Tag Archives: fish

Abundance. From Abundance : Spawning Herring

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.

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A spawned-out herring lies among the rockweed in an estuary of SE Alaska.
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This Humpback Whale is feeding on thousands of herring gathered in the mouth of an estuary.

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?

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We arrived at our destination right as the sun broke over the horizon and streamed through the old growth of the Tongass.

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

Eagle, Herring, Alaska
This was only one group of the many eagles that congregated on the beach. There were four groups equally as large as this one spread across 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

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These herring were trapped by the receding tide. Eagles, gulls, and ravens were able to scoop up as many as their bellies could hold.

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.

Herrings vs. Eagles – Eagles Win and the Photographer Did Too

Arguably herring are the base of the entire food chain in Southeast Alaska. They provide food for whales, salmon, seals, sealions, birds, and halibut with their bodies and with their eggs. For centuries humans have relied on the abundance of herring to provide for their families in the spring.  In Hoonah, Alaska the return of herring marks a change in the a season and a bounty of fresh eggs brings a welcome smile to the elders and community members that receive them. However, in recent years the herring run has not bee large in Hoonah although anecdotally (and a bit facetiously) you could “walk across their backs to Pitt Island” only a couple decades ago. Ocean changes, over fishing, and habitat loss have all contributed to decreasing herring returns and fewer spawning fish in recent years. This knowledge made me feel particularly fortunate to get to see herring spawning in Hoonah and watch the harshness of nature unfold before my eyes as Bald Eagle scooped the silvery fish from the ocean.

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A ball of herring mill about in Hoonah, Alaska.

Spawning herring rely on seaweed and objects in the water to glue their eggs to. Spawning females mix with males and each emit eggs and roe into the water. A sure sign that herring are spawning is a milky, blue water that combines the colors of the ocean and the white of the roe. The need to stick their eggs to seaweed brings the herring close to shore and thus susceptible to predation. As I walked near Cannery Point in Hoonah, Alaska over 30 eagles (a mix of juveniles and adults) lined up on the beach. The color of the water  and brilliant flashes of silver near the shore left little doubt on what they were feeding on!Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

A string of eagles wait for spawning herring at the beach.

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Herring egg harvesters use branches of Hemlock to capture herring eggs. They lay the branches in the water where herring are spawning and then collect the branches which are (hopefully) laden with eggs.

Trial and Error

One of the first things I noticed was the juvenile eagles were watching the adults very closely. They knew they had a lot to learn, and there was no doubt after several minutes of watching that the adults were much more efficient at catching the herring. Most of the adults would launch from the beach, strafe their talons on the water’s surface and come up with one or two herring. Some eagles opted for a higher vantage point and flew in from the trees on the embankment. Another strategy was to simply stand on a rock or in the water and hope to catch one in without flapping a wing. All of these strategies produced herring for the eagles and the juveniles mimicked them perfectly.

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A young eagle feeds from the rocks instead of flying for its meal.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A eagle goes in deep with its talons in the quest for herring.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A strafing run of an eagle successfully captures a herring.

Meals on the Wing

Even though there was an abundance of herring one strategy of some eagles was to steal from those that were successful. The fierce competition from other birds forced successful eagles to eat very quickly and on the wing. Almost all of the eagles would transfer the herring to their beaks and then orient the fish head first before finally swallowing it hole. This occurred in just a few seconds to remove any chance of pestering, marauding eagles from stealing their catch. I did get to watch once instance where an eagle successfully scooped two herring at once, but did not eat them on the wing. Immediately three other eagles (2 adults and a juvenile) put up chase resulting in the eagle dropping one herring to get rid of the pestilence following it.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

Two eagles settle a small squabble over who gets some beach space.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

It was incredible to watch the eagles feed on the herring and learn from their behaviors, but as a photographer I was grateful for the frequent and repeated attempts by the eagles to capture herring. I had the opportunity to tinker with camera settings and capture a lot of shots that are high quality and showcase the slice of foodweb that I was only a spectator to.

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This is my favorite shot from the day. I slowed my shutter speed down and then tracked the eagle as it flew to a perch. The face and claws remained tack sharp and I achieved blur in the wings and the background.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
This shot is a close second! I cannot believe the symmetry that these two eagles have as they flew away, or that they both caught herring!

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
My third favorite shot of the day. The one that got away!

Parting Shots

Here’s a last few shots. I hope you enjoy!

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

Travels to the West: Chapter 2: 06/14/13 – 06/21/13 (From the top of Bonner County, to the Redwoods of California)

Well, it’s been an adventuresome last 10 days! However, I’m actually writing this blog entry on my final night in Idaho. It’s been an unbelievable trip, but Kass and I will be starting back to the East by heading through Benton NWR in Great Falls, MT, Cross Ranch SP and the Little Missouri Grasslands. I’m looking forward to being back. However, without further ado, I’d like to share some of the exciting events, stories and sights from the last week!

Also, a re-note on notes 🙂

NOTE: it’s kinda  long blog entry, but I hope you’ll take the time to read through it all. Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think or what you might like to see for next time!

NOTE 2: I’m not much of a proof-reader when it comes to non-critical things as a blog entry. SO, please ignore and work around any errors. THANKS! 😀


We were fortunate enough to see three species of humers while on our travels.

The Calliope humming bird is one of the smallest migratory birds in North America. Kass and I were fortunate to find this dominate male at Oden Bay Wildlife Management Refuge. I was able to stand very close to this bird has he offered both pictures, memories and insights into the world of a hummingbird! He flew post to post as he staked out his small territory, often fending off other males. He was likely defending a female on eggs. He kind of looks angry, doesn’t he?!

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This full male ruffous hummingbird also sports an incredible throat! And, although less showy, the black chinned is also a very cool bird!

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Scotchman’s peak is tallest peak in Bonner County, ID and the trail up the mountain was described in our book as “a heartless ascent”. They were right, it was absolutely brutal! A 15 to 20 % grade had my lungs burning as we cooked through the first mile in about 30 minutes. On our way up we encountered Indian Paintbrush. This has been a pretty common flower throughout our trip in the west, however, this was the first time I had taken the opportunity to photograph it.  Its a plant normally associated with open areas, (in this case a sunny, mountain hillside) or more often in prairies.


One of the mammals that we found on the way up was this little Pika! These little buggers are herbivores and stockpile food throughout the summer. This one didn’t hang around long, but he sure did a nice little pose!


We were also treated on the way up by this mountain bluebird! He was a big down the slope from us, so you can see how the heat coming off the mountain is warping the bluebird as well as the scenery around it? Although it’s not the best shot of a mountain bluebird, I sure like the artistic effect! The deep blue of these birds was shocking to me. We actually found some great mountain bluebirds at Farragut State Park, so I’ve included this one twisting into a pose on top of a mullen.


Also on the birds of the peak, you’ve seen them before, but the western tanager is always stunning!!


Now here is one of the iconic animals of the mountains! The Mountain Goat! These goats are notorious for scaling impossible slopes. When we first reached the top we spotted this one peaking over the edge of the mountain at us. After reaching the summit he walked across this snowy flat (After Memorial Day!!) across the mountain top. COOL!

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After reaching the summit  at ~6800′ we were greeted with unprecedented views of 4 different mountain ranges. Here are panoramas of each of them as seen from Scothman’s. I present to you the tail of four ranges.

The first range is the SellKirk range. These are the distant mountains seen to the north of the Scotchman’s Summit.


To the south of the summit are the purcells. They are the distant mountains seen here in this panorama.


The southwest summit was the Monarch mountains. These were the lowest of the surround ranges. Notice, no snow!


And finally the Cabinet mountains! This range contains the Scotchman’s peak summit. Can’t go wrong with those summit conditions!!


And finally, to summarize the hike, here is Sean and I on the summit of the peak, overlooking Lake Pend Orielle the the west. I love the old-timey feel of this shot!



Kootenai NWR is located about 30 miles out of Sandpoint on route 2. It’s a managed area for mostly ducks and deer, however, we also saw a moose while there!

I think the fledgling Great-horned owl pictured below was the highlight of the birding at Kootenai. Those eyes are intense and beautiful! There was actually a pair of fledgling owls, but the second, which was closer to us, flew off before any pictures could be taken.


This bald eagle was overlooking the Koonenai river.


After leaving KNWR we headed to snow creek falls. I will start by saying if you ever get the chance, take it! The trail is tucked back up some gravel roads and is very nice. It leads you through across a hillside about a mile before you arrive at snowcreek falls. There are two falls in this area. The lower, which is in my opinion the more specactular is a misty haven shrouded in green moss. You are able to be right at the waters edge and breathe in the moist air. The sound penetrates through you.

Pictured here is the lower falls, the combination of sunlight, mist and noise (which you’ll have to imagine) was delightful!


After moving from the lower falls we meandered up to the top were managed to pose for a pretty nice group photo. The top falls were gorgeous, but their primary function was to feed the lower falls and crash onto the rocks below. There is really nothing more mind-clearing than a waterfall! Next time you are at one stand close to it for as long as possible and then report back to me on what was going through your head as the sound resonated in your bones… I’ll be surprised if it was anything!



Kass and I started on our journey to California by heading to southern Idaho and doing some birding. Pictured here are a western kingbird and mourning dove. I feel like MODOs are underrated. They are really a strikingly beautiful birds. I caught this one in the act of batting her lashes and me and blowing kisses my way. Sorry, MODO,  I’ve already got my chick! 🙂

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After moving on from southern ID I was stunned at the similiarity of the landscape to North Dakota and the Plains regions! There was a fire burning on the distant horizon and windmill spun lazily throughout our drive. Even the dry wheat and grass fields along with grazing cattle in the sage were a famililary sight! Here, we captured a few of the landscapes from our care window.

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And then, after 12 hours of driving, we were THERE! And let me tell you, the redwoods are even bigger than Imagined! Everything is big there. We found horsetail (aka ‘Indian Tinkertoy’) that was above my head! The first were lush and huge and spread throughout the forest. Within the woods was silence, which an important contrast to one of the scenes I will demonstrate later. After walking a ways you were simply dumbstruck the trees that were all around you. Here I’ve climbed up one of the largest trees in Stout Grove and I look like an ant!


Below is a side view of just one of the ferns throughout the woodlands. And along side of that is a rhododendron. Many people imagine these plants being yard ornamentals, however, they are native to CA, and are very beauiful! They often stand 12-15 feet tall and have many of these large blossoms.



But, anway, back to the trees. Really, it was all so amazing there I’m having a hard time writing about it without small anecdotes! (ie: fern above) Here are just some more pictures of me trying to convey just how big some of the trees are! These trees are up to 33 feet in diameter and over 2,000 years old. They are able to grow there because of a humid climate which happens to be stable to boot! (of course… that is until CA falls away from the rest of the United States).


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I wedged this penny into the sawed, 3.5 foot diameter section of limb for perspective. These trees DO NOT grow fast! Imagine how many of these rings fit into a 2000 year old tree! Actually, that’s a bit of a joke, because the answer is 2000.


We also were able to have some fun on one of the fallen trees, which I have dubbed as the “Dance of the Redwood Fairies” :). Note the fairies here are about 15 feet off the ground, so it was no small feet getting them to dance like this! A rare sight, indeed!

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After moving from the redwoods we headed to Crescent Beach for the tidepools. I had been to tide pools in Maine, but I had never seem them like this before! Green anenomes teamed throughout them and star fish hung onto the rocks, waiting for the tide to return. Crabs and small invertebrates crawled everywhere. Hopefully just these two  pictures will speak for themselves here! I wish I had more, however there was a camera debacle. I had the brilliant idea to wrap a ziploc bag around my lens and then submerge the lens under the water for underwater photography. That actually pretty well, but my safety measured didn’t account for a small wave that came over the top of the camera. 5 minutes later I noticed bubbling and oxidation coming from my flashport. OOOOOOHHH NO! So, I turned the camera off, took out the battery cleaned it, said a prayer and put it all back together. When I turned it back on a small black smoke rose from the flash port and there was a singe of burning electronics in the nose. So, with that story in mind, my tide-pooling pictures were cut short!

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One of the most incredible areas (other than the redwoods) that we experienced at the park was the Kalmath River Estuary.This area was teaming with birds and mammal life alike and was a high contrast to the deafening silence of the redwoods. Pelicans, ospreys and cormorants relentless fished for small bait on the incoming tide. However, it was the Stellars Sea lions that were the most incredible to watch! These gracesful and huge mammals were feeding on lamprey (pictured) and other fish. Several times Kassie and I observed them tearing apart large fish by brutally thrashing them on the surface. Of course, if you were a sea lion you wouldn’t have opposable thumbs to grab and pull with, so thrashing would be the only acceptable way to tear apart meat! The osprey were apparently also fishing the lamprey, as one flew overhead with one! The pelicans mouth can hold more than his belly can (like helican!! :D) and this pelican has just come up from a successful dive, see a few of the fish in his pouch??

Also, the black oyster catchers pictured here were a VERY cool bird to see! On top of these amazing animal encounters was a rocky jutting coastline and gray whales feeding and blowing in front of the river mouth!

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One of the well known mammals, which came as a surprise to me, were the Theodore Roosevelt Elk. As the name suggests these elk were transplanted from TNRP (see Chapter 1) into the park to re-establish the populations which had been hunted to extinction. Here are just a couple of the ones that we observed!

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I honestly could go on, and on about our experiences at the park. But, in order to save my fingers, and you a bit of a reading time, I thought I would just do a picture ‘dump’ from some of the other things observed that need little explanation.

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On our way back north we stopped by the humble household of a friend and PhD student, Allyson. She was generous enough to take us out birding and show us one of the coolest birds of the trip. The Acorn woodpecker! These birds are known for drilling holes into trees and then stuffing the hole tightly with an acorn as a winter larder. They often need to fend off the squirrels, and the sequences of that can be seen in the new documentary, North America, be sure to check out the episodes on TV, as they are truly stunning!

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Also pictured here are a song sparrow, scrub jay and barn swallow:

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And here we are! The reunion.


So folks, that chapter 2, hopefully 1 more chapter in the making! I think it will be a shorter chapter, but will include the journey back to MN, and with a little luck burrowing owls!!  I hope you enjoyed!