Re-encountering STEVE in Alaska

On September 1st, 2019 I crept outside into the dark night of Alaska to meet STEVE and it and I had a photo shoot together. It had been awhile! But usually once a year we have a chance to get a look at a each other. I’m not talking about my cousin Steve, in fact, STEVE is not a person at all. STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.

The last time I wrote about STEVE it was to dispel the mis-classification of these images online as “Proton Arcs”. At that time scientists were grappling with what caused this mysterious form of the aurora. There was uncertainty on why it showed up white instead of green and what form of energy would cause the aurora at all. Although it has likely been observed by sky watchers since the point where humans could comprehend its beauty it was relatively new to science and only really entered the literature in 2016.

STEVE, Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, Alaska, Hoonah, Aurora, Northern Lights
The green light intermingled with pink and white ribbons is a classic form of STEVE and is what is typically seen by the human eye and camera.

Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement

” Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement ” – that’s quite a load of Jargon! However, once you understand how these auroras form it makes mores sense.

Typical auroras are formed when energy from the sun collides with nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere. The collision results in green or red light being let off. However, based on recent science published on Space.com STEVE forms when charged particles are super-heated outside of the “auroral zone”. The particles emit the white and pink light we see on the ground.

STEVE, Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement, Alaska, Hoonah, Aurora, Northern Lights

If you are still a bit unclear remember that light occurs as a physical process – it’s the release of energy. For instance when you heat an electric cooking stove the orange light emitted is the release of energy. STEVE is a bit like a monstrous electric coil in the sky!

A Gallery of STEVE

I think my latitude in Southeast Alaska is a hotspot for STEVE. I have observed it 5 times to date since 2016. I recently added my photos to a database of STEVE observations. The images below are from the same night as the images above. You can see a short timelapse of STEVE that night by going to a video on my Facebook page.

The Rest of the Show

STEVE shows up on the biggest nights of aurora. It definitely seems to be linked to high amounts of energy coming in. During the nights and mornings of August 30 – September 1st the Aurora was visible almost anytime it was dark.

Aurora, Northern Lights, Icy Strait Point, Alaska, Hoonah, Green
After STEVE Disappeared the Northern Lights flooded across the sky

On the second night of the show I focused less on photography. My wife and I curled up on a blanket on the beach and watched the lights dance overhead. We had some pretty amazing coronas for Southeast Alaska!

Aurora, Northern Lights, Icy Strait Point, Alaska, Hoonah, Green
Tall spires of Aurora over beach grass at Icy Strait Point

I’ll be keeping an eye out for any further science and revelations on STEVE. I hope to see it again!

In the land of Redrock and Stars

Zion National Park is an oasis in the desert. It is a hot and green paradise carved and nourished by the Virgin River which has etched tirelessly through countless layers of rock and minerals to form its massive canyons. Whether you are enchanted by its beauty, blown over by its grandeur, enticed by its challenges, or drawn to its dark skies you will find its amazing landscape and history will quickly win you over.

Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
A sunset ripples off sandstone and Douglas fir in Zion National Park.

Sandstone

The sandstone structures of Zion Canyon are always beautiful, but never more so than during sunrise and sunset. During the low-sun the burnt orange canyons light up like embers. One highlights of the trip was ascending Angle Rocks. We were fortunate to start at sunrise, and it was fascinating to watch the changing shadows and morphing colors created by the rising sun.

Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
A look from the top of Angel Rocks, Zion National Park. The Virgin River lies below us.
Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
Massive shadows cast by the rising sun. It takes a long time for the sun to make it to the valley floor!
Bryce Canyon, Landscape, Stars
Bryce Canyon really showed off the red colors! I made this image in the blue-hour of the day to get the rich saturation of colors shown here.
Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
A pre-sunrise look at the sandstone bluffs in Zion National Park.
Being outside the park was nearly as impressive on the inside. From this vantage point you can see inside Zion National park including the West Temple and other famous features.

History

While in Zion we visited history and made some history too! The ghost town of Grafton was a stark reminder of how difficult life was for settlers traveling west. Disease, conflicts with Native Americans, and stochastic events like floods and storms killed many. The interpretive sign in Grafton highlighted that two young girls were killed by a falling swing. There were a lot of ways to die in the west!

Angels Landing, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography, Grafton
An old cabin in Grafton, Utah.

The Johnson Family converged and left a bit of its soul in the history of Zion. Our three families converged from Alaska, Minnesota, and Montana.

The whole Johnson Family together in the bluffs of Zion National Park taking in a sunset.
Family, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
My brothers family. Love this picture!

Wildflowers

Be wary when viewing wildflowers in Zion – most of them are armed! It was wonderful being in the Park at time when cacti were blooming. Each of the colors was the most vibrant forms of oranges, yellows, pinks, and purples. They were spectacular to see! Early June was an excellent time to see a lot of species of wildflowers. Each of the photos below shows them off in their context.

Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
A Silver Chola cactus stands in front of bluffs lit by the sunset.
Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography, Cactus
Abundant pink blooms on a Prickly Pear Cactus.

Stars

The Stars in Zion National Park are : stunning, brilliant, dazzling. As an avid night photographer I was giddy to get out shooting! I was fortunate to have clear conditions and a new-moon to create inky darkness. An added benefit was the comfort of the night – far different than the 92 degree days! Night photography is a relaxing pass time. Long exposures of 20 seconds or more gave me ample time to appreciate the beauty of the star-lit landscape with my eyes and ears, not just through my viewfinder.

Zion National Park, Milky Way, Stars, Photography
A passing car lights up the bluffs of Zion National Park. The car had just passed through the Zion-Mount Caramel Tunnel.
Bryce Canyon, Landscape, Stars
Blue-hour and a welcoming seat in Bryce Canyon National Park.
Zion National Park, Milky Way, Stars, Photography
A lone tree stands sentinel under a brilliant Milky Way. You may recognize this location from the panorama above! The green in this image is from “air glow”, which is a different phenomena than the Aurora Borealis.

Wildlife

I do not think wildlife viewing and birding are primary reasons visitors go to Zion, however, there is ample opportunity for each. My wife and I are avid birders and we were thrilled to add well over a dozen species to our life list and observe dozens of more species. That was very exciting for us, but I won’t bore you non-birders with the details here :). However, one bird of note that you should care about is the California Condor. These magnificent and enormous raptors were once nearly extinct with a population of only 22 animals. Thanks to conservation efforts they have slowly made a comeback. A recent success story was the birth of a wild chick just this year! We were floored to see these raptors up close on two occasions!

Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography, Mule Deer
A large Mule Deer gives me a close examination.
Mule Deer, Zion National Park, Utah, Landscape, Photography
Important to scratch yourself and keep an eye out, too!
A passing Red-tailed hawk. I love the color morphs of these common raptors!
There you have it! A rare California Condor flying right over our heads!

As with so many of the places we visit a single week doesn’t seem like enough time! This trip to Zion was a gateway drug to future visits. I look forward to learning more about desert wildlife, the history and lessons of Native Americans in the land, and to experience its beauty. I hope you have a chance to do the same!

Learning about Place : What Herring Eggs Have Taught Me

No season has it’s markers like Spring. The “first of spring” events which mark our regions are cherished by those who live there and bring joy, warmth, fresh sounds, and fresh colors. Since living in Hoonah, Alaska for four years no spring event has taught me more about a place, its people, and myself than the annual herring egg distribution every April. These small eggs, laid by silvery fish are at the center of culture and politics, science and business, and celebration and uncertainty.

The Delivery

Rain showers had been passing through during the morning of April 9th, and there was obvious relief from the growing crowd when they stopped only minutes before the “Shirley N” came into sight and made its way to Hoonah’s dock. For the last week the Shirley N had been in Sitka, Alaska laying branches of Hemlock in the water. Spawning herring had deposited their eggs on the branches and the Shirley N was bringing them to Hoonah’s expectant crowds. Audible joy and utters started as soon as the first load came from hold of the ship. It had been an abundant year thanks to the skill of the crew and there would be plenty for all! The branches were thick with spawn and each laden bow brought new smiles as they were stashed away. The atmosphere of the day is the primary reason I make sure never to miss the Shirley N’s return.

The Shirley N Docks in Hoonah to an expectant crowd.
Herring Eggs, Hoonah, Harvest, Subsistence
A totem laden with Herring eggs is brought out of the hull of the Shirley N.

Smiling Faces

I have been meaning to write this article since April 9th – it’s now July 14th. I’m honestly glad I waited 3 months before completing this entry. It has changed my focus and intent completely. After reviewing my images I noticed one thing : all of the smiling faces. These are not “fake smiles” for a watching photographer. Rather, they are smiles from both youth and adults which are truly happy to be in that place at that time. Each smile shows someone enjoying the beautiful day, abundant harvest, anticipation of fresh food, and celebration of culture. These smiles capture the true feeling of the day and embody what it means to be in Hoonah : celebrating seasons and fresh food from the ocean. This is my fourth time participating in the eggs coming in, and I look forward to it more eagerly each time because of the emotions it brings out of Hoonah!

What’s So Good About Them?

If you have not had Herring Eggs before this article would be very hard to relate to. You may be thinking “what’s so good about them?”, “what do they taste like?”, and “how do you use them?”. I’ll do my best to help you understand, but I hope you have a chance to try them yourself someday! Simply learning to enjoy them and prepare them has taught me so much about Hoonah and their importance in culture.

Herring Eggs hang from a Hemlock branch.
  1. Herring eggs are simply good for you. They are salty and fresh and depending on whether they are on kelp or branches have a totally different taste. The kelp adds a saltier, earthier taste while the tang of citrus is wonderful from the branches. They are half protein, a quarter carbs, and a quarter fat. You cannot beat that! Those stats are a key reason they were relied on by coastal peoples since time immemorial.
  2. Herring Eggs are eaten fresh, par-boiled from the branches, pickled, canned, frozen, and eaten on herring egg salads. Their consumption in the spring is important but so is their use in the autumn during “pay off parties”. These parties are celebrations thanking family members and the opposite clan in town for taking care of funeral arrangements and costs for elders who have passed in the year. No payoff party would be complete without herring eggs.
A large mass of herring eggs. When you have this many they are wonderful to chew through! Each pops in your mouth and tastes salty and fresh.

Changing Times

The fate of the herring fishery is unknown. Its future lays in between the politics of the state and tribes, firmly wedged between the interests of the commercial sac-roe industry and needs of subsistence harvesters. If that doesn’t seem complicated enough, all of those factors are only exacerbated by ocean change driven by climate change. Struggling herring runs which have traditionally fed communities for hundreds of years have created enormous tension between communities, tribes, commercials industry, and the state fishery managers. Newspaper headlines of “Tribes sue state” are juxtaposed against “Harvest quota unchanged” and highlight the integral problem in this issue : subsistence fishers feel the commercial industry is highly impacting herring, however state management has been unmoving in how their models determine sustainable yield. This is despite harvests falling short of quota (due to lack of fish) in 2018, 2016, 2013, 2012, and no commercial sac-roe harvest in 2019.

For me the issue and cut and dried. These fish and their delivery to Hoonah has taught me the importance of fighting for small communities in big issues. It has demonstrated to me first hand how bad science can trickle down to dramatic effects. Collapsing herring stocks hurt communities, fisheries, whales, and entire ecosystems. I will stand in solidarity and protest with the Tribes and communities impacted by the extortion and extraction of this resource by outside interests.

Members of Hoonah stand around eagerly for the next load of Herring eggs.

It is unknown what 2020 will bring for Herring. There will be more legal battles and (with some optimism) hopefully change to sustainably manage this culturally and ecologically important resource. I look eagerly forward to it knowing it will welcome in yet another spring and another opportunity to enjoy what the season can offer.

A community elder hauls a load of Herring eggs up the city dock while many more people await eggs for their homes.

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.

2018 Top Shots

It’s 2019 already. Wow! This last year I’ve been streaky on blogging, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been taking lots of imagery! I’ve enjoyed seeing and photographing new things as well as learning new things, too! The gallery below shows off some new techniques in drone photography and underwater photography. I worked to select my favorite images across a spectrum of simplicity and complexity, small animals to large ones, and photography genres. Aside from the work here I’ve been writing for Digital Photography School and focusing on custom framing in driftwood and red cedar. 2019 is going to be a great year, so I hope you remember to follow along on Facebook or Instagram!

Be sure to click on the images to enlarge them!

An Itch For Dark Skies

In July 2018 I was back on familiar ground in Minnesota. My home town is set in a classic Midwestern setting. Sprawling farm fields with rows of potatoes, corns, and beans. Wheat and barley fields with sprawling prairie oaks from remnants of prairies that were. As my passion for photography has grown I have found new ways to appreciate and observe its beauty. As with most of the places I go, I had an itch to go into the night and see the familiar landscape in a new light (or lack of it). The clear, moonless skies and warm nights brought me into the darkness like a moth attracted to the light.

My dad and I drove north under ink dark skies. With the Milky Way core rising at midnight, I wanted to make sure that we were in place by 11:30. We had scouted an old, abandoned farmstead the day before and sought it out along the country roads. The night was calm and a heavy dew lay on the grass. Crickets chirped and my camera clicked. A peaceful start to a peaceful evening.

Moving on from the farm we continued north to our land. We opened the orange metal gate at its entrance and drove through. In the familiar, 50 acre pasture an old Paper Birch and Burr Oak stood juxtaposed against the short grasses below. We worked together to light paint the trees and surrounding pasture. As I made the images the night hit its dew point and fog rolled over the pasture and fogged my lens. This inconvenience ultimately dampened my shooting and we packed up my gear and headed home.

The images below are the result of my journeys into the night over a few days. They are a new way of looking at and remembering the countryside I grew up in. They fuse together elements of my home with elements in the sky and for me lock in memories of those nights out.

Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, MidwestMilky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest Milky Way, Minnesota, Galaxy, Butler, Midwest

 

Feeling Grateful on an Autumn Day

Some days are destined to be better than others and due to the probability of the seasons it has a 25% chance of being a day in autumn. There is something magical to the season wrapped into the death, color, and distinct smells it manifests each year. Fall mornings immerse all of your senses: the bite on your nose of frost in the morning, musk of decaying leaves, the sound or crunching leaves, and brilliant colors of foliage make the season like none other.
The magic and of the day started as soon as my eyes opened. I stepped from my bedroom to watch a subtle and beautiful sunrise over Neka Mountain and Port Frederick. As I sipped my coffee and watched from the window the warm colors of low sunlight started from the peak of Neka Mountain and progressed to its base. I smiled and thought through the possibilities of the day. The plan for the day was simple : go fishing and bring a camera.

Sunrise, Port Frederick, Hoonah, Neka Mountain
I enjoyed the sunrise over Port Frederick in Hoonah, Alaska while I sipped on a cup of coffee. You can see the autumn colors of the muskegs near the summit of the mountain

Down in the River

Eight miles out of town Spasski River held the promise of fish and bears. I strolled through a muskeg full of color. 4-leaved, 4-inch tall, Bunchberry Dogwoods had transformed into red fireworks with colors nearing a poinsettia and lingering frost framed the sharp edges of sedges and grass. I crossed out of the muskeg and descended the banks of the river passing giant sentinels of Hemlocks and Spruces. Once in the river the circular ripples in the surface of the water over my fishing hole gave hint to the presence of Cohos below. Peering in I counted fourty 40 or more fish and noted some of them had turned the dark red of the season.
After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flinging my pink fly into the school of Cohos a pair of bears showed up on the river bank. I watched as the sow and cub came closer and stepped into the open so they could see me. The cub trailed closely behind the mother and after a couple of my woops acknowledging I was there they passed into the tall grass of the river bank.

Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
A sow and cub meanered up the bank of Spasski River. This encounter gave me insight into the cub’s behavior when I observed it later.

When brown fur came into view again I had the privilege of gaining some insight into bear behavior. The cub emerged alone in the tall grass and it was evident it was very nervous. It stood on its rear feet to sniff the air and then sprinted forward in the long grass while looking back over its shoulder as though being chased by shadows. The young bear stood three more times to look and smell for its mother, but she was not to be found. Mother bears have a reputation of being helicopter parents to protect their cubs from aggressive males trying to kill them. It was evident the cub appreciated the protection of the mother and was nervous to be out of her shadow. When I left the cub and sow had not been reunited, but I was sure the sow had not left the cub as isolated as it thought.

Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
When I saw the cub next it was looking for mom. It stood up to sniff the air several times.

Coastal Brown Bear, Spasski, Spasski River, Icy Strait Point
You can almost see the worry on the cub’s face. It was looking back and forth in the search for Mom.

With the bears on my brain I decided it was best to stop fishing. I needed to be alert and was not keen on carrying Cohos out knowing the bears may interested in them too. I turned my attention to the scene in front of me. Yellow Salmon Berries reflected off the surface of the river. My eye was led down the scene to the flat top of ear mountain presided over the river. It was a special place to be and I was there to enjoy it alone.

Spasski River, Salmon Berry, Yellow, Foliage, Autumn
The colors of Salmon Berries were accented by the presiding presence of Ear Mountain above Spasski River

Spasski River, Salmon Berry, Yellow, Foliage, Autumn
I framed up the tall spruces along the bank to bring your eye into this shot of autumn colors and mountain

The American Marten

Leaving the bears I encountered the next fiercest mammal of the forests of Chichagof Island : the American Marten. I found it in the compromising position of scavenging trash, and snuck closer whenever it dropped into the green garbage can in front of me. I was about 30 feet away when it spotted me and the necessity for me to move closer was negated by the curious creature. Before long it approached me to within 10 feet and was perhaps trying to decide if I was edible. I stood stock still and it curiously twisted its head back and forth to size me up and stared my camera each time it clicked. The Marten, not totally trusting the large bi-pedal in front of it, dashed into the grass several times as though testing to see if I would pursue. Each time it poked its head up from the grass by standing on its rear feet. Finally bored or perhaps hungry it left the grinning human for good.

American Marten, Chichagof Island, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
A curious American Marten stares at me from just a few feet away.

American Marten, Chichagof Island, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
After popping out the grass several times the marten approached closely from my right side and looked directly at the camera as it snapped and clicked.

Muskegs on Fire

Throughout the day I had stopped several times to stare at and admire the incredible reds and oranges of the muskegs. Red leaves of Wild Blueberry plants transformed the floor the muskeg into fire. The read were accented by the evergreen trees sprouting from the muskeg and by the crystal clear blue skies. However, in one place the red colors were especially vibrant, rivalling the reds of the Maple trees that I grew up with in the Midwest. The beauty of that place held me there for a long time as I photographed it and felt privileged to be there.

Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
I was astonished by the intenstity of the red in the muskeg. Fiery reds were resplendent!

Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
A parting shot. Adios to autumn colors!

Muskeg, Bluberry, Red, Autumn, Colors, Foliage
The sun shines brighly over brilliant red Wild Blueberries

Transition in Suntaheen

From the fiery muskeg I descended to the quenching silence of the Suntaheen River valley. Along the river I found autumn to be in full progress. Red Alders sheltered the slow flowing river with amber leaves. The fallen leaves of those trees covered the rocky river bank like the yellow brick road. Beams of sunlight backlit trickled through the canopy and individually lit some of the fallen leaves. Groves of Devils Club along the river’s bank were turning a vibrant yellow and sunlight poked through their decaying leaves.

Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow
A Devil’s Club transitions from green to yellow.

Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow
Sunlight streams through the decaying leaf of a Devils’ Club.

Devil's Club, Autumn, Color, Yellow ,River
Suntaheen river floats lazily by rocks and shores covered in the gold of fallen leaves.

A frost-kissed Oak Fern was stripped of its green cholorphyll, and sunslight streamed through its white skeleton.

In the river I was reminded by of the salmon that had choked its waters only a month before. Scattered ribs, spines, and salmon jaws lay where the carcass had been eaten by a bear or had simply died. The bones were devoid of flesh and provided evidence the fish’s energy had already been absorbed by its sourrounding environment. Its nitrogen and energy mingled with the decaying leaves of the trees above cycling to ultimately feed to tiny fish emerging from the eggs buried in the gravel. Some days are just better than others. On this beautiful day I felt blessed to watch nature, learn something new, enjoy the transition of seasons, and observe the cycle of seasons.

Pink Salmn, Alaska, Jaw, Teeth,
A Pink Salmon’s jaw and its jutting teeth perches along the river. The river bank was littered with dozens of these jawbones from months-old dead salmon.

Life at -4.6 Feet

A couple of times every year the moon and sun align – literally – to bring about very large tides. In June this year, a full moon delivered a -4.6 tide to Hoonah, Alaska and provided a glimpse of life under the sea. Rocky shorelines were converted into tide pools full of life trapped there by the receding waters. The first time I experienced one of these monster tides was  in May 2016 right after moving to Hoonah. The joy I find in perusing the beaches and flipping rocks to see what is beneath has not diminished since that time. Thanks to Bob Armstrong’s guide, I am able to identify some of the creatures we found.

The Star Fish

Of all the animals in a tide pool, Sea Stars seem to provide the most variety to the color, textures, shapes, and sizes that have evolved in the ocean. In some places they cover every rock surface or bottoms of tide pools. They are the ever-present predator scouring for crustaceans, snails, and clams. We enjoyed looking at their colors and touching their rough (and sometimes slimy) skins.

Blood Star.

Mottled sea star

The close, rough texture of a Mottled sea star

Slime Star (species not known)

Mottle Sea Stars cover the bottom of a tide pool.

Tide Pools, Alaska, Wrinkled slime star
Wrinkled slime star

The Octopus

We found the crab shells before we found the octopus den. The tell-tale shells were only a foot or two away from a crevice containing 8 arms with quarter-sized suckers. Th octopus was so large that we could only see one arm, and wait as we might it never came out of the den. Fortunately a smaller octopus – about the size of a football- motored by us. They are intelligent and lithe creates known for their camouflage. It was amazing to watch the colors of the small octopus’s skin turn from a light pink to dark red as it moved from rock to rock and tried to blend in.  It was the first time I had watched a wild octopus! The 12″ deep water provided a window into its life below.

A crab shell let us know that an octopus den was near.

Tide Pools, Alaska,
An octopus swims by in the shallow waters of the low tide. It was a real treat to watch this animal hunt!

Crabs

Crabs are really remarkable creatures. They have adapted themselves to all areas (niches) of the inter-tidal zone in search of food. We must have found 8 or 10 different species, but some of them stood out for their uniqueness. Spines, claws, and camouflage make them fit for the niche they fill. The most bizarre was the Butterfly Crab – it is hard to imagine what its oblong shell would provide. Perhaps it camouflage?

A young king crab hangs out in the inter-tidal. Eventually this crab will descend to deeper water.

Tide Pools, Alaska, Butterfly crab
A butterfly crab was one of the most bizarre creatures I have every found! I cannot imagine why its shell needs to be shaped like that.

A Decorator Crab attaches pieces of seaweed to itself to provide almost perfect camouflage.

Bobbin’ Around Under Water

Below the inter-tidal we found this bright orange sponge. This sponge was accessible because of the low tide.

Broadbase tunicate 

A day spent looking into tide pools is time well spent! Exploration allows you to discover new things, observe new behaviors, and breath in the sea air. I look forward to the next big tide!

End Of the Rope : Disentangling a Humpback Whale

It is not every day you get to save the life a whale. In fact, it may not be more than once in a lifetime. However, I can say with certainty, that if you are able to successfully save a whale from entanglement it is the best feeling in the world. You will feel like life just cannot get much better!

On September 16th, 2018, the 35-foot landing craft, Silver Spoon, cruised through the flat waters of Chatam Strait about 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The bluebird day was abnormally sunny for autumn in Southeast Alaska. On board, Captain Billy Mills was taking Kurt Pesch, Kathy Pesch, Kassie Pesch-Johnson and myself up the coast looking for wildlife. We passed False Bay on the east side of Chichagof Island and were near when Wukuklook River when we spotted a whale on the surface.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
We spotted a whale on the surface. At first we thought the whale was sleeping, but we soon discovered it was towing a rope and buoys.

Ordinarily a whale on the surface is just a sleeping whale. In a typical encounter they wake up, swim a bit, and may eventually take a dive. However, this whale displayed some peculiar behavior by keeping its nose above the water. As we got closer we could see it was pulling a set of buoys behind it and those buoys were keeping it from diving. We watched the whale from a distance to determine the extent of entanglement. The whale never dove and was making distressed chirping sounds with its blowhole. Armed with this information Billy radioed the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau to report the entangled whale. They collected information on the whales condition and informed NOAA, and informed us they not have any vessels in the region to reach us soon. The whale was moving quickly so the likelihood of NOAA resighting and disentangling the whale was low. Billy made the call to go about helping the whale as we could.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
The entangled whale had the buoy line through its mouth with a hundred feet or so of line dragging on the left side and about 40 feet of line attached to the buoys. The buoys were keeping the whale from diving.

Before I start into the rest of this tale I need to put out a disclaimer. Humpback Whales and ALL marine mammals deserve your respect. You need to respect all rules regarding minimum distances from whales and we only made the decision to approach this whale after knowing that professionals were not available to help in this situation.  We felt the likelihood of the whale dying were high if we did not at least try to fix the situation.

We approached the whale slowly and encountered the loose green buoy line (the end not attached to the buoys) behind the whale about 100 feet. Using a boat hook we picked up the end and then began to pull the line into the boat. We pulled in much of the line before the whale panicked and took off. I was able to sever the line before the whale stripped it back out of the boat. Not many people can say they’ve had a whale on the line! The whale dove briefly but came back up a few hundred yards way to continue its pattern of swimming with its nose above the water. This just proved to us that the whale could not function without removing the buoys.

The whale was moving quickly, perhaps 12 knots, but we slowly came up behind it for a second approach. With boat-hook in hand our goal was to snag the buoys and complete the disentanglement. Soon I had the buoys in hand and we began to draw more line into the boat. We were fortunate! The loose end of the line began to slide through the whales mouth essentially “flossing” it. This allowed us to remove much of the line.

After pulling much of the line through the whale’s mouth something truly incredible happened. The whale stopped in the water, opened its mouth, and slid backwards into the ocean. It was almost as though it knew we were trying to save it! After sliding backwards into the water the whale began to move and pull the line. More slid through its mouth before finally catching. I severed the line and the whale gave a half breach, a flip of its fluke, and then we did not see it again. Although some of the line was left on the whale it was able to dive and stay down!! We felt confident the rest of the line would eventually get removed. We had done it!!!!

After freeing the whale from most of the line and the buoy it gave a half breach and dove beneath the surface. We did not see it again! Image credit : Kurt Pesch

One of the puzzling things was why this whale was unable to stay down. Although the four crab pot boys attached it were very buoyant, it did not seem like enough to keep the whale on the surface of the ocean. The whale was medium-sized and pretty young. My theory is that the whale acted much like a horse would to the pressure of a bridle and reigns. The upward pressure of the buoys may have kept the whale on the surface. I do not have any proof that, just a theory.

After doing some research I discovered that crab pots like the one this whale entangled in are the most commonly reported. I know I will be doing my part by being as responsible as I can with my sets. Do not use floating line as was used on this crab pot set.

There are times when doing nothing can be better for the animal than doing something. It is likely in this case that the whale would have become more entangled in the long rope and would have injured itself or been unable to swim. I am proud of us all for giving this whale a far better chance for survival!

If you find a in injured, stranded, or entangled marine animal, please report it through NOAA. You can find their number for any region by visiting their website.