Winged Beauty in the Birches

This recycled bird feeder is made from palates and window-screen for the base. The post is a 4x4 found along the highway, and the joists for the roof are from a wooden futon frame found at the dump. The roof is the remainder of the palate. It's wonderful - and the birds love it!
This recycled bird feeder is made from palates and window-screen for the base. The post is a 4×4 found along the highway, and the joists for the roof are from a wooden futon frame found at the dump. The roof is the remainder of the palate. It’s wonderful – and the birds love it!

It seems I have inherited a family legacy. Why? Well, outside of my window as I type this a red squirrel, whose fat rolls are bulged to the size of small golf balls under its elbows, is eating my birdseed and I am choosing to do nothing about it. Many chipmunks and squirrels were spared from my arrows and bullets because they were decreed ‘off-limits’ by my dad although they were destroyers of gardens and wasters of seeds. Bird feeder construction attests to the cumulative frustration of birders everywhere watching their money being vacuumed up by greedy rodents. Undoubtedly, if I were to figure out how many pounds of bird seed the family of squirrels living in my brush pile were responsible for chomping down at my buffet line, I would find that my 40 pound bags would last indefinitely longer. In the back of my mind, I know the squirrels are any easy target for my stew pot, but I never seriously consider harvesting them around the house because the feeder is a sacred place. Besides, it hardly seems sporting to shoot a happy squirrel on top of his seed supply.

A winged candidate for dinner has also taken up residence under the feeder and watches me from the surrounding birches or from the hoops of my fallow garden each day that I walk by. Like the mind of the Wiley Coyote, that sharp-tailed grouse has transformed into drumstick in front of my eyes several times. But, seeing as I have not even thrown a rock at it, it has become fairly accepting of pedestrian traffic. I think anyone that has a bird feeder can give nod to the benefit of these wildlife for watching far outweigh their worth in their pan.

My feeder has been a great source of entertainment, and has also given me insight into natural bird foraging behavior. The birds interact with the Alaskan Birch and my feeder. During the last couple of days I have come to appreciate the importance of the catkins of the Alaska Birch as a food source. Both the pine grosbeaks and black-capped chickadees have been taking mouthfuls of them. Seems like pretty meager forage to me!

A pine grosbeak takes a mouthful of of Alaskan Birch catkins. It seems to be a very important forage for them.
A pine grosbeak takes a mouthful of of Alaskan Birch catkins. It seems to be a very important forage for them.
A pine grosbeak male shows off his beauty in the birches.
A pine grosbeak male shows off his beauty in the birches.
The rusty-orange of the female pine grosbeak makes them very easy to discern from the males. A very beautiful bird!
The rusty-orange of the female pine grosbeak makes them very easy to discern from the males. A very beautiful bird!
A pine grosbeak perches amongst it dinner - Alaska Birch catkins.
A pine grosbeak perches among it dinner – Alaska Birch catkins.
One of the best-known feeder birds there is rarely less than 12 chickadees cracking seeds in the birches around the feeder. They are a constant source of entertainment.
One of the best-known feeder birds there is rarely less than 12 chickadees cracking seeds in the birches around the feeder. They are a constant source of entertainment. However, the black-caps also take large mouthfuls of catkin seeds for forage.

Spending time watching wildlife in your backyard is rewarding! Observing this sharp-tailed grouse nearly every day for the last two weeks has been a privilege, and I’ve learned a lot. For instance, they do not move far, and this one roosts in the same trees near the house every night. During the day it spends most of the time on the ground and does not move farther than about 30 yards. Although sharp-tailed grouse are not traditionally common in the Fairbanks region, they seem well adapted to the cold and can puff their bodies up to large sizes much like chickadees, jays, and other boreal species.

This sharp-tailed grouse was photographed the day before Thanksgiving bursting from its resting spot.
This sharp-tailed grouse was photographed the day before Thanksgiving bursting from its resting spot near the Sustainable Village at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
A BIIIIIGGGG stretch in the morning for this sharp-tailed grouse.
A BIIIIIGGGG stretch in the morning for this sharp-tailed grouse.
This 'sharpie' is making sure it stays warm by puffing up in the cold temps.
This ‘sharpie’ is making sure it stays warm by puffing up in the cold temps.

I will leave you with a ‘feeder first’ which occurred just two days ago. A northern shrike came and perched outside of my window. It was near dark, but the chickadees started squawking and kept their distance from the carnivorous bird. I must say, I was rooting for this bird to whack a chickadee, just to see it first-hand! Shrikes are actually songbirds, and are known as “butcher birds” because they cache food by impaling it on sticks or anything sharp. They eat rodents, small birds, and insects (in the summer).  Ordinarily they are found in habitats with tall trees where they perch and survey the area. It was very rare to see one in a closed spruce and birch habitat, and especially at this time of year in Fairbanks! Due to the time of day (we are down to 5 hours of light), I wasn’t able capture to an incredible shot of the bird, but here’s what I have. It shows very clearly the curved beak for tearing meat, a feature you would normally attribute to being a raptor.

A northern shrike came in to pester my birds the other just yesterday! I must admit, I was rooting for him to take down a chickadee! This was the first time for this species at my feeder. Nicknamed "butcher birds" northern shrikes are actually carnivorous song birds!
A northern shrike came in to pester my birds the other just yesterday! I must admit, I was rooting for him to take down a chickadee! This was the first time for this species at my feeder. Nicknamed “butcher birds” northern shrikes are actually carnivorous song birds!

Leonid Meteors, Aurora Borealis, Angel Rocks, Alaska!

We shut the truck off and stepped out into a cool night and a light breeze which shocked the face. My friend Ross and I were after auroras, and we planned to summit Angel Rocks in the Chena Recreation Area to spend the night and watch it. The sun was low in the sky as we started up the 1.6 miles to the summit of Angel Rocks. By the time we had reached the top of the ~1000 foot climb, the breeze funneling up the canyon below had stopped, and the sun melted into the horizon leaving a blue and gold light which lingered for hours. With short days in Fairbanks, it was hard to forget it was only about 5:30! There was a lot of night to go.

I was delighted to find a cave at the top of Angel Rocks. It was two ended and had large crevasses in the ceiling to view the stars. In the middle I could stand all the way up, and the larger south facing entrance was almost 8 feet tall. I’m just speculating, but I think this cave was formed as a magma bubble. The geology of the summit was far different than any geology I had seen in the Fairbanks region. In contrast to the normal scree slopes and shale of the region, the exposed rocks were granite and had forms which suggested bubbling magma. The rock outcrop where we stood was very unique!

The cave at the top of angel rocks was amazing! The double entrance was passable and you could easily stand up inside. Here is a picture from out of the cave looking south. You can just see the tail of the milky way.
The cave at the top of angel rocks was amazing! The double entrance was passable and you could easily stand up inside. Here is a picture from out of the cave looking south. You can just see the tail of the milky way.

The Leonids

In a collision of natural phenomenons, the Leonid meteor shower lined up with an incredible aurora display. Each year the Leonid meteor shower peaks around the 17th or 18th of November. Named after Leo, the constellation that they seem to radiate from. The Leonids Meteor Shower is actually small pieces of the comet Tempel-Tuttle which burn up as they enter our atmosphere.  Incredibly, the size of the majority of particles range from grains of sand to pea-size.The largest meteors are often only marble sized pieces of comet. That’s a lot of light from a particle the size of your favorite shooter!! These particles burn up because the air in front of them is compressed and heated which scorches the meteor. That’s way different than I was ever taught (i.e. they burn up because of friction with the air). How fast do they have to be moving to build up that air pressure? The particles can enter the upper atmosphere at 160,000 mph! The Leonids were 24 hours from peak activity, and throughout the night they dazzled us with frequent and long tails.

A leonid meteor streaks through the Milky Way - how cool is that?!
A Leonid meteor streaks through the Milky Way – how cool is that?!

The Aurora

As the sun set the aurora immediately started up. In fact, with an ‘official’ start time of 5:30 PM it was the earliest I have ever seen the aurora appear! It certainly seemed to be a good omen for the night to come.

The aurora had already 'booted up' as the sun set. That's an incredible show of energy!!
The aurora had already ‘booted up’ as the sun set. That’s an incredible show of energy!!

Over the course of the night we enjoyed three bursts of incredible aurora. From 5:30 – 7:00 PM, 9:30 – 11:30 PM and from 5:30 – 6:30 AM. Although sleeping in the cave would have been VERY awesome, the night was so warm that I was content to roll out my sleeping bag under the stars and slumber around midnight. I awoke at 5:30 AM not minutes before an incredible corona dominated the overhead skies (captured in timelapse!). I think my aurora sense was tingling and telling me to wake up!

This capture of the aurora over Angel Rocks, Alaska pretty much says it all. The lone spruce, rock outcrop and rich aurora all make for an amazing shot!
This capture of the aurora over Angel Rocks, Alaska pretty much says it all. The lone spruce, rock outcrop and rich aurora all make for an amazing shot!

For the second night in a row the aurora put on an unforgettable show. I think the aurora are like fingerprints. They may look alike, but none are ever the same! For its immense status in the sky, I had never seen aurora that stayed as intense as this one. At times you could have read a book by it, and all through the night the sky was filled with incredible beauty and auroral ballerinas. In Minnesotan, it was “oofda good!”.

Experiencing the Aurora Borealis in Denali National Park

This last week has been really amazing in regards to the weather in Fairbanks, Alaska. While my Minnesota family and friends hunted whitetails in 20 degree weather, we enjoyed temperatures nearing 30 degrees all week. To boot, it was sunny, you betcha! The Geophysical Institute forecasted high aurora activity starting on Friday night the 14th and extending all the way through Monday! With the warm weather, and aurora forecast it was just a matter of deciding where to go!

Panav, Logan and I arrived at the gates of Denali National Park at 9:30 PM. The winter regulations only allowed us to drive in 3 miles, and from there we packed our gear another 1.5. We located a place where the black spruces were shorter, and the mountains stood tall around us. The heart of Denali Park was absolutely dark, and as far as I know we were the only ones in the park that night! Meteors from the Leonid meteor shower flashed overhead leaving their long trails and thrilling the watchers on earth. This shower peaks on 11/17/2014 – so be sure to check it out if you have some clear skies tonight! Over the mountains, the aurora was already building as our three shutters started popping, and we did not have to wait long for the lights to explode around us. Energy of the northern lights always seems to originate from on horizon, and on this night the jagged horizon in front of us swelled with an intense green light that erupted overhead throwing pinks and greens in racing lines overhead.

The building aurora over Denali had a real treat in store for us! It was almost a year ago that I posted about my first “incredible” (I use quotations because they’re all pretty amazing) aurora, and I tried to explain the corona of the aurora. Officially, it is defined as “a circle of light made by the apparent convergence of the streamers of the aurora borealis” (MW Dictionary). My analogy was to think of single beam of the corona as a pencil, which you balance on your nose and then concentrate on the eraser; the corona is made of hundreds of green, red, and pink ‘pencils’! It is fast moving and pulses with energy. I am happy to say that I’ve captured a corona on timelapse for the first time!

Before leaving you with the the timelapse and images from the night I would like you to know I now have a page on Facebook, come check it out and follow along : www.facebook.com/ianlww. Thanks all!

The Milky Way and Aurora Borealis collided in Denali National Park! What an incredible thing to see!
The Milky Way and Aurora Borealis collided in Denali National Park! What an incredible thing to see!
A huge flare of northern lights dance across the sky in Denali National Park
A huge flare of northern lights dance across the sky in Denali National Park
A small ribbon of pink pulses behind the black spruces and over the mountains
A small ribbon of pink pulses behind the black spruces and over the mountains
An image of the corona 'pencils' flashing overhead!
An image of the corona ‘pencils’ flashing overhead!
The corona often has a focal point where the beams of light originate from. You can see that focal point here.
The corona often has a focal point where the beams of light originate from. You can see that focal point here.

 

 

Red Sky at Night : Aurora Delight!

The incessant baying of sled dogs, a starlit night, and a beautiful red aurora. When I went out to Black Spruce Dog Kennels to capture the aurora I was waiting for the effects an X-flare to hit the earth. Two days before the sun had let loose one of it most powerful class of flares. Even though the flare was not directly headed to earth, the ejected plasma was expected to react with our earth’s magnetic field and cause some auroras! My goal for the night was to tie together two cultural pieces of Alaska – dog mushing and the aurora. Incredibly, the aurora started showing up on my camera at 6:00 PM on my camera along with the moonrise. On an ‘ordinary’ night the aurora will begin at 10PM – the early aurora was a good omen for what was to come!

From a technical standpoint this is one of my favorite auroras I’ve captured. The stars were pin-point sharp and as you’ll see the pan over a dog-sled adds a ton! Shooting over the activity of the dogs was a lot of fun – but I had to leave so they would kennel up. If you have ever been around a group of sled dogs they bark, bay, and howl when strangers are around!

Artistically, the reds are some of the nicest colors I’ve captured. They only appeared for about 25 minutes during the night, but it was stunning! Sitting under the aurora, I thought of the old adage “Red Sky At Night, Sailor’s Delight”, and thus the title of this post was born!

I arrived home at 5:00am and the aurora was still dancing over the Sustainable Village. I snapped a couple of captures for finally calling it a night, which you’ll see below. Overall the aurora was visible for 12 hours due to the x-flare activity!

The timelapse video here captures the reds of a beautiful aurora and a little slice of life at the Black Spruce Dog Kennels.

I guess these dogs were already tired of great aurora displays ;). Shot at Black Spruce Dogsledding
I guess these dogs were already tired of great aurora displays ;). Shot at Black Spruce Dogsledding
The aurora hangs over a staked sled at Black Spruce Dogsledding.
The aurora hangs over a staked sled at Black Spruce Dogsledding.
This image of the was taken at 5:00 when I arrived home at the Sustainable Village.
This image of the was taken at 5:00 when I arrived home at the Sustainable Village.
A curious sled dog checks me out... I wonder what color a dog sees the aurora in??
A curious sled dog checks me out… I wonder what color a dog sees the aurora in??

An Aurora Portrait

Last night I was grinning ear to ear, and as I write this the corners of my lips are still curled into a smile. In September, I wrote about the joy of bringing someone out for their first aurora. Last night I was able to enjoy a whole new facet and spectacular joy of aurora photography by hosting an “Aurora Portraits” program through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Residence Life. When we arrived at our destination 10 miles out of Fairbanks the thin layer clouds had just started to burn off. A full moon lit the landscape around us allowing even the naked eye to see to the horizon line 10’s of miles away. A flash of green in the sky around 10:30 indicated to us that the auroral show was just starting to kick off and from that point on the aurora continued to build. As the green shifted and danced in the sky groups and individuals jumped in front of the camera and we proceeded to make memories. Between drinking hot cocoa and warm cider we laughed and enjoyed a beautiful night out. Last night’s aurora will be memorable for its beauty, and its friendship!

Incredibly, these shots are lit only by the moon. The gallery here is a select few images from the night – if you are getting this post via email be sure to click on the gallery images to enlarge them :). I also captured one shot (without people) that I’m particularly proud of. It is featured below this gallery.

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I am particularly happy with this shot! One of the elements I have been working on is foreground composition when shooting the aurora. I love the snowshoe hare tracks and the spruces of this capture. They are certainly two iconic boreal forest signatures on the landscape!
Spinach Creek Aurora
The aurora and landscape lit by a full moon on 11/08/14 was beautiful!
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Capturing the full moon and an aurora through the spruces. What an incredibly beautiful night!!

An Industrial Aurora Over the University of Alaska Fairbanks

In Fairbanks, even when you can’t get out into the real ‘dark skies’ of Alaska (for instance, last night I had to work :|) you can still enjoy the Aurora. Although I would prefer to shoot the aurora in pure darkness, the effect of moving cars and the moon tracing across the solar panels located near Cold Climate Housing Research Center is actually pretty cool! This footage was shot just down the road from where I live at the UAF Sustainable Village. This footage was shot over the University of Alaska Fairbanks on 11/06 – 11/07/2014. I hope you enjoy!

Photographic Reflection : The Chickadees of Magalloway River, Maine

What does it mean to have a “long day” of fly fishing? The old adage says : a bad day of fishing is better than a good day in the office. Agreed. However, by the end of our sunny, late April day at the Magalloway River of northern Maine, my friend Kevin Shea and I were doubting that any of the trophy 22″ brook trout we were seeking could ever be caught in a river renowned for them. The brookies were not intrigued by our fly fishing techniques of finessing nymphs or stripping streamers, and drift after drift our lines stayed slack. After hours of the torturous work of standing in the water to fish (sensing the irony?), I turned my eyes to a soft spot on the bank and took a seat. The sun shown overhead, and in my memory not a cloud could be seen in the sky. At least that explained the poor fishing – they never bite on the nice days! The Magalloway River flowed in front of me, and several fisherman were down the bank from me about 25 yards still dredging the rocky bottom with their #18 beadheads.

It was the movement that caught my eye. A bird had flown near my left shoulder and disappeared. Turning my full attention to the area I watched a black-capped chickadee emerge from the end of a rotten alder log and fly off with a face full of sawdust. As it flew off, another of the gregarious birds quickly flew in to take the first’s place in the hollowed log, and seconds later reappeared with a mouthful of sawdust. The bird flew to the nearest branch and pulled apart the sawdust, apparently looking for some type insect or larvae. In its place a train of birds flew into the hollow log and then back out creating a constant stream of entertainment for a curious human.

The fearlessness of chickadees makes them a favorite bird of children and adults alike and is part of the reason chickadees are one of the best-known birds of North American feeders. [As a side note, these tiny birds are able to survive brutal winter (e.g. -40 F in Fairbanks, AK) temperatures by dropping their body temperature as much as 12-15 degrees below their average body temp every night, conserving as much as 25% or their body energy!] However, even though I had seen their antics many times at a bird feeder, this was the first time I had seen them so voraciously ripping apart wild fodder. It was addicting to watch the organized flow of black-caps eagerly looking towards their next meal!

Their consistent pattern of entering the log, and emerging a few seconds later gave me enough time to snag my camera and take some shots. The shots I captured sealed the moment in time and memory of these great birds for me, which is what I offer you today!

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This successful black-capped chickadee is headed to shred some sawdust in hopes of a quick meal.
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A black-capped chickadee shows off an impressive mouthful of sawdust and food! (?)
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A black-capped chickadee waits it turn as a fellow member of the species root for some grub in the hollow alder log.
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Full spread! A black-capped chickadee takes flight after digging out some pay-dirt from the log.

So, the old adage is right. However, arguably based on my day, a bad day of fishing is worse than a good bout of bird watching! The images, antics, and thoughts of these birds have stuck with me for the last 18 months. There’s always something to watch in nature, even if the fishing isn’t good!

Kevin works on slinging a cast to the far bank of a pool. A beautiful day to catch no fish!
Kevin works on slinging a cast to the far bank of a pool. A beautiful day to catch no fish!
Posing for a picture Circa April 28, 2013 while fishing the Magalloway
Posing for a picture Circa April 28, 2013 while fishing the Magalloway

For those of you who haven’t read through one of my ‘photographic reflections’ before they are entries from pictures I took before the blog started, but have a story. This one took place in 2013, I hope you enjoyed! I will leave you with this short clip of the Chickadees using the alder-log bonanza