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The Likelihood of Competition In The Yukon Flats

This entry details a portion of my thesis work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and is intended to communicate the findings of that work in a four part series. You are reading part four examining the likelihood of competition between wolves and humans. In order to make the article concise, you  may review the general background of this work in part one. I have truncated the background and methods of this work and focused on a portion of the results.

In parts two and three of this series I have been examining where humans in the Yukon Flats, Alaska are traveling to harvest moose and where/how wolves are traveling to harvest moose. A key finding of human access was that humans are mostly operating within 1500 meters of navigable water. During our wolf study I found that travel was based around river corridors. Based on this, I will conclude this series of articles by examining the “Beaver Creek” pack which overlapped strongly with navigable water.

I wanted to begin to understand the likelihood of competition around navigable waters for moose between humans and wolves. Remember, moose exist at extremely low densities and humans and wolves depend on them as a food resource. Therefore, I believe understanding competition is particularly important.  To understand the likelihood of competition, I applied my model of human access and overlapped it with wolf locations. I found that 75% of wolf use locations fell within the human access model.

Beaver Creek competition likelihood
This figure demonstrates the overlap in points between the human access model that I created (part two), and the wolf points (part 3). Beaver Creek pack falls on navigable water, and hence the likelihood of competition is greatest there.

My analysis does not contain temporally overlapping data. Wolf habitat selection may differ in September and October when humans are hunting moose.  Wolves could also rely on other prey species other than moose during that period.  Also, predation in the Yukon Flats extends beyond wolves. Bears take up to 85% of moose calves each spring. As such, my conclusion is just the beginning research for future biologists in the region. A complete analysis would encompass all predation on moose, be spatially and temporally overlapping, and would evaluate how many moose which are predated could be taken by humans. I hope you have enjoyed this four part series! A full copy of the thesis can be obtained by contacting me. Feel free to do so!

Starry Stitches

On the evening of December 8th this year, a wonderful series of phenomenon occurred. The sun went down, the aurora remained muted, brilliant stars of the Milky Way dappled the darkness, and a new moon sealed the deal for a night of very dark-skies.  I left the orange glow of Fairbanks behind and set off on a quest into the inky darkness of interior Alaska to photograph the Milky Way Galaxy.

When photographing the galaxy you are capturing the “galactic plane” which is the stars which spin out from the “galactic center“. Our sun and solar system reside on the edge of the galaxy, and give us the opportunity to look into it. However, depending on the season and the photographer’s location on the planet, the true center of the galaxy may not be available. In Fairbanks the galactic center would be visible in the summer when it is always light. During the winter the galactic plane of the Milky Way is visible,  but we do not get an opportunity to see the center because we are blocked from it by the planet.

MilkyWay
This image does a nice job of demonstrating our position in the disk of the milky way, and translating that disk to the “galactic plane”. Brilliant Milky Way images capture the nuclear bulge a the center of the Milky Way. The nuclear bulge is not visible from Fairbanks in the December. Image Credit : UCSD.edu

Fairbanks has not felt wind for over two months and snow  which would ordinary not persist with wind clung to the spruces encasing them . I angled my camera at the bases of those trees and slowly moved at up into the sky after each exposure with the goal of creating panoramic ‘stitches’ of the Milky Way. The method compounds the star density of the galaxy, and brings out distant features like a nebula seen in the upper left of several of the images. I hope you take to opportunity to view dark skies when you can!

A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way.
A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way and a nebula cluster in the upper left.
Milky Way Stitch
I was able to achieve the most definition of the Milky Way in this particular shot and misty veils of aurora float through for effect.
Milky Way Panorama
A tall vertical stitch of the Milky Way over a winter paradise.
Nebula cluster
The nebula cluster in this shot is pointed out by a snow covered spruce that arches into the picture from the left.
Milky Way and Nebula Cluster.
The Milky Way springs out of this crotch formed by these snow-covered spruces.
Milky Way Stitch
A distant planet, perhaps Venus, is particularly bright in this image.
Hoar Frost
The hoar-frost covered trees are a testament to the lack of wind in the region.

Hunting Behavior and Habitat Selection of Wolves in a Low-density Prey System During Winter

This entry details a portion of my thesis work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and is intended to communicate the findings of that work in a four-part series. You are reading part three examining wolf movement in the Yukon Flats, Alaska. In order to make the article concise, you  may review the general background of this work in part one. I have truncated the background and methods of this work and focused on a portion of the results.

Wolves are highly studied because they are charismatic, exhibit interesting pack behaviors, and are a key predator in the systems where they exist. Their behaviors including movement speed, movement distances, number of prey killed, and travel distances have been well documented in high prey-density systems, but practically no information exists on these behavior in low or very-low density systems. In an attempt to rectify that, a study was initiated in 2008 to understand the kill rate of moose by wolves in the Yukon Flats, Alaska, where moose are held at low densities (<0.20 per square kilometer) by predation. In an interesting twist, that study found wolves are maintaining kill rates (moose per wolf per day) similar to wolves in high prey density systems. Certainly these results counter what I would predict and lead to a natural question – how are wolves accomplishing such high kill rates in low-prey densities? A known mechanism is that wolves in the Yukon Flats keep small pack sizes to cope with low densities of prey; if you have fewer wolves in a pack, more nutrition is available per wolf during each kill. However, if wolves were traveling further or faster in this low prey-density system was unknown.  I predicted that wolves in a low prey density system were traveling further, but not faster than wolves in a high prey-density system to maintain these kill rates. I also predicted they were selecting for river corridors when traveling. 

Wolf GPS Collar
I captured the image of this wolf outfitted with a GPS collar in Denali National Park in 2014. Collars like this one were used to generate a large dataset for my work.

To understand wolf movement, I used the same dataset from the 2008 kill rate study. It was composed of Global Positioning System (GPS) collars on six packs. Thanks to diligence in the kill rate study, I knew where kills occurred along each of the paths. For each pack, I characterized if the wolves were traveling, resting, at a kill site, or revisiting a kill site. These behaviors gave me enough information to calculate the rate of speed they were traveling, the distance they were traveling, the number of days traveling to make a kill, and how long they spent at kill sites. I also using a Generalized Linear Mixed Model to understand what landscape features were important for traveling wolves.

Wolves study area
The six packs for this study were located around Beaver, Alaska.

I found some interesting results, and put them in context of 16 comparable research papers of movements of wolves in high or medium prey-density systems. I am presenting the most applicable comparisons from the literature review (i.e., systems where moose  are prey and studies where GPS collars were used)  here. I found search time was slightly longer and search distance was 2.4 times greater in my low prey-density study area. Search time and search length are correlated together given that wolves are (almost) always hunting when moving. Due to that relationship, the search time is expected to go up as search days goes up.  I found no evidence that wolves were handling prey longer or traveling faster in the low prey-density system. Those results were not surprising as one researcher found that handling time of moose was not significantly different among packs which varied in size from 2 – 20. Since wolves were not traveling faster in our system, it is probable that regardless of prey density, that on average wolves travel at their maximum comfortable speed that maximizes efficient travel.

Wolf Results
In order to understand these results in the context of other works, I did a broad search of previous studies examining wolf movements in high prey density systems. The results I present here are some of the studies that are most applicable to my results because they were GPS studies of wolf movement in systems with moose.

I also found that wolves were utilizing river corridors and that they were selecting strongly against brushy habitat. In the Yukon Flats, that means they were selecting against thick stands of alder and willow. This was similar to previous studies where they found that wolves were able to travel 2.8 times faster if they used a river corridor rather than moving through a brushy environment. By using rivers, wolves were traveling faster and are likely taking advantage of increased prey density along river corridors.

The results of this work have some useful applications in helping us broadly understand wolf behavior. First, wolf territories are very large within low prey-density wolf systems. The mechanism that creates these large territories was unknown, but long-distance movements by wolves would create large territories by default. Next, back in the mid 1980s a researcher suggested that 0.20 moose per kilometer squared was the lowest density that wolves could persist at. Within the Yukon Flats, they are already persisting at lower densities than that, and since they are able to extend their travel distances to maintain kill rates it seems a minimum prey-density threshold could be much lower. A final implication of this work is that managers should expect wolf territories to increase in size if prey density decreases. In other systems (for instance deer in the mid-west), wolf territories should inflate in size as they move further in search of prey.

I look forward to presenting part four to you soon, which ties together moose hunting by wolves and humans by starting to understand the likelihood of competition.

Quantifying Rural Hunter Access in Alaska*

This entry details a portion of my thesis work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and is intended to communicate the findings of that work in a four part series. You are reading part two. In order to make the article concise, you  may review the general background of this work in part one. I have truncated the background and methods of this work and focused on a portion of the results.

How do you get to a resource? Well, the simple answer is you “access” them. Depending on what you are trying to achieve, access may mean walking through the door of your local grocery store, driving onto a frozen lake and drilling a hole to jig up a fish, or driving a boat up a river to harvest a moose. The last example speaks directly to subsistence use patterns of communities in the Yukon Flats, Alaska. The objective of this part (specifically Chapter 1) of my study was quantify rural hunter access in Alaska.

Fort Yukon Aerial
This is an image for Fort Yukon in the spring. The Yukon River dominates the landscape. Fort Yukon is ~500 people, and the other communities I studied range from 30 – 100 people.

Let’s take a step backward quickly to look at why access matters. Game levels are traditionally managed to create yield for hunters, but it is critical that game populations be accessible to hunters. In the huge area of Alaska, creating high game densities in a remote region may have minimal benefit to hunters. Outside of Alaska, the effect of access on game populations and hunter success is not well understood, but increased access in Ontario may decrease moose, increased access in Idaho may increase elk mortality, and hunters in Minnesota concentrate their efforts within 0.8 km of roads 98% of the time. These studies suggest that access is important, but within the Arctic access has not been quantified despite being important for hunters, particularly those with a subsistence lifestyle.

It is important that game managers understand how many animals are being harvested to aid in setting regulations. In Alaska, this is accomplished by reporting harvest via a “harvest tag”. However, under-reporting of harvest via the harvest tag system is high in the subsistence communities of the Yukon Flats. This is due to a variety reasons centering around culture practices and feasibility of reporting. Within those communities, moose hunters are allowed one bull moose per season, and hunting most often occurs along rivers in September and October.

To understand where moose hunters are harvesting moose, I used an interview dataset collected in 2005 and 2007 by the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments. The interviews were in conducted in five subsistence communities including Fort Yukon, Beaver Creek, Circle, Arctic Village, and Birch Creek. In the interview process, interviewees recorded harvest locations of moose on a topographic map. Based on that we determined they utilized rivers, a hunting method that is well documented in other research. However, the data allowed me go beyond just determining river use. I wanted to know : how far were users traveling from their community and from the river to harvest moose?

Yukon Flats Study Area
The study area was reviewed in part 1 of this four part series. This figure demonstrates the five communities that I studied, and their relation to each other.

I designed a method to quantify hunter access. I measured the straight-line distance of the harvest points from their community of origin, and the distance from the rivers. The idea behind this is that the hunter moved up river to a certain point, and then moved away from the river a certain distance. I grouped the resulting distances into five groups, and created a buffer around communities and rivers based on those distances. Within the buffers, I developed an “access index” with the goal of understanding the likelihood that a hunter would utilize an area. The access index was calculated as the number of points that fell inside of a buffer divided by the total number of points up to the edge of that buffer. So, based on that the maximum achievable value was 100% and either existed near community, or near the rivers. In effect, 100% means that 100% of the time, hunters were willing to travel that distance to harvest a moose.

Access Index Schematic
This schematic illustrates the calculation of the access index. I buffered rivers and each of the five communities base on the distances to harvest points. Within each of the buffers I calculated an access index, with the buffer around rivers and communities equaling 100%. In the first buffer hunters were 100% likely to travel at least that far to harvest a moose.
Access Index Final Model
This final model demonstrates how access if focused around rivers, and around communities. In this image, I added together of the access index around each of the five communities, and around the rivers.

The approach that I took was novel, and yielded some useful results. We found that on average hunters were traveling 0.9 ± 0.6 km from rivers and 47km ± 32km from their communities. Harvest was centered around rivers, and was happening most frequently near rivers. Some useful results!

There are a few ways that this model may be applied. First, I applied a region density of 0.0016 bull moose per square kilometer (remember, there are VERY low moose densities) to estimate the number of legal moose that are available to moose hunters. Based on hunter success of 27 – 46%, I estimated that 98 – 176 moose are harvested by hunters annually. Those numbers fell into the reasonable range of reported harvest in the region. Seeing as that’s the case, this method could help managers understand the amount of moose harvested, instead of relying on the extremely (regionally) variable harvest ticket system. Since this model enables an estimate of the number of animals taken around an access corridor, it could be used in other hunting systems where access is important. For instance in Alaska if a new road was created, how many moose would be harvested based on the new access. In Idaho, how many elk would be preserved if a road is closed?

Overall the results of this study have applicability within my study system, other subsistence systems in Alaska, and more broadly to regions where harvest of game is linked to access.  It demonstrates a novel method, and the results that can be gained through an interview process. In the next portion of this series, I will be examining wolf movement in this same area, which yielded some great results.

*The entirety of this work is in review with the Journal of Human Dimensions of Wildlife

Oh My, Fungi!

There have been many times when I stooped during my meanders through the woods to look at fungi, often not considering that I was only seeing the fruiting body of a large underground network of “hyphae” – small root-like structures which interact with many species in woodlands. Most of the time I only contemplate the color, shape, or size of the mushroom, and move on without ever being able to identify the species. I believe that experience is the same for many others. However, as I stood on the deck at the Folk School in Fairbanks, Alaska and watched a band of kids ranging from age 7-12 roam through the woods with mycologist Christin Anderson, I was excited to learn of the species they brought in!

I was astounded by the diversity of mushrooms brought forth – in a short time they had collected over 10 genus, and many more species. Functionally, the collection of mushrooms ranged from parasitic, to decomposing; one species even grew on decomposing mushrooms! We observed the variety of color and size of each by touching and looking as Christin explained that it is not possible to absorb the toxin of any mushroom through the skin, although most people believe that you can. It was certainly news to my ears! On top of that, I didn’t know the hallucinogenic compounds in mushrooms are the not same ones that can kill you; poisons and hallucinogens are separate things.

I think mushroom identification is the hardest part of being a mycologist, and is simply overwhelming for those of who are not mycologists. However, with Christin at the helm of at least identifying each of the mushrooms to genus, I was excited to look up information each. Here’s just a little of what I learned about the diversity of the world of mushrooms.  As a result of my research, I am in awe of the functionality that mushrooms play in Alaskan ecosystems.

Below are a images of the mushrooms collected. If you are receiving this post via email, you may have to visit the post to see them, since there are too many to be sent in the email.

 

Literature and websites:

http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

http://www.shroomery.org/

en.wikipedia.org

http://www.mushroomexpert.com/

http://mushroom-collecting.com/

http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/

http://www.backyardnature.net/

Michelot, D., & Melendez-Howell, L. M. (2003). Amanita muscaria: chemistry, biology, toxicology, and ethnomycology. Mycological research, 107(02), 131-146.

Autumnal Aurora

I jumped when my alarm went off at 11:30 PM, and I looked at my surroundings to remind myself where I was. The sleeping bag wrapped around me and my reclined seat reinforced I was in my truck as my blurry eyes brought the steering wheel in focus. My memories flooded back to me; I arrived 30 minutes ago, and with no aurora in sight had set an alarm and took a nap. I was expectant that a G2 storm forecast was going to pay out, and as I peered out of trucks window it seemed I was in luck. The aurora was starting to show a band high in the sky. I turned the ignition, and drove down the road to find the “perfect”, golden tree – my goal for the night was to fuse autumn colors and the aurora together.

I stood on the road with my head craned up, watching a beautiful, green aurora band overhead. This aurora was  Mr. Jekyll which soon morphed into Mr. Hyde – albeit a beautiful version of him.  I was not ready for the full force of the aurora as it transformed the sky into a green and pink blanket of shimmering, dancing lights so different than what I had been looking at minutes earlier.  The energy that rolled overhead, I learned later, was the result of a monstrous, KP7 event, that pushed the aurora into Washington and the Midwest.  I was so overwhelmed by the aurora that I expressed myself by simultaneously singing, praying, and taking pictures by myself under the vast display of lights. For those who know me, you might guess that I was also grinning broadly from ear-to-ear. My smile would not have disappointed you!

For parts of the night, my only focus was to capture the overhead aurora corona to the best of my ability. The last time I successfully captured the corona was in Denali National Park last year. I couldn’t be more happy to show you this gallery of images from last night  – there were many more taken! The gallery is chronological, and hopefully gives a sense of the scale of the aurora and how quickly it built. These images are taken at 9mm, and hence have a ~120 degree field of view!

I am continuing to boost my online portfolio, so please stop by if you have a moment! A selection of these images has been added to my Fine Arts America Photo Gallery for purchase. Thank-you for your consideration!

Fine Arts America Photo Gallery

Colorful Seasons in Alaska

There is nothing more beautiful than a wildflower, but what about them makes them so beautiful? Surely the details in them are often astounding. Long stamens, unique petals, or colorful flowers may dazzle the eyes. Alternatively, the beauty of a wildflower may be linked to its overall surrounding. We often find them perched in rocky crags, in front of mountain vistas, at the edge of our favorite pond, or along our favorite hiking trail. Each wildflower represents a detailed, wild beauty, and that beauty grows as you consider the ecosystem and ecology that surround them.

Wildflowers excel at telling us the progression of summer. In Alaska, one of the first wildflowers of spring, pasque flowers, spring up in large purple and yellow blossoms welcoming the queen bumble bees which have just woken up from a long winter. Similarly, the early blooms of purple mountain saxifrage provide a critical nectar resource for queen bees. However, the timing, or phenology, of wildflowers in Alaska is changing with a warming climate. Changing flower timing can effect insects populations, and in turn birds by growing at different times than they have for milleniums. An example that we (I believe) have all noticed is a quickly melting snowpack. As snowpack melts earlier it has repercussions on when a flower starts to grow and bloom by moving it earlier, and buds may freeze in the still cold temperatures (Inouye 2008). This changes the plant’s fitness and also the flowers available to pollinators.  Although the genes of plants may have enough flexibility accommodate some of the effects of climate change, they may need to evolve to ultimately survive (Anderson, Jill T., et al. 2012).

This summer I’ve turned my lens to all of the wildflower blooms I can. I am actually pretty astounded by the number of species I have photographed and learned! When photographing them I both put them in their surroundings, and captured the fine details of their beauty. Some of these images are availble for purchase through my Fine Art America gallery. I hope you enjoy this extensive collection of the colorful seasons of Alaska! Photos are featured in the month that I captured them, rather than when they first start blooming.

June

July

August

 

If you’ve made it this far then I want to let you know that these images are available in a single page as well with some images that are not featured in this post:

http://ianajohnson.com/wildflowers-of-alaska/

Identification Sources:

If you are looking for Alaskan wildflower identification I cannot say enough about the utility of these two sites:

http://www.turtlepuddle.org/alaskan/wild/flowers-1.html

http://www.alaskawildflowers.us/

USDA Plant Database http://plants.usda.gov/java/

Literature

Inouye, David W. “Effects of climate change on phenology, frost damage, and floral abundance of montane wildflowers.” Ecology 89.2 (2008): 353-362.

Anderson, Jill T., et al. “Phenotypic plasticity and adaptive evolution contribute to advancing flowering phenology in response to climate change.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 279.1743 (2012): 3843-3852.

Last Post For A Bit : Puppies!

Hello to all followers of this blog! Thanks so much for your support of this website. In an effort to make it better, I am switching hosts. During the transition I will not be posting any new content to aid the transition which may take a couple of weeks. When I come “back online” it will be with even better web design, plus a TON of new features including the ability to sell imagery. I’m really excited about what will be an excellent change! You can always keep track of day-to-day imagery at www.facebook.com/ianlww

But, I don’t want you to be sad, so I’ve left you with these awesome images of puppies from Black Spruce Dog Sledding. These care free pups are the next generation of working dogs and racers for the kennel. As with any puppies, their transition from cute-and-slow to cute-and-awkward has been quick. These images were taken a few weeks apart of a group broadly referred to as “The Mines”. An official statement from the Kennel is, “While Black Spruce Dog Sledding maintains an “it depends” political stance on mining, one thing is certain: Alaska’s mines sure make for some cool dog names!!”. I introduce to you the chaos, cuteness, and beauty of Ambler, Kensington (Kenzie), Forty, Pogo, Knox, Polar, Pebble and Red.

5 Weeks

8 Weeks

Matanuska Glacier Peril

I arrived back at the car from after a couple of hours hiking around on Matanuska Glacier, and my clothes were still wet. Although the day on the glacier had been beauty-filled and grand, I had learned a steep lesson on glacier safety.

We reached Matanuska Glacier just as the sun was starting to come out again. During the drive up the Matanuska Valley the sun illuminated the mountains that rose high on each side, and the Matanuska river lay below us along the curvy, Glenn Highway. As we stood in the parking lot we could see a 4 mile-wide swath of ice at the front of the glacier called the terminal moraine. From there the glacier stretched back over 26 miles into the mountains! We walked down the safest path of firm glacial silt and ice, which was marked by orange cones. In a few more minutes we stepped onto the full glacier.

Hindsight is always 20/20, which is why I now realize that stepping away from the orange cones which marked the “safe trail” was more risky than I previously thought. In a quest for images I moved through the ice hills of the glacier looking for pools of water to shoot reflection shots from. I walked through ankle deep, sticky mud towards higher ground where the glacier had deposited a gravel pile. From there I stepped to the edge of some flowing water, stuck out my toe to test the depth of the water, and immediately slipped off the ice edge and into the water. I never hit bottom!! The flowing water had cut a deep, deep pool which I now found myself in up to my shoulders. During the fall I was fortunate to have turned myself around quickly, so I put my elbows up on the edge of the glacier and pulled myself back out. In the fall my camera and tripod fell into a pile of glacial silt, and fortunately not into water with me. The incident lasted only a few seconds before I was back on solid ground and moving quickly away from that deep pool. I stripped off my wet shirt for warmth, used it to begin cleaning my camera, and shook a bit as the adrenaline set in.

What is particularly annoying (to me) and perturbing about the situation, is that I was not doing any unnecessarily risky. In fact, when I slipped in I was testing the water before stepping in. So, I’m now asking you to learn from me – test unknown and murky pools with a long stick, rather than a short toe!

Aside from a scrape with death, our day at Matanuska Glacier was remarkable. The gallery and images below details the gigantic ice face as well as the tiny details of the glacier.

Striations in this piece of ice caught Kass' eye, and the lighting sealed the deal. I love this image of a glacial ice cube.
Striations in this piece of ice caught Kassie’s eye, and the lighting sealed the deal. I love this image of a glacial ice cube.
The face of the glacier was carved in interesting ways. This up-close shot looks at the melting ice on its surface.
The face of the glacier was carved in interesting ways. This up-close shot looks at the melting ice on its surface.
These large rocks melted rapidly, providing a brilliant blue window into the glacier.
These large rocks melted rapidly, providing a brilliant blue window into the glacier.
This panoramic image looks back at the glacier, and down the headwaters of the Matanuska River.
This panoramic image looks back at the glacier, and down the headwaters of the Matanuska River.
Semipalmated Plover
A semipalmated plover feeds in the glacial till and among the ice cubes of the Matanuska Glacier.
P7060191
The end of a happy day at Matanuska Glacier!

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.