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.
Peer into a tidepool, and what shall you see? Small creatures, shells, or an anemone.
As the tide goes out, large boulders hold water and sea creatures – tide pool!
The tentacles of a green anenome reach for the surface in a a tide pool.
This large, lone, mussel displays one of its unique characterists. The strong, hair fibers of its holdfast which secure it to a a rock.
Within a tidepool I watched this tiny hermit crab discover, and then attempt to pry loose this limpet for dinner. For scale, this tiny limpet is half the size of a dime, and the crab even smaller.
This particular anenome in the tide pool was very striking. Wedged between two rocks, I was able to capture it through the surface of the water!
(1) The sand flats in between the rocks may holder larger treasures….
(2)… like this starfish! This large star fish was 10 – 12 inches across. We moved it to a wetter, and safer tide pool.
This image of a dead clam among the rocks, and surrounded in seaweed seemed to imbibe the whole concept of tidal change to me.
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!
Drop a few ice cubes in your drink before you start reading this, and consider the question : how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Now, while you are thinking about that illusive answer, consider how many days it takes to melt a glacier. Just how fast does it happen? My several trips to Castner Glacier over the last 15 months provide interesting evidence into this impossible to answer question. Let’s take a look!
When I first visited Castner Glacier in April 2014 a monstrous, multi-chambered ice cave shook me to my core. The ice cathedral hung over my head an estimated 80 feet above. The walls and ceilings of it were composed of blue, transluscent layers of ice and closer inspection of the walls showed that the clarity of the ice provided a window deep into the glacier of the sediment suspended in it. A chimney was cut into its ceiling allowing light to illuminate the icy floor of the glacier. It was awe inspiring!
This video was taken in April 2014 during a walkthrough of the ice cave and captures the scope of it. Instability of parts of the video was due to the slippery ice floor!
The next time I visited the rainiest summer recorded in Fairbanks was coming to a close, and the rain had reshaped the ice in unimaginable ways. Water ran down the glacier in small rivulets and opened the chimney to a yawning mouth. It degraded the ceiling so extremely, that large chunks of the cavern had crashed down. If you stood close to the mouth of the cave many rocks fell dangerously from the ceiling as they melted from their icy tomb of thousands of years. The rapid melt had removed the beautiful transparency from the ice. It was now silty and gray.
The rapid melting that we witnessed inspired me to create a different type of video for Castner. This video documents the fall (August) stage of plant life around the glacier, and then documents the progression of drops of water from the glacier which eventually build into the silty and fast-flowing Castner Creek.
When I visited the Castner Ice Cave in June 2015, it was just a shadow of its former self. Only a small arch of ice remained of the once huge cave. Castner Creek ran through the remnant of the ice cave, where previously it had run to the side. In just fifteen months, unquantifiable amounts of ice from the glacier had transformed into water, carrying with it many tons of silt to the broader river valley that Castner Creek flowed into. The glacier was rapidly changing, dying.
The answer is two hundred fifty-two. At least that is what students at Purdue concluded to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But why does it matter that Alaska’s Castner Glacier and the state’s other glaciers are melting so rapidly? Alaska Dispatch News recently reported on a new study demonstrating that Alaskan Glaciers are losing 75 billion tons (75 gigatons) of ice each year, and that 94% of that loss is occurring on inland glaciers like Castner. This means that Alaskan glaciers will continue to contribute a significant amount to global sea level rise, especially in light of a warming climate. They end the article with a quote by study co-author O’Neel. “This is probably going to be a pretty tough year for a lot of the glaciers”, he stated. It appears he is right, and Castner’s included.
I was excited to head far into the Alaskan bush by river to help a friend open his cabin for the season. Almost a week of packing led up to the Wednesday we were supposed to leave. However, when the middle day of the week arrived, high water reports from Fort Yukon and the Upper Porcupine River were ominous. Record snowfall in Old Crow, Yukon Territory, had swollen the giant river systems. They were far above travel-able levels, and over-flooded banks were pulling dangerous amounts of debris, ‘drift’, into the river. Our final destination was 220 river miles through the high water and drift of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers, and the experienced judgement of Joe dictated that we would wait a few days before heading up to his cabin. Four days later the river had dropped to acceptable levels. It was go-time : the river was saying so!
Before I get into some of the stories of the trip. Come along on the trip with me by watching this video:
The notion of taking a boat far into the Alaskan bush is exciting! A long-time resident of the bush, Joe was anxious to open his cabin, and assess his estate because bears, humans, or weather can all impact an unoccupied cabin. The boat-trip up river started in Circle, Alaska on a cloudy day. As we headed downstream in the Yukon River, we quickly entered the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. This expansive refuge is critical, critical habitat for breeding waterfowl and birds. In fact, the refuge hosts 150 species of breeding birds from 11 countries, 8 Canadian provinces and 43 of the 50 states. That’s remarkable diversity!
The Yukon Flats is aptly named. As we cruised along in the boat, the shores were a steady patchwork of riparian habitat consisting of willows, birch, and spruces. There was no perceptable climb in elevation. The fast, high water of the river kept progress slow, and Captain Joe was constantly vigilant for pieces of drift. Three foot-long sticks and entire trees were coming down the river at the rate of several or more pieces per minute. Hitting a small branch may result in a dented prop, but a large stump could have ended the trip. By the time we reached Curtis Slough to stop for the night, the intense driving had drained Joe (and rightfully so!). Overall we made it about 135 river miles from Circle.
We pulled into a small log cabin along the banks Curtis Slough, hoping to spend the night. The traditional landing was underwater, but I jumped ashore with the bow rope and headed to tie off to a nearby tree. I glanced at the cabin, and immediately saw that the plywood door had been torn in half; peeled back like the lid of a sardine can. “Hey Joe”, I stated, “A bear broke into the cabin, by tearing the door off”. “Ok, does it look fresh?”, he questioned. I assessed the raw wood in the torn door from 25 feet away and responded, “yup, sure does!”. By that time Joe had climbed up with Delta, our dog companion. Delta moved towards the cabin and sniffed the door; her demeanor immediately told us that it was a very fresh break in, and then I heard a can rattle from inside. The bear was still in the cabin! In two flicks of a lamb’s tail we were in the boat and headed across river to camp on a more desirable (bear free) gravel bar. Joe, knowing the owner of the cabin, made a satellite phone call to inform them of the situation. Remarkably, this bear encounter was the only one of the whole trip!
The next morning we continued up the Porcupine River, and moved out of the Yukon Flats and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Arctic NWR is the largest piece of land in the refuge system, and home of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. No longer in the flats, we saw a mountain on the horizon! More significantly, that mountain was the beginning of the rocky ramparts which would line the river for the rest of our trip. The tall and colorful ramparts and bluffs of the Porcupine Rive were a welcome contrast to the Yukon Flats! As we moved through the landscape, the smile of enjoyment could not have been erased from my face by the spray of a skunk. The area was absolutely stunning; on a small scale, I was reminded of the Grand Canyon. Red, orange, and black rock walls rose high above the water. The bluffs held countless caves and spires shaped by wind, ice, and snow. The refuge of the high cliffs provided important nesting habitat. As we passed we noticed nests of golden eagles, ravens, and a peregrine falcon protected on all sides by the vertical rock faces.
Two hundred and twenty-two miles upriver we passed the final bluff across from Joe’s cabin. The boat swung around towards the opposite bank and soon I tied it off onshore. Already I felt connected to this beautiful region, and was excited to spend the next five days exploring it. The next chapter of cabin life to come soon!
Oh, and as one last, unrelated note the blog turned two on May 28th. Thank-you ALL for your continuing support. Your feedback, comments, and enjoyment of the material here is much appreciated!
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!
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!
A before and after comparison of a wood frog with its air sacs swollen.
I really like this wood frog in black and white!
I’m not sure why this wood frog was only able to swell one air sac. However, it kept it swelled for long periods of time, and it seemed to be bigger than those with two.
Water droplets fly from the swollen air sacs of this frog.
Success! This wood frog male will fertilize the eggs of this female as she lays them.
A quick burst and a large amount of water fly from the air sacs of this aggressively calling male.
I observed many frogs make very small noises which resulted in these large water wells. My observation, is that the water waves are also communication.
This wood frogs is the epicenter of a small tsunami.
Cuttin’ loose with both bellows
A wood frog takes a quick break between calls. My, what eyes he has!
Want to learn more? Check out this video highlighting some ongoing University of Alaska Fairbanks research!
It seemed like a good omen that the clouded skies cleared to bluebird conditions as we pulled into the parking lot of Wickersham Dome. The unexpected blue skies cheered us on as we went about threading our ganglines, clipping on snowhooks, and packing our sleds. Eager and expectant dogs watched our progress, and when we began to hook them up their tug lines, they fed upon each others energy. Leaping, pulling, and baying they waited for me to pull my snowhook and quickrelease. When I did, the sled lurched over the hardpack of the parking lot, banked left onto the main trail, and we were on our way to Crowberry Cabin, 30 miles into White Mountains.
Sled dogs have a plethora of personalities. Jeff (friend and owner of Black Spruce Dog Sledding) let me know that Sooner, one of my dogs in lead only pulled well for “people he liked”, and I was conscious of that trait as we made our first stop. I walked up to the front of the team and gave Sooner a good pat on the head. “Keep it up, bud”, I stated. I’m not sure if my initial approaches made a difference or not, but Sooner and Stoic, the lead along with him, pulled great the entire trip with their heads down, and always with some tension on the tuglines. Behind the leads, Simon, an old veteran pulled well too. As a veteran dog he knew his roll in the team and worked hard. Sniffing the tip of Simon’s tail was Beaver and Scorch. Finally, taking “wheel”, Grizz and George were responsible for pulling hard. George can be a great worker, and out of my entire team he is my favorite. He loves to check out what’s going on, and since his position was closest to the sled, every time I opened the sled bag he craned his neck to get a look inside. Together they were my team of 7, and I was happy to be pulled by them!
Simon : a veteran knows to get some sleep at camp!
Sooner : Taking a quick break on the trail
Stoic and Sooner : Nose to the wind
Beaver : lots of character
Scorch : Those floppy ears!
Grizz : my youngest pup, and a great puller
George : a goofy and fun loving dog
Crowberry cabin sat on a facing to the west, and the peaks of the White Mountains surrounded us. The wooden cabin looked iconic for the Alaskan Wilderness. Throughout the Whites, these public use cabins serve as refuge for those who venture far. Trappers, hunters, mushers, or snow machiners make use of them. The full log construction of this cabin was wonderful, and when once we built a fire and warmed the inside, it was a truly incredible getaway. The four bunkbeds, dinner table, and camps stove, and lantern made it into a 5 star Alaskan Suite. However, admiration of the cabin was actually secondary to the task at hand. I walked along the gangline of the staked out dogs and tossed out beef snacks. We layed down straw for each of the pairs to keep them off the snow, and started heating up water for their main course – kibbles and meat. Building a fire, we enjoyed the sunset and fed the dogs their final meal.
The next morning an inch of powdery snow had fallen over the night. My team was wide awake as I stepped outside for the first time, and George gave me a happy tail wag. I dusted the snow off my sled, packed my gear, harnessed my team and hit the trail. The dogs were just as eager to set out on the trail as the day before. The intermittent, light snow shaded the hills and made our ride home far different. The sprawling vistas of the White Mountains were gone, replaced by a moody gray. The next 4 hours breezed by, and before I knew it the Wickersham Dome parking lot was back under foot, ending an incredible experience and trip!
The opportunity to experience dog sledding for an overnight trip is the fulfillment of a life-long dream. I have literally wanted to drive my own team since reading about fictional characters “Lew and Charlie” in Fur Fish Game, stories by Jack London, or books like Jim Kjelgaard’s “Snow Dog”. Those stories have fueled my imagination and desire to visit open spaces since I was twelve. I have always been drawn to the mystery, adventure, and vastness of remote areas. The White Mountains are just one of the broad wilderness areas of Alaska, and the opportunity to experience it using the low-impact “Alaskan” method was truly a gift!
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.
Duskywing Butterfly (unknown species)
Some spring flowers
Modiefied Purple Leaves
Unknown inext on a species of Texas Holly (perhaps Yaupon)
Cactus Wren with a mouthful of nesting material
Eastern Screech Owl
Beatiful heart shaped red flowers, unknown species
Eastern Bluebird (female)
Eastern Bluebird (male)
Kingbird (couch’s or
A speices of prickly poppy
Butterfly, unknown speces
Ladder-backed Woodpecker (male)
Ladder-backed Woodpecker Female
Great Blue Heron
Green Anole lizard displaying for a mate
Foggy sunset on South Padre Island
Black-bellied Whistling Ducks
A stunning Green Jay
Scissors-tailed Flycatcher takes flight
A least grebe with dinner!
Roosted parrots having a frackas
An invasive cane toad – about the size of a softball! That’s a big toad!
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.
Last night’s unexpected G1 (minor storm) came with high solar winds and a LOT of early promise. The data was looking good as I polished my lens and charged my batteries. By 9:30 the Aurora had flared up into great form with evidence of the high solar winds showing. The speed of the aurora was astounding – it rippled and flowed in one direction like a river of green light in the sky. However, in truly unpredictable fashion, the fat lady sang at 10:15 PM and it was over. That’s an early considering peak, average activity is at midnight.
I’m continuing to push the envelop of what I’m capable of for shooting the aurora.I took the opportunity last night to experiment with my first aurora panoramas. Often times a single image cannot capture the scope of the aurora, so the advantage is capturing the whole arc of the aurora in the sky. These images were stitched in Photoshop 6 and are comprised of 4 – 5 images each. I am happy with a first attempt!
Beyond the panoramas I experimented with timelapse last night too. Incredibly, the timelapse here has shots taken down to 0.5 second exposures and at only 1 second apart. It gives the aurora incredible flow! I am getting closer and closer to it really feeling real which is my auroral goal. The speed of the technique differs from the past (2-4 second exposures and 2 seconds buffer) because of some high speed SD cards I got for Christmas which removed the need for much buffering/write time. It’s great!
There’s PLENTY of snow on the north side of Spinach Creek and it can make moving around a bit of a hassle. The snow itself is pure powder and easy to navigate, it is the grabbing stems of vengeful, cut black spruces which muddy the waters! You are often in the trap before you know it, and several times I was successfully taken down during my saunter. For scale I plopped down on the hillside and snapped an image – a good 3 feet or so!
The aurora while up-close and personal in the black-spruce forest!
February 1st : Aurora borealis north of Fairbanks, Alaska
Competing with the nearly full moon for some auroras!
Aurora Breath 🙂
The aurora had all but died out at this point – but that’s quite a bit of snow!
A beautiful aurora – doesn’t get much more classic that this!
A gorgeous flare of aurora overhead as seen through a gap in the spruce forest.
The full moon back-lights these black spruces in this aurora shot.
On Martin Luther King day I got to take a new ride out for a spin.This ‘ride’ was not like many you find in the lower 48! It had 16 legs and accelerated like a drag racer; when the dogs at Black Spruce Dog Sledding take off they do so with gusto! Check out the video below for an excerpt of an afternoon of mushing!
This actually wasn’t my first dog-sledding rodeo, but it was 11 years ago that I was on a on a dog sled. Some things I remembered well. For instance, I remembered the excitement! As you stand on the rear of the sled and the dogs are baying and pulling against the gangline the feeling of thrill builds! When the quick release (a rope and pin tied to a non-moving object) is pulled the team takes off like a race car. Rule #1 is to hold on! From the kennels we headed out with our tag-sled team for a 13 mile loop. The dogs settled into a rhythm of about 7 mph on the uphills and ~10 mph on the flats. That is the pace that Jeff tries for when racing his dogs for mid-distance (300 mile) and longer races (1000 mile Yukon Quest or 2000 mile Iditarod). The constant pace of the run is essential for the dogs, they perform the best by establishing that pace.
On this particular trail it’s not long before the beginner’s baptism-by-fire comes into a view. A 90 degree turn after a road crossing was looming and my senses were keen as I considered how to navigate the obstacle. Jeff coached me by telling me to lean into the turn and try to stand on one ski while peddling one foot on the outside of the turn. He deftly performed the lesson he gave to me and I deftly tipped the sled into the snow bank! “I’m Down!” was all I had to call before Jeff had put on the break and I righted myself. Rule #2 – hold on during a fall! Fortunately, it was the only time I dumped the sled on our tag-sled tour. However, that doesn’t mean other section did not feel harrowing! On steeper down hills it was critical to keep plenty of weight on the drag to slow the sled and the team down. Zipping between black spruce trees we hurtled over snow drifts, wound through tight corridors, and leaned around turns. It’s amazing to me how mentally active you have to be when riding with a dog team in those conditions! Anticipating the turn or terrain ahead was essential to placing my weight correctly in the sled. Being centered, on the left ski, or the right ski changed how well I coped with the turns and the terrain.
I think it took me about five miles to start to feel comfortable in the sled. I no longer felt that I was going to tip at each turn and I began to feel my body relax. The smile which had not left my face since take off was still glued on. The joy of running with the dogs is infectious and the beauty of the scenery was unforgettable. During the night and morning a heavy ice fog had built up scales of hoar frost on the trees. The encapsulated trees glinted in the sun that burned through the fog bank. We concluded our 13 mile tag sled run (2 sleds pulled by a larger team), and then I took my own 4 dog team out for a short, local loop. It was great to test my skills with my own (albeit smaller, but more manageable) team! By the time I left that day the sun, now low in the sky, ricocheted through the gem-encrusted limbs in an orange light ending a truly great day!