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.
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:
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.
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.
Nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes at South Marble Island
Bald eagles feed on the carcass of a dead sea lion.
A young bonapartes gull flies over.
A Black Oyster Catcher flies by.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seals float on the ice bergs near Marjorie Glacier.
An eagle takes advantage of a floating platform of ice.
It was negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit in Fairbanks, Alaska as I stepped outside to engage in my photographic addiction : capturing the northern lights. I set off into the night, stomped a trail through knee-deep snow, and tripped on a hidden tree. The trip loosened up a signature item of the black spruce bog that I was walking in; a four foot Black Spruce tree encased in snow. Around me arranged in clumps and with varying snow loads were hundreds of Black Spruces. Each layer of snow deposited through the winter hung heavily on each tree. Some of them sustained the burden of winter and maintained their dignity by standing upright, however, many bowed over in graceful arcs waiting for the warmth of spring to set them free. The beautiful landscape I stood in was classic to the interior of Alaska in the boreal forest. On this night I was in luck, the aurora started up and with my camera and mind racing I began to take pictures that fused together two iconic elements of interior Alaska.
I began photographing the aurora borealis three years ago and since then have continued to morph my skills and technique. It is actually pretty amazing to consider the transition that my photography has gone through as I began to realize that although the northern lights are stunning they are only an accent to unique landscape. I began to focus less on tack-sharp stars and large vistas and more on the foreground elements. I no longer only seek tall “domes” (i.e., mountains, hills) to stake out my my tripod. Instead I often look for integral pieces of the landscape that epitomize it and place them close and directly in front of my camera. In order to capture landscapes like these I change my techniques. My camera and tripod are almost always at ‘snow level’ to take advantage of unique angles, and I set up only a few feet from the object in front of me. A bulbous, snow-covered black spruce only two feet away becomes the tack-sharp focus that the eye is pulled to. The dreamy and soft aurora and stars provide the lighting that help pull out the essence of the landscape. They are punctuation to the beauty which lies all around.
In the age of digital photography that makes capturing the northern lights “easy”, I offer this article as a challenge to photographers to think outside of the box when shooting the aurora. You may find that it provides inspiration to your work and a beautiful twist to an astounding phenomenon.
I do not know why the stark beauty of the Lake Superior coast surprised me so much; before, I had lived on its shores four years. In front of me, the grey sky mirrored the pale ice of the shoreline, and as I walked to the edge of Gitchigumi’s ice encased coast at Gooseberry State Park I was captivated. Short waves in the small cove which curled out in front of me lapped at the shoreline and imperceptibly built up icicles that hung from ice ledges. The icicles were shaped like alligator teeth and seemed to dangle from the frozen mouth of a gigantic beast. Every rock was encased in a sheet of ice built up one splash of water at a time. A careful cross-section of ice from on top of the rock would reveal that stone was at the core of an arctic onion.
The ice was inspiring to look at from a macro and micro scale. By getting close and touching my nose to the ice, I observed some the miniscule details contributing to the grand-scale beauty. On the rocks, a result of the layers of water was gray-and-white banded textures mimicking the agates Lake Superior is so famous for. They were polished to perfection. Colorful yellow lichens, tufted grasses, and rich green mosses were preserved on the rocks behind clear windows of curved ice. The magnifying effect of the curve threw pieces of the lichen out of proportion, and the the splashes of bright color they provided were in stark contrast to the granite. As I pressed my face close and looked, it was impossible to guess how some of the textures had formed. In some instances, it seemed that some of the small pebbles trapped in the ice had received just enough sun to melt and separate themselves. The small void they left above their surface was filled with alternating grains and patterns. Reflecting on it now, everything looks a bit different when you observe the essence of a landscape.
One of the greatest joys of the afternoon was when the sun dissolved through the flat gray skies as a radiant sunset. The grey ice ledges and icicles no longer blended into the background colors of the horizon but instead reflected and bounced the many colors of the sky. The Lake Superior coast was transformed. Translucent icicles absorbed and emitted the sunset’s light. Rays of sun illuminated the rock islands encased in ice. Blue skies and orange clouds floated overhead and were pushed by the wind. Throughout it all I counted my blessings and documented its beauty. As the sun finally set I returned to my car feeling like I had been at just the right place, at just the right time.
Hello Everyone! 2015 was a great, great year. Traveling took me from the North Slope of Alaska to the southern coast of Texas. Professionally I am headed back to the “real world” after completing my thesis in December, and will enjoying a married life by mid-summer! The images below are some of my Top Shots from 2015. If there was a blog post associated with the image I included it in the caption. I hope you enjoy.
If you have enjoyed the blog this year please take the time to pass it on to a friend who would enjoy it too, and encourage them to sign up for the emails. Thanks all!
The Aurora Borealis has become an addiction of mine, and these two particular some of my favorites from the season.
Dog sledding in Alaska has been a tremendous treat, and there couldn’t be a better mentor than my friend Jeff Deeter at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
These array of landscape shots capture the beauty and phenomena of Alaska and beyond.
From the bottom of tide pools to the tops of mountains, it has been a great year to shoot wildlife!
Fireweed are iconic to Alaska, and I love how a single stalk seems to stand out above the others here.
Now that we are past Thanksgiving I am definitely in the Christmas Spirit. I took my festive passion into the Alaskan wilderness last night to fuse together a little Christmas Cheer and the aurora borealis. I sat in the waist deep snow and tossed Christmas ornaments into the powder as I belted Christmas carols and watched a crescendo of pink and green aurora dance over my head like the twinkling lights of a monstrous, celestial Christmas tree. Of course, there is no reason to put a star on top of this metaphorical tree, it is a tree that is covered in them, not crowned with one. There were no presents under this tree, because it was already a gift. I had a lot of fun doing this shoot last night, I hope you enjoy!
If you are interested in a one-of-a-kinda Alaskan Christmas card and before you send your greeting cards this year, consider a purchase from my Fine Art America website. To browse a selection of these images as a greeting card, framed print, phone cover, or many other products please visit my page : Ian’s Fine Art America.
I experimented with a variety of arrangements through the night, but I trended towards ones with color in front.
The aurora is reflected perfectly in this shiny Christmas Ornament
A drop of green aurora fell from the sky and landed in the snow 🙂
I took advantage of this fully covered black spruce to make a Christmas tree!
The hoar frost on top of the snow just adds to the beauty of the scene!
I love the splashes of color the Christmas Ornaments provide!
I am reflected in this stack of Christmas ornaments 🙂
A big moon shadows the ornaments, and is a brilliant aurora reflection shines from overhead.
Last night I did it again, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Yup, when I bring someone out for their first aurora and they are so excited that they can barely stand, I share in that excitement. Their grin is my grin and their joy is my passion. Their exuberance was warranted, as the aurora put on a beautiful show for us over the dogyards of Black Spruce Dog Sledding and for Alaskans across the state. It was hard not pull up one of the empty sleds that beckoned to the watcher to layback, relax, smile, and enjoy the show. It truly is a beautiful world.
If you are interested in purchasing “Take A Seat for the Aurora”. Please top by my Fine Art America Site 🙂
A Happy Trio under the Aurora!
This image of empty sleds beckons the viewer to come take a seat and enjoy a beautiful show.
The aurora creeps in over the Dog Yard of Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
A powerful flare of aurora threatens to blow out this image. Such a beautiful scene!
The aurora lights up the scene behind these snow-laden black spruces.
I never leave out the horizon in my shots, but did in this one for some reason. And you know what – I kind of like it! The milky way is showing up alongside the aurora in this shot.
Jason and Megan were visiting Black Spruce Dog Sledding, and I was more than happy to get an image of them under their aurora. A great couple!
Wide vistas over Murphy dome showing off a beautiful sky.
It has been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but all of that is about to change as I get my blog’n legs back under me. Until now I have been prioritizing my thesis which has now been defended. There will be several upcoming articles on the results of my work. I see no use in writing it if noone is reading it! I deem the upcoming articles as science communication”, and I hope you will find them informative.
Now onto the meat of this entry. Yesterday was my first day back in Fairbanks after being away for over 10 days. When I left, the remnants of a huge September snowstorm (17″) still lingered on the ground in low, shaded areas, but for the most part the ground was barren. It is amazing how only 10 days can change that. We now have 16″ of pure powder on the ground which is maintained by cold nights. Yesterday morning when I awoke it was -15F with a promise from forecasters that those temperatures will continue through at least this week. A seasonally late sunrise began at 9:15, and by noon the low light illuminated the tree tops and extenuated the shadows. I nearly skipped with joy into the spruce bog behind my house where snow hung on the trees. I passed under trees that with a touch would have doused me in snow, and found pure joy in the beauty of this winter wonderland.
Later that night the landscape of refracting light and black spruce shadows transitioned to twinkling stars shining through a moonless night. I retraced my steps from only a few hours earlier and watched as the aurora built to the north. I watched for awhile and smiled outwardly at my knowledge of the stark contrast in light from just hours earlier.
There have been many times when I stooped during my meanders through the woods to look at fungi, often not considering that I was only seeing the fruiting body of a large underground network of “hyphae” – small root-like structures which interact with many species in woodlands. Most of the time I only contemplate the color, shape, or size of the mushroom, and move on without ever being able to identify the species. I believe that experience is the same for many others. However, as I stood on the deck at the Folk School in Fairbanks, Alaska and watched a band of kids ranging from age 7-12 roam through the woods with mycologist Christin Anderson, I was excited to learn of the species they brought in!
I was astounded by the diversity of mushrooms brought forth – in a short time they had collected over 10 genus, and many more species. Functionally, the collection of mushrooms ranged from parasitic, to decomposing; one species even grew on decomposing mushrooms! We observed the variety of color and size of each by touching and looking as Christin explained that it is not possible to absorb the toxin of any mushroom through the skin, although most people believe that you can. It was certainly news to my ears! On top of that, I didn’t know the hallucinogenic compounds in mushrooms are the not same ones that can kill you; poisons and hallucinogens are separate things.
I think mushroom identification is the hardest part of being a mycologist, and is simply overwhelming for those of who are not mycologists. However, with Christin at the helm of at least identifying each of the mushrooms to genus, I was excited to look up information each. Here’s just a little of what I learned about the diversity of the world of mushrooms. As a result of my research, I am in awe of the functionality that mushrooms play in Alaskan ecosystems.
is a particularly poisonous mushroom, and through history has been utilized as a hallucinogenic (Michelot, D., & Melendez-Howell, L. M. 2003)
It is just one type of the many amanitas (fly agarics) which are often colorful and extremely beautiful. Check it out