Meandering around Northern Idaho : Kootenai NWR and Copper Creek Falls

Ahoy! I’ve taken a break from the Alaskan weather and spring to visit my family in Northern Idaho and Minnesota. Northern Idaho is a gorgeous region, and Lake Pend Orielle provides a centerpiece for the surrounding mountains (pictures were taken from the top of Scotchman’s Peak during my visit last summer). During my time there I got to spend some great time with brother, sister-in-law, and nephew whom I had not seen since Christmas.

On a side note, this post falls on the 1 year anniversary of this blog. Thanks all for your support, I’ve really enjoyed writing it and photographing for it, but it wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t read it. Just in case you are curious, my first post details a dopey porcupine who tried to escape up a short tree :). Thanks all!

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge

A panorama from the auto-road at Kootenai NWR. Ponds, mountains, and ducks. A beautiful spot that is full of life!
A panorama from the auto-road at Kootenai NWR. Ponds, mountains, and ducks. A beautiful spot that is full of life!

One of the great wildlife retreats in the area is Kootenai National Wildlife refuge. Although much of the refuge is not accessible to people, the auto-road brings you back through ponds were you can get great looks at many, many varieties of waterfowl and other birds. I think on this day we saw over 12 species of ducks and a good smattering of other passerines. A first-of-year meadowlark was trilling loudly and several species of warblers bounced through the shrubs. One of the stark and beautiful ducks is the cinnamon teal. This bird’s red head and eye sure make it stand out!

Cinnamon Teal at Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge
Cinnamon Teal at Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge

Wooducks are notoriously elusive and shy. As soon as a camera appears they swim or fly away quickly. However, they are almost undoubtedly one of the most stunning North American ducks. Some may match them, but pretty hard to beat!

Wooduck at Kootenai NWR. These birds are ellusive and camera shy!
Wooduck at Kootenai NWR. These birds are ellusive and camera shy!

There were other winged and flowered wonders during our time at Kootenai NWR. The lilacs were just blooming and this western tiger swallowtail made sure to lick up as much as it could from them. It fluttered back and forth looking for whatever it is that butterflies look for. I was just reading that the Koyukon people of Alaska call butterflies nidinlibidza which means “it flutters here and there”. A fitting name and description!

This tiger swallowtail was feeding on the first lilacs of the year. They are stunning and beautiful!
This tiger swallowtail was feeding on the first lilacs of the year. They are stunning and beautiful!

We also stumbled on these beautiful daffodils. I think these daffodils must be a remnant of homesteading in the region – I doubt biologists are planting them for waterfowl habitat!

I'm not sure where these daffodils at Kootenai NWR came from. Certainly there is a homesteading past there, so perhaps a remnant from that?
I’m not sure where these daffodils at Kootenai NWR came from. Certainly there is a homesteading past there, so perhaps a remnant from that?

During my whole time in Idaho I really enjoyed getting to see my nephew, Dane. He’s a little better than 2 now and is a box full of energy and entertainment. He is (as all little boys are) very curious about all that’s around him. I am sure his parents will continue to raise him outdoors. It was great to see the ‘next generation’ out in nature! I’ll put in my pitch and say if you have a chance to bring a kid outside you should make that a priority!

My nephew, Dane, looks out over the wetlands of Kootenai NWR. Although he wasn't interested in all of the birds, he loved seeing the baby geese!
My nephew looks out over the wetlands of Kootenai NWR. Although he wasn’t interested in all of the birds, he loved seeing the baby geese!

The deer have just finished shedding their coats, and some deer are futher into their summer coats than others. I saw a spectrum of coat quality from smooth coated to scrubby deer, which makes you wonder why some are later than others.  We also observed two moose at Kootenai, which was nice! I doubt the moose are enjoying the warm temperatures. Moose in Idaho exist at temperatures which are extreme to them, and do not extend much further south.

The deer have not quite finished shedding their coats look pretty scraggly yet. This one's face says, "HEY!, what are you looking at?" :P
The deer have not quite finished shedding their coats look pretty scraggly yet. This one’s face says, “HEY!, what are you looking at?” 😛
This moth was along the trail to Myrtle Falls at Kootenai NWR. I'm not sure why it was perched so still at the end this stick. The brown and tan banding sure is pretty when you get close to it!
This moth was along the trail to Myrtle Falls at Kootenai NWR. I’m not sure why it was perched so still at the end this stick. The brown and tan banding sure is pretty when you get close to it!

 Copper Creek Falls

Copper Creek Falls, especially in the rush of the spring melt, is one of the most stunning waterfalls I have seen. The drop is uninterrupted and pluges 160 feet to the bottom. However, with some of the smaller rapids, I think the total drop in the falls is 225 feet! A strong, cool, and moist microclimate around the falls is filled with glistening green moss. Further downstream we observed a varied thrush, which are often found in riparian areas.

Copper Creek Falls drops 160 feet to the bottom. It is an incredible rush of water!
Copper Creek Falls drops 160 feet to the bottom. It is an incredible rush of water!
All of us posing in from of Copper Creek Falls before rushing away from the cold mist fall on us :)
All of us posing in from of Copper Creek Falls before rushing away from the cold mist fall on us 🙂

I will leave you with a peaceful morning in the Sandpoint Region. The morning fog over the lake was changing and undulating rapidly. How fog forms is fascinating to me! I have no included any music in this timelapse (which documents about 30 minutes of time), but imagine birds chirping and watching deer feed in the field hundreds of feet below you 🙂

Fort Yukon, Alaska : Celebrating Spring!

Spring is in the air! In Fairbanks the trees are leafing out and the days are long and warm. Even now there are only several hours each day that are dark. 150 miles north of here, Fort Yukon is just starting to wake up for the season. I got to spend some time up there (it was much different than the last time I was here) and I made it a point find some of the things which represent spring. All around birds, plants, and humans are celebrating the season.

As an avid birder I am interested  in the new migrants which arrive in the spring. The Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge was set up to harbor waterfowl; they flock there by the 10’s of thousands. The small ponds dotting the landscape are ideal for brooding and raising chicks. My waterfowl list for the trip included a dozen species.  Passerines like yellow-rumped warblers and dark-eyed juncos were abundant. These two  species (e.g. yellow-rumps and juncos) are some of the first to show up for spring, and are a great indicator the season is here for good!

A canvasback salutes the sun and stretches its wings near Fort Yukon
A canvasback salutes the sun and stretches its wings near Fort Yukon
A pintail duck takes flight around Fort Yukon. AK
A pintail duck takes flight around Fort Yukon. AK
A yellow rumped warbler around Fort Yukon, AK
A yellow rumped warbler around Fort Yukon, AK
Dark-eyed Junco around Fort Yukon, AK
Dark-eyed Junco around Fort Yukon, AK

Waterfowl are pursued by Subsistence Hunters as they migrate north. Each spring it provides a new source of meat (in a region that depends on 85% of its meat from the wild) to replenish stores until the salmon arrive in July. In particular white-fronted geese, canada geese, and snow geese are shot. When I was touring around the village I found a place where the birds were plucked. An unusual (for the region) strong north wind blew the features onto the trees and ground. It looked like a massive and violent pillow fight had been staged there. I got to share in the bounty of goose soup, which was delicious!

A strong north wind blew up these goose feathers from the beach where they were plucked. During the spring migration, Subsistence users taken many types of waterfowl.
A strong north wind blew up these goose feathers from the beach where they were plucked. During the spring migration, Subsistence users taken many types of waterfowl.
The results of subsistence users. In the spring time geese are actively hunted, I got to share in the bounty with some delicious goose soup!
The results of subsistence users. In the spring time geese are actively hunted, I got to share in the bounty with some delicious goose soup!

The breakup for the Yukon River is a celebrated event by all who live on it and depend on it. River travel is fast, and gives residents access to some resources which have been unavailable since the previous fall. Although the Yukon has been clear for over a week large chunks of ice on the banks demonstrate the power it took to push them there and are a testament to how thick/resilient the ice can be! Over 8 feet of ice in some regions.

The Yukon River broke up in early May, but huge slabs of ice still cover the shore making boat access difficult in some areas.
The Yukon River broke up in early May, but huge slabs of ice still cover the shore making boat access difficult in some areas.
The power of the Yukon River pushed these ice chunks onto shore where they are still slowly melting away and feeding the river.
The power of the Yukon River pushed these ice chunks onto shore where they are still slowly melting away and feeding the river.

The leaves have not appeared on the trees yet, but spring pasque flowers, and willows have started to bloom. The bright yellow stems of the willows caught my eyes and were at stark contrast with the surrounding gray bark of the aspens. Especially eye catching was the contrast of the yellow stems and the blue sky! The base of the willows were dirty and marred where river water had washed over them just a few days earlier.

These yellow willows are a beautiful contrast against that deep blue sky!
These yellow willows are a beautiful contrast against that deep blue sky!

Yellow Willows

A newly bloomed pasque flower in the sunlight in Fort Yukon, AK
A newly bloomed pasque flower in the sunlight in Fort Yukon, AK
Pasque Flowers are the first flower to bloom in Fort Yukon, AK. Here they have just emerged on 05/15/14
Pasque Flowers are the first flower to bloom in Fort Yukon, AK. Here they have just emerged on 05/15/14

Spring is certainly in the air in Fort Yukon. Overall, it’s one of the ‘last’ springs to arrive in North America. I leave you with a still, spring sunset in one of the river braids of the Yukon. I hope you are having a great spring!

The sunset on a beautiful evening in Fort Yukon. It will not be long before the sun doesn't set at all!
The sunset on a beautiful evening in Fort Yukon. It will not be long before the sun doesn’t set at all!

The Three Bears

Yesterday I got a chance to observe some mothering and sibling rivalry. Bears in the Anchorage area have emerged, and mothers with new cubs are welcoming in the warm temps. Jonathan is filming bear behavior in the region for the BBC and needed a second man for that ‘just in case’ scenario that a bear became aggressive. Incredibly, Jonathan was able to find this sow bear and her two new cubs. Although you’ll see tags in the ears of this female, she has no tracking device – it was very lucky to find where she called home!

As we came up to the tree area it was very important that Mom knew we were there. We talked and walked up to the site, pausing to ensure she had seen us. Once we were settled in she paid little attention to us.

Momma bear hanging close to home and watching the frolicking cubs.
Momma bear hanging close to home and watching the frolicking cubs.

There was lots of opportunity to shoot video of some very classic and cute bear behavior. Check it out! 🙂

The cubs were a constant source of entertainment. The would scramble along logs and tumble off them, fight each other in miniature mock battles, and pester their mother who would sometimes pester them back. The bond between the bear cubs and the mother was evident – there certainly is some truth to that old adage!

The two cubs were always wresting with each other, you'll see this playful see in the video in this post :)
The two cubs were always wresting with each other, you’ll see this playful see in the video in this post 🙂
Two cubs playing 'cub scouts' up the tree trunk.
Two cubs playing ‘cub scouts’ up the tree trunk.
The limb to the left of this cub was their favorite part. They would climb up to it, rest for a bit, and then shimmy back down the tree.
The limb to the left of this cub was their favorite part. They would climb up to it, rest for a bit, and then shimmy back down the tree.
A cute shot of the cubs. One trying out tree bark and the other checking me out.
A cute shot of the cubs. One trying out tree bark and the other checking me out.
This cub looks deep in thought... wishing he was a bird?
This cub looks deep in thought… wishing he was a bird?

 

Through all of the cuteness there was  still a stark reminder of the fragility of life as a small bear cub. These two were meant to have one more sibling. One cub was laying dead outside of the den, and Jonathan had seen it earlier. We experienced the mother eating the dead cub. I can assume this is for two reasons, the first is that she can use the protein. At this time the mother cannot leave the den and feeds little. Second, the rotting body may attract predators or another bear and put her surviving cubs at risk. The mother ate the cub by tearing small chunks of flesh, even though it seems she could have swallowed it in one bite.

We experienced the mother bear eating the remains of her deceased third cub.
We experienced the mother bear eating the remains of her deceased third cub.

Overall I do not know if I could experience more joy in watching wildlife. Watching these two cubs enjoy the spring weather, and the tenderness of the mother was endearing. I feel privileged to have experienced it!

Momma bear and a cub touch noses.
Momma bear and a cub touch noses.

Chugach Mountains : A Rainbow Peak ‘Death March’

This last week I have been attending the North American Moose conference in Anchorage. The opportunity has been top notch, and has really offered me a great to chance to meet area biologists as well as present/develop my thesis ideas. At this time I am developing my research proposal and defend the proposal 1 week from today. These things come up fast!

One of the venues for the conference were a selection of field trips. I elected for a hike in the Chugach Mountains State Park. There were two hikes in the Chugach (pronounced “choo-gatch”). The one which intrigued me was jokingly described as a “death march” up Rainbow Peak. This peak climbs 3500 feet to the summit overlooking Turnagain Fjord. It lies south of Anchorage, but north of Girdwood. For more information check out the peak profile http://www.summitpost.org/rainbow-peak/618183. In some parts of it the death march is an apt description. The trail up forces you to crawl in many locations due to slope, and loose scree fields (broken rock) absorb your steps on the way up and cause small landslides on the way down. It’s a challenging but rewarding hike.

The Rainbow Peak is one of the first peaks to thaw out after winter and on this day we were nearing leaf-up. The buds of the aspens were swelling quickly, fueled by up to 60 degree temps! On the way up we did get to see some great wildlife. Dall sheep were feeding on the hillsides, and a large group of about 10 ewes and young rams milled ab. They should be dropping lambs any day now. We saw one bull moose feeding and overhead two golden eagles circled the peak. I think they are waiting for new lambs – a potentially easy meal! The most colorful bird of the day was this Stellar’s Jay. My first encounter of them was in California last summer, but this was my first chance to get a good photo. They’re a beautiful and curious bird!

Stellar's Jay along the path to the Rainbow Peak Summit
Stellar’s Jay along the path to the Rainbow Peak Summit

I was the only person who actually completely summited the mountain. There were still some small snow fields at the top that kept some of the less adventurous from going the last 1/5 mile. My philosophy on mountains is you are THAT close you have to finish it! I had to take this selfie of laying out on the peak.

I was the only person to brave a small snow field to completely reach the summit. I propped my camera and un-propped by body to get this shot looking over the Fjord.
I was the only person to brave a small snow field to completely reach the summit. I propped my camera and un-propped by body to get this shot looking over the Fjord.

The views around were stunning. This panorama looks towards Girdwood (left) and Anchorage (right). On the opposite shore is the town of Hope.

A panorama from Rainbow Peak between Anchorage and Alaska. The peak climbs to about 3500 feet and overlooks the Turnagain Arm Fjord.
A panorama from Rainbow Peak between Anchorage and Alaska. The peak climbs to about 3500 feet and overlooks the Turnagain Arm Fjord.
I was hiking with a group of fellow biologists. You're always surrounded by scenery!
I was hiking with a group of fellow biologists. You’re always surrounded by scenery!

The Chuagach Mountains have many opportunities that I hope to take advantage of in the future!