Tag Archives: birds

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.

2016 Alaskan Calendar is Now for Sale!

Hello Everyone,

I am very, very, very  excited to write inform you of the release of my 2016 calendar! The content features some of the best imagery on this website, plus a few things that have never seen the “light of day”. The calendar is entitled “Seasonal Moods of Alaska” with imagery for each month captured in that month. The calendar is 100% designed by me including feature images, transparent images, windows, and text tying the imagery to the season. A huge thanks to my family and fiance for helping to proof the calendar! I believe the final product is a work of art mingled with science.

If you want to see it, clicking on the cover image or link link will bring you to the sales site that I created.  Otherwise, keep reading for some more information 🙂

2016 Seasons and Moods of Alaska Cover

http://ianajohnson.com/customproducts/

The calendar is printed on 9.5×13 paper and spiral bound leaving ample of room to write in your schedule. Of course it has a hole for hanging if that is all you want to do with it! With imagery from throughout Alaska, the calendar is a great memento of your trip to Alaska, for a friend who has been here, or to bring inspiration for your future trip here!

This calendar is being printed by my local shop in Perham, Minnesota. Your consideration and support also helping the local economy in Perham.

2016 Calendar Final 9halfx138
Each month has a premier image. This image from Mendenhall glacier showcases the high resolution imagery within the calendar.

2016 Calendar Final 9halfx1323
Every month has a transparent image behind the grid, and small windows with images from that month. Writing in the lower right panel ties together fuses the imagery and writing together.

The calendar will be available for pre-order through October 15th. At that time I will begin shipping orders. You can help me out a huge amount by spreading the word about this calendar or through a purchase! Thanks you so much in advance for your support in this project!

On the Beaches of Homer

The 18+ foot tides of Homer Alaska define life on the seashore. Its consistency and rhythm are the drumbeat of the ocean. During the summer each day, salmon return to the “Fishing Hole” with the incoming and outgoing tide chasing schools of baitfish, only to be chased by fisherman. Shorebirds feed at the tideline and in the exposed rocks which contain many insects and invertebrates in the crevices. Tide pools contained trapped wonders to because observed with curiosity, and which have evolved to survive the temporarily dry conditions. They often closing up, or shrinking under the sand to conserve water. My time in Homer, Alaska was focused around the seashore, fishing, beach combing, birding, and peering into tide pools. These pictures and experiences are both through my lens, and Kassie’s too.

Tide Pools

Peer into a tidepool, and what shall you see? Small creatures, shells, or an anemone.

Diamond Creek Homer
The tideline in Homer is far, far above the ocean level. By nature’s laws, the ocean and the hill have reach an agreement on who’s domain is who’s.

Birding

As we walked along the beach a northwestern crow began to dig a hole along the surf line. To our astonishment it jerked out a thin, silvery, and wriggling Sandlance from the bottom of the hole. Hopping forward a bit further the crow did it again, and again. Other crows were doing the same thing, and were apparently highly efficient hunters. I relayed this video (below) to a birding group, and was informed this hunting behavior may be specific to Homer crows. Have a watch, and let me know your guesses on how they locate the eels. I have not a clue!

Northwestern Crow, Bishop Beach, Homer, Alaska
A disheveled northwestern crow pecks among the rocks looking for leftovers in the tides. He stopped long enough to shoot me an eye.

Black Turnstone Bishop Beach, Homer, Alaska
A black turnstone moves through the rocks in a shallow tidepool. These birds, along with many others, are sought during the Kachemak Bay Shorbird Festival each year, when tens of thousands of shorebirds stop through the food-rich shores of the Kachemak Bay.

Black-legged Kittiwake, Homer, Alaska
A lone black-legged kittiwake stands on the beach, with just a shade of the mountains of Homer visible in the background.

American Bald Eagle, Homer, Alaska
Nesting eagles are a common sight in Homer. This particular pair nests near the outskirts of Homer, and were constantly bringing fish back to its eaglets.

American Bald Eagle, Homer, Alaska
As this eagle lands at its nest, the talons are particularly dangerous looking!

Homer in Its Place

Lupines and Yellow Paintbrush, Homer, Alaska,
Lupines and yellow paintbrush jut out from the hillside along the beach.

Cow Parsnip Homer, Alaska
As we walked up the Diamond Creek trail, we passed under a large canopy of cow parsnip flowers. I was struck by their contrast against the sky.

Shipping Homer, Alaska
Shipping traffic is a common sight throughout Kachemak Bay. As I fished, Kassie capture this great image that puts the grandeur of the mountains in perspective.

Sailboat, tanker, ship, Homer, Alaska
A subtle shift in that same scene, and the sailboat now dominates the foreground.

Fishing Hole Sunset, Homer, Alaska
I fished for salmon at the fishing hole in the lingering sunset. With a fly rod as my weapon of choice I only wrangled one “dollie”, a dolly varden.

Fishing Hole Sunset, Homer, Alaska
A large trunk blots out a beautiful sunset near the fishing hole.

Fishing hole, salmon, homer, alaska
As the tide becomes more ideal, the fishermen stack into the Fishing Hole lagoon in Homer. At this place it is possible, if not likely, to catch silvers, sockeye, and king salmon.

Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra

Our trip had taken us from Fairbanks,Alaska up the Haul Road (Dalton Highway), over Chandlar Shelf, and peaked at Atigun Pass (4,738′). We traversed the valley on the north side of the Brooks Range, and explored as far as Toolik. Although we were on the tundra, we never went far enough to leave the Brooks Range out of sight. Because of the incredible backdrop the mountains provided, I was compelled to place what we observed in their natural habitat. The resulting pictures and galleries provide a slice of diversity of the flowers and birds found on the tundra.

One of the remarkable birds seen during the trip was a bluethroat. These awesome birds are one of a few species which winter in Asia, but breed on the tundra in Alaska. Due to the amount of migration time needed they spend a lot of time on the wing! When we found it with help from another birder, the male bluethroat was displaying in the air and calling out in the voices of many species. Bluethroats are almost perfect mimics, and as it sang out we could hear the calls of redpolls, gray-cheeked thrushes, and swallows in its repertoire. A bluethroat female will find this male attractive if it can mimic enough other birds. The video below captures a few of the calls of this unique and beautiful bird, and shows of its stunning throat!

The northern hawk owl was another great bird of the trip. These raptors are efficient predators and unlike most owls are active during the mornings, evenings, and even during midday. This adaptation arose from the lack of nighttime in the tundra. The hawk owl we found was perched in the dead limbs of a burned black spruce, and actively twisted its head back and forth at every new sound. Suddenly the twisting head stopped, and it fixed its gaze on some unfortunate small animal on the ground. It dove off the branch with tucked wings, swooped low above the shrubs, but then perched again with empty claws. No breakfast this time! The second video below shows the intense stare of this bird.

Bluethroat Video:

Northern Hawk Owl Video:

Yellow, purple, pink, white, and red splashes of color were evident all across the tundra. Each color was associated with a pointed, rounded, tall, or stunted flower and stalk. The flowers of the tundra come in many different colors and shapes! Often the species are associated with a particular habitat type. Alpine arnica were found in the higher alpine tundra, arctic poppies in the short tundra, and bell heather tucked into the low pockets of the tussocks. One of the unexpected flowers of the trip were the frigid shooting stars that lined a small stream south of Toolik Field Station. Although I have wanted to see them for years now, I never thought the first time would be on the tundra! The flowers are aptly named, as their unique shape trails behind them as if they fell from the sky.

I am about to sing the unsong of the mosquito because each bite from the armies of flocked, winged, beasts can cause doubt that they serve any purpose but to cause misery. However, during the trip I documented one of the mosquito’s greatest contributions to the ecosystem. In the tundra, bees and butterflies are not as abundant as they are in forested areas, however, as shown above the variety and abundance of flowers have to be pollinated by something! In step the buzzing, nagging, mosquito. Male mosquitoes do not feed on blood, but rather nectar and thus spread pollen. Their hunger ensures that the blooms of the tundra create seeds and propagate for the next year.

Mosquito Pollination
A mosquito extends its proboscis peacefully into a pink plume to take a sip. It will carry pollen to the next pink plume it feeds on!

Frigid Shooting Star Mosquito
A mosquito perches on a frigid shooting star. It serves as further proof that they like nectar meals, but also gives some scale to the shooting star flowers. They are not that big!

Bird List
Our bird list for the trip, a total of 42 species 🙂

Solstice, Solitude, Soliloquy

By the time we reached Galbraith Lake, North Slope, Alaska, the low light of the solstice sun to the north was casting shadows on the peaks of the Brooks Range, which finally lay to the south of us after hours of driving. Although rain showers had passed through earlier in the day, the lingering clouds were just cotton in the sky, lit to the orange color of hot coils of a stove. Our trip was planned for three days, and our mantra was to have “nowhere to be, and all day to get there”! We observed, absorbed, and enjoyed the birds, flowers, and beauty of the Tundra during solstice. Due to the many photos from the trip, the results will be broken into two chapters, “Solstice, Solitude, Soliloquy”, and “Birds and Blossoms of the Tundra”. I hope you enjoy this first installment!

During the day we drove the Haul Road to various hiking destinations. A creek bed, a bird sighting, or a nice pull-off were all excuses to hike around and check out a new region. Although the road was busy with traveling semi-trucks and tourists, as soon as you walked away from the road the solitude was immediate. Few others hike around on the tundra at this time of the year, and its vast expanse ensures that even if they do, you do not have to see them unless you choose to. Since creek beds offer a natural hiking corridor through and around ankle twisting tundra humps, tussocks, we used them often. The small, bubbling rivers bottoms flowed through rockfields created by spring melts, and were just a fraction of their size during the melt a few weeks prior. However, flow was higher than normal for the time of year, as a snow storm just 10 days earlier fed them from the mountains. I was drawn to the colors and sizes of rocks on the stream beds, and the mountains behind them which birthed the running waters.

Brooks Range River.
A small mountain stream runs out of the mountains south of Atigun Pass.

Haul Road River
The Haul Road runs over this stream, and is visible in this shot. Multple stream braids flowed into each other in small rapids.

Brooks Range Reflection
West of Atigun Gorge, this small pond is joined to Galbraith lake and reflected the still snow-covered peaks of the northern Brooks Range.

Brooks Range Panorama
The north edge of the Brooks Range was lit up each night in the low light of the midnight sun. What a scene!

At the end of each day we set up camp on the tundra, targeting soft patches of sphagnum moss for our sleeping pads. The mattress companies of the world should take note of the comfort of the tundra – it is unparalleled in soft-yet-supportive sleep. From our camp we took small hikes to check out the local flora and birds. The hikes always brought something new to see and experience. Near one of our camps we discovered this baby longspur (either a Smith’s or Lapland) on the tundra. It perched on the moss in the warm sun, and was likely waiting for food from its parent. Unable to escape, this baby bird’s instinct was to sit as still as possible. I snapped a few shots, and then stepped away so its parents could rejoin and feed it.

P6200661

As we walked around each night I looked for settings to put up a solstice timelapse. The advantage of a timelapse over a single shot is to show the traveling path of the sun as it reaches the horizon and then curves back into the sky. Over the Brooks Range, being so far north, the sun stayed far above the horizon – it hadn’t dropped below the horizon there for over a month. This was in stark contrast to shooting at Finger Mountain about 15 miles south of the Arctic Circle where the sun just dipped below the curve of the earth. The resulting shots from each location have been fused together, and shown individually below. The lighting of the composite shots, in particular, I believe is very striking. Since each image is made of 8-10 shots over time, each plant has been lit from many angles. Because of this, extreme detail can be seen in each flower in the tundra foreground.

P6220881
This solstice shot was shot June 21 – 22nd from Finger Mountain, about 7 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Smoke from the over 200 active wild fires in the state (at the time) came in from the south, staining the sky red.

Finger Mountain Solstice Composite
This composite timelapse shot was taken over 4.5 hours. Since this was shot just south of the Arctic Circle, the sun disappears behind the horizon at ~2AM.

Solstice Sundial
This solstice shot was taken from Galbraith Lake Campground. In the foreground, an Oeder’s Lousewort stands as a sundial.

Solstice Composite Galbraith Lake
This composite makes the foreground of the tundra particularly epic. The small mountain avens that would be hid in a single shot really pop out when lit from many angles!

Solstice Composite Galbraith Lake 2

Solstice Tent
This solstice shot was taken June 20 – 21st, just west of Atigun gorge over camp for the night.

Atigun Gorge Solstice Composite

Mosquito Army
Our trip to the tundra was spectacular, but was not without its setbacks! Clouds of mosquitoes emerged about 10 PM each night, and were thick in the face, eyes, and back of the neck until we went to bed. However, during the night they receeded, and the mornings were quite pleasant again.

Brooks Range Camp
Kassie, Jess and I at camp with the Brooks Range in the Background.

A trip to the Tundra will bring as much to experience as the eye can behold and the brain can perceive. I’m looking forward to the next chapter of birds and blossoms!

“Roughing It” In the Bush.

This post starts from the first step up the bank of the the Porcupine River to Joe’s cabin. We were relieved to see the flood waters had not topped as far as the cabin, although plenty of water had still gone over bank-full height and flooded the lower terrace of his property. I hauled the gear from the boat as Joe set about opening the cabin.

Since there was no flood damage to be repaired, we started a leisurely existence at the cabin consisting of small projects (what Joe (and ironically my Dad) called “puttering”), eating, sleeping, and reading a book. Between sessions of tackling Alex Haley’s “Roots”, I went for birding walks around the cabin, and ventured into the local slough. As needed, we traveled a few miles upriver to a clear-water stream and filled five gallon pails full of water for filtering.

One of the greatest lessons I learned on the trip came from Joe when he said “Just because you live in the Bush, doesn’t mean you have to do without”. Certainly over the years, through sweat, countless trips up the river and through the air, he and his wife had transformed the cabin into a home away from home. When living there permanently, the four garden plots just out the door provided fresh vegetables.  A solar panel amply charged a battery pack in the cabin allowing for electric lights and a water pump for a shower. In fact, it was possible to take a steaming hot shower each day if one desired! A large kitchen, bedroom, eclectic and huge library, and centralized wood-stove made living there extremely comfortable!

Cabin Pano
This 360 degree panorama inside the cabin might be a big confusing, but take a while to look at it and appreciate how amazing it was!

The cabin was crafted by Joe and took four years to build. One year to cut the logs, strip the bark, and let the logs season. Another season to put up the walls and cut the lumber for the roof, and a couple more to finish the cabin entirely. All of the log-milling was completed with a chainsaw. For his first and last cabin, Joe did a perfect job. The cabin is in pristine condition, and I marveled at it a lot!

Cabin outside
This outside shot of the cabin shows just some of it’s beauty and perfection!

Aside from birding and reading, I enjoyed the views of the river. Life on the river changed constantly. After the first couple of days the water receded enough that a prominent gravel bar emerged for the first time since the flood. A  flock of twelve long-tailed ducks repeatedly flew up river and drifted down. Each cloudless night the moon rose over the far banks, and the low light of a mid-night sun lit up the bluffs across the river in orange and gold. Life was good on the banks of the Porcupine.

Cabin Bluffs Pano
Low-light each night would light up the bluff across from the cabin in dramatic and beautiful light.

Moon and Bluffs
Going to the bathroom was no drudgery at the cabin – this was the view from the outhouse door!

I did my best to capture video of life around the cabin. Throughout the days at the cabin I captured some timelapse and clips of wildlife. The music is pretty relaxing – you can check out the video here:

Although not all experiences in the bush need to be plush and care-free like this trip, I certainly have a new viewpoint that such an existence is even possible. Just because you live in the bush doesn’t mean you have to do without!

Delta
Delta enjoyed the leisure time as much as I did.

Delta
Our cabin guard dog 🙂

The Great Great-Horned Owl

It is amazing to think of the great-horned owl as a globally distributed bird. When we hear then hooting in our local woods, it is easy to forget their range extends far beyond the borders of our neighborhood or even the United States. In fact, a large piece of their range classified as “year-around” is found in southern Brazil and northern Argentina (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/great_horned_owl/lifehistory). A geographically diverse bird! Throughout their range, it is remarkable to think of the different organisms they have adapted to eat in the mountains, taiga, plains, or even jungle! Although you might traditionally think of the great-horned owl feeding on rodents or small mammals, these top-tier predators may even prey on larger raptors such as ospreys.

Great-horned owls are often hard to spot, and may perch in nearly unviewable thickets. Good opportunities to view them can be few-and-far-between, but I recently got a great chance to watch a great-horned owl. It was my first time ever observing one for a notable period of time.  After nearly 45 minutes of observation, I found the hour in the life an owl to be rather uneventful, haha! However, even at that my time spent watching this majestic bird clean itself, hoot, shift its gaze to sounds in the woods, and twist its head back and forth were very unforgettable! That’s what I bring to you today :).

I was fortunate to catch some great video that you can check out here:

Aside from the video I shot a bunch of photography. This gallery below pretty much sums up the behaviors of this owl when I was there. Cheers!

Highlights of an Alaskan Bird-a-thon

The Alaska Songbird Institute has a goal for people during their second annual “Bird-a-thon” : find as many birds as you can within 24 hours in Alaska. We, team MRI (Madi, Ross, and Ian), decided to take the task seriously! We started our 24 hour window at 8:00 PM by birding a range of Fairbanks hot-spots. From there we headed south along the Richardson highway with the goal of making it Paxson to bird the Denali Highway – a 134 mile stretch of wetland potholes and alpine tundra chock-ful of birds.

May 15th was the first day the Denali Highway was officially open, and much of the Denali Highway’s tundra was still covered in snow due to 3000′ elevation gain. Because of the low-productivity of snow-covered areas, we targeted melt areas and ponds. There were many, many species of birds. Some of them, such as red-throated loons were still passing through to breed on lakes further north over the Brooks Range, using the Denali Highway region as a “stopover” until the ponds further north were ice free. But, the site was not a stopover for most. Many of the birds were there to make a nest and raise young in the 24 hour light. The tundra is the summer home of many species which are found in vastly different habitats during the winter. For instance, the long-tailed jaeger is an ocean bird. During the summer they nest in the tundra and eat berries and small rodents. Quite a change from the fish they traditionally consume! Wilson’s warbler migrate to South America, and arctic terns migrate to Antarctica (the longest animal migration). In fact, the Alaskan tundra is so unique and special that birds from six of the seven continents can be found on it. For those that see the tundra frozen in the winter, it is easy to forget the tundra is a highly valuable and necessary ecosystem!

Aside from the birds, the scenery of the Denali Highway is never ending! The melting ponds and flowing rivers created a patchwork of light and dark across the land. To the north, the horizon was ragged like torn cloth with the mountains of the Alaska Range. In the twilight at 2:00 AM (because it no longer gets fully dark here), the Alaskan Range stabbed through the colors of the sunset and on bluebird days like the one we had its snow covered peaks starkly contrasted the thawing tundra and blue sky.

Along with the birds, there was plenty of mammals to see. By the end of the trip we watched well over 20 moose and probably 30 caribou. Arctic ground squirrels fed along the roadsides, and frolicked across the snow. The young animals of spring are out and about, and we enjoyed watching a red fox kit chew on some grass outside of its den after we returned to Fairbanks.

Alaska Range Caribou
A herd of caribou navigate around a pond with the expanse of the tundra behind them.

Moose
A mother moose and her yearly calf browse on new growth of willow.

Velvet Bulls
Two bull caribou lounge about in velvet antlers.

Fox Kit
This fox kit was a joy to watch. You can tell by the smooth walls of this den that they have spent quite a bit time going in and out.

So, bringing it back to where it all started, why go birding for 24 hours straight? It seems that it might be a bit crazy (for instance getting about 3-4 hours of sleep). To understand that, you simply have to understand what I believe birding is. Birding is a chance to observe the natural environment either individually or with friends. An opportunity to go birding with a two great friends (we rock, MRI!) in a place as remote and diverse as Interior Alaska is a moment to relax and learn something new (essentially a guarantee); it should not be passed up. Even if observing wildlife is not for you, my definition of “birding” can be modified to fit almost any hobby. Don’t pass up opportunities to learn and be with good friends. After 24 hours, we identified 68 species of birds; a pretty remarkable list and I cannot wait until next year’s Bird-a-thon!

Bird list
Here’s the list of observed species during team MRI bird-a-thon. 68 species in 24 hours! Ironically we did not turn up a black-capped chickadee – very ironic considering they are a classic species of Alaska.

Into the Mouth of an Ice Beast

The receding glaciers in the Bays of Southeast Alaska are opening up barren landscapes and new lands for colonizing vegetation and birds like arctic terns. As we walked along Sitaantaagu (Tlingit : “The Glacier Behind the Town”), I felt connected to the misty, snow covered mountains, and rocky lake shore. It is renowned and spectacular country!

Mendenhall glacier is receding at up to 150 feet per year, and in 1900 the large quantities of melt water began forming Mendenhall Lake.  The lake is now home to salmon which have colonized glacial streams. Remarkably, it seems that colonization by salmon occurs in a decade or two. Much shorter that I ever suspected!  As we, a large group of wildlife biologists, walked along the shoreline of Mendenhall Lake and told stories of field seasons gone-by or hypothesized on natural processes, icebergs which had calved from the glacier drifted in the middle of the lake.Naturalist Bob Armstrong introduced me to a small, alpine wildflower called purple mountain saxifrage.  This early bloomer, he stated, is a critical resource of early emerging insects like the bumble bees.

P4120143
Purple saxifrage is one of the first spring flowers to bloom in the Juneau region.

P4120147
Purple saxifrage filled with the rains of Juneau.

The face of the Mendenhall Glacier got bigger, and bigger, and bigger as we approached. By the time I reached the front of the glacier it loomed in front of me for almost a half mile.  I walked up the river of melt-water in front of the glacier and  touched the edge of the the ice cave it had carved. I grinned a bit, threw myself over a three foot bolder guarding the cave and stepped inside into the mouth of the icebeast. I was awestruck. Curved, turquoise ice hung over my head like whipped meringue. The sound of the river reverberating in the small space was numbing, and was fed by each drop of water that fell from the ice into the river. Looking further up the cave, the color transitioned from turquoise to cerulean blue. As I walked further the surrounding area turned so blue, that I could have been scuba diving in an ocean.

The hardest part to capture in these pictures is the scale of the ice cave. It stretched back over 100 feet, and as I walked in the ceiling diminished from 7 feet, to 5 feet, and finally I was relegated to crawling on my hands and knees in the narrow space.

The way ‘out’ was graced by a set of rock ptarmigan. These birds, allowed me to get very close, and I framed up this shot with the face of the Mendenhall Glacier in the background. These ptarmigan won’t be white for much longer!

P4120389
A beautiful rock ptarmigan in front of Mendenhall Glacier

P4120397
A puffy rock ptarmigan!

Glacial recession in expansion in Alaska has occurred since the last glacial maximum. The Little Ice Age caused the expansion of Alaskan glaciers about 4,000 years ago, and recent recession has exposed what has been buried for nearly a millennium. These stumps were exposed by the receding Mendenhall glacier and were aged to nearly 1,500 years ago! “Deep time” can be hard to comprehend, and it amazing to think the Imperial Chinese Empire had been established for 800 years and that Medieval Europe was enforcing fiefdoms through rigid monarchies when these hemlock and sitka black spruce were buried!

P4120337
A large stump of a forest buried by ice ~1,500 years ago. It has been determined the forest was composed of hemlock and sitka black spruce.

P4120339
This stump field is degrading fast, but it’s likely more forests will be uncovered as the Mendenhall Glacier receeds even further.

Rio Grande Valley and the Joy of a Naturalist

It is a joy being a naturalist in an area of high ecological diversity. The melding of the tropical zones of northern Mexico, and the arid regions of southern Texas are dominated the Rio Grande River. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge epitomizes the diversity of the region. Walking through the refuge throughout  the year can yield over 400 species of birds, 450 species of plants and over half of the species butterflies found within the United States. Although our trip to the region was targeting birds the opportunity to enjoy the ecology of the region while strolling through sable palms or meandering through desert scrub is a tremendous treat! Every region has a secret to give to one who watches long enough.Spending time being in nature is therapeutic. Mornings and evenings birding offer a time of enjoyment, relfection, observation, and exercise. A much needed relief from the routines of Daily Life, which I would encourage you to explore, maximize, and enjoy. 

Rio Grande Video:

Our trip built on our trip from 2014, which was a great introduction to the region.  In 2015 we added on several more ‘lifer’ species including but not limited to vermillion flycatcher, burrowing owl, cactus wren,painted redstart, audobon’s oriole, and red-crowned parrot. These were just a fraction of the 125 species we observed during the trip which is a modest number of species compared to some birders. Our time there focused on watching behavior by spending significant time with the birds and habitat. Since we are approaching the breeding seasons, many of the birds were a bit randy. We listened to breeding calls and watched many, many birds carrying nesting material. The video above shows some of that behavior; in particular watch the a cute lousiana waterthrush puff out his chest feathers, a black-necked still splash water around its mate, and a pair of parrots cuddle. The pictures below further capture some of the incredible birds, plants, and landscapes behind the lens of a novice naturalist. 

If you have made it this far and enjoyed the pictures, you can always check out the the gallery The Birds of Southern Texas, or more broadly Birds From Across the United States!

These images are from a variety of locations including:

Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley, Olivea Park, Sable Palms Sanctuary, Laguna Madre World Birding Center, South Padre Island Convention Center, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Many of these locations are discussed in this post from 2014.