Seward Peninsula Wildlife (plants and animals) have adapted to a somewhat extreme climate. Even though it may seem to be a hostile environment in the Alaskan Northwest, the wildlife is thriving here. And nature will sustain herself as long as the natural resources are not over-harvested.
Nome, Seward’s largest City is located on the southwest coast of Seward Peninsula of the Bering Sea. The climate is considered subarctic. Although, the winters are less severe than the interior regions of the Seward Peninsula. January’s average temperatures are -10 to 5° F and July’s average temperature is 40 to 65° F. Although the winters are long and dark, Remember the summer days can be as long as 22 hours long with the northern sun!
Biomes of the Seward Peninsula
Most of the area between Nome and the communiy of Council is known as arctic tundra. It is treeless with low vegetation on a couple inches of soil just above the permafrost. Trees are unable to grow on the shallow unfrozen soil. As one travels eastward on the Nome-Council Highway, a few short Black Spruce trees start to crop up. A little more south-east and you will arrive at the biome of the Boreal Forest. The Boreal Forest is made up of conifer trees that can withstand 6-8 months of winter at high latitudes. There are only a few types of trees in the Boreal forest but many animals make homes in the shelter of the branches.
On the Google map within this article, Click satellite view. There you will see the Boreal forest areas because they will be dark green.
Bank Swallow build their nests of mud. Every spring the ice carves the steep banks of the rivers and tributaries. Female Bank Swallow burrow her mud nests in the sandy, warm river banks in June. They feed on insects over the bodies of water. However, Bank Swallows do not prefer living in trees or woodlands. They are characterized by their small size and brown color and quick fluttering wing beat.
Brent Goose is a short-neck goose that lives on the coast. Its feathers are darker than a Canadian goose with a solid black head. It has a white ring around its neck and white underside. They breed and nest in the Arctic. However, the Brent Geese migrate south for the winter to California and even as far as Baja Mexico!
There are Northern Bald Eagles and Yellow Eagles in the Seward peninsula. They range in size from 5-14 pounds with a wing span up to 7 feet! Eagles prefer to live near water because fish is their favorite meal. They are scavengers and hunters with a sharp beak and strong talons. They build their nests in the tall rocky banks of the rivers or atop the towering pines. In the winters Eagles will migrate south for food but they return to the same nesting spot every year.
Willow Ptarmigan is Alaska’s state bird. They are a part of the Arctic grouse family. You will find them along the perimeter of the Nome area. Willow Ptarmigan weighs a little over one pounds and is approximately one foot long too. Their feathers change color for the seasons. In the winter, they are white with dark tail feather and dark markings around the eyes. Once they molt, they will have brown variegated plumage with some white in the legs and wings. The males will have a bright red “comb” above the eye during mating season.
They are at home on the barren tundra. The Ptarmigan will nest in stony areas and they peck at the low vegetation and insects. Interestingly, the Willow Ptarmigan male will help protect the chicks from predators.
Barren Ground Tundra
In Alaska, we have the barren ground Caribou. Both male and female Caribou have horns. Males are about 370 pounds and females are about 200 pounds. Caribou are known as reindeer in Europe. Reindeer are regarded as semi-domesticated and somewhat larger in size.
The Caribou are well adapted for the cold arctic weather. They have a thick coat of hollow hairs which provide excellent insulation. In the spring, Caribou will calve way up on northern tundra above the Arctic circle. The huge herds will migrate around to graze through the summer. By the winter, the caribou head south towards the Seward Peninsula. Here they may “graze” on Lichen (algae + fungus) under the snow found on the Tundra. Caribou may walk over 2000 miles throughout the year.
Grizzly bears are one of the largest of the Bears. Their size can vary between 300 and 800 lb. The fur has long hairs that have white tips giving the bear a grizzled appearance. They carry a distinctive hump on their shoulders. This hump is the massive muscles of the bear. Also, the grizzly bear has enormous claws that are two to four inches long. The curved claws will help the bear dig his winter den but also help them dig up small animals burrow and plant roots.
Alaska has the healthiest population of grizzly bears.
Grizzlies are fast runners and excellent swimmers. It is important to remember they have very good eyesight and even better sense of smell. Despite their massive size they mostly live off of berries, nuts and roots. Intermittently, the Grizzly may add to his diet a young moose, some fish, and insects.
Just before winter hibernation, Grizzlies will put on weight. Sometimes it will be up to three pounds per day –maybe even 90 lb for the fall season! During Hibernation, the bear’s body temperature and heart rate lowers to conserve energy.
Grizzly Bear Life Cycle
Male Grizzlies prefer to live in solitude. Female Grizzlies mate in the early summer but impregnation is delayed until October. Grizzly bears give birth to two- or three-pound cubs in February. These Cubs will stay with their mother for 2 to 3 years period. The cubs will stay away from the dangerous male Grizzly bear. Female grizzly bears will continue to nurse the cubs until April or May when they weigh about 20 lb. The bear cub are full-grown adults in 4-5 years. Female bears reproduce every three to four years.
Muskoxen are adept to their arctic home on the tundra. Muskox appears to be much larger than they are because of their heavy coat. An Adult Muskox weighs 400-500 pounds for female and 500-600 pounds for a male. Muskoxen provide a delicious hearty meat with similarities to beef. In the tradition of the Inuipat Natives, when child hunts his or her first muskox, the meat is given to elders and families of the village.
Muskoxen have heavy fur coats with two layers. The outer coarse hair repels the water and downy inner coat keeps in the heat. When the hide is prepared, the native women comb the inner wool from the hide. This wool is called Qiviuq. It is spun into a fine yarn and knitted in to intricate patterns.
They are a protected animal. Only a limited number of hunting permits are issued by lottery to the native Alaskan people. Muskoxen were extinct in the 1920’s but with much effort the herd was replenished. Today there are about 3000-4000 muskoxen on the Seward Peninsula.
Beluga whales are native to the shores of the Bering sea. They too are a protected animal. The Alaska Beluga Whale Committee of the North Slope Borough keeps track of the population and migration pattern of the beluga whale through transmitters.
They are a social animal. Belugas hunt and travel in pods. Interestingly, Beluga Whales communicate by facial expression and a multitude of sounds, chirps and clicks. Their heads can look around freely for predators because the neck vertebrae are not fused. They also can swim forward and backwards and upside down. Also, Belugas have keen sight in and out of the water.
The Beluga diet includes squid, crabs, clams and fish. In the summer the Beluga whale sheds its skin, leaving a shiny white skin. This is perfect for blending into the winter snow and ice. They do not have a dorsal fin so it easier for them to swim under the ice floes.
King Crabs (Red)
We have the most delicious King Crabs right here in the Bering Sea, Norton Sound. The Red King Crab is known for the best culinary flavor, quality and texture.
The Average size for a King Crab is 6-13 pounds. Adult leg span can be almost 5 ft! Fully mature crabs can live in waters up to 1100ft. Nevertheless, they annually return to shallow waters to spawn. Each spring the King Crab molts its shell and then it mates. The eggs are carried externally on the females for about one year. The young are hatched when the plankton is plentiful in the spring. Adult King Crabs eat worms, mollusks (clams, etc.), crabs and fish.
Their populations change from year to year; therefore, the commercial harvesting is regulated to keep a healthy number in stock. Astoundingly, seventeen million pounds of red king crabs were caught valued at over $110,000,000 in the year 2011!
Ringed Seals, one of the “ice seals,” are also found on the shores of the Seward peninsula. The adult seals are 100-150 lbs and 5 ft long. They prefer ice covered waters associated with ice floes and pack ice. Ringed Seals live for 20-30 years and live mostly in solitude. The pups are born in early spring weaned after 1 month. Females reach maturity in 4 years and males mature in 7 years. They can dive up to 150 ft and they usually feed on fish such as cod and herring.
Pacific Walruses live in the fairly shallow waters of the Bering Sea. They are huge animals with males weighing about 2000 pounds! In the late spring, Walrus calves are born on ice floes. The calves weigh approximately 140 pounds. They diet of the walrus is mostly made up of clams, snails and other invertebrates on the seafloor. They use their whiskers to detect the food in the deep dark waters.
Walruses are very social and rest on rock in herds. The long ivory tusks are used for defense and a prominent status in the herd. The herd will spend their winters in the Bering Sea areas. In the summers they will migrate northbound towards the Chukchi Sea.
Arctic Grayling are a member of the Salmon family. Typically, they are about 18 inches long and weigh about 3 pounds. They live up to 30 years! Grayling is a beautiful fish with a large dorsal fin and some spotting on the body. The colors range from blue-green to gray with a silvery sheen. They will spawn in shallow rocky waters with ripples. Their diet consists of aquatic insects, zooplankton and fish eggs. Arctic Grayling are quite prize for the angler!
Salmon have a very important role in the ecosystem of the Seward Peninsula. They are sustainable food source to a number of animals and people. Native Alaskans preserve the salmon by smoking, drying, canning and freezing it. For thousands of years this was one of the primary food sources. They have a distinctive flavorful red flesh prized for flavorful dense meat. Most of our salmon are 24-30 inches in length and 8-12 pounds. Our part of Alaska has Coho (Silver), Chum (Dog Salmon), Pink (Humpy) and Sockeye (Red Salmon). (vernacular names are in parenthesis)
Salmon begin their lives on the small tributary freshwater streams. They are hatched in the spring and stay in the shallow freshwater for about a year. At this point, their diet is mostly aquatic insects. Once they are old enough, they will migrate to the saltwater sea. Some salmon will swim over 100 miles to reach the ocean. The salmon will live in saltwater for about 2-4 years. There they will eat small fish and invertebrates.
When it is time for them to spawn, they will migrate back upriver to the exact freshwater stream of origin. Usually this is in the late spring and summer. Females “dig” a hole with her tail in the gravel and deposit her eggs. The males will fertilize the eggs by releasing the sperm over the eggs. Female Salmon cover the eggs and they will hatch next spring.
The Pacific salmon do not return to the sea but they will die after spawning. Although this seems to make a mess of the rivers with rotting fish, the fish bodies will nourish the microorganism and bottom feeders. This cycle keeps the ecology of the Seward Peninsula healthy.