Category Archives: Birds

Dayboat of Wonders in Glacier Bay National Park

A couple of weekends ago I had the opportunity to tour Glacier Bay National Park with Hoonah’s 5th and 6th grade class. The trip was the culmination of their “Plumes of Glacier Bay” curriculum where they had been studying the species of birds within the park. As an avid birder I was thrilled to bring these 16, rambunctious kids on an ecology trip into the park on the “Dayboat”. The boat travels into the park to pick up travelers and provides an 8.5 hour, 130+ mile cruise to tidewater glaciers with opportunities to view tons of wildlife.

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Calving
Marjorie Glacier at the head of Glacier Bay National Park calves into the ocean.
Sea Otter, Glacier Bay National Park
A Sea Otter mother floats with its ups in the cold water of Glacier Bay.

Its not always (one might say rarely) sunny in Glacier Bay. The cold waters and moist air cause rain and fog to form quickly within the park. However, we started out our day under high clouds with small patches of blue sky.  Just after launching, we encountered some choppy water in the passage out of Bartlett Cove. Our on-board park ranger, Jenny, explained that the bottom of the ocean had striations in the sediment from the receding glacier that pushed the water up, often making it choppier than the wind would merit. After 45 minutes of cruising at 20 knots, our first stop along the way was at South Marble Island. This small island offers refuge to nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tufted Puffins, and other colonial sea birds looking to nest away from predators. It also has huge haul-outs of Stellars’s Sealions. The gigantic animals that I like to call “sea grizzlies” because of their immense size (up to 2,000 pounds), lay on the rocks in the sunshine like sausages.  The dominant males sat with back arched and head erect. Their enormous size compared to the others around them made it easy to see why they were the boss.

Our boat cut through the water past South Marble Island, and we moved up the fjord. As we did, the mountains became more jagged and covered in snow. At the mouth of Glacier Bay most the mountains had been covered ice during the last glacial advance which rounded them off over time, but the terrain became more jagged as we moved past mountain tops untouched by the glaciers.  An exception to the jagged mountains was the round, granite dome named “Gloomy Knob”.  On that granite dome were well manicured lawns of grass with sporadic cottonwoods growing in the crevices. The lawns were kept short by overwintering Mountain Goats who grazed the pastures. Just after the spring thaw is the best time to watch the goats, and I think we counted 20 of them on Gloomy Knob. Many of them were feeding their kids, and we got some insight into the bonding of goats with their mothers – one made a spectacle by climbing onto its mothers back.

Gloomy Knob, Mountain Goat, Glacier Bay
A young kid stands on its mother’s back at Gloomy Knob in Glacier Bay

The goats were not the only four-legged mammals on Gloomy Knob. High up in the granite cliffs we spotted a family of four Coastal Brown Bears. They lounged on the rocks, sleeping, perhaps 1,000 feet above our heads. During our passing they roused and moved along the ridgeline. They even passed by a goat on the ledge below them. Although the grizzlies took a look at their potential meal, the Mountain Goat seemed to know it was safe from the predators above, as it never moved a muscle.

Gloom Knob, Coastal Brown Bear, Grizzly, Mountain Goat
A family of grizzlies looks at a goat below them.

Tidewater Glaciers

Sixty-five miles from where we started in Bartlett Cove we finally reached the end of the park. Marjorie Glacier stood in front of us like icy walls. The glacier face is about 350 feet tall and extends nearly a mile from left to right. In many of the pictures, you can see pin-sized Harbor Seals with their pups on the ice flows to lend the glacier some size perspective. Two times the glacier let go of new ice bergs by “calving”. The roar was like thunder of an approaching storm. The glacier, which is currently 21 miles long, has retracted 65 miles. In 1750, it was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit from their homeland.  Since the retreat has happened so quickly, there are many studies within the park boundaries to understand how recolonization of rock surfaces occurs. Also, the land around the glacier is springing back up from the weight of the ice in a process known as isostatic rebound. The land rises almost an inch a year which may cause river drainages to change and coast resources like clam beds to come out of the water.

Reid Glacier
The huge face of Reid Glacier near the head of Glacier Bay
Harbor Seals, Tidewater Glacier, Marjorie Glacier
Harbor Seals float in front of Marjorie Glacier.

The students gave the whole boat a treat by performing traditional Tlingit songs at the glacier. Their pounding drums mixed with the grandeur of the scenery for a truly memorable end to the day.  The trip into Glacier Bay was an incredible introduction to this vast and wild park. I look forward to the day when I return for a more detailed look at its beauty.

One of the students plays a drums and sings on the boat near Marjorie Glacier.
The students sing and dance on the boat to traditional Tlingit songs.
Our student group at the head of Glacier Bay National Park.
I was amazed by the lines carved in this rock by the glacier.
A pioneering tree starts to recolonize a the bare rock of this glaciated peninsula. Its possible that the land became available to the tree through isostatic rebound.
A halo from the sun burns through the clouds over the mountains of Glacier Bay.

A Stroll Through the Kelp Forest

The fresh morning air and sea breeze were refreshing to my senses. As I walked along the beach of Hoonah, Alaska the smell of the spray made my taste-buds tingle and buzz;  the ocean air is tantalizingly tasty. The smell of the ocean was particularly strong on this morning because as the tide poured out of Port Frederick it was leaving shallow kelp forests high and dry on the rocky beach. Newly exposed vegetation was increasing the olfactory pleasure.  Stranded kelp on the beach is not a daily occurrence, but the large size of this tide exposed a world in the kelp forests that would normally only be accessible by diving into the frigid water.  From high tide to low this tide would raise and lower the waters in Port Frederick by over 22 feet!

Sunflower Seastars

I was amazed by the abundance and diversity of sea creatures that I had never seen up close before. The first was an enormous, fire-red and purple sunflower sea star. Stretching about 30 inches across, it is actually a top predator of the sea floor. It was evident to see how fast they are as it slid across the rocks by using its long and plentiful tentacles to propel itself. On the bottom they prey on nearly anything that they can get like abalone, starfish, cucumbers and others. The vibrancy of their colors was really amazing. Some were purple and red, some just purple, and some just red. I am not sure if these are different species or not. The video below shows off a bit of the sunflower seastar and the next creature to be found, the Sea Cucumber.

Sea Cucumbers

There are many examples of bizarre creatures in a kelp forest, but the sea cumber is certainly a good example! These creatures, although ugly and dangerous looking, are actually detritivores. They feed on the bottom sucking up soil and convert them into nutrients that are used further up the marine food web. They were too interesting looking to not at least poke one with a finger. When I did I was very surprised to find that they did not have a hard shell, but instead were gelatinous and rippled like a water-balloon dropped on the pavement. As I looked around I found many of the sea cucumbers had molded into the cracks of the rocks at the tideline – once they are out of the water there is not enough support in their body to maintain its shape. In Alaska, this species, the giant red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus), are commerically harvested. They are marketed locally and in Asia.

The Humpback Whale

As summer warms up the waters of Port Frederick, large blooms of phytoplankton feed the base of a food chain that ultimately brings many whales into the sound. As I stood on the edge of the kelp forest at low tide deep water stretched out in front of me. A humpback whale surfaced a mile out, and then a half mile out. It seemed to be headed my way. I grabbed my camera with my 200-500 telephoto lens waiting for it to get closer and surface again. I saw shocked to see the water boil in front of me much, much closer than I could have ever imagined. With a WOOSH! the spout of a fully grown humpback broke the surface in front of me just 20 yards away! With my adrenaline rushing through my veins I captured what I could of the huge animal. It is amazing to consider that even if the water was 50 feet in that location that he could have spanned it from the bottom to the surface!

This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!

My morning along the edge of Port Frederick was wonderful because it was everything I saw was new and foreign. It is truly magnificent to consider what is out there to just be experienced. The information I learned on my stroll through the kelp forest gave me an even further appreciation of this beautiful region of Southeast, Alaska.

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!

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/

2016 Alaskan Calendar is Now for Sale!

Hello Everyone,

I am very, very, very  excited to write inform you of the release of my 2016 calendar! The content features some of the best imagery on this website, plus a few things that have never seen the “light of day”. The calendar is entitled “Seasonal Moods of Alaska” with imagery for each month captured in that month. The calendar is 100% designed by me including feature images, transparent images, windows, and text tying the imagery to the season. A huge thanks to my family and fiance for helping to proof the calendar! I believe the final product is a work of art mingled with science.

If you want to see it, clicking on the cover image or link link will bring you to the sales site that I created.  Otherwise, keep reading for some more information 🙂

2016 Seasons and Moods of Alaska Cover

http://ianajohnson.com/customproducts/

The calendar is printed on 9.5×13 paper and spiral bound leaving ample of room to write in your schedule. Of course it has a hole for hanging if that is all you want to do with it! With imagery from throughout Alaska, the calendar is a great memento of your trip to Alaska, for a friend who has been here, or to bring inspiration for your future trip here!

This calendar is being printed by my local shop in Perham, Minnesota. Your consideration and support also helping the local economy in Perham.

2016 Calendar Final 9halfx138
Each month has a premier image. This image from Mendenhall glacier showcases the high resolution imagery within the calendar.
2016 Calendar Final 9halfx1323
Every month has a transparent image behind the grid, and small windows with images from that month. Writing in the lower right panel ties together fuses the imagery and writing together.

The calendar will be available for pre-order through October 15th. At that time I will begin shipping orders. You can help me out a huge amount by spreading the word about this calendar or through a purchase! Thanks you so much in advance for your support in this project!

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!

Go When The River Says Go

I was excited to head far into the Alaskan bush by river to help a friend open his cabin for the season. Almost a week of packing led up to the Wednesday we were supposed to leave.  However, when the middle day of the week arrived, high water reports from Fort Yukon and the Upper Porcupine River were ominous. Record snowfall in Old Crow, Yukon Territory, had swollen the giant river systems. They were far above travel-able levels, and over-flooded banks were pulling dangerous amounts of debris, ‘drift’, into the river. Our final destination was 220 river miles through the high water and drift of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, and the experienced judgement of Joe dictated that we would wait a few days before heading up to his cabin. Four days later the river had dropped to acceptable levels. It was go-time : the river was saying so!

Before I get into some of the stories of the trip. Come along on the trip with me by watching this video:

The notion of taking a boat far into the Alaskan bush is exciting! A long-time resident of the bush, Joe was anxious to open his cabin, and assess his estate because bears, humans, or weather can all impact an unoccupied cabin.  The boat-trip up river started in Circle, Alaska on a cloudy day. As we headed downstream in the Yukon River, we quickly entered the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. This expansive refuge is critical, critical habitat for breeding waterfowl and birds. In fact, the refuge hosts 150 species of breeding birds from 11 countries, 8 Canadian provinces and 43 of the 50 states. That’s remarkable diversity!

This is Delta, our wonderful river dog companion!
This is Delta, our wonderful river dog companion!

The Yukon Flats is aptly named. As we cruised along in the boat, the shores were a steady patchwork of riparian habitat consisting of willows, birch, and spruces. There was no perceptable climb in elevation. The fast, high water of the river kept progress slow, and Captain Joe was constantly vigilant for pieces of drift. Three foot-long sticks and entire trees were coming down the river at the rate of several or more pieces per minute. Hitting a small branch may result in a dented prop, but a large stump could have ended the trip. By the time we reached Curtis Slough to stop for the night, the intense driving had drained Joe (and rightfully so!). Overall we made it about 135 river miles from Circle.

P5261027
As you move along the river there are cabins dotted along the way. Some of them, such as this one provide permanent shelter year around for bush dwellers. Others are seasonal or may just provide shelter for passing travelers.
Schuman House
An old cabin at “Schuman House”

We pulled into a small log cabin along the banks Curtis Slough, hoping to spend the night. The traditional landing was underwater, but I jumped ashore with the bow rope and headed to tie off to a nearby tree. I glanced at the cabin, and immediately saw that the plywood door had been torn in half; peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. “Hey Joe”, I stated, “A bear broke into the cabin, by tearing the door off”. “Ok, does it look fresh?”, he questioned. I assessed the raw wood in the torn door from 25 feet away and responded, “yup, sure does!”. By that time Joe had climbed up with Delta, our dog companion. Delta moved towards the cabin and sniffed the door; her demeanor immediately told us that it was a very fresh break in, and then I heard a can rattle from inside. The bear was still in the cabin! In two flicks of a lamb’s tail we were in the boat and headed across river to camp on a more desirable (bear free) gravel bar. Joe, knowing the owner of the cabin, made a satellite phone call to inform them of the situation. Remarkably, this bear encounter was the only one of the whole trip!

The next morning we continued up the Porcupine River, and moved out of the Yukon Flats and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Arctic NWR is the largest piece of land in the refuge system, and home of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. No longer in the flats, we saw a mountain on the horizon! More significantly, that mountain was the beginning of the rocky ramparts which would line the river for the rest of our trip. The tall and colorful ramparts and bluffs of the Porcupine Rive were a welcome contrast to the Yukon Flats! As we moved through the landscape, the smile of enjoyment could not have been erased from my face by the spray of a skunk. The area was absolutely stunning; on a small scale, I was reminded of the Grand Canyon. Red, orange, and black rock walls rose high above the water. The bluffs held countless caves and spires shaped by wind, ice, and snow. The refuge of the high cliffs provided important nesting habitat. As we passed we noticed nests of golden eagles, ravens, and a peregrine falcon protected on all sides by the vertical rock faces.

Two hundred and twenty-two miles upriver we passed the final bluff across from Joe’s cabin. The boat swung around towards the opposite bank and soon I tied it off onshore. Already I felt connected to this beautiful region, and was excited to spend the next five days exploring it. The next chapter of cabin life to come soon!

Oh, and as one last, unrelated note the blog turned two on May 28th. Thank-you ALL for your continuing support. Your feedback, comments, and enjoyment of the material here is much appreciated!

The Great Great-Horned Owl

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

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

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

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

Into the Mouth of an Ice Beast

The receding glaciers in the Bays of Southeast Alaska are opening up barren landscapes and new lands for colonizing vegetation and birds like arctic terns. As we walked along Sitaantaagu (Tlingit : “The Glacier Behind the Town”), I felt connected to the misty, snow covered mountains, and rocky lake shore. It is renowned and spectacular country!

Mendenhall glacier is receding at up to 150 feet per year, and in 1900 the large quantities of melt water began forming Mendenhall Lake.  The lake is now home to salmon which have colonized glacial streams. Remarkably, it seems that colonization by salmon occurs in a decade or two. Much shorter that I ever suspected!  As we, a large group of wildlife biologists, walked along the shoreline of Mendenhall Lake and told stories of field seasons gone-by or hypothesized on natural processes, icebergs which had calved from the glacier drifted in the middle of the lake.Naturalist Bob Armstrong introduced me to a small, alpine wildflower called purple mountain saxifrage.  This early bloomer, he stated, is a critical resource of early emerging insects like the bumble bees.

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Purple saxifrage is one of the first spring flowers to bloom in the Juneau region.
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Purple saxifrage filled with the rains of Juneau.

The face of the Mendenhall Glacier got bigger, and bigger, and bigger as we approached. By the time I reached the front of the glacier it loomed in front of me for almost a half mile.  I walked up the river of melt-water in front of the glacier and  touched the edge of the the ice cave it had carved. I grinned a bit, threw myself over a three foot bolder guarding the cave and stepped inside into the mouth of the icebeast. I was awestruck. Curved, turquoise ice hung over my head like whipped meringue. The sound of the river reverberating in the small space was numbing, and was fed by each drop of water that fell from the ice into the river. Looking further up the cave, the color transitioned from turquoise to cerulean blue. As I walked further the surrounding area turned so blue, that I could have been scuba diving in an ocean.

The hardest part to capture in these pictures is the scale of the ice cave. It stretched back over 100 feet, and as I walked in the ceiling diminished from 7 feet, to 5 feet, and finally I was relegated to crawling on my hands and knees in the narrow space.

The way ‘out’ was graced by a set of rock ptarmigan. These birds, allowed me to get very close, and I framed up this shot with the face of the Mendenhall Glacier in the background. These ptarmigan won’t be white for much longer!

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A beautiful rock ptarmigan in front of Mendenhall Glacier
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A puffy rock ptarmigan!

Glacial recession in expansion in Alaska has occurred since the last glacial maximum. The Little Ice Age caused the expansion of Alaskan glaciers about 4,000 years ago, and recent recession has exposed what has been buried for nearly a millennium. These stumps were exposed by the receding Mendenhall glacier and were aged to nearly 1,500 years ago! “Deep time” can be hard to comprehend, and it amazing to think the Imperial Chinese Empire had been established for 800 years and that Medieval Europe was enforcing fiefdoms through rigid monarchies when these hemlock and sitka black spruce were buried!

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A large stump of a forest buried by ice ~1,500 years ago. It has been determined the forest was composed of hemlock and sitka black spruce.
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This stump field is degrading fast, but it’s likely more forests will be uncovered as the Mendenhall Glacier receeds even further.

Rio Grande Valley and the Joy of a Naturalist

It is a joy being a naturalist in an area of high ecological diversity. The melding of the tropical zones of northern Mexico, and the arid regions of southern Texas are dominated the Rio Grande River. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge epitomizes the diversity of the region. Walking through the refuge throughout  the year can yield over 400 species of birds, 450 species of plants and over half of the species butterflies found within the United States. Although our trip to the region was targeting birds the opportunity to enjoy the ecology of the region while strolling through sable palms or meandering through desert scrub is a tremendous treat! Every region has a secret to give to one who watches long enough.Spending time being in nature is therapeutic. Mornings and evenings birding offer a time of enjoyment, relfection, observation, and exercise. A much needed relief from the routines of Daily Life, which I would encourage you to explore, maximize, and enjoy. 

Rio Grande Video:

Our trip built on our trip from 2014, which was a great introduction to the region.  In 2015 we added on several more ‘lifer’ species including but not limited to vermillion flycatcher, burrowing owl, cactus wren,painted redstart, audobon’s oriole, and red-crowned parrot. These were just a fraction of the 125 species we observed during the trip which is a modest number of species compared to some birders. Our time there focused on watching behavior by spending significant time with the birds and habitat. Since we are approaching the breeding seasons, many of the birds were a bit randy. We listened to breeding calls and watched many, many birds carrying nesting material. The video above shows some of that behavior; in particular watch the a cute lousiana waterthrush puff out his chest feathers, a black-necked still splash water around its mate, and a pair of parrots cuddle. The pictures below further capture some of the incredible birds, plants, and landscapes behind the lens of a novice naturalist. 

If you have made it this far and enjoyed the pictures, you can always check out the the gallery The Birds of Southern Texas, or more broadly Birds From Across the United States!

These images are from a variety of locations including:

Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley, Olivea Park, Sable Palms Sanctuary, Laguna Madre World Birding Center, South Padre Island Convention Center, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these locations are discussed in this post from 2014.