Tag Archives: Ecology

The American Dipper

Before I begin to tell you about North America’s only fully aquatic songbird, lets set the mood. You perch on a large bolder along  the edge of a rushing river and the sound of gurgling water drowns out your senses. As you relax you realize you have effectively  no hearing due to the sound of the water, and your eyes seem keener and your sense of smell more acute.  You absorb more of you surroundings and the moss seems greener, the water colder, and the day more beautiful. You marvel at the inter-connectedness of it all. Your growing perception of the surrounding ecosystem is enhanced as a small, nondescript, gray bird flutters into sight. It dives into the water and re-appears with a mouth full of food. He is the harbinger of death for small fish and crustaceans. The death of the small creatures is not unwarranted, and you gain insight into the necessity of their harvest as the American Dipper flutters fifteen feet into the air where hungry mouths appear at the cavity of a moss-covered nest. It is springtime in Southeast Alaska, and the children are hungry. As the adults swoop down river the rushing water again over takes your senses and you wait for their return.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
An American Dipper perches with a mouthfull of food that it just scavenged from the river’s bottom.

The American Dipper, “Dippers”, is North America’s only fully aquatic songbird. Their range is expansive across the Western US from Alaska to Mexico, and I have been delighted to find that they are relatively common along the clear and cold rivers in Hoonah, Alaska. The scene that I described above was one that I experienced recently. After finding the dippers I sat on the water edge and watched their behavior for two-and-half hours.  After doing some research, I’ve realized that many of the things I observed about the Dipper that day are well documented behavior. The video below gives a one-minute real of highlights from the day.

Why a “Dipper”?

The American Dipper is aptly named. Everywhere it goes its knees bob which are synchronized with its tail. This comical effect has no explained reason. Bob Armstrong, one of Alaska’s most renowned birders, provides several guesses from conversations with birding experts. Some suggest it is a form of communication while some suspect that it enables them to see into the water by cutting the angle. Since dippers are such a small bird (about the size of a robin), I was interested to know how they were able to be so successful at hunting. I watched many times as they plunged their head into the water looking for prey in much the way that a Common Loon would.  This is different from many fishing birds which choose to fly or perch above the water before making their selection or growing long legs like a Great Blue Heron.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
The American Dipper checks me out from a perching point in the river.

Dipper Anatomy

In review of the images I took, I noticed something lacking in the American Dipper that I might otherwise suspect they would have – webbed feet. It should be an essential for a full aquatic bird, right? I observed the Dipper dive into extremely fast current above a small rapids, submerse it self for several seconds, and then reemerge in the same spot with food in its mouth. It turns out Dippers use their wings to swim and walk along the bottom. Again deferring to Bob Armstrong, you would be missing out not to watch some of his amazing footage of Dippers feeding underwater.

The Voice and the Little Ones

Dippers are songbirds and have beautiful voices. As I sat along the rivers edge with the sound of water pounding in my ears their trills and calls always cut through the din of the water. Their call is clear a true and may be heard in the video I posted too over the rush of the river.  I found that they mostly called right before leaving the water to fly to their nest in the cavity of the bridge. A series of trills brought the hungry mouths of the kids to the nest’s opening even before the parents arrived.

Nest, American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
Hungry mouths wait for the return of parents in moss-covered nest about the size of a volleyball.

In bird-watching language you may go out for a stroll never see the bird you set out for, it’s called “dipping”. For instance, “I went to see a blackpoll warbler, but dipped on them”. Next time you are on a small stream in Southeastern Alaska I hope you don’t dip on Dippers!

An Ivory Gull in Duluth, So What?

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

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

Population Free-fall of the Ivory Gull

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

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

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

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

 

The Driver of Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colorful Seasons in Alaska

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

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

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

June

July

August

 

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

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

Identification Sources:

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

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

http://www.alaskawildflowers.us/

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

Literature

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

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

A Whale Of A Tale

You never know what you will see when you leave Seward Harbor, but with blue skies and calm seas our hopes were high for a remarkable trip. Our trip last year on this same boat, and captained by the same crew had been truly memorable!

We reached the open ocean at the edge of Resurrection Bay about 20 miles outside of Seward harbor, and immediately recognized based on an enormous flock of gulls and sea-birds that something special was happening in front of us. Of course, the many tails of humpback whales emerging from the water was a good tip too! As we carefully approached the scene the captain explained that we were observing “bubble-net feeding” of a large group (~18) humpback whales. This behavior has only been recorded consistently around Seward for about five years, as apparently many of the whales had taught it to each other. Observing from the water surface, it is hard to imagine the underwater pandemonium of bubble-net feeding. In the deep waters under a large school of bait fish all 18 whales were blowing bubbles in synchrony to herd the bait ball into one group. Once corralled, all of the whales ascended to the surface with their huge mouths agape to scoop up as many fish as possible. From the surface we were able to predict the timing and location of each emergence, because the flock of hundreds of seabirds would lift up high into the sky, before diving on the susceptible fish just before the whales broke the surface!

Our boat drifted silently with the engines turned off, and as the whales came up for the fifth time under the baitfish the flock of tell-tale gulls began to fly straight towards our boat! It was going to be a close encounter!! Sure enough, enormous mouths attached to up to 80,000 pounds and 80 feet of whale broke through the surface near the boat in a show that left me shaking. Not from fear, but rather sheer awe-struck wonder. I simultaneously snapped imagery of the incredible scene and watched each wonder unfold. I was too busy taking imagery to record video of the whales breaking the surface, but have chained together a series of images in the video below that demonstrate the behavior of bubble-net feeding. Be sure to listen to the incredible sounds they make while on the surface!

Humpback Whale Breach
I was fortunate enough to have my camera point in the same spot, and set up for a quick burst of shots. It allow me to catch the graceful ark of this full breach! It is likely that this humpback whale was celebrating a successful day of feeding and hunting.

Mammals

The humpback whales were just the start of a remarkable series of wildlife sightings. A first of my life was the killer whales. A large pod of them traveled along and breached frequently for air exposing their fin and distinct white eyepatch. The dominant male of the group was evident thanks to an especially large dorsal fin. Baby orcas surfaced directly behind their mothers as they were still dependent them for protection, and to learn from. We spotted many sea otters throughout Ressurection Bay and along the coast. The story of their recovery is remarkable. Sea otters were extirpated from much of their traditional range by exploiting Russian and American hunters. Their loss led to the collapse of kelp beds as urchins populations, a diet item of the sea otter, expanded and ate of the kelp hold fasts (their roots). Once protected by federal law, the recolonization of sea otters helped reestablish the kelp communities and repair a crucial underwater ecosystem for small fish, and many invertebrates.

Birds

The Chiswell Islands provide important breeding habitat and refugia for many sea birds. Puffins, murres, kittiwakes, and dozens of other species are found throughout their rocky crags where they escape predation risk. Many of the species that nest in the rocky crags of the cliffs are classified  as “pelagic birds”. These birds only come to shore to breed, and spend the rest of their life at sea. It is remarkable to me that little of their ocean life is understood, although it is clearly an important part of their life history and hence conservation. One incredible fact from the trip’s crew : common murres may dive up 600 feet in search of food! The images below are just a small cross-section of the birds were observed along the way.

Scenery

The bluebird skies of the day blessed us for the nearly the entire trip. However, as we moved away from Northwestern Glacier, a thick bank of fog moved in from the ocean. The damp air made the day cooler, and provided a mystical backdrop to the Chiswell Islands which poked in and out of the fog like chandeliers in a smokey bar. The islands created a partial barrier to the fog which flowed through the lowest points of the islands like a sinewy serpent. Subsequently, the fog established the base of some of my favorite scenery images throughout the day, and featured below.

As whales-of-a-tales go, I’ve stuck to the facts of the day, although so much of was above average that even I feel that it’s a tale of whoppers. It was the type of trip that every subsequent trip to the ocean will be relative to. Perhaps I will tie it someday, but it would take a Moby Dick sized whale of a day to beat it!

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!

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.

A Wood Frog, Blog

Visually and sonically the pond was alive. Golden light of a pre-evening sun poured over the pond, and where the light fell on the far bank the sound of spring in Alaska, a loud wood frog (Rana sylvatica) chorus, echoed in the birches. Wood frogs are the only species of amphibian found in Interior Alaska, because let’s face it : there are not many species that can withstand -40 degree temperatures! In the winter, wood frogs burrow into the soil under leaves or woody debris and concentrate glucose in their blood as anti-freeze. However, the glucose only provides some relief. In the cold months with little sun, their heart stops beating, eyes freeze, blood freezes, and brain activity stops. By almost any definition the frogs would be declared dead, but when spring temperatures arrive the frogs thaw out from the inside-out (instead of the outside-in, scientists have no idea how), resume life, and jump into local ponds for reproduction. It was that yearly event that I stood in the middle of with my camera.

I waded into the ~55 degree water, and through the old vegetation of the pond. Crossing the 60 foot wide pond to where the frogs called, resulted in water mid-way up my thighs and soaked my pants. I draped a camouflage cloth over me and waited like a giant, brown heron (or maybe the swamp monster) for the frogs to start singing. When they did it started as a single croak which seemed to say “all clear”. Within no time the life of breeding wood frogs unfolded all around me. Only a few feet away, each frog that called swelled up pockets of skin along their cheeks and side, and sent a rippling well of water out from its body. I think that communication occurs both by sound and by the small waves of water, although that is just an observation. Many of the male frogs chased females while rapidly swelling their air sacs, calling, and sprinting towards females. Often their approaches seemed to be rejected. I watched as many males swam up rapidly to a female and attempt to mount, but were thwarted by an elusive mate. Often in denser vegetation, groups of frogs boiled in the water as a constant struggle to maintain a female ensued. As I watched the frogs many mosquitoes fed on their exposed heads. After seeing that, I hypothesize that frogs are an important early food source for mosquitoes. I stood for 90 minutes while my legs turned into cold stumps, and finally decided that I couldn’t take the cold water much longer. However, my 90 minutes in the water was worth it! The short video below captures just some of this behavior. Be sure to watch them call in slow motion. Enjoy!

Frogs in the spring have long been a part of my life. Growing up, my open window in the warming days would let their songs in. In the Midwest, higher frog species diversity adds a wider range of tenors and bass to the chorus. The small, 200 foot diameter “frog pond” just inside the woodline is a consistent producer of leopard frogs (bass), spring peepers (tenors), wood frogs, tree frogs (several species), and likely others. The frog pond was an important stomping ground for my brother and my nature education. Although I never got to observe the frogs very often because they were pretty elusive, we often collected eggs and tadpoles for rearing. So, finally after all these years, the opportunity to see these frogs in Alaska up close was a real treat!

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A quick selfie of frog photography.

Want to learn more? Check out this video highlighting some ongoing University of Alaska Fairbanks research!

Rio Grande Valley and the Joy of a Naturalist

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

Rio Grande Video:

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

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

These images are from a variety of locations including:

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