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.
Believe it or not, Alaska has seven species of bat. The Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus) is the most common. At only 3 to 4-1/2″ long, and a wingspan of 8-9″, the Little Brown Bat, lives up to its name.
Bats are not well studied in Alaska. Even the lifespan of the Little Brown Bat in the state is unknown, although they seem to average 10 years or so in the Yukon. One elderly Yukon Little Brown Bat was known to live 34 years.
They range from the Yukon River south throughout Alaska. The total population is not known, although it is not thought to be large, considering the territory. I have seen bats sweep overhead at the darkest time of our summer days, but I can not say that it is a common experience. We certainly have the mosquitos to keep them well fed, however.
Bats usually hibernate from September until May, although it is not a continual hibernation. They seem to wake up on warmer days to hunt, then return to hibernation. They will roost in caves, but these are not common in Alaska’s Interior. Natural weather-protected areas will offer a place to roost, as will attics and out buildings. So the scratching one hears from the attic isn’t always a red squirrel in Alaska, but might be a Little Brown Bat.
A moose jumped a fence to join in on a pick up soccer match in Homer, Alaska. The moose appears to be a bit of a ball hog, but I was disappointed when the other players chose not to pass the ball back to the moose. I wouldn’t have been able to resist.
The lodge has grown some since last year, and this year’s collection of birch, aspen and willow branches is larger than the previous year. As far as I know, there are still three beavers in the lodge, although I have not seen the kit in several months.
The beavers really kick into food gathering gear in September. From that time on, there is seldom any time of the day, when one, if not both beavers, are collecting trees and branches. It becomes an evening event, to watch the large rodents swim across The Pond, with the tree branches in tow. When they reach their food pile, they dive underneath the pile, trapping the freshly collected branches at the bottom of the pile. The Pond and its ice will soon become a giant tupperware container.
The beavers have branched out, going further and further from the lodge to collect saplings. The yard, and I use that term loosely, was fenced when they first showed up. The beavers have now worked their way to the very edge of that fencing. For now, there is a reprieve. The Pond has iced over, and the beavers will cut back on their tree cutting. The ice should now be in place until spring, and the beavers will spend most of their time in the lodge, venturing out under water to their pantry for meals.
The winner of Katmai’s Fat Bear Week, is Bear #747. The bear that shares a number with a wide-body jet airplane, is the champion of 2020.
747 first appeared on the Brooks River scene in 2004. At that time, the young, male bruin could not maintain prime fishing spots against the other bears. That is no longer the case.
747 is now one of the most dominate bears at Brooks Falls, and he is a talented catcher of salmon. He is not the most aggressive of the bears, but 747 does not have to be. Most bears get out of his way just because of his size. In 2019, 747 was estimated to weigh 1400 pounds. He has attained that weight, if not more, in 2020.
In full disclosure: 747 was my personal favorite for this year’s Fat Bear Week. No attempt was made to influence voters.