Since 2016 I have worked in Hoonah to help build a vision. The Hoonah Native Forest Partnership is a unique model of community-based forestry that seeks to meet the objectives of land managers and the needs of the community. The project relies on training a local workforce in natural resource inventory and landscape improvement. I’m incredibly proud of my crew and the work we’ve accomplished in the last 6 years. This video is my most ambitious project that highlights why stream restoration is important. Please have a watch!
Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) are an enigma. While undoubtedly the most powerful animal in the woods on Chichagof Island and wherever they roam they can also be the most shy. Their shyness is, I believe, linked to their intelligence and their intelligence results in personalities. Their personalities are where Brown Bears truly get truly interesting. It results in multiple survival strategies including where to choose to forage, den, and raise a family. They exhibit kindness, understanding, judgement, and aggression and the amount of those as a daily allotment is linked to the individual. There are “Grumpy Bears”, “Shy Bears”, “Angry Bears”, “Goofy Bears”, and so many more. All of these factors and opportunities for different behaviors are a draw for wildlife photographers like myself. However, regardless of how much we try to fool a bear with camouflage or make them trust us while we are in the field it is undeniable that we are impacting their behavior while we sit behind a camera. That link is so strong that a quick search will guide you to several articles supporting that bears alter their behavior around photographers. So what’s a photographer to do?
In 2019, I built my first camera trap to get over the pesky alterations we can have to the behavior of wildlife as we make photos. That journey has snowballed significantly as I have learned more about what works and what doesn’t. In 2019 I set out a few goals for myself including documenting scent poles and “hot feet”. To work towards those goals in 2020 I sought to refine the technique from what I had learned and tackle my visions of the “perfect shot”. My goal isn’t to take pictures of bears, it is to see life through a bears eyes. I doubled my arsenal of camera trap gear by building a second housing as well as building a camera housing capable of being underwater and took to the field.
If you walk along a bear trail for very long you are likely to find trees where they have rubbed and clawed. Often its apparent the tree has withstood the torture for many years. As bears have a notoriously good nose they rely on scent trees to communicate with other bears in the area. I hoped these hubs of bear behavior would offer lots of traffic and interesting interactions. I certainly learned a few things.
After leaving my camera in a few different rub trees, I discovered the trees I chose were not used as heavily as I hoped. I got some very candid shots but no photos of a bear actually rubbing on the tree. Due to that I think I partially failed in my mission because even the remote camera seemed to alter their behavior at the tree. I think the click of the DLSR inside the camera trap was enough to alter the bear’s behavior. This coming year I will be working to rectify that by either insulating the camera box to reduce noise or by investing in mirrorless cameras with silent shutters. That’s what I love about this project – always more to learn in the pursuit of what works best!
Mom and the Kids
Mother bears and their cubs are iconic in wildlife photography and cultures of many origins. They have the reputation of being fiercely protective of their offspring and being “as protective as a mama bear” is a phrase understood by almost anyone. This year I was fortunate to find a spot where a mother and its cub consistently used the same spot in the river. I have dozens of shots of these two, but only a few where each are in frame in a nice composition. I love the insight and context that I could add to their interactions by capturing them with a wide lens.
Gambling on 50mm
One of the reasons I built two camera traps this year was to expand my ability to take risks and be creative. With only one camera trap my mentality is “put it in a spot where I’m guaranteed a shot”, but a second one allowed me to put one in a spot where I “might get a shot”. In the second camera trap I mounted 50 mm lens which required significantly more planning in the shot prep because you have to anticipate where the bear will come out and how the shot will be composed. Not necessarily an easy thing as both nature and wildlife can be fickle! The 50 mm gamble ended up being a tough shot to get, however, I really like the “over the shoulder” feel you get from these images. Since 50mm mimics our vision it really feels like you are walking right next to the bear.
Up close and personal
There were many instances that my shots focused on some interesting aspect of the bears. Their claws, wet fur, and curiosity were fascinating to look at! These few images below are my favorites of dozens of images that featured only a small part of the bear.
Ambitions and Technology
My most ambitious project this year was to build a split-image housing that is also a camera trap. My goal was to photograph bears in the river holes snorkeling for salmon. I am very, very excited about the potential of the camera – after many trial and errors it worked flawlessly (and without leaking which ended up being a huge hurdle)! However, we had one of the rainiest summers in a many years this year and the high flows reduced the amount of time I could have the camera out – I was concerned about it washing away and I needed clear water in order to pull the shot that I had in mind off. These images are my best efforts this year, but I can’t wait to get back at in next year!
So now both you and I have a little bit better idea of what bears do when we aren’t looking. I can’t wait to continue to develop my camera trap technique, continue to document behavior, and bring you more stories of bears in nature. In the meantime, please remember to take ethical wildlife photography seriously. The animals is more important than your shot! If you want to delve more into the world of ethical wildlife photography please start by reading this article by my photography colleague David Shaw.
Fossils on a Mountaintop
It is so easy to forget that the world as you know it is a tiny snapshot in time. It is has been changing for millions of years by raising mountains and wearing them back to dust and by carving out oceans and filling them in again. Many time, if you look closely, the places we know are filled with clues of a different time. You don’t expect to find fossils on a mountain top, but on Chichagof Island small, shelled creatures are frozen in rock among the lichens and deer trails. Their presence are a time capsule of life 360-375 million years ago just waiting to be discovered!
Hoonah, Alaska has an extensive road network – 300 miles of road wind through forests of Spruce and Hemlock. Making a road takes a lot of rock and that has resulted in dozens of rock pits scattered throughout the road system. I had heard of fossils on the mountaintops, but a discovery by a coworker a few years ago of fossils in a rockpit made them more attainable to see and document. I recently drove the miles of winding roads to that pit with a camera in hand to learn-about-and-observe life long ago.
Like cracking an egg the pieces of rock were jigsaw puzzle pieces that contained clues of the lives of Devonian creatures. In the pit, we found a variety of forms of animals frozen in the rock and some of them reminded me of animals in the oceans today. Shells, sponges, corals, and some trilobites! Seeing them caused me to reflect on “deep time” and the evolution of species – it also reminded me of how little I knew about the geologic history of the island of geology itself! What were the names of these creatures? What type of rock were they buried in? Why had they been lifted up from the ocean bottom to this spot?
I began to research the geologic history of Chichagof Island and discovered the region is well researched. For decades the USGS, Forest Service, and other research institutions had documented the bedrock and formations of Chichagof. Through a USGS Map viewer I learned that much of northern Chichagof Island was classified as the “Freshwater bay” formation. I read through the description of the formation on the website and couldn’t help but think of one thing : look at all that jargon! Scientific jargon is almost impossible to comprehend unless you are in the field, so I made it my mission to crack the jargon.
I copied the description below from the USGS website to describe the Freshwater Formation. Once you’ve read through it skip to the next section to crack the jargon!
“Freshwater Bay Formation on Chichagof Island is composed of green and red andesite and basalt flows, breccia, and tuff, pyroclastic rhyolite deposits, minor amounts of interbedded conglomeratic volcanic graywacke, grayish-black argillite, and dark-gray limestone (Loney and others, 1963). The correlative but more sedimentary-rock-rich Port Refugio Formation on Prince of Wales Island consists of km-thick sections of siltstone, shale, volcanogenic graywacke, conglomerate, and minor limestone that alternate with km-thick sections of pillow basalt intercalated with minor chert, shale, limestone and aquagene tuff (Eberlein and others, 1983). Unit also includes the Coronados Volcanics and the Saint Joseph Island Volcanics found on western Prince of Wales Island and adjacent islands (Eberlein and others, 1983). The Port Refugio Formation may be a distal facies of the Freshwater Bay Formation. Eberlein and Churkin (1970, p. 43) stated that “many of the graywackes are largely reworked basaltic lavas that contain euhedral crystals of plagioclase and pyroxene that resemble the phenocrysts in the basaltic flows of the formation,” and that many of the conglomerate clasts are andesitic or basaltic rocks. Volcanic flows are found throughout the unit and are up to a hundred meters thick (Eberlein and Churkin, 1970). Age control from the Freshwater Bay is derived from included brachiopods, including Cyrtospirifer, mollusks, and corals of Frasnian (Late Devonian) age (Loney and others, 1975) and conodonts of Famennian (Late Devonian) age (Karl, 1999). Eberlein and Churkin (1970) reported Late Devonian “beautifully preserved” brachiopods that Savage and others (1978) assigned a middle to late Famennian age and that are associated with vascular plant fossils”Alaska USGS https://alaska.usgs.gov/science/geology/state_map/interactive_map/AKgeologic_map.html
Breaking Down the Rock Jargon
Not sure about rocks of the Devonian Era? Come learn along with me!
- green and red andesite
- Andesite is a fine-grained igneous rock. That means it is typically found in lava flows.
- basalt flows,
- A fine-grain dark rock found in lava flows. It’s earth’s most abundant bedrock!
- A rock made of other rocks. Typically the rock particles are greater than 2mm in size and are glued together with rock debris as flows downhill to a collection spot
- an igneous rock formed from explosive volcanic eruptions. It is made from material that is ejected and then glued together
- pyroclastic rhyolite deposits,
- Ryhyolite is an igneous rock with a high silica content. Pyroclastic flows are ash and gas that form dense clouds and flow down a volcano.
- minor amounts of interbedded conglomeratic volcanic graywacke,
- graywacke (pronouced gray-wackah) is a type of sedimentary rock. It can be formed in deep oceans.
- grayish-black argillite,
- and dark-gray limestone
- A sedimentary rock made of calcium carbonate that most commonly forms in shallow seas
Breaking Down the Animal Jargon
As if life these days isn’t hard to enough to keep track of check out all the names of the creatures that lived long ago!
- A clam-like marine mammal although not closely related to clams. There are over 300 species of brachiopods currently living.
- A type of brachiopod that are now extinct. They have a shell shaped like a bat in flight.
- Soft bodied animals covered in a shell in the order mollusca such as snails or clams
- and corals of Frasnian (Late Devonian) age (Loney and others, 1975) and conodonts of Famennian (Late Devonian) age (Karl, 1999). Eberlein and Churkin (1970) reported Late Devonian “beautifully preserved” brachiopods that Savage and others (1978) assigned a middle to late Famennian age and that are associated with vascular plant fossils
- Deep time is a crazy, crazy thing. The chart above does an adequate job of showing off the “Devonian Era” in purple. It’s far before the time of the dinosaurs. Humans have been around for about 200,000 years and the T-Rex lived during the Cretacous Period. Life was really just getting going in the Devonian period!
I know this will not be the last time that I come across fossils on Chichagof Island. I look forward to when I do and to expanding my knowledge of a time long past.
The First Fish
After winter’s thaw and before salmon return to their natal rivers an important, silver fish appears by the millions along the northwest coast of North America. Spawning Pacific Herring provide a kickstart to the bounty of Southeast Alaska. Their oily flesh provides critical protein for migrating seabirds and returning whales and their eggs provide needed food to migrating shorebirds which have flown thousands of miles from their winter grounds. When herring spawn in abundance they attract abundance.
The Morning As It Happened
I didn’t set out with a group of friends at 4:15AM on a clear day in Alaska in pursuit of herring. Actually, it was for birds. The “Global Big Day” is an opportunity for birders around the world to submit what they see over 24 hours to a global database which tracks and counts birds. Even if you are not a birder, you probably know that early mornings have the highest bird activity – have you ever had them wake you up?
We arrived at our destination, stepped from our cars, and began to walk down a local trail. The sun burst on the horizon and its warmth only inflamed the calls of the birds. Townsend’s Warblers, thrushes, juncos, hummingbirds, and so many more! As we reached the tide flats about 20 minutes later we saw a large collection of the symbol of United States – the Bald Eagle. As it is unusual to see them in such large numbers I was curious to know why they gathered. With camera in hand I shifted my focus to that group of birds which were nearly a mile away on the coastline
The walk was longer than it looked! It took 20 minutes to get closer to the eagles and as our path wound down an estuary river we began to see what the fuss was all about : flashing herring were spawning in the rockweed. Other pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. Looking out at the ocean a large pack of Stellar’s Sealions patrolled the water, twelve harbor seals floated nearby, gulls passed over head continuously, a flock of Least Sandpipers flew by squeaking and squawking, and a Humpback Whale glided through the water only a few feet from the shore. They were here for one reason only – the abundant food.
Herring As Food
There are about 290 calories per fillet (143g) of herring and 26% of your daily intake of fat. For wildlife they are nutrient powerhouses worth working for. Diving seabirds specialize in capturing them and Humpback Whales have perfected scooping them up in their huge mouth. However, very little effort was needed to catch herring this day. Some of the herring were trapped by the receding tide and flopped on the rockweed. All around us were torn and mangled bodies of fish had been eaten by the swarms of eagles, gulls, and ravens through the night. The Humpback Whale lunge-fed dozens of times on the spawning herring as we watched.
Abundance. From Abundance.
The film below showcases what we saw that morning. I hope it gives you a sense of place and a connection to the importance of herring and the necessity of keeping them abundant. The images below show off just a small slice of the wildlife frenzy around the herring that morning.
Abundance is created from abundance. I was so fortunate to watch these sites unfold before my eyes. It caused me to reflect on the importance of a healthy herring population. Healthy herring populations create thriving fishing industries, maintain bustling eco-tourism opportunities through whale watching and other marine activities, provide food for wildlife, and provide the continuation of the cultural practices of coastal people that have relied on them since time immemorial. As the base of the food chain a healthy herring population is critical for a thriving ecosystem that provides for people and wildlife. Here’s the catch – not all herring populations are healthy.
Herring need your help – they need you to care about them. They are in decline due to overfishing and changes in the ocean. Particularly harmful is the sac roe fisheries which net up herring right before spawning when they are the most vulnerable. The sac roe fishery is highly profitable and creates a luxury food item – herring roe – for mainly Asian markets. Herring fisheries have a history of collapsing under industrial fishing pressure. With marked declines in SE Alaska and Canadian herring population occurring, that knowledge alone makes it impossible for me to support an industry that creates a luxury item and supports only a small portion of the fishing fleet. I do not believe the cost (loss of other fishing industries, marine mammal reduction, seabird die offs) are nearly worth the benefit (a luxury item). I encourage you to do your research on this topic, but believe we need to err on the side of caution and halt fisheries that harvest at the bottom of the food chain. If you believe what I am saying rings true then please consider advocating to your representative or joining your voice to Herring Advocacy Groups.
Peer into a tide pool and there is one thing you will notice for sure : all of that color!! Sea creatures with oddly shaped legs, flippers, fins, tentacles, tongues, and feet will dazzle you with their complex, rainbow coloring. Every nook has a new wonder to behold, and shifting your eyes to peer into a new cranny brings more new content than turning your TV’s channel. The combination of clear water and ROYGBIV-colored creatures abounding in our local coastal waters delighted my wife and I during a recent low-tide cycle in Southeast Alaska.
Walking along the water’s edge is one of my fierce joys of living along the coast. On that sunny day, my wife and I traversed the low tide line and the bottom of the inter-tidal world, abandoned by the ocean, laid bare in front of us in the fresh air. Hundreds of Sea Stars exposed by the receding water sat perched on the exposed sand and rocks, thrilling us. Black, blue, red, gray, green and everything in between. Camera in hand, I photographed each new variant and learned more as I looked closer. There was more than just different colors – each color had different shades. There were four or five shades of every color of starfish we found meaning I only captured a small slice of them below!
A Split World
Phytoplankton and small marine invertebrates drive Southeast Alaska’s abundant ocean resources. In the summer, those creatures turn the water green and cloudy – you may have heard of “marine snow”. However, after a long cold winter like we’d just come through the water is extremely clear due to a season of low light and low temps. With those conditions in mind, I brought my underwater housing and dome port and sought to tie together sealife with their surroundings. I am very happy with the final images which capture the full story of low-tide in this mountainous, coastal region.
Although Mottled Sea Stars are by far the most common of the sea stars in our area, they have some unique and vibrant relatives. The large red specimen below is a Vermillion Sea Star (Check out NOAA’s Guide) and the smaller pink one is a Northern ScarletStar. Their skin is so different than the Mottled Star! It appears to make it more breathable and flexible. I wish I knew why!
Green Anemones, despite their electric green color, are easy to overlook. They seek small, sheltered spaces and are a few inches in size. By putting your nose at the water’s surface you can truly appreciate their beauty. Fine striping in their tentacles and a green and yellow mosaic of colors on their flat surfaces. A beautiful animal!
Snorkeling the Low Tide
The following week I set out for another low tide, but this time it was a +3.2 tide – 6.7 feet higher than the extreme lows I’ve documented above. The water conditions were very different in the new estuary I explored. Tanins and silt washed in from spring melt and phytoplankton blooms added to the cloudy water. In the shallow waters, the cloudiness filtered the sun’s rays and added to the beauty of the scenes only a few feet below me. The currents slowly pushed me along the shore and I floated in my drysuit with my face in the water. The species diversity and multitude of colors mesmerized me!!
I would be remiss if I didn’t reflect on the joy these colors of nature brought me in the era of quarantine and shelter-in-place. To me it was another example of how slowing down and taking time to learn new things, enjoy more fully the time you have outside, and seeking opportunities to truly observe your surroundings is cathartic and valuable. You may not have a tidepool in your backyard and I hope my pictures have brought you joy, but here’s the reality : you don’t need a tidepool. Walking outdoors and taking a closer look will reveal amazing things. Microsms of color inside of microsms of textures inside of microsms of smells that will leave you hungry for more!
Let’s start this article with a few words you probably wouldn’t expect together in a sentence : Alaska. Winter. Hummingbird. Yup, one of Alaska’s rare, winter birds is the Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) and even stranger is that they are more common in the winter than the summer – some of them are migrating north when most birds are headed south. We had the luck and privilege of having several Anna’s in Hoonah, Alaska this autumn and winter (2019 – 2020) and that left me with all sorts of questions. Why are the traveling north? What are they feeding on and how do they survive the night? Is this becoming more common? Do the same individuals return every year? Thanks to some inquisitive scientists and their research there are answers to a few of these questions!
Southeast Alaska’s Hummers
Southeast Alaska has a regular hummingbird that shows up each spring. Rufous Hummingbirds (Selasphorus rufus) are everything you would expect a hummingbird to. They are fiesty, beautiful, chatty (with a clicking chat call) and love to feed on flowers and feeders. Their brilliant orange throat is much different than the pink cap of the Anna’s and that makes identifying them easy. Due to that I’m confident that I have not observed Anna’s Hummingbirds at our feeders during the summer in the four years I’ve lived in Hoonah.
In contrast to the Rufous Hummingbirds, Anna’s are a recent addition to Alaska. The first record of an Anna’s Hummingbird in Alaska was in 1971. Until that time they were only found along the west coast of U.S. as documented in Greig et al. 2017. You can see a map of their northward range shift over the last 17 years in their publication. From Ebird you can see Anna’s were scattered throughout the panhandle of Alaska and as far north as Kodiak Island during the winter of 2019-2020.
If you want to know more about caring for and promoting hummingbirds in your backyard in Alaska I recommend this guide from the Forest Service.
Movin’ North, to Alaska
Why move north during the winter to colder climates? It is rare for almost any animal to choose that survival method and it is not typical for any bird that I’m aware of. Could their northward expansion be linked to climate change? Or is there some other factor at play? Emma Greig and a team of scientists published a paper in 2017 to dive into that question. Based on 17 years of data from citizen science, she and her colleagues concluded that feeding (nectar) and urban areas were leading Anna’s to the north in the winter and that it is probably aided by warmer temps – however they conclude that warmer temps alone are not driving the northward shift. Feeders are the key. You can read the full article through the citation below.
Based on Emma’s article I had one follow-up question : why don’t Anna’s stay in Hoonah for the summer? In my four years here I’ve never seen one at my feeders in the summer. To get insight into that I reached out to Emma. She hypothesized that Anna’s were moving away from competition from highly aggressive Rufous Hummingbirds and spreading out to food sources other than feeders in the summer because insects and flowers are abundant. It is also possible they are moving back south. She emphasized there is a lot of complexity in their movement patterns and a lot we do not know.
Surviving the Winter Nights
When you are a small animal (Anna’s weigh up to 0.16 ounces)it is very difficult to survive a cold night. Many species of birds have adapted to cold nights through a biological mechanism called “torpor”. That just means they reduce their body’s rate of energy consumption by reducing their body temperature and lowering their heart rate. No big deal, right? Wrong! Of course it’s a big deal! A 1979 study found that Anna’s hummingbirds gained up to 16.4% of their body mass during the day and that they optimized their feeding and flight to use as little energy as possible (Beuchat et al. 1979). They are storing up all that saved energy so they can make it through the night. As night falls so does their body temperature. Anna’s hummingbirds normally have a temperature of 107F but it may drop to 48F during cold nights to conserve energy. They raise it back to 107 as the day warms up again – talk about amazing!
This winter I saw an amazing record pop up on Ebird that contained an image of an Anna’s Hummingbird in torpor. The image and record was reported by Nat Drumheller in Gustavus (about 25 miles from Hoonah) and I’ve posted his account of the experience above in the caption. It corroborates with behavior changes in torpor and energy efficiency. When this hummingbird wakes up it will be ready for a drink!
Do the same Anna’s Hummingbirds return to Hoonah every winter? That’s impossible to say for certain, but I do have one interesting anecdote. The first time I saw an Anna’s in Hoonah was in 2018. It was a juvenile male and that location is where I photographed the full adult male this year during the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Seeing as Anna’s can live to be at least 8 years old it is possible that it was the same male. While that doesn’t necessarily count as sound evidence to answer the question it does raise my interest.
Greig and her co-authors concluded with an interesting observation – Anna’s Hummingbirds are an example of humans altering the migration and distribution of a migratory species. Based on that, as the world warms and Alaska’s human population grows I wouldn’t be surprised to see Anna’s as a year-around resident in the future.
Greig EI, Wood EM, Bonter DN. 2017 Winter range expansion of a hummingbird is associated with urbanization and supplementary feeding. Proc. R. Soc. B 284: 20170256. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.0256
Carol A. Beuchat, Susan B. Chaplin, and Martin L. Morton, “Ambient Temperature and the Daily Energetics of Two Species of Hummingbirds, Calypte anna and Selasphorus rufus,” Physiological Zoology 52, no. 3 (Jul., 1979): 280-295.
Interesting article on feeding hummers and getting kids involved: https://porch.com/advice/fun-family-activity-attracting-hummingbirds
Last summer I built a camera trap with one goal in mind – photograph bears in their environments without people. I’m fascinated the insights you can gain into the animals and initially imagined all sorts of dramatic, National Geographic worthy photography. In short, I was convinced that “EPIC!” imagery was a guarantee. While I’m not there yet, I did manage to capture some dramatic moments, some fun ones, and learned a little about managing a camera trap along the way.
For humans there is a lot of ways to “skin a cat”, for bears there is a lot of ways to catch a salmon. Throughout my images I saw bears perch above to look down in pools, snorkel in pools, and charge up pools. I’m sure each of these techniques had their strengths and their weakness.
Family interactions was something I hoped to gather more of. These two cubs with their mother were a special treat with an extra story. I deployed this camera and then walked back to my vehicle along the river and watched with my telephoto lens. About 10 minutes later this mother and cubs strolled down the river and then got spooked by something in the woods – likely a larger bear. They sprinted down river a ways and remarkably went right past my camera trap. Apparently the sow was not too concerned with the larger bear as she permitted her cub to capture a fish.
Bears are very active at dusk and dawn. Next year I’ll be operating a camera with a flash to better capture these bears in the low-light hours. I learned quickly to program my motion trigger to only take images during the daylight hours as to avoid wasting battery on night shots. I do like the context and silhouette of this bear as it strolls in the evening, however
Bears are curious animals and I knew that could pose a risk to my camera. I housed my camera in an ammo can and that sufficed to keep the bears from wrecking it. There were some funny moments when the bears had to get a closer look though! One time a bear tried to eat the camera and another it walked straight up to the camera to smell it and fogged the glass. Photography can be risky business for your gear as I found out in this separate anecdote that always makes me chuckle.
Moments in the River
There were many, many images of bears being bears. Strolling up river, being observant, smelling out salmon and being gregarious. These are those moments and I challenge you to learn what you can from them.
Looking to Next Year
I simply cannot wait to continue to watch bears through my camera traps! This coming season I’m expanding my arsenal to two camera traps with upgraded capabilities. Two cameras will allow me to diversify my shots and provide new angles. I’m hoping to answer some questions such as “How do bears use hot feet” and “how to do bears use scratch poles” among others. Keep your eyes posted! You can always follow on Instagram or Facebook for the latest content.
Evoke emotion. Tell a story. Talk about science. Envision the shot and make it happen. As I’ve grown through my photography I have invested more and more into each of those ideals and concepts above. I have learned that the story is as important as the image and successfully telling that story is almost always hard work. I have seen first hand that you can change the perspectives of people with imagery and that we need effective science communication more than ever.
In 2019 I have focused on new skills and have grown a tremendous amount as a professional. I split my work into two brands and am now a business owner and science communicator. Thank you for those that follow along regularly and support my work!
My photography bleeds into my work and helps make me an effective communicator. I produced this video to showcase a stream restoration that we completed.
As this is the end of a decade its amazing to reflect on the last 7 years of photography that have brought me to where I am today. In 2013, I upgraded from a point-and-shoot and bought a mirrorless camera based on the suggestion of a friend. I never looked back. These “top shots” posts have been a regular feature on my blog since 2015 and I’m so glad I do them. You can view each of them at : 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. They archive where I’ve come from and where I’m going. They are full of memories of the places I’ve gone, the people I’ve met, and the adventures I’ve gone through. Each yearly gallery reminds me that I’ll continue to grow and explore the world through my lens and writing. 2019’s Top Shots contain some of my favorite images yet. If I was to choose one image to crown them all it’s the one below.
I’ve got some broad goals in 2019 and I hope you’ll join me in Instagram, Facebook, or sign up for newsletters to keep in touch. I’ll be camera trapping wildlife, trying to document climate change through imagery, and venturing to a few places including Hawaii, Fairbanks, and Olympic National Park. I’m resolving to publish one blog entry per month (and no, not one doesn’t count for January). Thanks again for your support. I hope you have clear vision in 2020.
It may seem unlikely to see parallels in the far different regions of the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Arctic Tundra of Alaska, but they exist! On a recent trip to Northern Utah, the flat grasslands, small ponds, and jutting foothills reminded me of the Arctic plain as you cross over the mountains of Brooks Range. As I observed my surroundings I realized the connection was more than appearance; the newly-arrived winged from the Arctic plain were relying on the resources of this kindred land, the Great Salt Lake. Migrating birds, many from the Arctic, stretched from horizon to horizon creating a direct link between the two regions. My time in the Arctic had shown me the importance of that region for birds, and I realized immediately that I was standing in another critical area.
A Tale of Two Habitats
The Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake of northern Utah is an oasis in the desert. It was my first time there and what I found swept me off my feet. To imagine what it looks like simply conjure in your mind a cliche image of an emerald oasis in the desert. You might see in your mind grasses and trees growing in close proximity to water features which provide the life blood of everything in the area. Did you see any birds or animals using the water? If not, add them into your image – they are certainly there!
As its name implies the Great Salt Lake is very salty – 3-5 times more salty than the ocean. Its concentrated salts make the shallow waters uninhabitable for almost all life. However, Brine Shrimp (ever heard of “sea monkies”?) and sand fleas have adapted to the salty (hyper-saline) conditions. Since they are the only creatures in the lake they have no competition and can multiply rapidly. I took a few handfuls of the muddy water to peer into it and saw thousands of brine shrimp in only a the small cup of water in my hand. Although small – up to 1cm – their abundance makes them readily available protein for birds and life around the lake.
As you roll your vehicle up mountainous terrain and eventually over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range of Alaska, you emerge onto hundreds of miles of lakes and tundra. Welcome to the Arctic Plain spanning for over 20 million acres. This land is known for its abundance in the summer and desolation in the winter. Wind and winter cold trim any shrubs or trees that try to grow resulting in the short crop of the Tundra. Each year millions of birds return to the Arctic to breed and raise young in its grasslands and lakes.
Similar and Different
The two grassland landscapes described above are created by different forces and in different parts of the world. However, each is 100% necessary for the survival of many birds. In fact, the numbers are nearly unfathomable. Up to 50% (12 million) of North America’s shorebirds breed in Alaska. Over 1.4 million shorebirds use the Great Salt Lake for breeding and migration. Of course there are millions of other species and types of birds that use each as well. To put that in perspective imagine the 8 million people living in New York City spent half their life in the city and moved to Florida each year for the winter. Mass migration is an amazing thing!
Flying thousands of miles is no small feat and it takes a lot of energy. Migratory stopovers are used by birds traveling both north and south because they can provide the resources needed for food and shelter during their travels. After peering into the murky waters of the Great Salt Lake to see the life within, it was not hard to see why they were at this globally-important migratory stopover. The abundant food I saw in the water was translatable to the wealth I saw in the Arctic. On the Tundra, massive insect swarms and lakes filled with larvae provide young chicks is critical for their growth. The Great Salt Lake and the Arctic each plays their part in the cycle and life of the birds : are you starting to see some similarities in their function and habitat?
Migrants in Common
Birds connect the world, creating a network between many places. Like a computer network, the birds transfer nutrients and create a relationship between things. We “share” birds with other regions of the world. The bird feeding in your yard during the summer is another country’s yard bird in the winter. You should check out this incredible resource from National Geographic showing off the migrating paths of birds. It is normal for migrating birds to seek similar habitats as they move south and north so it is not surprising for shorebirds, ducks, and songbirds from the Arctic to be found in similar habit along the Great Salt Lake.
You don’t have to be a birder to be astounded by the abundance of birds using the Great Salt Lake. They stretch from horizon to horizon like and are as thick as the seeds on your everything-bagel. As many as Western 190,000 Sandpiper, 59,000 Long-billed Dowitcher, and 240,000 Red-necked Phalarope use the lake. If they were not hidden by the grass and expanse of the Tundra, you would see even more in the Arctic Plain.
Birds throughout the world are under threat from changes to the earth from humans. If you want to preserve birds for your yards and future children, it is so,so, so critical to protect their habitat where they are vulnerable. The Great Salt Lake is experiencing change which is may easily affect the brine shrimp and hence birds. Changes in salinity due to drought and mineral farming as well as pollution and water diversion are all linked to brine shrimp populations. In the Arctic rising temperatures are melting permafrost and oil drilling is impacting shorebird habitat. Failing to address these issues can only lead one direction for many species of birds : decline and ultimately extinction.
This story of connection is only one of many in the world. There is a multitude of important stopover and breeding areas for birds and throughout each continent birds are experiencing threats on the breeding grounds and migratory areas. I encourage you to look for and see the connections in the world and explore their importance.
I hate to only talk about the gloomiest parts of the status of birds but it is important to acknowledge the reality. There are stories of decline and also some stories of hope. To help educate yourself on the issues at hand and support land conservation groups such as Audubon or the Nature Conservancy. We can all be a part of the solution!
Your Largest National Forest
The Tongass National Forest. Ever heard of it? How about : The Amazon. The Arctic. The Pacific Ocean. These huge tracts of land and sea are critical to life on earth and have vessels into the hearts of our lives – even if we may not know it. A fortunate few will get to dip their toes into all of them and it is not even in question that each experience in those environments will leave an indelible mark on their souls as they connect the people and animals inhabiting them. They quickly realize why protecting them is so damned important. For those who have never been, why should you care about the fate of another land? What will compassion for that place bring you in the long run? The abstract nature of such vast and unseen lands makes it hard to know enough to care. Today my mission is “simple” : connect you to a place I have grown to love and that you may have never seen or smelled. I hope that by the time you read the last word of this article and observe its last pixel you will have a sense of Tongass, its importance, and its plight.
Acknowledging My Own Bias
This is not necessarily a light article and it contains both facts and my opinion based on those facts. I want you to trust what I say, so I think it is important that you understand some of my positions and personal views on conservation and resource use. I am a landscape user and a conservationist. My knowledge of the Tongass has been gained by using it while living on an island in rural Alaska for four years– my pantry is stocked with fish, deer, and berries. I am not only a wildlife biologist, I am also a carpenter and maker-of-things. My small business of framing my imagery relies on wood to make products which I sell to people. I am not hypocritical in my views of conservation – I acknowledge resources are needed and that we need to manage the land to generate them. However, there are some resources that are simply not worth harvesting because of their impact they will have on my children’s children. If they are non-renewable and linked to the health of an ecosystem and its ability to combat climate change then it is pretty cut-and-dried for me : stay away from them and find some other way to do business. In the context of this article, there are many renewable forms of timber in the Tongass. Transitioning to those is key.
A New Perspective
A new sense of perspective can change everything. The opportunity to see a new angle or hear a new voice can provide insight otherwise overlooked. A new perspective is where this article begins – through the summer I have been awed by insight I have gained while observing the land from helicopter, plane, and through the lens of my drone. I have learned new things about places I travel through frequently and about how each decision is connected at the landscape level. My deeper appreciation for the landscape has led me to be a more adamant protector of it.
The Tongass is a renowned “Salmon Forest”. Its landscape is bisected with small and large streams that host salmon. 79% of salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska are of fish that start in the Tongass and the average resident of SE Alaska uses 75 pounds of salmon per year. It can be hard to see the prevalence of rivers when you are standing in them or walking along their banks. However, from the air I was awed by the old growth stands bisected the flowing water and how beautiful the spires of old growth were near along the rivers.
The Tongass is so, so much more than a stand of very tall trees – although that is what most people focus on. It is an interwoven landscape of forest, streams, muskegs, and bogs. An eagle’s eye view will show you the brilliant blue water of the ocean contrasted against green conifers. The Tongass is a place where you can snorkel kelp reefs to touch starfish and urchins, emerge from the water, and dry yourself while sitting on the soft duff under the canopy of 150 or 200 foot trees that may be 800 years old. When you stand among those large trees the quietness and fresh air make it feel like a holy place.
Rivers are not the only thing that connect the land to the water. Red and yellow muskegs may stretch for miles from mountaintop to coast. These wetlands are devoid of tall trees due to moisture and soil conditions and are natural filters during water’s progress downslope. As open, wet, land muskegs house an entirely different ecosystem of plants and life. Short pines replace towering spruces and small, round ponds replace babbling brooks. These wetlands are filled with short shrubs and grasses that provide important habitat for migrating and breeding birds.
The presence of roads is impossible to miss as you look at the Tongass around Hoonah, Alaska. Many of the roads were used for logging and then transitioned to local use. You can see a few patterns when observing the road system from above such as young growth forests along the whole length of the road, and old growth in the river bottom. Landscapes like this are common throughout the Hoonah area. They represent the reality of a correlation : with the establishment of roads comes the sound of chainsaws and the clear-cutting of thousands of acres of old growth forest that will not regenerate to their former state until the year 2200 or more.
We need roads to move through the landscape, but roads can come with a consequence. Until I was in the air I never realized how large a landslide can be. These landslides often occur in steep slopes and roads in logged areas because of the changes to hydrology. Roads also bisect rivers and alter the ability for fish to move river/road crossings..
The climate of the world is changing fast and there are signs that its accelerating. Since world leaders are not showing signs of making decisions to stem the flow of CO2 into our atmosphere, it is prudent to keep nature’s carbon “sinks” (natural carbon storage) areas in place. Those areas are shrinking daily. A recent report from the United Nations put our impact on the earth’s surface in perspective. The report reveals “Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.” When I read that it became apparent; the Tongass and the Native Alaskan Communities embedded in them since time immemorial are critical parts of the 25% of unaltered land on the earth.
A recent article summarizing the message of Climate Scientist Dominick DellaSala at a recent meeting relayed some powerful statistics about the Tongass :
- An acre of old growth has about 1 billion needles that soak up carbon.
- Old growth forests store 50% more carbon than logged forests.
- A single 100-foot tree releases 11,000 gallons of water into the ecosystem.
- Logging releases 60% of the carbon stored in the forest
I cannot think of any statistics that demonstrate more fully the importance of how the 16,700,000 acres of the Tongass, the U.S.’s largest national forest, are in our climate change resiliency.
Current Global Response Insufficient : Roadless Modifications
On October 18th, 2019 the U.S. Forest Service entered into the Federal Register a recommendation that the 2001 Roadless Rule be lifted from the Tongass National Forest. This flies in the face of a majority of comments received from Alaskans and U.S. Citizens which favored keeping the protections in place. The 2001 Roadless Rule guaranteed that roads for logging could not be built in 9.2 million acres of the Tongass. These protections were set aside because of the acknowledgement of the global and regional importance of leaving the Tongass in its natural condition. The “Roadless Issue” is a complex one, but this decision can only have negative outcomes for wilderness of the Tongass seeing as the removal of road restrictions are being coupled with increased timber sales.
These five lines are the summary of the United Nation report I referenced above are applicable to the Roadless Rule, the plight of the Tongass, and the plight of global ecosytems:
Current global response insufficient;— U.N. Report May 6, 2019
‘Transformative changes’ needed to restore and protect nature;
Opposition from vested interests can be overcome for public good
Most comprehensive assessment of its kind;
1,000,000 species threatened with extinction
The Tongass Needs You
I have been told many times that “nothing is final until it is written in law” and that is completely true for this process. There are 5 alternatives to the Roadless Rule that do not remove protections from the entire forest. This is not an issue where anyone one side should get everything they want and it is up to us to ask for better than the “preferred alternative” of a full exemption of the Tongass from the Roadless Rule. For the next 60 days you have ability to contribute your voice to this discussion and influence the fate of the Tongass. I hope I have helped you connect to the Tongass enough to weigh in. Here are your options: