An Ivory Gull in Duluth, So What?

What does it mean when one of the least researched and understood marine birds in the Arctic turns up in Duluth, Minnesota 1,500 miles outside of its range? Locally, it ensures a birding rush of in-state and out-of-stater birders eager to see the rare bird, but what does it say about the global status of this unique bird? How can we use its presence to  educate ourselves of human impact on the high Arctic? Is the Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea) an indicator species of a greater issue in the Arctic? The suspicion that their unprecedented, 80% population decline over the last 20 years may be linked to mercury suggests they are.

Ivory Gull, Duluth
The Ivory Gull at Canal Park in Duluth sits on the piers a few hundred feet from the human observers on shore.

Population Free-fall of the Ivory Gull

Ivory Gulls are colonial birds, meaning that large numbers gather into groups to breed. By monitoring the nesting colonies of colonial birds, population trends may be established by researchers. However, surveys for Ivory Gulls  were only conducted in 1985 (Thomas and MacDonald, 1987) making it impossible to understand population trends. Compounding the lack of population data, Ivory Gulls are considered to be one one of the least understood marine birds. This is partly due to wintering along the ice pack between Greenland and Labrador ensuring they are not a bird which is in-sight of many people. However, indigenous knowledge has suggested declining populations since the 1980s (Mallory et al. 2003). In light of this, researchers  flew surveys of known nesting islands as well as newly found Islands in 2002 and 2003 and found something shocking. The number of nesting Ivory Gulls had declined by 80% since the 1980s (Gilcrest et al. 2005).

Ivory Gull, Identification
The Ivory Gull is a distinct bird with a blue bill, black feet, and stunning black tips on the wings.

Gilcrest et al. (2005) started to hypothesize at alternative reasons for the lack of gulls. They explored the possibility that the Ivory Gulls had simply shifted their nesting locations. However, a significant move is not inline with the known biology of the bird which generally move less than 1-2 kilometers.  Food sources of fish and carcasses have remained relatively stable in their study area giving them little reason to move. They noted that Ivory Gulls were not seen flying along the survey paths. It seems that the Ivory Gull was truly dying off.

Ivory Gull, Duluth, Minnesota
In Duluth, the Ivory Gull was gracious enough to land close to my camera, offering exceptional looks at the details of this beautiful bird.

 

The Driver of Change

Since the startling revelation of population decline, researchers have been trying to understand why Ivory Gulls are disappearing. It is probable that ice-pack changes and altered forage have contributed to the population decline (Gilchrest et al. 2005), but researchers think a stronger factor is in play . In his interview with the BBC World Service (full interview below) Dr. Alex Bond  hypothesizes that mercury is a leading stressor on Ivory Gulls based on findings that levels of mercury have risen 45 -50 times the levels found 130 years ago. There is strong evidence showing mercury levels in the eggs of Ivory Gulls is significantly higher than any other known marine bird. Braun et al. 2006 found that mercury in the eggs of Ivory Gulls were 2.5 times greater than even the next highest species, and were almost 3 times greater the amount which impairs reproductive success. Where is that much mercury coming from? And how exactly might it effect Ivory Gulls?

Ivory Gull, Underwings
The Ivory Gull in Duluth shows off its beautiful, white underwings.

To understand where the mercury is coming from, its important to know the basics of the mercury cycle. Mercury falls into the oceans from atmosphere pollution originating from coal-fired power plants, or is directly input from Alkali metal processing . There are also natural sources of mercury like volcanic eruptions and “volitilization of the ocean” (USGS 2000).  Once deposited in a waterbody, mercury becomes available to marine animals when it is transformed to methylmercury. Once in the that state, it moves up through the food chain into plankton, and then to fish, and finally to top level predators like birds and marine mammals.  Levels of mercury grows in organisms through bioaccumulation and biomagnifcation. To clarify that jargon, bioaccumulation means that the older you are, the more mercury you have since it is difficult to get it out your system once ingested. Biomagnification means that if you feed higher on the food chain you gain mercury more quickly. Marine mammals like seals have very, very high levels of mercury due to the effect of both bioaccumulation and biomagnifacation. With that information in mind it is easier to understand why Ivory Gulls accumulate mercury; they scavenge on carcasses of marine mammals and feed on fish which have high levels of mercury. They also have a high metabolic rate and consume more fish (Braun et al. 2006).

To date, the effect of mercury on Ivory Gulls has not been studied, but we can gather clues from looking at other species.  Common Loons (Gavia immer) also accumulate high levels of mercury due to eating fish (biomagnification) and having long lives (bioaccumulation). Evers et al. 2008 found a 41% decrease in fledged loon young in parents with >3 micrograms of mercury per gram of tissue compared to those with <1 microgram. They predict total reproductive failure of Common Loons if levels exceed 16.5 micrograms. Based on hundreds of hours of observation, they report that loons with elevated levels of mercury are lethargic and spend significantly less time foraging for food and less time taking care of their young. Each lead to fewer chicks growing to adulthood.  It is important to note in their study that mercury levels of a species change throughout their range due to climate, forage, and many other factors. Transferring the lessons of Common loons to Ivory Gulls, variation in  mercury levels changes are observed in Canada as well; in general levels of mercury increase from east to west in Canada. Although the effect of mercury on Ivory Gulls has not been directly studied and may effect gulls differently than loons, a good hypothesis for their decline is poor parenting and lethargy due to extraordinarily high levels of mercury. Only future research will help tease out the true effect of mercury on their decline.

Ivory Gull, Flying, Duluth
The Ivory gull in Duluth takes to the wing showing off its beautiful plumage and black feet.

When an Ivory Gull shows up in Duluth, Minnesota it is a chance to reflect. Reflect on the beauty of an animal. Reflect on the joy of seeing such a rarity. However, do not miss the opportunity to acknowledge that its prescense is out of the norm of the species and that an unseen driver which we do not fully understand is at play. Reflect on the fact that the impact of humans in a nearly un-inhabited region is undeniable. Human consumption of fossil fuels is depositing mercury into the Arctic at rates which may be directly effecting a species. The Ivory Gull is a red flag, an indicator that things are not right in the Arctic and that we should pay heed to what else may be going wrong that we just have not taken the time to study yet.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31921127

Braune, B. M., Mallory, M. L., & Gilchrist, H. G. (2006). Elevated mercury levels in a declining population of ivory gulls in the Canadian Arctic. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 52(8), 978-982.

Evers, D. C., Savoy, L. J., DeSorbo, C. R., Yates, D. E., Hanson, W., Taylor, K. M., … & Munney, K. (2008). Adverse effects from environmental mercury loads on breeding common loons. Ecotoxicology, 17(2), 69-81.

Gilchrist, H. G., & Mallory, M. L. (2005). Declines in abundance and distribution of the ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea) in Arctic Canada. Biological Conservation, 121(2), 303-309.

Mallory, M. L., Gilchrist, H. G., Fontaine, A. J., & Akearok, J. A. (2003). Local ecological knowledge of ivory gull declines in Arctic Canada. Arctic, 293-298.

Thomas, V.G., MacDonald, S.D., 1987. The breeding distribution and
current population status of the ivory gull in Canada. Arctic 40,
211–218.

USGS. 2000. http://www.usgs.gov/themes/factsheet/146-00/

Creating an Image 365

For the last year I have strapped my camera to my back, placed it in my backpack, or put it in the front seat of my truck to meet my goal of taking a picture a day for 365 days. My intent of the project was to simply take a picture each day to improve my photography skills. Looking at the results I am shocked by how the project changed my view of photography and my photography skillset.

30 days in the project I was already starting to feel that I was repeating the same shots days after day. The constant feeling of the need to do something different each day forced my growth as a photographer. It was critical  I go out of my comfort zone of wildlife and landscapes by taking advantage nearly any shot that presented itself and finding an opportunity when there was an obvious one. The greatest lessons I learned was defining the difference between “taking a picture” and “creating an image”. I think creating an image captures the essence of the object or the moment and is ultimately at the heart of the what brings me joy in photography and continues to make it interesting. The difference seems subtle, but to illustrate it,  standing parallel to the horizon and taking a picture of the sunset is different than making an image of that same sunset by adding in the reflection of the water through the trees. By creating an image, you can tell a story through photography. That became my goal as the days ticked on by.

The results of this project provided a picture diary for a year. Be sure to flip through full gallery from January 1st – December 31st, 2015 here . As I flipped through them it was a trip down memory lane. I selected images  exemplifying essential lessons I learned from this project. Many of them are connected to each other and all of them helped me create an image rather than just take a picture.

10 Takeaways When Creating an Image

  1. A portable system is a huge benefit.  First and foremost I really appreciated the portability of my Olympus OMD Micro 4/3 system. The small size enabled me to carry a full featured camera and an array of lenses everywhere that I went.  That portable system helped me take advantage of the opportunity to capture this Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I was biking to the office when I encountered it and was able to snap a great moment.
July 30th : Sharp-shinned Hawk
July 30th : Sharp-shinned Hawk

2. Take an opportunity when you have it. I learned really quickly that if you intend to take a picture every single day, it is absolutely critical to capture an image regardless of the cost. Okay, I am definitely being a bit facetious, but this particular sunrise caused a five-minute tardiness on my way to class. It was just too beautiful to pass up, and I needed time to set up a tripod!

February 2nd : Sunrise over the University of Alaska Fairbank's ice climbing wall
February 2nd : Sunrise over the University of Alaska Fairbank’s ice climbing wall

3. Be creative. I often mounted only a single lens to my camera, and then forced myself to capture an image with that lens. In line with taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2), it is was also necessary to look for opportunities.  The particular image below was created because I had an f/1.0 50mm lens. I knew that depth of field would enable me to have tack-sharp pieces of an image, and a soft background which I think was effective in this skull image.

January 21st : Empty your mind.
January 21st : Empty your mind.

4. Diversify by taking advantage of all forms of photography. As I searched for shots, I extended into photography that is not my bread-and-butter wildlife or landscapes. Learning to set up food shots, portraits, and composites all helped build my photography skill set.

June 17th : Anniversary!
June 17th : Anniversary!

5. Light is everything. Photography is the “art of capturing light”, and living in Fairbanks, Alaska most of the year presented a significant challenge in the winter months. Short days ensured that if I was going to take advantage of an opportunity (see #2) in the daylight I had to be quick. I also had to get creative (see # 3) on cloudy days by either moving indoors or finding a shot that worked in flat light.

September 9th : Golden Birches
September 9th : Golden Birches

6. Make something out of nothing. There were a lot of cloudy, dark days where I never got the opportunity to take an image outside. If that was the case, it was time to be creative (see #3) by designing indoor scenes, capturing phenomena in the dark (aurora borealis, moon, or stars). I dug around in the kitchen and provided some side-lighting for this scene (see #4 on diversity). In these situations my goal was creatively create an image.

November 24th : Cooking Essentials
November 24th : Cooking Essentials

7. Have fun editing. As a wildlife photographer I often consider my work to be documentation, rather than art. I would point to a critical difference that documentation should represent the subject closely whereas art is the utilization of creative license. It was a new realm for me to experiment within Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to manipulate imagery and create art out of them. Often I used effects to emphasize the subject of the image.

June 3rd : Bluebells
June 3rd : Bluebells

8. Take advantage of your cameras settings. I pulled up to the train tracks right as the arms went down in front of me. I had not taken a picture yet (see #2) and was drawn to the stationary cross arm. Rather than “stop” the train, I slow down my shutter speed and stabilized my camera on the dash of my car. By taking advantage of my cameras settings I was able to capture an interesting shot showing motion.

August 10th : Waiting for the train to pass
August 10th : Waiting for the train to pass

9. You won’t always knock it out of the fence. It’s inescapable that poor lighting (see #5) and not taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2) will result in a less than optimal image. That’s OK!! I found the most important aspect of this challenge was to find an object and capture it in the most interesting way possible by taking advantage of interesting angles or the camera’s settings (see #8).

July 18th : Sawyer's tools
July 18th : Sawyer’s tools

10. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are beyond the realm of “not knocking it out of the park” (see #9).  Mistakes are fine unless you only have one image from the day.  The image below is a mistake that was meant to be a starspin. However, I learned why the image did not work (see #8), so that I would not repeat it in the future.

September 23rd : Light pollution
September 23rd : Light pollution

In summary, this project provided incredible growth for me. A photography growth spurt if you will. The results created a photo journal of an entire year of my life and I hope that you can take away  a few key points along with enjoying the imagery of my self-imposed assignment! Just in case you missed it, you can review the full gallery HERE!

Top Shots 2015

Hello Everyone! 2015 was a great, great year. Traveling took me from the North Slope of Alaska  to the southern coast of Texas. Professionally I am headed back to the “real world” after completing my thesis in December, and will enjoying a married life by mid-summer! The images below are some of my Top Shots from 2015. If there was a blog post associated with the image I included it in the caption. I hope you enjoy.

If you have enjoyed the blog this year please take the time to pass it on to a friend who would enjoy it too, and encourage them to sign up for the emails. Thanks all!

Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis has become an addiction of mine, and these two particular some of my favorites from the season.

Sun-kissed Aurora, Fairbanks, Alaska
Sun-kissed Aurora, Fairbanks, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/the-sun-kissed-aurora/)
Aurora and a moonset, Fairbanks, Alaska
Aurora and a moonset, Fairbanks, Alaska  (http://ianajohnson.com/the-negative-40f-aurora-club/)

 

Dog Sledding

Dog sledding in Alaska has been a tremendous treat, and there couldn’t be a better mentor than my friend Jeff Deeter at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.

George, taking a break on the trail. Fairbanks, Alaska
George, taking a break on the trail. Fairbanks, Alaska
"Picket" at the Crowberry Public Use Cabin, White Mountains, Alaska
“Picket” at the Crowberry Public Use Cabin, White Mountains, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/by-a-team-of-seven-into-heaven/)

Landscapes

These array of landscape shots capture the beauty and phenomena of Alaska and beyond.

Alaska Range in the pre-dawn. Donnelly Creek, Alaska
Alaska Range in the pre-dawn. Donnelly Creek, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/highlights-of-an-alaskan-bird-a-thon/)
Inside Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska
Inside Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/into-the-mouth-of-an-ice-beast/)
Star-trails in a winter wonderland, Fairbanks, Alaska
Star-trails in a winter wonderland, Fairbanks, Alaska
Windy day and a half moon at Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska
Windy day and a half moon at Polychrome Pass, Denali National Park, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/a-portrait-of-the-great-one/)
Mount Denali Panorama, Denali National Park, Alaska
Mount Denali Panorama, Denali National Park, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/a-portrait-of-the-great-one/)
Matanuska Glacier, Alaska
Matanuska Glacier, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/matanuska-glacier-peril/)
Summer Solstice on the North Slope, Galbraith Lake, Alaska
Summer Solstice on the North Slope, Galbraith Lake, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/solstice-solitude-soliloquy/)
Thunderstorm at the Lake, Minnesota
Thunderstorm at the Lake, Minnesota (http://ianajohnson.com/thunderstorm-at-the-lake/)

Wildlife

From the bottom of tide pools to the tops of mountains, it has been a great year to shoot wildlife!

Breaching Humpback Whale, Seward, Alaska
Breaching Humpback Whale, Seward, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/a-whale-of-tale/)
Anemone in a tide-pool. Homer, Alaska
Anemone in a tide-pool. Homer, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/on-the-beaches-of-homer/)
American Golden Plover, North Slope, Alaska
American Golden Plover, North Slope, Alaska
Northern Hawk Owl, Dalton Highway, Alaska
Northern Hawk Owl, Dalton Highway, Alaska
Caribou, Denali National Park
Caribou, Denali National Park
Willow Ptarmigan, Denali Highway, Alaska
Willow Ptarmigan, Denali Highway, Alaska
Woodfrog, Fairbanks, Alaska
Woodfrog, Fairbanks, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/a-wood-frog-blog/)
Sandhill Crane Silhouette
Sandhill Crane Silhouette
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Green Wing Teal
Green-wing Teal, Porcupine River, Alaska (http://ianajohnson.com/go-when-the-river-says-go/)
Cross Fox
Cross Fox in Fort Yukon, Alaska.

Flowers

Fireweed are iconic to Alaska, and I love how a single stalk seems to stand out above the others here.

Standing out.
A broad field of fireweed where one seems to stand out over the rest.
Single Lily
A single white lily in Minnesota.

Miscellaneous

Dew of Summer
The world reflected over and over in the heavy dew of summer. (http://ianajohnson.com/on-that-misty-minnesota-morn/)

Top Video

What the Wind Erased

A landscape transformed by fog and cold

Crystallized grasses and bejeweled trees

Dazzling and glinting in the sunrise

The slightest physical touch or force of nature

Will fracture the delicate crystals 

So you hold your breath and get as close as possible

Hoar frost Grass Frond
Hoar frost hangs heavy on some grass.

Then a death knell begins as a distant puff of wind

Slowly it grows, stripping the trees and grasses

Casting the flakes like diamonds into the breeze

A blink of the eye and the trees are naked and plain

Anyone driving by would never know what the wind erased. 

Hoar Frost floats in a puff of wind.
Fractured Hoar Frost crystals float in a puff of wind.

 

When I stepped outside today the world was transformed. The skies were blue, the sun was white, and hoar frost bejeweled the world. I was astounded by the fragility of the phenomenon as mother nature used the wind to erase her artwork in only a few minutes.

Hoar Frost
Huge flakes of hoar frost from an old aster.
Frost on crystals
Ice crystals extend out from a grass frond.
Prairie Hoar Frost
Prairie Hoar Frost
Hoar Frost in the Field.
The trees above my house are illuminated by the rising sun.

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