Tag Archives: Winter

Meet Alaska’s Winter Hummingbird

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!

Anna’s Hummingbird is a stunning, tiny bird. Their bright pink skull cap really sets them apart in a crowd! This mature male was photographed in Hoonah during the Christmas Bird Count in 2019.

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.

This silhouette of an Anna’s Hummingbird shows a recent snowfall in the background. This image was made in November 2019

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!

“Found this Anna’s Hummingbird hanging upside down from the Howell’s heated feeder late in the day. I thought it was dead and went back the next day to get photos of it in better light, but it was gone. I then learned that it was likely in a state of torpor. (There are images and articles online of hummingbirds hanging upside down in torpor.) The temperature had been 18 degrees on the morning of the 27th and rose to 30 degrees the following night.” – Nat Drumheller
View Nat’s : Ebird Checklist

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!

Yearly Returners?

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.

This juvenile male Anna’s Hummingbird was a frequent visitor at my feeder from September through December but then disappeared.

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.

Cited

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.

Northern Accents

It was negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit in Fairbanks, Alaska as I stepped outside to engage in my photographic addiction : capturing the northern lights. I set off into the night, stomped a trail through knee-deep snow, and tripped on a hidden tree. The trip loosened up a signature item of the black spruce bog that I was walking in; a four foot Black Spruce tree encased in snow. Around me arranged in clumps and with varying snow loads were hundreds of Black Spruces. Each layer of snow deposited through the winter hung heavily on each tree.  Some of them sustained the burden of winter and maintained their dignity by standing upright, however, many bowed over in graceful arcs waiting for the warmth of spring to set them free. The beautiful landscape I stood in was classic to the interior of Alaska in the boreal forest. On this night I was in luck, the aurora started up and with my camera and mind racing I began to take pictures that fused together two iconic elements of interior Alaska.

I began photographing the aurora borealis three years ago and since then have continued to morph my skills and technique. It is actually pretty amazing to consider the transition that my photography has gone through as I began to realize that although the northern lights are stunning they are only an accent to unique landscape. I began to focus less on tack-sharp stars and large vistas and more on the foreground elements. I no longer only seek tall “domes” (i.e., mountains, hills) to stake out my my tripod. Instead I often look for integral pieces of the landscape that epitomize it and place them close and directly in front of my camera. In order to capture landscapes like these I change my techniques. My camera and tripod are almost always at ‘snow level’ to take advantage of unique angles, and I set up only a few feet from the object in front of me. A bulbous, snow-covered black spruce only two feet away becomes the tack-sharp focus that the eye is pulled to. The dreamy and soft aurora and stars  provide the lighting that help pull out the essence of the landscape. They are punctuation to the beauty which lies all around.

In the age of digital photography that makes capturing the northern lights “easy”, I offer this article as a challenge to photographers to think outside of the box when shooting the aurora. You may find that it provides inspiration to your work and a beautiful twist to an astounding phenomenon.

Northern Archway
I chose this archway of spruces to photograph the aurora in. I was intent on capturing the aurora in a way that complimented their shape.

Window to the Northern Lights
I got closer to the archway and was thrilled by the aurora that dance in this natural window.

Northern Lights
Bulbous, snow-covered spruces and a framework and a dead spruce are set by the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis
A window to the aurora beyond.

Northern Lights
A broad vista of red and green aurora in Fairbanks.

Northern Lights Archway
Northern lights in an archway of black spruces.

Northern lights archway Aurora Borealis Panorama Alaska, Aurora Borealis Spruce, Northern Lights, Black Spruce Aurora Borealis Alaska Fairbanks Winter Snow Northern Lights Black Spruce Alaska Aurora Borealis and black spruces Northern Lights, Black Spruces, Bog

 

A Superior Coast of Stone and Ice

I do not know why the stark beauty of the Lake Superior coast surprised me so much; before, I had lived on its shores four years. In front of me, the grey sky mirrored the pale ice of the shoreline, and as I walked to the edge of Gitchigumi’s  ice encased coast at Gooseberry State Park I was captivated. Short waves in the small cove which curled out in front of me lapped at the shoreline and imperceptibly built up icicles that hung from ice ledges. The icicles were shaped like alligator teeth and seemed to dangle from the frozen mouth of a gigantic beast. Every rock was encased in a sheet of ice built  up one splash of water at a time. A careful cross-section of ice from on top of the rock would reveal that stone was at the core of an arctic onion.

The ice was inspiring to look at from a macro and micro scale. By getting close and touching my nose to the ice, I observed some the miniscule details contributing to the grand-scale beauty.  On the rocks, a result of the layers of water was gray-and-white banded textures mimicking the agates Lake Superior is so famous for. They were polished to perfection.  Colorful yellow lichens, tufted grasses, and rich green mosses were preserved on the rocks behind clear windows of curved ice. The magnifying effect of the curve threw pieces of the lichen out of proportion, and the the splashes of bright color they provided were in stark contrast to the granite. As I pressed my face close and looked,  it was impossible to guess how some of the textures had formed. In some instances, it seemed that some of the small pebbles trapped in the ice had received just enough sun to melt and separate themselves. The small void they left above their surface was filled with alternating grains and patterns. Reflecting on it now, everything looks a bit different when you observe the essence of a landscape.

One of the greatest joys of the afternoon was when the sun dissolved through the flat gray skies as a radiant sunset. The grey ice ledges and icicles no longer blended into the background colors of the horizon but instead reflected and bounced the many colors of the  sky. The Lake Superior coast was transformed. Translucent icicles absorbed and emitted the sunset’s light. Rays of sun illuminated the rock islands encased in ice.  Blue skies and orange clouds floated overhead and were pushed by the wind. Throughout it all I counted my blessings and documented its beauty. As the sun finally set I returned to my car feeling like I had been at just the right place, at just the right time.

Sunset on the Iice
The sunset bounces off the curved icy bubbles on the shoreline.

Sunset Emitted
These small icicles absorb and seem to emit the colors of the sunset behind them.

Flat Waters?
You may have noticed throughout the post that the water of Lake Superior was flat. That is due to a the long exposures that I used to emphasize the beauty of the ice. This image does not use a long exposure and shows a small wave breaking over the rocks.

 

What the Wind Erased

A landscape transformed by fog and cold

Crystallized grasses and bejeweled trees

Dazzling and glinting in the sunrise

The slightest physical touch or force of nature

Will fracture the delicate crystals 

So you hold your breath and get as close as possible

Hoar frost Grass Frond
Hoar frost hangs heavy on some grass.

Then a death knell begins as a distant puff of wind

Slowly it grows, stripping the trees and grasses

Casting the flakes like diamonds into the breeze

A blink of the eye and the trees are naked and plain

Anyone driving by would never know what the wind erased. 

Hoar Frost floats in a puff of wind.
Fractured Hoar Frost crystals float in a puff of wind.

 

When I stepped outside today the world was transformed. The skies were blue, the sun was white, and hoar frost bejeweled the world. I was astounded by the fragility of the phenomenon as mother nature used the wind to erase her artwork in only a few minutes.

Hoar Frost
Huge flakes of hoar frost from an old aster.

Frost on crystals
Ice crystals extend out from a grass frond.

Prairie Hoar Frost
Prairie Hoar Frost

Hoar Frost in the Field.
The trees above my house are illuminated by the rising sun.

DSC_6913 DSC_6910 P1040299

The (nearly) Eternal Golden Hour

You are sitting on a warm, tropical, beach drinking a margarita. As you watch the day wane away the sun dips lower on the ocean horizon, and the landscape transforms into brilliant oranges and purples. Behind you the palm trees are bathed in orange, and the landscape has taken on incredible colors with accentuated shadows of even the shortest plant or sandcastle.  Almost certainly you bring out your cell phone or camera, because, like all photographers, you find the beauty of the Golden Hour to be irresistible, and you know the peak experience will be short lived.  Perhaps you even think to yourself that you wish the beauty of that light could last forever. What if it could?

The Golden Hour is also called the “magic hour” and for a landscape photographer there is no better time to be outside. The terms refer to the period of time when the sun is 6 degrees or less from the horizon. In many regions, like the balmy beach scene above, the moment as the sun sweeps through that 6 degree sweet-spot is relatively short. However, in Polar regions like Alaska, the winter sun has such as a low, southern trajectory, that the sunset-like colors almost never fade.

azelzen
This diagram demonstrates the concept of solar angle, which, as I found out, stays at <= 6 degrees for a full three months in Fairbanks, Alaska. http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/azelzen.gif

There are a variety of tools, apps, and websites to calculate the solar angle at your location.  I used the NOAA ESRL Sun Position Calculator to determine that in Fairbanks the sun dips to the 6 degree mark on October 24th, 2015 and will remain below 6 degrees until February 26th, 2016. To illustrate the effect of the polar magic hour the images below showcase the colors, and shadows achieved by the low-lying sun. For 3 months, the silver lining of our short, winter days is a luxurious landscape lit by an eternal Golden Hour.

Golden Hour Tamaracks
Although we often want to watch the sunset, the objects that it lights up behind us can be brought to life. These tamarack cones are bathed in the remarkable light of the Golden Hour

Golden Hour Angel Rocks
Because unique light of the Golden Hour, it offers the perfect opportunity for black and white transformations. Do you prefer the full color or black and white image?

Black and White Golden Hour
Because unique light of the Golden Hour, it offers the perfect opportunity for black and white transformations. Do you prefer the full color or black and white image?

I used several key resources for this article. If you are interested in calculating your sun angle check out :

http://www.suncalc.org/

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/grad/solcalc/azel.html

http://www.golden-hour.com/

Starry Stitches

On the evening of December 8th this year, a wonderful series of phenomenon occurred. The sun went down, the aurora remained muted, brilliant stars of the Milky Way dappled the darkness, and a new moon sealed the deal for a night of very dark-skies.  I left the orange glow of Fairbanks behind and set off on a quest into the inky darkness of interior Alaska to photograph the Milky Way Galaxy.

When photographing the galaxy you are capturing the “galactic plane” which is the stars which spin out from the “galactic center“. Our sun and solar system reside on the edge of the galaxy, and give us the opportunity to look into it. However, depending on the season and the photographer’s location on the planet, the true center of the galaxy may not be available. In Fairbanks the galactic center would be visible in the summer when it is always light. During the winter the galactic plane of the Milky Way is visible,  but we do not get an opportunity to see the center because we are blocked from it by the planet.

MilkyWay
This image does a nice job of demonstrating our position in the disk of the milky way, and translating that disk to the “galactic plane”. Brilliant Milky Way images capture the nuclear bulge a the center of the Milky Way. The nuclear bulge is not visible from Fairbanks in the December. Image Credit : UCSD.edu

Fairbanks has not felt wind for over two months and snow  which would ordinary not persist with wind clung to the spruces encasing them . I angled my camera at the bases of those trees and slowly moved at up into the sky after each exposure with the goal of creating panoramic ‘stitches’ of the Milky Way. The method compounds the star density of the galaxy, and brings out distant features like a nebula seen in the upper left of several of the images. I hope you take to opportunity to view dark skies when you can!

A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way.
A panoramic stitch of the Milky Way and a nebula cluster in the upper left.

Milky Way Stitch
I was able to achieve the most definition of the Milky Way in this particular shot and misty veils of aurora float through for effect.

Milky Way Panorama
A tall vertical stitch of the Milky Way over a winter paradise.

Nebula cluster
The nebula cluster in this shot is pointed out by a snow covered spruce that arches into the picture from the left.

Milky Way and Nebula Cluster.
The Milky Way springs out of this crotch formed by these snow-covered spruces.

Milky Way Stitch
A distant planet, perhaps Venus, is particularly bright in this image.

Hoar Frost
The hoar-frost covered trees are a testament to the lack of wind in the region.

An Early Christmas Part 2

The feedback on An Early Christmas Part 1 has been really great, thanks! I wanted to share with you how I have embellished on that first concept of shooting Christmas ornaments under the Northern Lights and also get a bit poetic about the aurora.  The aurora this week has been remarkable thanks to a coronal hole from the sun allowing high speed solar winds to reach earth.

I walked out on the ski trails behind my house because the broad and brilliant band of aurora overhead indicated to my aurora-sense it was going to be an early showing. I meandered through snow covered trees maintained in their icy encasement by complete lack of wind for nearly two months. The trail was firm, but as I stepped off my body sunk into thigh deep snow which even though it had fallen 6 weeks ago, was still perfect, soft powder thanks to consistently cold temps. In fact, on this night my breath steamed away at -15F, and a few days earlier I woke up to -23. My anticipation grew as the aurora continued to build in strength and at 10:30 PM an auroral bomb exploded in the sky. The metaphor of a bomb is perfect because it was so sudden that I was caught off guard, and was forced to shoot my camera where I stood in an effort to capture adequately the green and pink shrapnel which rippled and writhed in the sky. The explosion caught me in a towering cathedral of spruces which in the images all point to the source of the disturbance. In five minutes the waves of light ended, but it was only the beginning of series of barrages that kept me awake and in awe until 3AM.

The Lady Slipper
“The Lady Slipper” – In a towering cathedral of spruces that point to a brilliant display of aurora.

Aurora Around the Bend
“Aurora around the bend” – The ski trail I was on rounds the bend, and makes me wonder what views would have awaited if I were not rooted to the spot.

I have been building on the initial ornament concept in a few ways. Although it is difficult to hide a camera in front of a mirror, I am placing it in ways that is not obtrusive. From its hiding place I have shot a full 90 minute star-lapse in the bulb! That image, featured below, is the only one not taken on the night I described. I have also shot a full time lapse in the ornaments which turned out quite wonderful! I hope you enjoy the festive twist on the aurora 🙂

 

This concept shot builds on the original in An Early Christmas by shooting a 90 minute star-lapse!
This concept shot builds on the original in An Early Christmas by shooting a 90 minute star-lapse!

Merry Christmas!

Back in a Winter Wonderland

It has been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but all of that is about to change as I get my blog’n legs back under me. Until now I have been prioritizing my thesis which has now been defended. There will be several upcoming articles on the results of my work. I see no use in writing it if noone is reading it! I deem the upcoming articles as science communication”, and I hope you will find them informative.

I want to give you an update on the calendars too. Thanks SO MUCH to those who have purchased one. The response and feedback to them has been tremendous. I am now on my second and last printing. If you have been considering ordering one, now is the time! Visit: https://ianajohnson.com/customproducts/index.php/product/2016-alaskan-calendar/

Now onto the meat of this entry. Yesterday was my first day back in Fairbanks after being away for over 10 days. When I left, the remnants of a huge September snowstorm (17″) still lingered on the ground in low, shaded areas, but for the most part the ground was barren. It is amazing how only 10 days can change that. We now have 16″ of pure powder on the ground which is maintained by cold nights. Yesterday morning when I awoke it was -15F with a promise from forecasters that those temperatures will continue through at least this week. A seasonally late sunrise began at 9:15, and by noon the low light illuminated the tree tops and extenuated the shadows. I nearly skipped with joy into the  spruce bog behind my house where snow hung on the trees. I passed under trees that with a touch would have doused me in snow, and found pure joy in the beauty of this winter wonderland.

Later that night the landscape of refracting light and black spruce shadows transitioned to twinkling stars shining through a moonless night. I retraced my steps from only a few hours earlier and watched as the aurora built to the north. I watched for awhile and smiled outwardly at my knowledge of the stark contrast in light from just hours earlier.

Refracted Highlight
The sun highlights the top of a snow-pillow smothering an arched black spruce.

DSC_3248
The dynamic light of the landscape is what makes it so beautiful. Shadows of the low sun contrast heavily against lighted spires.

Black and White Winter Wonderland
I really like how the black and white contrast of needles, snow, sky lend themselves to back-and-white photography.

Winter Sun Burst
The sun erupts through a gap in the trees, but has no heat this time of year.

Arched Spruces
The large snow-load has bent many of the black spruces over. They will rebound in the spring once their burden has been lifted.

Snow Covered Aurora
At night, the aurora lit up the landscape where I watched the the sun play across the tree tops hours earlier.

Low Aurora
A combination of short and tall black spruces creates a beautiful effect in this winter wonderland.

Spinning Stars in a Winter Wonderland
This starspin shot was set up for 2 hours. Focusing on the north star, it is amazing to see how much they shift over that time!

2016 Alaskan Calendar is Now for Sale!

Hello Everyone,

I am very, very, very  excited to write inform you of the release of my 2016 calendar! The content features some of the best imagery on this website, plus a few things that have never seen the “light of day”. The calendar is entitled “Seasonal Moods of Alaska” with imagery for each month captured in that month. The calendar is 100% designed by me including feature images, transparent images, windows, and text tying the imagery to the season. A huge thanks to my family and fiance for helping to proof the calendar! I believe the final product is a work of art mingled with science.

If you want to see it, clicking on the cover image or link link will bring you to the sales site that I created.  Otherwise, keep reading for some more information 🙂

2016 Seasons and Moods of Alaska Cover

https://ianajohnson.com/customproducts/

The calendar is printed on 9.5×13 paper and spiral bound leaving ample of room to write in your schedule. Of course it has a hole for hanging if that is all you want to do with it! With imagery from throughout Alaska, the calendar is a great memento of your trip to Alaska, for a friend who has been here, or to bring inspiration for your future trip here!

This calendar is being printed by my local shop in Perham, Minnesota. Your consideration and support also helping the local economy in Perham.

2016 Calendar Final 9halfx138
Each month has a premier image. This image from Mendenhall glacier showcases the high resolution imagery within the calendar.

2016 Calendar Final 9halfx1323
Every month has a transparent image behind the grid, and small windows with images from that month. Writing in the lower right panel ties together fuses the imagery and writing together.

The calendar will be available for pre-order through October 15th. At that time I will begin shipping orders. You can help me out a huge amount by spreading the word about this calendar or through a purchase! Thanks you so much in advance for your support in this project!

Autumnal Aurora

I jumped when my alarm went off at 11:30 PM, and I looked at my surroundings to remind myself where I was. The sleeping bag wrapped around me and my reclined seat reinforced I was in my truck as my blurry eyes brought the steering wheel in focus. My memories flooded back to me; I arrived 30 minutes ago, and with no aurora in sight had set an alarm and took a nap. I was expectant that a G2 storm forecast was going to pay out, and as I peered out of trucks window it seemed I was in luck. The aurora was starting to show a band high in the sky. I turned the ignition, and drove down the road to find the “perfect”, golden tree – my goal for the night was to fuse autumn colors and the aurora together.

I stood on the road with my head craned up, watching a beautiful, green aurora band overhead. This aurora was  Mr. Jekyll which soon morphed into Mr. Hyde – albeit a beautiful version of him.  I was not ready for the full force of the aurora as it transformed the sky into a green and pink blanket of shimmering, dancing lights so different than what I had been looking at minutes earlier.  The energy that rolled overhead, I learned later, was the result of a monstrous, KP7 event, that pushed the aurora into Washington and the Midwest.  I was so overwhelmed by the aurora that I expressed myself by simultaneously singing, praying, and taking pictures by myself under the vast display of lights. For those who know me, you might guess that I was also grinning broadly from ear-to-ear. My smile would not have disappointed you!

For parts of the night, my only focus was to capture the overhead aurora corona to the best of my ability. The last time I successfully captured the corona was in Denali National Park last year. I couldn’t be more happy to show you this gallery of images from last night  – there were many more taken! The gallery is chronological, and hopefully gives a sense of the scale of the aurora and how quickly it built. These images are taken at 9mm, and hence have a ~120 degree field of view!

I am continuing to boost my online portfolio, so please stop by if you have a moment! A selection of these images has been added to my Fine Arts America Photo Gallery for purchase. Thank-you for your consideration!

Fine Arts America Photo Gallery