Tag Archives: Wildlife Photography

A Few of Us Among the Few of Them : Endangered Birds of Hawaii

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.

Hawaii, I'iwe, Hakalau Forest
This I’iwi is one of the most resplendent and dramatic Honeycreepers found in Hawaii

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.

Old Growth, Ohia, Hakalau Forest
This old growth O’hia tree is about 60” at the base and is about 1,500 years old! Once Hawaiian old growth forests are gone we will never see their like for another thousand years.
Koa, Lichen, Old Growth, Hakalau Forest
Lichen grown in a carpet on the bark of Koa trees. They absorb moisture from the frequent fog and rain on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

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.

Looking uphill at the Hakalau Forest. The spread-out trees do not look “tropical” or like how you imagine Hawaii. Many of the species that you associate with Hawaii were introduced

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!

Hawaii Akepa

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.

Hawaiin Akepa, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
A Hawaiian Akepa feeds in O’hia blossoms
Akepa, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
The Hawaiian Akepa is one of only 3 truly orange birds in the world!

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.

Hawaiian Creeper, Hakalau Forest
Hawaiian Creepers are adapted to cling onto trees in search of small bugs
Hawaii Creeper, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii, Big Island
A Hawaiian Creeper browses through the lichen on a Koa branch

Akiapola’au

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.

Akiapola'au, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
Akiapola’au has an amazing bill! Their bottom bill is used to awl into Koa wood and the top bill is used to extract grubs and insects from the hole. Amazing evolution!
Akiapola'au, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
On top of their amazing bill, the Akiapola’au are a gorgeous shade of yellow!]
Akiapola'au, Hakalau Forest, Hawaii
An Akiapola’au scoops a grub from the hole it made in this Koa tree

Palila

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.

Palila, Big Island, Hawaii, Palila Discovery Trail
I was reminded of Grosbeaks when I saw the Palila. Here it poses in the leaves and fruit of the mämane which is its sole food source

I’iwi

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!

I'Iwe, Hakalau Forest, Flower, Hawaii, Big Island
An I’iwi uses its curved bill to extract nectar from a flower
I'Iwi, Hakalau Forest, Flower, Hawaii, Big Island
This I’iwi really showed off it’s colors and bill shape!

Apapane

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.

Apapane, Hawaii, Big Island, O'hia
An Apapane checks out an O’hia flower for nectar

Hawaii Amakihi

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.

Amakihi, Mamane, Big Island
A Hawaii Amakihi perches momentarily on a mämane

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.

Kauai Amakihi

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.

Amakihi, Kauai
The Kauai Amakihi has a distinct black mask. It was cool to see this banded bird!

Anianiau

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.

Anianiau, Kokee State Park, Kauai
An adult Anianiau shows off its brilliant yellow colors
Anianiau, Kokee State Park, Kauai
I’m not sure if this Anianiau is a female or a juvenile, but it is still a beautiful specimen!

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.

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.

Herring, Underwater, GoPro, Alaska, Hoonah
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.

Herring, Eggs, Hemlock, Alaska, Subsistence
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.

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

Bald eagle, photography, alaska, herring, panning
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

Birding Oahu and The Big Island

In the South Pacific, the islands of Hawaii emerge like green jewels from the vast ocean. For many tourists these islands offer beaches and relaxation and forested hikes. Throughout these habitats are  dozens of species of birds that have evolved on the island and live nowhere else in the world. Known as “endemic” species they contribute to the biodiversity and beauty of the place and also to the allure of the islands to birders. There are also a multitude of stunning species that have been introduced from foreign countries through Hawaii’s long history of travelers and agriculture.  Last there are the migrants – birds that live in Hawaii each winter and feed in its rich forests.

Birding Hawaii for the first time is certain to add many species to your “life list” and after a week of casual birding my wife and I were thrilled at the chance to see some of these winged wonders.

Endemics Species

Endemic species are often highly evolved to fulfill a certain niche. This means they often rely on a certain food source or nest in a certain area. They are highly specialized and are susceptible to habitat destruction, climate change,  and competition from introduced species. These birds did not evolve with mammalian predators and have felt the pressure of cats and mongoose which came with humans. According to ABCbirds.org, 95 of 142 endemic Hawaiin bird species have gone extinct since human arrival. Of the 44 remaining species, 33 are on the endangered species list and at risk for extinction. These statistics have prompted many studies and efforts at restoration. Hopefully efforts will successfully save some of these beautiful species. Certainly the liklihood of extinction means birding Hawaii now may be your best time to see some of the species before they disappear forever. We only saw several endemic species and hope to pursue these more on our next trip to Hawaii.

Mongoose, Hawaii
Mongoose are introduced and have helped lead to the decline of endemic birds.

Cat, Hawaii
Cats pose a serious threat to Hawaiin endemic birds.

Introduced Species

Hawaii has a long past of habitat destruction and modification from humans. In the 1830s, the first successful sugar cane plantation was planted in Hawaii and “cane” plantations spread like wildfire from there. For nearly 180 years the cane plantations burned through acres and produced huge amounts of product. In 2016 the last cane plantation shut down.  However, that industry, development, military activity, and travelers introduced dozens of birds, plants, insects, and mammals. Many of these birds thrived in the warm and gentle climate and in time competed with the endemic species that lived there. We had an opportunity to see a wide sampling of these species on while birding the Big Island and Oahu.

Migratory Species

Of all the migratory species that we observed the Bristle-thighed Curlew was certainly the highlight! Very little is known about the habits of this bird, but they breed in northern Alaska and winter exclusively on islands in the south pacific. It was pretty remarkable to see them walking around the golf course near Kona!

Birding Hawaii made me realize again how connected birds make the world. Regardless of the distance and expanse they have to cover they are able to connect regions like the Bristle-thighed Curlew connects Hawaii and Alaska.  I cannot wait for the next time that I bird those gorgeous islands.

Creating an Image 365

For the last year I have strapped my camera to my back, placed it in my backpack, or put it in the front seat of my truck to meet my goal of taking a picture a day for 365 days. My intent of the project was to simply take a picture each day to improve my photography skills. Looking at the results I am shocked by how the project changed my view of photography and my photography skillset.

30 days in the project I was already starting to feel that I was repeating the same shots days after day. The constant feeling of the need to do something different each day forced my growth as a photographer. It was critical  I go out of my comfort zone of wildlife and landscapes by taking advantage nearly any shot that presented itself and finding an opportunity when there was an obvious one. The greatest lessons I learned was defining the difference between “taking a picture” and “creating an image”. I think creating an image captures the essence of the object or the moment and is ultimately at the heart of the what brings me joy in photography and continues to make it interesting. The difference seems subtle, but to illustrate it,  standing parallel to the horizon and taking a picture of the sunset is different than making an image of that same sunset by adding in the reflection of the water through the trees. By creating an image, you can tell a story through photography. That became my goal as the days ticked on by.

The results of this project provided a picture diary for a year. Be sure to flip through full gallery from January 1st – December 31st, 2015 here . As I flipped through them it was a trip down memory lane. I selected images  exemplifying essential lessons I learned from this project. Many of them are connected to each other and all of them helped me create an image rather than just take a picture.

10 Takeaways When Creating an Image

  1. A portable system is a huge benefit.  First and foremost I really appreciated the portability of my Olympus OMD Micro 4/3 system. The small size enabled me to carry a full featured camera and an array of lenses everywhere that I went.  That portable system helped me take advantage of the opportunity to capture this Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I was biking to the office when I encountered it and was able to snap a great moment.

July 30th : Sharp-shinned Hawk
July 30th : Sharp-shinned Hawk

2. Take an opportunity when you have it. I learned really quickly that if you intend to take a picture every single day, it is absolutely critical to capture an image regardless of the cost. Okay, I am definitely being a bit facetious, but this particular sunrise caused a five-minute tardiness on my way to class. It was just too beautiful to pass up, and I needed time to set up a tripod!

February 2nd : Sunrise over the University of Alaska Fairbank's ice climbing wall
February 2nd : Sunrise over the University of Alaska Fairbank’s ice climbing wall

3. Be creative. I often mounted only a single lens to my camera, and then forced myself to capture an image with that lens. In line with taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2), it is was also necessary to look for opportunities.  The particular image below was created because I had an f/1.0 50mm lens. I knew that depth of field would enable me to have tack-sharp pieces of an image, and a soft background which I think was effective in this skull image.

January 21st : Empty your mind.
January 21st : Empty your mind.

4. Diversify by taking advantage of all forms of photography. As I searched for shots, I extended into photography that is not my bread-and-butter wildlife or landscapes. Learning to set up food shots, portraits, and composites all helped build my photography skill set.

June 17th : Anniversary!
June 17th : Anniversary!

5. Light is everything. Photography is the “art of capturing light”, and living in Fairbanks, Alaska most of the year presented a significant challenge in the winter months. Short days ensured that if I was going to take advantage of an opportunity (see #2) in the daylight I had to be quick. I also had to get creative (see # 3) on cloudy days by either moving indoors or finding a shot that worked in flat light.

September 9th : Golden Birches
September 9th : Golden Birches

6. Make something out of nothing. There were a lot of cloudy, dark days where I never got the opportunity to take an image outside. If that was the case, it was time to be creative (see #3) by designing indoor scenes, capturing phenomena in the dark (aurora borealis, moon, or stars). I dug around in the kitchen and provided some side-lighting for this scene (see #4 on diversity). In these situations my goal was creatively create an image.

November 24th : Cooking Essentials
November 24th : Cooking Essentials

7. Have fun editing. As a wildlife photographer I often consider my work to be documentation, rather than art. I would point to a critical difference that documentation should represent the subject closely whereas art is the utilization of creative license. It was a new realm for me to experiment within Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to manipulate imagery and create art out of them. Often I used effects to emphasize the subject of the image.

June 3rd : Bluebells
June 3rd : Bluebells

8. Take advantage of your cameras settings. I pulled up to the train tracks right as the arms went down in front of me. I had not taken a picture yet (see #2) and was drawn to the stationary cross arm. Rather than “stop” the train, I slow down my shutter speed and stabilized my camera on the dash of my car. By taking advantage of my cameras settings I was able to capture an interesting shot showing motion.

August 10th : Waiting for the train to pass
August 10th : Waiting for the train to pass

9. You won’t always knock it out of the fence. It’s inescapable that poor lighting (see #5) and not taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2) will result in a less than optimal image. That’s OK!! I found the most important aspect of this challenge was to find an object and capture it in the most interesting way possible by taking advantage of interesting angles or the camera’s settings (see #8).

July 18th : Sawyer's tools
July 18th : Sawyer’s tools

10. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are beyond the realm of “not knocking it out of the park” (see #9).  Mistakes are fine unless you only have one image from the day.  The image below is a mistake that was meant to be a starspin. However, I learned why the image did not work (see #8), so that I would not repeat it in the future.

September 23rd : Light pollution
September 23rd : Light pollution

In summary, this project provided incredible growth for me. A photography growth spurt if you will. The results created a photo journal of an entire year of my life and I hope that you can take away  a few key points along with enjoying the imagery of my self-imposed assignment! Just in case you missed it, you can review the full gallery HERE!

A Whale Of A Tale

You never know what you will see when you leave Seward Harbor, but with blue skies and calm seas our hopes were high for a remarkable trip. Our trip last year on this same boat, and captained by the same crew had been truly memorable!

We reached the open ocean at the edge of Resurrection Bay about 20 miles outside of Seward harbor, and immediately recognized based on an enormous flock of gulls and sea-birds that something special was happening in front of us. Of course, the many tails of humpback whales emerging from the water was a good tip too! As we carefully approached the scene the captain explained that we were observing “bubble-net feeding” of a large group (~18) humpback whales. This behavior has only been recorded consistently around Seward for about five years, as apparently many of the whales had taught it to each other. Observing from the water surface, it is hard to imagine the underwater pandemonium of bubble-net feeding. In the deep waters under a large school of bait fish all 18 whales were blowing bubbles in synchrony to herd the bait ball into one group. Once corralled, all of the whales ascended to the surface with their huge mouths agape to scoop up as many fish as possible. From the surface we were able to predict the timing and location of each emergence, because the flock of hundreds of seabirds would lift up high into the sky, before diving on the susceptible fish just before the whales broke the surface!

Our boat drifted silently with the engines turned off, and as the whales came up for the fifth time under the baitfish the flock of tell-tale gulls began to fly straight towards our boat! It was going to be a close encounter!! Sure enough, enormous mouths attached to up to 80,000 pounds and 80 feet of whale broke through the surface near the boat in a show that left me shaking. Not from fear, but rather sheer awe-struck wonder. I simultaneously snapped imagery of the incredible scene and watched each wonder unfold. I was too busy taking imagery to record video of the whales breaking the surface, but have chained together a series of images in the video below that demonstrate the behavior of bubble-net feeding. Be sure to listen to the incredible sounds they make while on the surface!

Humpback Whale Breach
I was fortunate enough to have my camera point in the same spot, and set up for a quick burst of shots. It allow me to catch the graceful ark of this full breach! It is likely that this humpback whale was celebrating a successful day of feeding and hunting.

Mammals

The humpback whales were just the start of a remarkable series of wildlife sightings. A first of my life was the killer whales. A large pod of them traveled along and breached frequently for air exposing their fin and distinct white eyepatch. The dominant male of the group was evident thanks to an especially large dorsal fin. Baby orcas surfaced directly behind their mothers as they were still dependent them for protection, and to learn from. We spotted many sea otters throughout Ressurection Bay and along the coast. The story of their recovery is remarkable. Sea otters were extirpated from much of their traditional range by exploiting Russian and American hunters. Their loss led to the collapse of kelp beds as urchins populations, a diet item of the sea otter, expanded and ate of the kelp hold fasts (their roots). Once protected by federal law, the recolonization of sea otters helped reestablish the kelp communities and repair a crucial underwater ecosystem for small fish, and many invertebrates.

Birds

The Chiswell Islands provide important breeding habitat and refugia for many sea birds. Puffins, murres, kittiwakes, and dozens of other species are found throughout their rocky crags where they escape predation risk. Many of the species that nest in the rocky crags of the cliffs are classified  as “pelagic birds”. These birds only come to shore to breed, and spend the rest of their life at sea. It is remarkable to me that little of their ocean life is understood, although it is clearly an important part of their life history and hence conservation. One incredible fact from the trip’s crew : common murres may dive up 600 feet in search of food! The images below are just a small cross-section of the birds were observed along the way.

Scenery

The bluebird skies of the day blessed us for the nearly the entire trip. However, as we moved away from Northwestern Glacier, a thick bank of fog moved in from the ocean. The damp air made the day cooler, and provided a mystical backdrop to the Chiswell Islands which poked in and out of the fog like chandeliers in a smokey bar. The islands created a partial barrier to the fog which flowed through the lowest points of the islands like a sinewy serpent. Subsequently, the fog established the base of some of my favorite scenery images throughout the day, and featured below.

As whales-of-a-tales go, I’ve stuck to the facts of the day, although so much of was above average that even I feel that it’s a tale of whoppers. It was the type of trip that every subsequent trip to the ocean will be relative to. Perhaps I will tie it someday, but it would take a Moby Dick sized whale of a day to beat it!

The Sandhill Cranes of Fairbanks, Alaska

When the sandhill cranes arrive in the fall in Fairbanks, Alaska it is a marker of the passing of a season. It means fall is beginning, and the birds that have nested on the tundra for the summer are shipping out to warmer latitudes. If you have ever head the raucous call of the sandhill, you’ll know their presence is trumpeted for miles, and that it is unmistakable for any other sound!

Sandhill cranes are a beautiful, elegant, and striking bird. Look at that red crest and orange eye!
Sandhill cranes are a beautiful, elegant, and striking bird. Look at that red crest and orange eye!

Of the 15 crane species in the world, sandhill cranes are the only ones which are not endangered or threatened in some way (Creamers Field Billboard). Across their global range, cranes were threatened by habitat loss and market hunting. In the early 20th century market hunters nearly exterminated whooping cranes. Their numbers dropped as low as 23 individuals in the 1940s, but thanks to the International Crane Foundation and the work of many other agencies, numbers hover around 600 currently.

Low sunlight put this crane in a mosaic of shadows.
Low sunlight put this crane in a mosaic of shadows.

Sandhill cranes are actually omnivores and spend their days eating grains, seeds, insects and small rodents. In fact, in larger concentrations of cranes I believe they can temporarily clear a field of pesky, small rodents. Of course that’s just me being an optimist. Sandhills can have long migrations and breed on the tundra of Canada and Alaska, but can also be found in breeding populations in the western United States (All About Birds.org)

A sandhill crane caught in the golden glow of low sunlight at Creamer's Field, Fairbanks, Alaska
A sandhill crane caught in the golden glow of low sunlight at Creamer’s Field, Fairbanks, Alaska

When flying the legs of the crane stick straight out behind them, pretty impressive if you think about it!
When flying the legs of the crane stick straight out behind them, pretty impressive if you think about it!

It seems that the pastures are always greener for the sandhill somewhere. It was very normal for them to transfer feeding locations or swap groups.
It seems that the pastures are always greener for the sandhill somewhere. It was very normal for them to transfer feeding locations or swap groups.

Each fall hundreds of cranes pass through Creamers Field National Waterfowl Refuge . The fields and water sources there bring in many ducks, geese (snow, white-fronted, canada, cackling) and of course the Sandhill Cranes. In fact, it’s such an event that each year the Sandhill Crane Festival brings in hundreds of visitors. The cranes are fascinating to watch and the power of any large migration event such of this can be overwhelming!

A sandhill settles in among the group.
A sandhill settles in among the group.

When observing the cranes there’s a lot of things to notice, and a lot of questions to answer. The cranes with chicks still maintain their family groups, and chicks may stay with the parents for up to 10 months! Also, the cranes seem to be very territorial and are always squabbling with each other. They may point their beaks straight into the area and verbally duel each other, or hop towards each other beating their wings either to intimidate or strike. I don’t know why, in an area with such plentifiul food, they are so territorial! I guess they’re a cantankerous species. If you are lucky enough to see a courting crane pair they may ‘dance’ with each other trying to win a mate.

The young-of-the-year are a noticeable shade of orange which separates them from the parents.
The young-of-the-year are a noticeable shade of orange which separates them from the parents.

Even though the migration is 'on' the young of the year still hang in family groups and learn (I presume) from their parents.
Even though the migration is ‘on’ the young of the year still hang in family groups and learn (I presume) from their parents.

This fall I spent a lot of evenings enjoying the cranes. There is always new behavior to watch, and the roads which bisect and border the fields at Creamer’s Field offer first class seats to watch and listen. Here’s a montage of some crane behavior including the magnitude of their call, the family groups, grooming, feeding, and defending territories. The cranes departed in Mid-September along with most of their avian comrades, but I certainly will look forward to their return!