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!
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!
Long-tailed Jaeger, check out that tail!
American Widgeon taking flight over the mountains
Wilson’s Warbler – one of my favorites!
A Willow Ptarmigan in front of the mountains
Cliff Swallow coming in for a landing!
White-crowned Sparrow showing off its namesake
A pair of Barrow’s Goldeneye. Such a beautiful duck!
A male Barrow’s Goldeneye – such an eye!
White-crowned Sparrow on the runway.
Lifer! Golden-crowned Sparrow 🙂
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.
A sprawling mountain vista juxtaposed to the Denali Highway.
A beautiful lake and mountain scene. This lake held black scoters, a common loon, and surf scoters along with many species of waterfowl.
Just a beautiful view!
The sun sits high in the sky as we get closer to summer! Here’s a beautiful vista along the Denali Highway.
Perched up high on a hillside, we watched moose, caribou, and long-tailed jaegers from this particular position on the Denali Highway.
A piece of driftwood is set high and dry after the spring melt.
A shallow melt water stream pours of round boulders and rocks.
This panorama captures an active melt pond. The ice that was left concentrated many shorebirds and waterfowl in the open water.
In the twlight of the sun at ~2:00 Am the Alaska Range was lit up over Donnelly Creek.
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.
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!
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!
A before and after comparison of a wood frog with its air sacs swollen.
I really like this wood frog in black and white!
I’m not sure why this wood frog was only able to swell one air sac. However, it kept it swelled for long periods of time, and it seemed to be bigger than those with two.
Water droplets fly from the swollen air sacs of this frog.
Success! This wood frog male will fertilize the eggs of this female as she lays them.
A quick burst and a large amount of water fly from the air sacs of this aggressively calling male.
I observed many frogs make very small noises which resulted in these large water wells. My observation, is that the water waves are also communication.
This wood frogs is the epicenter of a small tsunami.
Cuttin’ loose with both bellows
A wood frog takes a quick break between calls. My, what eyes he has!
Want to learn more? Check out this video highlighting some ongoing University of Alaska Fairbanks research!
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.