When I am shooting an image I like to ask myself “what is the purpose of this image? what story does it have to tell?”. I have included 19 images below as a cross section of thousands of images made and experiences had during the trip. They showcase the night sky, the birds, landscapes, and diversity of my experience. I hope you enjoy my anecdotes of enjoying Hawaii and gain appreciation of the time it took to make these images!
I cannot wait to visit Hawaii again! These images help tell a story that I look forward to growing in the future. If you do not do so currently, please sign up for my website updates, following me on Facebook or Instagram. Cheers!
If there were 800 humans left on the entire earth you might feel a bit uncertain about their survival. So many things could happen to 800 humans – disease, fire, tsunami, starvation – that would cause them to go extinct. In fact, 800 is such a small number it seems almost likely to happen. 800, 1000, 2000, those are the populations of some Hawaii’s most endangered native birds. They have been pushed to the brink of extinction by human activity and will certainly go extinct unless we intervene to undo our damage.
When Europeans first discovered the islands of Hawaii in 1778 they were drawn to their paradise-like attributes. Lush forests, diverse reefs, plentiful fish, rainbows, no mosquitoes, and a thriving population of Native Hawaiian Islanders. It was the land of opportunity and plenty. Among the forests were 142 species of birds found nowhere else in the world (call endemics). 95 of those species have gone extinct and some of the remaining 47 are on the verge of extinction and will disappear in your lifetime unless action is taken to preserve their habitats.
The most diverse bird group on the Big Island of Hawaii were the Hawaii Honeycreepers. Over 56 species were on the islands of Hawaii at European Contact and only 18 are left now. Many of these birds are specialists highly adapted to their native forests and fill many niches (places to live or types of food they eat). For instance, the I’iwi’s (pronounced ee-ee-vee) curved bill fits perfectly into flowers which have adapted their shape to fit that bird and vice versa. The ʻakiapōlāʻau ( pronounced akia-pola-ow) only eats grubs from the wood of Koa trees. All of these birds evolved without predators and with very few disease. When those things are introduced the birds are very naïve to predation and susceptible to disease leading to large losses in their populations.
Step in to the Forest
Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge resides at 6,500 feet on the side of Mauna Kea and contains remnants of Hawaii’s old growth forests. On most days mist and fog shapeshift through the landscape during their wind-driven passage. The morning we stepped into it, bird song of exotic honeycreepers filled the air making me reflect on how those woods must have sounded when none of them had gone extinct. Old growth Hawaiian forests do not look tropical, although you may envision palms and ferns in your mind. Rather, ancient ʻŌhiʻa trees with small round leaves and bright red blossoms twist their pompom-clusters of branches and leaves into the canopy in search in light. The largest ʻŌhiʻa in this forest existed during the Byzantine Empire and during the rise of Tikal; they are over 1,500 years old. Throughout the woods broad Koa trees stand covered in fur-like green lichen with their unique, blade-shaped leaves turned vertically to soak up the sun. It’s a magical place that only a few hundred people get to visit each year. Most people visit it to see it suite of endemic birds as the refuge is maintained specifically for the protection of native species and their habitat through removal of non-native feral animals and plants for over 35 years.
Hakalau is ideally positioned for native forest birds trying to get away from mosquitoes which infect them with Avian Malaria. As our (highly recommended) guide Jack Jeffrey explained, on the slopes of Mauna Kea the weather is consistently too cold for mosquitoes to thrive. However, climate change is impacting the warmth of tropical regions, too, and mosquitoes are slowly migrating up slope to put more pressure on the birds. Some birds are showing signs of slight resistance to Avian Malaria, but most die within 2-3 weeks of a bite from a single infected mosquito.
Some of The Extraordinary Residents of Hakalau Forest and the Big Isle
There are so many amazing birds on the Big Island. I’m going to focus mostly on the Honeycreeper family to show off some of the diversity and beauty of these unique finches!
There are only three truly orange birds in the world and the Akepa is one of them. This species is down to a population of 2,000 birds. They do not reach maturity until after 2 years which is unusual for their size (small birds usually breed more). This makes them susceptible to population loss.
Hawaii Creeper (Alawi) – 2000 birds
This small birds was placed on the endangered species list
in 1975. At that time it was estimated that 12,500 birds were in the wild. Latest
surveys suggest there are 2,000 left in the wild. I loved their fast movements
to scout bugs from inside lichen and under bark.
This incredible bird has been reduced to nearly 800 individuals on the Big Island of Hawaii. Species similar to this birds have gone extinct on other Hawaiian islands. They reproduce very slowly and are reliant on Koa forests to feed. Their unique bill is used to awl into wood with the bottom portion and extract grubs with the top. Our day in Hakalau was a VERY special one with this species. We were able to watch it feed its fledgling. The young chick called with a chipping voice for the adult constantly which browsed the branches for food to deliver.
The Palila is one of the last members of the “finch-billed” honeycreepers. They only, and I mean ONLY, eat the immature seeds of the mämane. This shrub-like tree is in the legume family and produces small pea-like fruit. Being with Jack Jeffrey put the plight of this bird in perspective. When he began surveying them in the late 70s there were 20,000 Palila. There are just 1,000 Palila left. He suspects this will be a bird that goes extinct in his lifetime adding to the list of 7 or 8 Hawaiian birds he has seen go extinct. Change is happening very quickly and can be seen in your lifetime.
I’iwi are truly spectactular. They were once common throughout all of the islands of Hawaii, but the Hakalau forest now contains 70% of their population. I’iwi are VERY susceptible to Avian Malaria – 90% of birds die from a single infected mosquito bite. We were so fortunate that our day at Hakalau was filled with unbelievable and close views of these birds. We watched them feed on various flowers and watched several go through their mating ritual where the female begs for the food. It’s up to the male to impress her! We saw one successful male copulate – hopefully that means the population will be at least 1 bird larger soon!
Apapane are one species of Hawaiian Honeycreeper that have been
to resistant to change and disease. Their populations are still pretty large.
They mostly commonly feed on the flowers of O’hia giving a dazzling display of
red-on-red. Often times you could hear the woosh of their wings before seeing
The Hawaii Amakihi eats insects and flowers making it a “generalist”. This fact has allowed them to adjust to changing forest conditions. Not a lot is known about their populations, but they seem to be pretty secure at this time. We ran into one researcher while watching them and she said there is evidence that lower-elevation birds are more resistant to Avian Malaria.She was trying to determine why that is. I hope I have a chance to see the results of her work and see how it may help this species in the future.
Some of The Extraordinary Residents of Kauai
I want to switch away from Hakalau Forest to show you a couple of Honeycreepers from the island of Kauai. They are suffering from the same pressures as Honeycreepers on other islands.
The Kauai Amakihi is genetically different than the Hawaii
Amakihi, although is very similar in its appearance. In Kokee State Park in
Kauai we found a banded one! I hope to find out some information on this bird,
how old it is, and what they were studying by reporting the band colors.
The Anianiau (pronounced awnee-awnee-ow) is in decline and can only be found in upland, wetland forests in Kauai. They are the smallest honeycreeper at just 0.35 ounces! That’s the weight of ½ tube of chapstick! These birds are a brilliant yellow and we fortunate enough to discover them in Kokee State Park.
So What? Who Cares?
Like so many conservation issues (climate change, loss of rain forest, extinction of species every day, plastic in our water, and so much more) we are disconnected geographically and visually from what is happening. The reality is the native birds of Hawaii need your help, but why does that matter? Creating habitat that supports these birds supports many other species as well. Thinking about the holistic health of the forest increases the benefit of every dollar spent to conserve a single species. If you are interested in donating, please visit The Friends of Hakalau Forest to learn how you can help. I would recommend a trip to see these incredible Hawaiian Birds and highly recommend Jack Jeffrey as your guide. He will connect you to that place in an unforgettable way. Establishing that connection will give you empathy not only for these amazing Hawaiian birds, but also for the plight of animals and ecosystems worldwide suffering from human pressure and change.
Arguably herring are the base of the entire food chain in Southeast Alaska. They provide food for whales, salmon, seals, sealions, birds, and halibut with their bodies and with their eggs. For centuries humans have relied on the abundance of herring to provide for their families in the spring. In Hoonah, Alaska the return of herring marks a change in the a season and a bounty of fresh eggs brings a welcome smile to the elders and community members that receive them. However, in recent years the herring run has not bee large in Hoonah although anecdotally (and a bit facetiously) you could “walk across their backs to Pitt Island” only a couple decades ago. Ocean changes, over fishing, and habitat loss have all contributed to decreasing herring returns and fewer spawning fish in recent years. This knowledge made me feel particularly fortunate to get to see herring spawning in Hoonah and watch the harshness of nature unfold before my eyes as Bald Eagle scooped the silvery fish from the ocean.
Spawning herring rely on seaweed and objects in the water to glue their eggs to. Spawning females mix with males and each emit eggs and roe into the water. A sure sign that herring are spawning is a milky, blue water that combines the colors of the ocean and the white of the roe. The need to stick their eggs to seaweed brings the herring close to shore and thus susceptible to predation. As I walked near Cannery Point in Hoonah, Alaska over 30 eagles (a mix of juveniles and adults) lined up on the beach. The color of the water and brilliant flashes of silver near the shore left little doubt on what they were feeding on!
A string of eagles wait for spawning herring at the beach.
Trial and Error
One of the first things I noticed was the juvenile eagles were watching the adults very closely. They knew they had a lot to learn, and there was no doubt after several minutes of watching that the adults were much more efficient at catching the herring. Most of the adults would launch from the beach, strafe their talons on the water’s surface and come up with one or two herring. Some eagles opted for a higher vantage point and flew in from the trees on the embankment. Another strategy was to simply stand on a rock or in the water and hope to catch one in without flapping a wing. All of these strategies produced herring for the eagles and the juveniles mimicked them perfectly.
Meals on the Wing
Even though there was an abundance of herring one strategy of some eagles was to steal from those that were successful. The fierce competition from other birds forced successful eagles to eat very quickly and on the wing. Almost all of the eagles would transfer the herring to their beaks and then orient the fish head first before finally swallowing it hole. This occurred in just a few seconds to remove any chance of pestering, marauding eagles from stealing their catch. I did get to watch once instance where an eagle successfully scooped two herring at once, but did not eat them on the wing. Immediately three other eagles (2 adults and a juvenile) put up chase resulting in the eagle dropping one herring to get rid of the pestilence following it.
Two eagles settle a small squabble over who gets some beach space.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
It was incredible to watch the eagles feed on the herring and learn from their behaviors, but as a photographer I was grateful for the frequent and repeated attempts by the eagles to capture herring. I had the opportunity to tinker with camera settings and capture a lot of shots that are high quality and showcase the slice of foodweb that I was only a spectator to.
It is always a big deal when family comes to visit. For me, being a “big deal” is a positive thing! My wife and I are fortunate to live in a place surrounded by natural beauty with something to see or do around every corner. I always strive to show off my little corner of the world in Hoonah, Alaska and decided that my parents, uncle, and two cousins needed to see Glacier Bay National Park and the local whales around Hoonah during their visit. It’s nice when all the right things come together to bring “the full package”! We enjoyed incredible weather and wildlife sightings over 2.5 days.
Glacier Bay Tribal House
Over the last 2 years I have had the incredible experience to be at the dedication of the tribal house and to take part in the raising of two totems at the tribal house. Those two events were so very important to the Huna Tlingit, but they also gave me a tremendous connection to Bartlett Cove and the land where the Huna Shuka Hit resides. When I visit the tribal house I remember the stories of the people, the emotions of the day, and the power of the place. Stepping into the tribal house to observe the house poles, place my hand on the intricate carving of the screens, and smell the sweet aroma of cedar give me a sense of peace. I enjoyed sharing my stories of the raising and dedication with family as we toured around that special place.
Into the Park
Glacier Bay National Park is almost completely inaccessible unless you have a boat. Its long fjords and glacially-carved mountains extend nearly 90 miles from the entrance of the park at Bartlett Cove. The “Day Boat” of Glacier Bay provides access to visitors all the way to the end of the bitter end of the west arm where Margerie Glacier butts against the ocean and the Grand Pacific Glacier (responsible for carving the fjord of the park) recedes into the distance further than the eye can see. 250 years ago the Grand Pacific Glacier was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit out of Glacier Bay National Park when it advanced over 75 miles in only only a few decades. Traditional stories say that at times the glacier moved as fast as a running dog! Science has backed those claims, and it is truly amazing to think what that wall of ice must have looked like!
Glacier Bay National Park protected area full of marine and terrestrial wildlife. During our tour we had incredible view of breaching Humpback Whales, families of grizzlies, harems of sealions, rafts of otters, flocks of puffins, and families of goats. Each of these sightings added to the richness of the day and the overpowering feeling that we were in a very special place!
The face of Margerie glacier stands over 200 feet high and is a mile wide. It “calves” ice into the water creating a maze of jumbled ice.
The Whale Tail to End the Tale
We got a pickup in Gustavus from our good friend Capt. Billy Mills of Wooshketaan Tours. He took us across Icy Strait to Point Adolphus which is renowned for its whale watching. The rich waters are fed by the currents coming in from the ocean and from Glacier Bay and create abundant fish populations that bring in apex predators such as whales and sea lions.
As we sped along the 20 miles from Point Adolphus to Hoonah I admired the mountains, the tall groves of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock, and the abundant Sea Otters and Whales. The trip went quickly, and as we approached Flynn cove about 8 miles from Hoonah a gigantic splash ahead of us flung water high in the air. The Humpback Whale that caused it obliged us by breaching 5 times in total! It was the closest I had ever been to a breaching humpback and it was a thrill to share my giddiness with all on board!
With the memory of the breaching still fresh in our memory we turned into Port Frederick and after a brief stop ashore made our way up bay . The spouts of water ahead quickly gave the location of what we were looking for – a large pod of Humpback Whales were bubble net feeding in front of us! In the smooth waters we watched the circle of bubbles form on the surface from the whales below and the mouths of 40-foot humbpacks rise agape through the surface. We were the only boat on the water and got to enjoy the show in the lingering sunset and surrounded by family. I (we) were incredibly blessed to be in that incredible place together.
In the South Pacific, the islands of Hawaii emerge like green jewels from the vast ocean. For many tourists these islands offer beaches and relaxation and forested hikes. Throughout these habitats are dozens of species of birds that have evolved on the island and live nowhere else in the world. Known as “endemic” species they contribute to the biodiversity and beauty of the place and also to the allure of the islands to birders. There are also a multitude of stunning species that have been introduced from foreign countries through Hawaii’s long history of travelers and agriculture. Last there are the migrants – birds that live in Hawaii each winter and feed in its rich forests.
Birding Hawaii for the first time is certain to add many species to your “life list” and after a week of casual birding my wife and I were thrilled at the chance to see some of these winged wonders.
Endemic species are often highly evolved to fulfill a certain niche. This means they often rely on a certain food source or nest in a certain area. They are highly specialized and are susceptible to habitat destruction, climate change, and competition from introduced species. These birds did not evolve with mammalian predators and have felt the pressure of cats and mongoose which came with humans. According to ABCbirds.org, 95 of 142 endemic Hawaiin bird species have gone extinct since human arrival. Of the 44 remaining species, 33 are on the endangered species list and at risk for extinction. These statistics have prompted many studies and efforts at restoration. Hopefully efforts will successfully save some of these beautiful species. Certainly the liklihood of extinction means birding Hawaii now may be your best time to see some of the species before they disappear forever. We only saw several endemic species and hope to pursue these more on our next trip to Hawaii.
Hawaii has a long past of habitat destruction and modification from humans. In the 1830s, the first successful sugar cane plantation was planted in Hawaii and “cane” plantations spread like wildfire from there. For nearly 180 years the cane plantations burned through acres and produced huge amounts of product. In 2016 the last cane plantation shut down. However, that industry, development, military activity, and travelers introduced dozens of birds, plants, insects, and mammals. Many of these birds thrived in the warm and gentle climate and in time competed with the endemic species that lived there. We had an opportunity to see a wide sampling of these species on while birding the Big Island and Oahu.
Of all the migratory species that we observed the Bristle-thighed Curlew was certainly the highlight! Very little is known about the habits of this bird, but they breed in northern Alaska and winter exclusively on islands in the south pacific. It was pretty remarkable to see them walking around the golf course near Kona!
Black-crowned Night Heron
Pacific Golden Plover
Birding Hawaii made me realize again how connected birds make the world. Regardless of the distance and expanse they have to cover they are able to connect regions like the Bristle-thighed Curlew connects Hawaii and Alaska. I cannot wait for the next time that I bird those gorgeous islands.
In northern Minnesota a chain of bogs and open forest near Sax and Zim are full of winged wonders. This track of land, the Sax Zim Bog, is renowned for its migrants from northern Boreal Forests that flit among the spruces and for the ghostly shapes of owls that drift on silent wings among the tamaracks. Spending time in the bog can provide amazing opportunities to watch these birds and learn about their survival skills in a harsh winter.
A Great Gray Feast
My dad and I arrived at Sax Zim Bog at 7:50 AM. The sun was just coming up in a bright blue sky, but it did not provide much warmth to the -20F day. However, without wind the day was quite pleasant and the conditions were perfect to find active owls. At 8:05 AM we found two active Great Gray Owls. The pair hunted 100 yards apart, perched on short, wooden power poles. In the typical behavior of owls, the closer owl swiveled its head back and forth, gathering the noises of its surroundings. Great Gray Owls are the largest owl in the world and their unique facial disc funnels sound directly into their ears like a satellite dish focuses a signal. This adaptation allows them to be efficient predators able to locate rodents under the snow.
When the owl swiveled its head and focused its gaze I knew that the hunt was on. Soaring silently on a 5-foot wing span the owl plopped down in the snow 30 yard away. Its body was half in the snow and half out, and for 10 seconds it just sat in the snow giving the illusion that it was unsuccessful. But then the owl surged from the snow with a large vole grasped in its talons! I stood in awe at having witnessed the hunt first hand.
Pouncing Northern Hawk Owls
As their name suggest, Northern Hawk Owls are an owl of the far north that migrate south in the winter. Because northern climates do not get much darkness in the summer these unique owls have adapted by hunting at all times of the day. We found our first hawk owl at 1PM, characteristically perched at the very top branches of a dead tree. After watching for awhile the owl zoomed to a perch further in the forest and then another perch even further out. They do this to find new and unsuspecting rodents to munch on.
When we saw the Northern Hawk Owl kill its first vole, I was struck by how much different their approach was than the Great Gray. It took off from a branch and then hovered (stooped) silently above the ground (thanks to modified wing edges that dampen sound) much like a hawk or falcon would do. It rapidly came out of the stoop and crashed to the ground to catch its first dinner. 20 minutes later it exhibited the same behavior. It is amazing to think how many voles the Owls of Sax Zim Bog must kill on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis!
A day at Sax Zim Bog can bring about AMAZING experiences, but please practice ethical photography of the residents that live there. Owls are very susceptible to the unethical practice of baiting. For the safety of the owls, please DO NOT bait them! Also, please give them their space as they make and consume kills and do not stay with an owl too long. Most of theses images were taken with an 800mm lens and thus were taken from a respectful distance. Doing these things will keep the owls safe and ensuring that you have the best day possible observing these amazing animals!
2017 is officially in the books and it has been a tremendous year! Thank you to all who follow along on this blog or at www.facebook.com/ianlww! Your engagement in my work has been amazing! Your support is one of reasons the reasons that I stay out late shooting the Aurora Borealis and get in front of bears with my camera. This gallery is features my “Best of Photography 2017” and I hope you enjoy. I’m looking forward to bringing you more in 2018!
Aurora Borealis, Juneau, Alaska
Aurora Borealis, Hoonah, Alaska
I am very intrigued by this design. It shaped like the cosmos, but I wonder what it actually represents?
A tall and ornate totem in the village of Kasaan.
A Least Sandpiper amount the mountain scenery of the Chilkoot River.
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 Amerian Dipper seems to be watching into this clear pool even though it already has a mouthful of food.
A Dipper stands in the rushing current of a river.
The clear-and cold streams of Southeast, Alaska
Most covered logs and fast flowing water are iconic to Southeastern Alaska
I have a story to tell about the kind of thing that only happens once in a lifetime. Last night I arrived home at 1AM from an amazing night of aurora watching with my parents – their first in Alaska! The forecast, a level 2, tripled to a KP 6 with an unexpected shock passage of energy. Throughout the night the Lights waxed and waned until the entire sky was covered from the southern constellation Orion’s Belt through the north star and to the northern horizon. Throughout the sky the Aurora Borealis shifted and rippled in green curtains of light. Outside of my car at my house, a dancing corona erupted over my head so I quickly snagged my camera and sprinted for the ski trails behind my house to begin shooting. It was as I stepped into the woods that the remarkable part of this story began to unfold.
I was making no attempt to conceal the heavy pound of my foot steps, and my first few steps into the woods were loud enough to wake a grouse which was sleeping along the trail. It started from its slumber, and with rapid flaps, thundered its wings just a few feet from me. I jumped high at the sound in a blind moment of panic thinking for a second it was a moose. As I gained my composure I noted where it landed in a spruce tree only about 15 feet from me. I turned my headlamp in that direction, and the beady, black eye of an immature Ruffed-grouse glinted at me. The opportunity to shoot wildlife underneath the aurora has always been a desire of mine and I was keen to take advantage of it here! I set up my camera and began to shoot, hoping to capture the scene. My shutter clicked twice and the grouse stayed in place, although I’m surprised the sound of my pounding heart boosted by adrenaline in my ears did not spook it. My shutter clicked a few more times and I boldly moved towards the grouse. With each crunch of snow underfoot, I moved closer, and closer, and closer. The grouse, either too scared to move or over-confident in his camouflage did not move a muscle and soon my camera sat only 18 inches from the nervous bird. Overhead the aurora was still brilliant and as my shutter clicked I pulled off an image that may truly be the first in the world – a wild Ruffed Grouse perched under the shimmering emerald of the Alaskan Aurora Borealis.
It is amazing that the grouse did not fly away. I think it was a combination of the pure confusion of the moment, the shine of my light, and the benefit of the darkness. Perhaps he had convinced himself that even though I was so close, I had not noticed his presence. However, eventually he decided that enough was enough. He could watch the aurora without such nosy neighbors and took off into the night leaving me to revel in the unbelievable encounter.