Category Archives: Travel

Why Arctic Wildfires Are Different

The intense wildfires in Alaska this summer are different than those we’re used to in the Lower 48. These were sparked by unusual weather, they’re harder to put out because the soil is burning, and they’re causing their own feedback loop.

Heat and lightning are unusual in Alaska but they’ve experienced both this summer. Hot weather not only dries out the landscape but it generates thunderstorms which are rare in Alaska. Anchorage normally has two thunderstorms per year but by mid-June 2019 they’d already had four — and the season had only begun. (*)

When lightning starts a fire in the boreal forest or tundra it doesn’t just burn trees and shrubs. It also burns below the surface because the soil is like peat moss. These “underground” fires are extremely hard to put out.

And finally, the fires cause their own feedback loop. They’re generated by unusually hot weather and their byproducts — smoke and CO2 — result in more hot weather. The smoke deposits black soot on polar ice which makes it melt faster (warming the area) and the CO2 contributes to climate change. As the climate gets hotter it spawns more arctic fires.

This 13 August video from NASA tells more about the arctic wildfires and how they’ll affect us — both now and later.

(*) Lightning near the North Pole is extremely rare; it struck 48 times on 10 August 2019.

p.s. I saw some of these fires from the airplane and rode through the smoke during my Alaskan birding trip 13-23 June 2019.

(video from NASA Goddard)

Water Instead Of Lava

Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea Volcano, Hawaii, 13 July 2018 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Late last month observers discovered a small green pond at the bottom of Halema’uma’u Crater at Kilauea volcano. Water inside the crater is rather amazing since Kilauea is the active volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i that erupted violently in 2018, destroying parts of Leilani Estates, Highway 132, Vacationland and Kapoho.

Geologists wondered if the green spot was a rock or algae so they flew over the crater several times looking for a telltale reflection to indicate it was water. Yes, it’s wet.

A week’s worth of photos also showed that pond had grown since it’s original “size of a pickup truck.”

Halema’uma’u, as taken by the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory on August 1, 2019. Inset shows water pond. USGS photos taken by S. Conway.

Geologists don’t know how the pond got there but it’s worth watching to find out more. Fortunately by August 2 they’d found a safe place to view it from the crater’s edge.

Read more about the pond here or follow the news on Volcano Watch at USGS.

UPDATE, 4 Sep 2019: The pond has grown and it’s boiling.

(photo credits: crater view from Wikimedia Commons, Halema’uma’u pond from USGS; click on the captions to see the originals)

From Hawaii to Alaska

Bristle-thighed curlew, Midway Christmas Bird Count, 2012 (photo by Bettina Arrigoni, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Bristle-thighed curlews are so rare and hard to find that they’ve been called the birders’ Holy Grail. The word “Tahiti” in their scientific name, Numenius tahitiensis, tells us why. These birds are Pacific Islanders. Their remote breeding location in Alaska was not discovered until 1948.

Adult bristle-thighed curlews spend only two months on their breeding grounds at the central Seward Peninsula and Yukon Delta. They arrive in late May and begin nesting almost immediately.

Bristle-thighed curlew in Alaska, June 2016 (photo by Aaron Budgor, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

When the eggs hatch in June, the chicks are precocial and soon walk off the nest. At 3+ weeks old they learn to fly but they aren’t independent yet. At 5 weeks their parents leave them with a few caretaker adults and depart for the staging grounds at the Bering Sea.

Bristle-thighed curlew chick in Alaska, July 2014 (photo by T.Lee Tibbitts USGS via Wikimedia Commons)

There they fatten up for the first leg of their journey home — a non-stop 2,500 mile flight to Laysan, Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian islands. For some curlews the final destination is much further, as shown on the map below. (Red spots are breeding range, white arrow is first stop, blue circles are wintering locations.)

Bristle-thighed curlew range (base map from Wikimedia Commons)

Young curlews follow the adults a few weeks later. They won’t return to Alaska until they’re three to four years old.

This year I happened to visit Hawaii and Alaska on the same schedule as the bristle-thighed curlews. My Life Bird curlew was a fly-by at Kahuku Golf Course, Kauai on February 28, photographed here by Michael McNulty. Then I saw curlews again near Nome, Alaska in June.

Bristle-thighed curlew at Kauai, 28 Feb 2019 (photo by Michael McNulty)

Every year the curlews travel from Hawaii to Alaska. With a worldwide population of only 7,000 birds and sea level rise due to flood their home islands, this amazing bird is vulnerable to extinction.

p.s. Bristle-thighed curlews are closely related to whimbrels, whom they resemble. We saw and heard both species in western Alaska.

(photos by Bettina Arrigoni, Aaron Budgor, Michael McNulty and Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Chocolate Lilies And Other Delights

Chocolate lily, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month we found chocolate lilies and other delightful wildflowers while on PIB‘s Alaska birding tour. Here are the best of them, mostly found at Turnagain Pass Rest Area on 18 June 2019. Please leave a comment to help me identify the ones I’ve labeled “mystery” flowers and correct any I’ve misidentified. Thanks!

At top, the chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) is a gorgeous small flower that resembles a Canada lily (Lilium canadense) except that it’s the color of chocolate. What a treat!

Below, clasping twisted-stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius) has delicate bell-shaped yellow flowers that hang under the leaves. They remind me of Solomon’s seal.

Clasping twisted-stalk, near Anchorage, 13 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) starts blue, becomes white at the tip.

Nootka lupine, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridum) is covered in spines that are hard to remove if they get in your skin. Don’t touch!

Devil’s club near Anchorage, 13 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Woolly geranium (Geranium erianthum) looks like Pennsylvania’s wild geranium. The flowers and leaves are larger, though.

Woolly geranium, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

We saw liverleaf wintergreen (Pyrola asarifolia) in Seward.

Liverleaf wintergreen in Seward, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

What is the yellow flower shown below? It looks like a cinquefoil to me but the leaves are so big. (The flower is about the size of the first joint of my thumb.)

Mystery: Is this a cinquefoil? (photo by Kate St. John)

I believe this is salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis). Am I right?

Is this salmonberry? 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Threeleaf foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), found in Seward.

Threeleaf foamflower in Seward, 20 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

I couldn’t identify this flower at first, but thanks to Janet Campagna’s comment I think these are yellow marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), seen at Turnagain Pass Rest Area, 18 June 2019.

Yellow marsh marigold at Turnagain Pass Rest Area, 18 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, dwarf fireweed (Chamaenerion latifolium) was easy to find along the Teller Road northwest of Nome.

Dwarf fireweed by the Teller Road outside Nome, Alaska, 21 June 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Please let me know if I’ve misidentified any of these. The solo yellow flower, 7th photo, remains a mystery.

(photos by Kate St. John, all of them taken with my Pixel 3 cellphone)

Incredibly Hot in Alaska

Alaska high temperature forecast for 7 July 2019 (map from National Weather Service)

Don’t be fooled by the happy green colors on the watery edge of this map. The high temperature in much of Alaska tomorrow will be 85 degrees F.

Alaska is baking under a five-to-seven day heat wave caused by exceptionally strong high pressure that will break most temperature records. Alaskans aren’t prepared for it. The normal high in Anchorage this week should be 67 degrees F but that’s close to what the low will be (61).

The deepest red on the map is in the southwest interior near the Kuskokwim River where the temperature will soar up to 95 degrees. This area suffered last winter, too, when an early thaw shut down transportation to 13,000 people.

Not only will it be hot in Alaska but it will be hard to breathe. Baking temperatures, dry vegetation and lightning have ignited huge forest fires across the state. The Sunday 7am forecast for much of Alaska includes “areas of smoke” shown in gray below.

Alaska Predominant Weather forecast for 7 July 2019 (map from National Weather Service)

There’s only one place left that’s truly cold. That cold dot on the map is the peak of Denali.

Where is it cold in Alaska?

(maps from the National Weather Service; click on the captions to see the graphical forecast for Alaska)

Graceful Predator

Long-tailed jaegar in flight (photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

If I had to pick a Best Bird on my trip to Alaska it would be the long-tailed jaegar (long-tailed skua, Stercorarius longicaudus), the most graceful arctic predator.

Long-tailed jaegars are the smallest of skuas, a genus of predatory seabirds that range from pole to pole. In flight their long tails and flowing movements remind me of swallow-tailed kites as they float over the tundra in pairs and loudly defend their territories. On the hunt they can hover like kestrels, as shown in the video below.

Though long-tailed jaegars are seabirds, their favorite foods in Alaska are collared lemmings.

Illustrations of Nelson’s collared lemming and Ungava collared lemming at burrow (from Wikimedia Commons)

How does a seabird without talons capture rodents? Well, he doesn’t use his feet.

Long-tailed skua calling (photo by Allan Hopkins, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Birds of North America Online explains his hunting technique …

Long-tailed Jaeger hunts these lemmings by hovering or poising in a headwind at height of 1-10 m [3-30 feet] (usually about 4 m) above tundra, like a kestrel unlike other jaegers, and by watching from perches on small rises or frost mounds … Having detected prey, often pursues it on foot and pecks it until it is dead; never uses feet to capture prey.

Birds of North America Online

Though both sexes can incubate, the male long-tailed jaegar spends two thirds of his time hunting for his mate while she warms the eggs.

Long-tailed jaegar on nest (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We could see her white chest far away on the tundra, waiting for her graceful mate to come home.

(photos by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith, Allan Hopkins and from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

Best Baby Bird

Baby bird east of Safety Sound, Alaska (photo by Barb Bens)

Last Sunday our Partnership for International Birding tour saw this baby bird near the mouth of the Solomon River east of Nome, Alaska. It took us a while to identify him.

His looks like a sparrow with white outer tail feathers but his back has golden camouflage like a golden plover.

After much debate we decided he was a baby Lapland longspur. Click here to see a male in breeding plumage.

As we pulled out of the parking area his father arrived with food.

Best Baby Bird of our trip. Thanks to Barb Bens for the photo.

(photo by Barbara Bens)

The Closest Family Ties

Transient killer whales near Unimak Island, eastern Aleutian Islands, Alaska

Flying home from Alaska, 24 June 2019

Before my trip to Alaska I rarely thought about killer whales because I’d never had a chance to see them. Now I have and they are quite impressive.

Killer whales or orcas (Orcinus orca) are the largest oceanic dolphin, occurring around the world. Some are resident, some transient, others live offshore. Offshore orcas travel the wide swaths of ocean shown on the map below.

Orca range map from Wikimedia Commons

Killer whales are apex predators but what they eat depends on their lifestyle. Resident whales eat fish and are very vocal because fish don’t run away when they hear an orca. Transient whales eat marine mammals, especially seals, and are silent because seals flee at the sound of a killer whale.

Like other dolphins, killer whales are very intelligent and highly social. They swim with their families their entire lives. The family groups are matrilineal, lead by the eldest mother and made up of her sons, daughters, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Her knowledge and traditions guide her family long after her reproductive years and actually insure that her children live longer than those whose mothers died.(*)

Resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest are so well studied that scientists recognize them as individuals from their unique saddle patches behind their dorsal fins. Censuses indicate the population is in decline. The killer whales’ food source, chinook salmon, is also in decline. Are these whales starving? A NOAA Fisheries study in British Columbia used a drone to find out.

From the drone’s photos and videos, scientists could tell if an orca was thin and weak or plumb and strong. During the study they filmed two brothers swimming together, just as they had their entire lives. One was very thin and the two were vocalizing a lot as they swam south. Eventually the weak brother dove and was never seen again. His brother swam back alone, vocalizing on the way. It appears that he accompanied his dying brother during his last moments.

Watch this 11 minute NOAA video to learn more about the resident killer whale population in the eastern North Pacific. Read more about them at NOAA Fisheries.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Offers a New View of Killer Whales from NOAA Fisheries on Vimeo.

Killer whales have the closest family ties.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

(*) Killer whales live into their 90s and are one of only three animals that go through menopause. Humans and pilot whales are the other two.

Not Always White

Gyrfalcon in upstate New York, January 2018 (photo by Tim Lenz via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Nome to Anchorage 23 June 2019

Most people never see a wild gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), the world’s largest falcon and most northern diurnal raptor. Though gyrfalcons have a circumpolar distribution through North America, Greenland, Iceland and Eurasia, they rarely come south, even in winter. Their remoteness protected them from the past persecution of raptors and made them prized as falconers’ birds.

Compared to peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons have larger heads, thicker necks, bulkier deep chests, shorter and broader wings, and a longer tail. Gyrfalcons look like powerful prize fighters, peregrines are sleek and fast.

Gyrfalcons need this bulk because their prey items are much larger birds than peregrines eat. Gyrfalcons can kill cranes and Canada geese but their primary prey are ptarmigans, especially rock ptarmigans. In some regions the gyrfalcon population is cyclic in response to the ptarmigan population. Climate change is affecting the ptarmigan population — bad news for gyrfalcons.

We think of gyrs as white falcons because that’s what we see in the media but there’s a lot of color variation. Many are brown-speckled, like the bird in Iceland on the right.

Gyrfalcon color phases: a white falconer’s bird, a brown-speckled bird in Iceland (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Most gyrfalcons in North America are a uniform dark brown, like this one that spent the winter of 2001-2002 at the Black Falcon Terminal (dock) in Boston, Massachusetts. This bird was so famous and so reliably found that 17 years later there are still photos of it online. Glen Tepke took this picture on 16 February 2002.

I mention this individual bird because I traveled to see it — the only gyrfalcon I’d ever seen until my trip to Alaska. It shows how rare they are in the eastern U.S.

Gyrfalcons live in Alaska year round and breed here in early summer. Yesterday we saw a gyrfalcon family with 3 or 4 young in the nest. The young were nearly ready to fledge — at the ‘pantaloons’ stage — very dark brown. They were definitely Best Birds!

Last year a pair nested in Nome, photographed in June 2018 by Mick Thompson.

Gyrfalcon with chick in Nome, Alaska, June 2018 (photo by Mick Thompson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

To learn more about gyrfalcons and see one fly, watch this video of falconer Brian Bradley and his bird at White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, Connecticut.

As you can see, gyrfalcons are not always white.

(photos credits: Tim Lenz via Flicker Creative Commons license, Wikimedia Commons, Black Falcon photo courtesy Glen Tepke, Mick Thompson via Flickr Creative Commons license. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Ptarmigans Change With The Seasons

Male willow ptarmigan camouflaged in spring (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: Nome vicinity, 22 June 2019

Willow ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus) are ground dwelling birds that live where it snows about half the year. They’re also the favorite prey of many species so they need to be able to hide in place.

Their plumage provides camouflage but it has to be clever because the ground changes color from white in winter, to mottled during snow melt, to brown in summer. Ptarmigans solve this by molting continuously from April to November.

Their basic plumage is winter white to match the snow. It allows them to stand still and disappear …

Willow ptarmigan, East Kootenay, BC, Canada, Nov 2017 (photo by Dan Arndt)
Willow ptarmigan, East Kootenay, BC, Canada, Nov 2017 (photo by Dan Arndt)

… or burrow in the snow with only their heads exposed.

Willow ptarmigan burrowed in snow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In April the snow starts to melt and the ptarmigans start to molt. The male looks like a snow patch as he begins his courtship clucking.

In June the male and female are incubating eggs. They still match the ground; they’re brown.

Male willow ptarmigan in summer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Female willow ptarmigan in summer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Their chicks match the ground, too.

Willow ptarmigan chicks (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

By late summer they look patchy again. Their plumage gets ready for the first snow.

Willow ptarmigan flock between the seasons (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In November they’re back to winter white.

Ptarmigans change with the seasons.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, and Dan Arndt via Flickr; click on the captions to see the originals)