Friday, October 26, 2012

Alaskan wrap-up

Shot of camp again - the photos in this post consist of some of my favorites of the season

All in all, if you hadn’t gathered from all my posts leading up until now, it was an amazing summer. A unique experience, living in the middle of the wilderness with 5-7 other people worked out quite well since our crew was all good-humored, hard-working, and fun to be around. The potential for social disaster in small field crews is a definite reality, luckily one that was mainly avoided in this case.
The nature up there was out of this world, both at the Canning and then in our post-trip to the Kenai Peninsula. We only had 70 or so species of bird at the field site on the North Slope, but some of them that I talked about above, such as Spectacled Eider or Buff-breasted Sandpiper, are truly special.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers displaying

Of course, not all in the world is birds, as I need to be reminded sometimes, and the mammals exemplified this fact well. We ended up with 21 species of mammals throughout the whole trip, including roughly 30,000 caribou, all members of the Porcupine Herd, a well-known herd of animals that totals around 150,000 individuals whose seasonal migration takes them right past the area of our camp. The large carnivore show was also very impressive, like the American Serengeti as I said before, with eight Grizzly (Brown) Bears, 6 Gray Wolves, and daily Arctic Foxes. The mammals did not stop down in the Kenai area, illustrated with Black Bear and Orca, Mountain Goat and Humpback Whale, Sea Otter and Moose.

Pacific Loon

Apart from the flesh-and-blood life up there, the landscapes and other biota were awesome too, with massive expanses of spongy tundra extending as far as you can see up on the North Slope, to down in the Kenai where large evergreen forests dominate, where you silently walk under the boughs of the conifers on a bed of needles, a world apart from the other side of the state. One of the things that struck me was how primal and wild most of the state still was, even in some areas off of main roads – something that we never really encounter down in the lower 48 states.

American Golden-Plover

I know I have been trying to describe what it was like up there, but there is no real way to convey the experiences exactly as they were. There were the times when you’re slogging through knee-deep water with a 30lb pack, 7 layers on, toting a shotgun, and then the fog rolls in and you can’t see 20 feet away, no knowledge of where you are, where anything else is, and it doesn’t really matter. An hour later the sun could be out, the wind could die, and you could be stripping down to just a thermal layer over your tshirt, and throw on sunglasses, suddenly able to see dozens of miles at the frosted mountains standing vigil over the flatness. You might be walking along and get the feeling you’re being watched, only to turn around and see an Arctic Fox or a Caribou not too far behind you, just watching you.

Sabine's Gull

One of the many unique experiences that came with the trip up there was that of being cut off from the world. I’ve traveled extensively in Latin America, but even there you go to an internet cafĂ© every few days at the most. Here you get your 10 minutes of satellite phone a week, and that is it. No knowledge of news, politics, sports, gossip, anything. And it was wonderful.
Our final tally for our 5 week season up there was 288 nests found, of which roughly 80% failed due to predation by Arctic Foxes, with another 3-5% unknown whether they were predated or if they hatched. This is a slightly above average for nests found, but extremely above average for predation. At other sites along the North Slope they had normal success years, so it appears to have been an isolated occurrence, and one that will surely even out over time, since it is just part of the rhythm of nature.

Red-necked Phalarope

It was an incredible experience overall, one that I am honored to have been a part of, and definitely something I’m considering returning to next year. Thanks all for reading, and perhaps I’ll find some more topics to write about from the New England area before I travel again – time shall tell.
For more photos than have been shown here, see the below links:
Canning River:
Kenai Peninsula:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

July 14-16 - Kenai Peninsula, Homer

A common sight in Alaska, this moose was expertly pointed out by Alan

The evening of the return from our glacier cruise out of Seward found us headed for Homer, a couple hundred miles away on the other side of the Kenai Peninsula. Since the sun sets so late here, only being dark for 3-4 hours in the middle of the night, we were still driving in daylight even though we were on the road until 11:30 at night.
We stopped a couple places en route, at a supermarket for some sandwich materials and then at the Kenai NWR headquarters for the range-restricted Aleutian Tern, a breeding species there. We were able to pick out one of the terns feeding over the lake just behind the headquarters buildings, the first time I have seen a species of tern for the first time after 10pm!
Eventually we arrived at our destination for the night – a random road in the hills above Homer, where we ate sandwiches on the hood of the car, which we then proceeded to sleep in. For those of you out there who look down on sleeping in cars, our ride was quite a comfy sleeping place in my opinion!

View over the town of Homer from near where we slept

The following morning we checked a bunch of local areas in the downtown Homer area, and then spent the afternoon at nearby Anchor Point, a little coastal promontory that turned out to be great for seawatching. It was also a popular place for fishing, and the large number of fishermen there would fillet their catch and toss the carcasses into the surf edge, which served to attract lots of gulls, crows, and eagles.

This immature Bald Eagle was along the docks on Homer Spit, a peninsula right in downtown Homer

The eagle show was spectacular, with about 20 individuals feeding along the coastline, flying along at eye level less than 30 feet away at times. The congregation of close to a thousand gulls featured a Slaty-backed Gull mixed in with the myriad Glaucous-winged Gulls – this Slaty-backed that we found being the only one in the entire US at that time apart from one other elsewhere in Alaska!

Slaty-backed Gull (left), standing out among the surrounding Glaucous-winged Gulls

Adult Bald Eagle dropping down onto a fish carcass

Landing gear down!

This eagle came and landed in a tree right next to us, this photo is not cropped at all!

That evening we went and searched for Boreal Owl in the wood above town, unfortunately without any form of success. While thinking about our plans for the next couple days, we realized that we had gotten pretty much all of our realistic targets for the areas that we had been to, and that we could make it back a day earlier than planned, thus saving money on the rental car. However, this meant that we had to make it back for 1pm the following day..
4am found us awake in the front seats of the car again, having slept for another night in our luxurious sedan. After checking in vain one last time for Boreal Owl, we started the six-hour drive back to Anchorage, planning on one last birding stop.
We reached the town of Hope a few hours later, and headed up to a nice dirt road that climbed through a valley above town. Here we were able to add some more species that we hadn’t encountered yet this trip, such as Spruce Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and many other species with boreal flair.

View from the side of the road as we left the Kenai Peninsula

After here we went back to Anchorage for our last few days, hiking around town a couple times and enjoying the remainder of our time in Alaska, before flying home without mishap. I’ll post once more about this trip as a recap of the work that we did and things we saw. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

July 13-14 - Kenai Peninsula, Seward

The view from the highway as you approach the Kenai Peninsula, the mountains on the other side are on the peninsula proper

After a couple days of lazing around in Anchorage Alan and I hit the road again, this time shooting for the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. We snagged the rental car and headed off on the three hour drive, which went past absolutely spectacular scenery, with the usual snowy topped mountains set off by gently rolling forested slopes and mirror-like lakes throughout.
Arriving at Seward, we were so excited to finally be there that after quickly stopping at the hostel we were staying at we immediately headed off to start birding. We checked nearby Lowell Point and then the waterfront of the town itself, which combined had a half-dozen new species for both of us, and other fun creatures such as my first Sea Otters!

This cute little guy was right off the seawall in town

The following morning we headed out on a glacier cruise, the reason for us going to Seward. This nine-hour boat trip is mainly geared towards tourists who wish to see the spectacular tidewater glaciers that calve blocks of ice off into the water below the glacier. However, these trips are also fantastic for large numbers of seabirds, both those breeding on the cliffs around the fjords that you visit, and also species that are passing through on their migratory routes.
There are also some really cool mammals in the area, from those that are aquatic to terrestrial species. I was elated to finally get my first Orcas on this trip, a species that I have always wanted to see! We got to observe a large pod with some really young animals in it move right by the boat we were in, giving great views. In the water throughout the day there were also many Humpback Whales and Sea Otters, with smaller numbers of Dall’s Porpoise sprinkled throughout. From the terrestrial perspective, on the rocky coast of one headland we were lucky enough to see three Mountain Goats that had descended from their normally lofty abode to feed on vegetation at the edge of the ocean.

Part of the pod of Orcas we saw, with a nice young one in the middle

A bunch of Sea Otters loafing around in Aialik Bay, they actually would rock back and forth in the water as we passed, trying to get a better look at the boat going by!

Of course, we were really there for the birds, and they did not disappoint. As a foreground to the stunning scenery we were treated to tens of thousands of birds, including nine species of alcid, a family of birds that are the northern hemispheric counterpart to the penguins of the southern hemisphere. One of the species of alcid, Kittlitz’s Murrlet, is quite range restricted and has a really cool habitat preference. Occurring almost exclusively along the edges of the Bering Sea, these birds have an affinity for the milky gray-blue water that you only get at the base of glaciers – where the glacial silt tints the water this special hue. Every single one of the 31 Kittlitz’s Murrelets that we saw on the trip were at the outflow of glaciers – pretty awesome.

Black-legged Kittiwakes (top left) and Common Murres (top right, bottom left) nesting on the cliffs

Part of one of the Black-legged Kittiwake colonies at Cape Resurrection 

Speaking of glaciers, we got to see three massive glaciers on the boat trip, two that were landlocked and one tidewater, tidewater being defined as a glacier that runs right up to the edge of the ocean. The tidewater glacier that we saw, Aialik Glacier, was simply spectacular. Roughly a mile wide and 300 feet high, this striking powder blue monolith looms over the water below, where we sat in the boat with the engines off and were privileged to watch a couple house-sized chunks of ice plummet off of the face of the glacier, creating 5-6 foot swells that swept out across the bay.

There is unfortunately nothing for scale here, but this is about a mile wide. Simply massive.

On the way back to harbor we stopped at an island that was partially owned by the cruise company and were treated to a buffet dinner as part of the price of the trip – not a bad way to end the day! For carnivores there was a prime rib buffet, and then many other vegetarian options followed by a gourmet cheesecake dessert. Not bad.
After this trip we had seen everything that we wanted to from the Seward area, and rather than paying for a hotel in Seward, we took the bull by the horns and jetted off on the 4 hour drive to Homer immediately after getting back to the mainland, and Homer is where I will pick up this narrative next.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

July 10 - Fairbanks south to Anchorage

View from the highway between Fairbanks and Anchorage

We spent two nights in Fairbanks, hanging out as well as returning gear to the Fish & Wildlife Service office and finalizing last details of the summer. We birded at a couple places in town as well as going and seeing The Avengers in theaters - our first movie in quite a while! After our wrap-up work was done, we were free to do what we wanted until our flights back on the 20th!

Alongside the highway there are areas with spruce forest extending as far as you can see, really striking landscape

We both knew people down in Anchorage, so we headed down there next, stopping on the way south at Denali National Park for a short while – a brief intermission in the 6 hour drive. There was beautiful scenery on the drive, much of it featuring the enormous icy crown of Denali in the background. We got to see a Black Bear with three cubs in tow along the side of the road, and lots of fun birds, despite not locating the desired Arctic Warbler.

Mrs. Black Bear and her cubs

Laura had a friend in Anchorage that she had done fieldwork with in another part of Alaska a few years prior, and so her and Alan made plans to stay with her friend Julie. A friend of mine also currently lived in Anchorage, a former bander at Manomet back here in Mass, and so it was nice to get to see and catch up with her! After one night at my friend’s I spent the remainder of the time with Alan and Laura at Julie’s, since Julie’s house was a much easier space with which to entertain guests.
            Alan and I wanted desperately to visit the Kenai Peninsula, since Anchorage is right there next to it, and Laura also wanted to go dip-netting for salmon with Julie for a weekend – so while they went and had a great time fishing, we went and had a last few days of hardcore birding before the end of the trip, which is where the next post will cover!

Monday, October 22, 2012

July 9 - departure, civilization

Our trusty transport back to Fairbanks

We woke up this morning and did one last half-day of work, quickly performing invertebrate sampling so that the two people staying behind had less work to do, for that day at least. Scott and Alfredo were staying behind, while Elin, Alan, Laura, and myself departed.
In the late morning we heard the whine of an engine and our ride out arrived, landing on the strip of land below camp known as the “runway” simply a flatter drier area than most of the land around.
            Elin and I took the first plane out, while Laura and Alan hopped on the second one about a half hour after we left. It was a totally different world leaving, really wonderful to be able to see the difference between the flight in a month prior. In contrast to the snowbound land that we arrived in, it was now a lush green landscape, spotted here and there with ponds and winding tributaries of the Canning River.

Just to the left of center, to the left of the bend in the river shown here, is our camp

            We landed at Kavik as we did on the way in, once more to refuel, and summer was already seemingly past peak here. Upon arrival I hurriedly made my way to the building with internet there, and checked my email – consisting of over 600 messages from the past month. It was both a relief and a letdown to be connected to the outside world again after a good amount of time away from it all.
            The flight over the mountains heading back to Fairbanks was also totally different, with the icy mountains being replaced by gray shale and visible geology in the craggy peaks. The valleys with rivers in them were lush and green, contrasting vividly with the dead scree slopes above them. As we headed further south we saw something that had long been out of our lives – trees!

Verdant river valley in the Brooks Range

No more snow except a few glaciers on the highest peaks

            Upon landing in Fairbanks real life caught up fast, and I was immediately calling people trying to figure out transportation, a place to stay, and what the game plan was for the evening. Thanks to wonderful logistical help from Manomet staff Metta and Stephen, we were able to get a rental car almost immediately once Alan and Laura landed, and were soon at our destination for the night – the home of Patti Picha, an incredibly kind lady who opened her home to travelers coming through the area, a friend of Scott’s who housed us for a couple nights for free.

A view of the Yukon River as we headed south, showing the generations of meanderings of the river, with the darkest vegetation in the center being the oldest

Sunday, October 21, 2012

July 8 - final day

Five of our shadows cast by the midnight sun after dinner one night

If the weather co-operates tomorrow this will be my last night at the Canning River Delta. It is pretty strange whenever you move from one stage of your life to another, it always seems like a partially unfathomable concept until it happens. I won’t put waders on every morning, no more huddling around the heater in the cook tent, and no more toting shotguns and bear spray when away from camp. For that matter, no camp! No more wilderness either though, living among stark beauty untouched by the hand of man.

Not as many grizzly bear tracks in civilizations, such as these ones that I found in the muddy margin of a pond today

Today was your average foggy and windy day here, mercifully bugless, and nice to have a few more nests hatch. All in all it has been an incredible season and I have learned so much about a large variety of things, from how to do complicated formulas in Excel to the best way to find Pectoral Sandpiper nests.

This was the back of my field notebook for the season, with the pencil scrawl on the left the numbers of the nests I found, and the categories on the right being the different habitat classifications that we had

After we get back to civilization I hope to write a scientific paper with Scott on some of the data collected this year, likely studying how faithful to the nest site birds are from year to year, quantifying it using our nest data from the past three years! We’ll see how it goes. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

July 7 - phalarope chicks

Four Red-necked Phalarope chicks shown here in the nest

Tomorrow is my last full day here, weather permitting. It just struck me tonight – and it will be weird not waking up here every day.
Today was fairly mundane, nest checks for the morning, came back early afternoon due to the few nests to check, and then spent the remainder of the day entering data. The highlight of nest checks today was seeing the first Red-necked Phalarope chicks, four in one nest and three near another, both with papa phalaropes in attendance. The chicks were very striking, golden overall with dark flecks accenting the gilded coloration and nice little caps.

One of the chicks was out and about a bit more, and super cute with his disproportionately large feet and legs

As of today we are down to only 50 nests active or so, roughly 17% of our total nests of the season. However, at least it is nice now that some of the nests are going inactive because they’re hatching, rather than just all being eaten!

This baby Brown Lemming was also incredibly precious, about the size of my thumb. I kind of wanted to bring him home..

Thursday, October 18, 2012

July 6 - lemming transect, foggy caribou

The view over an upland section of the tundra, complete with numerous flowers, and hordes of mosquitoes

It is amazing how fast the brain blocks out bad memories and experiences. Today Alfredo and I did a lemming nest survey, which consists of walking a 15 kilometer transect line, counting all lemming winter nests that you see from the line. You also must always stay on the line, so you have your face in the GPS all day, making sure you’re exactly on the line..for nine miles of walking.
Add the hot windless day that today was, innumerable mosquitoes, and you have the bad memory that already seems like a vague thought that may not have even happened. The bugs were so thick that I smeared so many on the GPS screen from normal use that I had to wipe it off because I couldn’t read the display – hundreds of mozzies around each of us at any moment.
Once we got back we ate some pasta with alfredo sauce and played more tossed salad, and now the day is in the distant past. As we headed to bed we had some good looks at a few hundred caribou by camp, silhouetted against the low sun by fog – gorgeous view and some striking photos.

This impressive male posed quite well right by our sleeping tents

Herd of caribou below the 11pm sun

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

July 5 - more rafters

Pectoral Sandpiper chicks! Probably my favorite of the species that I got to see as chicks.

Woke up after 9 today, didn’t head out until 11 – such a difference from only a week ago! Went out alone and covered the 5s and 7s, where I got to see my first Pectoral Sandpiper chicks, as well as a Semipalmated Sandpiper hatch. I even found a couple nests as well, singles of Pacific Loon and Ruddy Turnstone.

Ruddy Turnstone nest - literally a shallow depression in the bare ground

As soon as our last rafters left some new ones arrived! Practically a guesthouse on our beach now.. We invited them up for hot drinks, and chatted for an hour or so before they headed back. Two families and the girlfriends of the sons in the families – quite different from the last crowd which was a professional tour.
We six also spent the evening after they left playing a game that is a cross between charades and taboo called tossed salad – a ton of fun. Now it is after midnight for the second night in a row writing this, and only three more full days here – insane!

Never know when you're going to run across bear tracks! They're big.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

July 4 - independence day!

The moose that tried to crash our festivities

Today was great fun, a nice break from the normal work here. Woke up late, went to breakfast where we all had freedom toast (French toast), freedom fritters (hash browns), and the others partook in large amounts of bacon.
Following our meal all but one of us walked as a group down to the 7s, checking the nests that were due as we went. At one point we came across a really awesome migrant congregation of 65 Pectoral Sandpipers, 30 Semipalmated Sandpipers, and 2-3 Stilt Sandpipers, all hanging out in a habitat that usually has a very sparse spread of birds – really really cool to see on this foggy morning.
Our destination was the main bed of the Canning, which we reached in the late morning, and upon arrival began gathering firewood on the blustery floodplain. In our first few minutes there, while we were still getting firewood, a huge moose turned up out of nowhere, coming quite close and enabling us to get lots of photos. Strange to see one in a riverbed, many miles from any trees!

Not a great photo, but you can see that this guy is a bit out of his element

Once we had gotten enough wood we got a fire going and sat there for 4-5 hours, eating smores, baked potatoes, and listening to songs on portable speakers. A wonderful way to while away an afternoon. After our patriotic fire we walked back home and arrived at a camp that was on alert due to a bear nearby, down by the swamp just below the little rise that camp is on.
Watching from the bluff, we got to witness it approach the rafters’ camp, getting within 50 feet or so, but after the eight rafters all waved and shouted it turned tail and headed away at a pretty good clip, stopping about a kilometer away from camp. Really cool to see it stand on it’s hind legs – I wish I had been in their camp for a better angle and distance!

Mister bear below our camp

A couple hours later we went down to the rafters’ tent and had some wine and conversation with them, nice to talk to new faces and hear about their trip thus far. Back to work tomorrow, hope to see some chicks!

Monday, October 15, 2012

July 3 - short day

The view from our tents over the swamp area, with caribou grazing below a fog bank

An uneventful day today, quite the contrast from yesterday. Alan and I did the 3s, terminating 12 nests (finding them eaten by foxes) and finding one Semipalmated Sandpiper, which I banded. We were back around 1:30, and spent the afternoon lounging around talking, doing a crossword, and then I proceeded to take my first nap of the trip, probably one of the longest periods in my life I’ve gone without a nap!

An adorable Brown Lemming looking bemused

With tomorrow being the 4th of July, we all have it “off”, so we are going to hike to the nearby gravel river floodplain, doing our work on the way, and build a big bonfire to celebrate. Should be a fun time, it will be a new area that we haven’t seen as of yet this trip, out towards the mountains.
Down to only 78 active nests today (27.3%), our net -11 day for just us two surely did not help!

The eggs in the new Semipalmated Sandpiper nest today - with one odd one out!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

July 2 - two people fly out, caribou encounter, rafters

The view from my tent in the morning

Today was a notable day in many ways. First off, I woke up to people talking near my tent, along with a background noise of caribou grunts. I left my tent and stood with the other people who were up, all of us watching the herd of 800 or so caribou all spread out below camp across the swamp, their grunts and the plaintive calls of calves echoing across the landscape on this windless morning.
Brad was lying down on the slope by camp, and had animals ~20 meters away from him at some points. Once the close part of the herd left we went to the scope to see what else was around, and watched two wolves loping across the river bed, and a bear feeding on a caribou carcass that Brad had watched a wolf kill earlier in the morning – one of the six wolves he had seen before most people woke up!
This morning is also the morning that Brad and Mark will be departing camp, weather permitting, so we said farewell as we headed out to work for the day. We had to wait for a while before heading out, since the aforementioned bear walked right through where we were headed, but since he kept heading east we were soon able to press on in his wake.
After a few nest checks we were down in the 7s, and as we looked south there was a wave of caribou cresting the ridge – a living river flowing in our general direction. I quickly suggested that we go lay down in their potential path, in a ditch near where I had seen many caribou tracks worn into the ground recently. As they neared they caught our scent, about 300m off, but once the herd leaders declared their ambivalence about our presence, the rest of the herd followed along.

This male had a rack about as wide as a caribou is long!

This male had an eye on us for quite a while

For about 10 minutes we had a herd of roughly a thousand caribou walking around us as close as 8-10 meters, calmly feeding and ambling along. There were massive bulls with antler spreads wider than a caribou is long, calves trotting along by their mother’s sides and periodically suckling, and then hundreds of animals in between. They were grunting and snorting the whole while, along with the bugs and the visuals we were getting the full sensory experience.

You can see the winter fur being molted in the facial area

The limb coming out from the lower-left of the head of this caribou is in fact it's hindleg, being scratched by an antler

This bull was so dark that it was reminiscent of a moose

The grizzled faces look wise to me

We went on from this once-in-a-lifetime experience to band a Semi Sandpiper and return to camp by 2pm – not too much work to do when there aren’t many nests to find or check. But the excitement of the day was not over yet!
Around 4 or 5 I heard someone exclaim “People!” Sure enough, two rafts had landed on the runway area below our camp and were setting up tents. It turns out that the same raft trip showed up here last year on the exact same date, they put in up in the mountains and then float down the Canning for a couple weeks. Apparently they will be here near us for three days! On top of it all it has been mercifully windy most of the day – no bugs since early afternoon!