Category Archives: Mammals

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.

2016 Alaskan Calendar is Now for Sale!

Hello Everyone,

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 🙂

2016 Seasons and Moods of Alaska Cover

https://ianajohnson.com/customproducts/

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.

2016 Calendar Final 9halfx138
Each month has a premier image. This image from Mendenhall glacier showcases the high resolution imagery within the calendar.
2016 Calendar Final 9halfx1323
Every month has a transparent image behind the grid, and small windows with images from that month. Writing in the lower right panel ties together fuses the imagery and writing together.

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!

A Portrait of the Great One

You never know what you will experience when you start into Denali National Park. I guess the beginner’s luck of my brother Sean and sister-in-law Jada, first time Park visitors, was what allowed us some of the magnificent views of Mount Denali. During my previous trips to the park I have never experienced the magnitude of the Mountain like we did. The first time we saw it from about 50-60 miles away the twin summits were fully exposed against blue bird skies, and it lay across a broad river valley. We crossed the valley and crested a rise which brought full views of the Mountain. The beauty and size of Denali simultaneously released endorphins and adrenaline which made me smile and babble about its incredible beauty. The significance of its name,the Great One, was evident!

Denali National Park, Black and White
A full panorama of Denali as seen from Eilson Visitor Center. I love this black and white transformation of this shot.
Denali
Denali from Eilson Visitor Center. This shot captures well Mount Brooks and the foothills of Denali. Mount Brooks. Although Brooks is almost 12,000 feet it, it was dwarfed by the 20,000+ foot Denali!
Denali Pano
As we moved further into the park, clouds starting to form over Denali. The twin summits were slowly hidden from sight.
P6090048-Pano
A full view of Mount Brooks and Denali from Wonder Lake. Clouds had moved over the top of the mountain.
Denali Wonder Lake
The clouds formed quickly, obscuring the summit
Here was our first view of Denali across a broad river valley. The far rise brought us to our first full (and spectacular) views of Denali!
Here was our first view of Denali across a broad river valley. The far rise brought us to our first full (and spectacular) views of Denali!
Alpine Tundra and Denali
A common tundra alpine tundra flower, Narcisus Anenome, sits in front of the Great One. Wildflowers like these were everywhere in the park.
Denali Group
The lucky group in our first opportunity to get a photo in front of Denali. From this point on the mountain continued to grow was we go closer and closer…
Denali Group, Wonder Lake
…And then we were a lot closer! The mountain stood far above all else!

As we sat and and soaked in the views of the Mountain from Wonder Lake Campground, I took advantage of the time by shooting a nice timelapse. It’s fascinating watching the clouds form over the peaks! Check it out here :

Wonder Lake
The water of wonder lake is very clear. The lake stretches for a couple miles and reaches over 300 feet deep. On it we found a nesting Common Loon.

Our entire trip was marked with fun wildlife sightings and remarkable beauty. In particular, wildflowers were found on each slope accenting the mountain scenery. Mountain Avens, One Flower Cinquefoil, Moss Campion and many others. Rather than write, I’ll let the captions and pictures speak for themselves on this one!

Caribou Savage River
As we walked back along the Savage River trail, and group of bachelor bulls had moved across the trail. It was easily my best opportunities to see caribou to date!
Curious Caribou
Although the caribou did not mind me much, this one was eyeing me up a bit. This shot gives you a great idea of how big those antlers are!
Caribou Science
One of these caribou is not like the others. I’m not talking about its coat, nose, or antlers. The middle one is wearing a collar! I’m not sure of the intent of this study, but he’s being monitored.
Arctic Ground Squirrel
Arctic ground squirrels are winter survival masters. Once hibernating, their heart rate slows, metabolism slows, and brain activity nearly ceases. However, they wake up once per month enough to re-establish brain activity before falling back into deep hibernation.
Dall Sheep Kids
Three ewe dall sheep perch on the cliffs below us near polychrome pass. This particular spot offered shade, and as always, the mountains protected them from terrestrial predators. Although safe from four-leggers, golden eagles are known to take the kids (lambs)!
Teklanika Ridgeline
Hiking the ridgeline over Teklanika Campground. Endless scenery!
Savage River Hike
At the end of the Savage River loop, the valley gorge pours over loose boulders. We found a natural bench and took advantage of it. I love this group shot!
Savage River Bridge
A small footbridge cross the Savage River as it flows down the gorge. Alaska scenery is the best!
Polychrome Pass Wildflowers
One-leaf cinquefoil in the alpine tundra of Polychrome Pass. The Polychrome Mountains in the distance were shrouded and beautiful!
Alpine Arnica
Alpine arnica are a common and beautiful flower in the rocky slopes and along the roads. We hiked to this ridgeline just a mile or two out of Teklanika Campground.
Alpine Moon
As if the shrouded clouds weren’t enough, the moon appeared above the polychrome mountains. Can you pick it out?

January 17th : Alaskan Snapshot

When I was home for Christmas break one of the questions I got asked fairly regularly was “what’s it like to live in Alaska in the winter?”. I always grin, which seems to be what people expect because they grin back, but I think I disappoint them by explaining that a lot of times the winter conditions are not as desperate as you think. Yes, 40 below is cold, but in Fairbanks the wind rarely blows making the cold very tolerable. 20-25% humidity ensures that it is a ‘dry cold’ (think of someone from Arizona explaining the dry heat). In the eyes of many, the hardest thing to adapt to is the short days in the winter. Although we are gaining length now, the dark days at bottom of winter make getting out of bed hard and sleeping easy. In Alaskan winters I celebrate and cherish the sun because I miss it! The darkness lately has been compounded by cloudy skies, so when the sun was out this morning I knew I wanted to be outside for it as much as possible! I gathered together my gear for setting burbot lines (more on that soon!!) and headed to the Tanana river. But, my trip to the river certainly was not linear, all along the way I found things to swing my camera lens at in that beautiful sunshine. So, today I give you a snap shot of January 17th in Alaska, a beautiful day! Photos are time-stamped and in order of occurrence. Hopefully you’ll see that not all winter days are so bad in Alaska!

11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee poses for a cute picture just outside of my house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee poses for a cute picture just outside of my house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee plans its next move at my feeders outside of the house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee looks before it leaps and is eyeing up some suet.
11:39 AM : Red-backed voles are a common Alaskan rodent. I have counted up to eight at a time under my feeders scavenging what they can find.
11:39 AM : Red-backed voles are a common Alaskan rodent. I have counted up to eight at a time under my feeders scavenging what they can find. Red-backed voles have actually been demonstrated to spend a large portion of their days in black spruces which is a recently documented behavior!
11:43 AM : A sharp tailed grouse sits under the spruces.
11:43 AM : A sharp tailed grouse sits under the spruces. This seems to be a pretty normal winter behavior – move as little as possible to conserve energy.
12:06 PM : The sharp-tailed grouse is actually a pretty small bird. Tucked up high in the spruces it is safe from almost any predator present in the Alaskan winter. Most raptors have migrated for the season, although a lingering great-horned owl could get bold and try for this big meal!
12:06 PM : The sharp-tailed grouse is actually a pretty small bird. Tucked up high in the spruces it is safe from almost any predator present in the Alaskan winter. Most raptors have migrated for the season, although a lingering great-horned owl could get bold and try for this big meal!
12:06 PM : Sharp-tailed grouse moved to the birches to pick at the catkins
12:06 PM : Sharp-tailed grouse moved to the birches to pick at the catkins
2:18 PM : I spent the afternoon drilling through the Tanana River to set burbot lines. The ice was thick! About 36 inches. However, early in the season the river broke up and formed "jumbled ice". The shadows of small snow-dunes are beautiful!
2:18 PM : I spent the afternoon drilling through the Tanana River to set burbot lines. The ice was thick! About 36 inches. However, early in the season the river broke up and formed “jumbled ice”. The shadows of small snow-dunes indicate a rough texture underneath!
4:29 PM : As I got back into town the Alaska Range (South of Fairbanks) was lit up by the low sun. The mountain range is always beautiful, but on nights like this you cannot stop watching! The pinks and purples of this sunset were amazing!
4:29 PM : As I got back into town the Alaska Range (South of Fairbanks) was lit up by the low sun. The mountain range is always beautiful, but on nights like this you cannot stop watching! The pinks and purples of this sunset were amazing! This is easily my favorite panorama to date because it is a view I get to enjoy everyday, and this picture captures it well!
4:32 PM : The sun is almost ready to disappear. We've gained an amazing amount of time back since December 21st when the day length was 3.5 hours. Todays day length is just over 5 hours!
4:32 PM : The sun is almost ready to disappear. We’ve gained an amazing amount of time back since December 21st when the day length was 3.5 hours. Today’s day length is just over 5 hours!

Biking Touring the Denali Park Road (For Newbies)

First off, Thanks to all who contributed to the new watermark. Your input and voting helped a lot, and I was overwhelmed by the response. It was really great!

If this post had a theme, and I guess it does since I’m suggesting it, the theme would be that there’s always a “silver lining” or “blessings in disguise”.

When Aaron and I began our bike tour on the Denali Park Road our eagerness was tangible. Even the first big hill after Savage River could not dampen it. However, the next few long climbs put out some of our internal fires. While we are talking about hills, if you do go to Denali National Park remember, it is known for it’s mountains and one of them, who’s name literally means “The Great One”, is the tallest in North America. Gradients are often 5-9% and can extend for 2 or 3 miles. Getting over or around these stone giants is the name of the game.

The video here does a great job of capturing the incredible wildlife (bears, sheep, ptarmigan, wolves) as well as the joy of riding down a big hill and some of the scenery. For context on the video make sure to read the rest of the post 😉

The first night we peddled into the Sanctuary River Campground which was is located at mile twenty-three. We got a a late start, so when we arrived at camp around 8:30 PM it was time for bed. The next morning’s sky looked promising. Blue sky overhead was allowing the rising sun to illuminate the fall colors. Autumn in Denali NP was in full bloom. White-barked aspens were fluorescent yellow and stubby, dwarf shrubs were dark red. Willows along the banks were a mellow yellow and the bowl of mountains provided a stark, snow-covered backdrop.

As we pushed our gear up the road to Igloo Campground the curtains were pulled and the sky when flat gray. It stayed that way for the grueling climb over Sable Pass where we encountered a few inches of snow on the ground, but a clear road. The sky remained gray for our joyride down the back of Sable Pass. By the time we had reached the Polychrome Mountain Overlook rain seemed imminent. The Polychrome Mountains are known for their red-streaked banding which resulted from old volcanic activity. However, on Saturday we could barely make them out, and shifty fog was hanging in the valley and around the toes of the mountains.

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The Denali Park Road as it heads up Polychrome Pass. The reds in the rock are a result of volcanic activity and were sculpted by glaciers.

At the bottom of Polychrome pass, approximately 43 miles into the park disaster hit. The bike that Aaron was using broke down when the spokes in the rear wheel loosened up. We knew we could grab a bus at anytime, but before hanging our hat on that fate pushed our bikes the 2 miles to the top of Sable Pass. We reached the top and a few minutes later a bus trundled up. The bus driver opened up the door and told us the great news – there were two wolves headed up the pass and would be there in just 90 seconds!! I grabbed my gear, set up, and just a few seconds later encountered my first wolves of Alaska when they popped up 50 yards away. One was a collared animal which I assume is female and was traveling with one of her offspring. Both of the wolves seemed a bit thin. Lately wolf numbers in the park have been way down for unknown reasons, so since approximately 25% of visitors see wolves I was ecstatic to be so close! The encounter lasted for less than 45 seconds before they moved on and were never seen again. It is amazing to think that if Aaron’s bike had not broken down and if we chose to take the bus right away that we never would have had this incredible encounter. What an experience! That’s my silver lining story!

A collared Denali Wolf at the top of Sable Pass. What a treat!!
A collared Denali Wolf at the top of Sable Pass. What a treat!!
This juvenile wolf was traveling with the collared wolf. Who knows how many were still in the brush. This wolf seems a bit thin, hopefully he bulks up before winter for his sake!
This juvenile wolf was traveling with the collared wolf. Who knows how many were still in the brush. This wolf seems a bit thin, hopefully he bulks up before winter for his sake!

After the wolf Aaron caught a bus back to Igloo campground and I biked through the snow and rain to the bottom. As night fell the sun broke through the clouds and lit the mountains up in coral pink. We were optimistic for great weather on Sunday!

Just as the sun set it lit the sky up in an ever-intensifying pink. The snow capped mountains and sky all the incredible shade of color.
Just as the sun set it lit the sky up in an ever-intensifying pink. The snow capped mountains and sky all the incredible shade of color.

The next morning Aaron got an adrenaline rush right-off-the-bat when he encountered a mature brown bear at the food lockers. The bear did not hang around long, but since Aaron was carrying food to the locker when he came up to it, the experience was pretty electrifying! Without bikes we decided to hike up one of the snow clear summit of Igloo Mountain. We climbed from about 1200 feet and were greeted by sheep, snow covered peaks, a piping arctic ground squirrel and blue skies. Our journey was almost done as we pushed our bikes to Teklanika River where a bear came to the rivers edge to strip berries and flip rocks for insects. We exited the rest of the park on motorized wheels. Trip accomplished with a final count of three grizzly bears, two wolves, loads of sheep, and buckets of memories!

I guess this is Bear Ass picture. This big brown bear appeared in camp on Sunday morning. After very briefly checking the food lockers he forded Igloo Creek and headed to the bridge and down the road.
I guess this is Bear Ass picture. This big brown bear appeared in camp on Sunday morning. After very briefly checking the food lockers he forded Igloo Creek and headed to the bridge and down the road.
Teklanika River Grizzly
This grizzly came out and stripped berries and flipped rocks along the river.

 

Igloo Mountain Summit
Near the summit of Igloo Mountain. What a day!

Thanks for checking in!

Birds and Rainbows on the Denali Highway

This post follows Kassie and my pelagic bird trip to Seward. For our trip back to Fairbanks, we decided to bird the Denali Highway which extends 135 miles to connect Cantwell to Paxson. The unpaved road curves south of the Denali Range surrounding it with incredible mountains. The shrubby, tundra habitat is prime real estate for several arctic bird species rare to most other areas of the state.

During our 12 hours on the Denali Highway we observed behavior of many exciting birds. We also saw a few moose and heard from one other traveler of a wolf only a couple miles down the road. The road is a transect through one of the very remote areas of interior Alaska. The end of our drive was punctuated by full rainbows arching over the mountains. As the sun and the rain played across the landscape we observed lasting rainbows which waxed and waned. The birding for the day was incredible; each stop was filled with singing birds. The cutest moment of the day was a spruce grouse poult which jumped up along the road, and fluttered into a tree. After trying to hide in its branches, the little poult finally listened to its mother, who cooed and bobbed her tail until the young chick became brave enough to fly to her and its siblings. Along the way we encountered Arctic Warblers which are North America’s only “old world” warbler. Other populations of this warbler breed in Eurasia. We also were privileged to see many of the “Denali Highway Specials” including Gray-cheeked Thrush, Red-necked Phalarope, Long-tailed Jaeger, and Arctic Tern. Incredibly, Arctic Terns migrate 25,000 miles per year, earning them the longest migration of any bird award!

An Arctic Warbler trills from the top of its spruce tree to any females in the area.
An Arctic Warbler trills from the top of its spruce tree to any females in the area.

This video captures in timelapse the beauty of the rainbows, the cuteness of the polt, the joy of singing warblers and the scenery of the Denali Highway. I hope you enjoy!

This list has most of the species that we observed for the day. Of course there’s PLENTY of birding to do between each of the miles listed, but these are the spots we stopped at.

Milepost Species
127 Fox Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Gray Jay, Wilson’s Snipe, Unknown Duck
119 Arctic Warbler, White-crowned Sparrow
113 Wilson’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Fox Sparrow, Unk. Raptor, Spruce Grouse and Polts, Raven
105 American Robin
103 Immature Golden Eagle
90 Scaup, Ring-neck Duck
89 Ring-neck Duck, Widgeon, Gadwall, Yellow-legs, White-crowned Sparrow
81 Tundra Swan, Unk. Duck
80 Widgeon and Ducklings, Scaup, Northern Shoveler and Chick
74 Bufflehead, Ring-neck Duck, Rednecked Grebe
50 Ring-neck Duck, Mew Gull, White-crowned Sparrow, Arctic Warbler, Savanna Sparrow, Wilson Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Scaup
49 Mew Gull, Arctic Tern, Merlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Bufflehead, Ring-neck Duck, Tundra Swan, Blackpoll Warbler, Sandpiper, Wilson’s Warbler
40 Bank Swallows
36 Long-tailed Jaeger

 

A spruce grouse female calls to its barely fledged chick sitting in a spruce tree...
A spruce grouse female calls to its barely fledged chick sitting in a spruce tree…
... and the spruce grouse chick laid low in the spruce tree waiting for Mom to tell him the best time to scram!
… and the spruce grouse chick laid low in the spruce tree waiting for Mom to tell him the best time to scram!
Western Roseroot (Rhodiola integrifolia). This flower blooms in sub-alpine regions and is in the sedum family.
Western Roseroot (Rhodiola integrifolia). This flower blooms in sub-alpine regions and is in the sedum family.
A gray cheek thrush calls in its unique voice from the top of the spruce.
A Gray-Cheeked Thrush calls in its unique voice from the top of the spruce.
A Red-necked Phalrope stretches its wings
A Red-necked Phalarope stretches its wings. These birds breed in the Arctic and may migrate to Eurasia and to the southern hemisphere.
Mew Gull
A Mew Gull flies over a lake somewhere along the Denali Highway.
An American Widgeon female paddles along with her small children
An American Widgeon female paddles along with her small children. This was one of many families of ducks we observed on the lakes. Families of Widgeon, Northern Shovelers, Teal, and Gadwall were all observed.
Common Goldeneye Female
A Goldeneye Female wakes up from her nap floating on the lake.
Wilson's Warbler
A Wilson’s Warbler pauses briefly from grooming itself to take a look around. Their black cap and yellow body are beautiful!
Arctic Tern
An Arctic Tern sits on its nest. A Mew Gull was pestering this tern who was defending its chicks. The chicks can be seen in the video above. Arctic Terns’ claim to fame is they have the longest migration of any animal on earth. Incredibly they migrate from AK to Antarctica… 25,000 miles!!
The scenery of the south side of the Alaskan Range is never ending! Snow capped mountains are reflected in the waters and cut the horizon to the north at all times.
The scenery of the south side of the Alaskan Range is never ending! Snow capped mountains are reflected in the waters and cut the horizon to the north at all times.
Posing for a quick photo underneath the Roy G Biv.
Posing for a quick photo underneath the Roy G Biv.
A rainbow arches over the mountains along the Richardson Highway.
A rainbow arches over the mountains along the Richardson Highway.

Sea Life and Glaciers : Seward, Alaska

There are many “Alaskas”. The large state is renowned for its dry, cold interior and also for its coastal regions. The coast itself varies from tundra to temperate rainforest and is full of a birds and marine mammals. In the Kenai Penninsula, large tide water glaciers add icebergs to the water which are used by pupping harbor seal mothers for rest. The region is known for its rising peaks which jut from the ocean as snow-capped mountains.

On the sunny, late June day, that we departed Seward harbor the sun shone on islands and mountains around us. In every direction, gulls and black-legged kittiwakes wheeled and dove over the open ocean.Our 9-hour tour through Major Marine Tours to the Northwestern Glacier and Chiswell Islands had just begun. Once in the open water past the Kenai Peninsula your feet are floating above the largest stretch of open ocean in the world – stretching thousands of miles to Antarctica. Kassie and I had birds on the brain and our small 30 passenger ship (in comparison to some of the 200 passenger ships) was perfect for the trip we were hoping to have. The waters of the Kenai Peninsula is home to many sea (also called pelagic) birds. These birds are remarkable in that the majority of them only come to land to nest, all other times- including the brutally cold winters- are spent at sea on the water. The bodies of many pelagic birds are so tuned to sea-life that they often look awkward on the land. However, their graceful, powerful ability to swim and catch fish makes up for their awkwardness.

I’ll just spoil the conclusion, by saying we had an incredible day on the water! This video highlights some of the power of calving glaciers, the beauty of sea-birds and the behaviors of marine mammals.

Birds of the Chiswell Islands

The vertical spires of Spider Island jut from the ocean just outside of Seward, AK
The vertical spires of Spider Island jut from the ocean just outside of Seward, AK

The vertical cliffs Chiswell Islands are perfect for nesting sea birds. Horned Puffins and Tufted Puffins burrow into the cracks to escape predating gulls. Parents are mated for life and separate during the winter, however find each other for every breeding season. Each of the puffin species found around the Kenai coast have extraordinary features. Horned puffins have a dark check-mark patch through through their eye which makes them look as though they have applied makeup to preform at a circus. Part of this check-mark is a horned protrusion comes off each eye like a fancy eyelash. Tufted puffins, the largest of the three puffin species, have large golden ‘eyebrows’ which waggle back and forth when they turn their head. Puffins are recognized by their large bills which they use to catch fish. Both of the pacific puffin species only have orange and cream colored bills, where the Atlantic Puffin’s bill includes blue and red. Puffins can dive up 200 feet beneath the ocean’s surface and they can hold their breath for a minute or two. However Puffins typically only need to stay under for 20 to 30 seconds at a time to catch the small fish that compose their diet.

A horned puffin flying around the Chiswell Islands.
A Horned Puffin flying around the Chiswell Islands.
Horned puffin photographed at the Alaska Sealife Center.
Horned Puffin photographed at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin
Tufted puffin picture taken at the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, AK
Tufted Puffin picture taken at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, AK

Pelagic birds are often found in large breeding colonies located on islands. For this reason they are referred to as ‘colonial nesting birds.’ These islands provide refuge from land-based predators and the large numbers of birds act as sentries, mobbing any intruder which gets too close. Our Captain informed us that once they had spotted a Black Bear on an island that was a mile from shore. It feed on bird eggs for a couple weeks then swam back to shore. It was a very rare occurrence but it is easy to see how one large predator can decimate the nesting success rates on the island.

Black-legged Kittiwakes nest in large colonies in the Chiswell Islands.
Black-legged Kittiwakes nest in large colonies in the Chiswell Islands.
Black-legged Kittiwake
Black-legged Kittiwake

Our bird list added many ‘lifers’ to our life-lists (along with a couple we had already seen) and many photographs to my hard drive. Our list for the day was comprised of Bald Eagles, Rhinoceros Auklets, Horned Puffins, Tufted Puffins, Parakeet Auklets, Pigeon Guillemonts, Common Murre, Pelagic Cormorant, Double-crested  Cormorant, Marbled Murrelet, Black-legged Kittiwake, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, and a possible Ancient Murrelet.

Rhinoceros Auklet photographed at the Alaska Sealife Center. These birds develop their 'rhinoceros horn' during the breeding season, and lose it each fall.
Rhinoceros Auklet photographed at the Alaska SeaLife Center. These birds develop their ‘rhinoceros horn’ during the breeding season, and lose it each fall.

 Mammals of the Chiswell Islands

There several species of whales and porpoises in the rich waters of the many estuaries of the Kenai. Sea Otters feed on clams, urchins, and other invertebrates that tend to feed on kelp. The Sea Otter is a keystone species that helps to protect the kelp beds providing shelter for a plethora of other sea creatures. Doll Porpoises, Humpback Whales, Fin Whales and Orcas cruise through the waters. The Fin Whales were a rare occurrence for the tour, our guides said they maybe see a Fin Whale 20 times a summer. Our tour saw a very rare pod of at least 6 Fin Whales surfacing together, which meant they were most likely rounding up bait fish instead of filter-feeding. On the rocks, 1 ton Stellar Sea Lion males watch over their harem of females, and the ice flows at glacier heads provide rest for harbor seal mothers and their pups. We saw several pods of Doll Porpoises throughout the day, on the way back to the harbor we had a small pod that decided to race in our wake.

One of the highlights of the trip was observing a “lunge feeding” humpback whale with her calf. Lunge feeding is when a whale dives far below a school of food (krill or small fish). Then, rushing to the surface with their mouth open the burst through to the open air swallowing anything in their mouth!

A humpback whale explodes on the surface, exhibiting 'lunge feeding'
A Humpback Whale explodes on the surface, exhibiting ‘lunge feeding’
This humpback whale is headed back down for some more food.
This Humpback Whale is headed back down for some more food.
A sea-otter floats on its back displaying its classic behavior. They float along and crack clams on their chests.
A Sea Otter floats on its back displaying its classic behavior. They float along and crack urchins on their chests. They spend their whole lives in the ocean, even giving birth in the water. If seen on land it is typically a sign that the animal is sick.
Harbor seal mothers rest themselves and their pups on ice flows which have broken away from the tide-water glaciers.
Harbor Seal mothers rest themselves and their pups on ice flows which have broken away from the tide-water glaciers.
Stellar sealion males control and mate with many females called a harem. Male sea lions can be up to 2,000 pounds!
Stellar Sea Lion males control and mate with many females called a harem. Male Sea Lions can be up to 2,000 pounds!

Glaciers of the Kenai

The Harding Ice Field is the largest ice field in the United States and is the source of dozens of glaciers. Some of the glaciers reach all the way down to the ocean and are classified as ‘tide water’ glaciers. These glaciers are constantly being eroded by the oceans daily movements and some of the glaciers have receded miles since the 1800’s when the Russians were exploring the coasts. The receding glaciers open up habitat for mammals and birds. The Northwestern Glacier that we sat in front of stretched for a half mile across the blue fjord, but you would never guess its size by just looking at it!

One can get a true sense of power of the tide-water glaciers by watching them ‘calf’. From time-to-time sheets of ice would break away from the exposed glacier face and cascade into the ocean. Even though our boat was positioned 1/4 of a mile away the rush of sound from the huge chunks of ice sounded like a jet engine rumbling in the not to far-off distance.

The craggy moraine of the northwestern glacier ending at the tideline.
The craggy moraine of the Northwestern Glacier ending at the tideline.
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Another boat sits in front of the glacier for a bit of perspective. If the boat floated at the front of the glacier it would be a mere speck on the its moraine.
The northwestern glacier reaches about 1/2 mile from side to side. It's split into two 'lobes' by a rock face.
The Northwestern Glacier reaches about 1/2 mile from side to side. It’s split into two ‘lobes’ by a rock face.
This river of ice and snow is the result of a large chunk of ice which broke away hundreds of feet above. The ice-chute that it slid down poured slush and chunks into the ocean.
This river of ice and snow is the result of a large chunk of ice which broke away hundreds of feet above. The ice-chute that it slid down poured snow and ice chunks into the ocean.

If you’ve made it this far I’d like to put in a quick pitch (unsolicited) for the Major Marine Tour company. Their boat the Viewfinder was piloted by a great captain and the tour guide on board was great with kids and had all the answers. The small size of the boat and number of passengers was perfect for us. They were more than happy to concentrate on birds when we told them what we were after. It was an extraordinary day.

Secondly, I would like to put in another unsolicited pitch for the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. Their exhibits are truly top-notch, and the chance to experience the pelagic sea-birds up close was wonderful. On top of that, proceeds go towards outreach and science. I am not normally a “zoo type” person, but everything I saw there impressed me to no end!

Thanks for checking in!

Alpine Summer in Full Bloom : Wickersham Dome, AK

It’s been a mild summer in Alaska so far. Temps have been pushing to about 75 degrees in the afternoons and hovering around 50 degrees at night. The conditions could not be MORE perfect to be out-and-about!

I’m just diving in Alaskan flower identification with many of the early summer species coming into full bloom. On the way to Wickersham Dome there is a great assortment of alpine species which can be enjoyed in the open, windy areas out of the clutches of the mosquito clouds. The flowers are beautiful, and this one, 5 mile hike provided well over a dozen species of flowers in all shades of color.

Like I said, I am new to AK flower ID, so I won’t stand by these ID’s 100%. If you know I have one wrong, please tell me. I know several of those who read this blog have great plant ID skills! Also, there’s a section at the bottom of flowers I have not ID’d yet, I would love to get your input!

Low-bush cranberries were common in the open areas along the trail. These small berries are also known as lingonberries and are great to eat once rip! They’re tart and taut with a satistifying pop. These plants, like many of the alpine species, are very, very close to the ground.

Low-bush Cranberry (Lingonberry)
Low-bush Cranberry (Lingonberry)

 

Low-bush Cranberry (lingonberry)
Low-bush Cranberry (lingonberry)
A swallowtail butterfly feeds on and pollinates some low-bush cranberries near the summit of Wickersham Dome
A swallowtail butterfly feeds on and pollinates some low-bush cranberries near the summit of Wickersham Dome

Another edible plant which was common around the trail were the blueberries. They have just formed their fruits and are a rosy pink. Some more time and lots of sun will turn these little morsels blue.

Wild Blueberry
Wild Blueberry

An Alaskan specialty is the cloud berry. I’ve heard no-one makes cloud berry pie, because they’re so good you eat them all before you get home! :D. The berries form a cluster that looks like salmon spawn.

Cloud Berry
Cloud Berry

Mountain avens are small and beautiful. I actually ran into the mustache shaped seed pods last fall which in Denali National Park, so it was great to see what the flowers looked like!

Mountain Avens
Mountain Avens
Mountain Avens overlooking the top of Wickersham Dome.
Mountain Avens overlooking the top of Wickersham Dome.

The rest of the trail was scattered with many other species of flowers which can be seen here along with some of the beautiful scenery.

Lupines along the trail to Wickersham Dome
Lupines along the trail to Wickersham Dome
Pink Plumes! Not even kidding, that's their name!
Pink Plumes! Not even kidding, that’s their name!
Narcissus Anenome
Narcissus Anenome
Arctic Sandwort
Arctic Sandwort

Unknowns

Unknown flower #1, please help you know it! Sorry that I do not have any leaves!
Unknown flower #1 : Probable Cut-leaf anenome or “early thimbleweed”. Both are common names for it.
Unknown Flower # 2! If you know I would love to hear it!
Unknown Flower # 2! – Identified! Elegant Indian Paintbrush
Unknown flower # 3, if you know please tell me!
Unknown flower # 3 : An arnica species (Thanks Justin)… but now… which?

I’ll throw in a shout-out to these great sites which helped me in my Alaska wildflower ID and will be a great resource in the future:

http://www.alaskawildflowers.us/

http://www.turtlepuddle.org/alaskan/wild/flowers-1.html

I’ll leave you with a picture of a super-tree which is defying the odd by surviving on summit and this nesting yellow-rump warbler. She sure was well hid!

This pine tree defied the odds on the summit of Wickersham Dome. Somehow it's thriving when none others could!
This pine tree defied the odds on the summit of Wickersham Dome. Somehow it’s thriving when none others could!
A female yellow-rump sits on her nest along the trail to Wickersham Dome. She was keeping low, but keeping a close eye out.
A female yellow-rump sits on her nest along the trail to Wickersham Dome. She was keeping low, but keeping a close eye out.

Meandering around Northern Idaho : Kootenai NWR and Copper Creek Falls

Ahoy! I’ve taken a break from the Alaskan weather and spring to visit my family in Northern Idaho and Minnesota. Northern Idaho is a gorgeous region, and Lake Pend Orielle provides a centerpiece for the surrounding mountains (pictures were taken from the top of Scotchman’s Peak during my visit last summer). During my time there I got to spend some great time with brother, sister-in-law, and nephew whom I had not seen since Christmas.

On a side note, this post falls on the 1 year anniversary of this blog. Thanks all for your support, I’ve really enjoyed writing it and photographing for it, but it wouldn’t be worth it if you didn’t read it. Just in case you are curious, my first post details a dopey porcupine who tried to escape up a short tree :). Thanks all!

Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge

A panorama from the auto-road at Kootenai NWR. Ponds, mountains, and ducks. A beautiful spot that is full of life!
A panorama from the auto-road at Kootenai NWR. Ponds, mountains, and ducks. A beautiful spot that is full of life!

One of the great wildlife retreats in the area is Kootenai National Wildlife refuge. Although much of the refuge is not accessible to people, the auto-road brings you back through ponds were you can get great looks at many, many varieties of waterfowl and other birds. I think on this day we saw over 12 species of ducks and a good smattering of other passerines. A first-of-year meadowlark was trilling loudly and several species of warblers bounced through the shrubs. One of the stark and beautiful ducks is the cinnamon teal. This bird’s red head and eye sure make it stand out!

Cinnamon Teal at Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge
Cinnamon Teal at Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge

Wooducks are notoriously elusive and shy. As soon as a camera appears they swim or fly away quickly. However, they are almost undoubtedly one of the most stunning North American ducks. Some may match them, but pretty hard to beat!

Wooduck at Kootenai NWR. These birds are ellusive and camera shy!
Wooduck at Kootenai NWR. These birds are ellusive and camera shy!

There were other winged and flowered wonders during our time at Kootenai NWR. The lilacs were just blooming and this western tiger swallowtail made sure to lick up as much as it could from them. It fluttered back and forth looking for whatever it is that butterflies look for. I was just reading that the Koyukon people of Alaska call butterflies nidinlibidza which means “it flutters here and there”. A fitting name and description!

This tiger swallowtail was feeding on the first lilacs of the year. They are stunning and beautiful!
This tiger swallowtail was feeding on the first lilacs of the year. They are stunning and beautiful!

We also stumbled on these beautiful daffodils. I think these daffodils must be a remnant of homesteading in the region – I doubt biologists are planting them for waterfowl habitat!

I'm not sure where these daffodils at Kootenai NWR came from. Certainly there is a homesteading past there, so perhaps a remnant from that?
I’m not sure where these daffodils at Kootenai NWR came from. Certainly there is a homesteading past there, so perhaps a remnant from that?

During my whole time in Idaho I really enjoyed getting to see my nephew, Dane. He’s a little better than 2 now and is a box full of energy and entertainment. He is (as all little boys are) very curious about all that’s around him. I am sure his parents will continue to raise him outdoors. It was great to see the ‘next generation’ out in nature! I’ll put in my pitch and say if you have a chance to bring a kid outside you should make that a priority!

My nephew, Dane, looks out over the wetlands of Kootenai NWR. Although he wasn't interested in all of the birds, he loved seeing the baby geese!
My nephew looks out over the wetlands of Kootenai NWR. Although he wasn’t interested in all of the birds, he loved seeing the baby geese!

The deer have just finished shedding their coats, and some deer are futher into their summer coats than others. I saw a spectrum of coat quality from smooth coated to scrubby deer, which makes you wonder why some are later than others.  We also observed two moose at Kootenai, which was nice! I doubt the moose are enjoying the warm temperatures. Moose in Idaho exist at temperatures which are extreme to them, and do not extend much further south.

The deer have not quite finished shedding their coats look pretty scraggly yet. This one's face says, "HEY!, what are you looking at?" :P
The deer have not quite finished shedding their coats look pretty scraggly yet. This one’s face says, “HEY!, what are you looking at?” 😛
This moth was along the trail to Myrtle Falls at Kootenai NWR. I'm not sure why it was perched so still at the end this stick. The brown and tan banding sure is pretty when you get close to it!
This moth was along the trail to Myrtle Falls at Kootenai NWR. I’m not sure why it was perched so still at the end this stick. The brown and tan banding sure is pretty when you get close to it!

 Copper Creek Falls

Copper Creek Falls, especially in the rush of the spring melt, is one of the most stunning waterfalls I have seen. The drop is uninterrupted and pluges 160 feet to the bottom. However, with some of the smaller rapids, I think the total drop in the falls is 225 feet! A strong, cool, and moist microclimate around the falls is filled with glistening green moss. Further downstream we observed a varied thrush, which are often found in riparian areas.

Copper Creek Falls drops 160 feet to the bottom. It is an incredible rush of water!
Copper Creek Falls drops 160 feet to the bottom. It is an incredible rush of water!
All of us posing in from of Copper Creek Falls before rushing away from the cold mist fall on us :)
All of us posing in from of Copper Creek Falls before rushing away from the cold mist fall on us 🙂

I will leave you with a peaceful morning in the Sandpoint Region. The morning fog over the lake was changing and undulating rapidly. How fog forms is fascinating to me! I have no included any music in this timelapse (which documents about 30 minutes of time), but imagine birds chirping and watching deer feed in the field hundreds of feet below you 🙂

The Three Bears

Yesterday I got a chance to observe some mothering and sibling rivalry. Bears in the Anchorage area have emerged, and mothers with new cubs are welcoming in the warm temps. Jonathan is filming bear behavior in the region for the BBC and needed a second man for that ‘just in case’ scenario that a bear became aggressive. Incredibly, Jonathan was able to find this sow bear and her two new cubs. Although you’ll see tags in the ears of this female, she has no tracking device – it was very lucky to find where she called home!

As we came up to the tree area it was very important that Mom knew we were there. We talked and walked up to the site, pausing to ensure she had seen us. Once we were settled in she paid little attention to us.

Momma bear hanging close to home and watching the frolicking cubs.
Momma bear hanging close to home and watching the frolicking cubs.

There was lots of opportunity to shoot video of some very classic and cute bear behavior. Check it out! 🙂

The cubs were a constant source of entertainment. The would scramble along logs and tumble off them, fight each other in miniature mock battles, and pester their mother who would sometimes pester them back. The bond between the bear cubs and the mother was evident – there certainly is some truth to that old adage!

The two cubs were always wresting with each other, you'll see this playful see in the video in this post :)
The two cubs were always wresting with each other, you’ll see this playful see in the video in this post 🙂
Two cubs playing 'cub scouts' up the tree trunk.
Two cubs playing ‘cub scouts’ up the tree trunk.
The limb to the left of this cub was their favorite part. They would climb up to it, rest for a bit, and then shimmy back down the tree.
The limb to the left of this cub was their favorite part. They would climb up to it, rest for a bit, and then shimmy back down the tree.
A cute shot of the cubs. One trying out tree bark and the other checking me out.
A cute shot of the cubs. One trying out tree bark and the other checking me out.
This cub looks deep in thought... wishing he was a bird?
This cub looks deep in thought… wishing he was a bird?

 

Through all of the cuteness there was  still a stark reminder of the fragility of life as a small bear cub. These two were meant to have one more sibling. One cub was laying dead outside of the den, and Jonathan had seen it earlier. We experienced the mother eating the dead cub. I can assume this is for two reasons, the first is that she can use the protein. At this time the mother cannot leave the den and feeds little. Second, the rotting body may attract predators or another bear and put her surviving cubs at risk. The mother ate the cub by tearing small chunks of flesh, even though it seems she could have swallowed it in one bite.

We experienced the mother bear eating the remains of her deceased third cub.
We experienced the mother bear eating the remains of her deceased third cub.

Overall I do not know if I could experience more joy in watching wildlife. Watching these two cubs enjoy the spring weather, and the tenderness of the mother was endearing. I feel privileged to have experienced it!

Momma bear and a cub touch noses.
Momma bear and a cub touch noses.