Last summer I built a camera trap with one goal in mind – photograph bears in their environments without people. I’m fascinated the insights you can gain into the animals and initially imagined all sorts of dramatic, National Geographic worthy photography. In short, I was convinced that “EPIC!” imagery was a guarantee. While I’m not there yet, I did manage to capture some dramatic moments, some fun ones, and learned a little about managing a camera trap along the way.
For humans there is a lot of ways to “skin a cat”, for bears there is a lot of ways to catch a salmon. Throughout my images I saw bears perch above to look down in pools, snorkel in pools, and charge up pools. I’m sure each of these techniques had their strengths and their weakness.
Family interactions was something I hoped to gather more of. These two cubs with their mother were a special treat with an extra story. I deployed this camera and then walked back to my vehicle along the river and watched with my telephoto lens. About 10 minutes later this mother and cubs strolled down the river and then got spooked by something in the woods – likely a larger bear. They sprinted down river a ways and remarkably went right past my camera trap. Apparently the sow was not too concerned with the larger bear as she permitted her cub to capture a fish.
Bears are very active at dusk and dawn. Next year I’ll be operating a camera with a flash to better capture these bears in the low-light hours. I learned quickly to program my motion trigger to only take images during the daylight hours as to avoid wasting battery on night shots. I do like the context and silhouette of this bear as it strolls in the evening, however
Bears are curious animals and I knew that could pose a risk to my camera. I housed my camera in an ammo can and that sufficed to keep the bears from wrecking it. There were some funny moments when the bears had to get a closer look though! One time a bear tried to eat the camera and another it walked straight up to the camera to smell it and fogged the glass. Photography can be risky business for your gear as I found out in this separate anecdote that always makes me chuckle.
Moments in the River
There were many, many images of bears being bears. Strolling up river, being observant, smelling out salmon and being gregarious. These are those moments and I challenge you to learn what you can from them.
Looking to Next Year
I simply cannot wait to continue to watch bears through my camera traps! This coming season I’m expanding my arsenal to two camera traps with upgraded capabilities. Two cameras will allow me to diversify my shots and provide new angles. I’m hoping to answer some questions such as “How do bears use hot feet” and “how to do bears use scratch poles” among others. Keep your eyes posted! You can always follow on Instagram or Facebook for the latest content.
Evoke emotion. Tell a story. Talk about science. Envision the shot and make it happen. As I’ve grown through my photography I have invested more and more into each of those ideals and concepts above. I have learned that the story is as important as the image and successfully telling that story is almost always hard work. I have seen first hand that you can change the perspectives of people with imagery and that we need effective science communication more than ever.
In 2019 I have focused on new skills and have grown a tremendous amount as a professional. I split my work into two brands and am now a business owner and science communicator. Thank you for those that follow along regularly and support my work!
My photography bleeds into my work and helps make me an effective communicator. I produced this video to showcase a stream restoration that we completed.
As this is the end of a decade its amazing to reflect on the last 7 years of photography that have brought me to where I am today. In 2013, I upgraded from a point-and-shoot and bought a mirrorless camera based on the suggestion of a friend. I never looked back. These “top shots” posts have been a regular feature on my blog since 2015 and I’m so glad I do them. You can view each of them at : 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. They archive where I’ve come from and where I’m going. They are full of memories of the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met, and the adventures I’ve gone through. Each yearly gallery reminds me that I’ll continue to grow and explore the world through my lens and writing. 2019’s Top Shots contain some of my favorite images yet. If I was to choose one image to crown them all it’s the one below.
I’ve got some broad goals in 2019 and I hope you’ll join me in Instagram, Facebook, or sign up for newsletters to keep in touch. I’ll be camera trapping wildlife, trying to document climate change through imagery, and venturing to a few places including Hawaii, Fairbanks, and Olympic National Park. I’m resolving to publish one blog entry per month (and no, not one doesn’t count for January). Thanks again for your support. I hope you have clear vision in 2020.
It may seem unlikely to see parallels in the far different regions of the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Arctic Tundra of Alaska, but they exist! On a recent trip to Northern Utah, the flat grasslands, small ponds, and jutting foothills reminded me of the Arctic plain as you cross over the mountains of Brooks Range. As I observed my surroundings I realized the connection was more than appearance; the newly-arrived winged from the Arctic plain were relying on the resources of this kindred land, the Great Salt Lake. Migrating birds, many from the Arctic, stretched from horizon to horizon creating a direct link between the two regions. My time in the Arctic had shown me the importance of that region for birds, and I realized immediately that I was standing in another critical area.
A Tale of Two Habitats
The Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake of northern Utah is an oasis in the desert. It was my first time there and what I found swept me off my feet. To imagine what it looks like simply conjure in your mind a cliche image of an emerald oasis in the desert. You might see in your mind grasses and trees growing in close proximity to water features which provide the life blood of everything in the area. Did you see any birds or animals using the water? If not, add them into your image – they are certainly there!
As its name implies the Great Salt Lake is very salty – 3-5 times more salty than the ocean. Its concentrated salts make the shallow waters uninhabitable for almost all life. However, Brine Shrimp (ever heard of “sea monkies”?) and sand fleas have adapted to the salty (hyper-saline) conditions. Since they are the only creatures in the lake they have no competition and can multiply rapidly. I took a few handfuls of the muddy water to peer into it and saw thousands of brine shrimp in only a the small cup of water in my hand. Although small – up to 1cm – their abundance makes them readily available protein for birds and life around the lake.
As you roll your vehicle up mountainous terrain and eventually over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range of Alaska, you emerge onto hundreds of miles of lakes and tundra. Welcome to the Arctic Plain spanning for over 20 million acres. This land is known for its abundance in the summer and desolation in the winter. Wind and winter cold trim any shrubs or trees that try to grow resulting in the short crop of the Tundra. Each year millions of birds return to the Arctic to breed and raise young in its grasslands and lakes.
Similar and Different
The two grassland landscapes described above are created by different forces and in different parts of the world. However, each is 100% necessary for the survival of many birds. In fact, the numbers are nearly unfathomable. Up to 50% (12 million) of North America’s shorebirds breed in Alaska. Over 1.4 million shorebirds use the Great Salt Lake for breeding and migration. Of course there are millions of other species and types of birds that use each as well. To put that in perspective imagine the 8 million people living in New York City spent half their life in the city and moved to Florida each year for the winter. Mass migration is an amazing thing!
Flying thousands of miles is no small feat and it takes a lot of energy. Migratory stopovers are used by birds traveling both north and south because they can provide the resources needed for food and shelter during their travels. After peering into the murky waters of the Great Salt Lake to see the life within, it was not hard to see why they were at this globally-important migratory stopover. The abundant food I saw in the water was translatable to the wealth I saw in the Arctic. On the Tundra, massive insect swarms and lakes filled with larvae provide young chicks is critical for their growth. The Great Salt Lake and the Arctic each plays their part in the cycle and life of the birds : are you starting to see some similarities in their function and habitat?
Migrants in Common
Birds connect the world, creating a network between many places. Like a computer network, the birds transfer nutrients and create a relationship between things. We “share” birds with other regions of the world. The bird feeding in your yard during the summer is another country’s yard bird in the winter. You should check out this incredible resource from National Geographic showing off the migrating paths of birds. It is normal for migrating birds to seek similar habitats as they move south and north so it is not surprising for shorebirds, ducks, and songbirds from the Arctic to be found in similar habit along the Great Salt Lake.
You don’t have to be a birder to be astounded by the abundance of birds using the Great Salt Lake. They stretch from horizon to horizon like and are as thick as the seeds on your everything-bagel. As many as Western 190,000 Sandpiper, 59,000 Long-billed Dowitcher, and 240,000 Red-necked Phalarope use the lake. If they were not hidden by the grass and expanse of the Tundra, you would see even more in the Arctic Plain.
Birds throughout the world are under threat from changes to the earth from humans. If you want to preserve birds for your yards and future children, it is so,so, so critical to protect their habitat where they are vulnerable. The Great Salt Lake is experiencing change which is may easily affect the brine shrimp and hence birds. Changes in salinity due to drought and mineral farming as well as pollution and water diversion are all linked to brine shrimp populations. In the Arctic rising temperatures are melting permafrost and oil drilling is impacting shorebird habitat. Failing to address these issues can only lead one direction for many species of birds : decline and ultimately extinction.
This story of connection is only one of many in the world. There is a multitude of important stopover and breeding areas for birds and throughout each continent birds are experiencing threats on the breeding grounds and migratory areas. I encourage you to look for and see the connections in the world and explore their importance.
I hate to only talk about the gloomiest parts of the status of birds but it is important to acknowledge the reality. There are stories of decline and also some stories of hope. To help educate yourself on the issues at hand and support land conservation groups such as Audubon or the Nature Conservancy. We can all be a part of the solution!
The Tongass National Forest. Ever heard of it? How about : The Amazon. The Arctic. The Pacific Ocean. These huge tracts of land and sea are critical to life on earth and have vessels into the hearts of our lives – even if we may not know it. A fortunate few will get to dip their toes into all of them and it is not even in question that each experience in those environments will leave an indelible mark on their souls as they connect the people and animals inhabiting them. They quickly realize why protecting them is so damned important. For those who have never been, why should you care about the fate of another land? What will compassion for that place bring you in the long run? The abstract nature of such vast and unseen lands makes it hard to know enough to care. Today my mission is “simple” : connect you to a place I have grown to love and that you may have never seen or smelled. I hope that by the time you read the last word of this article and observe its last pixel you will have a sense of Tongass, its importance, and its plight.
Acknowledging My Own Bias
This is not necessarily a light article and it contains both facts and my opinion based on those facts. I want you to trust what I say, so I think it is important that you understand some of my positions and personal views on conservation and resource use. I am a landscape user and a conservationist. My knowledge of the Tongass has been gained by using it while living on an island in rural Alaska for four years– my pantry is stocked with fish, deer, and berries. I am not only a wildlife biologist, I am also a carpenter and maker-of-things. My small business of framing my imagery relies on wood to make products which I sell to people. I am not hypocritical in my views of conservation – I acknowledge resources are needed and that we need to manage the land to generate them. However, there are some resources that are simply not worth harvesting because of their impact they will have on my children’s children. If they are non-renewable and linked to the health of an ecosystem and its ability to combat climate change then it is pretty cut-and-dried for me : stay away from them and find some other way to do business. In the context of this article, there are many renewable forms of timber in the Tongass. Transitioning to those is key.
A New Perspective
A new sense of perspective can change everything. The opportunity to see a new angle or hear a new voice can provide insight otherwise overlooked. A new perspective is where this article begins – through the summer I have been awed by insight I have gained while observing the land from helicopter, plane, and through the lens of my drone. I have learned new things about places I travel through frequently and about how each decision is connected at the landscape level. My deeper appreciation for the landscape has led me to be a more adamant protector of it.
The Tongass is a renowned “Salmon Forest”. Its landscape is bisected with small and large streams that host salmon. 79% of salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska are of fish that start in the Tongass and the average resident of SE Alaska uses 75 pounds of salmon per year. It can be hard to see the prevalence of rivers when you are standing in them or walking along their banks. However, from the air I was awed by the old growth stands bisected the flowing water and how beautiful the spires of old growth were near along the rivers.
The Tongass is so, so much more than a stand of very tall trees – although that is what most people focus on. It is an interwoven landscape of forest, streams, muskegs, and bogs. An eagle’s eye view will show you the brilliant blue water of the ocean contrasted against green conifers. The Tongass is a place where you can snorkel kelp reefs to touch starfish and urchins, emerge from the water, and dry yourself while sitting on the soft duff under the canopy of 150 or 200 foot trees that may be 800 years old. When you stand among those large trees the quietness and fresh air make it feel like a holy place.
Rivers are not the only thing that connect the land to the water. Red and yellow muskegs may stretch for miles from mountaintop to coast. These wetlands are devoid of tall trees due to moisture and soil conditions and are natural filters during water’s progress downslope. As open, wet, land muskegs house an entirely different ecosystem of plants and life. Short pines replace towering spruces and small, round ponds replace babbling brooks. These wetlands are filled with short shrubs and grasses that provide important habitat for migrating and breeding birds.
The presence of roads is impossible to miss as you look at the Tongass around Hoonah, Alaska. Many of the roads were used for logging and then transitioned to local use. You can see a few patterns when observing the road system from above such as young growth forests along the whole length of the road, and old growth in the river bottom. Landscapes like this are common throughout the Hoonah area. They represent the reality of a correlation : with the establishment of roads comes the sound of chainsaws and the clear-cutting of thousands of acres of old growth forest that will not regenerate to their former state until the year 2200 or more.
We need roads to move through the landscape, but roads can come with a consequence. Until I was in the air I never realized how large a landslide can be. These landslides often occur in steep slopes and roads in logged areas because of the changes to hydrology. Roads also bisect rivers and alter the ability for fish to move river/road crossings..
The climate of the world is changing fast and there are signs that its accelerating. Since world leaders are not showing signs of making decisions to stem the flow of CO2 into our atmosphere, it is prudent to keep nature’s carbon “sinks” (natural carbon storage) areas in place. Those areas are shrinking daily. A recent report from the United Nations put our impact on the earth’s surface in perspective. The report reveals “Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.” When I read that it became apparent; the Tongass and the Native Alaskan Communities embedded in them since time immemorial are critical parts of the 25% of unaltered land on the earth.
An acre of old growth has about 1 billion needles that soak up carbon.
Old growth forests store 50% more carbon than logged forests.
A single 100-foot tree releases 11,000 gallons of water into the ecosystem.
Logging releases 60% of the carbon stored in the forest
I cannot think of any statistics that demonstrate more fully the importance of how the 16,700,000 acres of the Tongass, the U.S.’s largest national forest, are in our climate change resiliency.
Current Global Response Insufficient : Roadless Modifications
On October 18th, 2019 the U.S. Forest Service entered into the Federal Register a recommendation that the 2001 Roadless Rule be lifted from the Tongass National Forest. This flies in the face of a majority of comments received from Alaskans and U.S. Citizens which favored keeping the protections in place. The 2001 Roadless Rule guaranteed that roads for logging could not be built in 9.2 million acres of the Tongass. These protections were set aside because of the acknowledgement of the global and regional importance of leaving the Tongass in its natural condition. The “Roadless Issue” is a complex one, but this decision can only have negative outcomes for wilderness of the Tongass seeing as the removal of road restrictions are being coupled with increased timber sales.
These five lines are the summary of the United Nation report I referenced above are applicable to the Roadless Rule, the plight of the Tongass, and the plight of global ecosytems:
Current global response insufficient; ‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature; Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good Most comprehensive assessment of its kind; 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction
— U.N. Report May 6, 2019
The Tongass Needs You
I have been told many times that “nothing is final until it is written in law” and that is completely true for this process. There are 5 alternatives to the Roadless Rule that do not remove protections from the entire forest. This is not an issue where anyone one side should get everything they want and it is up to us to ask for better than the “preferred alternative” of a full exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. For the next 60 days you have ability to contribute your voice to this discussion and influence the fate of the Tongass. I hope I have helped you connect to the Tongass enough to weigh in. Here are your options:
To learn more information contact me. firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be happy to help you digest the issues of the Roadless Rule as it applies to the Tongass
Review project information and learn about the public review process by going to this USDA media release.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I’ll be keeping an eye out for any further science and revelations on STEVE. I hope to see it again!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
No season has it’s markers like Spring. The “first of spring” events which mark our regions are cherished by those who live there and bring joy, warmth, fresh sounds, and fresh colors. Since living in Hoonah, Alaska for four years no spring event has taught me more about a place, its people, and myself than the annual herring egg distribution every April. These small eggs, laid by silvery fish are at the center of culture and politics, science and business, and celebration and uncertainty.
Rain showers had been passing through during the morning of April 9th, and there was obvious relief from the growing crowd when they stopped only minutes before the “Shirley N” came into sight and made its way to Hoonah’s dock. For the last week the Shirley N had been in Sitka, Alaska laying branches of Hemlock in the water. Spawning herring had deposited their eggs on the branches and the Shirley N was bringing them to Hoonah’s expectant crowds. Audible joy and utters started as soon as the first load came from hold of the ship. It had been an abundant year thanks to the skill of the crew and there would be plenty for all! The branches were thick with spawn and each laden bow brought new smiles as they were stashed away. The atmosphere of the day is the primary reason I make sure never to miss the Shirley N’s return.
I have been meaning to write this article since April 9th – it’s now July 14th. I’m honestly glad I waited 3 months before completing this entry. It has changed my focus and intent completely. After reviewing my images I noticed one thing : all of the smiling faces. These are not “fake smiles” for a watching photographer. Rather, they are smiles from both youth and adults which are truly happy to be in that place at that time. Each smile shows someone enjoying the beautiful day, abundant harvest, anticipation of fresh food, and celebration of culture. These smiles capture the true feeling of the day and embody what it means to be in Hoonah : celebrating seasons and fresh food from the ocean. This is my fourth time participating in the eggs coming in, and I look forward to it more eagerly each time because of the emotions it brings out of Hoonah!
What’s So Good About Them?
If you have not had Herring Eggs before this article would be very hard to relate to. You may be thinking “what’s so good about them?”, “what do they taste like?”, and “how do you use them?”. I’ll do my best to help you understand, but I hope you have a chance to try them yourself someday! Simply learning to enjoy them and prepare them has taught me so much about Hoonah and their importance in culture.
Herring eggs are simply good for you. They are salty and fresh and depending on whether they are on kelp or branches have a totally different taste. The kelp adds a saltier, earthier taste while the tang of citrus is wonderful from the branches. They are half protein, a quarter carbs, and a quarter fat. You cannot beat that! Those stats are a key reason they were relied on by coastal peoples since time immemorial.
Herring Eggs are eaten fresh, par-boiled from the branches, pickled, canned, frozen, and eaten on herring egg salads. Their consumption in the spring is important but so is their use in the autumn during “pay off parties”. These parties are celebrations thanking family members and the opposite clan in town for taking care of funeral arrangements and costs for elders who have passed in the year. No payoff party would be complete without herring eggs.
The fate of the herring fishery is unknown. Its future lays in between the politics of the state and tribes, firmly wedged between the interests of the commercial sac-roe industry and needs of subsistence harvesters. If that doesn’t seem complicated enough, all of those factors are only exacerbated by ocean change driven by climate change. Struggling herring runs which have traditionally fed communities for hundreds of years have created enormous tension between communities, tribes, commercials industry, and the state fishery managers. Newspaper headlines of “Tribes sue state” are juxtaposed against “Harvest quota unchanged” and highlight the integral problem in this issue : subsistence fishers feel the commercial industry is highly impacting herring, however state management has been unmoving in how their models determine sustainable yield. This is despite harvests falling short of quota (due to lack of fish) in 2018, 2016, 2013, 2012, and no commercial sac-roe harvest in 2019.
For me the issue and cut and dried. These fish and their delivery to Hoonah has taught me the importance of fighting for small communities in big issues. It has demonstrated to me first hand how bad science can trickle down to dramatic effects. Collapsing herring stocks hurt communities, fisheries, whales, and entire ecosystems. I will stand in solidarity and protest with the Tribes and communities impacted by the extortion and extraction of this resource by outside interests.
It is unknown what 2020 will bring for Herring. There will be more legal battles and (with some optimism) hopefully change to sustainably manage this culturally and ecologically important resource. I look eagerly forward to it knowing it will welcome in yet another spring and another opportunity to enjoy what the season can offer.
When I am shooting an image I like to ask myself “what is the purpose of this image? what story does it have to tell?”. I have included 19 images below as a cross section of thousands of images made and experiences had during the trip. They showcase the night sky, the birds, landscapes, and diversity of my experience. I hope you enjoy my anecdotes of enjoying Hawaii and gain appreciation of the time it took to make these images!
I cannot wait to visit Hawaii again! These images help tell a story that I look forward to growing in the future. If you do not do so currently, please sign up for my website updates, following me on Facebook or Instagram. Cheers!
If there were 800 humans left on the entire earth you might feel a bit uncertain about their survival. So many things could happen to 800 humans – disease, fire, tsunami, starvation – that would cause them to go extinct. In fact, 800 is such a small number it seems almost likely to happen. 800, 1000, 2000, those are the populations of some Hawaii’s most endangered native birds. They have been pushed to the brink of extinction by human activity and will certainly go extinct unless we intervene to undo our damage.
When Europeans first discovered the islands of Hawaii in 1778 they were drawn to their paradise-like attributes. Lush forests, diverse reefs, plentiful fish, rainbows, no mosquitoes, and a thriving population of Native Hawaiian Islanders. It was the land of opportunity and plenty. Among the forests were 142 species of birds found nowhere else in the world (call endemics). 95 of those species have gone extinct and some of the remaining 47 are on the verge of extinction and will disappear in your lifetime unless action is taken to preserve their habitats.
The most diverse bird group on the Big Island of Hawaii were the Hawaii Honeycreepers. Over 56 species were on the islands of Hawaii at European Contact and only 18 are left now. Many of these birds are specialists highly adapted to their native forests and fill many niches (places to live or types of food they eat). For instance, the I’iwi’s (pronounced ee-ee-vee) curved bill fits perfectly into flowers which have adapted their shape to fit that bird and vice versa. The ʻakiapōlāʻau ( pronounced akia-pola-ow) only eats grubs from the wood of Koa trees. All of these birds evolved without predators and with very few disease. When those things are introduced the birds are very naïve to predation and susceptible to disease leading to large losses in their populations.
Step in to the Forest
Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge resides at 6,500 feet on the side of Mauna Kea and contains remnants of Hawaii’s old growth forests. On most days mist and fog shapeshift through the landscape during their wind-driven passage. The morning we stepped into it, bird song of exotic honeycreepers filled the air making me reflect on how those woods must have sounded when none of them had gone extinct. Old growth Hawaiian forests do not look tropical, although you may envision palms and ferns in your mind. Rather, ancient ʻŌhiʻa trees with small round leaves and bright red blossoms twist their pompom-clusters of branches and leaves into the canopy in search in light. The largest ʻŌhiʻa in this forest existed during the Byzantine Empire and during the rise of Tikal; they are over 1,500 years old. Throughout the woods broad Koa trees stand covered in fur-like green lichen with their unique, blade-shaped leaves turned vertically to soak up the sun. It’s a magical place that only a few hundred people get to visit each year. Most people visit it to see it suite of endemic birds as the refuge is maintained specifically for the protection of native species and their habitat through removal of non-native feral animals and plants for over 35 years.
Hakalau is ideally positioned for native forest birds trying to get away from mosquitoes which infect them with Avian Malaria. As our (highly recommended) guide Jack Jeffrey explained, on the slopes of Mauna Kea the weather is consistently too cold for mosquitoes to thrive. However, climate change is impacting the warmth of tropical regions, too, and mosquitoes are slowly migrating up slope to put more pressure on the birds. Some birds are showing signs of slight resistance to Avian Malaria, but most die within 2-3 weeks of a bite from a single infected mosquito.
Some of The Extraordinary Residents of Hakalau Forest and the Big Isle
There are so many amazing birds on the Big Island. I’m going to focus mostly on the Honeycreeper family to show off some of the diversity and beauty of these unique finches!
There are only three truly orange birds in the world and the Akepa is one of them. This species is down to a population of 2,000 birds. They do not reach maturity until after 2 years which is unusual for their size (small birds usually breed more). This makes them susceptible to population loss.
Hawaii Creeper (Alawi) – 2000 birds
This small birds was placed on the endangered species list
in 1975. At that time it was estimated that 12,500 birds were in the wild. Latest
surveys suggest there are 2,000 left in the wild. I loved their fast movements
to scout bugs from inside lichen and under bark.
This incredible bird has been reduced to nearly 800 individuals on the Big Island of Hawaii. Species similar to this birds have gone extinct on other Hawaiian islands. They reproduce very slowly and are reliant on Koa forests to feed. Their unique bill is used to awl into wood with the bottom portion and extract grubs with the top. Our day in Hakalau was a VERY special one with this species. We were able to watch it feed its fledgling. The young chick called with a chipping voice for the adult constantly which browsed the branches for food to deliver.
The Palila is one of the last members of the “finch-billed” honeycreepers. They only, and I mean ONLY, eat the immature seeds of the mämane. This shrub-like tree is in the legume family and produces small pea-like fruit. Being with Jack Jeffrey put the plight of this bird in perspective. When he began surveying them in the late 70s there were 20,000 Palila. There are just 1,000 Palila left. He suspects this will be a bird that goes extinct in his lifetime adding to the list of 7 or 8 Hawaiian birds he has seen go extinct. Change is happening very quickly and can be seen in your lifetime.
I’iwi are truly spectactular. They were once common throughout all of the islands of Hawaii, but the Hakalau forest now contains 70% of their population. I’iwi are VERY susceptible to Avian Malaria – 90% of birds die from a single infected mosquito bite. We were so fortunate that our day at Hakalau was filled with unbelievable and close views of these birds. We watched them feed on various flowers and watched several go through their mating ritual where the female begs for the food. It’s up to the male to impress her! We saw one successful male copulate – hopefully that means the population will be at least 1 bird larger soon!
Apapane are one species of Hawaiian Honeycreeper that have been
to resistant to change and disease. Their populations are still pretty large.
They mostly commonly feed on the flowers of O’hia giving a dazzling display of
red-on-red. Often times you could hear the woosh of their wings before seeing
The Hawaii Amakihi eats insects and flowers making it a “generalist”. This fact has allowed them to adjust to changing forest conditions. Not a lot is known about their populations, but they seem to be pretty secure at this time. We ran into one researcher while watching them and she said there is evidence that lower-elevation birds are more resistant to Avian Malaria.She was trying to determine why that is. I hope I have a chance to see the results of her work and see how it may help this species in the future.
Some of The Extraordinary Residents of Kauai
I want to switch away from Hakalau Forest to show you a couple of Honeycreepers from the island of Kauai. They are suffering from the same pressures as Honeycreepers on other islands.
The Kauai Amakihi is genetically different than the Hawaii
Amakihi, although is very similar in its appearance. In Kokee State Park in
Kauai we found a banded one! I hope to find out some information on this bird,
how old it is, and what they were studying by reporting the band colors.
The Anianiau (pronounced awnee-awnee-ow) is in decline and can only be found in upland, wetland forests in Kauai. They are the smallest honeycreeper at just 0.35 ounces! That’s the weight of ½ tube of chapstick! These birds are a brilliant yellow and we fortunate enough to discover them in Kokee State Park.
So What? Who Cares?
Like so many conservation issues (climate change, loss of rain forest, extinction of species every day, plastic in our water, and so much more) we are disconnected geographically and visually from what is happening. The reality is the native birds of Hawaii need your help, but why does that matter? Creating habitat that supports these birds supports many other species as well. Thinking about the holistic health of the forest increases the benefit of every dollar spent to conserve a single species. If you are interested in donating, please visit The Friends of Hakalau Forest to learn how you can help. I would recommend a trip to see these incredible Hawaiian Birds and highly recommend Jack Jeffrey as your guide. He will connect you to that place in an unforgettable way. Establishing that connection will give you empathy not only for these amazing Hawaiian birds, but also for the plight of animals and ecosystems worldwide suffering from human pressure and change.
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!