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.
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.
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:
On September 1st, 2019 I crept outside into the dark night of Alaska to meet STEVE and it and I had a photo shoot together. It had been awhile! But usually once a year we have a chance to get a look at a each other. I’m not talking about my cousin Steve, in fact, STEVE is not a person at all. STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
The last time I wrote about STEVE it was to dispel the mis-classification of these images online as “Proton Arcs”. At that time scientists were grappling with what caused this mysterious form of the aurora. There was uncertainty on why it showed up white instead of green and what form of energy would cause the aurora at all. Although it has likely been observed by sky watchers since the point where humans could comprehend its beauty it was relatively new to science and only really entered the literature in 2016.
Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement
” Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement ” – that’s quite a load of Jargon! However, once you understand how these auroras form it makes mores sense.
Typical auroras are formed when energy from the sun collides with nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere. The collision results in green or red light being let off. However, based on recent science published on Space.com STEVE forms when charged particles are super-heated outside of the “auroral zone”. The particles emit the white and pink light we see on the ground.
If you are still a bit unclear remember that light occurs as a physical process – it’s the release of energy. For instance when you heat an electric cooking stove the orange light emitted is the release of energy. STEVE is a bit like a monstrous electric coil in the sky!
A Gallery of STEVE
I think my latitude in Southeast Alaska is a hotspot for STEVE. I have observed it 5 times to date since 2016. I recently added my photos to a database of STEVE observations. The images below are from the same night as the images above. You can see a short timelapse of STEVE that night by going to a video on my Facebook page.
The Rest of the Show
STEVE shows up on the biggest nights of aurora. It definitely seems to be linked to high amounts of energy coming in. During the nights and mornings of August 30 – September 1st the Aurora was visible almost anytime it was dark.
On the second night of the show I focused less on photography. My wife and I curled up on a blanket on the beach and watched the lights dance overhead. We had some pretty amazing coronas for Southeast Alaska!
I’ll be keeping an eye out for any further science and revelations on STEVE. I hope to see it again!
This year was my second trip to Hawaii and my first time traveling to Kauai. Last year my wife and I birded the Big Island, walked on lava under the stars, and paid our tributes to Pearl Harbor. We were anxious to revisit these amazing islands to learn about and enjoy their diversity, ecology, and warmth! I was especially excited to extend on opportunities for photography and recently shared an article on endemic birds. There! Now you are caught up with the past, I will tell you more about the rest of my trip by taking you through some photos and experiences!
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 bird.
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!
Be sure to click on the images to enlarge them!