On Monday morning, when I was getting things ready for the day’s job, I heard the first Sandhill Crane calls of the season. Their ancient, rattling bugle echoed across the valley floor, and I stopped immediately to search for the source. It was a pair of cranes, and they flew in low as they announced their return to the valley.
By Tuesday morning, the sounds of the sandhills could be heard from all directions in the valley.
The photo was taken last spring at Creamers Field Waterfowl Refuge before the birds spread out across the state and beyond.
Southeast Alaska has a new carnivore on the block. Or, I should say that a new one was identified recently. A new species of ermine was identified on Prince of Wales Island, and some were also found in British Columbia. The new species has been labeled the Haida Ermine.
There are three known species: one in Eurasia, one in North America, and now Southeast Alaska. The Haida Ermine was thought to be isolated around 375,000 years ago, due to a glacial period. Over time, it has developed different characteristics and has become its own species.
I am confident that the one living in my wood pile is just the common North American species, but it never sits still long enough for me to say that with 100% certainty.
The numbers are in, although I think most of us in Alaska knew the gist of things: The salmon runs in 2020 fit the overall theme of the year. They were bleak.
King salmon returns were in the bottom five for harvests since the 1960’s. Sockeye returns were the second lowest since 1962. Coho and pinks were better than the other two species, but they were still down. The numbers coming back for the coho, or silver salmon, ranked 48th, pinks ranked 53rd since 1962.
The Alaska Department of Fish & Game is predicting a better return for pink salmon for 2021. Pinks are the only salmon species that Fish & Game forecasts the upcoming return. They are hopeful that Alaska will see an increase in all five species of salmon that return to our waters.
From a personal experience level: For several years now, I have seen a noticeable increase in our group’s salmon harvest in odd years, and a downturn in even years. 2020 fit in with that nonscientific trend, but it was certainly the hardest we worked to fill the freezer in 2020. Luckily, we made up for it with halibut and lingcod.
King salmon are now known to be returning to Alaska waters at a younger age. This means that they are coming back smaller. The factors causing this are still unknown, although increased predation and water temperature are high on the list of suspects. Salmon sharks and orcas certainly take a bite out of the salmon population, and it would be expected that they may gravitate towards the larger salmon, but these predators are hardly new to the Gulf of Alaska and beyond.
I admit that I am hoping for a rebound in the salmon return for 2021.
This past weekend, a surprisingly large section of open water showed itself on The Pond. A steady stream of bubbles came up to the water’s surface. The bubbles were methane escaping the mud below.
The next morning, the temp at the cabin was -27F, so at ice level it was easily -30F. Much of the open area had frozen over, but a neat circular hole remained in the ice. From the hole, a trail led off across the pond’s snowy surface. One of the resident beavers had come out to explore the area. It followed all of the trails we made in the snow the previous day, and then it went off on its own, exploring at its leisure.
There were several times, where the trail dipped below the snow, and the beaver tunneled for quite a distance, before popping up again to the surface. I had never seen where a beaver had gone swimming in the snow. Most of these tunnels were near the cat tail stands, but not all.
The day after I followed the beaver trail, the open water had completely closed over. The methane is the clear culprit in the open water, especially such a large opening. As the bubbles rise to the surface, the ice thins due to the movement of the water. Most of the methane pocket locations are known, and those areas are avoided when anyone traverses The Pond. We are guessing that this opening was caused by a large, unknown pocket, that gave way. The bubbles that we watched coming up were in three distinct trails, but we wondered if the beaver had helped things along. Surely, the beaver knew about the location of the thinning ice, and kept one section open longer than the rest. Did their movement below, open up the large section we found? The beaver is an intriguing species of rodent.
The hockey game was between periods, and I had to make a quick run over to the neighbor’s. I turned the corner from my front walk, and was looking right into the shoulder of a cow moose. “OH! Hello.” I reevaluated my route, and took the long way around the cow. I was guessing there was a calf close by, but hadn’t seen it yet. The cow seemed to anticipate my rerouting, because she was waiting for me when I popped back out, but her ears were not laid back, so I scooted by, and made my way next door.
On my way back, the calf had come out onto the narrow road to join the cow. I still would have been fine, but a snowmachiner chose that moment to drive by. The rider spotted the cow, and stopped even with the unseen calf. Then another snow machine came up and stopped, but both engines were idling. That was too much for the calf, who started to panic, which caused mom to get edgy. The two moose then took my long route back to my cabin, so I tried to make a quick go at the short route. The moose beat me. I hesitated, then made a break for my front door. Mama Moose was not impressed, and tried to cut me off, but a huge spruce blocked her way.
She spent the next 30 minutes at the end of my walkway, just daring me to come back out, but I had college hockey to watch, and the moose had already caused me to miss 10 minutes of the game as we played tag.
In a normal year, Glacier Bay receives more than 150 cruise ship visits. In 2020, with the cruise industry in dry dock, Glacier Bay has seen a regular inhabitant take over. The humpback whale has been making the most of no cruise ships.
Humpbacks have been studied regularly for decades in Glacier Bay. Individual whales had been identified as far back as 1973. In 2020, the whales have been seen lounging in the middle of channels, feeding in large groups, and generally enjoying “room to roam”, as one researcher put it. Their underwater vocalizing was way up too, thrilling researchers.
The Park’s whale monitoring system has identified 740 individual whales between 1985 and 2017. The birth year of 311 Glacier Bay whales is known to researchers, because they were sighted as calves in The Bay. The oldest whale is a male, #516 or Garfunkle. Garfunkle was born in 1974. He was last seen in 2016.
The longest documented humpback was #441, who had been seen for 45 years. His carcass was found outside of Glacier Bay in 2016, his age was 66 years. The oldest documented humpback was 98 years old, when he was taken by a commercial whaler. The age of humpbacks can be determined by the layers on their ear plugs.
Most female humpback whales of Glacier Bay are able to have a calf every three years once they mature, which is at 12 years of age in Alaska waters, much later than northern Atlantic humpbacks.
Glacier Bay and Icy Strait is a regular home to 181 humpbacks, with Southeast Alaska being home to 1585 individuals. The most recent estimate has 21,063 humpback whales living in the entire North Pacific.
A link to the sounds of the Glacier Bay humpback can be found below:
“When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” –Aldo Leopold – Marshland Elegy, A Sand County Almanac.
I’m slow to embracing the virtual world, but now that winter has arrived in the North, and plenty of time on my hands, but without the inclination to travel anywhere, I’ve done some virtual exploring.
In the spring, the Platte River in Nebraska is the place to be, to see the siege of sandhill cranes flying through to eat and rest before heading further north. In the autumn, however, the Wisconsin River near Baraboo, WI is a major stopover for this ancient breed of birds.
The Aldo Leopold Foundation usually offers tours and blinds for crane viewing and photography in the fall, but 2020 is not the year for those types of activities. Instead, they offered a virtual visit to the Wisconsin River and the over 10,000 cranes that are camping out along its banks. I joined one of these visits this week, and found it incredibly informative, and well produced. Still, no virtual visit compares to seeing the sandhill crane in person, or hearing and feeling that prehistoric bugle as it flows through you from across the terrain and the eons.
Luckily, next spring, I won’t have to go beyond my deck to experience them again.
The above video is one done previously by the International Crane Foundation and the Aldo Leopold Foundation.
November in Haines, Alaska normally means bald eagles. The largest concentration of bald eagles in the world happens at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where the Tsirku River, warmed by ground water, meets the Chilkat River. This span of open water, and a late run of chum salmon bring in eagles in large numbers. In normal years, one spot on the river can contain 500 eagles, with the total number of the raptors in the thousands.
Haines is the home of the festival, and it brings in visitors from around the globe. People come year after year to photograph and hang out with the bald eagles, mingling with fellow birders and outdoor enthusiasts. This year, the festival was canceled due to Covid-19. It’s just another blow to local businesses, in a year full of them.
Oddly enough, the eagles didn’t show up either. One count had 46 bald eagles on a spot along the river, when in normal years, there would be around 500. The eagles didn’t come to the Chilkat, because the chum salmon never showed up. The run was a record low, and that has hit eagles, bears and fishermen alike. The bears, who normally fatten up on the late season salmon bounty, have been breaking into local homes and cabins more than usual, seeking out food.
Like all of our salmon runs that have been in decline, no one can answer the “Why question”. Is it the warming ocean and rivers? Over fishing? Are the hatchery fish too much competition for the wild ones for food out in the ocean? Or, are all these theories tied in together?
One thing is for certain: The entire ecosystem up here runs off of a strong salmon run. And so does the economy.
The sea otter is the largest of the weasel family; it is also the smallest marine mammal. Adult males average five feet in length and ninety pounds. Females are about the same length, but run about thirty pounds lighter.
Life span is between 15-20 years in the wild. Sexual maturity happens at 2-3 years for females, and 4-5 years for males. It should be noted, it may take several more years for a male to breed, until one holds a breeding territory. Breeding can happen at any time of the year, and young can be born during any and all seasons, but in Alaska, birth usually occurs in the spring. The female raises one pup per year.
In order to maintain body weight, a sea otter must eat 25% of its mass, every day. They have the densest fur of any mammal, with between 800,000 – 1 million hairs per square inch.
Alaska has three distinct populations of sea otter: The Southwest, South-central and Southeast. Alaska is home to 90% of the world sea otter population.
The Southeast and Southcentral population is stable, but the Southwestern population has been listed as threatened since 2005. This population, which runs from Kodiak Island west throughout the Aleutian Chain, has lost roughly 65% of its numbers since the 1980’s.
Sea otters are considered a keystone species in the Alaska coastal environment. Now, they are proving to be the protectors of the underwater kelp forests. As the sea otter population plummeted in the Aleutians, the sea urchin population exploded. The sea otter is the number one predator of the sea urchin; sea otters will eat them like popcorn.
The number one predator of the kelp forest, is the sea urchin. Without the sea otters to keep the sea urchin population under control, the urchins have decimated the kelp forest along the Aleutian Chain. Now, the sea urchins are destroying the reefs along the Chain. With the drop in kelp, the sea urchins are eating the algae that creates the reef. These reefs are disappearing right before researchers eyes.
The kelp forest are now gone from the central and western Aleutians. In their place are often 400 sea urchins per square meter. The loss of the kelp is huge on several fronts. It is a home and safety zone to numerous fish species, cod among them. The 1200 mile Aleutian Chain supports two multi-million dollar fisheries: Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.
Kelp is also an extremely efficient absorber and holder of CO2. Like all land plants, kelp forests take CO2 out of the air during photosynthesis. Without kelp, the oceans lose a tool in lowering carbon in the atmosphere. Kelp forests also help reduce the force of storm surges, which Alaska is facing more and more.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, there are several potential drivers for the western sea otter population drop. Overharvest, disease and predation. The new predator on the block in the Aleutians is the killer whale. Prior to 1991, there was not a documented case of an orca singling out sea otters for a food source. Now, it seems to be common. What changed? Something else changed in the diet of orcas that now makes the sea otter worthwhile. There are several theories, but no definitive answer.
Currently, sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Department of Fish & Game; Fairbanks Daily-News Miner; Alaska SeaLife Center; Ocean Conservancy.
Prior to Fat Bear Week, researchers at Katmai National Park used Terrestrial Lidar Scanning Technology to determine the “volume” of Katmai’s voluptuous bears. #747 above, had over 27 scans of his belly alone. In the scan above, 747 was standing in shallow water.
747 was the winner of Fat Bear Week, and he topped the Lidar scanning too, coming in at 22.6 cubic feet. Chunk was the second largest bear scanned at 19.78 cubic feet. Walker came in third at 17.7 cubic feet.
Fascinating that the technology is being used on Alaska’s wildlife.