Category Archives: Birding

Birding on “Barrow-ed” Time

Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska is the furthest north city in the United States, and just a few miles north of that on a small spit of land is Point Barrow where you can go no further north and still be on U.S. soil. At that point, the expanse of the ivory ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas stretches in front of you further than the eye can see. Looking south you will see no hills greater than a few feet tall – a tundra so flat that it seems like a wasteland. However, the tundra is fueled by perpetual sunlight for over 65 days each season and becomes an oasis for dozens of species of birds that come from multiple continents. With the flocks of birds come the flocks of birders to watch and observe their beauty and behavior under the midnight sun.  We birded from June 16th to the 20th, recorded total 41 species of birds (although I think we missed a few on our final list) and 9 “lifer” birds which we had never seen before.

Barrow, Utqiaġvik, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Sun, Composite
The sun arches of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. This image was captured from 12AM – 4AM on June 19th.

I realize not all of you reading this article are birders, so you may be wondering, “why would you take the time, hassle, and money to travel to the furthest point in the U.S. just to look at birds”.  It’s because the birds are at their very best. You can think of this way : there are always cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and they are very beautiful to look at year around. However, during spring when they are in bloom the common cherry tree is transformed into an incredible spectacle. The birds in Barrow are the same – each is dressed to the nines in order to attract and breed with a female. They also show off behaviors and calls which you will see at no other time of the year.

Utqiaġvik, Tundra, Alaska
There are almost no hills or topography of any time in the tundra surrounding Barrow, Alaska.

The Snowy Owl

Barrow, Alaska was known as Ukpiaġvik before it was it was given its European name in 1826 . This tradtional name translates to “Place that we hunt for snowy owls“, and was given that because of the high densities of owls in the area. They are reliant on high densities of lemmings (small rodents) for food. Snowy Owl numbers wax-and-wane with the volatile population of lemmings, but when food is up, researchers have found as many as 72 lemmings at one time at a Snow Owl nest!

The first owl we saw was the whitest owl (perhaps even bird) that I’ve ever seen. Typically Snowy Owls have some black in their wings, but this bird was almost sheer white with a few specks of black. The lack of color is indicative of the age of the bird and sex. Males are whiter than females and older birds are whiter than young birds. We can conclude from those two facts that this incredibly beautiful individual is an old, adult male.

Utqiaġvik, Barrow, Alaska
A male snowy owl sits on the tundra outside of Utqiaġvik, Alaska

“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl

Eiders are a family of sea-duck with four different species, and a circumpolar distribution. Each of the species is stunningly colored and have incredible plumage and sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males are dressy, the females are plain). Barrow provides relatively easy viewing of all four species of eiders in one place. We found Stellar’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders feeding in shallow ponds in the tundra. Each of them were paired and simply waiting for the snow to melt further, and the tundra to sprout before laying eggs. We observed Common Eider flying over the Chukchi sea on their way to different breeding grounds. Many other species of ducks and geese were found throughout the tundra to compliment the eiders.

Stellar's Eider, Utqiaġvik, Alaska
A male Stellar’s Eider stands in stark contrast to the female behind him.
King Eider, Alaska
The King Eider has an incredible face and plumage!
Spectacled Eider, Alaska, Utqiaġvik
The Spectacled Eider is well named – you can see that monocle on this beautiful male’s face.

Shorebirds

Shorebirds in Barrow have their tuxedos on, are wearing Rolexes, and are ready to do whatever it takes to impress their female counterparts. They are a far cry from the drab, brown birds they become any other time of the year. The breeding displays vary from puffing out chest feathers, strutting with quivering wingtips, or taking to the air and flying high for all of the females to see. While we were there, the most vocal were the Pectoral Sandpipers. Male birds flew over their territories with chests feathers puffed out and made an indescribable-in-words galunking sound.

There was much more to see than just the breeding behavior of the shorebirds, and probably the most entertaining of these small birds were the phalaropes. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes feed by standing in shallow water and spinning in circles to stir up the bottom with their feet.  They push their bill and head under the water to pick up their unsuspecting and confused prey. Their behavior reminds me of a dog chasing its tale, and its very hard not to smile when watching them.

Point Barrow

North of Barrow is Point Barrow. This small spit of land has been used for millennia to capture whales and sea mammals for subsistence by the Iñupiaq  people, and I was astounded by the number of Bowhead Whale skulls and bones along the beach (just for the record I 100% support this subsistence and cultural way of life). The bones helped answer some of the questions I had about whale structure and morphology.

Baleen is a key feature of non-predatory whales, but I’ve never quite understood how it was arranged in the mouth.  In the jawbones of a couple of whale skulls, I saw that multiple (>50) plates of baleen lay parallel to each other on the left and right side of the mouth. Their arrangement allows the tongue to slide between the plates to push the water out and capture their food.

Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Alaska, Barrow
The baleen of a Bowhead Whale has hairy edges that works to capture food as the tongue is pushed up and water is pressed out.
Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Barrow, Alaska
Many plates of baleen lie together in this skull of this Bowhead Whale giving insight into the function of the baleen to capture food.

The many bones along the beach also put into perspective just how huge Bowhead Whales are. Jawbones may reach 13 feet in length, the  vertebrae can be 20 inches or more wide, and the ribs can be 10 feet long. These are incredibly huge animals that must have been difficult to capture with seal-skin boats and bone-tipped spears. But somehow, in the face of this immense challenge, that is what the ancient Iñupiaq were able to accomplish.

Barrow, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Vertebrae
The vertebrae of Bowhead Whales are huge!
Point Barrow, Sea Ice, Arctic Ocean
My wife, Kassie, and I on the edge of the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow.

Across the expanse of the sea-ice were cigar-shaped black specks. Most of the specks turned out to be seals. These seals provide a food source for humans and bears. I believe the most common species we observed were the Spotted Seal, but three other species may are present in the region.  Although we scanned the ice pack for Polar Bears, there were none to be found.

Barrow-ed Time

In the summer, Barrow is the city that never sleeps. We were amazed at the amount of activity at all hours of the day throughout the community that can be attributed to the never setting sun. 24 hours of daylight ensured that the birds were active and visible during all parts of the day. We “Barrow-ed” our time schedule by staying up until 2AM or later on all of the nights we were in town. After four days we were exhausted, but thrilled to had a glimpse of this incredible area and the birds it holds.

Barrow, Umiaq, umiak
The frame of a traditional boat, an umiaq, leans against a building outside of Barrow.
Barrow, Alaska
Jawbone arches offer tourists a place to take picture.
Barrow, Alaska, Midnight Sun, Composite
The midnight sun swings over the Chukchi sea on June 19th. In Barrow, there are 65 days that the sun never sets.
Muktuk, Barrow, Pickled
Muktuk is the traditional way to prepare Bowhead Whale. We had the incredible opportunity to try pickled muktuk pictured on the left. It was very delicious! The black rind is the skin of the whale, and the white part if the fat.

Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017:

  1. Snow Bunting,
  2. Greater Scaup,
  3. Red-necked Phalarope,
  4. Glacous Gull,
  5. Pomeraine Jaeger,
  6. White-fronted Goose,
  7. Semipalmated Sandpiper,
  8. Long-tailed Duck,
  9. Red Phalarope,
  10. American Golden Plover,
  11. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  12. Short-billed Dowitcher,
  13. Cackling Goose,
  14. Dunlin,
  15. Arctic Tern,
  16. Pacific Loon,
  17. Semi-palmated Plover,
  18. Northern Pintail,
  19. Lesser Scaup,
  20. Lapland Longspur,
  21. Savannah Sparrow,
  22. Greather white-fronted Goose,
  23. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  24. Dowitcher,
  25. Raven,
  26. Western Sandpiper,
  27. King Eider,
  28. Stellar’s Eider,
  29. Spectacled Eider,
  30. Dunlin,
  31. Green-winged Teal,
  32. Northern Shovelor,
  33. Tundra Swan,
  34. Parasitic Jaeger,
  35. Red-throated Loon,
  36. Sabine’s Gull,
  37. Snow Goose,
  38. Black Scoter,
  39. Ruddty Turnstone,
  40. Baird’s Sandpiper,
  41. Common Eider.

 

The American Dipper

Before I begin to tell you about North America’s only fully aquatic songbird, lets set the mood. You perch on a large bolder along  the edge of a rushing river and the sound of gurgling water drowns out your senses. As you relax you realize you have effectively  no hearing due to the sound of the water, and your eyes seem keener and your sense of smell more acute.  You absorb more of you surroundings and the moss seems greener, the water colder, and the day more beautiful. You marvel at the inter-connectedness of it all. Your growing perception of the surrounding ecosystem is enhanced as a small, nondescript, gray bird flutters into sight. It dives into the water and re-appears with a mouth full of food. He is the harbinger of death for small fish and crustaceans. The death of the small creatures is not unwarranted, and you gain insight into the necessity of their harvest as the American Dipper flutters fifteen feet into the air where hungry mouths appear at the cavity of a moss-covered nest. It is springtime in Southeast Alaska, and the children are hungry. As the adults swoop down river the rushing water again over takes your senses and you wait for their return.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
An American Dipper perches with a mouthfull of food that it just scavenged from the river’s bottom.

The American Dipper, “Dippers”, is North America’s only fully aquatic songbird. Their range is expansive across the Western US from Alaska to Mexico, and I have been delighted to find that they are relatively common along the clear and cold rivers in Hoonah, Alaska. The scene that I described above was one that I experienced recently. After finding the dippers I sat on the water edge and watched their behavior for two-and-half hours.  After doing some research, I’ve realized that many of the things I observed about the Dipper that day are well documented behavior. The video below gives a one-minute real of highlights from the day.

Why a “Dipper”?

The American Dipper is aptly named. Everywhere it goes its knees bob which are synchronized with its tail. This comical effect has no explained reason. Bob Armstrong, one of Alaska’s most renowned birders, provides several guesses from conversations with birding experts. Some suggest it is a form of communication while some suspect that it enables them to see into the water by cutting the angle. Since dippers are such a small bird (about the size of a robin), I was interested to know how they were able to be so successful at hunting. I watched many times as they plunged their head into the water looking for prey in much the way that a Common Loon would.  This is different from many fishing birds which choose to fly or perch above the water before making their selection or growing long legs like a Great Blue Heron.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
The American Dipper checks me out from a perching point in the river.

Dipper Anatomy

In review of the images I took, I noticed something lacking in the American Dipper that I might otherwise suspect they would have – webbed feet. It should be an essential for a full aquatic bird, right? I observed the Dipper dive into extremely fast current above a small rapids, submerse it self for several seconds, and then reemerge in the same spot with food in its mouth. It turns out Dippers use their wings to swim and walk along the bottom. Again deferring to Bob Armstrong, you would be missing out not to watch some of his amazing footage of Dippers feeding underwater.

The Voice and the Little Ones

Dippers are songbirds and have beautiful voices. As I sat along the rivers edge with the sound of water pounding in my ears their trills and calls always cut through the din of the water. Their call is clear a true and may be heard in the video I posted too over the rush of the river.  I found that they mostly called right before leaving the water to fly to their nest in the cavity of the bridge. A series of trills brought the hungry mouths of the kids to the nest’s opening even before the parents arrived.

Nest, American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
Hungry mouths wait for the return of parents in moss-covered nest about the size of a volleyball.

In bird-watching language you may go out for a stroll never see the bird you set out for, it’s called “dipping”. For instance, “I went to see a blackpoll warbler, but dipped on them”. Next time you are on a small stream in Southeastern Alaska I hope you don’t dip on Dippers!

A Bird in the Bush, Aurora

I have a  story to tell about the kind of thing that only happens once in a lifetime. Last night I arrived home at 1AM from an amazing night of aurora watching with my parents – their first in Alaska! The forecast, a level 2, tripled to a KP 6 with an unexpected shock passage of energy.  Throughout the night the Lights waxed and waned until the entire sky was covered from the southern constellation Orion’s Belt through the north star  and to the northern horizon. Throughout the sky the Aurora Borealis shifted and rippled in green curtains of light. Outside of my car at my house, a dancing corona erupted over my head so I quickly snagged my camera and sprinted for the ski trails behind my house to begin shooting. It was as I stepped into the woods that the remarkable part of this story began to unfold.

Aurora Family Portrait
A successful night of aurora chasing!

I was making no attempt to conceal the heavy pound of my foot steps, and my first few steps into the woods were loud enough to wake a grouse which was sleeping along the trail. It started from its slumber, and with rapid flaps, thundered its wings just a few feet from me. I jumped high at the sound in a blind moment of panic  thinking for a second it was a moose. As I gained my composure I noted where it landed in a spruce tree only about 15 feet from me. I turned my headlamp in that direction, and the beady, black eye of an immature Ruffed-grouse glinted at me. The opportunity to shoot wildlife underneath the aurora has always been a desire of mine and I was keen to take advantage of it here! I set up my camera and began to shoot, hoping to capture the scene. My shutter clicked twice and the grouse stayed in place, although I’m surprised the sound of my pounding heart boosted by adrenaline in my ears did not spook it. My shutter clicked a few more times and I boldly moved towards the grouse. With each crunch of snow underfoot, I moved closer, and closer, and closer. The grouse, either too scared to move or over-confident in his camouflage did not move a muscle and soon my camera sat only 18 inches from the nervous bird. Overhead the aurora was still brilliant and as my shutter clicked I pulled off an image that may truly be the first in the world – a wild Ruffed Grouse perched under the shimmering emerald of the Alaskan Aurora Borealis.

Ruffed Grouse Aurora Borealis
The immature Ruffed-Grouse that I stirred up eyes me from the shadow of a spruce tree.
Ruffed Grouse Northern Lights
A Ruffed Grouses sits extremely close to my camera – a 12mm lens gives the shot an incredible angle!

It is amazing that the grouse did not fly away. I think it was a combination of the pure confusion of the moment, the shine of my light, and the benefit of the darkness. Perhaps he had convinced himself that even though I was so close, I had not noticed his presence.  However, eventually he decided that enough was enough. He could watch the aurora without such nosy neighbors and took off into the night leaving me to revel in the unbelievable encounter.

Ruffed Grouse Aurora
The Ruffed Grouse gives me one more glance before taking off into the night.

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/

On the Beaches of Homer

The 18+ foot tides of Homer Alaska define life on the seashore. Its consistency and rhythm are the drumbeat of the ocean. During the summer each day, salmon return to the “Fishing Hole” with the incoming and outgoing tide chasing schools of baitfish, only to be chased by fisherman. Shorebirds feed at the tideline and in the exposed rocks which contain many insects and invertebrates in the crevices. Tide pools contained trapped wonders to because observed with curiosity, and which have evolved to survive the temporarily dry conditions. They often closing up, or shrinking under the sand to conserve water. My time in Homer, Alaska was focused around the seashore, fishing, beach combing, birding, and peering into tide pools. These pictures and experiences are both through my lens, and Kassie’s too.

Tide Pools

Peer into a tidepool, and what shall you see? Small creatures, shells, or an anemone.

Diamond Creek Homer
The tideline in Homer is far, far above the ocean level. By nature’s laws, the ocean and the hill have reach an agreement on who’s domain is who’s.

Birding

As we walked along the beach a northwestern crow began to dig a hole along the surf line. To our astonishment it jerked out a thin, silvery, and wriggling Sandlance from the bottom of the hole. Hopping forward a bit further the crow did it again, and again. Other crows were doing the same thing, and were apparently highly efficient hunters. I relayed this video (below) to a birding group, and was informed this hunting behavior may be specific to Homer crows. Have a watch, and let me know your guesses on how they locate the eels. I have not a clue!

Northwestern Crow, Bishop Beach, Homer, Alaska
A disheveled northwestern crow pecks among the rocks looking for leftovers in the tides. He stopped long enough to shoot me an eye.
Black Turnstone Bishop Beach, Homer, Alaska
A black turnstone moves through the rocks in a shallow tidepool. These birds, along with many others, are sought during the Kachemak Bay Shorbird Festival each year, when tens of thousands of shorebirds stop through the food-rich shores of the Kachemak Bay.
Black-legged Kittiwake, Homer, Alaska
A lone black-legged kittiwake stands on the beach, with just a shade of the mountains of Homer visible in the background.
American Bald Eagle, Homer, Alaska
Nesting eagles are a common sight in Homer. This particular pair nests near the outskirts of Homer, and were constantly bringing fish back to its eaglets.
American Bald Eagle, Homer, Alaska
As this eagle lands at its nest, the talons are particularly dangerous looking!

Homer in Its Place

Lupines and Yellow Paintbrush, Homer, Alaska,
Lupines and yellow paintbrush jut out from the hillside along the beach.
Cow Parsnip Homer, Alaska
As we walked up the Diamond Creek trail, we passed under a large canopy of cow parsnip flowers. I was struck by their contrast against the sky.
Shipping Homer, Alaska
Shipping traffic is a common sight throughout Kachemak Bay. As I fished, Kassie capture this great image that puts the grandeur of the mountains in perspective.
Sailboat, tanker, ship, Homer, Alaska
A subtle shift in that same scene, and the sailboat now dominates the foreground.
Fishing Hole Sunset, Homer, Alaska
I fished for salmon at the fishing hole in the lingering sunset. With a fly rod as my weapon of choice I only wrangled one “dollie”, a dolly varden.
Fishing Hole Sunset, Homer, Alaska
A large trunk blots out a beautiful sunset near the fishing hole.
Fishing hole, salmon, homer, alaska
As the tide becomes more ideal, the fishermen stack into the Fishing Hole lagoon in Homer. At this place it is possible, if not likely, to catch silvers, sockeye, and king salmon.

A Whale Of A Tale

You never know what you will see when you leave Seward Harbor, but with blue skies and calm seas our hopes were high for a remarkable trip. Our trip last year on this same boat, and captained by the same crew had been truly memorable!

We reached the open ocean at the edge of Resurrection Bay about 20 miles outside of Seward harbor, and immediately recognized based on an enormous flock of gulls and sea-birds that something special was happening in front of us. Of course, the many tails of humpback whales emerging from the water was a good tip too! As we carefully approached the scene the captain explained that we were observing “bubble-net feeding” of a large group (~18) humpback whales. This behavior has only been recorded consistently around Seward for about five years, as apparently many of the whales had taught it to each other. Observing from the water surface, it is hard to imagine the underwater pandemonium of bubble-net feeding. In the deep waters under a large school of bait fish all 18 whales were blowing bubbles in synchrony to herd the bait ball into one group. Once corralled, all of the whales ascended to the surface with their huge mouths agape to scoop up as many fish as possible. From the surface we were able to predict the timing and location of each emergence, because the flock of hundreds of seabirds would lift up high into the sky, before diving on the susceptible fish just before the whales broke the surface!

Our boat drifted silently with the engines turned off, and as the whales came up for the fifth time under the baitfish the flock of tell-tale gulls began to fly straight towards our boat! It was going to be a close encounter!! Sure enough, enormous mouths attached to up to 80,000 pounds and 80 feet of whale broke through the surface near the boat in a show that left me shaking. Not from fear, but rather sheer awe-struck wonder. I simultaneously snapped imagery of the incredible scene and watched each wonder unfold. I was too busy taking imagery to record video of the whales breaking the surface, but have chained together a series of images in the video below that demonstrate the behavior of bubble-net feeding. Be sure to listen to the incredible sounds they make while on the surface!

Humpback Whale Breach
I was fortunate enough to have my camera point in the same spot, and set up for a quick burst of shots. It allow me to catch the graceful ark of this full breach! It is likely that this humpback whale was celebrating a successful day of feeding and hunting.

Mammals

The humpback whales were just the start of a remarkable series of wildlife sightings. A first of my life was the killer whales. A large pod of them traveled along and breached frequently for air exposing their fin and distinct white eyepatch. The dominant male of the group was evident thanks to an especially large dorsal fin. Baby orcas surfaced directly behind their mothers as they were still dependent them for protection, and to learn from. We spotted many sea otters throughout Ressurection Bay and along the coast. The story of their recovery is remarkable. Sea otters were extirpated from much of their traditional range by exploiting Russian and American hunters. Their loss led to the collapse of kelp beds as urchins populations, a diet item of the sea otter, expanded and ate of the kelp hold fasts (their roots). Once protected by federal law, the recolonization of sea otters helped reestablish the kelp communities and repair a crucial underwater ecosystem for small fish, and many invertebrates.

Birds

The Chiswell Islands provide important breeding habitat and refugia for many sea birds. Puffins, murres, kittiwakes, and dozens of other species are found throughout their rocky crags where they escape predation risk. Many of the species that nest in the rocky crags of the cliffs are classified  as “pelagic birds”. These birds only come to shore to breed, and spend the rest of their life at sea. It is remarkable to me that little of their ocean life is understood, although it is clearly an important part of their life history and hence conservation. One incredible fact from the trip’s crew : common murres may dive up 600 feet in search of food! The images below are just a small cross-section of the birds were observed along the way.

Scenery

The bluebird skies of the day blessed us for the nearly the entire trip. However, as we moved away from Northwestern Glacier, a thick bank of fog moved in from the ocean. The damp air made the day cooler, and provided a mystical backdrop to the Chiswell Islands which poked in and out of the fog like chandeliers in a smokey bar. The islands created a partial barrier to the fog which flowed through the lowest points of the islands like a sinewy serpent. Subsequently, the fog established the base of some of my favorite scenery images throughout the day, and featured below.

As whales-of-a-tales go, I’ve stuck to the facts of the day, although so much of was above average that even I feel that it’s a tale of whoppers. It was the type of trip that every subsequent trip to the ocean will be relative to. Perhaps I will tie it someday, but it would take a Moby Dick sized whale of a day to beat it!

Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra

Our trip had taken us from Fairbanks,Alaska up the Haul Road (Dalton Highway), over Chandlar Shelf, and peaked at Atigun Pass (4,738′). We traversed the valley on the north side of the Brooks Range, and explored as far as Toolik. Although we were on the tundra, we never went far enough to leave the Brooks Range out of sight. Because of the incredible backdrop the mountains provided, I was compelled to place what we observed in their natural habitat. The resulting pictures and galleries provide a slice of diversity of the flowers and birds found on the tundra.

One of the remarkable birds seen during the trip was a bluethroat. These awesome birds are one of a few species which winter in Asia, but breed on the tundra in Alaska. Due to the amount of migration time needed they spend a lot of time on the wing! When we found it with help from another birder, the male bluethroat was displaying in the air and calling out in the voices of many species. Bluethroats are almost perfect mimics, and as it sang out we could hear the calls of redpolls, gray-cheeked thrushes, and swallows in its repertoire. A bluethroat female will find this male attractive if it can mimic enough other birds. The video below captures a few of the calls of this unique and beautiful bird, and shows of its stunning throat!

The northern hawk owl was another great bird of the trip. These raptors are efficient predators and unlike most owls are active during the mornings, evenings, and even during midday. This adaptation arose from the lack of nighttime in the tundra. The hawk owl we found was perched in the dead limbs of a burned black spruce, and actively twisted its head back and forth at every new sound. Suddenly the twisting head stopped, and it fixed its gaze on some unfortunate small animal on the ground. It dove off the branch with tucked wings, swooped low above the shrubs, but then perched again with empty claws. No breakfast this time! The second video below shows the intense stare of this bird.

Bluethroat Video:

Northern Hawk Owl Video:

Yellow, purple, pink, white, and red splashes of color were evident all across the tundra. Each color was associated with a pointed, rounded, tall, or stunted flower and stalk. The flowers of the tundra come in many different colors and shapes! Often the species are associated with a particular habitat type. Alpine arnica were found in the higher alpine tundra, arctic poppies in the short tundra, and bell heather tucked into the low pockets of the tussocks. One of the unexpected flowers of the trip were the frigid shooting stars that lined a small stream south of Toolik Field Station. Although I have wanted to see them for years now, I never thought the first time would be on the tundra! The flowers are aptly named, as their unique shape trails behind them as if they fell from the sky.

I am about to sing the unsong of the mosquito because each bite from the armies of flocked, winged, beasts can cause doubt that they serve any purpose but to cause misery. However, during the trip I documented one of the mosquito’s greatest contributions to the ecosystem. In the tundra, bees and butterflies are not as abundant as they are in forested areas, however, as shown above the variety and abundance of flowers have to be pollinated by something! In step the buzzing, nagging, mosquito. Male mosquitoes do not feed on blood, but rather nectar and thus spread pollen. Their hunger ensures that the blooms of the tundra create seeds and propagate for the next year.

Mosquito Pollination
A mosquito extends its proboscis peacefully into a pink plume to take a sip. It will carry pollen to the next pink plume it feeds on!
Frigid Shooting Star Mosquito
A mosquito perches on a frigid shooting star. It serves as further proof that they like nectar meals, but also gives some scale to the shooting star flowers. They are not that big!
Bird List
Our bird list for the trip, a total of 42 species 🙂

“Roughing It” In the Bush.

This post starts from the first step up the bank of the the Porcupine River to Joe’s cabin. We were relieved to see the flood waters had not topped as far as the cabin, although plenty of water had still gone over bank-full height and flooded the lower terrace of his property. I hauled the gear from the boat as Joe set about opening the cabin.

Since there was no flood damage to be repaired, we started a leisurely existence at the cabin consisting of small projects (what Joe (and ironically my Dad) called “puttering”), eating, sleeping, and reading a book. Between sessions of tackling Alex Haley’s “Roots”, I went for birding walks around the cabin, and ventured into the local slough. As needed, we traveled a few miles upriver to a clear-water stream and filled five gallon pails full of water for filtering.

One of the greatest lessons I learned on the trip came from Joe when he said “Just because you live in the Bush, doesn’t mean you have to do without”. Certainly over the years, through sweat, countless trips up the river and through the air, he and his wife had transformed the cabin into a home away from home. When living there permanently, the four garden plots just out the door provided fresh vegetables.  A solar panel amply charged a battery pack in the cabin allowing for electric lights and a water pump for a shower. In fact, it was possible to take a steaming hot shower each day if one desired! A large kitchen, bedroom, eclectic and huge library, and centralized wood-stove made living there extremely comfortable!

Cabin Pano
This 360 degree panorama inside the cabin might be a big confusing, but take a while to look at it and appreciate how amazing it was!

The cabin was crafted by Joe and took four years to build. One year to cut the logs, strip the bark, and let the logs season. Another season to put up the walls and cut the lumber for the roof, and a couple more to finish the cabin entirely. All of the log-milling was completed with a chainsaw. For his first and last cabin, Joe did a perfect job. The cabin is in pristine condition, and I marveled at it a lot!

Cabin outside
This outside shot of the cabin shows just some of it’s beauty and perfection!

Aside from birding and reading, I enjoyed the views of the river. Life on the river changed constantly. After the first couple of days the water receded enough that a prominent gravel bar emerged for the first time since the flood. A  flock of twelve long-tailed ducks repeatedly flew up river and drifted down. Each cloudless night the moon rose over the far banks, and the low light of a mid-night sun lit up the bluffs across the river in orange and gold. Life was good on the banks of the Porcupine.

Cabin Bluffs Pano
Low-light each night would light up the bluff across from the cabin in dramatic and beautiful light.
Moon and Bluffs
Going to the bathroom was no drudgery at the cabin – this was the view from the outhouse door!

I did my best to capture video of life around the cabin. Throughout the days at the cabin I captured some timelapse and clips of wildlife. The music is pretty relaxing – you can check out the video here:

Although not all experiences in the bush need to be plush and care-free like this trip, I certainly have a new viewpoint that such an existence is even possible. Just because you live in the bush doesn’t mean you have to do without!

Delta
Delta enjoyed the leisure time as much as I did.
Delta
Our cabin guard dog 🙂