Birding, wildlife van tour a great way to see ‘home’

“You can’t see the forest for the trees” is a great description for what happens when you live in a place for long. The day-to-day stuff gets so distracting you don’t see the eagle nest on the Spit, the sea otter bobbing on the bay or the eagle outside your car window as it glides beside the highway.

One quick cure: the free birding-wildlife hot spots van tour offered by Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center on Friday afternoons during July, and led by volunteers John and Sue Ewan, retired middle school science teachers from Missouri. 

It also is a great introduction to the area for visitors, an opportunity to meet new people and, as was the case last Friday, stumble across some unexpected connections.

After ensuring everyone had binoculars and was settled in the 15-passenger tour van, the Ewans invited introductions. Bob and Linda Wiley and Xue Li and Li Zhang were surprised to discover they were from the same city in Maryland. Others shared New York as their point of origin. Some were here for a short time; most were here for the first time. Only one of us, yours truly, was from Alaska.

A drive to the end of the Spit was an opportunity for Sue to compare the freshwater of Beluga Lake to the mixture of fresh and salt water in Beluga Slough. She described the Spit’s origin and noted the thousands of shorebirds that make the area a stopping-off point. 

“On the right” and “on the left” kept our heads turning to see what animals were being spotted, be it otter, crows, birds to be identified or the eagerly anticipated glimpse of a bald eagle.

From the ferry terminal parking area, we observed the kittiwake colony that builds its nests on the dock’s structure.

Turning around, we raised our eyes to the top of a tall cell tower and the eagle nest on a triangle-shaped platform. After minutes of patient viewing, the white-headed silhouette of an adult eagle came into view, followed by the smaller, dark silhouette of its young.

With Kachemak Bay currents creating a smorgasbord that feeds a variety birds and wildlife, John said the tip of the Spit was “a good area to come and sit and watch, especially in the evening.” The obvious question — “When’s evening?” — drew a laugh from everyone experiencing Alaska’s extended hours of summer daylight.

Sue introduced us to the smooth, gray beach rocks beneath our feet: greywacke. Just the sound of the word caused her and the rest of us to laugh.

A viewing platform near the airport offered glimpses of a swan family. The last stop of the tour, the post office parking lot, drew our attention to the eagle nest in the top of a spruce tree on the other side of the highway.

All too soon, an hour and a half had passed and it was time to say good-bye. Only then did I make the connection a woman sitting by me was the mother of my doctor, here for a month-long visit. Sue asked, since I had grown up in Ninilchik, if I knew her cousins who also grew up there. Sure enough, I remembered them well. 

The Friday afternoon birding-wildlife hot spots van tour is similar to the birding hot spots tour offered during Shorebird Festival.

“In July, our viewing opportunities are different and our tourists are normally not hard-core birders. Probably most on the tour are just as happy to see a moose, or more so, so we recognize its more of a wildlife-watching tour,” said Marianne Aplin, manager of the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, where the hour- to hour-and-a-half tour originates and ends. 

Offering the tour depends on the skills of volunteers at the visitor center. This year, the Ewans have proven the perfect match.

“Their first day on the job, they jumped right in and started answering visitors’ questions and you could tell right away they were perfect for this kind of thing,” said Aplin. 

All ages are welcome on the tour. Binoculars are provided, but bring your own if you have them. The popularity of the tour is evident by the lack of seats. It’s a good idea to call or email to reserve a space.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at

Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center

95 Sterling Highway




Activities scheduled during July and August:

• AlaskaWild photography Show (August)

• Beach walks at Bishops Beach

• Birding-wildlife hot spots van tour

• Estuary walks

• Films

• Kachemak Bay Research Reserve Discovery Lab

• Ranger-guided walks

• Ranger presentations

• Ranger talks

• Tenderfoot tidepooling


For topics, times and dates, visit the calendar at

Eagles make themselves at home atop a cell tower.-Photo by McKibben Jackinsy, Homer News

Eagles make themselves at home atop a cell tower.-Photo by McKibben Jackinsy, Homer News