Category Archives: Mammals

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.

The Pine Marten Transplants of Chichagof Island

When I think of the American Pine Marten (Martes americana), it invokes an image of giant, rotund spruces and hemlocks in an old growth forest. In my mind, the lithe body of a Pine Marten scurries around in the branches perhaps a hundred feet from the forest floor in search of a red squirrel or bird’s nest. A small squeak indicates that the small mustelid has connected with its prey. This vision could be considered “classic” in the fact that martens are strongly associated with mature, old growth forests (Greg 1995). In fact, their dependence on old growth forests is so strong that traditional logging methods have been cited as a driver of large scale declines of marten populations (Davies 1983). In some regions of Southeast Alaska marten are still abundant, and in general the Tongass National Forest offers great habitat for marten. However, they are most often found on the mainland, and I was told by a friend that they were introduced to Chichagof Island by people. That tidbit of information intrigued me, and as I dove into Pine Marten history on Chichagof I was very interested to find out a marten I crossed paths with is a descendant from a small introduction of intentional transplants.

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Transplanting wildlife to new areas in Alaska has been going on since the Russians began to settle  here (Paul 2009). Frequently transplants happened on the Aleutian Islands or the islands of Southeast Alaska and often the incentive revolved around economic opportunity. A well-known example of this is the transplant of Blue Fox to the Aleutians so they could be farmed and harvested for trapping.  The fox were responsible for extirpating several species of birds from the islands.  Over the years many species including Caribou, Sitka Blacktail, Mountain Goats and Elk have been introduced to new areas throughout Alaska. The first martens were introduced to Chichagof Island in 1949 to create a population for trapping (in fact Pine Martens are still Alaska’s largest fur market earning 1-2 million annually (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)). By 1954, 21 marten had been introduced to the Island and despite the low number of starting individuals, their numbers climbed rapidly in their new environment. It is estimated in 2006 over 2,200 marten were trapped on Chichagof Island. It’s a remarkably successful population here!

Blue Fox
It was fascinating to see this account from the early 1900s of Blue Fox farming. At the time it was implemented as a branch of the USDA. You can read the full text at : https://archive.org/details/bluefoxfarmingin1350ashb

Since transplants can have negative effects on resident populations, did the transplant of marten to Chichagof Island impact populations there? Anecdotally I have been told that Dusky Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) numbers have declined on the island and that Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) are not as abundant as they used to be.  Certainly each of these prey items are consumed by the martens. Buskirk (1983) found birds and squirrels made up a strong majority of the marten’s diet in Southcentral Alaska, but that voles, mice, and shrews were the most important items in the diet.  On Chichagof Island, the diet patterns are the same, although Ben-David et al. (1997) found high variation in the autumn and the presence of salmon and crab.  In the summer a marten’s diet may be made up 80% of birds and squirrels. Marten populations are normally not very large and hence would be unlikely to strongly influence prey, but Chichagof Island holds the highest abundance in the region (Flynn and Ben-David 2004). With these high populations and a diet favoring birds and squirrels, is it is possible that marten populations on Chichagof Island exert a top-down pressure on their prey? I believe based on the effect of being a successful transplant makes it it possible. However, I can find no data on the population trends of Dusky Grouse or Flying Squirrels on Chichagof Island and there are many other factors at play. For instance,  Dusky Grouse may find protection from predators in old growth  and flying squirrels are likely to benefit from old growth structure. Hence, removal of old growth by logging may lead to a reduced population. Rather than conjecture on a speculative answer, I will put it out there that a graduate student and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game could pair up on this venture.

I will leave you with a description of my encounter with an American Pine Marten. On October 16th, Hoonah received measurable snow before Fairbanks, Alaska.  The 14 inches of snow that lay on the ground was the first time Southeast Alaska had beat the Interior to snow in over 70 years. I started up my truck, my wife jumped in, and we headed out the road with the hope of photographing a bear in the snow. The lower elevations were slick and wet. 6 inches of slush lay heavy on the roads, but we made it the 10 miles to the turn towards False Bay. As we slowly climbed the pass the truck seemed to shrink into the ground as the snow levels rose. After only a couple of miles we were plowing snow with the bumper of the truck and it was evident that we would not go much further. The only catch was we could not find a place to turn around. On we drove hoping that our luck held out, when up the road we saw a small figure bound into the ditch. It plowed into a snow drift and then burst back out again. In a flash I was out with my camera clicking away. Pursing my lips I made small rodent sounds which intrigued the inquisitive creature. Turning its head rapidly it dove back into a snow bank and emerged a few feet away. To me it seemed as if the little fellow was simply enjoying the snow rather than doing anything too serious. He wove in and out of cover, posed for me and eventually bounded into the woods in search of greener (or whiter) pastures.

Pine Marten, American Pine Marten, Chichagof Island, Hoonah, Southeast Alaska, Martes americana
American Pine Marten on Chichagof Island near Hoonah, Alaska.

 

Cited:

R. Flynn and M. Ben-David. 2004. Abundance, prey availability and diets of American martens: implications for the design of old growth reserves in Southeast Alaska. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grant final report. Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Ben-David, M., Flynn R.W., Schell D.M. 1997. Annual and seasonal changes in diets of martens: evidence from stable isotope analysis. Oecologia. 111:280-291.

Buskirk, S.W. 1983. The Ecology of Marten in Southcentral Alaska. Doctoral Disertation. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Dendragapus_obscurus/

Davis, Mark H. “Post-release movements of introduced marten.” The Journal of Wildlife Management (1983): 59-66.

Drew, G. 1995. WINTER HABITAT SELECTION BY AMERICAN MARTEN (Martesamericana) IN NEWFOUNDLAND: WHY OLD GROWTH?. Dissertation.

Paul, T. 2009. Game transplants in Alaska. Technical bulletin #4. 2nd Edition.

Schoen, J., Flynn R., Clark B. American Marten. Southeast Alaska Conservation Assessment. Chapter 6.5

Ashbrook, F.G. Blue Fox Farming in Alaska. Accessed : https://archive.org/details/bluefoxfarmingin1350ashb 10/27/2016

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Alaska_Maritime/what_we_do/conservation.html

 

Why Do Whales Try To Fly?

Last week I was floating under gray skies and windless conditions on a whale-watching boat outside of Hoonah, Alaska.  We drifted with engines off while Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) fed around a rocky reef a hundred yards that was exposed by a shrinking tide. The distinct kee-kee-kee of hundreds of marbled murrelets, (Brachyramphus marmoratus, small pelagic birds) rang out around us and the bellow of sea lions droned from a distance green channel buoy. Towards that buoy an enormous nose broke through the surface and in a fraction of a second a mature Humpback Whale hung in the air with only the tips of its tail in the water. Its re-entry sent water far into the air with a crash. On its second breach I was ready and captured a series of shots as it arched into the water. My heart was racing as I soaked in what had just happened! Ultimately its leap from the water set my mind turning on why a whale would try to fly at all.

Mature Humpback Whales are gigantic creatures weighing between 45-50 tons (NOAA) and reaching up to 45 feet. I think Whitehead (1985) has it right when he states, “A Whale’s leap from the water is almost certainly the most powerful single action performed by any animal.” He found that a 12-m long adult humpback must travel at about 17 knots (3 times their normal cruising speed) to break the surface and expose at least 70% of their body. The energy required to thrust their entire body comes at an expense of energy, and begs to question about what they gain from it.  It is possible whales breach to communicate with others, to act aggressively towards another whale, to show strength, or to “play” (Whitehead 1985).

Humpback Whale Splash
A huge splash results from the breach of a humpback whale.

A lot of research on aerial behavior has tried to associate breaching with group dynamics. These studies have yielded interesting correlations. Whales breach more often in groups (Whitehead 1985). They were more likely to breach within 10km of another whale. Humpback whales surface activity (including multiple behaviors above surface) increases with group size and also occurred more with underwater vocalizations (Silber 1986). There also seems to behaviors which foreshadow breaching. For instance, breaching often comes after a tail lob. A tail lob is another visual and audio spectacle where the whale slaps its tail against the water.  Since breaching occurs more often in groups, these lends to the notion that it is a form of communication.

For some researchers, time spent on water results in findings that have little explanation. For instance, whales may breach more as wind speed rises (Whitehead 1985). Although support for why that would be is nearly impossible to determine, it has been shown that surface slaps can carry for several kilometers and the amount of sound created changes depending on what angle the whale strikes the water (Payne and McVay 1971, Deakos 2002 citing Watkins 1981). The distance that a breach can be heard is unknown, but it certainly surpasses the visual extent lending to the hypothesis that it is a form of communication, however, what message it conveys is unknown.

DSC_2066

By listening to whale vocalizations (for which humbacks are famous) that occur leading up to breaches, researchers found there is a relationship between the amount of vocalizations and breaches. Male to male interaction and above water behavior were often correlated with increased vocalization between males (Silber 1986). It is likely these vocalizations are aggressive and that males are plying for position or to mate with a female. The subsequent breach is probably an “exclamation” (Whitehead 1985) on the underwater vocalization rather than an attempt to harm the other whale during the breach.  Certainly it would demonstrate to a female the prowess and strength of the male (Whitehead 1985).

Insight into breaching behavior may be gained from researching other percussive behaviors. Deakos (2002) found that pectoral slapping varies with age class, sex, and social position. Females were likely to slap pectoral fins on the surface to indicate readiness to mate, while males often did it to compete with other males without full-on combat. Pectoral slapping was shown to be frequent in young whales and is likely an important piece of their development (I was fortunate to see a calf breaching last year).   However, pectoral slapping and frequent breaches from young and feisty individuals taper off as the whales mature and get older (Whitehead 1985). This likely means it not a form of play for older animals. From these findings in pectoral displays we likely assume that a breach from male, female or young calf means separate things.

Humpback Whale Pec Slap
The same humpback whale that breached also showed off pectoral slapping. The behavior went on for 5 or 10 minutes after the breach.
Humpback Whale Pec Slap
The resulting splash of a pec-slap from a humpback whale.

My review of the science and literature surrounding whale behavior is stumped by the same issue that plagues the field : the true question of “why” a whale breaches is illusive because “what” they are trying to convey is likely different for each whale.  Much like the way that we clap our hands different at sporting events, golf tournaments, at a wedding, or after a concert, whales likely use the clap of the water to communicate different feelings.  Answers are relegated to vaguery due to the inherent difficulty of researching an underwater animal. I can only conclude that whales breach to communicate.  It seems most plausible that humpback whales and other species breach to add emphasis to a message or to get a point across.

Cited:

Deakos. (2002). Humpback Whale (Megaptera Novaengliae) Commication : The context and possible functions of pec-slapping behavior on the Hawai’ian wintering grounds. Thesis.

Payne, R. S., & McVay, S. (1971). Songs of humpback whales. Science, 173, 585-597

Silber, G. 1986. “The relationship of social vocalizations to surface behavior and aggression in the Hawaiian humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)”. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 64(10): 2075-2080

Watkins, William A. (1981). “Activities and underwater sounds of fin whales [Balaenoptera physalus].” Scientific Reports of the Whales Research Institute (Japan).

Whitehead, H. 1985. “Why Whales Leap”. Scientific American.

 

 

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.

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 Portrait of the Great One

You never know what you will experience when you start into Denali National Park. I guess the beginner’s luck of my brother Sean and sister-in-law Jada, first time Park visitors, was what allowed us some of the magnificent views of Mount Denali. During my previous trips to the park I have never experienced the magnitude of the Mountain like we did. The first time we saw it from about 50-60 miles away the twin summits were fully exposed against blue bird skies, and it lay across a broad river valley. We crossed the valley and crested a rise which brought full views of the Mountain. The beauty and size of Denali simultaneously released endorphins and adrenaline which made me smile and babble about its incredible beauty. The significance of its name,the Great One, was evident!

Denali National Park, Black and White
A full panorama of Denali as seen from Eilson Visitor Center. I love this black and white transformation of this shot.
Denali
Denali from Eilson Visitor Center. This shot captures well Mount Brooks and the foothills of Denali. Mount Brooks. Although Brooks is almost 12,000 feet it, it was dwarfed by the 20,000+ foot Denali!
Denali Pano
As we moved further into the park, clouds starting to form over Denali. The twin summits were slowly hidden from sight.
P6090048-Pano
A full view of Mount Brooks and Denali from Wonder Lake. Clouds had moved over the top of the mountain.
Denali Wonder Lake
The clouds formed quickly, obscuring the summit
Here was our first view of Denali across a broad river valley. The far rise brought us to our first full (and spectacular) views of Denali!
Here was our first view of Denali across a broad river valley. The far rise brought us to our first full (and spectacular) views of Denali!
Alpine Tundra and Denali
A common tundra alpine tundra flower, Narcisus Anenome, sits in front of the Great One. Wildflowers like these were everywhere in the park.
Denali Group
The lucky group in our first opportunity to get a photo in front of Denali. From this point on the mountain continued to grow was we go closer and closer…
Denali Group, Wonder Lake
…And then we were a lot closer! The mountain stood far above all else!

As we sat and and soaked in the views of the Mountain from Wonder Lake Campground, I took advantage of the time by shooting a nice timelapse. It’s fascinating watching the clouds form over the peaks! Check it out here :

Wonder Lake
The water of wonder lake is very clear. The lake stretches for a couple miles and reaches over 300 feet deep. On it we found a nesting Common Loon.

Our entire trip was marked with fun wildlife sightings and remarkable beauty. In particular, wildflowers were found on each slope accenting the mountain scenery. Mountain Avens, One Flower Cinquefoil, Moss Campion and many others. Rather than write, I’ll let the captions and pictures speak for themselves on this one!

Caribou Savage River
As we walked back along the Savage River trail, and group of bachelor bulls had moved across the trail. It was easily my best opportunities to see caribou to date!
Curious Caribou
Although the caribou did not mind me much, this one was eyeing me up a bit. This shot gives you a great idea of how big those antlers are!
Caribou Science
One of these caribou is not like the others. I’m not talking about its coat, nose, or antlers. The middle one is wearing a collar! I’m not sure of the intent of this study, but he’s being monitored.
Arctic Ground Squirrel
Arctic ground squirrels are winter survival masters. Once hibernating, their heart rate slows, metabolism slows, and brain activity nearly ceases. However, they wake up once per month enough to re-establish brain activity before falling back into deep hibernation.
Dall Sheep Kids
Three ewe dall sheep perch on the cliffs below us near polychrome pass. This particular spot offered shade, and as always, the mountains protected them from terrestrial predators. Although safe from four-leggers, golden eagles are known to take the kids (lambs)!
Teklanika Ridgeline
Hiking the ridgeline over Teklanika Campground. Endless scenery!
Savage River Hike
At the end of the Savage River loop, the valley gorge pours over loose boulders. We found a natural bench and took advantage of it. I love this group shot!
Savage River Bridge
A small footbridge cross the Savage River as it flows down the gorge. Alaska scenery is the best!
Polychrome Pass Wildflowers
One-leaf cinquefoil in the alpine tundra of Polychrome Pass. The Polychrome Mountains in the distance were shrouded and beautiful!
Alpine Arnica
Alpine arnica are a common and beautiful flower in the rocky slopes and along the roads. We hiked to this ridgeline just a mile or two out of Teklanika Campground.
Alpine Moon
As if the shrouded clouds weren’t enough, the moon appeared above the polychrome mountains. Can you pick it out?

January 17th : Alaskan Snapshot

When I was home for Christmas break one of the questions I got asked fairly regularly was “what’s it like to live in Alaska in the winter?”. I always grin, which seems to be what people expect because they grin back, but I think I disappoint them by explaining that a lot of times the winter conditions are not as desperate as you think. Yes, 40 below is cold, but in Fairbanks the wind rarely blows making the cold very tolerable. 20-25% humidity ensures that it is a ‘dry cold’ (think of someone from Arizona explaining the dry heat). In the eyes of many, the hardest thing to adapt to is the short days in the winter. Although we are gaining length now, the dark days at bottom of winter make getting out of bed hard and sleeping easy. In Alaskan winters I celebrate and cherish the sun because I miss it! The darkness lately has been compounded by cloudy skies, so when the sun was out this morning I knew I wanted to be outside for it as much as possible! I gathered together my gear for setting burbot lines (more on that soon!!) and headed to the Tanana river. But, my trip to the river certainly was not linear, all along the way I found things to swing my camera lens at in that beautiful sunshine. So, today I give you a snap shot of January 17th in Alaska, a beautiful day! Photos are time-stamped and in order of occurrence. Hopefully you’ll see that not all winter days are so bad in Alaska!

11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee poses for a cute picture just outside of my house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee poses for a cute picture just outside of my house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee plans its next move at my feeders outside of the house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee looks before it leaps and is eyeing up some suet.
11:39 AM : Red-backed voles are a common Alaskan rodent. I have counted up to eight at a time under my feeders scavenging what they can find.
11:39 AM : Red-backed voles are a common Alaskan rodent. I have counted up to eight at a time under my feeders scavenging what they can find. Red-backed voles have actually been demonstrated to spend a large portion of their days in black spruces which is a recently documented behavior!
11:43 AM : A sharp tailed grouse sits under the spruces.
11:43 AM : A sharp tailed grouse sits under the spruces. This seems to be a pretty normal winter behavior – move as little as possible to conserve energy.
12:06 PM : The sharp-tailed grouse is actually a pretty small bird. Tucked up high in the spruces it is safe from almost any predator present in the Alaskan winter. Most raptors have migrated for the season, although a lingering great-horned owl could get bold and try for this big meal!
12:06 PM : The sharp-tailed grouse is actually a pretty small bird. Tucked up high in the spruces it is safe from almost any predator present in the Alaskan winter. Most raptors have migrated for the season, although a lingering great-horned owl could get bold and try for this big meal!
12:06 PM : Sharp-tailed grouse moved to the birches to pick at the catkins
12:06 PM : Sharp-tailed grouse moved to the birches to pick at the catkins
2:18 PM : I spent the afternoon drilling through the Tanana River to set burbot lines. The ice was thick! About 36 inches. However, early in the season the river broke up and formed "jumbled ice". The shadows of small snow-dunes are beautiful!
2:18 PM : I spent the afternoon drilling through the Tanana River to set burbot lines. The ice was thick! About 36 inches. However, early in the season the river broke up and formed “jumbled ice”. The shadows of small snow-dunes indicate a rough texture underneath!
4:29 PM : As I got back into town the Alaska Range (South of Fairbanks) was lit up by the low sun. The mountain range is always beautiful, but on nights like this you cannot stop watching! The pinks and purples of this sunset were amazing!
4:29 PM : As I got back into town the Alaska Range (South of Fairbanks) was lit up by the low sun. The mountain range is always beautiful, but on nights like this you cannot stop watching! The pinks and purples of this sunset were amazing! This is easily my favorite panorama to date because it is a view I get to enjoy everyday, and this picture captures it well!
4:32 PM : The sun is almost ready to disappear. We've gained an amazing amount of time back since December 21st when the day length was 3.5 hours. Todays day length is just over 5 hours!
4:32 PM : The sun is almost ready to disappear. We’ve gained an amazing amount of time back since December 21st when the day length was 3.5 hours. Today’s day length is just over 5 hours!

Biking Touring the Denali Park Road (For Newbies)

First off, Thanks to all who contributed to the new watermark. Your input and voting helped a lot, and I was overwhelmed by the response. It was really great!

If this post had a theme, and I guess it does since I’m suggesting it, the theme would be that there’s always a “silver lining” or “blessings in disguise”.

When Aaron and I began our bike tour on the Denali Park Road our eagerness was tangible. Even the first big hill after Savage River could not dampen it. However, the next few long climbs put out some of our internal fires. While we are talking about hills, if you do go to Denali National Park remember, it is known for it’s mountains and one of them, who’s name literally means “The Great One”, is the tallest in North America. Gradients are often 5-9% and can extend for 2 or 3 miles. Getting over or around these stone giants is the name of the game.

The video here does a great job of capturing the incredible wildlife (bears, sheep, ptarmigan, wolves) as well as the joy of riding down a big hill and some of the scenery. For context on the video make sure to read the rest of the post 😉

The first night we peddled into the Sanctuary River Campground which was is located at mile twenty-three. We got a a late start, so when we arrived at camp around 8:30 PM it was time for bed. The next morning’s sky looked promising. Blue sky overhead was allowing the rising sun to illuminate the fall colors. Autumn in Denali NP was in full bloom. White-barked aspens were fluorescent yellow and stubby, dwarf shrubs were dark red. Willows along the banks were a mellow yellow and the bowl of mountains provided a stark, snow-covered backdrop.

As we pushed our gear up the road to Igloo Campground the curtains were pulled and the sky when flat gray. It stayed that way for the grueling climb over Sable Pass where we encountered a few inches of snow on the ground, but a clear road. The sky remained gray for our joyride down the back of Sable Pass. By the time we had reached the Polychrome Mountain Overlook rain seemed imminent. The Polychrome Mountains are known for their red-streaked banding which resulted from old volcanic activity. However, on Saturday we could barely make them out, and shifty fog was hanging in the valley and around the toes of the mountains.

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The Denali Park Road as it heads up Polychrome Pass. The reds in the rock are a result of volcanic activity and were sculpted by glaciers.

At the bottom of Polychrome pass, approximately 43 miles into the park disaster hit. The bike that Aaron was using broke down when the spokes in the rear wheel loosened up. We knew we could grab a bus at anytime, but before hanging our hat on that fate pushed our bikes the 2 miles to the top of Sable Pass. We reached the top and a few minutes later a bus trundled up. The bus driver opened up the door and told us the great news – there were two wolves headed up the pass and would be there in just 90 seconds!! I grabbed my gear, set up, and just a few seconds later encountered my first wolves of Alaska when they popped up 50 yards away. One was a collared animal which I assume is female and was traveling with one of her offspring. Both of the wolves seemed a bit thin. Lately wolf numbers in the park have been way down for unknown reasons, so since approximately 25% of visitors see wolves I was ecstatic to be so close! The encounter lasted for less than 45 seconds before they moved on and were never seen again. It is amazing to think that if Aaron’s bike had not broken down and if we chose to take the bus right away that we never would have had this incredible encounter. What an experience! That’s my silver lining story!

A collared Denali Wolf at the top of Sable Pass. What a treat!!
A collared Denali Wolf at the top of Sable Pass. What a treat!!
This juvenile wolf was traveling with the collared wolf. Who knows how many were still in the brush. This wolf seems a bit thin, hopefully he bulks up before winter for his sake!
This juvenile wolf was traveling with the collared wolf. Who knows how many were still in the brush. This wolf seems a bit thin, hopefully he bulks up before winter for his sake!

After the wolf Aaron caught a bus back to Igloo campground and I biked through the snow and rain to the bottom. As night fell the sun broke through the clouds and lit the mountains up in coral pink. We were optimistic for great weather on Sunday!

Just as the sun set it lit the sky up in an ever-intensifying pink. The snow capped mountains and sky all the incredible shade of color.
Just as the sun set it lit the sky up in an ever-intensifying pink. The snow capped mountains and sky all the incredible shade of color.

The next morning Aaron got an adrenaline rush right-off-the-bat when he encountered a mature brown bear at the food lockers. The bear did not hang around long, but since Aaron was carrying food to the locker when he came up to it, the experience was pretty electrifying! Without bikes we decided to hike up one of the snow clear summit of Igloo Mountain. We climbed from about 1200 feet and were greeted by sheep, snow covered peaks, a piping arctic ground squirrel and blue skies. Our journey was almost done as we pushed our bikes to Teklanika River where a bear came to the rivers edge to strip berries and flip rocks for insects. We exited the rest of the park on motorized wheels. Trip accomplished with a final count of three grizzly bears, two wolves, loads of sheep, and buckets of memories!

I guess this is Bear Ass picture. This big brown bear appeared in camp on Sunday morning. After very briefly checking the food lockers he forded Igloo Creek and headed to the bridge and down the road.
I guess this is Bear Ass picture. This big brown bear appeared in camp on Sunday morning. After very briefly checking the food lockers he forded Igloo Creek and headed to the bridge and down the road.
Teklanika River Grizzly
This grizzly came out and stripped berries and flipped rocks along the river.

 

Igloo Mountain Summit
Near the summit of Igloo Mountain. What a day!

Thanks for checking in!

Birds and Rainbows on the Denali Highway

This post follows Kassie and my pelagic bird trip to Seward. For our trip back to Fairbanks, we decided to bird the Denali Highway which extends 135 miles to connect Cantwell to Paxson. The unpaved road curves south of the Denali Range surrounding it with incredible mountains. The shrubby, tundra habitat is prime real estate for several arctic bird species rare to most other areas of the state.

During our 12 hours on the Denali Highway we observed behavior of many exciting birds. We also saw a few moose and heard from one other traveler of a wolf only a couple miles down the road. The road is a transect through one of the very remote areas of interior Alaska. The end of our drive was punctuated by full rainbows arching over the mountains. As the sun and the rain played across the landscape we observed lasting rainbows which waxed and waned. The birding for the day was incredible; each stop was filled with singing birds. The cutest moment of the day was a spruce grouse poult which jumped up along the road, and fluttered into a tree. After trying to hide in its branches, the little poult finally listened to its mother, who cooed and bobbed her tail until the young chick became brave enough to fly to her and its siblings. Along the way we encountered Arctic Warblers which are North America’s only “old world” warbler. Other populations of this warbler breed in Eurasia. We also were privileged to see many of the “Denali Highway Specials” including Gray-cheeked Thrush, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Arctic Tern. Incredibly, Arctic Terns migrate 25,000 miles per year, earning them the longest migration of any bird award!

An Arctic Warbler trills from the top of its spruce tree to any females in the area.
An Arctic Warbler trills from the top of its spruce tree to any females in the area.

This video captures in timelapse the beauty of the rainbows, the cuteness of the polt, the joy of singing warblers and the scenery of the Denali Highway. I hope you enjoy!

This list has most of the species that we observed for the day. Of course there’s PLENTY of birding to do between each of the miles listed, but these are the spots we stopped at.

Milepost Species
127 Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Gray Jay, Wilson’s Snipe, Unknown Duck
119 Arctic Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow
113 Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Unk. Raptor, Spruce Grouse and Polts, Raven
105 American Robin
103 Immature Golden Eagle
90 Scaup, Ring-neck Duck
89 Ring-neck Duck, Widgeon, Gadwall, Yellow-legs, White-crowned Sparrow
81 Tundra Swan, Unk. Duck
80 Widgeon and Ducklings, Scaup, Northern Shoveler and Chick
74 Bufflehead, Ring-neck Duck, Rednecked Grebe
50 Ring-neck Duck, Mew Gull, White-crowned Sparrow, Arctic Warbler, Savanna Sparrow, Wilson Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Scaup
49 Mew Gull, Arctic Tern, Merlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Bufflehead, Ring-neck Duck, Tundra Swan, Blackpoll Warbler, Sandpiper, Wilson’s Warbler
40 Bank Swallows
36 Long-tailed Jaeger

 

A spruce grouse female calls to its barely fledged chick sitting in a spruce tree...
A spruce grouse female calls to its barely fledged chick sitting in a spruce tree…
... and the spruce grouse chick laid low in the spruce tree waiting for Mom to tell him the best time to scram!
… and the spruce grouse chick laid low in the spruce tree waiting for Mom to tell him the best time to scram!
Western Roseroot (Rhodiola integrifolia). This flower blooms in sub-alpine regions and is in the sedum family.
Western Roseroot (Rhodiola integrifolia). This flower blooms in sub-alpine regions and is in the sedum family.
A gray cheek thrush calls in its unique voice from the top of the spruce.
A Gray-Cheeked Thrush calls in its unique voice from the top of the spruce.
A Red-necked Phalrope stretches its wings
A Red-necked Phalarope stretches its wings. These birds breed in the Arctic and may migrate to Eurasia and to the southern hemisphere.
Mew Gull
A Mew Gull flies over a lake somewhere along the Denali Highway.
An American Widgeon female paddles along with her small children
An American Widgeon female paddles along with her small children. This was one of many families of ducks we observed on the lakes. Families of Widgeon, Northern Shovelers, Teal, and Gadwall were all observed.
Common Goldeneye Female
A Goldeneye Female wakes up from her nap floating on the lake.
Wilson's Warbler
A Wilson’s Warbler pauses briefly from grooming itself to take a look around. Their black cap and yellow body are beautiful!
Arctic Tern
An Arctic Tern sits on its nest. A Mew Gull was pestering this tern who was defending its chicks. The chicks can be seen in the video above. Arctic Terns’ claim to fame is they have the longest migration of any animal on earth. Incredibly they migrate from AK to Antarctica… 25,000 miles!!
The scenery of the south side of the Alaskan Range is never ending! Snow capped mountains are reflected in the waters and cut the horizon to the north at all times.
The scenery of the south side of the Alaskan Range is never ending! Snow capped mountains are reflected in the waters and cut the horizon to the north at all times.
Posing for a quick photo underneath the Roy G Biv.
Posing for a quick photo underneath the Roy G Biv.
A rainbow arches over the mountains along the Richardson Highway.
A rainbow arches over the mountains along the Richardson Highway.

Sea Life and Glaciers : Seward, Alaska

There are many “Alaskas”. The large state is renowned for its dry, cold interior and also for its coastal regions. The coast itself varies from tundra to temperate rainforest and is full of a birds and marine mammals. In the Kenai Penninsula, large tide water glaciers add icebergs to the water which are used by pupping harbor seal mothers for rest. The region is known for its rising peaks which jut from the ocean as snow-capped mountains.

On the sunny, late June day, that we departed Seward harbor the sun shone on islands and mountains around us. In every direction, gulls and black-legged kittiwakes wheeled and dove over the open ocean.Our 9-hour tour through Major Marine Tours to the Northwestern Glacier and Chiswell Islands had just begun. Once in the open water past the Kenai Peninsula your feet are floating above the largest stretch of open ocean in the world – stretching thousands of miles to Antarctica. Kassie and I had birds on the brain and our small 30 passenger ship (in comparison to some of the 200 passenger ships) was perfect for the trip we were hoping to have. The waters of the Kenai Peninsula is home to many sea (also called pelagic) birds. These birds are remarkable in that the majority of them only come to land to nest, all other times- including the brutally cold winters- are spent at sea on the water. The bodies of many pelagic birds are so tuned to sea-life that they often look awkward on the land. However, their graceful, powerful ability to swim and catch fish makes up for their awkwardness.

I’ll just spoil the conclusion, by saying we had an incredible day on the water! This video highlights some of the power of calving glaciers, the beauty of sea-birds and the behaviors of marine mammals.

Birds of the Chiswell Islands

The vertical spires of Spider Island jut from the ocean just outside of Seward, AK
The vertical spires of Spider Island jut from the ocean just outside of Seward, AK

The vertical cliffs Chiswell Islands are perfect for nesting sea birds. Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins burrow into the cracks to escape predating gulls. Parents are mated for life and separate during the winter, however find each other for every breeding season. Each of the puffin species found around the Kenai coast have extraordinary features. Horned puffins have a dark check-mark patch through through their eye which makes them look as though they have applied makeup to preform at a circus. Part of this check-mark is a horned protrusion comes off each eye like a fancy eyelash. Tufted puffins, the largest of the three puffin species, have large golden ‘eyebrows’ which waggle back and forth when they turn their head. Puffins are recognized by their large bills which they use to catch fish. Both of the pacific puffin species only have orange and cream colored bills, where the Atlantic Puffin’s bill includes blue and red. Puffins can dive up 200 feet beneath the ocean’s surface and they can hold their breath for a minute or two. However Puffins typically only need to stay under for 20 to 30 seconds at a time to catch the small fish that compose their diet.

A horned puffin flying around the Chiswell Islands.
A Horned Puffin flying around the Chiswell Islands.
Horned puffin photographed at the Alaska Sealife Center.
Horned Puffin photographed at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin
Tufted puffin picture taken at the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, AK
Tufted Puffin picture taken at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, AK

Pelagic birds are often found in large breeding colonies located on islands. For this reason they are referred to as ‘colonial nesting birds.’ These islands provide refuge from land-based predators and the large numbers of birds act as sentries, mobbing any intruder which gets too close. Our Captain informed us that once they had spotted a Black Bear on an island that was a mile from shore. It feed on bird eggs for a couple weeks then swam back to shore. It was a very rare occurrence but it is easy to see how one large predator can decimate the nesting success rates on the island.

Black-legged Kittiwakes nest in large colonies in the Chiswell Islands.
Black-legged Kittiwakes nest in large colonies in the Chiswell Islands.
Black-legged Kittiwake
Black-legged Kittiwake

Our bird list added many ‘lifers’ to our life-lists (along with a couple we had already seen) and many photographs to my hard drive. Our list for the day was comprised of Bald Eagles, Rhinoceros Auklets, Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Parakeet Auklets, Pigeon Guillemonts, Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorant, Double-crested  Cormorant, Marbled Murrelet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, and a possible Ancient Murrelet.

Rhinoceros Auklet photographed at the Alaska Sealife Center. These birds develop their 'rhinoceros horn' during the breeding season, and lose it each fall.
Rhinoceros Auklet photographed at the Alaska SeaLife Center. These birds develop their ‘rhinoceros horn’ during the breeding season, and lose it each fall.

 Mammals of the Chiswell Islands

There several species of whales and porpoises in the rich waters of the many estuaries of the Kenai. Sea Otters feed on clams, urchins, and other invertebrates that tend to feed on kelp. The Sea Otter is a keystone species that helps to protect the kelp beds providing shelter for a plethora of other sea creatures. Doll Porpoises, Humpback Whales, Fin Whales and Orcas cruise through the waters. The Fin Whales were a rare occurrence for the tour, our guides said they maybe see a Fin Whale 20 times a summer. Our tour saw a very rare pod of at least 6 Fin Whales surfacing together, which meant they were most likely rounding up bait fish instead of filter-feeding. On the rocks, 1 ton Stellar Sea Lion males watch over their harem of females, and the ice flows at glacier heads provide rest for harbor seal mothers and their pups. We saw several pods of Doll Porpoises throughout the day, on the way back to the harbor we had a small pod that decided to race in our wake.

One of the highlights of the trip was observing a “lunge feeding” humpback whale with her calf. Lunge feeding is when a whale dives far below a school of food (krill or small fish). Then, rushing to the surface with their mouth open the burst through to the open air swallowing anything in their mouth!

A humpback whale explodes on the surface, exhibiting 'lunge feeding'
A Humpback Whale explodes on the surface, exhibiting ‘lunge feeding’
This humpback whale is headed back down for some more food.
This Humpback Whale is headed back down for some more food.
A sea-otter floats on its back displaying its classic behavior. They float along and crack clams on their chests.
A Sea Otter floats on its back displaying its classic behavior. They float along and crack urchins on their chests. They spend their whole lives in the ocean, even giving birth in the water. If seen on land it is typically a sign that the animal is sick.
Harbor seal mothers rest themselves and their pups on ice flows which have broken away from the tide-water glaciers.
Harbor Seal mothers rest themselves and their pups on ice flows which have broken away from the tide-water glaciers.
Stellar sealion males control and mate with many females called a harem. Male sea lions can be up to 2,000 pounds!
Stellar Sea Lion males control and mate with many females called a harem. Male Sea Lions can be up to 2,000 pounds!

Glaciers of the Kenai

The Harding Ice Field is the largest ice field in the United States and is the source of dozens of glaciers. Some of the glaciers reach all the way down to the ocean and are classified as ‘tide water’ glaciers. These glaciers are constantly being eroded by the oceans daily movements and some of the glaciers have receded miles since the 1800’s when the Russians were exploring the coasts. The receding glaciers open up habitat for mammals and birds. The Northwestern Glacier that we sat in front of stretched for a half mile across the blue fjord, but you would never guess its size by just looking at it!

One can get a true sense of power of the tide-water glaciers by watching them ‘calf’. From time-to-time sheets of ice would break away from the exposed glacier face and cascade into the ocean. Even though our boat was positioned 1/4 of a mile away the rush of sound from the huge chunks of ice sounded like a jet engine rumbling in the not to far-off distance.

The craggy moraine of the northwestern glacier ending at the tideline.
The craggy moraine of the Northwestern Glacier ending at the tideline.
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Another boat sits in front of the glacier for a bit of perspective. If the boat floated at the front of the glacier it would be a mere speck on the its moraine.
The northwestern glacier reaches about 1/2 mile from side to side. It's split into two 'lobes' by a rock face.
The Northwestern Glacier reaches about 1/2 mile from side to side. It’s split into two ‘lobes’ by a rock face.
This river of ice and snow is the result of a large chunk of ice which broke away hundreds of feet above. The ice-chute that it slid down poured slush and chunks into the ocean.
This river of ice and snow is the result of a large chunk of ice which broke away hundreds of feet above. The ice-chute that it slid down poured snow and ice chunks into the ocean.

If you’ve made it this far I’d like to put in a quick pitch (unsolicited) for the Major Marine Tour company. Their boat the Viewfinder was piloted by a great captain and the tour guide on board was great with kids and had all the answers. The small size of the boat and number of passengers was perfect for us. They were more than happy to concentrate on birds when we told them what we were after. It was an extraordinary day.

Secondly, I would like to put in another unsolicited pitch for the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. Their exhibits are truly top-notch, and the chance to experience the pelagic sea-birds up close was wonderful. On top of that, proceeds go towards outreach and science. I am not normally a “zoo type” person, but everything I saw there impressed me to no end!

Thanks for checking in!