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!
In July 2018 I was back on familiar ground in Minnesota. My home town is set in a classic Midwestern setting. Sprawling farm fields with rows of potatoes, corns, and beans. Wheat and barley fields with sprawling prairie oaks from remnants of prairies that were. As my passion for photography has grown I have found new ways to appreciate and observe its beauty. As with most of the places I go, I had an itch to go into the night and see the familiar landscape in a new light (or lack of it). The clear, moonless skies and warm nights brought me into the darkness like a moth attracted to the light.
My dad and I drove north under ink dark skies. With the Milky Way core rising at midnight, I wanted to make sure that we were in place by 11:30. We had scouted an old, abandoned farmstead the day before and sought it out along the country roads. The night was calm and a heavy dew lay on the grass. Crickets chirped and my camera clicked. A peaceful start to a peaceful evening.
Moving on from the farm we continued north to our land. We opened the orange metal gate at its entrance and drove through. In the familiar, 50 acre pasture an old Paper Birch and Burr Oak stood juxtaposed against the short grasses below. We worked together to light paint the trees and surrounding pasture. As I made the images the night hit its dew point and fog rolled over the pasture and fogged my lens. This inconvenience ultimately dampened my shooting and we packed up my gear and headed home.
The images below are the result of my journeys into the night over a few days. They are a new way of looking at and remembering the countryside I grew up in. They fuse together elements of my home with elements in the sky and for me lock in memories of those nights out.
Some days are destined to be better than others and due to the probability of the seasons it has a 25% chance of being a day in autumn. There is something magical to the season wrapped into the death, color, and distinct smells it manifests each year. Fall mornings immerse all of your senses: the bite on your nose of frost in the morning, musk of decaying leaves, the sound or crunching leaves, and brilliant colors of foliage make the season like none other.
The magic and of the day started as soon as my eyes opened. I stepped from my bedroom to watch a subtle and beautiful sunrise over Neka Mountain and Port Frederick. As I sipped my coffee and watched from the window the warm colors of low sunlight started from the peak of Neka Mountain and progressed to its base. I smiled and thought through the possibilities of the day. The plan for the day was simple : go fishing and bring a camera.
Down in the River
Eight miles out of town Spasski River held the promise of fish and bears. I strolled through a muskeg full of color. 4-leaved, 4-inch tall, Bunchberry Dogwoods had transformed into red fireworks with colors nearing a poinsettia and lingering frost framed the sharp edges of sedges and grass. I crossed out of the muskeg and descended the banks of the river passing giant sentinels of Hemlocks and Spruces. Once in the river the circular ripples in the surface of the water over my fishing hole gave hint to the presence of Cohos below. Peering in I counted fourty 40 or more fish and noted some of them had turned the dark red of the season.
After 15 minutes of fruitlessly flinging my pink fly into the school of Cohos a pair of bears showed up on the river bank. I watched as the sow and cub came closer and stepped into the open so they could see me. The cub trailed closely behind the mother and after a couple of my woops acknowledging I was there they passed into the tall grass of the river bank.
When brown fur came into view again I had the privilege of gaining some insight into bear behavior. The cub emerged alone in the tall grass and it was evident it was very nervous. It stood on its rear feet to sniff the air and then sprinted forward in the long grass while looking back over its shoulder as though being chased by shadows. The young bear stood three more times to look and smell for its mother, but she was not to be found. Mother bears have a reputation of being helicopter parents to protect their cubs from aggressive males trying to kill them. It was evident the cub appreciated the protection of the mother and was nervous to be out of her shadow. When I left the cub and sow had not been reunited, but I was sure the sow had not left the cub as isolated as it thought.
With the bears on my brain I decided it was best to stop fishing. I needed to be alert and was not keen on carrying Cohos out knowing the bears may interested in them too. I turned my attention to the scene in front of me. Yellow Salmon Berries reflected off the surface of the river. My eye was led down the scene to the flat top of ear mountain presided over the river. It was a special place to be and I was there to enjoy it alone.
The American Marten
Leaving the bears I encountered the next fiercest mammal of the forests of Chichagof Island : the American Marten. I found it in the compromising position of scavenging trash, and snuck closer whenever it dropped into the green garbage can in front of me. I was about 30 feet away when it spotted me and the necessity for me to move closer was negated by the curious creature. Before long it approached me to within 10 feet and was perhaps trying to decide if I was edible. I stood stock still and it curiously twisted its head back and forth to size me up and stared my camera each time it clicked. The Marten, not totally trusting the large bi-pedal in front of it, dashed into the grass several times as though testing to see if I would pursue. Each time it poked its head up from the grass by standing on its rear feet. Finally bored or perhaps hungry it left the grinning human for good.
Muskegs on Fire
Throughout the day I had stopped several times to stare at and admire the incredible reds and oranges of the muskegs. Red leaves of Wild Blueberry plants transformed the floor the muskeg into fire. The read were accented by the evergreen trees sprouting from the muskeg and by the crystal clear blue skies. However, in one place the red colors were especially vibrant, rivalling the reds of the Maple trees that I grew up with in the Midwest. The beauty of that place held me there for a long time as I photographed it and felt privileged to be there.
Transition in Suntaheen
From the fiery muskeg I descended to the quenching silence of the Suntaheen River valley. Along the river I found autumn to be in full progress. Red Alders sheltered the slow flowing river with amber leaves. The fallen leaves of those trees covered the rocky river bank like the yellow brick road. Beams of sunlight backlit trickled through the canopy and individually lit some of the fallen leaves. Groves of Devils Club along the river’s bank were turning a vibrant yellow and sunlight poked through their decaying leaves.
In the river I was reminded by of the salmon that had choked its waters only a month before. Scattered ribs, spines, and salmon jaws lay where the carcass had been eaten by a bear or had simply died. The bones were devoid of flesh and provided evidence the fish’s energy had already been absorbed by its sourrounding environment. Its nitrogen and energy mingled with the decaying leaves of the trees above cycling to ultimately feed to tiny fish emerging from the eggs buried in the gravel. Some days are just better than others. On this beautiful day I felt blessed to watch nature, learn something new, enjoy the transition of seasons, and observe the cycle of seasons.
A couple of times every year the moon and sun align – literally – to bring about very large tides. In June this year, a full moon delivered a -4.6 tide to Hoonah, Alaska and provided a glimpse of life under the sea. Rocky shorelines were converted into tide pools full of life trapped there by the receding waters. The first time I experienced one of these monster tides was in May 2016 right after moving to Hoonah. The joy I find in perusing the beaches and flipping rocks to see what is beneath has not diminished since that time. Thanks to Bob Armstrong’s guide, I am able to identify some of the creatures we found.
The Star Fish
Of all the animals in a tide pool, Sea Stars seem to provide the most variety to the color, textures, shapes, and sizes that have evolved in the ocean. In some places they cover every rock surface or bottoms of tide pools. They are the ever-present predator scouring for crustaceans, snails, and clams. We enjoyed looking at their colors and touching their rough (and sometimes slimy) skins.
We found the crab shells before we found the octopus den. The tell-tale shells were only a foot or two away from a crevice containing 8 arms with quarter-sized suckers. Th octopus was so large that we could only see one arm, and wait as we might it never came out of the den. Fortunately a smaller octopus – about the size of a football- motored by us. They are intelligent and lithe creates known for their camouflage. It was amazing to watch the colors of the small octopus’s skin turn from a light pink to dark red as it moved from rock to rock and tried to blend in. It was the first time I had watched a wild octopus! The 12″ deep water provided a window into its life below.
Crabs are really remarkable creatures. They have adapted themselves to all areas (niches) of the inter-tidal zone in search of food. We must have found 8 or 10 different species, but some of them stood out for their uniqueness. Spines, claws, and camouflage make them fit for the niche they fill. The most bizarre was the Butterfly Crab – it is hard to imagine what its oblong shell would provide. Perhaps it camouflage?
Bobbin’ Around Under Water
Below the inter-tidal we found this bright orange sponge. This sponge was accessible because of the low tide.
A day spent looking into tide pools is time well spent! Exploration allows you to discover new things, observe new behaviors, and breath in the sea air. I look forward to the next big tide!
It is not every day you get to save the life a whale. In fact, it may not be more than once in a lifetime. However, I can say with certainty, that if you are able to successfully save a whale from entanglement it is the best feeling in the world. You will feel like life just cannot get much better!
On September 16th, 2018, the 35-foot landing craft, Silver Spoon, cruised through the flat waters of Chatam Strait about 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The bluebird day was abnormally sunny for autumn in Southeast Alaska. On board, Captain Billy Mills was taking Kurt Pesch, Kathy Pesch, Kassie Pesch-Johnson and myself up the coast looking for wildlife. We passed False Bay on the east side of Chichagof Island and were near when Wukuklook River when we spotted a whale on the surface.
Ordinarily a whale on the surface is just a sleeping whale. In a typical encounter they wake up, swim a bit, and may eventually take a dive. However, this whale displayed some peculiar behavior by keeping its nose above the water. As we got closer we could see it was pulling a set of buoys behind it and those buoys were keeping it from diving. We watched the whale from a distance to determine the extent of entanglement. The whale never dove and was making distressed chirping sounds with its blowhole. Armed with this information Billy radioed the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau to report the entangled whale. They collected information on the whales condition and informed NOAA, and informed us they not have any vessels in the region to reach us soon. The whale was moving quickly so the likelihood of NOAA resighting and disentangling the whale was low. Billy made the call to go about helping the whale as we could.
Before I start into the rest of this tale I need to put out a disclaimer. Humpback Whales and ALL marine mammals deserve your respect. You need to respect all rules regarding minimum distances from whales and we only made the decision to approach this whale after knowing that professionals were not available to help in this situation. We felt the likelihood of the whale dying were high if we did not at least try to fix the situation.
We approached the whale slowly and encountered the loose green buoy line (the end not attached to the buoys) behind the whale about 100 feet. Using a boat hook we picked up the end and then began to pull the line into the boat. We pulled in much of the line before the whale panicked and took off. I was able to sever the line before the whale stripped it back out of the boat. Not many people can say they’ve had a whale on the line! The whale dove briefly but came back up a few hundred yards way to continue its pattern of swimming with its nose above the water. This just proved to us that the whale could not function without removing the buoys.
The whale was moving quickly, perhaps 12 knots, but we slowly came up behind it for a second approach. With boat-hook in hand our goal was to snag the buoys and complete the disentanglement. Soon I had the buoys in hand and we began to draw more line into the boat. We were fortunate! The loose end of the line began to slide through the whales mouth essentially “flossing” it. This allowed us to remove much of the line.
After pulling much of the line through the whale’s mouth something truly incredible happened. The whale stopped in the water, opened its mouth, and slid backwards into the ocean. It was almost as though it knew we were trying to save it! After sliding backwards into the water the whale began to move and pull the line. More slid through its mouth before finally catching. I severed the line and the whale gave a half breach, a flip of its fluke, and then we did not see it again. Although some of the line was left on the whale it was able to dive and stay down!! We felt confident the rest of the line would eventually get removed. We had done it!!!!
One of the puzzling things was why this whale was unable to stay down. Although the four crab pot boys attached it were very buoyant, it did not seem like enough to keep the whale on the surface of the ocean. The whale was medium-sized and pretty young. My theory is that the whale acted much like a horse would to the pressure of a bridle and reigns. The upward pressure of the buoys may have kept the whale on the surface. I do not have any proof that, just a theory.
After doing some research I discovered that crab pots like the one this whale entangled in are the most commonly reported. I know I will be doing my part by being as responsible as I can with my sets. Do not use floating line as was used on this crab pot set.
There are times when doing nothing can be better for the animal than doing something. It is likely in this case that the whale would have become more entangled in the long rope and would have injured itself or been unable to swim. I am proud of us all for giving this whale a far better chance for survival!
Exactly two years after the Tribal House dedication in Glacier Bay National Park, five boats full of tribal members from Hoonah floated to the dock in Bartlett Cove at the entrance of the Park. Inside of Bartlett Cove a light rain fell and fog rolled through the trees – normal conditions for the homeland of the Huna Tlingit. The approximately 30 students on the boat departed in full red, black, and blue regalia with drums pounding. They were there to participate in the raising of a new totem, the Healing Pole, to recognize the reconciliation between the Park and Tribe in the last decade-and-a-half.
The students danced past the awaiting attendees at Bartlett Cove and to the beach. These songs were to welcome the people at the Park and those still arriving by water. They waited silently as the 42-foot dugout canoes were paddled in carrying elders, tribal members, and members of the National Park Service. Once the canoes disembarked all dignitaries werevon shore the rest of the ceremony commenced.
The Healing Pole
In 2017, traditional carvers Gordon Greenwald, Herb Sheakley, Owen James, and Randy Roberts began to carve a new totem. The pole’s goal was to tell the story of the relationship between the National Park Service and Huna Tlingit. Much of that story is difficult to tell as the Park (and the preceding National Monument) was responsible for keeping the people of Huna from harvesting their traditional foods within the park boundary since the year 1925 and into the present.
The Pole Arrives
It takes a community to move a pole. On this day its weight was born by Tribal members and Park Service employees symbolizing the relationship between the two. Step by step it was moved to lay next to its final location at the entrance of Bartlett Cove.
The Friend Who Has No Eyes. No Spirit. Sheds No Tears. Has too Many Hands.
Gordon Greenwald, dressed in woven cedar hat and vivid regalia, stood in front of an expectant audience to talk about the story conveyed in the totem. The story was laid out from the bottom to the top. Fish, seagull eggs, devils club, and halibut demonstrated that Glacier Bay was the food basket of the Huna Tlingit. However, 250 years ago as the glacier surged forward and destroyed the villages in Glacier Bay the pole showed how people got in their canoes and scattered to new settlements. A lock and chain nailed to the totem above canoes showed that by the time the glacier receded the U.S. Government had converted Glacier Bay into a National Monument and barred them from using their homelands in the traditional fashion. Even more ominous was the blank, colorless, eyeless face above the lock and chain. Gordon explained, “Then came the friend you have that has no eyes. The friend you have that has no spirit. The friend you have that sheds no tears. The friend you have that has too many hands. The U.S. Government”. Waves in the totem show that the metaphorical waters of Glacier Bay were turbulent for years, but footprints above the waves demonstrated that “we walk in the footprints of our grandparents and ancestors” and those footprints eventually led to the Tribal House that crowned the pole.
The Healing Pole was much different than the clan poles erected in front of the Tribal House as it incorporated traditional formline and modern carvings. The addition of the chain and lock provided a powerful, although non-traditional twist to the message of the pole.
Up It Goes
In due time it was time for the totem to be raised. The students sang traditional songs and audience members raised their hands to dance. Within 20 minutes the enormous pole was proudly displayed for all to admire and know the story it held.
The Process of Healing
As part of the healing process Hoonah Indian Association and Tribal members created matching robes to be given to the the Superintendent of the park and President of the Tribe. Receiving the robe, Park Superintendent Phillip Hooge hugged Julie Jackson and Darlene See warmly with tears in his eyes. His open emotions brought a smile to my face because it demonstrated the barriers that were being broken down. This was not just a stiff, formal presentation, it was a truly significant and meaningful transaction.
With the formalities done outside it was time to go inside the Tribal house for stories and to dance and sing. Students let the procession and songs within the Tribal House. The emphasis on students during the event was heartwarming – it was done acknowledging the future leaders of the Huna Tlingit and their need to recognize, know, and participate in their culture.
For me, the most powerful moment came when Park Service employees were invited to the dance floor. The dance began with institution leaders Phillip Hooge and Frank Wright Jr. As it progressed more and more people joined the throng. The moment was powerful – it was not that many years ago that such a blend of backgrounds, views, disciplines, and culture would have seemed impossible. As the dance tapered away it was obvious that spectators were as invigorated by it as the participants.
The Healing Pole Ceremony is another chapter in the annals of history for the Huna Tlingit and the Park Service. The growth and relationships developed through the Tribal House, Clan Poles, and now the Healing Pole will need to be nourished to continue the healing and progress that is needed for the people of Hoonah. The fact that all around people acknowledged the need for that nourishment makes me feel hopeful for the future.
As a non-native spectator it was a privilege to be at this event. It was especially nice to have the context of the previous two events and my knowledge of working for the Tribe to help set the story. I am honestly pretty shocked by the openness of emotion showed from both sides – the plight and longing to actively use their homeland was evident through the stories of Elders and Tribal members. The acknowledgement of the damages done and the willingness to make good as the Government System allows could be seen in the Park Service employees. Because of the event’s blend of traditional and modern values, it continues to show the resilience of the Hoonah Tlingit – their ability to adapt will has and will ensure their culture is alive and well into the future.
When something you expect and love (although sometimes you may not know you love it) is absent for a long time you experience great joy in its return. When the rains returned to Hoonah after the second driest July in 20 years I rejoiced in how quickly it rejuvenated the ecosystem and in the resilience and patience of salmon.
A July Without Rain
In July 2018, there was something very obviously missing from Hoonah, Alaska : rain. Even though this was only my third summer in Hoonah, it was not difficult for me to think back to previous summers and acknowledge how the lack of rain was impacting our local berry patches, rivers, salmon, and forests. The conditions reduced the wet muskegs to patches of brittle sphagnum moss and sedges. There was a noticeable impact on our salmon berries and blueberries. Very few salmon berries ripened, and blueberry barrens normally laden with ripening berries had nearly blank bushes. Our local temperature rainforest ecosystem was struggling without rain.
The lack of rain resulted in a lack of spawning salmon. It is expected in July that Pink and Chum Salmon would fill the holes throughout the rivers. However, the drought-like conditions reduced rivers to minimum baseflows and kept Chum and Pink Salmon from easily returning to rivers. Especially Pink Salmon were almost absent from all of Hoonah’s major rivers because they were trapped in the mouths. Without a large rain event they would remain at the mouths until desperation and time forced them upstream.
It is easy for time to erase the memory, and for past perceptions about the weather to vary widely. However, I talked to many in Hoonah who could never remember the rivers so low. I was curious to know if that was true or if time had changed the memory. Although Hoonah does not have a river baseflow station I used precipitation data and assumed that low monthly precipitation results in low rivers. The summarized data showed that we received 1.11 inches in July 2018 and that only 2009 was lower with 0.9 inches. 1999 was noteably low with 1.51. inches. As Hoonah is centered in a temperature rainforest each of those years was far different than the average of 3.95 inches of rain that Hoonah would expect in July. These results made July 2018 the 2nd driest in 20 years!
I was struck when summarizing the data in the amount of variation of precipitation over the last 20 years in Hoonah. Even 2018 was an example of that. It was in stark contrast to July 2017 which was noted as the “10th wettest” by Juneau weatherman Rick Fritsch. I needed to keep this summer in perspective : although it was obvious that our rivers, berries, and salmon were stressing from the heat and lack of precipitation, each had been through this before.
The Relief of Rain
In early August the drought came to an end. It rained and poured for nearly a week as an “atmospheric river” brought in moist air from the Gulf of Alaska. I can say with confidence I have never been so relieved to get rain. Overnight the muskeg ponds were filled and returned to the wetlands they were meant to be. The rivers were choked with water and soon after brimming with salmon. Despite the drought and the longer wait at sea they had returned anyway. I could only smile as I watched them in the rivers circling in the holes and splashing up the riffles.
With global climate change already heavily impacting Alaska the drought felt like a warning knell for times to come. Scientific modeling for the region suggests we will continue to warm drastically but that precipitation amounts will remain about the same. The outlook for salmon in a warming climate has different endings depending on who you will talk to. Certainly there is a lot of variability between glacial systems, snow systems, mountains, rain regimes, and so much else which makes a certain future hard to predict. Global warming will impact each salmon species differently (some potentially positively and some negatively) and there is no scientific concurrence how exactly what the impact of a warming world will be for salmon. My views are generally pessimistic for our salmon in the next 50 years, but their patience and resilience this year give me hope they will find a way to survive in the future, too.
Arguably herring are the base of the entire food chain in Southeast Alaska. They provide food for whales, salmon, seals, sealions, birds, and halibut with their bodies and with their eggs. For centuries humans have relied on the abundance of herring to provide for their families in the spring. In Hoonah, Alaska the return of herring marks a change in the a season and a bounty of fresh eggs brings a welcome smile to the elders and community members that receive them. However, in recent years the herring run has not bee large in Hoonah although anecdotally (and a bit facetiously) you could “walk across their backs to Pitt Island” only a couple decades ago. Ocean changes, over fishing, and habitat loss have all contributed to decreasing herring returns and fewer spawning fish in recent years. This knowledge made me feel particularly fortunate to get to see herring spawning in Hoonah and watch the harshness of nature unfold before my eyes as Bald Eagle scooped the silvery fish from the ocean.
Spawning herring rely on seaweed and objects in the water to glue their eggs to. Spawning females mix with males and each emit eggs and roe into the water. A sure sign that herring are spawning is a milky, blue water that combines the colors of the ocean and the white of the roe. The need to stick their eggs to seaweed brings the herring close to shore and thus susceptible to predation. As I walked near Cannery Point in Hoonah, Alaska over 30 eagles (a mix of juveniles and adults) lined up on the beach. The color of the water and brilliant flashes of silver near the shore left little doubt on what they were feeding on!
A string of eagles wait for spawning herring at the beach.
Trial and Error
One of the first things I noticed was the juvenile eagles were watching the adults very closely. They knew they had a lot to learn, and there was no doubt after several minutes of watching that the adults were much more efficient at catching the herring. Most of the adults would launch from the beach, strafe their talons on the water’s surface and come up with one or two herring. Some eagles opted for a higher vantage point and flew in from the trees on the embankment. Another strategy was to simply stand on a rock or in the water and hope to catch one in without flapping a wing. All of these strategies produced herring for the eagles and the juveniles mimicked them perfectly.
Meals on the Wing
Even though there was an abundance of herring one strategy of some eagles was to steal from those that were successful. The fierce competition from other birds forced successful eagles to eat very quickly and on the wing. Almost all of the eagles would transfer the herring to their beaks and then orient the fish head first before finally swallowing it hole. This occurred in just a few seconds to remove any chance of pestering, marauding eagles from stealing their catch. I did get to watch once instance where an eagle successfully scooped two herring at once, but did not eat them on the wing. Immediately three other eagles (2 adults and a juvenile) put up chase resulting in the eagle dropping one herring to get rid of the pestilence following it.
Two eagles settle a small squabble over who gets some beach space.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
It was incredible to watch the eagles feed on the herring and learn from their behaviors, but as a photographer I was grateful for the frequent and repeated attempts by the eagles to capture herring. I had the opportunity to tinker with camera settings and capture a lot of shots that are high quality and showcase the slice of foodweb that I was only a spectator to.