When it comes to birdwatching, falcons are one of the most striking (and difficult!) to spot. Fortunately, there are 6 falcons in Alaska you can add to your next travel session.
What makes falcons a challenge? One reason they’re a little trickier to spot than songbirds or waterfowl is due to favoring arctic and coastal areas.
However, some falcons have grown comfortable with urban environments due to shrinking hunting grounds. Even if you’re not a fan of hiking or kayaking, you’ll be able to spot a few of the gorgeous birds on this list.
My guide below will look at the most common and rare falcons in Alaska. You’ll learn their appearance, favorite stomping grounds, and a few fun facts!
- Species Name: Falco rusticolus
- Weight: 1,350 to 2,100 grams
- Length: 48 to 65 cm
- Wingspan: 110 to 160 cm
The mighty gyrfalcon is the largest in the falcon species and it shows. While males are no slouch in the weight and length department, females get even larger!
You won’t be able to look away from this stunning bird’s brilliantly speckled plumage. In fact, they have some serious variety in the looks department, so you may need to take notes.
Gyrfalcons are polymorphic, a term that refers to a species having two or more unique phenotypes. Sometimes these appearances are referred to as gray morphs or white morphs.
These larger raptors are able to come in varieties such as:
- White – a bright white body covered in dark speckles along the back and wings
- Silver – a silvery gray body with a lighter stomach and darker gray wings
- Brown – a cream body and speckled stomach with dark brown wings
- Black – a deep brown-black body with a spotted brown stomach and white spotted head
These falcons aren’t exactly accessible to casual birding, usually found in inhospitable environments such as the arctic tundra and coastal cliffs. For fans of hiking and kayaking, you’ll be in a better spot to catch this bird in their natural environment.
Expect to see these birds year-round in Alaska, though they’re more common in spring and fall. If you need a starting point for your next outdoor excursion, consider visiting Denali National Park or Wrangle St Elias National Park.
Gyrfalcons have a diverse diet of small and medium-sized mammals. While they usually go after squirrels, waterfowl, and songbirds, they’ll sometimes hunt foxes and hares.
If you’re lucky, you may catch them in the middle of a hunt swooping low to the ground to scare smaller animals into running. Is it any wonder this species is a common bird in falconry?
The gyrfalcon call is a long, high-pitched song that sounds like a strained euuueh-euuueh.
The formidable gyrfalcon doesn’t just look regal, they’re literally associated with royalty. Back in the Middle Ages, only kings were allowed to hunt with gyrfalcons.
- Species Name: Falco Sparverius
- Weight: 80 grams to 165 grams
- Length: 22 cm to 31 cm
- Wingspan: 51 to 61 cm
While the American kestrel is smaller than the gyrfalcon, it’s a fierce bird you shouldn’t underestimate. This falcon is capable of going toe-to-toe with birds twice their own size when defending their territory.
These beautiful birds have some of the most dramatic plumage of the falcon family. Male American kestrels are a symphony of color, boasting gray-blue wings, cinnamon-brown bodies, and white patches on their face.
Their wings and tail have significant barring. Males also have a gray-blue ‘cap’ on their head that contrasts the yellow around their beak.
Female American kestrels look similar to males but with brown wings instead of gray-blue. Like most falcons, they’re also larger than males.
American kestrels are a little easier to spot due to how easily they adapt to different environments. As long as you’re patient, you can spot them in agricultural fields, grasslands, meadows, scattered trees, and shrubby forest edges.
In fact, the occasional American kestrel will even visit an urban environment! Keep an eye out for fence posts where they like to perch.
Keep an eye out for these birds in the southeastern part of the state, particularly during spring and fall.
You name it, this bird has likely eaten it. American kestrels aren’t picky eaters and will hunt insects, mice, frogs, lizards, and various small bird species.
Conservationists are able to teach captive-trained birds with small pieces of red meat on string.
While the American kestrel has a diverse song, you’ll most often hear a bright and repetitive chee-chee-chee.
These birds’ particularly small size hasn’t gone unnoticed next to their larger siblings – American kestrels used to be called sparrow hawks.
- Species Name: Falco columbarius
- Weight: 125 grams to 300 grams
- Length: 24 cm to 33 cm
- Wingspan: 58 cm to 66 cm
The whimsically named merlin is another beautiful falcon with a bold appearance. Since they’re so widespread, they have a few variations you should be aware of.
The male merlin tends to have blue-gray along their back, wings, and the top of their head. Females are larger and tend to have more brownish coloration.
Since the merlin has quite a few different regional variations, I’ll briefly list them here to help you spot them.
- Black Merlins – this variation has a dark blue-black body covered in dappled, bright flecks along its stomach.
- Prairie Merlins – this variation has a light cinnamon-brown body covered in white flecks
- Tundra Merlins – this variation is similar, yet darker than the prairie merlin
These incredible birds are a little more scarce, usually only showing up during breeding season in Alaska. However, southern areas of the state may see these birds lingering all year long.
Merlins’ preferred habitats are spacious and open areas such as meadows, steppes, and shrubland. Interestingly enough, they’re quite comfortable at multiple altitudes and will sometimes stay along the coastline or shift to forested areas.
These falcons may have one of the most diverse diets of any bird species! They’ll eat insects, rabbits, lemmings, voles, lizards, frogs, bats, and plenty of birds.
Now this is an interesting birdsong – instead of the shrieks and chirps you’re familiar with, this bird lets out shivering cheee-chr-chr-chr patterns. They almost sound like chattering teeth when you’re cold.
While falcons have a reputation as dive-bombing birds, they sometimes shake things up. Instead of diving to catch their prey, merlins prefer to use their speed to accelerate and chase them down.
- Species Name: Falco peregrinus
- Weight: 330 grams to 1,500 grams
- Length: 34 cm to 58 cm
- Wingspan: 29 cm to 47 cm
The iconic peregrine falcon isn’t just one of the best-known falcon species, but also one of the best-known birds in general. Their lovely plumage and immense speed make them a must-see when traveling to Alaska.
The male peregrine falcon has a deep gray back with a barred gray and white chest. Their dark face and bright yellow beak cut a striking figure as they soar through the air.
They also have bright yellow skin along their legs.
Female peregrine falcons are significantly stockier than males with a more ‘lumpy’ physique. Her chest barring is also thicker and darker.
Peregrine falcons can be spotted year-round in Alaska, but are most common during breeding season. Keep a close eye on the southern portion of the state, particularly in coastal areas where they like to migrate.
These curious birds are just as comfortable in coastal and cliff areas as they are in urban environments. If you stick to towns, you may also catch one of Alaska’s many finches.
While some falcons will have extremely diverse diets, peregrine falcons generally prefer to hunt other bird species. These masters of speed usually go after pigeons, ducks, and ptarmigans.
However, when their favorite food supply gets low, they’ll occasionally dive for fish.
The peregrine falcon song is sharp and assertive. In fact, it sounds much like an alarm with long, sharp notes occasionally mixed with a chattering che-che-che-che-che.
Just how amazing is this iconic falcon species? It’s the fastest bird in the world, able to dive at a whopping 200 miles per hour!
- Species Name: Falco subbuteo
- Weight: 175 grams to 285 grams
- Length: 29 cm to 36 cm
- Wingspan: 74 cm to 79 cm
If you have a particularly sharp eye and want to browse Alaskan wildlife extensively, keep an eye out for the rare Eurasian hobby. This colorful falcon is an accidental species, only occasionally spotted in the state.
This bold bird has dark brown plumage with a bright white chest covered in brown streaks. They have hints of cinnamon-orange along their rump and vivid yellow legs.
Males and females look quite similar to each other. Immature birds tend to be more uniformly brown with streaked legs.
These fierce falcons have been occasionally spotted in the western portion of the state. These birds are very fond of spacious areas like grasslands, fields, and farmland.
They’ll also favor taiga, a specific type of boreal forest common in Alaska as well as Canada. They usually prefer their nests in trees, such as tree cavities, and don’t build their own.
Large insects are the go-to meal for this bird of prey, though they’ll also hunt small birds. They’re fast enough to catch agile birds like swifts and swallows.
While falcons are known for swooping and sharp calls, the Eurasian hobby sounds like they’re laughing. Expect to hear brisk, high cha-cha-cha or che-che-che patterns.
Eurasian hobbies are so comfortable in the air that they’ll sometimes catch and eat dragonflies in mid-flight without landing once.
- Species Name: Falco tinnunculus
- Weight: 136 grams to 314 grams
- Length: 30 cm to 41 cm
- Wingspan: 65 cm to 82 cm
Let’s wrap up the list with a birder’s challenge – the elusive Eurasian kestrel. This bird is an accidental species in Alaska and has only been spotted a few times in the past.
These colorful raptors pop against Alaska’s forested expanse. Males have salmon-brown wings with dark brown barring, dark brown tails, and a bright gray head.
Females are larger and have warmer yellow-brown coloration. Their barred pattern is heavy throughout the body and they have light brown-streaked heads.
These highly adaptable birds are comfortable in a number of environments, including (but not limited to) shrublands, fields, meadows, and forest edges. They’re also not skittish around humans and may show up in more populated areas.
Interestingly enough, Eurasian kestrels prefer to reuse abandoned nests instead of building their own. They frequently lay their eggs in lone trees or pick a nest on cliff faces.
These falcons are all about small mammals when it comes to their diet. They prefer to hunt voles, shrews, and mice – however, they’ll occasionally eat frogs or small birds.
Bird watchers won’t have a hard time picking out the songs of these incredible raptors. The Eurasian kestrel also has a shivering song with repetitive cheu-u-u-uh or che-e-e-e patterns.
This diminutive kestrel goes by many names – they’re also known as the common kestrel and Old World kestrel.
Alaska Remains a Haven for Stunning Birdwatching Encounters
The Last Frontier is a truly remarkable place. Not only do you have a medley of mountains and rivers to explore, but you also have fascinating birdlife to witness in their natural habitat.
Alaska is chock-full of prime locations to spot falcons, such as the Denali National Park and Wrangle St Elias National Park. Time your excursions to match these falcons’ preferred seasons so you can increase your chances of spotting them!
What else does Alaska have in store for the curious birder? Our guide on birds in Alaska will show you how to spot larks, warblers, and more.