Tag Archives: Denali Highway

Colorful Seasons in Alaska

There is nothing more beautiful than a wildflower, but what about them makes them so beautiful? Surely the details in them are often astounding. Long stamens, unique petals, or colorful flowers may dazzle the eyes. Alternatively, the beauty of a wildflower may be linked to its overall surrounding. We often find them perched in rocky crags, in front of mountain vistas, at the edge of our favorite pond, or along our favorite hiking trail. Each wildflower represents a detailed, wild beauty, and that beauty grows as you consider the ecosystem and ecology that surround them.

Wildflowers excel at telling us the progression of summer. In Alaska, one of the first wildflowers of spring, pasque flowers, spring up in large purple and yellow blossoms welcoming the queen bumble bees which have just woken up from a long winter. Similarly, the early blooms of purple mountain saxifrage provide a critical nectar resource for queen bees. However, the timing, or phenology, of wildflowers in Alaska is changing with a warming climate. Changing flower timing can effect insects populations, and in turn birds by growing at different times than they have for milleniums. An example that we (I believe) have all noticed is a quickly melting snowpack. As snowpack melts earlier it has repercussions on when a flower starts to grow and bloom by moving it earlier, and buds may freeze in the still cold temperatures (Inouye 2008). This changes the plant’s fitness and also the flowers available to pollinators.  Although the genes of plants may have enough flexibility accommodate some of the effects of climate change, they may need to evolve to ultimately survive (Anderson, Jill T., et al. 2012).

This summer I’ve turned my lens to all of the wildflower blooms I can. I am actually pretty astounded by the number of species I have photographed and learned! When photographing them I both put them in their surroundings, and captured the fine details of their beauty. Some of these images are availble for purchase through my Fine Art America gallery. I hope you enjoy this extensive collection of the colorful seasons of Alaska! Photos are featured in the month that I captured them, rather than when they first start blooming.

June

July

August

 

If you’ve made it this far then I want to let you know that these images are available in a single page as well with some images that are not featured in this post:

http://ianajohnson.com/wildflowers-of-alaska/

Identification Sources:

If you are looking for Alaskan wildflower identification I cannot say enough about the utility of these two sites:

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

http://www.alaskawildflowers.us/

USDA Plant Database http://plants.usda.gov/java/

Literature

Inouye, David W. “Effects of climate change on phenology, frost damage, and floral abundance of montane wildflowers.” Ecology 89.2 (2008): 353-362.

Anderson, Jill T., et al. “Phenotypic plasticity and adaptive evolution contribute to advancing flowering phenology in response to climate change.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 279.1743 (2012): 3843-3852.

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.

An Ode to Fall

An Ode To Fall

All Beautiful, Colors

Dropping Effortlessly Fluttering, Grounded

Hunting Including Johnson Kin, Legendary

Mornings Nothing-but Olfactory Prestige, Quintessential

Ringed Smoke Trembles, Upward

Vexing Weather, ‘Xtreme

Yellow, Zen

Happy Fall Everyone! The structured poem above is meant to capture the color, smells, transition, and culture of what fall means to me. But it certainly is a season that has many meanings to many people. Fall is already completed in Fairbanks, but here are a variety of fall colors taken from the Fairbanks and Denali regions with guest contributions from my Dad, Chuck Johnson. He was able to capture some wonderful colors when they visited in August!

What does fall mean to you? And has it already come-and-passed where you are? I would love to hear!

 

Birds and Rainbows on the Denali Highway

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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