Wednesday, August 29, 2012

We See the Sea Life at the SeaLife Center

Here is the fourth installment summarizing Karyn and my recent trip to Alaska. This was also based in our final destination of Seward.

After beautiful weather for most of our trip, the storms finally caught up to us. Actually it rained during our trip from Denali to Seward and also during our Harding Ice Field hike. But the forecast increased the probability of precipitation to 90%. They should have just said 100%. No worries, we were planning to visit the Alaska SeaLife Center anyway.

Tufted Puffin.

The SeaLife center is a large aquarium and animal rescue/rehabilitation center. It is also the base of operations for a fair amount of conservation science partnering with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and various agencies. We would spend most of the day there enjoying everything they had to offer. We even left for lunch and came back in the afternoon!

Horned Puffin.

The facility houses an extensive education center focused on marine life in general, native Alaskan cultures, and the life-cycle of salmon. But I was drawn to the large facility housing many types of sea birds. I have been to a number of aquariums before, but never one that integrated sea birds into the exhibit. You could watch them from inside through the glass, outside near the tank, or downstairs underwater.

Juvenile Tufted Puffin.

After taking a hundred or so pictures of the various birds, I went inside to sit and watch. Here I perused the bird guide to make sure that I could identify each of these birds in the wild, focusing on each of the distinctive features. We had a boat trip planned for the next day so I wanted to be prepared.

Rhinoceros Auklet.
Pigeon Guillemot.
Red-legged Kittiwake.

While I was intently studying the birds, Karyn was trying out the video features on our point and shot camera. Watching puffins swim underwater is amazing. They are definitely better swimmers than fliers in my opinion. This first video highlights a Horned Puffin swimming.

Almost as good was watching the Tufted Puffins bathing. They roll fully upside-down in the water. It is hilarious! Take a look.

Being a rehabilitation center, the "I Sea U" are regularly called upon to take care of stranded mammal pups. Harbor Seals, Sea Otters, etc. They recently rescued three stranded Pacific Walrus calves. Two didn't make it, but one is still alive and kicking. They require a great deal of contact so an employee or volunteer are always in the cage with the animal, 24 hours a day. The walrus would play in the pool and then interact with one of the volunteers. We were lucky enough to be there during feeding time. That was easy to do since we spent all day there! The staff mixed up and heated about a quart and a half of formula and delivered the goods. It was gone in less than a minute! Wow, that was cool. This guy weighs over 300 pounds and is growing quickly.


The Harbor Seal on display was another rescued animal. He was cool to watch as he swam deep under the water, surfaced, then swam belly up across the surface of the tank.

Harbor Seal.
Harbor Seal.

There are at least two more reports to follow. Next up is a summary of our Sea Kayak adventure observing all kinds of wildlife. Check back soon.

Friday, August 24, 2012

300 Square Miles of Ice

Exit Glacier, Seward Alaska.

Here I am with the third installment about our recent trip to Alaska. This post covers our first full day in Seward after leaving Barrow and Denali. We had a great time in Seward with lots of great photos, so there will be a number of posts about this area.

The first challenge with Seward was getting there from Denali. Just outside of Wasilla we stopped for gas. While filling the tank I watched a few individuals pushing a car away from the pumps. They couldn't get it started. This is never a good sign! We completed our business and headed down the road. Within a mile the car started sputtering. The sputtering increased until the car was barely running. We pulled over. A man walks up and asks if we just filled with gas at the Tesoro station. Well, yes we had. His vehicle was broken down and had just gotten gas at the same station. Hmm. Not good.

We called the station and received the expected "you will have to talk to the manager..." response. We then called Hertz. Hertz scheduled a tow truck and a replacement car. The tow truck drove us to Anchorage and dropped as at the Hertz counter. We were mobile again in just a few hours. Pretty good customer service if you ask me.

We arrived in Seward in the evening, just in time for dinner. We walked downtown from our hotel and chose the Seward Brewery, not realizing it was their opening night. The people next to us had fish and chips and it looked fantastic. We ordered only to find out they had run out. There were not expecting so many people on their first night! Anyway we order a large salad to share and some dinner.

Our waitress, most likely on her first waitressing job, brought the salad to us. Hmm. It did not look much like salad. Karyn replies, "that is not salad, those are nachos." The waitress assured us that it was indeed their salad. Hmm, maybe they are just short on lettuce? Anyway, she leaves. Hungry from the drive, we decide to just go with it and dig in. A short while later the manager comes over to tell us that those are nachos. Hmm, surprise. The food was great and I am sure they have worked out the kinks.

After the day of driving we needed a big hike. The next morning we were off to Exit Glacier and the Harding Ice Field. Harding Ice field feeds Exit Glacier and about 30 other glaciers. Almost every glacier on the Kenai Peninsula originates there. The weather wasn't too fantastic, but didn't look too threatening either. The hike is nine miles round trip with approximately 3000 feet of climbing.

Driving in to Exit Glacier Trailhead.

Starting up the trail we immediately realized that this was a good place for birds. In Denali the birds were few and far between. Here I was immediately confronted with a number of species I could not readily identify. There were chips and tweets in all directions. We identified five warbler species within the first few miles of trail (Yellow, Yellow-rumped, Wilson's, Townsend's, Orange-crowned)! The closest I've been to a Varied Thrush is probably 50 meters, but here they were right in front of me. Ruby-crowned Kinglets were everywhere. My lifer Golden-crowned Sparrow even made an appearance. The trail quickly started climbing.

Varied Thrush.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet.
Exit Glacier terminus.

The trail's incline increased as we hit the main part of the climb. It was wet and muddy, but most of the steeper parts had rocky foundations making it similar to climbing stairs. The trail alternated between dense forest full of birds and open vista where we could enjoy the view. More birds - Pine Grosbeaks, Fox Sparrows, Hermit Thrush, and of course that invites predators - Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Better views of the overhanging glacier above Exit Glacier.

After climbing about 2000 feet, we passed the tree line into alpine meadow. The wildflowers were spectacular - Lupines, Asters, Arnica, Castilleja/Paintbrush, Buttercups, Geraniums... We could start to appreciate just how large the Harding Ice Field as the basin above Exit Glacier started to come into view.

Exit Glacier.
Alpine Meadow.

Birds weren't all there was to see as Karyn spotted a Black Bear. This guy was looking quite healthy as were all we would see in the area. Later in the week while waiting at the laundromat we watched three separate Black Bears on the hillside from downtown Seward. Denali was all about Grizzly Bears, Seward was all Black Bears.

Blackbear in Alpine Meadow.

One of the birds I really wanted too see on our trip to Alaska was a Ptarmigan. There are three species possible and all would have been life birds for me. We had hoped for Willow Ptarmigan in Denali, but we struck out. Here, we found a group of Rock Ptarmigan, which I was very excited about. They were so close that I almost stepped on one before it moved in front of my feet.

Beautiful Rock Ptarmigan!
Geek with Camera Photographing Rock Ptarmigan.
Rock Ptarmigan.

Right next to the Ptarmigan, probably about 30 feet away was a family of Hoary Marmots. Marmots are one of my favorite rodents and these juveniles were quite playful.

Hoary Marmot Juvenile.

Continuing to climb we crossed into the snow zone, alternating between rocky ledges and snow fields. The melt was in full swing so we had to be careful over a few ice bridges, but the trail is maintained and well marked by the park service. They had rerouted the trail in the more dangerous spots. Finally, the trail opened up onto a small rocky ridge which gave a full view of the ice field. It must have stretched for 50 miles. The scale was amazing. It is estimated to be hundreds if not thousands of feet deep. Over 400 inches of snow falls here each year. This was one very impressive hike. I rate it in my top 5 hikes of all time (others: Highline Trail in Glacier National Park, Lake Louise Trail, Cramer Divide in Sawtooth Mountains Idaho).

Panorama of Harding Ice Field - Click to enlarge then zoom.

The wildlife viewing was not complete. On the way up we could see Mountain Goats at a distance. We had much better views on the way back down. A group of seven had moved fairly close to the trail.

Mountain Goats.

The marmots were regularly issuing alarm calls. We finally saw the source of their anxiety as a juvenile Bald Eagle was hunting in the area. There were no successful attacks that we saw, but they must be successful some of the time for them to keep trying.

Female Hoary Marmot watching for Eagles.

What an awesome hike on an awesome day. One of my all-time favorites. In the next post we will get up close and personal with the fantastic animals of the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Great One


Mt. McKinley, or Denali, or simply "The Great One" (translation of "Denali" in Koyukon Athabaskan) is the tallest mountain in North America. It is the prominent feature of Denali National Park which is where Karyn and I spent phase two of our recent Alaskan adventure.

We arrived in Fairbanks from Barrow with our luggage! We picked up a rental car and headed down the Parks Highway to Denali National Park. The roads were in better shape than I expected so we arrived earlier than planned. The Denali park allows private vehicle only for the first 15 miles into the park, otherwise park buses must be used to travel further. Since we had not yet made reservations, we took the drive into the first portion of the park. The high Sitka Spruce and Willow plains were beautiful, just starting to change from green to red. We spotted our first Moose in the distance. At the Savage River it was time to stretch our legs so we headed off on the two mile Savage River Hike. Whoa! Caribou!

Caribou, Savage River, Denali National Park

This guy was a bit closer than I expected. They say to stay at least 25m away, but what if they come closer? Walk, Run, Stay still?

Caribou, Savage River, Denali National Park
Caribou, Savage River, Denali National Park.

The hike was beautiful and just what we needed to get us in the Denali mood. We returned to the visitor center. The Denali visitor center has to be one of the best visitor centers we have been to. A great exhibit about the geology and ecology of the park. Each species in the exhibit is represented by its role in the broader ecosystem, even the mosquito! It is very well done.

For accommodations we were staying at the Creekside Inn. Great accommodations and a great restaurant. We were fat and happy!

On day two we reserved a seat on the bus for the long ride into the park. The bus system is designed to decrease disturbance in the park by decreasing traffic. Since the park road is gravel, the buses used are school buses. 45 miles on a school bus on gravel, made us happy we didn't sign up to go to the road's end (an 8-9 hour round trip!). We settled for Polychrome Pass. One advantage of the bus system is that you can get on or off anywhere you like, as long as there is room on the bus. The down side is that school buses aren't conducive to taking photographs.

On the bus we would see Caribou, Dall Sheep, and a few Grizzly Bears. The most dramatic was watching a Grizzly chase a Caribou. It didn't look like the Caribou was ever in real danger, but it was fun to watch.

Grizzly chasing Caribou!

Next stop was Polychrome pass. The bus was taking a 10 minute rest stop, but we told the driver to go on without us. We ate lunch and headed up onto a ridgeline to get a spectacular view. We were very successful!

360 degree view from ridge above polychrome pass (click to enlarge).
View from above Polychrome Pass.
Grizzly Bear.
Northern Harrier.

After our hike we returned to the road to catch a bus back. Instead of standing still, we started hiking down the road. While passing a scree field near the road, we heard a sound. It wasn't one that we recognized, but it was close enough. It had to be a Pika, but not an American Pika. There in the rocks were two Collared Pikas, the local relative to the American Pika.

Collared Pika!

The ground squirrels are even different up there. The Arctic Ground Squirrel appears to be a close relative to Idaho's Columbian Ground Squirrel as they look very similar. Most people might overlook the ground squirrels, but my study of goshawks and their primary prey, ground squirrels, has piqued my interest so I had to take photos. The squirrel community is an important chain in the tree of life. You cannot respect and appreciate the predator without respecting and appreciating the prey.

Arctic Ground Squirrel.

The first bus came by, but we weren't ready to leave so we kept on walking the road. The next bus was full as was the bus after that. We arrived at the bridge and decided to stay there and just enjoy the view. The next bus had two seats available and we were headed back.

Braided River.

The next day we chose to not take the bus. While the inner park was beautiful, we weren't ready for another six hours on the rough road in the confining bus. As Karyn pointed out, in Denali the animals are free and the humans are caged in the bus. We headed back to Savage River for some exploration. We hiked to the ridge above the river and just kept heading up. Up and up we went 2000 feet to the nearest peak and excellent view of Denali. We even found more Pika!

View from Healy Peak.
Collared Pika.

Other than some short birding hikes, this concluded our activities in Denali. Unfortunately, it was time to move on. Next stop - Seward Alaska.

Denali in the distance.

The Place where Snowy Owls are Hunted

Snowy Owl.

The place may be known as Barrow Alaska on the map, but for more than 1000 years it has been known as Ukpeagvik to the native Iñupiat people. Ukpeagvik roughly translates as "place where snowy owls are hunted" (source: Wikipedia). It is the Northern-most American city and the ninth most northern city in the world. Residing north of 71° latitude, it is well inside the Arctic Circle. This is where we started our Alaskan adventure!

Point Barrow in the distance - Northern-most point in America!
They hunt whales here as well, mainly Bowhead Whales

Our Alaskan adventure began as soon as we landed at the Barrow airport. It was 37° F outside, quite a shock after leaving 105° Boise, Idaho! The airport is quite small and we were soon buried in cargo as there was about a 10 foot by 20 foot space for baggage claim. A full 737 plane of passengers and all of their luggage, it was pure chaos as boxes and bags were thrown and stacked in all corners. Citizens jumped in to try to provide some order to the melee, but it only got worse. With no roads into Barrow, everything comes in by plane... Well, not everything. Our baggage did not. Apparently there was too much cargo so they left our bags in Fairbanks. We found it interesting that Alaska Airlines prioritizes cargo for people not on the plane over baggage for those on the plane, especially since we had to pay to check our bags. Oh well. Maybe tomorrow...

The morning bird hike was a bit on the cool side as all of our warm clothes were still sequestered in Fairbanks. Luckily, it was a sunny day with no wind, so we managed ok. We were excited to see our first Snowy Owl from about a mile away. We also saw the first of three Jaeger species we would see that day.

Dark-phase Parasitic Jaeger.
Juvenile Snow Bunting (I think).

Snow Buntings were everywhere! Sandpipers, Plovers, Redpolls, and Gulls helped fill out our list of birds. Overall, the birds were not tremendously abundant as we would expect in more temperate latitudes, but most were unique from what we see in Idaho. Quite a few were life birds for me.

We were happy that our bags arrived on the plane the next morning. This made the afternoon adventures a bit more enjoyable. We hooked up with a local couple for a tour of the area. We hit the local birding hotspots and drove out as far as we could go on point Barrow. We were amazed at how calm the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas were (they merge at Point Barrow). The birding was great, but we fell short on the mammal front - no Polar Bear, no Walrus, no Arctic Fox, and no Whales. This was not too surprising as all of these animals are hunted at least to some extent in the area, and have been for hundreds if not thousands of years. The only Bearded Seals we saw were those being hauled in by the local hunters.

Snowy Owl, 2 blocks from our hotel!

Our second day involved more birding and a visit to the Iñupiat Heritage Center. Much of the focus of the center is on the long tradition of whale hunting and how it has evolved over the centuries. They also had a good migratory bird exhibit. The town was very unique and everyone was very friendly. It was well worth the visit, but a day and a half was about enough to see everything. We departed that evening to continue our adventure near Denali.

Pacific Loon on the Chukchi Sea.
Sandpipers flying over Chukchi Sea

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Another Anniversary? How can that be?

In between the frantic completion of my field season and some more frantic research preparation for an upcoming conference, Karyn and I spent five days celebrating our 18th wedding anniversary in central Idaho. It was a great and needed break from all the research activity that my life currently encompasses.

The lovebirds hanging out on the Lookout on Lookout Peak!

The signature activity of the week was riding our mountain tandem on the Fisher Creek Mountain Bike Trail. This is the trail that we were married on 18 years ago! On that day we and our witnesses were each on mountain tandems. Here's the picture from that day:

Rob, Karyn, Doug, Peggy. Fisher Creek Idaho. 1994.

Wow, 18 years is a long time! But we are still going strong. For proof, here's the data of our ride this year! (yes, I'm a geek but you'll probably look at it!)

We had lots of activities planned for our brief time there. More mountain bike rides, hikes, wildlife watching, floating down the river, and of course, breakfast at Stanley Baking Company (twice because it's so awesome).

The hike we chose is a great hike to Lookout Peak Lookout. 360 degree panorama of multiple mountain ranges - Sawtooth Mountains, White Cloud Mountains, Salmon River Mountains, Boulder Mountains and even the Lost River Range (highest in Idaho).

Sawtooth Mountains from Lookout Peak Lookout.
White Cloud Mountains from Lookout Peak Lookout.

On the wildlife front we did find some interesting creatures. Not as many as we had hoped, but our time was a little pressed. A couple of my favorite animals in the area did present themselves.

American Pika - in the rabbit family.
Great Gray Owl.

There was more biking and a couple of floats down Bear Valley Creek, an awesome casual float with great wildlife. We floated once in the evening and once early in the morning.

Floating Bear Valley Creek.

All in all it was a great time, although a bit too short. We plan to make up for that with a few more weekends in the woods and our big trip of the year, Alaska!