When something you expect and love (although sometimes you may not know you love it) is absent for a long time you experience great joy in its return. When the rains returned to Hoonah after the second driest July in 20 years I rejoiced in how quickly it rejuvenated the ecosystem and in the resilience and patience of salmon.
A July Without Rain
In July 2018, there was something very obviously missing from Hoonah, Alaska : rain. Even though this was only my third summer in Hoonah, it was not difficult for me to think back to previous summers and acknowledge how the lack of rain was impacting our local berry patches, rivers, salmon, and forests. The conditions reduced the wet muskegs to patches of brittle sphagnum moss and sedges. There was a noticeable impact on our salmon berries and blueberries. Very few salmon berries ripened, and blueberry barrens normally laden with ripening berries had nearly blank bushes. Our local temperature rainforest ecosystem was struggling without rain.
The lack of rain resulted in a lack of spawning salmon. It is expected in July that Pink and Chum Salmon would fill the holes throughout the rivers. However, the drought-like conditions reduced rivers to minimum baseflows and kept Chum and Pink Salmon from easily returning to rivers. Especially Pink Salmon were almost absent from all of Hoonah’s major rivers because they were trapped in the mouths. Without a large rain event they would remain at the mouths until desperation and time forced them upstream.
It is easy for time to erase the memory, and for past perceptions about the weather to vary widely. However, I talked to many in Hoonah who could never remember the rivers so low. I was curious to know if that was true or if time had changed the memory. Although Hoonah does not have a river baseflow station I used precipitation data and assumed that low monthly precipitation results in low rivers. The summarized data showed that we received 1.11 inches in July 2018 and that only 2009 was lower with 0.9 inches. 1999 was noteably low with 1.51. inches. As Hoonah is centered in a temperature rainforest each of those years was far different than the average of 3.95 inches of rain that Hoonah would expect in July. These results made July 2018 the 2nd driest in 20 years!
I was struck when summarizing the data in the amount of variation of precipitation over the last 20 years in Hoonah. Even 2018 was an example of that. It was in stark contrast to July 2017 which was noted as the “10th wettest” by Juneau weatherman Rick Fritsch. I needed to keep this summer in perspective : although it was obvious that our rivers, berries, and salmon were stressing from the heat and lack of precipitation, each had been through this before.
The Relief of Rain
In early August the drought came to an end. It rained and poured for nearly a week as an “atmospheric river” brought in moist air from the Gulf of Alaska. I can say with confidence I have never been so relieved to get rain. Overnight the muskeg ponds were filled and returned to the wetlands they were meant to be. The rivers were choked with water and soon after brimming with salmon. Despite the drought and the longer wait at sea they had returned anyway. I could only smile as I watched them in the rivers circling in the holes and splashing up the riffles.
With global climate change already heavily impacting Alaska the drought felt like a warning knell for times to come. Scientific modeling for the region suggests we will continue to warm drastically but that precipitation amounts will remain about the same. The outlook for salmon in a warming climate has different endings depending on who you will talk to. Certainly there is a lot of variability between glacial systems, snow systems, mountains, rain regimes, and so much else which makes a certain future hard to predict. Global warming will impact each salmon species differently (some potentially positively and some negatively) and there is no scientific concurrence how exactly what the impact of a warming world will be for salmon. My views are generally pessimistic for our salmon in the next 50 years, but their patience and resilience this year give me hope they will find a way to survive in the future, too.
Arguably herring are the base of the entire food chain in Southeast Alaska. They provide food for whales, salmon, seals, sealions, birds, and halibut with their bodies and with their eggs. For centuries humans have relied on the abundance of herring to provide for their families in the spring. In Hoonah, Alaska the return of herring marks a change in the a season and a bounty of fresh eggs brings a welcome smile to the elders and community members that receive them. However, in recent years the herring run has not bee large in Hoonah although anecdotally (and a bit facetiously) you could “walk across their backs to Pitt Island” only a couple decades ago. Ocean changes, over fishing, and habitat loss have all contributed to decreasing herring returns and fewer spawning fish in recent years. This knowledge made me feel particularly fortunate to get to see herring spawning in Hoonah and watch the harshness of nature unfold before my eyes as Bald Eagle scooped the silvery fish from the ocean.
Spawning herring rely on seaweed and objects in the water to glue their eggs to. Spawning females mix with males and each emit eggs and roe into the water. A sure sign that herring are spawning is a milky, blue water that combines the colors of the ocean and the white of the roe. The need to stick their eggs to seaweed brings the herring close to shore and thus susceptible to predation. As I walked near Cannery Point in Hoonah, Alaska over 30 eagles (a mix of juveniles and adults) lined up on the beach. The color of the water and brilliant flashes of silver near the shore left little doubt on what they were feeding on!
A string of eagles wait for spawning herring at the beach.
Trial and Error
One of the first things I noticed was the juvenile eagles were watching the adults very closely. They knew they had a lot to learn, and there was no doubt after several minutes of watching that the adults were much more efficient at catching the herring. Most of the adults would launch from the beach, strafe their talons on the water’s surface and come up with one or two herring. Some eagles opted for a higher vantage point and flew in from the trees on the embankment. Another strategy was to simply stand on a rock or in the water and hope to catch one in without flapping a wing. All of these strategies produced herring for the eagles and the juveniles mimicked them perfectly.
Meals on the Wing
Even though there was an abundance of herring one strategy of some eagles was to steal from those that were successful. The fierce competition from other birds forced successful eagles to eat very quickly and on the wing. Almost all of the eagles would transfer the herring to their beaks and then orient the fish head first before finally swallowing it hole. This occurred in just a few seconds to remove any chance of pestering, marauding eagles from stealing their catch. I did get to watch once instance where an eagle successfully scooped two herring at once, but did not eat them on the wing. Immediately three other eagles (2 adults and a juvenile) put up chase resulting in the eagle dropping one herring to get rid of the pestilence following it.
Two eagles settle a small squabble over who gets some beach space.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
It was incredible to watch the eagles feed on the herring and learn from their behaviors, but as a photographer I was grateful for the frequent and repeated attempts by the eagles to capture herring. I had the opportunity to tinker with camera settings and capture a lot of shots that are high quality and showcase the slice of foodweb that I was only a spectator to.
It is always a big deal when family comes to visit. For me, being a “big deal” is a positive thing! My wife and I are fortunate to live in a place surrounded by natural beauty with something to see or do around every corner. I always strive to show off my little corner of the world in Hoonah, Alaska and decided that my parents, uncle, and two cousins needed to see Glacier Bay National Park and the local whales around Hoonah during their visit. It’s nice when all the right things come together to bring “the full package”! We enjoyed incredible weather and wildlife sightings over 2.5 days.
Glacier Bay Tribal House
Over the last 2 years I have had the incredible experience to be at the dedication of the tribal house and to take part in the raising of two totems at the tribal house. Those two events were so very important to the Huna Tlingit, but they also gave me a tremendous connection to Bartlett Cove and the land where the Huna Shuka Hit resides. When I visit the tribal house I remember the stories of the people, the emotions of the day, and the power of the place. Stepping into the tribal house to observe the house poles, place my hand on the intricate carving of the screens, and smell the sweet aroma of cedar give me a sense of peace. I enjoyed sharing my stories of the raising and dedication with family as we toured around that special place.
Into the Park
Glacier Bay National Park is almost completely inaccessible unless you have a boat. Its long fjords and glacially-carved mountains extend nearly 90 miles from the entrance of the park at Bartlett Cove. The “Day Boat” of Glacier Bay provides access to visitors all the way to the end of the bitter end of the west arm where Margerie Glacier butts against the ocean and the Grand Pacific Glacier (responsible for carving the fjord of the park) recedes into the distance further than the eye can see. 250 years ago the Grand Pacific Glacier was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit out of Glacier Bay National Park when it advanced over 75 miles in only only a few decades. Traditional stories say that at times the glacier moved as fast as a running dog! Science has backed those claims, and it is truly amazing to think what that wall of ice must have looked like!
Glacier Bay National Park protected area full of marine and terrestrial wildlife. During our tour we had incredible view of breaching Humpback Whales, families of grizzlies, harems of sealions, rafts of otters, flocks of puffins, and families of goats. Each of these sightings added to the richness of the day and the overpowering feeling that we were in a very special place!
The face of Margerie glacier stands over 200 feet high and is a mile wide. It “calves” ice into the water creating a maze of jumbled ice.
The Whale Tail to End the Tale
We got a pickup in Gustavus from our good friend Capt. Billy Mills of Wooshketaan Tours. He took us across Icy Strait to Point Adolphus which is renowned for its whale watching. The rich waters are fed by the currents coming in from the ocean and from Glacier Bay and create abundant fish populations that bring in apex predators such as whales and sea lions.
As we sped along the 20 miles from Point Adolphus to Hoonah I admired the mountains, the tall groves of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock, and the abundant Sea Otters and Whales. The trip went quickly, and as we approached Flynn cove about 8 miles from Hoonah a gigantic splash ahead of us flung water high in the air. The Humpback Whale that caused it obliged us by breaching 5 times in total! It was the closest I had ever been to a breaching humpback and it was a thrill to share my giddiness with all on board!
With the memory of the breaching still fresh in our memory we turned into Port Frederick and after a brief stop ashore made our way up bay . The spouts of water ahead quickly gave the location of what we were looking for – a large pod of Humpback Whales were bubble net feeding in front of us! In the smooth waters we watched the circle of bubbles form on the surface from the whales below and the mouths of 40-foot humbpacks rise agape through the surface. We were the only boat on the water and got to enjoy the show in the lingering sunset and surrounded by family. I (we) were incredibly blessed to be in that incredible place together.
It has been a looonnnng time since the aurora forecast has lined up with clear skies here in Hoonah, so when they finally did this weekend I wanted to make the most of it! Although I do not often focus on writing about photographic techniques on this blog, I thought I would focus on some creative photography techniques I employed and how they can expand your shooting opportunity. Read along to learn about some skills to expand your nighttime shooting (foreground composition, focus stacking, panoramas, light painting) or scroll along to check out some of the images from the night.
Foreground Composition & Light Painting
When I am out photographing a scene I am forever on the hunt for interesting foreground elements. Of course the definition of word “interesting” is determined by the photographer, but I search for elements that capture the essence of the scene, amplify the impact of a phenomenon, or create a pleasing set of lines that lead the eye. On this particular night I was drawn to a rock face that was draped in large icicles. They were translucent and I knew that I could shoot the aurora through them – they were also perfect as a piece of the scene because they provided texture to the aurora’s light and were a part of the essence and juxtaposition where the ocean meets the shore. I call the resulting shot “Aurora Light Sabers” and am thrilled with the unique perspective it provided to the landscape and aurora. Not all foreground elements are so well lit, so you may consider bringing a flashlight along to help paint the scene.
Modern cameras are incredibly adept at picking up light, however, moonless nights in regions with truly dark skies will still leave foreground elements black unless you use a bit of focused lighting and enhancement. Thus, the creative photography technique “Light Painting” can help you emphasize and highlight your foreground elements.
On this night I brought a very unique foreground element with me. This model (maquette) of the Goonz Totem Pole in Hoonah, Alaska is an exact, 18″ replica of the life-sized pole. It was used to guide the carvers as they brought the full sized pole to life and it was truly a privilege to have the maquette with me. I set the maquette up close to my camera and began to shoot, creating the illusion that a full-sized totem was in front of my camera. I used a light panel and bounced the light off the surrounding snow to softly light the totem. Without light painting, the totem would have been completely dark and blank – simply a silhouette against the sky.
This it the full-sized Goonz Pole located in Hoonah, Alaska
You can expand your depth of field and create sharp images using a technique called focus stacking. I am a novice at the technique and referenced this article.
One of the disadvantages of using such a small maquette is that I had to be very close to it to take the shot and make it a significant foreground element. The close object brought the stars far out of focus (as seen in the maquette image above). To get over this hurdle, I shot multiple images of the totem at different focuses in rapid succession and then combined them in Photoshop. Through focus stacking I was able to have my cake and eat it too – I created an image with a dominant maquette in the foreground and sharp stars in the background.
Often scenes are so expansive that they cannot be captured in a single image, and that is where a panorama can be very helpful. As I stood on the beach and photographed I knew that I wanted to capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights together (about 160 degrees field of view). I created the panorama below using 6 images and a 24mm, Sigma f/1.4. Each image is separated by 20 degrees using a rotating ballhead. I used 20 degrees because I know it provides ample overlap in the image for Photoshop to align and stitch with. You will need to change the amount of rotation depending on the length of the lens that you use. Using the panoramic technique expanded my field of view and helped me capture all of the celestial elements that I had in mind as well as the mountains of Homeshore and the mainland.
The Take Away
I am always learning new techniques and refining ones that I already know. Thinking outside of the box and on your feet during a photography session can expand your shooting opportunities during a single night. As I like to say “pixels are cheap”, so be sure to make lots of pixels as you shoot more creative photography.
A few months back I was walking the shores of Hoonah, Alaska with my wife when we saw a furry brown streak shoot out of the rocks along the ocean. With smiles of pleasure we watched as the mink dove under a thick bed of green, leafy, rock weed that covered the rocks exposed by the low-tide and erupted from it a few feet from where its nose had entered. Like a swimmer diving through water it dove and emerged again and then it changed tactics. Like a cat playing with its paws inside of an empty brown bag it shuffled and flipped the weeds looking for any wriggling food underneath. I knew that the weeds hide small fish, crabs, and sea-cucumbers and any of those would have been a feast for this small mammal.
In its focused pursuit of food, the Mink payed me little regard as I moved closer. Soon I was within 10 feet of this active animal. I followed it along the shore for 50 yards enjoying and watching its behaviors. I had not considered how many holes were in the rocks until the Mink poked its head into nearly every one of them systematically! The Mink disappeared into a rock outcropping thick with rock weed and emerged with a sculpin as its prize. Although sculpin have heavy spines in their head, the mink crunched through the whole carcasses and even the bony head before heading to another rock outcropping to find some more.
The Mink disappeared under a large bolder laced in blue mussels. I made my move and walked across the beach and stepped on top of the bolder. When the Mink reemerged it looked up and me and ducked back into the rocks. Obviously unsure if it was safe to come out but too curious to care it soon reappeared, took a glance at me, and then started to forage in the rocks under my feet. I was only 7 feet away from the lithe body as it scurried and poked and made me smile.
I’ve thought quite a bit about that Mink in the mussels since then because the opportunity was, well, opportune and I took the chance to watch and learn. In a world where everything is the next biggest priority this Mink was a reminder to stop and smell the roses. My advice to you is when you have a chance to sit, watch, and learn, take it. Whatever comes next can wait a bit.
A mink comes out of the rocks after scouting around for food. I watched this cute little bugger dive around in the rocks for almost 40 minutes.
2017 is officially in the books and it has been a tremendous year! Thank you to all who follow along on this blog or at www.facebook.com/ianlww! Your engagement in my work has been amazing! Your support is one of reasons the reasons that I stay out late shooting the Aurora Borealis and get in front of bears with my camera. This gallery is features my “Best of Photography 2017” and I hope you enjoy. I’m looking forward to bringing you more in 2018!
Aurora Borealis, Juneau, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Hoonah, Alaska
I am very intrigued by this design. It shaped like the cosmos, but I wonder what it actually represents?
A tall and ornate totem in the village of Kasaan.
A Least Sandpiper amount the mountain scenery of the Chilkoot River.
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines.
In the north end of Southeast Alaska lies Yakutat, Alaska. The community sits in a cathedral of mountains that make up Kluane National Park and Reserve. Among its peaks, Mt. Saint Elias soars to over 18,000 feet, earning it the title of second highest mountain in the U.S. and Canada.. All of the mountains are snow covered and laced with glaciers. They create remarkable, never ending scenery when the sun is shining and at night they provide a remarkable backdrop for the Northern Lights.
Forty-five minutes outside of Yakutat plus a 20 minute hike will bring you to Harlequin Lake. The lake is at the outflow of Yakutat Glacier, possibly the fastest retreating glacier in the world, which dumps a constant supply of ice into it the lake’s waters. We arrived at 10PM as the aurora was starting to intensify into a solid green band. Icebergs floated in the lake like ice cubes in a drink. They were about 30 feet from shore which left me in a dilemma – go into the lake to bring the icebergs closer in my photos, or be happy with images from the shore? As the aurora exploded overhead into pinks and greens it made my choice clear.
My boots and then socks came off quickly and I sucked in my breath as I stepped into the frigid water. It crept over my knees and then to my mid-thighs before I finally stopped wading in. The aurora was still dancing overhead and the adrenaline kept my mind off my numbing feet. I stepped out of the water a few times to warm up, but was forced back into the water by the beauty of the combination of ice and aurora. The fifth time back in the water was nearly unbearable! I finally conceded that it was time to warm up, not knowing the climax of the night would come after I put my boots back on.
When a glacier “calves” a chunk of ice breaks from it and crashes into the water forming a bouncing baby iceberg. It was evident from the gigantic sound coming from across the lake, that Yakutat Glacier was calving off a behemoth chunk of ice. The cannon-like roar that boomed across the lake accented the dancing Northern Lights overhead. The goosebumps stood up on my arms from the power of the moment. It was a fitting end to one of coldest and most memorable nights of Northern Lights watching that I have done.
The aurora storm (kp5) lasted for another night and aligned with clear skies – a two night feature of cloudless skies which is unusual for Yakutat in October. There are many areas close to town that are devoid of light pollution, and I departed to Grave Yard Beach outside of Yakutat which is most famous for its surfing. Adding to the sound of the gentle surf, the ocean-side location provided open skies for the aurora to dance, reflections in the sand, and a moonrise over the mountains. Whenever I return to Yakutat again, it will be impossible not to think of these two remarkable nights in the darkness and under the lights.
Everyone knows that some mushrooms are edible, but did you know that certain species of fungi and lichen can create dye for yarn and other materials in every spectrum of the rainbow? When Bessette wrote her book “The Rainbow Beneath My Feet: A Mushroom Dyers Field Guide”, she was being quite literal! I had the unique opportunity to scout for local dyeing mushrooms as part of a workshop led by SE Alaska mycologist Karen Dillman. We used the newly acquired mushrooms to dye yarn and silks. There is no doubt that I look at the forest floor with a different level of detail now! I think I may be hooked on this unique form of creating color.
Picking the right fungi or lichen for the right color is a crucial first step in producing your dyes. Fortunately the old growth forests in Southeast Alaska are ripe with many colorful species of fungi and lichens (a side fact – there are thousands of species of fungi and about 1000 documented lichen in Southeast Alaska). For each of the species of fungi that we dyed with during the workshop I have included the color they produce and the general region they may be found.
Lobaria pulmanaria – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lungwort”
Lobaria oregana – browns (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called “lettuce lichen”
Letharia vulpina – bright yellow and green (Idaho up through the Yukon)
Parmelia saxatillis – apricot and rusty browns (Southeast Alaska)
Orsalia (Umbillicaria genus) – purples (Nova Scotia), Rock Tripe (Umbellicaria) found in Southeast Alaska can produce purples as well.
Hydenellum peckii – blue (Southeast Alaska)
Hydnellum regium – black (Southeast Alaska)
Phaeolus schwinitzii – golds and greens (Southeast Alaska), sometimes called the dyer’s polypore
Dermocybes spp. – oranges and yellows (Southeast Alaska)
Fungi and Lichen are picky about the habitats they live in. Most species strongly associate with certain plant communities, individual species of plants, or types of food (wood, bone, sphagnum, and many other things). For each of the fungi and lichen above you can increase the efficiency of your search by understanding their ecology. Dermocybe species are found at the bases of old growth spruces and hemlocks and the Rock Tripe (Umbella caria) lichen is associated with rock faces, and often grow in the alpine. Of course, mushroom diversity differs by region, so as you are walking around take note of the locations you find your dye mushrooms and look for similar features elsewhere.
The Process of Dyeing With Fungi
Dyeing with mushrooms is actually quite easy – in many ways finding the mushrooms and getting them in enough quantity to dye with can be the difficult part! The most important thing is to add equal parts fiber (yarn, silks, grass, cedar bark) and mushrooms. The amount of water will not lighten the color of your dye because the dye is attracted to the mordanted yarn, so be sure to add enough water cover your fiber. Once the mushrooms are in the water, bring the water to a boil. As it heats you’ll immediately see the colors extruded from the mushrooms. You can boil the mushrooms for various amounts of time, and the longer you boil the more intense the colors will become. Straining the mushrooms from the dye is optional. Add the fiber to the dye and simmer the fiber for awhile – it will transform from white to bright!
When you first begin you may be uncertain of which color will come from each species of mushrooms. To save some time and precious mushrooms you can boil up a bit of water and pour it over a mushroom sample. After 10-15 minutes the color should be evident if the mushroom is useful for dyeing. To test lichens, try adding them to a bit of bleach (be sure it’s newish bleach, old will not work) to extrude the colors. If you like the colors produced by the test you can boil up the rest of your mushrooms right away or preserve them for later by drying or freezing.
In order to derive the most vibrant colors and best results, you will need a bit of luck, some patience and a small knowledge of chemistry. Several of the mushrooms and lichens that we dyed with could be modified by adding alum or iron to the water. These two minerals are preferred because they are non-toxic and can be dumped out safely after the dye is used up. Adding iron to yellow dyes will generally make them turn brown. By changing the pH with soda ash to basic water (pH 9 or 10) you can transform the colors from black to blue when dyeing with Hydnellum suaveolens. You can keep experimenting to find new chemistry that changes the color – just be sure to closely document what you did!
Most of the fiber materials are “raw” and need to be prepared to accept the dye. You can mordant wool yarn with iron or cream of tarter to achieve different colors. However, mordant is not necessary for lichen dyes, only mushrooms!
We used the dyes that we created to stain wool yarn and silk scarves. We also experimented with chiton shells from gumboots, and spruce roots. The results were incredible and stunning! Each skein of yarn extracted from the water baths was draped over the back of a chair to dry and added to the spectrum of color created by it is predecessors. We were pleased to see that some of the dyes were penetrating enough to color the bone-hard chiton shells and the tough, lignin of the spruce roots. I am a novice knitter, and the incredible vibrancy of the colors produced got me thinking about my next project – whatever that may be.
All of these colors and more can be produced by mushrooms and lichens. Colors vary on species and treatment of the fungi while boiling.
Thank you to Karen Dillman for introducing these techniques to us! Also thank you to Ron Hamill for his unwavering and undoutable knowledge of fungi. Karen attempted to pass on years of learning and experiments in a short day. To learn more about dyeing with fungi and lichen check out the resource books she recommended.This unique form of creating color is a learn-by-doing process. So, I hope you get out there and do it!
In Wrangell, Alaska the Petroglyph Beach Historic Site is a rocky beach that stretches to the north of the Wrangell Island along the coast. Among the field of kelp, sand, shells and slate-gray rocks are carved the testaments of early Tlingit people from 8,000 years ago. In fact, with over 40 known petroglyphs, the beach contains the highest concentration of petroglyphs in all of Southeast Alaska! These carvings were undoubtedly significant to history Tlingit people, but their true meaning has been lost and shrouded by history.
I enjoyed carefully walking around the site to discover new designs in the rocks. It is hard not to be in awe of this location when thinking about its relation to early human events. Globally at 6,000 BC, the pyramids of Egypt had not started construction, and people were only just starting to practice agriculture. It wasn’t until about 5,000 BC that basic crop cultivation began, and in ~5,700 BC the eruption that formed Oregon’s crater lake began – certainly the Tlingit people felt that blast reverberate up the coast! The carvings are a testament to the long history of Native Alaskan occupation of Southeast Alaska, and their rich cultural history. Even without fully understanding their meaning you can grasp at their significance.
Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska is the furthest north city in the United States, and just a few miles north of that on a small spit of land is Point Barrow where you can go no further north and still be on U.S. soil. At that point, the expanse of the ivory ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas stretches in front of you further than the eye can see. Looking south you will see no hills greater than a few feet tall – a tundra so flat that it seems like a wasteland. However, the tundra is fueled by perpetual sunlight for over 65 days each season and becomes an oasis for dozens of species of birds that come from multiple continents. With the flocks of birds come the flocks of birders to watch and observe their beauty and behavior under the midnight sun. We birded from June 16th to the 20th, recorded total 41 species of birds (although I think we missed a few on our final list) and 9 “lifer” birds which we had never seen before.
I realize not all of you reading this article are birders, so you may be wondering, “why would you take the time, hassle, and money to travel to the furthest point in the U.S. just to look at birds”. It’s because the birds are at their very best. You can think of this way : there are always cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and they are very beautiful to look at year around. However, during spring when they are in bloom the common cherry tree is transformed into an incredible spectacle. The birds in Barrow are the same – each is dressed to the nines in order to attract and breed with a female. They also show off behaviors and calls which you will see at no other time of the year.
The first owl we saw was the whitest owl (perhaps even bird) that I’ve ever seen. Typically Snowy Owls have some black in their wings, but this bird was almost sheer white with a few specks of black. The lack of color is indicative of the age of the bird and sex. Males are whiter than females and older birds are whiter than young birds. We can conclude from those two facts that this incredibly beautiful individual is an old, adult male.
“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl
Eiders are a family of sea-duck with four different species, and a circumpolar distribution. Each of the species is stunningly colored and have incredible plumage and sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males are dressy, the females are plain). Barrow provides relatively easy viewing of all four species of eiders in one place. We found Stellar’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders feeding in shallow ponds in the tundra. Each of them were paired and simply waiting for the snow to melt further, and the tundra to sprout before laying eggs. We observed Common Eider flying over the Chukchi sea on their way to different breeding grounds. Many other species of ducks and geese were found throughout the tundra to compliment the eiders.
Shorebirds in Barrow have their tuxedos on, are wearing Rolexes, and are ready to do whatever it takes to impress their female counterparts. They are a far cry from the drab, brown birds they become any other time of the year. The breeding displays vary from puffing out chest feathers, strutting with quivering wingtips, or taking to the air and flying high for all of the females to see. While we were there, the most vocal were the Pectoral Sandpipers. Male birds flew over their territories with chests feathers puffed out and made an indescribable-in-words galunking sound.
There was much more to see than just the breeding behavior of the shorebirds, and probably the most entertaining of these small birds were the phalaropes. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes feed by standing in shallow water and spinning in circles to stir up the bottom with their feet. They push their bill and head under the water to pick up their unsuspecting and confused prey. Their behavior reminds me of a dog chasing its tale, and its very hard not to smile when watching them.
North of Barrow is Point Barrow. This small spit of land has been used for millennia to capture whales and sea mammals for subsistence by the Iñupiaq people, and I was astounded by the number of Bowhead Whale skulls and bones along the beach (just for the record I 100% support this subsistence and cultural way of life). The bones helped answer some of the questions I had about whale structure and morphology.
Baleen is a key feature of non-predatory whales, but I’ve never quite understood how it was arranged in the mouth. In the jawbones of a couple of whale skulls, I saw that multiple (>50) plates of baleen lay parallel to each other on the left and right side of the mouth. Their arrangement allows the tongue to slide between the plates to push the water out and capture their food.
The many bones along the beach also put into perspective just how huge Bowhead Whales are. Jawbones may reach 13 feet in length, the vertebrae can be 20 inches or more wide, and the ribs can be 10 feet long. These are incredibly huge animals that must have been difficult to capture with seal-skin boats and bone-tipped spears. But somehow, in the face of this immense challenge, that is what the ancient Iñupiaq were able to accomplish.
Across the expanse of the sea-ice were cigar-shaped black specks. Most of the specks turned out to be seals. These seals provide a food source for humans and bears. I believe the most common species we observed were the Spotted Seal, but three other species may are present in the region. Although we scanned the ice pack for Polar Bears, there were none to be found.
In the summer, Barrow is the city that never sleeps. We were amazed at the amount of activity at all hours of the day throughout the community that can be attributed to the never setting sun. 24 hours of daylight ensured that the birds were active and visible during all parts of the day. We “Barrow-ed” our time schedule by staying up until 2AM or later on all of the nights we were in town. After four days we were exhausted, but thrilled to had a glimpse of this incredible area and the birds it holds.
Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017: