Category Archives: Alaska

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, others transient. The transients 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)

In Nome On The Longest Day

Sunrise in Nome on the summer solstice (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Nome Alaska 21 June 2019

Today we’re in Nome, Alaska on the summer solstice. If we were at the Arctic Circle the sun would never set today but Nome is 143 miles south. The sun does set here, but barely. It never gets completely dark. Instead, twilight lasts for 2.5 hours and then the sun is up again.

The photos above and below were taken at sunrise during the 2013 summer solstice from the Bering Land Bridge Preserve office in Nome. The photo caption says, “Up here in Bering Land Bridge, summer solstice means almost 24 hour days. Sunrise at our office here in Nome on the solstice is around 04:18 am, and the sun won’t set until 01:47 am the next day.”

Summer solstice sunrise over Anvil Mountain, Nome, Alaska (photo from Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Flickr)

The sun just skims below the horizon, then circles the town.

Indeed it is the longest day.

(photos from Bering Land Bridge National Preserve on Flickr, Creative Commons license; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Poster Child For Climate Change

Surface air temperature patterns across the Arctic in 2018 (map from climate.gov, annotated to show Alaska)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Arrive in Nome, 20 June 2019

Because the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, Alaska copes with climate change every day.

Record heat waves, low sea ice, eroding coastlines, melting permafrost, disappearing lakes, ice-road failures, and declines in fish, bird and wildlife populations. Here are just a few examples of what Alaska is dealing with:

Ice road failures:

An ice road in Alaska, dog sled on the berm (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Winter is the time to go places in Alaska when the frozen lakes and rivers become highways, but this year the ice was thin and it broke up earlier than expected. There were accidents at the ice failures, people died, and villages were cut off because the ice is their only road. Every winter the Kuskokwim River becomes a 200-mile ice highway that links 13,000 people in southwestern Alaska. The New York Times described how people cope now that the ice is thin: Alaska Relies On Ice. What Happens When It Can’t Be Trusted?

Lack of sea ice makes a village disappear:

Aerial view of Shishmaref, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Erosion at Shishmaref, Alaska, 1950-2012 (map from Wikimedia Commons)

The town of Shishmaref, Alaska is disappearing. Perched on an island in the Chukchi Sea, the sea ice that used to protect it from huge waves in autumn storms is forming too late now to do any good. The new seawall is a only temporary fix. The island is shrinking. In 2016 the villagers voted to leave the island but there’s no money to do it — and so they stay. Read more + video at CNN’s Tragedy of a village built on ice.

Wildlife declines, seabird die-offs:

Caribou in Alaska (photo from NPS Climate Change Response on Flickr)

An international study of reindeer and caribou across the Arctic shows that almost all of the herds are in decline: 2018 Arctic Report Card: Reindeer and Caribou continue to decline.

In PLOS One, a recent study of a massive seabird die-off in 2016 indicates that unusually warm ocean temperatures lowered the food supply and lead to starvation for 3,100 to 8,800 seabirds, especially tufted puffins. This group washed ashore at St. Paul Island, Bering Sea in October 2016.

Seabird carcasses found on North Beach, St. Paul Island, Alaska, 17 October 2016 (photo from PLOS One)

Thawing permafrost, combustible lakes:

Thawing permafrost causes many problems. When the frost melts the land slumps and slides. This slump engulfed trees and created new cliffs.

New cliffs and delta, 1000 feet long, as permafrost thaws into the river (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When the land subsidies, trees collapse and die (called drunken trees). The area becomes a bog.

Trees die, bogs form as permafrost thaws, Innoko NWR, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Methane formerly trapped in the permafrost bubbles up in lakes (photo) with potentially explosive results (video).

Methane bubbles in a frozen lake, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska is experiencing so many effects of warming that it could be a poster child for climate change.

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

p.s. Yesterday on the boat trip at Kenai Fjords National Park we saw some of the glaciers in this news article, especially Northwestern Glacier: https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/repeat-photography-of-alaskan-glaciers/

Two Puffins And A Unicorn

Tufted puffin in Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Pelagic tour at Kenai Fjords National Park 19 June 2019

Last summer I went to Newfoundland to see the only puffin we ever think about in eastern North America, the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica). In the Pacific there are two more puffins and a closely related bird that’s like a unicorn. Today I hope to see all three.

Atlantic or Pacific, the first thing to know about puffins is that all of them are pelagic. They spend most of their lives far out at sea and only come to land in the breeding season when they look their very best. If you want to see a puffin you have to visit their homes in early summer. Otherwise they’re gone.

The tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) is the largest of them, more powerful than cute. Almost double the weight of the Atlantic puffin, his breeding plumage includes a bright orange beak, white face, and long golden head plumes. His extensive breeding range makes him relatively easy to find on coasts and islands from California to Japan. At their breeding colonies each pair digs a burrow up to five feet deep where they raise a single chick per year.

The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata), below, resembles the Atlantic puffin but he’s 40% larger, has a mostly yellow beak, and feather “eyebrows” like horns. There’s no danger you’ll mix them up in the wild. The horned puffin is only in the Pacific, the Atlantic puffin is only in the Atlantic.

Horned puffin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The horned puffin also differs in his nesting strategy. These pairs don’t burrow to make a nest. Instead the female lays her single egg on scree in a rock crevice or on a cliff. Horned puffin breeding colonies range from (rarely) British Columbia to Alaska to the Sea of Okhotsk (Russia and Japan).

And finally there’s the unicorn.

The rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) is not an auklet at all but the closest relative of puffins. Slightly larger than an Atlantic puffin he has a large orange bill with a single horn protruding from it, leading some to call him the unicorn puffin.

Rhinoceros auklet (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The rhinoceros auklet nests on offshore islands from California to the Gulf of Alaska to Korea and Japan. You’ll see them on the water during the day but not on land. Instead they fly home at night with fish to feed their chicks. As they arrive at the nesting colonies they run the gauntlet of gulls waiting to steal their food (see video below). Perhaps that’s why they come home only at night.

The unicorn has a different lifestyle but he’s a puffin nonetheless.

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

Parrot-Finch of the Northern Pines

Red crossbills, two males, Deschutes National Forest in Oregon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Anchorage to Seward 18 June 2019

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are conifer specialists that breed across North America and Eurasia, from Alaska to Newfoundland, from Scotland to Japan. They are so tied to spruces, pines and firs that you won’t find them in deciduous forests nor anywhere that the cone crop has failed. That explains why in three decades I’ve seen only one red crossbill in western Pennsylvania.

Approximate red crossbill breeding range (map is hand drawn by Kate St. John from sources at HBW and IUCN)

Red crossbills eat conifer seeds by prying open the cones using their crossed bills. Their beaks have evolved to match the cones they open — and so have the cones. A 2010 study led by C. Benkman showed that it’s a continuous arms race in which the cones evolve to foil the beaks and the beaks evolve to open the cones. The crossbill-cone competition has resulted in 21 subspecies of red crossbills with different beaks and call types. One population in Idaho, the Cassia crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris), was given separate species status in 2017.

Crossbill beaks are such important tools that a bird’s right-handedness or left-handedness is expressed in the crossing of his beak. Individual beaks cross right or left, as shown in the two male crossbills above.

Though red crossbills don’t migrate, they range far and wide in search of food, calling “jip jip” as they fly. Their flocks are usually noisy but fall silent when they’re feeding intensely. In his Essential Field Guide Companion Pete Dunne describes them as Eclectic Parrot-Finches: wide-ranging, social, and parrot-like in behavior.

Red crossbills favor old growth conifer forests because the cone crop is heavier on trees more than 60 years old. If I’m lucky, today I’ll see the “Red Parrot-Finch of the Pines” near Seward, Alaska.

(photo and base map from Wikimedia Commons, breeding range drawn freestyle by Kate St. John; click on the captions to see the originals)

Smith’s Promiscuous Longspur

Alaska Birding with PIB: At Tangle River on Denali Highway 17 June 2019

In western Pennsylvania we rarely see longspurs, the sparrow-like birds whose long hind toe gives them their name, but two species of longspurs breed in Alaska.

Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus) are the most conspicuous songbird on the tundra as they prominently claim territory and a mate. The males flutter and sing above their chosen patch, advertising themselves in loud flight song displays.

Smith’s longspurs (Calcarius pictus) are harder to find partly because of their lifestyle. They don’t claim a territory, they don’t claim one mate, and they don’t use flight song displays. Instead the males sing from the top of a twig, “Hey, ladies! Come here.”

Male Smith’s longspur (photo by Jared Hughey for the 2013 Smith’s longspur project)

When a female shows up the two go through their courtship displays and copulate. Then they both go off to mate with other birds.

Smith’s longspur, female (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The fancy name for this is polygynandry. Each female and each male pairs and mates with two or three of the opposite sex. These birds are very busy during the breeding season!

Over a period of one week in the early spring, a female longspur will copulate over 350 times on average; this is one of the highest copulation rates of any bird. Males are well-equipped to deliver such large numbers of ejaculates—their testes are about double the mass of those of the monogamous and congeneric Lapland Longspur.

Birds of North America, Smith’s longspur account

Every nest contains chicks of mixed parentage — the same mother, various dads. Fathers choose a couple of females and try to insure that most of the chicks are their own.

Males do not defend territories, but instead guard [their] females by following them closely. [Males] compete for fertilizations by copulating frequently in order to dilute or displace sperm from other males.

Birds of North America, Smith’s longspur account

When John James Audubon named Smith’s longspur for his friend Gideon B. Smith he was unaware that these birds had such an unusual social life. It took a long time for humans to figure it out, beginning with pioneering behavioral work in the 1960s and now DNA tests today.

Inside the calm exterior of a Smith’s longspur is a very promiscuous bird.

(credits: YouTube video by Jared Hughey for Heather Craig’s 2013 breeding study,
photo of female Smith’s longspur from Wikimedia Commons,
photo of male Smith’s longspur by Jared Hughey on Flickr. NOTE: I have been trying to reach Jared Hughey since 11 May 2019 via email, Facebook and Alaska NPS Twitter to confirm photo permission for his stillshot of the male Smith’s longspur. Perhaps he is out doing field work. When he contacts me I will remove his photo if he objects to its use.)

Denali Highway

Denali Highway in summer (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding with PIB: Denali Highway 16 June 2019

Today our birding tour travels 113 miles of the Denali Highway, the only direct route from Cantwell to Paxson, Alaska. In Pennsylvania the trip would take about 2 hours including birding stops. But not on this road!

For most of its 133-mile length the Denali Highway is a dusty gravel road with occasional washboard sections. Closed during the winter (October to mid-May) its recommended speed limit is 30 mph and services are scant. In other words, don’t expect a bathroom. 20 miles are paved but we won’t be driving on them. Our destination, the Tangle River Inn at Delta Junction, is where the pavement begins.

Highlights of the road include:

  • Great views of Denali mountain if it’s not clouded over,
  • The second highest highway pass in Alaska at MacLaren Summit, 4085 feet
  • The MacLaren River,
  • Fly fishing for grayling — we will see this but not do it
  • Moose, caribou, lots of wildlife, and …
  • Birds!

Google predicts the trip will take 3 hours but we’ll be birding so I expect to be out there all day. Here are just a few of the birds we hope to see.

Nesting tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) maybe too early to see cygnets.

Tundra swan family in July, Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Northern hawk owl (Surnia ulula):

Northern hawk owl (photo by Jessica Botzan)

Willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) showing his beautiful red eyebrows:

Willow ptarmigan in Alaska (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The ptarmigan predator: Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)

Gyrfalcon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And a songbird famous for migrating from Alaska to Africa, the northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe):

Northern wheatear (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This will be my first time on the Denali Highway. We’re in for an adventure!

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the original)

Alaskan Flower

Alpine forget-me-not, Denali (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Alaska Birding Tour with PIB: at Denali 15 June 2019

Forget-me-nots in Pennsylvania are the Eurasian species, Myosotis scorpiodes, but in Alaska they have a native one. Found in alpine regions of Europe, Asia and North America, the alpine forget-me-not (Myosotis alpestris) is the State Flower of Alaska.

According to Wikipedia, “it grows well throughout Alaska in open, rocky places high in the mountains, flowering in midsummer. It is also found throughout the Himalaya range at elevations of 9,800–14,100 ft.”

Its common English name, Forget-me-not, is a literal translation of its German name: Vergissmeinnicht.

It blooms at Denali in June.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)