Geese and swans are some of the largest birds you will find in Alaska!
Assuming you’re near a large body of water, it shouldn’t be too hard to find at least a few different species. They are fairly common in most lakes, estuaries, wetlands, lagoons, bays, or anywhere else they can find food.
Today, you will learn about 8 types of swans and geese that live in Alaska!
For each species, I provide some fun facts along with how to identify them by sight OR sound. Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which of these birds live near you!
#1. Canada Goose
- Branta canadensis
- Large goose with a long black neck and a distinctive white cheek patch.
- Brown body with a pale white chest and underparts.
- Black feet and legs.
Canada Geese are extremely common in Alaska.
I’m sure you probably recognize these birds, as they are very comfortable living around people and human development. Look for them wherever there are grasses or grains to eat, such as lawns, parks, farm fields, and golf courses.
Canada Goose Range Map
In fact, these geese are so abundant that many people consider them pests for the amount of waste they produce! If you have a manicured lawn maintained to the water’s edge, you have an open invitation for these birds to visit.
The Canada Goose is also easy to identify while flying overhead. If you see a flock of large birds in a V-formation, it’s most likely them. Flying this way helps conserve energy, and different birds take turns leading the way.
Canada Geese make a wide variety of loud honks and cackles. They have even hissed at me for accidentally approaching a nest too closely. Listen below!
If you’re interested, you may be able to see a Canada Goose at my bird-feeding station right now! I have a LIVE high-definition camera watching my feeders 24/7. 🙂 Look for them on the ground eating corn.
#2. Snow Goose
- Anser caerulescens
- Most of these birds are all white with black tail feathers. But some individuals display a “blue morph,” whose heads are still white but bodies are sooty gray.
- Pink legs.
- Pink bill, which has a black patch on each side.
During the breeding season, Snow Geese spend their time in the continent’s northernmost areas, away from human civilization. You will only see this goose in Alaska when they migrate south in fall and winter.
Snow Goose Range Map
Look for these birds in large fields and bodies of water. It’s usually not hard to find them if they are around, as they are almost always seen in huge flocks accompanied by a lot of honking!
In fact, one of the most impressive things you will watch today is the video below, which shows an ENORMOUS flock of Snow Geese. It’s hard to fathom how many birds are traveling together!
As you can probably hear from the video above, Snow Geese are one of the noisiest waterfowl you will encounter in Alaska. Their nasally, one-syllable honk can be heard at any time of day or night, at any time of the year!
And lastly, here is a fun fact that my kids loved to learn. Snow Geese are prolific at pooping, and they defecate between 6 – 15 times per hour. 🙂
#3. Cackling Goose
- Branta hutchinsii
At first glance, the Cackling Goose looks identical to a Canada Goose! In fact, the plumage is almost exactly the same, and these two birds used to be classified as the same species.
But upon further investigation, you will find that the Cackling Goose is smaller, has a stubbier bill, shorter necks (most apparent when in flight), and a more rounded head.
Cackling Goose Range Map
Cackling Geese can be found breeding in small lakes and marshes in the arctic tundra. During migration and in winter, they are most commonly seen in agricultural fields during the day. At night, they return to large lakes or wetlands to roost.
Another way that this species can be identified from Canada Geese is by sound. Listen for the higher-pitched honking of the Cackling Goose.
#4. Greater White-fronted Goose
- Anser albifrons
- Mostly brown, with black barring on their belly and a white undertail.
- Pink-orange bill with a white patch of feathers at the base.
- Orange legs.
These birds breed in the arctic tundra but then migrate south for winter. Look for these geese in Alaska in large flocks in wetlands, lakes, and farm fields.
Greater White-fronted Goose Range Map
Greater White-fronted Geese have INCREDIBLY strong family bonds. Mated pairs migrate with each other and stay together for many years. Their offspring even stick around for longer than most other species, and it’s not unusual to see the young with their parents through the next breeding season.
Their flight call is relatively easy to identify. Listen for a two to three-syllable sound that resembles laughing.
- Branta bernicla
- Black chest, head, and bill. Mostly brown body with white on the sides and underneath.
- A small and compact goose with a short bill.
- Distinctive white patch on the side of the neck.
Like many other goose species, Brants nest in the Arctic in wetlands. Once the weather turns cold, they migrate south.
These geese can be seen in Alaska in coastal areas, where they can find aquatic vegetation to eat in sheltered bays, estuaries, and lagoons. Brants are strictly vegetarian, with eelgrass and large algae playing a large part of their diet.
Brant Range Map
While they fly overhead, listen for a “crrronk” call, which sounds guttural and is similar to a Sandhill Crane.
#6. Tundra Swan
- Cygnus columbianus
- Large, entirely white bird with a long white neck.
- Entirely black bill.
- To identify correctly, look for a yellow patch on their black facial skin below the eye.
- Smaller than Trumpeter Swans.
You will not see Tundra Swans in Alaska during summer, as they spend the breeding season in the remote Arctic. Look for them in winter and migration, where they are visitors to many large bodies of water. They also visit farm fields in large flocks, looking for food.
Tundra Swans form long-term, dedicated relationships. Typically, by the time they are 2 or 3, they have found a partner. Once that happens, these two birds will breed, feed, roost, and travel together year-round.
The most common sound these birds make is a “hoo-ho-hoo” bugle, with the second syllable being emphasized. (Listen below)
Another typical sound associated with Tundra Swans is the whistling of their wings. In fact, Lewis and Clark initially called them “whistling swans” when they first encountered them, and many people still use this name today.
#7. Trumpeter Swan
- Cygnus buccinator
- A giant, white bird with a long neck.
- Black bill and black facial skin at the base of the bill. It lacks the yellow that appears on the Tundra Swan.
- Black legs.
Trumpeter Swans are the largest bird native to Alaska!
They have a wingspan of almost 6 feet (1.8 m) and weigh around 25 pounds (11.3 kg), which is about twice the amount of a Tundra Swan. They are so big that about 100 yards (91 m) of open water is needed for them to get enough speed to take off!
Trumpeter Swans were once endangered due to overhunting, but luckily, their population has recovered and is increasing.
Unlike Tundra Swans, this species stays in Alaska in summer to nest and breed. Look for them near ponds, lakes, rivers, and marshes, and the farther from people, the better!
These large birds typically nest on an existing structure surrounded by water, such as beaver dams, muskrat dens, small islands, floating masses of vegetation, and artificial platforms. Trumpeter Swans are very sensitive when breeding and will commonly abandon their nest sites and babies due to human disturbance.
Deep, loud trumpets can be heard when they are alarmed or defending their territory, which is two syllables with the second one emphasized (“oh-OH“).
#8. Emperor Goose
- Anser canagicus
- A small, stocky goose with a dark body.
- Short pink bill and a white head with a black throat.
- Orange legs.
The Emperor Goose is a small goose mostly found on the coasts of Alaska. But they are also known to show up randomly in California, Oregon, and Washington.
Look for them in freshwater pools, inland lakes, and coastal lagoons. These birds have been nicknamed the “beach goose” because of their affinity for coastal environments.
Emperor Goose Range Map
These geese fly lower than other species and are often seen flying just off the ground. If you ever see them in flight, listen for their loud, musical “kla-ha, kla-ha, kla-ha” call, which sounds more nasally than other geese species.
Do you want to learn about MORE birds in Alaska?
Check out these ID Guides. Each one is specific to birds found here!
Which of these swans and geese have you seen in Alaska?
Leave a comment below!
The range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!