After winter’s thaw and before salmon return to their natal rivers an important, silver fish appears by the millions along the northwest coast of North America. Spawning Pacific Herring provide a kickstart to the bounty of Southeast Alaska. Their oily flesh provides critical protein for migrating seabirds and returning whales and their eggs provide needed food to migrating shorebirds which have flown thousands of miles from their winter grounds. When herring spawn in abundance they attract abundance.
The Morning As It Happened
I didn’t set out with a group of friends at 4:15AM on a clear day in Alaska in pursuit of herring. Actually, it was for birds. The “Global Big Day” is an opportunity for birders around the world to submit what they see over 24 hours to a global database which tracks and counts birds. Even if you are not a birder, you probably know that early mornings have the highest bird activity – have you ever had them wake you up?
We arrived at our destination, stepped from our cars, and began to walk down a local trail. The sun burst on the horizon and its warmth only inflamed the calls of the birds. Townsend’s Warblers, thrushes, juncos, hummingbirds, and so many more! As we reached the tide flats about 20 minutes later we saw a large collection of the symbol of United States – the Bald Eagle. As it is unusual to see them in such large numbers I was curious to know why they gathered. With camera in hand I shifted my focus to that group of birds which were nearly a mile away on the coastline
The walk was longer than it looked! It took 20 minutes to get closer to the eagles and as our path wound down an estuary river we began to see what the fuss was all about : flashing herring were spawning in the rockweed. Other pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. Looking out at the ocean a large pack of Stellar’s Sealions patrolled the water, twelve harbor seals floated nearby, gulls passed over head continuously, a flock of Least Sandpipers flew by squeaking and squawking, and a Humpback Whale glided through the water only a few feet from the shore. They were here for one reason only – the abundant food.
Herring As Food
There are about 290 calories per fillet (143g) of herring and 26% of your daily intake of fat. For wildlife they are nutrient powerhouses worth working for. Diving seabirds specialize in capturing them and Humpback Whales have perfected scooping them up in their huge mouth. However, very little effort was needed to catch herring this day. Some of the herring were trapped by the receding tide and flopped on the rockweed. All around us were torn and mangled bodies of fish had been eaten by the swarms of eagles, gulls, and ravens through the night. The Humpback Whale lunge-fed dozens of times on the spawning herring as we watched.
Abundance. From Abundance.
The film below showcases what we saw that morning. I hope it gives you a sense of place and a connection to the importance of herring and the necessity of keeping them abundant. The images below show off just a small slice of the wildlife frenzy around the herring that morning.
Abundance is created from abundance. I was so fortunate to watch these sites unfold before my eyes. It caused me to reflect on the importance of a healthy herring population. Healthy herring populations create thriving fishing industries, maintain bustling eco-tourism opportunities through whale watching and other marine activities, provide food for wildlife, and provide the continuation of the cultural practices of coastal people that have relied on them since time immemorial. As the base of the food chain a healthy herring population is critical for a thriving ecosystem that provides for people and wildlife. Here’s the catch – not all herring populations are healthy.
Herring need your help – they need you to care about them. They are in decline due to overfishing and changes in the ocean. Particularly harmful is the sac roe fisheries which net up herring right before spawning when they are the most vulnerable. The sac roe fishery is highly profitable and creates a luxury food item – herring roe – for mainly Asian markets. Herring fisheries have a history of collapsing under industrial fishing pressure. With marked declines in SE Alaska and Canadian herring population occurring, that knowledge alone makes it impossible for me to support an industry that creates a luxury item and supports only a small portion of the fishing fleet. I do not believe the cost (loss of other fishing industries, marine mammal reduction, seabird die offs) are nearly worth the benefit (a luxury item). I encourage you to do your research on this topic, but believe we need to err on the side of caution and halt fisheries that harvest at the bottom of the food chain. If you believe what I am saying rings true then please consider advocating to your representative or joining your voice to Herring Advocacy Groups.
Let’s start this article with a few words you probably wouldn’t expect together in a sentence : Alaska. Winter. Hummingbird. Yup, one of Alaska’s rare, winter birds is the Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) and even stranger is that they are more common in the winter than the summer – some of them are migrating north when most birds are headed south. We had the luck and privilege of having several Anna’s in Hoonah, Alaska this autumn and winter (2019 – 2020) and that left me with all sorts of questions. Why are the traveling north? What are they feeding on and how do they survive the night? Is this becoming more common? Do the same individuals return every year? Thanks to some inquisitive scientists and their research there are answers to a few of these questions!
Southeast Alaska’s Hummers
Southeast Alaska has a regular hummingbird that shows up each spring. Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) are everything you would expect a hummingbird to. They are fiesty, beautiful, chatty (with a clicking chat call) and love to feed on flowers and feeders. Their brilliant orange throat is much different than the pink cap of the Anna’s and that makes identifying them easy. Due to that I’m confident that I have not observed Anna’s Hummingbirds at our feeders during the summer in the four years I’ve lived in Hoonah.
In contrast to the Rufous Hummingbirds, Anna’s are a recent addition to Alaska. The first record of an Anna’s Hummingbird in Alaska was in 1971. Until that time they were only found along the west coast of U.S. as documented in Greig et al. 2017. You can see a map of their northward range shift over the last 17 years in their publication. From Ebird you can see Anna’s were scattered throughout the panhandle of Alaska and as far north as Kodiak Island during the winter of 2019-2020.
Why move north during the winter to colder climates? It is rare for almost any animal to choose that survival method and it is not typical for any bird that I’m aware of. Could their northward expansion be linked to climate change? Or is there some other factor at play? Emma Greig and a team of scientists published a paper in 2017 to dive into that question. Based on 17 years of data from citizen science, she and her colleagues concluded that feeding (nectar) and urban areas were leading Anna’s to the north in the winter and that it is probably aided by warmer temps – however they conclude that warmer temps alone are not driving the northward shift. Feeders are the key. You can read the full article through the citation below.
Based on Emma’s article I had one follow-up question : why don’t Anna’s stay in Hoonah for the summer? In my four years here I’ve never seen one at my feeders in the summer. To get insight into that I reached out to Emma. She hypothesized that Anna’s were moving away from competition from highly aggressive Rufous Hummingbirds and spreading out to food sources other than feeders in the summer because insects and flowers are abundant. It is also possible they are moving back south. She emphasized there is a lot of complexity in their movement patterns and a lot we do not know.
Surviving the Winter Nights
When you are a small animal (Anna’s weigh up to 0.16 ounces)it is very difficult to survive a cold night. Many species of birds have adapted to cold nights through a biological mechanism called “torpor”. That just means they reduce their body’s rate of energy consumption by reducing their body temperature and lowering their heart rate. No big deal, right? Wrong! Of course it’s a big deal! A 1979 study found that Anna’s hummingbirds gained up to 16.4% of their body mass during the day and that they optimized their feeding and flight to use as little energy as possible (Beuchat et al. 1979). They are storing up all that saved energy so they can make it through the night. As night falls so does their body temperature. Anna’s hummingbirds normally have a temperature of 107F but it may drop to 48F during cold nights to conserve energy. They raise it back to 107 as the day warms up again – talk about amazing!
This winter I saw an amazing record pop up on Ebird that contained an image of an Anna’s Hummingbird in torpor. The image and record was reported by Nat Drumheller in Gustavus (about 25 miles from Hoonah) and I’ve posted his account of the experience above in the caption. It corroborates with behavior changes in torpor and energy efficiency. When this hummingbird wakes up it will be ready for a drink!
Do the same Anna’s Hummingbirds return to Hoonah every winter? That’s impossible to say for certain, but I do have one interesting anecdote. The first time I saw an Anna’s in Hoonah was in 2018. It was a juvenile male and that location is where I photographed the full adult male this year during the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Seeing as Anna’s can live to be at least 8 years old it is possible that it was the same male. While that doesn’t necessarily count as sound evidence to answer the question it does raise my interest.
Greig and her co-authors concluded with an interesting observation – Anna’s Hummingbirds are an example of humans altering the migration and distribution of a migratory species. Based on that, as the world warms and Alaska’s human population grows I wouldn’t be surprised to see Anna’s as a year-around resident in the future.
Evoke emotion. Tell a story. Talk about science. Envision the shot and make it happen. As I’ve grown through my photography I have invested more and more into each of those ideals and concepts above. I have learned that the story is as important as the image and successfully telling that story is almost always hard work. I have seen first hand that you can change the perspectives of people with imagery and that we need effective science communication more than ever.
In 2019 I have focused on new skills and have grown a tremendous amount as a professional. I split my work into two brands and am now a business owner and science communicator. Thank you for those that follow along regularly and support my work!
My photography bleeds into my work and helps make me an effective communicator. I produced this video to showcase a stream restoration that we completed.
As this is the end of a decade its amazing to reflect on the last 7 years of photography that have brought me to where I am today. In 2013, I upgraded from a point-and-shoot and bought a mirrorless camera based on the suggestion of a friend. I never looked back. These “top shots” posts have been a regular feature on my blog since 2015 and I’m so glad I do them. You can view each of them at : 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. They archive where I’ve come from and where I’m going. They are full of memories of the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met, and the adventures I’ve gone through. Each yearly gallery reminds me that I’ll continue to grow and explore the world through my lens and writing. 2019’s Top Shots contain some of my favorite images yet. If I was to choose one image to crown them all it’s the one below.
I’ve got some broad goals in 2019 and I hope you’ll join me in Instagram, Facebook, or sign up for newsletters to keep in touch. I’ll be camera trapping wildlife, trying to document climate change through imagery, and venturing to a few places including Hawaii, Fairbanks, and Olympic National Park. I’m resolving to publish one blog entry per month (and no, not one doesn’t count for January). Thanks again for your support. I hope you have clear vision in 2020.
It may seem unlikely to see parallels in the far different regions of the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Arctic Tundra of Alaska, but they exist! On a recent trip to Northern Utah, the flat grasslands, small ponds, and jutting foothills reminded me of the Arctic plain as you cross over the mountains of Brooks Range. As I observed my surroundings I realized the connection was more than appearance; the newly-arrived winged from the Arctic plain were relying on the resources of this kindred land, the Great Salt Lake. Migrating birds, many from the Arctic, stretched from horizon to horizon creating a direct link between the two regions. My time in the Arctic had shown me the importance of that region for birds, and I realized immediately that I was standing in another critical area.
A Tale of Two Habitats
The Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake of northern Utah is an oasis in the desert. It was my first time there and what I found swept me off my feet. To imagine what it looks like simply conjure in your mind a cliche image of an emerald oasis in the desert. You might see in your mind grasses and trees growing in close proximity to water features which provide the life blood of everything in the area. Did you see any birds or animals using the water? If not, add them into your image – they are certainly there!
As its name implies the Great Salt Lake is very salty – 3-5 times more salty than the ocean. Its concentrated salts make the shallow waters uninhabitable for almost all life. However, Brine Shrimp (ever heard of “sea monkies”?) and sand fleas have adapted to the salty (hyper-saline) conditions. Since they are the only creatures in the lake they have no competition and can multiply rapidly. I took a few handfuls of the muddy water to peer into it and saw thousands of brine shrimp in only a the small cup of water in my hand. Although small – up to 1cm – their abundance makes them readily available protein for birds and life around the lake.
As you roll your vehicle up mountainous terrain and eventually over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range of Alaska, you emerge onto hundreds of miles of lakes and tundra. Welcome to the Arctic Plain spanning for over 20 million acres. This land is known for its abundance in the summer and desolation in the winter. Wind and winter cold trim any shrubs or trees that try to grow resulting in the short crop of the Tundra. Each year millions of birds return to the Arctic to breed and raise young in its grasslands and lakes.
Similar and Different
The two grassland landscapes described above are created by different forces and in different parts of the world. However, each is 100% necessary for the survival of many birds. In fact, the numbers are nearly unfathomable. Up to 50% (12 million) of North America’s shorebirds breed in Alaska. Over 1.4 million shorebirds use the Great Salt Lake for breeding and migration. Of course there are millions of other species and types of birds that use each as well. To put that in perspective imagine the 8 million people living in New York City spent half their life in the city and moved to Florida each year for the winter. Mass migration is an amazing thing!
Flying thousands of miles is no small feat and it takes a lot of energy. Migratory stopovers are used by birds traveling both north and south because they can provide the resources needed for food and shelter during their travels. After peering into the murky waters of the Great Salt Lake to see the life within, it was not hard to see why they were at this globally-important migratory stopover. The abundant food I saw in the water was translatable to the wealth I saw in the Arctic. On the Tundra, massive insect swarms and lakes filled with larvae provide young chicks is critical for their growth. The Great Salt Lake and the Arctic each plays their part in the cycle and life of the birds : are you starting to see some similarities in their function and habitat?
Migrants in Common
Birds connect the world, creating a network between many places. Like a computer network, the birds transfer nutrients and create a relationship between things. We “share” birds with other regions of the world. The bird feeding in your yard during the summer is another country’s yard bird in the winter. You should check out this incredible resource from National Geographic showing off the migrating paths of birds. It is normal for migrating birds to seek similar habitats as they move south and north so it is not surprising for shorebirds, ducks, and songbirds from the Arctic to be found in similar habit along the Great Salt Lake.
You don’t have to be a birder to be astounded by the abundance of birds using the Great Salt Lake. They stretch from horizon to horizon like and are as thick as the seeds on your everything-bagel. As many as Western 190,000 Sandpiper, 59,000 Long-billed Dowitcher, and 240,000 Red-necked Phalarope use the lake. If they were not hidden by the grass and expanse of the Tundra, you would see even more in the Arctic Plain.
Birds throughout the world are under threat from changes to the earth from humans. If you want to preserve birds for your yards and future children, it is so,so, so critical to protect their habitat where they are vulnerable. The Great Salt Lake is experiencing change which is may easily affect the brine shrimp and hence birds. Changes in salinity due to drought and mineral farming as well as pollution and water diversion are all linked to brine shrimp populations. In the Arctic rising temperatures are melting permafrost and oil drilling is impacting shorebird habitat. Failing to address these issues can only lead one direction for many species of birds : decline and ultimately extinction.
This story of connection is only one of many in the world. There is a multitude of important stopover and breeding areas for birds and throughout each continent birds are experiencing threats on the breeding grounds and migratory areas. I encourage you to look for and see the connections in the world and explore their importance.
I hate to only talk about the gloomiest parts of the status of birds but it is important to acknowledge the reality. There are stories of decline and also some stories of hope. To help educate yourself on the issues at hand and support land conservation groups such as Audubon or the Nature Conservancy. We can all be a part of the solution!
No season has it’s markers like Spring. The “first of spring” events which mark our regions are cherished by those who live there and bring joy, warmth, fresh sounds, and fresh colors. Since living in Hoonah, Alaska for four years no spring event has taught me more about a place, its people, and myself than the annual herring egg distribution every April. These small eggs, laid by silvery fish are at the center of culture and politics, science and business, and celebration and uncertainty.
Rain showers had been passing through during the morning of April 9th, and there was obvious relief from the growing crowd when they stopped only minutes before the “Shirley N” came into sight and made its way to Hoonah’s dock. For the last week the Shirley N had been in Sitka, Alaska laying branches of Hemlock in the water. Spawning herring had deposited their eggs on the branches and the Shirley N was bringing them to Hoonah’s expectant crowds. Audible joy and utters started as soon as the first load came from hold of the ship. It had been an abundant year thanks to the skill of the crew and there would be plenty for all! The branches were thick with spawn and each laden bow brought new smiles as they were stashed away. The atmosphere of the day is the primary reason I make sure never to miss the Shirley N’s return.
I have been meaning to write this article since April 9th – it’s now July 14th. I’m honestly glad I waited 3 months before completing this entry. It has changed my focus and intent completely. After reviewing my images I noticed one thing : all of the smiling faces. These are not “fake smiles” for a watching photographer. Rather, they are smiles from both youth and adults which are truly happy to be in that place at that time. Each smile shows someone enjoying the beautiful day, abundant harvest, anticipation of fresh food, and celebration of culture. These smiles capture the true feeling of the day and embody what it means to be in Hoonah : celebrating seasons and fresh food from the ocean. This is my fourth time participating in the eggs coming in, and I look forward to it more eagerly each time because of the emotions it brings out of Hoonah!
What’s So Good About Them?
If you have not had Herring Eggs before this article would be very hard to relate to. You may be thinking “what’s so good about them?”, “what do they taste like?”, and “how do you use them?”. I’ll do my best to help you understand, but I hope you have a chance to try them yourself someday! Simply learning to enjoy them and prepare them has taught me so much about Hoonah and their importance in culture.
Herring eggs are simply good for you. They are salty and fresh and depending on whether they are on kelp or branches have a totally different taste. The kelp adds a saltier, earthier taste while the tang of citrus is wonderful from the branches. They are half protein, a quarter carbs, and a quarter fat. You cannot beat that! Those stats are a key reason they were relied on by coastal peoples since time immemorial.
Herring Eggs are eaten fresh, par-boiled from the branches, pickled, canned, frozen, and eaten on herring egg salads. Their consumption in the spring is important but so is their use in the autumn during “pay off parties”. These parties are celebrations thanking family members and the opposite clan in town for taking care of funeral arrangements and costs for elders who have passed in the year. No payoff party would be complete without herring eggs.
The fate of the herring fishery is unknown. Its future lays in between the politics of the state and tribes, firmly wedged between the interests of the commercial sac-roe industry and needs of subsistence harvesters. If that doesn’t seem complicated enough, all of those factors are only exacerbated by ocean change driven by climate change. Struggling herring runs which have traditionally fed communities for hundreds of years have created enormous tension between communities, tribes, commercials industry, and the state fishery managers. Newspaper headlines of “Tribes sue state” are juxtaposed against “Harvest quota unchanged” and highlight the integral problem in this issue : subsistence fishers feel the commercial industry is highly impacting herring, however state management has been unmoving in how their models determine sustainable yield. This is despite harvests falling short of quota (due to lack of fish) in 2018, 2016, 2013, 2012, and no commercial sac-roe harvest in 2019.
For me the issue and cut and dried. These fish and their delivery to Hoonah has taught me the importance of fighting for small communities in big issues. It has demonstrated to me first hand how bad science can trickle down to dramatic effects. Collapsing herring stocks hurt communities, fisheries, whales, and entire ecosystems. I will stand in solidarity and protest with the Tribes and communities impacted by the extortion and extraction of this resource by outside interests.
It is unknown what 2020 will bring for Herring. There will be more legal battles and (with some optimism) hopefully change to sustainably manage this culturally and ecologically important resource. I look eagerly forward to it knowing it will welcome in yet another spring and another opportunity to enjoy what the season can offer.
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.