Category Archives: Birds

Hawaii : A Photojournal

This year was my second trip to Hawaii and my first time traveling to Kauai. Last year my wife and I birded the Big Island, walked on lava under the stars, and paid our tributes to Pearl Harbor. We were anxious to revisit these amazing islands to learn about and enjoy their diversity, ecology, and warmth! I was especially excited to extend on opportunities for photography and recently shared an article on endemic birds. There! Now you are caught up with the past, I will tell you more about the rest of my trip by taking you through some photos and experiences!

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!

Landscapes

Hawaii, Mauna Kea, Stars, Star Trails
We arrived in Kona, HI at 9:30 PM and had to drive across the island to Hilo to our lodging. As we crossed the saddle at Mauna Kea (Hawaii’s tallest mountain) I told my wife, “we should go see if the stars are any good tonight!”. We ascended to 8,000 feet and with clear skies I was soon sucked into a time vacuum. I photographed until 4AM – my wife is a trooper! This star spin is looking South and shows off how little light pollution there. Coupling that with the thin air makes for incredible star-gazing! My time on Mauna Kea was the first time I have seen the Southern Cross!
Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Sun, Red
Waimea Canyon on Kauai is nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Hawaii”. During our 5 days on the Island we visited this canyon 4 different times. Each time the light and setting had something new to offer. I loved how the sun rays streaked through the haze and clouds in this scene. Waipo’o Falls coming in from the side is just icing on the cake!
Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Sun, Red, Night, Moon
I took the time to visit Waimea Canyon at night, too! I used the moonlight to capture Waipo’o falls and the clouds streaking overhead. I knew the moon’s light would really show off the red cliffs well!
Hawaii, Mauna Kea, Stars, Star Trails
This star spin looks north over Mauna Kea. A lone car is cresting the hillside and really adds to the scene. I chose this location because of how desolate it feels! The volcanic fields are too high, cold, and lack nutrients to grow vegetation. I feel like this image could have been captured on Mars! The star spin is 2-hours long.
Akaka Falls, Hawaii, Big Island, Travel
At over 440 feet, Akaka Falls is a very large falls. I had to sneak in between bus-loads of tourists to make this shot, and focused on the lush vegetation to give it a paradise-like feel. I used neutral density filters so I could shoot a very long exposure and smooth out the flowing water.
Milky Way, Astrophotography, Mauna Kea, Big Island, Hawaii
Mauna Kea is renowned for its Milky Way and Star-gazing opportunity. Thin air and almost no light pollution make it one of the best places to view the stars in the world! At 2:30 AM the Milky Way rose over the southwest horizon. Distant lights of Hilo and the foreground corpse of a Mamane tree make this one of my favorite Milky Way shots to date!

Birds

Laysan Albatross, Princeville, Hawaii, Kauai
I thought it was peculiar that we found this Laysan Albatross nesting in urban conditions. I’m not sure why it choose to do that, but I have a hunch it’s because during their long lifespan of up to 40 years new developments were established on their traditional nesting areas.
Nene, Hawaiian goose, Hanalei, Hawaii, Kauai
The Nene (Hawaiian Goose) is a conservation success story. Their numbers dwindled to only 30 birds in 1960 but now number over 3,000 on all the Hawaiian Islands! Throughout the trip I was looking for a “crushing” Nene shot to show off their beauty and unique markings. I was rewarded with this image while birding in Hanalei!
At the Kilauea Lighthouse we enjoyed a high-abundance of seabirds such as Laysan Albatross, Red-tailed Tropic Birds, White-tailed Tropic Birds, Magnificent Frigate Birds, and Brown Boobies. The most prevalent were Red-footed Boobies. They flocked by the hundreds to the cliffs to roost with their mates. This male Red-footed Booby put in a lot of efforts to break this branch from a cyprus. It took him several minutes of antics and balancing to be successful. He may use it in his nest or just carry it around to impress females before dropping it.
The first evening we visited Kilauea Lighthouse the setting sun lit up a waxing moon. I knew I wanted to capture the soaring Red-footed Boobies in front of it, but also knew it was going to be a challenge to get a clean shot! I set up my camera on the moon and chose a focus distance that most of the birds seemed to be flying at. I was rewarded with this image!
Pueo (Hawaiian Short-eared Owl) were an amazing addition to our trip. I believe between the Big Island and Kauai we saw over 20 of them! I caught this bird soaring over the grasslands in search of food.

The Coast

Sunset, Coral, Hawaii, rocks, lava, Kauai
Hawaii is renowned for its sunsets and with almost 11 days of sun during our trip we got to enjoy several great ones. On our second evening in Kauai, we whittled the end of the day away by watching from the beaches of Puiko. I found a calm pool where I could tie together corals with the setting sun.
Sunset, Coral, Hawaii, rocks, lava, Kauai, Sailboat
As the last of the sun disappeared behind the horizon it was saluted by three sail boat sentinels. I shot this image at 150 mm to capture the boats along with the sunset.
Sunset, Coral, Hawaii, rocks, lava, Kauai
Small waves mixed with the textures and colors of the volcanic rock of Kauai’s shore. I tried to stay “present” while shooting this scene by both enjoying the smells and sights of it while photographing it. I love the slow motion of the incoming surf.
Kilauea Lighthouse, Long exposure, sunset, waves
During this sunset at Kilauea Lighthouse a huge surf was crashing against the rocks. Although it was hard to tell how big the waves were, a 40-50 foot swell was forecasted for the area. I sought to capture the mood and drama of the scene by shooting a very long exposure to flatten out the sea. This image is 8 minutes long! I love the contrast between the lit lighthouse and the shadows of the cliff.
We did some snorkeling in the lava “fingers” outside of Puako on the Big Island. In between the fingers the water was 50 feet or more and the volcanic walls were covered in amazing corals and life such as this Pencil Urchin. I cannot even begin to describe the color and diversity of the fish we saw!

Miscellaneous

This is noisiest invasive species in Hawaii! the Coqui Frog are very hard to spot and spend most of their time in water pools of Bromiliads and other plants. They were introduced in the 1990s, and in the current day have populations in the thousands per acre! In many areas, they are the predominant sound in the forest.
The Mules Foot Fern looks to be from prehistoric times! These giant ferns look like a “regular” fern scaled up 10 or 20 times and may be 10 feet tall. Growing fiddle heads are 3-4 inches in diameter and these fronts are almost an inch wide each!

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!

A Few of Us Among the Few of Them : Endangered Birds of Hawaii

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.

Hawaii, I'iwe, Hakalau Forest
This I’iwi is one of the most resplendent and dramatic Honeycreepers found in Hawaii

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.

Old Growth, Ohia, Hakalau Forest
This old growth O’hia tree is about 60” at the base and is about 1,500 years old! Once Hawaiian old growth forests are gone we will never see their like for another thousand years.
Koa, Lichen, Old Growth, Hakalau Forest
Lichen grown in a carpet on the bark of Koa trees. They absorb moisture from the frequent fog and rain on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

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.

Looking uphill at the Hakalau Forest. The spread-out trees do not look “tropical” or like how you imagine Hawaii. Many of the species that you associate with Hawaii were introduced

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!

Hawaii Akepa

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.

Hawaiin Akepa, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
A Hawaiian Akepa feeds in O’hia blossoms
Akepa, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
The Hawaiian Akepa is one of only 3 truly orange birds in the world!

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.

Hawaiian Creeper, Hakalau Forest
Hawaiian Creepers are adapted to cling onto trees in search of small bugs
Hawaii Creeper, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii, Big Island
A Hawaiian Creeper browses through the lichen on a Koa branch

Akiapola’au

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.

Akiapola'au, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
Akiapola’au has an amazing bill! Their bottom bill is used to awl into Koa wood and the top bill is used to extract grubs and insects from the hole. Amazing evolution!
Akiapola'au, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
On top of their amazing bill, the Akiapola’au are a gorgeous shade of yellow!]
Akiapola'au, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
An Akiapola’au scoops a grub from the hole it made in this Koa tree

Palila

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.

Palila, Big Island, Hawaii, Palila Discovery Trail
I was reminded of Grosbeaks when I saw the Palila. Here it poses in the leaves and fruit of the mämane which is its sole food source

I’iwi

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!

I'Iwe, Hakalau Forest, Flower, Hawaii, Big Island
An I’iwi uses its curved bill to extract nectar from a flower
I'Iwi, Hakalau Forest, Flower, Hawaii, Big Island
This I’iwi really showed off it’s colors and bill shape!

Apapane

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 bird.

Apapane, Hawaii, Big Island, O'hia
An Apapane checks out an O’hia flower for nectar

Hawaii Amakihi

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.

Amakihi, Mamane, Big Island
A Hawaii Amakihi perches momentarily on a mämane

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.

Kauai Amakihi

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.

Amakihi, Kauai
The Kauai Amakihi has a distinct black mask. It was cool to see this banded bird!

Anianiau

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.

Anianiau, Kokee State Park, Kauai
An adult Anianiau shows off its brilliant yellow colors
Anianiau, Kokee State Park, Kauai
I’m not sure if this Anianiau is a female or a juvenile, but it is still a beautiful specimen!

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.

Herrings vs. Eagles – Eagles Win and the Photographer Did Too

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.

Herring, Underwater, GoPro, Alaska, Hoonah
A ball of herring mill about in Hoonah, Alaska.

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!Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

A string of eagles wait for spawning herring at the beach.

Herring, Eggs, Hemlock, Alaska, Subsistence
Herring egg harvesters use branches of Hemlock to capture herring eggs. They lay the branches in the water where herring are spawning and then collect the branches which are (hopefully) laden with eggs.

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.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A young eagle feeds from the rocks instead of flying for its meal.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A eagle goes in deep with its talons in the quest for herring.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A strafing run of an eagle successfully captures a herring.

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.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

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.

Bald eagle, photography, alaska, herring, panning
This is my favorite shot from the day. I slowed my shutter speed down and then tracked the eagle as it flew to a perch. The face and claws remained tack sharp and I achieved blur in the wings and the background.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
This shot is a close second! I cannot believe the symmetry that these two eagles have as they flew away, or that they both caught herring!

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
My third favorite shot of the day. The one that got away!

Parting Shots

Here’s a last few shots. I hope you enjoy!

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

The Waters, Wildlife, and Culture Between the Glaciers and Hoonah, Alaska

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.

Whale Tail, Hoonah, Alaska

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.

Glacier Bay National Park, Tribal House, Huna Shuka Hit, Totem Pole, Carving, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
This is the inside screen of Huna Shuka Hit. This place is incredible to behold and every sense has a new observation to provide your brain as you probe into it complex artistry.

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!

Family, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
We made it to the glacier! My mom, dad, and I in front of Magerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.

Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
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.

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!

Stellar Sea Lion, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A Stellar Sealion bull chases a pup on the rocks of South Marble Island.

Porcupine, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A porcupine keeps a wary eye on me – half trusting that I meant it no harm.

Brown Bear, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A family of 4 Coastal Brown Bears surveys the scene.

Gloomy Knob, Mountain Goat, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A nanny Mountain Goat and her young (~ 2 week old) kid

Humpback Whale, Breaching, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A breaching Humpback Whale as we trekked into Glacier Bay National Park.

Sea Otter, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A Sea Otter floats on by. Sea Otters have risen to such numbers in the park that they are at risk of eating themselves out of house and home.

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.

Whale, Eagle, Alaska, Southeast Alaska, Whale Watching
A Humpback Whale emerges from the water with an eagle in the background.

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!

Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
A breaching Humpback Whale erupts from the water outside of Hoonah, Alaska. What a sight!!

Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
A breaching Humpback Whale erupts from the water outside of Hoonah, Alaska. What a sight!!

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.

Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours, Bubblenet Feeding
Bubble Net Feeding Humpback Whales erupt from the water in Port Frederick, Hoonah, Alaska. In the behavior, the whales coordinate an under water screen of bubbles that concentrate baitfish before the whale synchronously scoop of the ball of fish.

Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
Two Humpback Whales begin to dive in search of food.

A Day With the Vole Patrol

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.

Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl swivels its head to search for prey.

Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A distant Great Gray Owl hunts along a tree line.

Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray plunks into the snow in pursuit of a vole that tunneled below the surface. He caught it!

Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
The silent flight of a Great Gray Owl to its perch. Look at that camouflage!

Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl holds onto a recently captured vole.

Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl holds onto a recently captured vole.

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!

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog
This Northern Hawk Owl caught 2 voles as several photographers and I watched.

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog
A Northern Hawk owl speeds to its next perch like a speeding bullet.

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog

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!

Birding on “Barrow-ed” Time

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.

Barrow, Utqiaġvik, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Sun, Composite
The sun arches of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. This image was captured from 12AM – 4AM on June 19th.

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.

Utqiaġvik, Tundra, Alaska
There are almost no hills or topography of any time in the tundra surrounding Barrow, Alaska.

The Snowy Owl

Barrow, Alaska was known as Ukpiaġvik before it was it was given its European name in 1826 . This tradtional name translates to “Place that we hunt for snowy owls“, and was given that because of the high densities of owls in the area. They are reliant on high densities of lemmings (small rodents) for food. Snowy Owl numbers wax-and-wane with the volatile population of lemmings, but when food is up, researchers have found as many as 72 lemmings at one time at a Snow Owl nest!

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.

Utqiaġvik, Barrow, Alaska
A male snowy owl sits on the tundra outside of Utqiaġvik, Alaska

“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.

Stellar's Eider, Utqiaġvik, Alaska
A male Stellar’s Eider stands in stark contrast to the female behind him.

King Eider, Alaska
The King Eider has an incredible face and plumage!

Spectacled Eider, Alaska, Utqiaġvik
The Spectacled Eider is well named – you can see that monocle on this beautiful male’s face.

Shorebirds

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.

Point Barrow

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.

Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Alaska, Barrow
The baleen of a Bowhead Whale has hairy edges that works to capture food as the tongue is pushed up and water is pressed out.

Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Barrow, Alaska
Many plates of baleen lie together in this skull of this Bowhead Whale giving insight into the function of the baleen to capture 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.

Barrow, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Vertebrae
The vertebrae of Bowhead Whales are huge!

Point Barrow, Sea Ice, Arctic Ocean
My wife, Kassie, and I on the edge of the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow.

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.

Barrow-ed Time

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.

Barrow, Umiaq, umiak
The frame of a traditional boat, an umiaq, leans against a building outside of Barrow.

Barrow, Alaska
Jawbone arches offer tourists a place to take picture.

Barrow, Alaska, Midnight Sun, Composite
The midnight sun swings over the Chukchi sea on June 19th. In Barrow, there are 65 days that the sun never sets.

Muktuk, Barrow, Pickled
Muktuk is the traditional way to prepare Bowhead Whale. We had the incredible opportunity to try pickled muktuk pictured on the left. It was very delicious! The black rind is the skin of the whale, and the white part if the fat.

Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017:

  1. Snow Bunting,
  2. Greater Scaup,
  3. Red-necked Phalarope,
  4. Glacous Gull,
  5. Pomeraine Jaeger,
  6. White-fronted Goose,
  7. Semipalmated Sandpiper,
  8. Long-tailed Duck,
  9. Red Phalarope,
  10. American Golden Plover,
  11. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  12. Short-billed Dowitcher,
  13. Cackling Goose,
  14. Dunlin,
  15. Arctic Tern,
  16. Pacific Loon,
  17. Semi-palmated Plover,
  18. Northern Pintail,
  19. Lesser Scaup,
  20. Lapland Longspur,
  21. Savannah Sparrow,
  22. Greather white-fronted Goose,
  23. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  24. Dowitcher,
  25. Raven,
  26. Western Sandpiper,
  27. King Eider,
  28. Stellar’s Eider,
  29. Spectacled Eider,
  30. Dunlin,
  31. Green-winged Teal,
  32. Northern Shovelor,
  33. Tundra Swan,
  34. Parasitic Jaeger,
  35. Red-throated Loon,
  36. Sabine’s Gull,
  37. Snow Goose,
  38. Black Scoter,
  39. Ruddty Turnstone,
  40. Baird’s Sandpiper,
  41. Common Eider.

 

Dayboat of Wonders in Glacier Bay National Park

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.

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Calving
Marjorie Glacier at the head of Glacier Bay National Park calves into the ocean.

Sea Otter, Glacier Bay National Park
A Sea Otter mother floats with its ups in the cold water of Glacier Bay.

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.

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.

Gloomy Knob, Mountain Goat, Glacier Bay
A young kid stands on its mother’s back at Gloomy Knob in Glacier Bay

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.

Gloom Knob, Coastal Brown Bear, Grizzly, Mountain Goat
A family of grizzlies looks at a goat below them.

Tidewater Glaciers

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.

Reid Glacier
The huge face of Reid Glacier near the head of Glacier Bay

Harbor Seals, Tidewater Glacier, Marjorie Glacier
Harbor Seals float in front of Marjorie Glacier.

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.

One of the students plays a drums and sings on the boat near Marjorie Glacier.

The students sing and dance on the boat to traditional Tlingit songs.

Our student group at the head of Glacier Bay National Park.

I was amazed by the lines carved in this rock by the glacier.

A pioneering tree starts to recolonize a the bare rock of this glaciated peninsula. Its possible that the land became available to the tree through isostatic rebound.

A halo from the sun burns through the clouds over the mountains of Glacier Bay.

A Stroll Through the Kelp Forest

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!

Sunflower Seastars

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.

Sea Cucumbers

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.

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!

This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!

This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!
This humpback whale surfaced about 20 yards offshore from the deep. With my long telephoto lens on this was the only image I could muster!

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.

The American Dipper

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.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
An American Dipper perches with a mouthfull of food that it just scavenged from the river’s bottom.

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.

American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
The American Dipper checks me out from a perching point in the river.

Dipper Anatomy

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.

Nest, American Dipper, Alaska, Hoonah
Hungry mouths wait for the return of parents in moss-covered nest about the size of a volleyball.

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 Ivory Gull in Duluth, So What?

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.

Ivory Gull, Duluth
The Ivory Gull at Canal Park in Duluth sits on the piers a few hundred feet from the human observers on shore.

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).

Ivory Gull, Identification
The Ivory Gull is a distinct bird with a blue bill, black feet, and stunning black tips on the wings.

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.

Ivory Gull, Duluth, Minnesota
In Duluth, the Ivory Gull was gracious enough to land close to my camera, offering exceptional looks at the details of this beautiful bird.

 

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?

Ivory Gull, Underwings
The Ivory Gull in Duluth shows off its beautiful, white underwings.

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.

Ivory Gull, Flying, Duluth
The Ivory gull in Duluth takes to the wing showing off its beautiful plumage and black feet.

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.

Sources:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-31921127

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,
211–218.

USGS. 2000. http://www.usgs.gov/themes/factsheet/146-00/