at this time of year.
The plants of the tundra and uplands blush rose and rust as colder temperatures follow shorter days. Many songbirds have long since fled south, while other birds change locations, working their way toward winter havens. The carcasses of salmon collect in the streams, food for insects, wolves, bears, fox, eagles, and other scavengers. Fall hunting draws visitors to the Refuge, while angling for Dolly Varden char, rainbow trout, and grayling remains excellent.
Short days and long nights mark the winter season. The ground cracks with frost. Ice thickens over rivers and lakes. Moose and caribou gather together and move in search of winter feed and shelter. Wolves are close on their heels. Volcanoes steam and rumble beneath the snow.
The refuge is home to five species of Pacific salmon, as well as other fishes like Arctic grayling, Dolly Varden char, lake trout, northern pike, and burbot. The refuge's juxtaposition to Bristol Bay makes it an important stronghold for salmon in particular.
With an abundant supply of salmon, berries, ground squirrels, and carrion, the Refuge provides excellent habitat for numerous brown bears. Bears use nearly all Refuge lands, from mountain tops to the sea coast. Depending on weather conditions and food supply, bears usually leave their dens in April or May and return in October or November. Some bears will den much later, or not at all, if adequate food sources are available.
The Northern Alaska Peninsula caribou herd is one of 13 major herds within the state. Herd size fluctuates naturally and has varied from 2,000 to 20,000 animals during the last half of the 20th century. The herd migrates up to 200 miles from spring calving grounds between Ugashik and Port Moller, to winter range extending from the Meshik Valley to the Naknek River. Moose have been observed on the peninsula since the early 1900s, but did not become abundant until the 1950s.
More than 200 species of birds have been observed on or near the Refuge, of which over 45 are year-round residents. The Refuge provides important spring and fall staging areas and moderately good breeding habitat. The cliffs, bays, and poorly-drained lowlands provide abundant habitat for millions of birds, particularly seabirds, waterfowl, and shorebirds that use the Refuge primarily as a staging area during migration to and from nesting grounds in the Arctic. Seabirds also use the Refuge for breeding. Numerous ponds, lakes, streams, and wetlands on the Peninsula provide ample breeding habitat for a number of species. In the summer, migratory songbirds and raptors make use of the abundant shrub lands, tundra, and forest environments on the Refuge. Birds commonly seen include bald eagles, owls, falcons, ravens, ducks, geese, swans, seabirds, shorebirds, and passerines.
Sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, and migratory whales use shores and offshore waters.