Homer—Seabirds, Marine Mammals, Scenic Beauty, and Cute Alaska Towns

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Photo credit: Tufted Puffin, Sarah Schoen

Trip 9a and 9b.  Homer—Seabirds, Marine Mammals, Scenic Beauty, and Cute Alaska Towns, including Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge’s Islands & Ocean Visitor Center

Dates:

  • Trip 9a: Sunday to Tuesday, June 23–25
  • Trip 9b: Saturday to Monday, June 29–July 1 (or flexible for your schedule)

For June 23–25, we have a block of rooms on hold (until February 1) at an historic lodge with early morning birds walks; other lodging options or dates are up to you to arrange.

Start and end times: Self-guided travel to and from Homer (about 4½-hour drive each way with minimal stops). Recommended option is rental car, departing from Anchorage on Sunday morning, June 23, with a return to Anchorage in time for the opening keynote address, 7 pm, Tuesday, June 25. This trip is suitable for individuals, families, or groups of friends sharing a rental car; it offers something for all ages and interests from the casual to the serious birder, and even the nonbirder and fisher.

Costs: No AOS registration fee. Trips arranged independently by participants. Can be designed to fit your budget. Average costs for the suggested June 23–25 option:

$339    Average standard rental car for three days*

$95     Per person, for two nights, shared cabin at Seaside Farm (see below)

$69     Per person ($59 for seniors; $49 for 12 and under) Gull Island/Seldovia boat tour

All food on your own—Homer has many excellent dining options from casual, fresh fish and chips to fine dining; a supermarket and natural foods store are available for do-it-yourselfers.

*Anchorage national car rental agencies start at $69/day for an economy car; Turo car rentals may start at $45/day.

Maximum participants: There really is no limit, but there are only 5 cabins plus 4 rooms in a farmhouse available (28 spaces total) at Mossy Kilcher’s Seaside Farm lodge for Sunday and Monday nights (June 23–24), so be sure to book early if you want this option! (See below for lodging options.) Note the deadline of February 1 for reserved space available and discounts on lodging at Seaside Farm and on boat tours through Bay Excursions (see below).

Trip Leader(s): You! Along with your friends and/or family, aided by knowledgeable area guides and Refuge biologists.

Trip Description: This self-guided tour to Homer, Alaska, for two (or more) nights, has many options for short or all-day boat tours to see seabirds, marine mammals, and scenic glaciers. Fishing charters are also available. If you choose the first option (June 23–25), we recommend that you take a leisurely drive down to Homer on Sunday, spend all day Monday in Homer, then drive back to Anchorage on Tuesday. You could easily spend more time before or after the conference in Homer and other places on the Kenai Peninsula, which is considered Anchorage’s ‘playground.’

On the drive from Anchorage to Homer, you will be passing through several spectacular, vast protected areas, including the Chugach State Park, Chugach National Forest, and Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, as well as a plethora of state parks and recreation areas. Well-appointed campgrounds abound throughout. The glaciated mountains across Kachemak Bay from Homer are part of Kachemak Bay State Park, which can easily be reached by water taxi and hosts some amazing hiking trails, fjords, and tiny inholding communities that provide additional recreational opportunities. It would be easy to spend an entire week exploring the Kenai Peninsula.

Homer (population ~5,000) is a scenic town about 220 miles southwest of Anchorage, situated on beautiful Kachemak Bay at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula. This idyllic spot hosts an interesting enclave of artists and fishermen (and women!). Long known as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World,” and also made famous by NPR’s Tom Bodett as “The End of the Road,” Homer is home to the Islands & Ocean Visitor Center (9 am–5 pm, daily) of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s premiere wildlife refuge for nesting seabirds. Homer also hosts the Pratt Museum (10 am–6 pm, daily) and offers numerous boat tours and fishing charters. The main downtown area and Bishop’s Beach have several nice art galleries and good restaurants, and the road along the Homer Spit out to the boat harbor is lined with interesting shops and eateries and lots of marine life.

We highly recommend that you take a tour or fishing boat adventure on your full day in Homer. Options include:

(1) Alaska Coastal Marine 7-hour (10:30 am–5:30 pm) wildlife tour (Gull Island and out Eldred Passage, including a 3-hour visit in Seldovia) is $69 for adults, $59 for seniors, and $49 for 12 years and under. Gull Island is home to 15,000 seabirds (Glaucous-winged Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes, Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants, Tufted and Horned Puffins, Pigeon Guillemots, and Common Murres); Bald Eagles, other birds, sea otters and possibly orca and humpback whales will also be seen on the tour. The cruise is on either the M/V Rainbow Connection (65’ long, 18.5’ beam) or M/V Discovery (75′ long, 20′ beam)—each holds 80 passengers with indoor/outdoor seating and snack bars. This provides a unique and reasonably priced opportunity for travel to Seldovia, a scenic fishing village (population 276) across Kachemak Bay, off the road system.

Fishing tours with Alaska Coastal Marine range from half-day for $175 adult, $165 senior (6 hours, departing at 7 am, noon, and 1 pm), to full-day fishing adventures for halibut ($315), halibut and rockfish ($345), or halibut and salmon ($345) (6:30 am departure, 8–12 hours).

Call Alaska Coastal Marine at 907-262-4359 to reserve without the 6% online booking fee.

(2) The smaller, 29-passenger, Danny J ferry to Halibut Cove (population 76) is a 5-hour adventure, noon–5 pm. The Danny J also cruises around Gull Island to see the bird life, but instead provides a 3-hour stop at Halibut Cove with its excellent Saltry restaurant and art galleries ($66/person).

(3) Bay Excursions specializes in birding tours of Kachemak Bay with their owner and avid birder, Karl Stoltzfus, whose excursions during the annual May Shorebird Festival in Homer sell out. Check out Karl’s site for numerous birding references and related information for the Homer traveler. His 3-hour tour on the Torega accommodates up to 12 people for $75/person. Karl will hold seats for the ~ 8 a.m. departure on Monday, June 24, for AOS participants and their guests through February 1, after which this becomes space available. Contact Karl at (907)235-7525 or e-mail bay@xyz.net to reserve a space on the 24th, or on another day when you’ll be in Homer. Check out the Captain’s blog for a sampling of what amazing wildlife you could see!

(4) The morning of your drive back to Anchorage would be a good time to visit Islands & Ocean Visitor Center, and possibly Pratt Museum. We have arranged for Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge staff to provide a personalized tour of the Islands & Ocean Visitor Center at 9 a.m., Tuesday, June 24, for AOS participants and their guests. There will be a sign-up sheet at the conference for a similar tour on Monday, July 1, and if there is enough interest, another tour will be arranged for that date. Or, tour the Visitor Center on your own, 9 am–5 pm, daily.

Note: Due to lower tides at the end of June, and unpredictable weather, we are unable to schedule a charter to the Barren Islands, home to nearly half a million seabirds. However, the Alaska Marine Ferry from Homer to Kodiak travels by the Barren Islands and offers opportunities to whale watch as well as see countless seabirds, including albatross, shearwaters, fulmars, murres, puffins, auklets, kittiwakes, and other pelagic species. The ferry schedule is now available, and shows sailings from Homer to Kodiak on June 22, 23, and 29, and July 2. Return trips are available on June 23 and 25 and July 2. Cost (one-way) is $87 for adults, $66 for seniors, $44 for children 6–11 years, and free for younger children. Kodiak is home to the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, with the incredible Kodiak brown bears, and a fascinating visitor center (9 am–5 pm, Tues–Sat), too! The ferry ride would provide 9 hours of pelagic birding, even starting at 2 am, because of the virtually endless daylight at this time of year.

Likely species: See links and descriptions above and below. This trip is a great one for seeing a fantastic mix of forest birds, waterfowl, and seabirds from the boreal, Pacific rainforest, and subarctic biomes, including local breeders and early autumn migrants during late June. Northern specialties to look for include the Trumpeter Swan (with a local breeding population on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge); Bald Eagle; Peregrine Falcon; Arctic and Aleutian Tern; Kittlitz’s Murrelet and many species of tubenoses, cormorants, alcids, gulls, and jaegers; loons and seaducks; and several species of boreal and subarctic shorebirds and passerines.

Check out the species listed on eBird hotspots for:

Homer:  https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1100480/all/6

Homer Spit: https://ebird.org/hotspot/L292324/all/6, https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1128814/all/6

Gull Island: https://ebird.org/hotspot/L200450/all/6

Seldovia:  https://ebird.org/hotspot/L588692/all/6

Gulf of Alaska to Kodiak Island (ferry):  https://ebird.org/hotspot/L3927026/all/6

Barren Islands (cross-Gulf ferry): https://ebird.org/hotspot/L788239/all/6

Tern Lake (at Seward/Sterling Highway cut-off): https://ebird.org/hotspot/L128553/all/6

Anchor River mouth (on drive down to Homer): https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1206814/all/6

Lodging option:

**Special group booking opportunity for Sunday, June 23, and Monday, June 24, at Seaside Farm, an organic, working farm and historic homestead. Owner and bird enthusiast Mossy Kilcher will hold all spaces in her lodge for AOS participants until February 1. Mossy will offer a 10% discount to AOS meeting participants and their families if all 28 spaces at her lovely farm are booked before February 1, and a 5% discount if not all spaces are reserved. Mossy has also offered to take everyone on morning bird walks in the area June 24 and 25. Call her directly to book: 907-235-7850. Seaside has five rustic cabins (two are doubles, two hold three people, and one holds four; one 3-person cabin has a kitchenette; the 4-person cabin has a full kitchen). Cabins or farmhouse rooms are $95 for two people, $25 for each additional guest (all prices excluding discount). The main farmhouse holds 14 people in four rooms sharing 2 bathrooms, plus a large kitchen and living area. The bunk room in the main farmhouse has 8 bunks with linens, for $35/person. For the hardiest, campsites are $15 per tent site. Seaside Farm is only available for the nights of June 23 and 24, and rooms are being held for AOS reservations through February 1, otherwise lodging at Seaside can be booked without the discount on a space-available basis. For meals, enjoy some of Homer’s excellent dining options, or you can refrigerate food and cook in the farmhouse kitchen.

Seaside Farm has been considered a birding hotspot by many. An avid birder for almost 70 years with a passion for songbirds and forest birds, Mossy loves to share her love of habitats and nesting species. Many birders consider Seaside a birding hotspot. Species there include: Greater White-fronted Goose; Canada Goose; Mallard; American Wigeon; Northern Pintail; Bufflehead; Long-tailed Duck, three species of scoters and other sea ducks offshore; Sandhill Crane; Wandering Tattler; Wilson’s Snipe;  Pectoral Sandpiper; Whimbrel; Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; Pacific Golden-Plover; Northern Goshawk; Sharp-shinned Hawk; Merlin; Northern Saw-whet, Great Gray, Short-eared, Great Horned and Northern Hawk Owl; Belted Kingfisher; Hairy and Downy Woodpecker; Alder Flycatcher; Northern Shrike; Steller’s and Gray Jay; Black-billed Magpie; Northwestern Crow; Common Raven; Tree, Violet-green, and Bank Swallow; Boreal and Black-capped Chickadee; Red-breasted Nuthatch; Brown Creeper; Pacific Wren; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Varied and Hermit Thrush; American Robin; American Pipit; Pine Grosbeak;  White-winged Crossbill; Common Redpoll; Pine Siskin; Lapland Longspur; Fox, Golden-crowned, Song, Savannah, Lincoln’s, and White-crowned Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco; Northern Waterthrush; Yellow-rumped, Orange-crowned, Townsend’s, and Wilson’s Warbler.

Uncommon or rare visitors include: Rusty Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Rough-legged Hawk, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Spruce Grouse, Cliff Swallow, Snow Bunting, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, Townsend’s Solitaire, Mountain Bluebird, Blackpoll Warbler, American Goldfinch, Brambling, Magnolia Warbler, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Western Wood-Peewee, Harris’s and White-throated Sparrow, Rufous and Anna’s Hummingbird.

Mossy can provide recommendations on where birders may be able to find the more elusive Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, and Varied Thrushes, and Townsend’s Warblers in the high country.

Recommended Gear and Cautions: Rain gear, sturdy shoes with good soles for walking on rough terrain (beaches or hiking trails), hat and gloves and extra layers for those who plan to journey out on a tour or fishing boat. Binoculars, camera, sunglasses, insect repellent, and sunscreen.

Additional Information: The Homer Visitor Guide provides general information on the Homer area. The Kenai Guide Book, published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, provides a wealth of information, seasonal checklists, and maps for the best places to view birds and other wildlife across the Kenai Peninsula. Check here for the interactive guide.

Detailed Route Description, Anchorage to Homer, including fun stops:

Travel south of Anchorage on the paved Seward and then Sterling highways to Homer, about 4½ hours (220 miles) in your rental vehicle. There are many opportunities for scenic, birding, or hiking stops along the way for a full-day adventure. Suggested stops include:

  • Potter Marsh, part of the state’s Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (see Local Trip 15 for bird lists).
  • Girdwood at Seward Highway Mile Post (MP) 90 turnoff, then travel 3 miles up Alyeska Highway to Alaska’s premier downhill ski area—mountain biking and hiking (up the mountain or Winner Creek trail through a Sitka spruce forest, 3.5 miles round trip to waterfalls, canyon in summer, see Local Trip 13 for more details), or take the aerial tram at the Hotel Alyeska for a birds’ eye view of glaciers and Turnagain Arm; yummy breakfasts, lunch and snacks available at The Bake Shop, other great restaurants and Girdwood Brewing are also here.
  • The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at Seward Highway MP 79 is an outdoor, non-profit wildlife sanctuary that provides care for orphaned and injured animals. You can drive or walk around a 1.5-mile loop and see many species of mammals, including brown and black bears, moose, caribou, elk, wood bison, muskox, lynx, and others, and a few birds (Bald Eagle, Great Horned Owl). Cost is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors; $10 for youth; free for 6 and under.
  • Turnagain Pass at Seward Highway MP 70 with beautiful tundra views (outhouses available here).
  • Seward Highway MP 45.5, 80 miles south of Anchorage, is the historic log Summit Lake Lodge (great pie and full lunches) and espresso/ice cream shoppe.

Turn right at MP 37 junction, to take the 135-mile Sterling Highway that ends in Homer.

Note—for an alternative option, the independent traveler can continue 37 miles on the Seward Highway to its terminus in Seward. Here an overnight would allow a visit to Alaska SeaLife Center and seabird/scenic boat trip in Kenai Fjords National Park, if you don’t sign up for Field Trips 6 or 7.

  • Soldotna, population ~4200, Sterling Highway MP 84 has restaurants, supermarkets, and shops if you need a fishing license or snack, or you can visit Elias Brewing Company (434 Sharkathmi Ave, on the left, just before Fred Meyer as you enter Soldotna) and the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center (turn left on Funny River Road at MP 81 Sterling Hwy, then immediately right on Ski Hill Road, travel one mile, then left on road to Visitor Center, 9 am–5 pm daily); hiking, fishing, and camping available throughout the Refuge; detailed species list/locations available.
  • Ninilchik Village, population ~800, Sterling Highway MP 44 is the site of a mixed historic settlement of Alaska Natives (Aleut, Alutiiq, and Dena’ina) and Russians. There is a beautiful Russian Orthodox church perched up on the bluff with an historic cemetery; the village itself has some incredible hand-hewn log cabins characteristic of the era.
  • Anchor River mouth, Sterling Highway MP 22 is a good spot to look for rafting sea ducks and Bald Eagles. The views across Cook Inlet of the volcanic mountains in the Alaska/Aleutian Range are spectacular on a clear day.

On the return drive to Anchorage, stop at places you missed on the drive to Homer. A convenient opportunity to stretch your legs is at the Tern Lake pull off on the right, just before the junction and left turn back onto the Seward Highway. Trumpeter Swans, Arctic Terns, three species of loons, and Bald Eagles can often be found here along with a variety of songbirds and shorebirds, such as the Northern Waterthrush, Golden-crowned Sparrow, and Greater Yellowlegs. Beavers, river otters, muskrats, and salmon ply the cold, clear waters of Tern Lake. Moose, Dall sheep, and mountain goats can be seen on the surrounding mountains.

Other Lodging options include:

Land’s End: Doubles: $189–319; 2-room suites accommodating up to 6 people with one queen and two double beds: $339 (800-478-0400).

Best Western Bidarka Inn: Doubles: $180-209; room with 2 queens for 4, $220 (800-780-7234 for reservations; hotel direct is 907-235-8148).

http://www.alaskacampgrounds.net/: campgrounds and RV parks on the Kenai Peninsula and in Homer.

Homer Spit Campground for tents or RVs ($30/night for tents to $50/night for RV with hookup). Pre-season, email for availability: homerspitcampground@gci.net

Homer Tours & Baycrest KOA RV Park has RV sites ($78 for a 30-ft motorhome but only 1 site left), and 4 tent sites ($45/night) some with beautiful views across Kachemak Bay to several glaciers; deluxe cabin with bathroom for 4 ($195); yurt with no en suite bathroom for 2 ($95); only one site left in bunkhouse for 8 ($90). Contact: baycrestrvpark@gmail.com 907-435-7995.

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