The Great Great-Horned Owl

It is amazing to think of the great-horned owl as a globally distributed bird. When we hear then hooting in our local woods, it is easy to forget their range extends far beyond the borders of our neighborhood or even the United States. In fact, a large piece of their range classified as “year-around” is found in southern Brazil and northern Argentina (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/great_horned_owl/lifehistory). A geographically diverse bird! Throughout their range, it is remarkable to think of the different organisms they have adapted to eat in the mountains, taiga, plains, or even jungle! Although you might traditionally think of the great-horned owl feeding on rodents or small mammals, these top-tier predators may even prey on larger raptors such as ospreys.

Great-horned owls are often hard to spot, and may perch in nearly unviewable thickets. Good opportunities to view them can be few-and-far-between, but I recently got a great chance to watch a great-horned owl. It was my first time ever observing one for a notable period of time.  After nearly 45 minutes of observation, I found the hour in the life an owl to be rather uneventful, haha! However, even at that my time spent watching this majestic bird clean itself, hoot, shift its gaze to sounds in the woods, and twist its head back and forth were very unforgettable! That’s what I bring to you today :).

I was fortunate to catch some great video that you can check out here:

Aside from the video I shot a bunch of photography. This gallery below pretty much sums up the behaviors of this owl when I was there. Cheers!

Highlights of an Alaskan Bird-a-thon

The Alaska Songbird Institute has a goal for people during their second annual “Bird-a-thon” : find as many birds as you can within 24 hours in Alaska. We, team MRI (Madi, Ross, and Ian), decided to take the task seriously! We started our 24 hour window at 8:00 PM by birding a range of Fairbanks hot-spots. From there we headed south along the Richardson highway with the goal of making it Paxson to bird the Denali Highway – a 134 mile stretch of wetland potholes and alpine tundra chock-ful of birds.

May 15th was the first day the Denali Highway was officially open, and much of the Denali Highway’s tundra was still covered in snow due to 3000′ elevation gain. Because of the low-productivity of snow-covered areas, we targeted melt areas and ponds. There were many, many species of birds. Some of them, such as red-throated loons were still passing through to breed on lakes further north over the Brooks Range, using the Denali Highway region as a “stopover” until the ponds further north were ice free. But, the site was not a stopover for most. Many of the birds were there to make a nest and raise young in the 24 hour light. The tundra is the summer home of many species which are found in vastly different habitats during the winter. For instance, the long-tailed jaeger is an ocean bird. During the summer they nest in the tundra and eat berries and small rodents. Quite a change from the fish they traditionally consume! Wilson’s warbler migrate to South America, and arctic terns migrate to Antarctica (the longest animal migration). In fact, the Alaskan tundra is so unique and special that birds from six of the seven continents can be found on it. For those that see the tundra frozen in the winter, it is easy to forget the tundra is a highly valuable and necessary ecosystem!

Aside from the birds, the scenery of the Denali Highway is never ending! The melting ponds and flowing rivers created a patchwork of light and dark across the land. To the north, the horizon was ragged like torn cloth with the mountains of the Alaska Range. In the twilight at 2:00 AM (because it no longer gets fully dark here), the Alaskan Range stabbed through the colors of the sunset and on bluebird days like the one we had its snow covered peaks starkly contrasted the thawing tundra and blue sky.

Along with the birds, there was plenty of mammals to see. By the end of the trip we watched well over 20 moose and probably 30 caribou. Arctic ground squirrels fed along the roadsides, and frolicked across the snow. The young animals of spring are out and about, and we enjoyed watching a red fox kit chew on some grass outside of its den after we returned to Fairbanks.

Alaska Range Caribou
A herd of caribou navigate around a pond with the expanse of the tundra behind them.
Moose
A mother moose and her yearly calf browse on new growth of willow.
Velvet Bulls
Two bull caribou lounge about in velvet antlers.
Fox Kit
This fox kit was a joy to watch. You can tell by the smooth walls of this den that they have spent quite a bit time going in and out.

So, bringing it back to where it all started, why go birding for 24 hours straight? It seems that it might be a bit crazy (for instance getting about 3-4 hours of sleep). To understand that, you simply have to understand what I believe birding is. Birding is a chance to observe the natural environment either individually or with friends. An opportunity to go birding with a two great friends (we rock, MRI!) in a place as remote and diverse as Interior Alaska is a moment to relax and learn something new (essentially a guarantee); it should not be passed up. Even if observing wildlife is not for you, my definition of “birding” can be modified to fit almost any hobby. Don’t pass up opportunities to learn and be with good friends. After 24 hours, we identified 68 species of birds; a pretty remarkable list and I cannot wait until next year’s Bird-a-thon!

Bird list
Here’s the list of observed species during team MRI bird-a-thon. 68 species in 24 hours! Ironically we did not turn up a black-capped chickadee – very ironic considering they are a classic species of Alaska.

A Wood Frog, Blog

Visually and sonically the pond was alive. Golden light of a pre-evening sun poured over the pond, and where the light fell on the far bank the sound of spring in Alaska, a loud wood frog (Rana sylvatica) chorus, echoed in the birches. Wood frogs are the only species of amphibian found in Interior Alaska, because let’s face it : there are not many species that can withstand -40 degree temperatures! In the winter, wood frogs burrow into the soil under leaves or woody debris and concentrate glucose in their blood as anti-freeze. However, the glucose only provides some relief. In the cold months with little sun, their heart stops beating, eyes freeze, blood freezes, and brain activity stops. By almost any definition the frogs would be declared dead, but when spring temperatures arrive the frogs thaw out from the inside-out (instead of the outside-in, scientists have no idea how), resume life, and jump into local ponds for reproduction. It was that yearly event that I stood in the middle of with my camera.

I waded into the ~55 degree water, and through the old vegetation of the pond. Crossing the 60 foot wide pond to where the frogs called, resulted in water mid-way up my thighs and soaked my pants. I draped a camouflage cloth over me and waited like a giant, brown heron (or maybe the swamp monster) for the frogs to start singing. When they did it started as a single croak which seemed to say “all clear”. Within no time the life of breeding wood frogs unfolded all around me. Only a few feet away, each frog that called swelled up pockets of skin along their cheeks and side, and sent a rippling well of water out from its body. I think that communication occurs both by sound and by the small waves of water, although that is just an observation. Many of the male frogs chased females while rapidly swelling their air sacs, calling, and sprinting towards females. Often their approaches seemed to be rejected. I watched as many males swam up rapidly to a female and attempt to mount, but were thwarted by an elusive mate. Often in denser vegetation, groups of frogs boiled in the water as a constant struggle to maintain a female ensued. As I watched the frogs many mosquitoes fed on their exposed heads. After seeing that, I hypothesize that frogs are an important early food source for mosquitoes. I stood for 90 minutes while my legs turned into cold stumps, and finally decided that I couldn’t take the cold water much longer. However, my 90 minutes in the water was worth it! The short video below captures just some of this behavior. Be sure to watch them call in slow motion. Enjoy!

Frogs in the spring have long been a part of my life. Growing up, my open window in the warming days would let their songs in. In the Midwest, higher frog species diversity adds a wider range of tenors and bass to the chorus. The small, 200 foot diameter “frog pond” just inside the woodline is a consistent producer of leopard frogs (bass), spring peepers (tenors), wood frogs, tree frogs (several species), and likely others. The frog pond was an important stomping ground for my brother and my nature education. Although I never got to observe the frogs very often because they were pretty elusive, we often collected eggs and tadpoles for rearing. So, finally after all these years, the opportunity to see these frogs in Alaska up close was a real treat!

WP_20150506_006
A quick selfie of frog photography.

Want to learn more? Check out this video highlighting some ongoing University of Alaska Fairbanks research!

Unique and Beautiful Juneau

Juneau, Alaska is one of the busiest places in the state due to its unsurpassed beauty, and accessibility by cruise ships. The town is surrounded in mountains which are often hidden in fog and rain, but grace the eyes when the sun comes out. Downtown  is full of oddities which reflect the independent people renowned for living there. Due to the surrounding mountains, most of Downtown is accessed by an intricate boardwalk and staircase system which connects houses and properties perched on its steep slopes. Its amazing that houses could be built there at all! As I walked around Juneau and the greater surrounding area, I was struck but its uniqueness and setting. Here are 10 shots to help convey the beauty of the area.

The steep hillsides of Juneau, and the surrounding mountains forces buildings to be built on high-grade slopes. Here's a colorful array of buildings in upper, down-town Juneau as seen from the boardwalks.
The steep hillsides of Juneau, and the surrounding mountains forces buildings to be built on high-grade slopes. Here’s a colorful array of buildings in upper, down-town Juneau as seen from the boardwalks.
These iron chickens caught my eye as I walked through the streets of Juneau.
These iron chickens caught my eye as I walked through the streets of Juneau.
A raft of scoters and other sea-birds sits in Juneau Harbor on a sunny day. Surrounded in mountains, the scenery is endless!
A raft of scoters and other sea-birds sits in Juneau Harbor on a sunny day. Surrounded in mountains, the scenery is endless!
Spring was in full bloom in Juneau, and early rising skunk cabin dotted the landscape in bright yellow.
Spring was in full bloom in Juneau, and early rising skunk cabin dotted the landscape in bright yellow.
High up in the hillsides of Juneau, the Perseverance Basin boardwalk and trail offer beautiful view of Junea.
High up in the hillsides of Juneau, the Perseverance Basin boardwalk and trail offer beautiful view of Junea.
The ice caves of the Mendenhall glacier are stunning, and glaciers define the entire Southeast Region of Alaska, including Juneau.
The ice caves of the Mendenhall glacier are stunning, and glaciers define the entire Southeast Region of Alaska, including Juneau.
This old mining building is a piece of the Treadwell mine of the late 1800s. In April 1917 this mine was flooded by a high tide, and "questionable" mining practices (http://www.juneau.org/parkrec/facilities/documents/treadbroch1.pdf)
This old mining building is a piece of the Treadwell mine of the late 1800s. In April 1917 this mine was flooded by a high tide, and “questionable” mining practices (http://www.juneau.org/parkrec/facilities/documents/treadbroch1.pdf)
Early blueberries are a species which have flowers before that bloom before leaf out. The water drop perched precariously here caught my eye.
Early blueberries are a species which have flowers before that bloom before leaf out. The water drop perched precariously here caught my eye.
This is a panorama captures the mountain range across Favorite Channel from Eagle Beach.
This is a panorama captures the mountain range across Favorite Channel from Eagle Beach.
A mountain sits on the far side of the inlet at Eagle Beach. I was fortunate to have some sun on my last day in Juneau.
A mountain sits on the far side of the inlet at Eagle Beach. I was fortunate to have some sun on my last day in Juneau.