American Birding Podcast



Lifer Locations

Even if you may have only recently begun birding, if you have birded with anyone else you probably know what a “lifer bird” is. Non-birders usually look quizzically at you when you exult over a lifer, but birders know. Many of them are working on their life list, and some of them do most of their birding with the very single-minded goal of adding lifers to the list.

While I definitely keep a list of birds seen, as an often big-year birder I am usually more focused on my year list and not my life list. When I give talks on my ABA big year and am asked how many lifers I got that year, I normally can only guess a number (unless I have recently reviewed my records from 2008). I certainly noted the fact each time I got a lifer that year but the details are on my computer and not in my head.

I like the lifer concept. I like new things. I regularly extend the lifer designation to things other than birds. When I visit a new place, or drive a new road, or eat a new food, or meet someone new, I think of these (and sometimes mention it aloud) as lifer places, roads, foods, people….

One of the wonderful things about doing a big year, especially a big year in an area where I have not lived and explored for very long (such as Alaska) is that there are a lot of “lifer locations” to add to my mental list (no, I do not actually have a written list of these).

My 2016 Alaska big year has only been going for a little over a week now, and I have added some spectacular lifer locations to my list! You can get my bird list details at and each day’s birding story at The purpose of this ABA blog post is to highlight some Alaska locations that are possibly less known to birders than the more popular birding locations where people go for spectacular views of cliff nesting birds (e.g., St. Paul Island), chances at straying Asian birds during migration (Gambell and St. Paul), and chances at seeing Ross’s and Ivory Gulls (Barrow). My lifer locations so far this year, like many Alaska locations, are accessible only by air or by sea, but they do have roads that can be explored once you arrive there.

Kodiak Island was my first lifer location of 2016. I had not intended to go there at all until I learned at the very end of 2015 that Rich MacIntosh had found a Common Pochard there. I had planned to spend the first two days of my big year in Anchorage, but quickly changed my plans and booked a last minute flight to Kodiak for the Pochard (certainly a US lifer, and possibly a world-lifer for me, but I haven’t had time to check on that). Kodiak is a beautiful place with excellent birding potential and active birders. Like the other lifer locations discussed here, Kodiak is blessed with spectacular mountains and waterways and all sorts of places for birds to be especially waterfowl and seabirds.

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My next birding trip was to Juneau. I visited Juneau last year as part of a Wilderness Birding Adventures Gulf of Alaska trip, so it was a lifer location then, and not now, but this is the first time I had a chance to take some time to explore and see many of the good birding sites. Not to be missed, the Mendenhall Wetlands area has yielded numerous rarities over the years. For me it produced a Northern Pygmy-Owl this year and about 7 Pacific Loons, and was the first place I saw Great Blue Herons. Various peoples’ feeders and backyards had an Anna’s Hummingbird and a Spotted Towhee, as well as more common birds. In addition to learning what winter birds were in Juneau, I learned more about other times of the year when I needed to visit to see birds that are not around now, such a Mountain Bluebirds.

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After a couple of days in Juneau, I flew to Ketchikan, another lifer location, with the goal of seeing as many as possible of the wintering rarities and area specialties. Ketchikan added Brandt’s Cormorant and grebes – Pied and Western – to my year list, as well as additional yard birds. The main road in Ketchikan closely follows the coastline, allowing easy scanning for cormorants, loons, ducks and other waterfowl along it.

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Amy Courtney’s posts on eBird and Facebook late in 2015 caught my attention because she was regularly seeing a Brewer’s Blackbird in her yard in Hoonah, Alaska. This was a lifer mention of a possible lifer birding site, a place that I had never heard of. Brewer’s Blackbirds are very rare in Alaska. I kept track of whether she was still seeing the bird, and when it appeared that the bird was not leaving, I booked a 20-minute seaplane flight from Juneau to Hoonah on January 8th. Visiting her yard allowed me to add both Brewer’s and Rusty Blackbirds and Savannah and Golden-crowned Sparrow to my year list. There are also extensive wetland and forest habitats through which a lengthy road system wanders.

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I don’t know what other lifer locations I will visit in 2016, but I think there will be at least two. One will be Hyder some time in June. Hyder is on the Alaskan mainland about as far south as one can go on a road in Alaska. To get there from Anchorage, you either drive for thousands of miles up to central Alaska, east to the border and down again, or you take a mail plane from Ketchikan. It will definitely be a lifer trip to a lifer location. The other planning-in-the-works lifer trip for 2016 will be a 4-day ferry trip from Homer to lifer location, Dutch Harbor, for Whiskered Auklet, among other birds. I hope there are more lifer locations on the horizon, because if there are that will mean that rare birds are being reported from places I’ve never been. I will try to chase them, if I’m not already elsewhere on a birding trip.

If you are interested in learning more about any of these lifer locations, or about many, many more Alaskan lifer locations and the birds that can be found there, a must-read is West’s ABA Birdfinding Guide, A BIRDER’S GUIDE TO ALASKA.

PS. Although this post is not specifically about Malheur NWR in Oregon, about which there have been a number of recent ABA blog posts, I lived in Oregon for 5 years and visited there a couple of times. It is definitely a “lifer location” to be treasured!