Alaskan Wildlife Over Wi-fi
Alaska has experienced its share of challenges in the last few months. For many, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to view our spectacular wildlife has been delayed to an unknown future date.
There are a few opportunities to view Alaska’s wildlife, however, from the comfort and safety of your own home via live feed webcams. These cameras provide a window into the wild world that would otherwise be very difficult to see. They are, in a way, the greatest equalizer in providing access to the outdoors. Lack of access can often be boiled down to the expense and time required to visit some of these far-flung places. Live feeds can bring a wildlife experience – bears on a river, walruses on an island, birds in a breeding area – to any person with a smart device and a wifi connection.
Camera footage can also be a tool for wildlife managers and biologists to estimate populations of wildlife or study their behavior. These cameras are discrete and allow a scientist to observe an animal’s behavior with a minimal amount of disturbance. Scientists and the public can view the most natural and uninhibited behaviors through the lens of these cameras.
Here is a list of three cameras that can continue your Alaska wildlife viewing opportunities in the upcoming months, whether you’re currently in Alaska and hunkering down, or outside Alaska and sheltering in place.
The most iconic, well-known, and well-maintained of live webcams in Alaska is that of the bears at Brooks Falls on the Brooks River in Katmai National Park. This isn’t just one camera, but a variety of cameras that are positioned on different locations of the falls and river, and are monitored by volunteers and maintained by Explore.org staff to ensure good viewing of the brown bears that frequent the area. These cameras are provided by explore.org/bears, a philanthropic organization that provides a platform for viewing wildlife and natural places around the world.
I spoke with Mike Fitz, who worked at the park as a ranger starting in 2007 and is now a fellow and naturalist with Explore.org. He helps interpret the behaviors of the bear that people may see on the cameras. Mike and other park rangers host a weekly Q&A session on the Explore.org page, and Mike also schedules times in which he will narrate what is taking place on the webcams, interpreting the behaviors of the bears to the general public. The online chat discussion on the Explore website has a community of people from outside Alaska too, and is very active and lively group that share screenshots and GIFs they’ve made of the camera footage with one another.
Mike pointed out that one of the main advantages of these cameras is that while an in-person visit to Katmai and Brooks Falls is limited to a few hours to a few days, with the cameras, you can observe the bears over days, months, and even years. You can observe storylines evolve over time – which bears assume dominance, which bears have cubs. They’re all individuals, and all have personalities. It’s like a reality show.
“My favorite bears to watch are the large adult males,” Mike told me, “due to their interesting stories and relationships with one another, which comes down to the competition they display and their hierarchy. The dominant bear right now is 856, who has been the river’s most consistently dominant bear since 2011. He has an assertive disposition, throws his weight around, is good at fighting, and gets the best fishing spots. 747 is an excellent angler and a giant bear – he was estimated to get to 1400 pounds last year. 480, nicknamed Otis, is an older adult male, around 25 years old, and isn’t able to physically compete with the younger adult males. 503 is an upcoming young adult, growing rapidly, and will be a very large bear. I’m interested to see how he’ll interact with the other bears in the coming years.”
This year, with the combination of a huge number of fish in Bristol Bay and the absence of people, there is the opportunity to observe behaviors from the bears that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Adults are more playful, their tolerances for one another are much higher, and the bears spend more time in the lower reaches of the river due to the availability of food and lack of pressure from tourists.
Go to explore.org, and you will see an icon that says “Brown Bears of Katmai”, which will take you to the various streams. Additionally, there is a great Google Earth interactive tool hosted by Explore.org’s Pearls of the Planet (click on the screen-grab below). The locations of each camera are shown in the satellite view, and you can click on the link directly to the camera to see what is going on at that location.
Gull Island is located near the Homer spit, across Kachemak Bay near Halibut Cove, and is owned by the local Seldovia Native Association. The SNA has partnered with the Pratt Museum in Homer to have a camera set up at Gull Island each summer since 2016. The USGS, BOEM, and USFWS also use the footage from the camera to help understand a large seabird die-off that occurred in 2015 and 2016, as well as understanding the behavior of nesting birds in areas of interest for oil and gas. One objective of this work was to monitor Black-legged Kittiwake and Common Murre breeding habits at their colonies and compare to similar work done in the 90s. These data are used to better understand the timing of nesting (incubation and hatching dates, chick rearing, fledging) and prey deliveries. Birds can number in the thousands!
As of early August, most of the kittiwakes are gone, and what you can mainly view are Glaucous gulls. The Glaucous gull chicks are mostly grown as well. At times the occasional puffin can be seen, as well as other wildlife such as whales or sea otters, or fishing boats.
If you happen to be in Homer, the Pratt Museum is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 11 – 4pm for the summer.
Technically this camera doesn’t show a wild animal, but it’s still an animal that can be found in the Alaskan wild. Cranbeary the polar bear has lived at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage since 2018, and the zoo has set up a live feed camera so that visitors can see her antics from afar. The camera and wireless connection are gratefully provided by GCI.
Cranbeary is fed in her den each morning, and then can normally be seen in her habitat around 10 AM most days. “She’s pretty active in the morning,” Katie Larson, current webmaster and former educator for the Alaska Zoo who has been with the zoo for 22 years. “Zookeepers will do enrichment activities with her, which is probably when you will see the most activity.”
Additionally, on August 27th, the Zoo will be hosting a “Virtual Walk on the Wild Side”. The yearly Walk on the Wild Side event is the zoo’s main fundraiser, but due to the current pandemic, the zoo has shifted the event to be completely online. This will be broadcast from zoo grounds via private Zoom invitation, which can be accessed by purchasing a $75 ticket. The ticket includes entry to their door prize for two round trip Alaska Airline tickets, and an additional gift bag can be purchased for $35. Those that attend will be able to see the zoo staff with animals going behind the scenes, special animal enrichment, and also the finale of the online auction.
This is a part of their largest annual fundraiser, and is an important source of funding for the Zoo. “It’s definitely going to be tough this winter without the buffer of tourism this year,” Katie Larson. “These funds we generate from the event, in addition to the funds from our sponsors, help keep the zoo going over the winter, by getting us the supplies and food we need for our animals.” The event is sponsored by Conoco Phillips, USI, ASRC Energy Services, Oil Search, and Alaska Mill Feed and Garden Center.
The Zoo will also be providing new programs for distance learning during the school year to provide materials for educators and parents while the Alaska school system operates entirely online for the foreseeable future. These programs will include engagement with zookeepers and the animals at the zoo. There will be a fee, which will also help with the running costs of the zoo this year.
The zoo will still be providing free online Facebook live sessions as well, where people can see what different animals are up to around the zoo grounds.
The zoo is open every day from 10AM to 5PM, and stays open until 8PM on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The trails are business as usual, as people can socially distance appropriately and still use a lot of the outdoor facilities. Some indoor facilities are closed, and for ones that aren’t people are required to wear masks.