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!
As some of you know, I have been living and working in the Sustainable Village here on campus and it’s been a really significant part of my life here; I wanted to spend a little time talking about my experiences here so far.
Once I knew that I was coming to grad-school I immediately started looking for positions at Residence Life. I worked for two years as an RA at my undergrad at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin (www.northland.edu) and one year as hall director; I was in charge of a staff of five and accountable for all of the residents in my building. I learned a lot during those three years, and had great experiences and relationships with my residents which made it worthwhile. During my graduate study I looked to continue what I had learned and wanted to use Residence Life at UAF as a way to integrate myself into the campus system and meet new friends and people. I felt my experience as a graduate student would be beneficial to my residents, who I assumed would be largely undergrads. I went through the interview process and ended up landing a position at the UAF Sustainable Village which is a perfect place for me; I feel my previous background and ideas fit into this position in a fate-like fashion . The Village was established in 2012 and was UAF’s first sustainable housing development. It integrates a community style living approach and sustainable-living guidelines in an approach that matched much of what I learned from Northland’s environmental mission. I was genuinely excited for the position as it offered a strong leadership role with almost endless amounts of innovation and self-motivation. When I came in, in fall of 2013, it was the second cohort of students and we are still setting precedence for what a cohort of students will look like in the future.
As part of my involvement in the Village I have had great interactions with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center (CCHRC; http://www.cchrc.org/) which were responsible for the design and construction of these buildings; however, it should be noted that the original design concepts of these houses were generated by a student based competition, which is very cool! CCHRC is interested in understanding sustainable development in the arctic; they are an outstanding research group and built the Sustainable Village with several systems that have not necessarily been attempted or tried before in hopes of improving housing for the future. Although I’m sure my list is not exhaustive, here are just some of the concepts demonstrated within the four houses:
Above-ground contained septic treatment
Heat Recovery Ventillator (HRV)
Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV)
Superior Envelop design
Solar-thermal, radiant floor heating
Insulated floors (r-60)
Polyurethane floor Raft (to protect the permafrost)
These concepts are all designed to make the houses energy efficient and sustainable in a northern climate where we have already surpassed -40 degrees this winter (as of 11/21/2013) and will continue to do so through March. So, how effective are these houses? CCHRC published their first year results here : http://www.cchrc.org/docs/snapshots/SustainableVillageSnapshot.pdf. An important graph from that publications shows the usage of energy from the Village houses compared to the average house in Fairbanks.
The graph demonstrates pretty well the effectiveness of the design of these houses! Of course sustainability is more than technology driven and should contain lifestyle changes as well. The residents at the Village are required to compost and recycle. The compost is used for community vegetable gardens, which are tended in the summer. The residents are asked to think consciously about their energy and water consumption and use alternative forms of transportation such as walking, biking, public transportation, or carpooling when a personal car is necessary. Community is a critical part of mission of the village and is something I play a critical role in; it my interest and job description to create programming that residents can have fun with and learn from. As part of the demonstration of this, I had a great opportunity to put together this video of life in the Sustainable Village. If you watch it all the way to the end I will say you get to see some very special footage from above the Sustainable Village which demonstrates its relation to the UAF campus, as well as some of the beauty of winter here!
Thanks for checking in everyone! Have a great Thanksgiving which is next week, and Christmas will be here before we know it which is a much anticipated break for this college student!!
We were fortunate enough to have clear skies here a couple of nights ago coupled with a good Aurora forecast. So I took my gear over to Murphy Dome just outside of Fairbanks and set up for some shooting. It was my goal to create a time lapse and honestly thought I had it nailed until I got back to the house and imported my pictures. There were definitely some issues with this shoot, so lots of learning to be done! Here’s what I found out:
It was -10 degrees that night. I tried to help my camera out by wrapping it in tinfoil and adding some hand warmers. It was not enough and the images showed the sensor in my camera struggling in the cold. The predominant issue was the loss of one of the colors that left a purple tint on the foreground. I had to correct for that. I am going to be creating a wrap and heating system for my camera for future shots.
The sensor issue (cold) led to underexposed shots at settings that should have been well exposed
I shot at 3200 ISO so that I could shoot shorter exposure (6 seconds), but the result of that was very noisy shots that made it hard to correct for the issues listed above
In a non-camera related a close, low spruce tree in the shot for the ‘art’ of it, I wish I hadn’t done that! :p
However, with all that being said I have a product that might give you the desire to see the Lights up here! :). It’s not just a picture, make sure watch the video! There will be more northern lights timelapse photography as I implement new strategies.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks, as I’ve been spending my last couple of weekends in Chena Hot Springs in pursuit of small mammals; specifically the water shrew. My work out there has been with Jonathan Fiely, who describes these small mammals as “the river otters” of the small mammal world. They are active hunters which snack on small minnows and invertebrates that they catch. Unfortunately, our success in nabbing one of these tiny, elusive creatures was zero; however, the nights we spent out doing it were well worth it. Last weekend was that big Full Moon. If you didn’t catch it that’s too bad! Although, there will be others ;). One of the fascinating facts about the moon is that it’s the same phase for everyone in the world. It connects us all. Although that may seem like common sense, with the quickly dying daylight hours here in Alaska, I’m happy to know that some of the celestial events are shared with my hometown Minnesotans and adopted Mainers. The moonlight off the tributary to the Chena River was a bright, ivory road. It was impossible not to stand there and just look at it – although I may have benefited from sunglasses it was so bright! Here you can see me standing in the river (not on the ice) looking at that big moon.
One of the big news events of the week for me was a large X1.7 and X2.0 Solar flare from the sun. These events are the triggers of the Aurora, and this was one was described by NASA as “A canyon of fire over 200,000 miles long”. Based on this information I was VERY excited to head up north for the weekend and get away from the light pollution of Fairbanks in hopes of getting some really good looks at the Aurora. After reviewing the Aurora forecast (http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast) it looked like there was going to be a decent chance of getting at least a ‘moderate’ display up north. So, I packed up my photography gear, gun, and camping stuff and headed up 85 miles north with Ross Dorendorf to the Twelvemile Summit on the Steese Highway. We could not have picked a better day to be up in interior Alaska. The day was actually very, very warm for the end of October, I think the high was probably near 35 degrees. We were in pursuit of Ptarmigan so we headed up the ridge tops, hiking for a few miles. Although the ptarmigan tracks printed in the snow were abundant is certain areas we never saw a single ptarmigan. We were lucky enough to see a large snowy owl on the slope below us. As soon as he realized he was spotted the owl took off from the ground and flew along the ridge top in front of us, about 300 yards away. He was very large! I would say the size of a large gull and flapped gracefully. Here are a series of pictures and a 360 degree video from the summit of the mountain. As you can see, it wasn’t a bad day out there!
We hiked down from the ridgetop and got back to the truck right as the sun was disappearing. The warm temperatures were also disappearing. What a sun driven system we have here! The sunset was indeed a beauty and the clouds to the south, which were likely covering Fairbanks, lent themselves perfectly to the orange and yellow bands in the sky.
Once we were done with the sunset it was time to get down to making camp. Now don’t get me wrong, camp on this trip was pretty straight forward. I was to sleep in the back of my truck and Ross was to sleep in his tent. We weren’t too interested in leaving some of the conveniences of car camping behind. So, Ross fired up his stove and soon had a warm, salty, cheesy and DELICIOUS batch of macaroni and cheese going. I had tasked myself with making a batch of monkey bread in the dutch oven. Monkey bread is also called pull bread and is a doughy, cinnamon sugar filled wonder. Its hot, sweetness is the perfect end to any day. Dutch oven cooking is a small camping hobby of mine. It involves a cast iron pot which is heated from the top and bottom with coals. You can bake an assortment of meals and desserts within it; if you can make it in a traditional oven at home, you can cook it within the dutch oven. The picture below illustrated the heat on top and bottom of the oven.
So, did we get a good product from the dutch oven? On this day the Dutch OVen was a massive success story, the monkey bread was done perfectly! I can’t claim success every time, so this was a sweet day! The video below “Twilight and Goodies” will give you a good look at my finished product 😀
As we sat and digested the food we had eaten the night got darker and darker. The twilight finally gave way into complete darkness and we were humbled and awe-struck by the stars above us and around us. The milky-way cut through the sky in a large creamy swath. I did my best to capture the milky way. The images you’ll see below have been enhanced in contrast to help bring out the color and feel of the multitude of stars and the grandeur of the milky-way. However, you’ll see in the first image an orange tint at the bottom of the image. What you are looking at is actually the light pollution from Fairbanks. Even 80 miles away, in the state of Alaska, light pollution is filling our skies. In some point in our history, there will never be a black sky ever again. This presents more than aesthetic, human problem; birds are known to navigate by light and become disorientated by the lights of cities and within the ocean. If you don’t think it’s a big deal, think about being a bird as you fly into your next airport at night.
The second image you see below has been modified to remove the light pollution.
While observing the cosmos we watched many shooting stars streak across the sky. One of them lasted for so long we contemplated going after it, as we were sure based on its trajectory that it had buried itself somewhere just outside of Barrow. Our backs and neck ached with the craning our heads to the stars above, but there was not stopping our watching.
You’ll notice the title of this entry is “In Pursuit of the Aurora”. On this night, even with the solar activity, the aurora evaded us. We stayed up until 1AM and at time the clouds started to roll in. Although I’m confident there was an Aurora this night, we were unable to see it. However, at about 12 AM one of the the most interesting phenomenon occurred. Simultaneously Ross and I looked to the horizon and came to the same conclusion: there was a fire and it looked to be big. The fire continued to grow and a minute later we realized our folly as a blood-orange, crescent moon rose quickly over the hillside. It illuminated the landscape around us in its light. The moon and the new cloud cover convinced us that sleep was more valuable than the aurora on this night.
This weekend was my first weekend to get out and enjoy the beautiful fall weather of Alaska. It had been a pretty rainy, dreary week. But at 11AM on Saturday morn the sun broke through the clouds and has been shining ever since! I headed up to Murphy Dome (http://goo.gl/X9dL3k) for some grouse and ptarmigan hunting. I was blown away by the mixture of spruce and fiery birch that were EVERYWHERE. Up here we have the ‘alaskan paper birch’, which is very similar to the white paper birch of the mid-west.
One of the unusual things about this fall in Fairbanks has been the amount of rain we received. Of course, I can’t say ‘unusual’ from my experience here, rather just based on what others have said. Because of the amount of rain that we received the fall fungi have been very common! I love how their dark reds, browns and yellows offset the golden carpet of birch leaves around them. I think they are very beautiful, however, don’t eat these ones! I’m not sure of the exact species, I think it could be amanita muscaria, but I know others in this family will kill you. It’s been described to me as such : “yup, you’ll trip balls, then you’ll die”. So, please, re-frame from any licks or bites. Interested in a bit more information about these shrooms? Check out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria
Once I got past the fall colors (and it truly is more of a physical barrier than a metaphorical one!) I headed up to Ester Dome region and started to walk around looking for grouse and ptarmigan. As I headed up a powerline cut I was immediately astounded by the volume of blueberries and low bush cranberries. They were EVERYwhere. I had never seen blueberries like that in my life. During my walk I foraged until my stomach told me “no more!”; I imagine I was at the 1/2 gallon point of blueberries and cranberries in my stomach. However, my blueberry findings only got better. After a time I started to walk down this steep draw to a river bed. The trickling stream I found at the bottom was filled with blueberry plants that were almost waist high and could have been bowing to the ground by the numbers of blueberries on them. I knew that I had to do some picking here soon ( that’s called foreshadowing… 🙂 ) and would be back. However, with no grouse in sight I headed back up the draw and found out that walking up moss covered hill sides is absolutely grueling! The best analogy I can think of is walking on a thermopedic mattress that’s 8 inches deep and doesn’t have a box spring to stop you at the bottom. Its like quick sand. The moss and lichen absorbed each step, much like I was wearing moon boots. Coupled with a 15 – 20 % grade and a 3/4 mile straight-up ascent I was beat when hit the ridge again. However, I was rewarded soon after with 2 spruce grouse, my first ever!
After this I met up with a guy named Ross and we headed up to the top of Murphy Dome looking for Ptarmigan. Murphy dome was the highest point for miles around, and the view were truly incredible. We never did see any ptarmigan, but the hike and the day were incredible!
The next day I went back for the blueberries. In a nutshell I was able to pick about 18 pints of blueberries in 1.75 hours! I have never, never,never seen wild blueberry picking like it was in this place. The berries were ready to fall off the bushes, so all you had to do was get your box under and shake the branches. The disadvantage of this technique was the sticks and leaves that fell into the box as well, however, by placing the blueberries in water when I got home they separated out perfectly as the blueberries sank and the sticks/leaves floated! I am looking forward to going back for more berries as this patch. Of course one of the challenges of this location is carrying 20lbs of blueberries in a box up thermopedic mattress hill. Challenge accepted!
I’m truly looking forward to blueberry pie when winter sets in! I’m also thinking of doing some bartering for some moose or caribou. Also, I just thought I’d throw out there that if you ever get a chance to ‘spruce’ up your stir-fry. Try spruce grouse stirfry! Pretty tasty. Pictured here are broccoli, carrots, tomato, green pepper, and mushroom stirfry with spruce grouse 🙂
So readers, that’s a little bit about fall here in AK over the weekend! We have consistent frost at this time, and the ground is frozen in many of the low places. Currently it is dark at about 8:30 and light about 7:30, however we are losing an average of 7 minutes of light PER DAY, so ~50 minutes per week. It will not be long before our days are short and cold. Winter will be setting in soon! I hope to keep you updated as I continue to explore and learn about my region and AK in general!
I’m just back from an exceptional three days at the Toolik Field Station (http://goo.gl/NlH6e6). My travels up north are a fulfillment of a childhood dream. This field station is located over the Brooks Range, on the North Slope Tundra of Alaska. It’s a 10 hour trip up the Dalton Highway from Fairbanks to this very remote location. The area had just had its first snow of the year which was slowly melting off the Tundra, but in my opinion it was there to stay in the mountains. Apparently, it’s typical for snow to start to hang around by the middle of September! Temps were dropping down to the low 20s at night, and were only raising up to about 35 during the daytime. Late fall and winter are already setting in this far north, and should be headed towards the U.S. 48 any day! The trip up there was part of my graduate orientation. I was accompanied by 7 other new graduate students. Our goal was to enjoy the arctic, understand the Toolik field station and get to know everyone in the group.
Toolik is located above the arctic circle which is 66′ 33″. This arbitrary line is determined by the latitude where the sun can be seen at midnight during the summer solstice. Hence, once you cross in the arctic you are officially in the land of the “midnight sun”. The dark nights are famous in this area and are very difficult for some to cope with. However, without further ado I’m looking forward to taking you along the journey up the Dalton Highway and to the Toolik Field Station!
GEOLOGY and TUNDRA-ISTICS
One of the great pieces to this trip was the knowledge of the staff and personnel who were with us. I learned a lot about the geology of tundra features. One of the prominent features on the tundra were the Thermokarsts. These features are formed when permafrost (ie: ground that stays frozen) begins to thaw and collapse. Some thermokarsts are capable of sinking 10s of feet, while others may only drop several inches. The significance of this is that a large amount of carbon is released from the soil as it thaws and collapses. The released carbon can cause changes to the ecology, biology, and communities around the thermokarst. As much as 1/3 of the tundra across the world is made up of material that would collapse in a warming world. So, what do these thermokarsts look like? Here you go:
Each of the images that you are looking at are examples of a specific type of Thermokarst. They are “active detachment layers”. The active layer is the permafrost that thaws each year. In these spots the permfrost has thawed in the top layer and had begun to slide down the hillside. This landslide is occurring overtop of the still frozen soil below.
During a 6 mile hike up the Atigun Gorge we encountered another feature that were looking for. Geodes and fossils. The geodes found in the area ranged from golfball to watermelon sized. Once you cracked them open the crystals inside looked like many small diamonds! We also found an a shale area laden with fossils of shells from ages past. I have never seen a concentration of fossils like that!
PLANTS OF THE TUNDRA
Everything regarding plants happens slowly in the Tundra. Dwarf birch may stand 8 inches tall and be 50 years old! The trees in the tundra are limited by the growing season and nutrients in the soils. However, they still cover manyof the areas that you walk in. In the pictures here you can see the dwarf birch in the reds and yellows throughout the area. Hopefully it demonstrates the blanketing of these plants as well as the height. Notice the caribou antlers for Scale? These pictures were taken in Atigun Gorge, Finger Mountain and along the Dalton Highway.
Another common species of tree is the black spruce. It’s the iconic tree of the boreal forest and is VERY slow growing. Fully mature trees may be only 6 inches in diameter and over 100 years old! Here you can see the different sizes of spruce. The growth rings on the tree are so tiny that I couldn’t even count them. Scientists age these tress while alive by taking a core sample of the tree. The plug resembles a skinny pencil.
One of the common berries that we found were the low-bush cranberry. Some of you may be familiar with these berries from Minnesota in the bogs. These plants have a tart red berry which is loaded with vitamin C. I thought that the tundra berries didn’t have as much flavor as the ones that I found in bogs. Perhaps a research project in the making?? We also found cloud berry, blue berry, crow berry and bear berry. All of those berries are edible, but the cloud berries are by far the best! There is also several species of peas found in the tundra. I couldn’t find any with pods, but I guess they get them. The pea plants are found among rocky outcrops and are very low to the ground.
Cotton grass is aptly named for its cotton like heads. This grass is very common through the tundra, and during the right times of year will cause the tundra to look like a cloud with all of the fluffy white heads.
THE ALASKA PIPELINE
The Alaskan pipeline is HUGE. I’ll just start by saying that. It also is an engineering marvel. The pipeline is prevalent along the entire Dalton Highway and continues to to run north past Toolik another 120 miles up to Prudhoe Bay. The pipeline was built back between 1974 and 1977 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Alaska_Pipeline_System), it’s nearly 40 years old. It is earthquake resistant as well as cooled to avoid melting into the permafrost. Many of the poles have heat vents coupled with refrigerator coolent. These radiators keep the pipe from thawing the soil. The pipe is suspended on teflon pads, and the pipe can slide over the pads during an earthquake, which gives it a lot of security. In the case emergency a pump station can shut down the flow of the pipe in any given spot. However, spills are pretty uncommon, and the only one that anyone talked about was an incident involving a drunken man with a gun who managed to shoot a hole through the pipe. Most of the pipe is layed above ground, but there are certain sections that are underground. It’s also necessary for the pipe to cross many rivers, including the Mighty Yukon.
LIFE IN TOOLIK FIELD STATION
The scenery never truly stopped no matter where you looked throughout the station. The TFS houses up to 150 scientists in the summer, but tapers of to 10 – 15 throughout the winter. The remote setting ensures that only a skeleton crew is left to man the needs of the researchers and facilities. The TFS sits to the north of the Brooks range and offers unprecedented views of the mountains. Wildlife abound in the area and yellow-billed loons live on the lake. Wolves, caribou, wolverines, musk ox, ground squirrels and many other species of animal may be found in the area.
This research looked at the response of the tundra to fire. In 2004 and 2005 over 6 millions acres of Tundra burned which is an unheard of number! Black spruce, which may have been growing for 200 years were torched. The research found that the tundra actually recovered pretty fast, and that the amount of carbon released was the equivalent to the accumulation of about 30 years. So, overall it might have been worse. However, an increased fire regime is expected on the tundra due to the warming climate, so more fires like these 8 years ago may occur.
We were incredibly blessed when we got there. The sky had just cleared off after nearly a week of foggy, rainy, snowy weather. The first night the Aurora appeared about 12AM. It started as light green haze in the sky and continued to intensify until ribbons of pink and green floated for miles around us. Areas of the aurora would build and fade so quickly it was hard to take it all in. As my eyes dashed about the sky there was always something else to see. However, it was almost impossible to comprehend. In some regards it can be related to a Rainbow because as you stand and look at it it connects to the earth and you feel there is a source to the light. However, chasing it would never yield a starting location. I’ve throught a lot about the best ways to describe how I felt the first night that it boomed and loomed over my head. Here’s some of the inadequate descriptions that I thought of:
Undulating Jelly fish
On the night we had a bonfire which can be seen in many of the aurora photo. Again, it started in a light green haze that continued to grow and become saturated. The aurora the second night was so much different that the first! Rather than the organized bands it saturated everything and damped out the skies. You can see in the ground that the snow was green from the surreal light above! Again, words truly cannot describe how these lights effect your senses, your mood and your heart. Everything in in your person is drawn to them and you cannot help but watch.