Tag Archives: Birding

Birding on “Barrow-ed” Time

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

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

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

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

The Snowy Owl

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

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

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

“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl

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

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

Shorebirds

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

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

Point Barrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barrow-ed Time

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Top Shots 2016

Another year come and gone! This year has been nothing short of life-changing. I graduated with my masters in Wildlife from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, moved from the Interior to the incredible Southeast Alaska, married the love of my life, and have a job I love! Life is great, and life has left me less time to blog recently (lack of time compounded by no internet at my house). However, that doesn’t mean that my camera has been sitting picking up dust in the corner. On the contrary I’ve been out photographing the wild beauty of Hoonah and Alaska all year. Some of these images from 2016 have made their way onto Facebook. You can “like ” my page for daily photo updates at www.facebook.com/ianlww. For other images this is the first time they’ve been shown off! Previous year-end recaps have been in different formats such as dividing by month in 2014 and dividing by topic in 2015. This year I’m just going to scrap the text and the give you the top shots 2016 from around Alaska. I hope you enjoy!

An Ivory Gull in Duluth, So What?

What does it mean when one of the least researched and understood marine birds in the Arctic turns up in Duluth, Minnesota 1,500 miles outside of its range? Locally, it ensures a birding rush of in-state and out-of-stater birders eager to see the rare bird, but what does it say about the global status of this unique bird? How can we use its presence to  educate ourselves of human impact on the high Arctic? Is the Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea) an indicator species of a greater issue in the Arctic? The suspicion that their unprecedented, 80% population decline over the last 20 years may be linked to mercury suggests they are.

Ivory Gull, Duluth
The Ivory Gull at Canal Park in Duluth sits on the piers a few hundred feet from the human observers on shore.

Population Free-fall of the Ivory Gull

Ivory Gulls are colonial birds, meaning that large numbers gather into groups to breed. By monitoring the nesting colonies of colonial birds, population trends may be established by researchers. However, surveys for Ivory Gulls  were only conducted in 1985 (Thomas and MacDonald, 1987) making it impossible to understand population trends. Compounding the lack of population data, Ivory Gulls are considered to be one one of the least understood marine birds. This is partly due to wintering along the ice pack between Greenland and Labrador ensuring they are not a bird which is in-sight of many people. However, indigenous knowledge has suggested declining populations since the 1980s (Mallory et al. 2003). In light of this, researchers  flew surveys of known nesting islands as well as newly found Islands in 2002 and 2003 and found something shocking. The number of nesting Ivory Gulls had declined by 80% since the 1980s (Gilcrest et al. 2005).

Ivory Gull, Identification
The Ivory Gull is a distinct bird with a blue bill, black feet, and stunning black tips on the wings.

Gilcrest et al. (2005) started to hypothesize at alternative reasons for the lack of gulls. They explored the possibility that the Ivory Gulls had simply shifted their nesting locations. However, a significant move is not inline with the known biology of the bird which generally move less than 1-2 kilometers.  Food sources of fish and carcasses have remained relatively stable in their study area giving them little reason to move. They noted that Ivory Gulls were not seen flying along the survey paths. It seems that the Ivory Gull was truly dying off.

Ivory Gull, Duluth, Minnesota
In Duluth, the Ivory Gull was gracious enough to land close to my camera, offering exceptional looks at the details of this beautiful bird.

 

The Driver of Change

Since the startling revelation of population decline, researchers have been trying to understand why Ivory Gulls are disappearing. It is probable that ice-pack changes and altered forage have contributed to the population decline (Gilchrest et al. 2005), but researchers think a stronger factor is in play . In his interview with the BBC World Service (full interview below) Dr. Alex Bond  hypothesizes that mercury is a leading stressor on Ivory Gulls based on findings that levels of mercury have risen 45 -50 times the levels found 130 years ago. There is strong evidence showing mercury levels in the eggs of Ivory Gulls is significantly higher than any other known marine bird. Braun et al. 2006 found that mercury in the eggs of Ivory Gulls were 2.5 times greater than even the next highest species, and were almost 3 times greater the amount which impairs reproductive success. Where is that much mercury coming from? And how exactly might it effect Ivory Gulls?

Ivory Gull, Underwings
The Ivory Gull in Duluth shows off its beautiful, white underwings.

To understand where the mercury is coming from, its important to know the basics of the mercury cycle. Mercury falls into the oceans from atmosphere pollution originating from coal-fired power plants, or is directly input from Alkali metal processing . There are also natural sources of mercury like volcanic eruptions and “volitilization of the ocean” (USGS 2000).  Once deposited in a waterbody, mercury becomes available to marine animals when it is transformed to methylmercury. Once in the that state, it moves up through the food chain into plankton, and then to fish, and finally to top level predators like birds and marine mammals.  Levels of mercury grows in organisms through bioaccumulation and biomagnifcation. To clarify that jargon, bioaccumulation means that the older you are, the more mercury you have since it is difficult to get it out your system once ingested. Biomagnification means that if you feed higher on the food chain you gain mercury more quickly. Marine mammals like seals have very, very high levels of mercury due to the effect of both bioaccumulation and biomagnifacation. With that information in mind it is easier to understand why Ivory Gulls accumulate mercury; they scavenge on carcasses of marine mammals and feed on fish which have high levels of mercury. They also have a high metabolic rate and consume more fish (Braun et al. 2006).

To date, the effect of mercury on Ivory Gulls has not been studied, but we can gather clues from looking at other species.  Common Loons (Gavia immer) also accumulate high levels of mercury due to eating fish (biomagnification) and having long lives (bioaccumulation). Evers et al. 2008 found a 41% decrease in fledged loon young in parents with >3 micrograms of mercury per gram of tissue compared to those with <1 microgram. They predict total reproductive failure of Common Loons if levels exceed 16.5 micrograms. Based on hundreds of hours of observation, they report that loons with elevated levels of mercury are lethargic and spend significantly less time foraging for food and less time taking care of their young. Each lead to fewer chicks growing to adulthood.  It is important to note in their study that mercury levels of a species change throughout their range due to climate, forage, and many other factors. Transferring the lessons of Common loons to Ivory Gulls, variation in  mercury levels changes are observed in Canada as well; in general levels of mercury increase from east to west in Canada. Although the effect of mercury on Ivory Gulls has not been directly studied and may effect gulls differently than loons, a good hypothesis for their decline is poor parenting and lethargy due to extraordinarily high levels of mercury. Only future research will help tease out the true effect of mercury on their decline.

Ivory Gull, Flying, Duluth
The Ivory gull in Duluth takes to the wing showing off its beautiful plumage and black feet.

When an Ivory Gull shows up in Duluth, Minnesota it is a chance to reflect. Reflect on the beauty of an animal. Reflect on the joy of seeing such a rarity. However, do not miss the opportunity to acknowledge that its prescense is out of the norm of the species and that an unseen driver which we do not fully understand is at play. Reflect on the fact that the impact of humans in a nearly un-inhabited region is undeniable. Human consumption of fossil fuels is depositing mercury into the Arctic at rates which may be directly effecting a species. The Ivory Gull is a red flag, an indicator that things are not right in the Arctic and that we should pay heed to what else may be going wrong that we just have not taken the time to study yet.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31921127

Braune, B. M., Mallory, M. L., & Gilchrist, H. G. (2006). Elevated mercury levels in a declining population of ivory gulls in the Canadian Arctic. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 52(8), 978-982.

Evers, D. C., Savoy, L. J., DeSorbo, C. R., Yates, D. E., Hanson, W., Taylor, K. M., … & Munney, K. (2008). Adverse effects from environmental mercury loads on breeding common loons. Ecotoxicology, 17(2), 69-81.

Gilchrist, H. G., & Mallory, M. L. (2005). Declines in abundance and distribution of the ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea) in Arctic Canada. Biological Conservation, 121(2), 303-309.

Mallory, M. L., Gilchrist, H. G., Fontaine, A. J., & Akearok, J. A. (2003). Local ecological knowledge of ivory gull declines in Arctic Canada. Arctic, 293-298.

Thomas, V.G., MacDonald, S.D., 1987. The breeding distribution and
current population status of the ivory gull in Canada. Arctic 40,
211–218.

USGS. 2000. http://www.usgs.gov/themes/factsheet/146-00/

On the Beaches of Homer

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

Tide Pools

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

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

Birding

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

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

Homer in Its Place

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

Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra

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

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

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

Bluethroat Video:

Northern Hawk Owl Video:

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

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

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

Solstice, Solitude, Soliloquy

By the time we reached Galbraith Lake, North Slope, Alaska, the low light of the solstice sun to the north was casting shadows on the peaks of the Brooks Range, which finally lay to the south of us after hours of driving. Although rain showers had passed through earlier in the day, the lingering clouds were just cotton in the sky, lit to the orange color of hot coils of a stove. Our trip was planned for three days, and our mantra was to have “nowhere to be, and all day to get there”! We observed, absorbed, and enjoyed the birds, flowers, and beauty of the Tundra during solstice. Due to the many photos from the trip, the results will be broken into two chapters, “Solstice, Solitude, Soliloquy”, and “Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra”. I hope you enjoy this first installment!

During the day we drove the Haul Road to various hiking destinations. A creek bed, a bird sighting, or a nice pull-off were all excuses to hike around and check out a new region. Although the road was busy with traveling semi-trucks and tourists, as soon as you walked away from the road the solitude was immediate. Few others hike around on the tundra at this time of the year, and its vast expanse ensures that even if they do, you do not have to see them unless you choose to. Since creek beds offer a natural hiking corridor through and around ankle twisting tundra humps, tussocks, we used them often. The small, bubbling rivers bottoms flowed through rockfields created by spring melts, and were just a fraction of their size during the melt a few weeks prior. However, flow was higher than normal for the time of year, as a snow storm just 10 days earlier fed them from the mountains. I was drawn to the colors and sizes of rocks on the stream beds, and the mountains behind them which birthed the running waters.

Brooks Range River.
A small mountain stream runs out of the mountains south of Atigun Pass.
Haul Road River
The Haul Road runs over this stream, and is visible in this shot. Multple stream braids flowed into each other in small rapids.
Brooks Range Reflection
West of Atigun Gorge, this small pond is joined to Galbraith lake and reflected the still snow-covered peaks of the northern Brooks Range.
Brooks Range Panorama
The north edge of the Brooks Range was lit up each night in the low light of the midnight sun. What a scene!

At the end of each day we set up camp on the tundra, targeting soft patches of sphagnum moss for our sleeping pads. The mattress companies of the world should take note of the comfort of the tundra – it is unparalleled in soft-yet-supportive sleep. From our camp we took small hikes to check out the local flora and birds. The hikes always brought something new to see and experience. Near one of our camps we discovered this baby longspur (either a Smith’s or Lapland) on the tundra. It perched on the moss in the warm sun, and was likely waiting for food from its parent. Unable to escape, this baby bird’s instinct was to sit as still as possible. I snapped a few shots, and then stepped away so its parents could rejoin and feed it.

P6200661

As we walked around each night I looked for settings to put up a solstice timelapse. The advantage of a timelapse over a single shot is to show the traveling path of the sun as it reaches the horizon and then curves back into the sky. Over the Brooks Range, being so far north, the sun stayed far above the horizon – it hadn’t dropped below the horizon there for over a month. This was in stark contrast to shooting at Finger Mountain about 15 miles south of the Arctic Circle where the sun just dipped below the curve of the earth. The resulting shots from each location have been fused together, and shown individually below. The lighting of the composite shots, in particular, I believe is very striking. Since each image is made of 8-10 shots over time, each plant has been lit from many angles. Because of this, extreme detail can be seen in each flower in the tundra foreground.

P6220881
This solstice shot was shot June 21 – 22nd from Finger Mountain, about 7 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Smoke from the over 200 active wild fires in the state (at the time) came in from the south, staining the sky red.
Finger Mountain Solstice Composite
This composite timelapse shot was taken over 4.5 hours. Since this was shot just south of the Arctic Circle, the sun disappears behind the horizon at ~2AM.
Solstice Sundial
This solstice shot was taken from Galbraith Lake Campground. In the foreground, an Oeder’s Lousewort stands as a sundial.
Solstice Composite Galbraith Lake
This composite makes the foreground of the tundra particularly epic. The small mountain avens that would be hid in a single shot really pop out when lit from many angles!

Solstice Composite Galbraith Lake 2

Solstice Tent
This solstice shot was taken June 20 – 21st, just west of Atigun gorge over camp for the night.

Atigun Gorge Solstice Composite

Mosquito Army
Our trip to the tundra was spectacular, but was not without its setbacks! Clouds of mosquitoes emerged about 10 PM each night, and were thick in the face, eyes, and back of the neck until we went to bed. However, during the night they receeded, and the mornings were quite pleasant again.
Brooks Range Camp
Kassie, Jess and I at camp with the Brooks Range in the Background.

A trip to the Tundra will bring as much to experience as the eye can behold and the brain can perceive. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of birds and blossoms!

“Roughing It” In the Bush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Great-Horned Owl

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

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

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

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

Highlights of an Alaskan Bird-a-thon

The Alaska Songbird Institute has a goal for people during their second annual “Bird-a-thon” : find as many birds as you can within 24 hours in Alaska. We, team MRI (Madi, Ross, and Ian), decided to take the task seriously! We started our 24 hour window at 8:00 PM by birding a range of Fairbanks hot-spots. From there we headed south along the Richardson highway with the goal of making it Paxson to bird the Denali Highway – a 134 mile stretch of wetland potholes and alpine tundra chock-ful of birds.

May 15th was the first day the Denali Highway was officially open, and much of the Denali Highway’s tundra was still covered in snow due to 3000′ elevation gain. Because of the low-productivity of snow-covered areas, we targeted melt areas and ponds. There were many, many species of birds. Some of them, such as red-throated loons were still passing through to breed on lakes further north over the Brooks Range, using the Denali Highway region as a “stopover” until the ponds further north were ice free. But, the site was not a stopover for most. Many of the birds were there to make a nest and raise young in the 24 hour light. The tundra is the summer home of many species which are found in vastly different habitats during the winter. For instance, the long-tailed jaeger is an ocean bird. During the summer they nest in the tundra and eat berries and small rodents. Quite a change from the fish they traditionally consume! Wilson’s warbler migrate to South America, and arctic terns migrate to Antarctica (the longest animal migration). In fact, the Alaskan tundra is so unique and special that birds from six of the seven continents can be found on it. For those that see the tundra frozen in the winter, it is easy to forget the tundra is a highly valuable and necessary ecosystem!

Aside from the birds, the scenery of the Denali Highway is never ending! The melting ponds and flowing rivers created a patchwork of light and dark across the land. To the north, the horizon was ragged like torn cloth with the mountains of the Alaska Range. In the twilight at 2:00 AM (because it no longer gets fully dark here), the Alaskan Range stabbed through the colors of the sunset and on bluebird days like the one we had its snow covered peaks starkly contrasted the thawing tundra and blue sky.

Along with the birds, there was plenty of mammals to see. By the end of the trip we watched well over 20 moose and probably 30 caribou. Arctic ground squirrels fed along the roadsides, and frolicked across the snow. The young animals of spring are out and about, and we enjoyed watching a red fox kit chew on some grass outside of its den after we returned to Fairbanks.

Alaska Range Caribou
A herd of caribou navigate around a pond with the expanse of the tundra behind them.
Moose
A mother moose and her yearly calf browse on new growth of willow.
Velvet Bulls
Two bull caribou lounge about in velvet antlers.
Fox Kit
This fox kit was a joy to watch. You can tell by the smooth walls of this den that they have spent quite a bit time going in and out.

So, bringing it back to where it all started, why go birding for 24 hours straight? It seems that it might be a bit crazy (for instance getting about 3-4 hours of sleep). To understand that, you simply have to understand what I believe birding is. Birding is a chance to observe the natural environment either individually or with friends. An opportunity to go birding with a two great friends (we rock, MRI!) in a place as remote and diverse as Interior Alaska is a moment to relax and learn something new (essentially a guarantee); it should not be passed up. Even if observing wildlife is not for you, my definition of “birding” can be modified to fit almost any hobby. Don’t pass up opportunities to learn and be with good friends. After 24 hours, we identified 68 species of birds; a pretty remarkable list and I cannot wait until next year’s Bird-a-thon!

Bird list
Here’s the list of observed species during team MRI bird-a-thon. 68 species in 24 hours! Ironically we did not turn up a black-capped chickadee – very ironic considering they are a classic species of Alaska.