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 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!
Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska is the furthest north city in the United States, and just a few miles north of that on a small spit of land is Point Barrow where you can go no further north and still be on U.S. soil. At that point, the expanse of the ivory ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas stretches in front of you further than the eye can see. Looking south you will see no hills greater than a few feet tall – a tundra so flat that it seems like a wasteland. However, the tundra is fueled by perpetual sunlight for over 65 days each season and becomes an oasis for dozens of species of birds that come from multiple continents. With the flocks of birds come the flocks of birders to watch and observe their beauty and behavior under the midnight sun. We birded from June 16th to the 20th, recorded total 41 species of birds (although I think we missed a few on our final list) and 9 “lifer” birds which we had never seen before.
I realize not all of you reading this article are birders, so you may be wondering, “why would you take the time, hassle, and money to travel to the furthest point in the U.S. just to look at birds”. It’s because the birds are at their very best. You can think of this way : there are always cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and they are very beautiful to look at year around. However, during spring when they are in bloom the common cherry tree is transformed into an incredible spectacle. The birds in Barrow are the same – each is dressed to the nines in order to attract and breed with a female. They also show off behaviors and calls which you will see at no other time of the year.
The first owl we saw was the whitest owl (perhaps even bird) that I’ve ever seen. Typically Snowy Owls have some black in their wings, but this bird was almost sheer white with a few specks of black. The lack of color is indicative of the age of the bird and sex. Males are whiter than females and older birds are whiter than young birds. We can conclude from those two facts that this incredibly beautiful individual is an old, adult male.
“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl
Eiders are a family of sea-duck with four different species, and a circumpolar distribution. Each of the species is stunningly colored and have incredible plumage and sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males are dressy, the females are plain). Barrow provides relatively easy viewing of all four species of eiders in one place. We found Stellar’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders feeding in shallow ponds in the tundra. Each of them were paired and simply waiting for the snow to melt further, and the tundra to sprout before laying eggs. We observed Common Eider flying over the Chukchi sea on their way to different breeding grounds. Many other species of ducks and geese were found throughout the tundra to compliment the eiders.
Shorebirds in Barrow have their tuxedos on, are wearing Rolexes, and are ready to do whatever it takes to impress their female counterparts. They are a far cry from the drab, brown birds they become any other time of the year. The breeding displays vary from puffing out chest feathers, strutting with quivering wingtips, or taking to the air and flying high for all of the females to see. While we were there, the most vocal were the Pectoral Sandpipers. Male birds flew over their territories with chests feathers puffed out and made an indescribable-in-words galunking sound.
There was much more to see than just the breeding behavior of the shorebirds, and probably the most entertaining of these small birds were the phalaropes. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes feed by standing in shallow water and spinning in circles to stir up the bottom with their feet. They push their bill and head under the water to pick up their unsuspecting and confused prey. Their behavior reminds me of a dog chasing its tale, and its very hard not to smile when watching them.
North of Barrow is Point Barrow. This small spit of land has been used for millennia to capture whales and sea mammals for subsistence by the Iñupiaq people, and I was astounded by the number of Bowhead Whale skulls and bones along the beach (just for the record I 100% support this subsistence and cultural way of life). The bones helped answer some of the questions I had about whale structure and morphology.
Baleen is a key feature of non-predatory whales, but I’ve never quite understood how it was arranged in the mouth. In the jawbones of a couple of whale skulls, I saw that multiple (>50) plates of baleen lay parallel to each other on the left and right side of the mouth. Their arrangement allows the tongue to slide between the plates to push the water out and capture their food.
The many bones along the beach also put into perspective just how huge Bowhead Whales are. Jawbones may reach 13 feet in length, the vertebrae can be 20 inches or more wide, and the ribs can be 10 feet long. These are incredibly huge animals that must have been difficult to capture with seal-skin boats and bone-tipped spears. But somehow, in the face of this immense challenge, that is what the ancient Iñupiaq were able to accomplish.
Across the expanse of the sea-ice were cigar-shaped black specks. Most of the specks turned out to be seals. These seals provide a food source for humans and bears. I believe the most common species we observed were the Spotted Seal, but three other species may are present in the region. Although we scanned the ice pack for Polar Bears, there were none to be found.
In the summer, Barrow is the city that never sleeps. We were amazed at the amount of activity at all hours of the day throughout the community that can be attributed to the never setting sun. 24 hours of daylight ensured that the birds were active and visible during all parts of the day. We “Barrow-ed” our time schedule by staying up until 2AM or later on all of the nights we were in town. After four days we were exhausted, but thrilled to had a glimpse of this incredible area and the birds it holds.
Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017:
A couple of weekends ago I had the opportunity to tour Glacier Bay National Park with Hoonah’s 5th and 6th grade class. The trip was the culmination of their “Plumes of Glacier Bay” curriculum where they had been studying the species of birds within the park. As an avid birder I was thrilled to bring these 16, rambunctious kids on an ecology trip into the park on the “Dayboat”. The boat travels into the park to pick up travelers and provides an 8.5 hour, 130+ mile cruise to tidewater glaciers with opportunities to view tons of wildlife.
Its not always (one might say rarely) sunny in Glacier Bay. The cold waters and moist air cause rain and fog to form quickly within the park. However, we started out our day under high clouds with small patches of blue sky. Just after launching, we encountered some choppy water in the passage out of Bartlett Cove. Our on-board park ranger, Jenny, explained that the bottom of the ocean had striations in the sediment from the receding glacier that pushed the water up, often making it choppier than the wind would merit. After 45 minutes of cruising at 20 knots, our first stop along the way was at South Marble Island. This small island offers refuge to nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tufted Puffins, and other colonial sea birds looking to nest away from predators. It also has huge haul-outs of Stellars’s Sealions. The gigantic animals that I like to call “sea grizzlies” because of their immense size (up to 2,000 pounds), lay on the rocks in the sunshine like sausages. The dominant males sat with back arched and head erect. Their enormous size compared to the others around them made it easy to see why they were the boss.
Nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes at South Marble Island
Bald eagles feed on the carcass of a dead sea lion.
A young bonapartes gull flies over.
A Black Oyster Catcher flies by.
Our boat cut through the water past South Marble Island, and we moved up the fjord. As we did, the mountains became more jagged and covered in snow. At the mouth of Glacier Bay most the mountains had been covered ice during the last glacial advance which rounded them off over time, but the terrain became more jagged as we moved past mountain tops untouched by the glaciers. An exception to the jagged mountains was the round, granite dome named “Gloomy Knob”. On that granite dome were well manicured lawns of grass with sporadic cottonwoods growing in the crevices. The lawns were kept short by overwintering Mountain Goats who grazed the pastures. Just after the spring thaw is the best time to watch the goats, and I think we counted 20 of them on Gloomy Knob. Many of them were feeding their kids, and we got some insight into the bonding of goats with their mothers – one made a spectacle by climbing onto its mothers back.
The goats were not the only four-legged mammals on Gloomy Knob. High up in the granite cliffs we spotted a family of four Coastal Brown Bears. They lounged on the rocks, sleeping, perhaps 1,000 feet above our heads. During our passing they roused and moved along the ridgeline. They even passed by a goat on the ledge below them. Although the grizzlies took a look at their potential meal, the Mountain Goat seemed to know it was safe from the predators above, as it never moved a muscle.
Sixty-five miles from where we started in Bartlett Cove we finally reached the end of the park. Marjorie Glacier stood in front of us like icy walls. The glacier face is about 350 feet tall and extends nearly a mile from left to right. In many of the pictures, you can see pin-sized Harbor Seals with their pups on the ice flows to lend the glacier some size perspective. Two times the glacier let go of new ice bergs by “calving”. The roar was like thunder of an approaching storm. The glacier, which is currently 21 miles long, has retracted 65 miles. In 1750, it was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit from their homeland. Since the retreat has happened so quickly, there are many studies within the park boundaries to understand how recolonization of rock surfaces occurs. Also, the land around the glacier is springing back up from the weight of the ice in a process known as isostatic rebound. The land rises almost an inch a year which may cause river drainages to change and coast resources like clam beds to come out of the water.
The students gave the whole boat a treat by performing traditional Tlingit songs at the glacier. Their pounding drums mixed with the grandeur of the scenery for a truly memorable end to the day. The trip into Glacier Bay was an incredible introduction to this vast and wild park. I look forward to the day when I return for a more detailed look at its beauty.
Seals float on the ice bergs near Marjorie Glacier.
An eagle takes advantage of a floating platform of ice.
The fresh morning air and sea breeze were refreshing to my senses. As I walked along the beach of Hoonah, Alaska the smell of the spray made my taste-buds tingle and buzz; the ocean air is tantalizingly tasty. The smell of the ocean was particularly strong on this morning because as the tide poured out of Port Frederick it was leaving shallow kelp forests high and dry on the rocky beach. Newly exposed vegetation was increasing the olfactory pleasure. Stranded kelp on the beach is not a daily occurrence, but the large size of this tide exposed a world in the kelp forests that would normally only be accessible by diving into the frigid water. From high tide to low this tide would raise and lower the waters in Port Frederick by over 22 feet!
I was amazed by the abundance and diversity of sea creatures that I had never seen up close before. The first was an enormous, fire-red and purple sunflower sea star. Stretching about 30 inches across, it is actually a top predator of the sea floor. It was evident to see how fast they are as it slid across the rocks by using its long and plentiful tentacles to propel itself. On the bottom they prey on nearly anything that they can get like abalone, starfish, cucumbers and others. The vibrancy of their colors was really amazing. Some were purple and red, some just purple, and some just red. I am not sure if these are different species or not. The video below shows off a bit of the sunflower seastar and the next creature to be found, the Sea Cucumber.
A red and purple sunflower seastar trapped on the tideline in Hoonah, Alaska.
I’m not sure if this red coloration is a new species or just a different color phase. maybe male or female?
The many tentacles of the sunflower seastar are used for propulsion and feeding.
The many tentacles of the sunflower seastar are used for propulsion and feeding.
This sunflower seastar reaches about 30 inches from tip to tip.
There are many examples of bizarre creatures in a kelp forest, but the sea cumber is certainly a good example! These creatures, although ugly and dangerous looking, are actually detritivores. They feed on the bottom sucking up soil and convert them into nutrients that are used further up the marine food web. They were too interesting looking to not at least poke one with a finger. When I did I was very surprised to find that they did not have a hard shell, but instead were gelatinous and rippled like a water-balloon dropped on the pavement. As I looked around I found many of the sea cucumbers had molded into the cracks of the rocks at the tideline – once they are out of the water there is not enough support in their body to maintain its shape. In Alaska, this species, the giant red sea cucumber (Parastichopus californicus), are commerically harvested. They are marketed locally and in Asia.
A Sea-cucumber on the tideline in Hoonah, Alaska
The sea cucumber also uses tentacles to move around.
In a still bay I was able to see the sea cucumbers in their natural environment and with their signature “cucumber” spikes.
In a still bay I was able to see the sea cucumbers in their natural environment and with their signature “cucumber” spikes.
The Humpback Whale
As summer warms up the waters of Port Frederick, large blooms of phytoplankton feed the base of a food chain that ultimately brings many whales into the sound. As I stood on the edge of the kelp forest at low tide deep water stretched out in front of me. A humpback whale surfaced a mile out, and then a half mile out. It seemed to be headed my way. I grabbed my camera with my 200-500 telephoto lens waiting for it to get closer and surface again. I saw shocked to see the water boil in front of me much, much closer than I could have ever imagined. With a WOOSH! the spout of a fully grown humpback broke the surface in front of me just 20 yards away! With my adrenaline rushing through my veins I captured what I could of the huge animal. It is amazing to consider that even if the water was 50 feet in that location that he could have spanned it from the bottom to the surface!
My morning along the edge of Port Frederick was wonderful because it was everything I saw was new and foreign. It is truly magnificent to consider what is out there to just be experienced. The information I learned on my stroll through the kelp forest gave me an even further appreciation of this beautiful region of Southeast, Alaska.
A bold, red starfish is trapped along the waterline in Hoonah, Alaska.
In the low tide, anemones hang from dock pilings like old bubble gum on a wall.
In the low tide, anemones hang from dock pilings like old bubble gum on a wall.
A flock of Barrow’s Goldeneye fed along the surf as I strolled along the tide. I’m sure they were taking advantage of the easily-accessed resources.
Although I jigged up this sculpin from the bottom, they are a key piece of a kelp forest.
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
What does it mean when one of the least researched and understood marine birds in the Arctic turns up in Duluth, Minnesota 1,500 miles outside of its range? Locally, it ensures a birding rush of in-state and out-of-stater birders eager to see the rare bird, but what does it say about the global status of this unique bird? How can we use its presence to educate ourselves of human impact on the high Arctic? Is the Ivory Gull (Pagophila eburnea) an indicator species of a greater issue in the Arctic? The suspicion that their unprecedented, 80% population decline over the last 20 years may be linked to mercury suggests they are.
Population Free-fall of the Ivory Gull
Ivory Gulls are colonial birds, meaning that large numbers gather into groups to breed. By monitoring the nesting colonies of colonial birds, population trends may be established by researchers. However, surveys for Ivory Gulls were only conducted in 1985 (Thomas and MacDonald, 1987) making it impossible to understand population trends. Compounding the lack of population data, Ivory Gulls are considered to be one one of the least understood marine birds. This is partly due to wintering along the ice pack between Greenland and Labrador ensuring they are not a bird which is in-sight of many people. However, indigenous knowledge has suggested declining populations since the 1980s (Mallory et al. 2003). In light of this, researchers flew surveys of known nesting islands as well as newly found Islands in 2002 and 2003 and found something shocking. The number of nesting Ivory Gulls had declined by 80% since the 1980s (Gilcrest et al. 2005).
Gilcrest et al. (2005) started to hypothesize at alternative reasons for the lack of gulls. They explored the possibility that the Ivory Gulls had simply shifted their nesting locations. However, a significant move is not inline with the known biology of the bird which generally move less than 1-2 kilometers. Food sources of fish and carcasses have remained relatively stable in their study area giving them little reason to move. They noted that Ivory Gulls were not seen flying along the survey paths. It seems that the Ivory Gull was truly dying off.
The Driver of Change
Since the startling revelation of population decline, researchers have been trying to understand why Ivory Gulls are disappearing. It is probable that ice-pack changes and altered forage have contributed to the population decline (Gilchrest et al. 2005), but researchers think a stronger factor is in play . In his interview with the BBC World Service (full interview below) Dr. Alex Bond hypothesizes that mercury is a leading stressor on Ivory Gulls based on findings that levels of mercury have risen 45 -50 times the levels found 130 years ago. There is strong evidence showing mercury levels in the eggs of Ivory Gulls is significantly higher than any other known marine bird. Braun et al. 2006 found that mercury in the eggs of Ivory Gulls were 2.5 times greater than even the next highest species, and were almost 3 times greater the amount which impairs reproductive success. Where is that much mercury coming from? And how exactly might it effect Ivory Gulls?
To understand where the mercury is coming from, its important to know the basics of the mercury cycle. Mercury falls into the oceans from atmosphere pollution originating from coal-fired power plants, or is directly input from Alkali metal processing . There are also natural sources of mercury like volcanic eruptions and “volitilization of the ocean” (USGS 2000). Once deposited in a waterbody, mercury becomes available to marine animals when it is transformed to methylmercury. Once in the that state, it moves up through the food chain into plankton, and then to fish, and finally to top level predators like birds and marine mammals. Levels of mercury grows in organisms through bioaccumulation and biomagnifcation. To clarify that jargon, bioaccumulation means that the older you are, the more mercury you have since it is difficult to get it out your system once ingested. Biomagnification means that if you feed higher on the food chain you gain mercury more quickly. Marine mammals like seals have very, very high levels of mercury due to the effect of both bioaccumulation and biomagnifacation. With that information in mind it is easier to understand why Ivory Gulls accumulate mercury; they scavenge on carcasses of marine mammals and feed on fish which have high levels of mercury. They also have a high metabolic rate and consume more fish (Braun et al. 2006).
To date, the effect of mercury on Ivory Gulls has not been studied, but we can gather clues from looking at other species. Common Loons (Gavia immer) also accumulate high levels of mercury due to eating fish (biomagnification) and having long lives (bioaccumulation). Evers et al. 2008 found a 41% decrease in fledged loon young in parents with >3 micrograms of mercury per gram of tissue compared to those with <1 microgram. They predict total reproductive failure of Common Loons if levels exceed 16.5 micrograms. Based on hundreds of hours of observation, they report that loons with elevated levels of mercury are lethargic and spend significantly less time foraging for food and less time taking care of their young. Each lead to fewer chicks growing to adulthood. It is important to note in their study that mercury levels of a species change throughout their range due to climate, forage, and many other factors. Transferring the lessons of Common loons to Ivory Gulls, variation in mercury levels changes are observed in Canada as well; in general levels of mercury increase from east to west in Canada. Although the effect of mercury on Ivory Gulls has not been directly studied and may effect gulls differently than loons, a good hypothesis for their decline is poor parenting and lethargy due to extraordinarily high levels of mercury. Only future research will help tease out the true effect of mercury on their decline.
When an Ivory Gull shows up in Duluth, Minnesota it is a chance to reflect. Reflect on the beauty of an animal. Reflect on the joy of seeing such a rarity. However, do not miss the opportunity to acknowledge that its prescense is out of the norm of the species and that an unseen driver which we do not fully understand is at play. Reflect on the fact that the impact of humans in a nearly un-inhabited region is undeniable. Human consumption of fossil fuels is depositing mercury into the Arctic at rates which may be directly effecting a species. The Ivory Gull is a red flag, an indicator that things are not right in the Arctic and that we should pay heed to what else may be going wrong that we just have not taken the time to study yet.
Braune, B. M., Mallory, M. L., & Gilchrist, H. G. (2006). Elevated mercury levels in a declining population of ivory gulls in the Canadian Arctic. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 52(8), 978-982.
Evers, D. C., Savoy, L. J., DeSorbo, C. R., Yates, D. E., Hanson, W., Taylor, K. M., … & Munney, K. (2008). Adverse effects from environmental mercury loads on breeding common loons. Ecotoxicology, 17(2), 69-81.
Gilchrist, H. G., & Mallory, M. L. (2005). Declines in abundance and distribution of the ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea) in Arctic Canada. Biological Conservation, 121(2), 303-309.
Mallory, M. L., Gilchrist, H. G., Fontaine, A. J., & Akearok, J. A. (2003). Local ecological knowledge of ivory gull declines in Arctic Canada. Arctic, 293-298.
Thomas, V.G., MacDonald, S.D., 1987. The breeding distribution and
current population status of the ivory gull in Canada. Arctic 40,
I am very, very, very excited to write inform you of the release of my 2016 calendar! The content features some of the best imagery on this website, plus a few things that have never seen the “light of day”. The calendar is entitled “Seasonal Moods of Alaska” with imagery for each month captured in that month. The calendar is 100% designed by me including feature images, transparent images, windows, and text tying the imagery to the season. A huge thanks to my family and fiance for helping to proof the calendar! I believe the final product is a work of art mingled with science.
If you want to see it, clicking on the cover image or link link will bring you to the sales site that I created. Otherwise, keep reading for some more information 🙂
The calendar is printed on 9.5×13 paper and spiral bound leaving ample of room to write in your schedule. Of course it has a hole for hanging if that is all you want to do with it! With imagery from throughout Alaska, the calendar is a great memento of your trip to Alaska, for a friend who has been here, or to bring inspiration for your future trip here!
This calendar is being printed by my local shop in Perham, Minnesota. Your consideration and support also helping the local economy in Perham.
The calendar will be available for pre-order through October 15th. At that time I will begin shipping orders. You can help me out a huge amount by spreading the word about this calendar or through a purchase! Thanks you so much in advance for your support in this project!
You never know what you will see when you leave Seward Harbor, but with blue skies and calm seas our hopes were high for a remarkable trip. Our trip last year on this same boat, and captained by the same crew had been truly memorable!
We reached the open ocean at the edge of Resurrection Bay about 20 miles outside of Seward harbor, and immediately recognized based on an enormous flock of gulls and sea-birds that something special was happening in front of us. Of course, the many tails of humpback whales emerging from the water was a good tip too! As we carefully approached the scene the captain explained that we were observing “bubble-net feeding” of a large group (~18) humpback whales. This behavior has only been recorded consistently around Seward for about five years, as apparently many of the whales had taught it to each other. Observing from the water surface, it is hard to imagine the underwater pandemonium of bubble-net feeding. In the deep waters under a large school of bait fish all 18 whales were blowing bubbles in synchrony to herd the bait ball into one group. Once corralled, all of the whales ascended to the surface with their huge mouths agape to scoop up as many fish as possible. From the surface we were able to predict the timing and location of each emergence, because the flock of hundreds of seabirds would lift up high into the sky, before diving on the susceptible fish just before the whales broke the surface!
Our boat drifted silently with the engines turned off, and as the whales came up for the fifth time under the baitfish the flock of tell-tale gulls began to fly straight towards our boat! It was going to be a close encounter!! Sure enough, enormous mouths attached to up to 80,000 pounds and 80 feet of whale broke through the surface near the boat in a show that left me shaking. Not from fear, but rather sheer awe-struck wonder. I simultaneously snapped imagery of the incredible scene and watched each wonder unfold. I was too busy taking imagery to record video of the whales breaking the surface, but have chained together a series of images in the video below that demonstrate the behavior of bubble-net feeding. Be sure to listen to the incredible sounds they make while on the surface!
The humpback whales were just the start of a remarkable series of wildlife sightings. A first of my life was the killer whales. A large pod of them traveled along and breached frequently for air exposing their fin and distinct white eyepatch. The dominant male of the group was evident thanks to an especially large dorsal fin. Baby orcas surfaced directly behind their mothers as they were still dependent them for protection, and to learn from. We spotted many sea otters throughout Ressurection Bay and along the coast. The story of their recovery is remarkable. Sea otters were extirpated from much of their traditional range by exploiting Russian and American hunters. Their loss led to the collapse of kelp beds as urchins populations, a diet item of the sea otter, expanded and ate of the kelp hold fasts (their roots). Once protected by federal law, the recolonization of sea otters helped reestablish the kelp communities and repair a crucial underwater ecosystem for small fish, and many invertebrates.
This sea otter was found cracking a clam in the Seward Harbor before we departed.
Sea otters are iconic creatures of the Resurrection Bay.
The enormous mouth of a mature humpback whale opens as it breaches the surface.
A humpback whale finishes it ascent through the baitfish school by breaking the surface, mouth agape. The gulls all around were waiting for the scrambled fish.
This humpback whale showed off a spurt of energy in a triumphant jump into the air. A full breach!
We were not the only boat watching the feeding frenzy. This image puts into perspective the size of the fluke!
As we moved further out of Resurrection Bay we encountered a pod of Killer Whales! The dominant male was demarcated by a large fin and led the pod.
The progress of the killer whales was quick, and water splashed from their fins as they breached for air.
Near northwestern glacier harbor seals use icebergs as resting haul-outs and to raise pups.
A large group of harbor seals shares a flow of ice.
A large flow of ice holds several harbor seals and is set against the foggy islands of the distant Chiswell Islands.
During the day we found several groups of stellar sealions – the groups of composed of one dominant male and the much smaller females. These two females rested on a rock ledge shrouded in fog.
The Chiswell Islands provide important breeding habitat and refugia for many sea birds. Puffins, murres, kittiwakes, and dozens of other species are found throughout their rocky crags where they escape predation risk. Many of the species that nest in the rocky crags of the cliffs are classified as “pelagic birds”. These birds only come to shore to breed, and spend the rest of their life at sea. It is remarkable to me that little of their ocean life is understood, although it is clearly an important part of their life history and hence conservation. One incredible fact from the trip’s crew : common murres may dive up 600 feet in search of food! The images below are just a small cross-section of the birds were observed along the way.
Tufted Puffins are a distinct and charismatic bird. Their large eyebrows stretch over their head in a very peculiar way!
Although a bit slow with the shutter speed, I like the image of this flying tufted puffin because it highlights their beautiful beak and face.
This image of a tufted puffin was taken the day before at the aviary of the Alaska Sea Life Center- A remarkable bird!
This group of parakeet auklets was a treat. They are aptly name – their chatter sounds very much like parakeets!
On the sheer rock faces we were lucky to be shown these thick-billed murres. A lifer for the trip!
In contrast to the thick-billed murres, these common murres do not have a white line behind their bill.
Named for the distinct feather that reached above their eye, a horned puffin takes flight near the Chiswell Islands.
This image of a horned puffin taken the previous day at the Alaska Sealife Center demonstrates its namesake beautifully! The horned extension above the eye is striking!
The bluebird skies of the day blessed us for the nearly the entire trip. However, as we moved away from Northwestern Glacier, a thick bank of fog moved in from the ocean. The damp air made the day cooler, and provided a mystical backdrop to the Chiswell Islands which poked in and out of the fog like chandeliers in a smokey bar. The islands created a partial barrier to the fog which flowed through the lowest points of the islands like a sinewy serpent. Subsequently, the fog established the base of some of my favorite scenery images throughout the day, and featured below.
As we pulled out of Seward harbor the bluebird skies were stunning!
This panoramic shot really captures the setting of the Chiswell Islands. Characteristic of the islands, bright green tops and trees were seperated from the water by a gray band of rock.
Our boat the “Viewfinder” moved past the mainland with the Northwestern Glacier Behind us.
We threw a big wake as the Viewpoint moved to a new location.
As we rounded Granite Island and moved towards to the Northwestern Glacier I captured this panorama across our bow. Brilliant blue skies!
Cataract falls spilled down this large headwater and was fed by a snow/glacial field above.
As we moved back onto the open ocean, heavy fog rolled in from the ocean. Although this island blocked much of the fog, it still spilled through the lowest point of the island like a living creature.
The vertical cliff faces of the Chiswell Islands are often near to each other creating small pasages. I was struck by the lone tree to the upper right of this one, and the fog that lit the scene. I was fortunate to click the shutter as a gull took off far above.
Many of the Chiswell Islands have broad rock arches like the one displayed here.
Several groups of harbor seals float in front of the face of this tidewater glacier near the Northwestern Glacier.
The Northewestern Glacier spill from the Harding Ice Field into the ocean. The “calving” of this glacier, and others in the bay provide the icebergs for the harbor seals.
As whales-of-a-tales go, I’ve stuck to the facts of the day, although so much of was above average that even I feel that it’s a tale of whoppers. It was the type of trip that every subsequent trip to the ocean will be relative to. Perhaps I will tie it someday, but it would take a Moby Dick sized whale of a day to beat it!