The days are getting darker here in Fairbanks, Alaska and it is that darkness which has turned my thoughts to the Northern Lights. I can recollect the nights I spent out last winter like a hazy dream. However, reviewing old blog entries brings back the sensation and awe of each experience of dancing greens, yellows, reds, and blues of the aurora which highlighted many nights.
The video above is a compilation of my shooting from the 2013 – 2014 season. I am extraordinarily blessed to witness what I did, and watching this video stirs up many emotions (all of them good, of course). I must say the musical back-drop provided by Enya is profound to me. I hope you will find this footage of one of Nature’s Great Marvels as enjoyable and inspiring as I do.
Last winter presented a steep learning curve for viewing and photographing the aurora. However, this season will bring further improvements to my shooting experience by designing a better insulation system for my camera, and obtaining a lens speed booster which increases the f-stop of the lens and increases its field of view. What more could an Aurora photographer want!
For individual aurora photos and videos you can always visit the main Aurora Page or the posts (links below). Although the “aurora season” means long, dark days too, I cannot say that I am not looking forward to it!
Fairbanksians, Alaskans, and berry fanatics everywhere be advised : IT’S BERRY SEASON! 🙂 So, find your favorite spot, and start picking!
Kassie and I headed out to my favorite berry barrens outside of town today. With a cool, wet summer, we expected to find lots of green berries, but were excited to find lots of ripe blueberries! The first wave of blues have just come into season, and there’s a great crop of green berries in the chamber, ripening up behind them.
I will admit I lacked a bit of judgement on the trip. I wanted to take Kassie down to my “top secret” spot. It’s my little gem of local knowledge that I found the last autumn while out harvesting. However, the hike to the bottom brings you down a very steep grade, through an alder thicket that resists your ever move, and across uneven terrain full of pot-holes. The whole bushwhack lasts for about .6 miles. When we arrived, the berries were plentiful, but green. That meant straight back uphill! The bugs on the way back lived up to the Alaskan standard of a thick, buzzing cloud. I could wipe 10 or 15 from a shoulder at a time. On the way back I tried to skirt the alder thicket which only added more distance to the grueling hike; the moss which carpets the hillside eats step up like you are wearing moon boots. Fortunately, she didn’t beat me up when we were back at the top – I wouldn’t have blamed her.
There were many other things to marvel and look at during the day. We found only one cloud berry, but many, many plants. For some reason they are not producing fruit this year. Also, the low-bush cranberries do not seem to be yielding many berries. I did find my first high-bush cranberries of the year. I didn’t know they could be more tart than when you eat them in the fall, but the ones I tried had the same effect in my mouth as chewing cotton. Dry, dry, dry! In the barrens, patches of red and white club mosses colored the ground. Fireweed grew in small stalks and patches.
By the end of the day we could have been more efficient (grueling hike taking up most of the time), but we still managed to pick almost a half gallon of ripe, delicious berries. Pies, muffins, and pancakes to come!
This post follows Kassie and my pelagic bird trip to Seward. For our trip back to Fairbanks, we decided to bird the Denali Highway which extends 135 miles to connect Cantwell to Paxson. The unpaved road curves south of the Denali Range surrounding it with incredible mountains. The shrubby, tundra habitat is prime real estate for several arctic bird species rare to most other areas of the state.
During our 12 hours on the Denali Highway we observed behavior of many exciting birds. We also saw a few moose and heard from one other traveler of a wolf only a couple miles down the road. The road is a transect through one of the very remote areas of interior Alaska. The end of our drive was punctuated by full rainbows arching over the mountains. As the sun and the rain played across the landscape we observed lasting rainbows which waxed and waned. The birding for the day was incredible; each stop was filled with singing birds. The cutest moment of the day was a spruce grouse poult which jumped up along the road, and fluttered into a tree. After trying to hide in its branches, the little poult finally listened to its mother, who cooed and bobbed her tail until the young chick became brave enough to fly to her and its siblings. Along the way we encountered Arctic Warblers which are North America’s only “old world” warbler. Other populations of this warbler breed in Eurasia. We also were privileged to see many of the “Denali Highway Specials” including Gray-cheeked Thrush, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Arctic Tern. Incredibly, Arctic Terns migrate 25,000 miles per year, earning them the longest migration of any bird award!
This video captures in timelapse the beauty of the rainbows, the cuteness of the polt, the joy of singing warblers and the scenery of the Denali Highway. I hope you enjoy!
This list has most of the species that we observed for the day. Of course there’s PLENTY of birding to do between each of the miles listed, but these are the spots we stopped at.
Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Gray Jay, Wilson’s Snipe, Unknown Duck
Arctic Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow
Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Unk. Raptor, Spruce Grouse and Polts, Raven
There are many “Alaskas”. The large state is renowned for its dry, cold interior and also for its coastal regions. The coast itself varies from tundra to temperate rainforest and is full of a birds and marine mammals. In the Kenai Penninsula, large tide water glaciers add icebergs to the water which are used by pupping harbor seal mothers for rest. The region is known for its rising peaks which jut from the ocean as snow-capped mountains.
On the sunny, late June day, that we departed Seward harbor the sun shone on islands and mountains around us. In every direction, gulls and black-legged kittiwakes wheeled and dove over the open ocean.Our 9-hour tour through Major Marine Tours to the Northwestern Glacier and Chiswell Islands had just begun. Once in the open water past the Kenai Peninsula your feet are floating above the largest stretch of open ocean in the world – stretching thousands of miles to Antarctica. Kassie and I had birds on the brain and our small 30 passenger ship (in comparison to some of the 200 passenger ships) was perfect for the trip we were hoping to have. The waters of the Kenai Peninsula is home to many sea (also called pelagic) birds. These birds are remarkable in that the majority of them only come to land to nest, all other times- including the brutally cold winters- are spent at sea on the water. The bodies of many pelagic birds are so tuned to sea-life that they often look awkward on the land. However, their graceful, powerful ability to swim and catch fish makes up for their awkwardness.
I’ll just spoil the conclusion, by saying we had an incredible day on the water! This video highlights some of the power of calving glaciers, the beauty of sea-birds and the behaviors of marine mammals.
Birds of the Chiswell Islands
The vertical cliffs Chiswell Islands are perfect for nesting sea birds. Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins burrow into the cracks to escape predating gulls. Parents are mated for life and separate during the winter, however find each other for every breeding season. Each of the puffin species found around the Kenai coast have extraordinary features. Horned puffins have a dark check-mark patch through through their eye which makes them look as though they have applied makeup to preform at a circus. Part of this check-mark is a horned protrusion comes off each eye like a fancy eyelash. Tufted puffins, the largest of the three puffin species, have large golden ‘eyebrows’ which waggle back and forth when they turn their head. Puffins are recognized by their large bills which they use to catch fish. Both of the pacific puffin species only have orange and cream colored bills, where the Atlantic Puffin’s bill includes blue and red. Puffins can dive up 200 feet beneath the ocean’s surface and they can hold their breath for a minute or two. However Puffins typically only need to stay under for 20 to 30 seconds at a time to catch the small fish that compose their diet.
Pelagic birds are often found in large breeding colonies located on islands. For this reason they are referred to as ‘colonial nesting birds.’ These islands provide refuge from land-based predators and the large numbers of birds act as sentries, mobbing any intruder which gets too close. Our Captain informed us that once they had spotted a Black Bear on an island that was a mile from shore. It feed on bird eggs for a couple weeks then swam back to shore. It was a very rare occurrence but it is easy to see how one large predator can decimate the nesting success rates on the island.
Our bird list added many ‘lifers’ to our life-lists (along with a couple we had already seen) and many photographs to my hard drive. Our list for the day was comprised of Bald Eagles, Rhinoceros Auklets, Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Parakeet Auklets, Pigeon Guillemonts, Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant, Marbled Murrelet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, and a possible Ancient Murrelet.
Mammals of the Chiswell Islands
There several species of whales and porpoises in the rich waters of the many estuaries of the Kenai. Sea Otters feed on clams, urchins, and other invertebrates that tend to feed on kelp. The Sea Otter is a keystone species that helps to protect the kelp beds providing shelter for a plethora of other sea creatures. Doll Porpoises, Humpback Whales, Fin Whales and Orcas cruise through the waters. The Fin Whales were a rare occurrence for the tour, our guides said they maybe see a Fin Whale 20 times a summer. Our tour saw a very rare pod of at least 6 Fin Whales surfacing together, which meant they were most likely rounding up bait fish instead of filter-feeding. On the rocks, 1 ton Stellar Sea Lion males watch over their harem of females, and the ice flows at glacier heads provide rest for harbor seal mothers and their pups. We saw several pods of Doll Porpoises throughout the day, on the way back to the harbor we had a small pod that decided to race in our wake.
One of the highlights of the trip was observing a “lunge feeding” humpback whale with her calf. Lunge feeding is when a whale dives far below a school of food (krill or small fish). Then, rushing to the surface with their mouth open the burst through to the open air swallowing anything in their mouth!
Glaciers of the Kenai
The Harding Ice Field is the largest ice field in the United States and is the source of dozens of glaciers. Some of the glaciers reach all the way down to the ocean and are classified as ‘tide water’ glaciers. These glaciers are constantly being eroded by the oceans daily movements and some of the glaciers have receded miles since the 1800’s when the Russians were exploring the coasts. The receding glaciers open up habitat for mammals and birds. The Northwestern Glacier that we sat in front of stretched for a half mile across the blue fjord, but you would never guess its size by just looking at it!
One can get a true sense of power of the tide-water glaciers by watching them ‘calf’. From time-to-time sheets of ice would break away from the exposed glacier face and cascade into the ocean. Even though our boat was positioned 1/4 of a mile away the rush of sound from the huge chunks of ice sounded like a jet engine rumbling in the not to far-off distance.
If you’ve made it this far I’d like to put in a quick pitch (unsolicited) for the Major Marine Tour company. Their boat the Viewfinder was piloted by a great captain and the tour guide on board was great with kids and had all the answers. The small size of the boat and number of passengers was perfect for us. They were more than happy to concentrate on birds when we told them what we were after. It was an extraordinary day.
Secondly, I would like to put in another unsolicited pitch for the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. Their exhibits are truly top-notch, and the chance to experience the pelagic sea-birds up close was wonderful. On top of that, proceeds go towards outreach and science. I am not normally a “zoo type” person, but everything I saw there impressed me to no end!