Tag Archives: wildlife
The North Slope village of Utqiagvik woke up to -20F degree temperatures on Wednesday morning. That was a record low for the day for the village. It was Utqiagvik’s first recording of a record low since 21 December 2007. During that same time span, the village had set or tied 112 record high temperatures.
Alaska has started to “reopen” businesses throughout the state, with everyone seemingly holding their breath as it happens. Travel restrictions into the state remain in place. Restaurants are now able to seat to within 25% of capacity, and members at a table are supposed to be from the same household.
The Fairbanks Borough had seen two weeks go by without a new case of Covid-19, but that ended on Sunday with a case in North Pole. Since then, North Pole has seen another diagnosed case. The State had six new cases on Tuesday, for a total of 351. 228 individuals have recovered from Covid-19, and nine Alaskans have died from the virus. Concerning, to me at least, is the first recorded cases in small, isolated, communities like Kodiak, Petersburg and Sitka after a long period of social distancing.
Fishing communities are still struggling with what to do for the summer season. Valdez has decided to allow fishermen into town without any quarantine, where several smaller communities are demanding a quarantine. The State of Alaska has agreed to allow fishermen to quarantine on their boats, although a realistic plan for that option remains elusive, considering most fly into these small communities, and air travel between towns not on the road system is off limits. Travel between communities on the road system is now being allowed.
Tourism is all but scrapped for the 2020 season. The two main cruise ship companies have written off Alaska for the year, and have even decided to keep their lodges and hotels closed until late spring 2021.
Denali National Park has now opened the Park Road to Mile 12. As spring takes a stronger grip on the land, the Park will continue to open up more of the road as conditions allow. Denali Park is also considering having additional road lotteries in 2020. The lottery, which allows permit holders to drive well into the Park, where usually only busses are allowed, takes place in September. Additional opportunities would be extremely welcome. I’m thrilled with the idea, since the State is all but closed to Outside tourists this year.
The Denali Highway, not to be confused with the Denali Park Road, is NOT open. Yet, people keep getting stuck on the road between Cantwell and Paxson. The Denali Highway, possibly the best drive in Alaska, is not maintained during the winter. It is also not paved, which keeps the riffraff numbers down. Or at least, the tour busses.
Alaska’s Big Five; Chapter Five:
Dall Sheep, Ovis Dalli dalli, can be found throughout Alaska’s mountain ranges. Dall Sheep prefer relatively dry country, their territory is the open alpine ridges, mountain meadows and steep slopes. They like to keep an extremely rugged “escape terrain” close at hand, and are not often found below tree line.
The rams are known for their massive curling horns. The ewes have shorter, more slender and less curved horns. The males live in groups and seldom interact with the females until breeding season, which is in December.
Lambs are born in late May to early June. Ewes usually reach breeding age at 3-4, and have one lamb each year after that. The lambs are most vulnerable during their first 30-45 days of life, and mortality rate is high during this time. Wolves, black & brown bears and golden eagles are the main predators.
Dall sheep horns grow steadily from early spring to late fall, but tend to slow, if not stop growing altogether, during the winter months. This leaves growth rings on the horns called annuli. These growth rings can help identify the age of Dall Sheep. In the wild, 12 years of age is considered old for a Dall Sheep, but rams have been identified as high as 16, and ewes up to 19 years of age. A Dall Sheep ram can weigh up to 300 pounds, with the ewes being about half that weight.
Between 1990 – 2010, Dall Sheep numbers had dropped by 21%, from 56,740 to 45,010. Numbers started increasing up until 2013, when a later than average snowfall put a damper on recovery efforts. Dry, heavy snow loads appear to have little effect on sheep population, but the heavy, wet snowfalls, with a frozen crust can make foraging and travel difficult. Freezing rain has also become more prevalent. All of these factors contribute to more avalanches, which have become a significant cause of death for Dall Sheep in the state.
An old shot, but in keeping with wildlife week here between The Circles, I dug it out of the archives. This was on my first drive up Alaska’s famed Haul Road, also known as the Dalton Highway.
Camera: Canon Canonet 28; Film: Kodak 35mm
Alaska’s Big Five:
Caribou are the only members of the deer family where both sexes grow antlers. The bulls’ antlers are massive, but the cows’ are shorter and slight. The hooves of caribou are large, concave and they spread out wide to support the animals on snow and tundra. The hooves also act as paddles when swimming.
There are 32 herds of caribou in Alaska, with each herd occupying a distinct calving ground. Calves are born in late May in Alaska’s Interior, and in early June in northern and southwestern Alaska. The vast majority of calves are born as singles, but twins do happen, although rarely. They weigh, on average, 13 pounds at birth, and grow quickly. By 10-15 days after birth, the weight of a calf doubles. A calf is running alongside its mother within hours of birth.
Bull caribou will reach a weight of 350-400 pounds as an adult, although they can get as large as 700 pounds. An adult cow caribou averages 175-225 pounds. An average male lives to 7-8 years, while the females can live to 10 years.
Caribou can migrate huge distances between their summer and winter range. The larger herds may migrate 400 miles between their two ranges, where a small herd may barely migrate at all.
The caribou population in Alaska is currently estimated at 750,000. Their population can be cyclic, and can fluctuate widely in a rather short period of time. The declines and increases in numbers can be extremely difficult to predict. Predation, climate, weather, disease, population density and hunting can all have an effect on the caribou population.
Alaska’s Big Five:
Brown bears and grizzly are classified as the same species, with the grizzly considered a subspecies of the brown bear. Brown bears are found along Alaska’s southern coastline, and are larger and live in higher densities than their inland grizzly counterparts. The main advantage to coastal living, is the abundance of salmon as a food source. The thicker vegetation and warmer climate of the southern coast also helps to give the brown bear the size edge.
The Kodiak brown bear is considered a unique subspecies from the brown & grizzly bear. The Kodiaks have been isolated from mainland bears since the last ice age, or 12,000 years ago.
Brown bear cubs are born in January & February, usually as twins, but a litter of 1-4 cubs will occur. Cubs usually emerge from the den in June. Cubs have a survival rate of less than 50%, even with ferociously protective mothers. Cubs will stay with their mother for 2-3 years. The oldest known brown bear female was 39 years old, with the oldest known male at 38. They can reach a weight of up to 1500 pounds.
Bears have an excellent sense of smell, and their eyesight & hearing is similar to humans. They are excellent swimmers, and can run in bursts at 40 mph.
Currently, the Alaska brown bear population is around 32,000. Which is 98% of the population in the United States, and 70% of the total North American population.
Kodiak Island has approximately 3500 bears, which makes for .7 bears per square mile.
By contrast, Alaska has approximately 100,000 black bears living in the state.
The temperature on Easter Sunday reached 56F degrees in Fairbanks. The last time we broke the 50 degree barrier was on September 30.
My daily hikes have been taking place in the morning now. Partly, because the day is usually wide open for interpretation, but mainly because the snowpack is still firm early in the day. Breaking trail gets old in a hurry. The mukluks will be retired any day now for the rubber breakup boots.
Our length of day has surpassed 15 hours. In fact, length of visible light, has gone over 17 hours. The northern lights have been out, but they are already faint, unless they put on a show around 2am. Soon, we will not see them again, until late August.
Rabbits can be seen morning & evening, bounding over the massive piles of snow with ease. Already, the new brown fur is mixing with the white of winter. An owl can be heard at night, hooting off in the distance, and I have seen the tracks of lynx, but the wary cat has evaded my camera traps. Neither the owl nor the lynx seem to have put much of a dent in the rabbit population. The frisky bunnies seem as numerous, if not more so, than last year.
Plow it, and they will land:
At the end of last week, the annual plowing of Creamer’s Field happened. The old dairy farm is now a migratory waterfowl refuge. The field is used to tempt waterfowl away from Fairbanks International Airport. Fairbanks has an annual lottery on when the first Canadian goose lands at Creamer’s. It’s not as widely bet on as the Nenana Ice Classic, but it may be as closely followed. Creamer’s saw its first arrival on Sunday the 12th. However, for only the second time since 1976, it wasn’t a Canadian honker that landed first, but a pair of trumpeter swans. When I was out there on Wednesday, the swans were off in the distance and ducks were flying in, and landing on the puddles. The woodchucks are also out and about at the refuge.
This is the first month of April that I have spent in Alaska since 2003! I always leave around the end of March, if not earlier, to get some traveling in, and head to the Frozen Four Hockey Championship, wherever that may be held. It’s a bit odd for me to be here to watch the snow melt.
With the above average snowfall this past season, and the quick upturn in temperature, we are in for a very messy breakup with winter.
The ice hockey arena, where the University of Alaska Nanooks play their home games, was recently converted to an overflow, field hospital. The arena adds 100 beds at the moment, to the 38 beds at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital set aside for Corvid-19 patients, and the 26 beds in the intensive care unit. Like every community around the globe, everyone here hopes the arena beds are never used.
Alaska had 13 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday. The state total was now at 226 cases, still the lowest of every U.S. state, but our population is also among the lowest. 27 Alaska residents have been hospitalized, and the state has seen seven deaths, with two of those deaths taking place Outside.
Fairbanks had six of those new cases, for a total of 71 in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The city of Dillingham, Alaska and the Curyung Tribal Council recently sent a request to the governor to close the Bristol Bay commercial fishery. That was huge news in Alaska. Bristol Bay is the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Both entities told the State of Alaska that there was no way to limit the small communities exposure to the virus, and the communities lack the health care resources to handle a pandemic. Tens of thousands of fishermen and fish processors will soon start their migration into the region, as we get closer to the fishing season. There has been no official response from the State of Alaska, although fishery workers are considered “essential” by the State.
Conoco Phillips, the oil field giant, has shut down its remote North Slope oil fields, and have placed them into long-term storage due to coronavirus concerns. A BP worker at Prudhoe Bay had recently been diagnosed with the disease, putting several workers in quarantine.
Travel to Alaska by nonresidents is obviously frowned upon. Visitors are expected to quarantine for 14 days if they do arrive in the state. The cruise ship industry will not be visiting Alaskan ports until July at the earliest. Alaska has little, to no say in that. All Canadian ports of call are closed until July 1. An intriguing maritime law prohibits international cruise ships from carrying U.S. citizens from one U.S. port to another. In other words, they can not go from Seattle, Washington to Skagway, Alaska without a stop at a foreign port – namely a Canadian port. Until Canada opens its ports, Alaskan ports will remain closed to the cruising industry.
Several blogs that I follow have asked the question: “What is the proper way to blog during this event?” A few have even stopped blogging altogether. I honestly don’t have an answer. I rarely spend much time worrying about proper, so I’m probably not the guy to ask. As for Circle to Circle, I don’t intend to ignore the current situation, but I’m not going to dwell on it either. Every post will not be Covid-19 related, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to world events or that I’m not sympathetic to the suffering and losses. It isn’t hard for me to get as much coverage as I want on the Covid-19 virus, the difficulty is in limiting it to a manageable amount. One can quickly get overwhelmed, and then it’s hard to pull back out of the funk.
For now, I will continue to do what I do here, which is mainly to blog about Alaska, and its wonderful quirks. Circle to Circle started out to chronicle a long trip, and I still think it’s at it’s best when I’m writing about traveling. Travel will have to stay close to Fairbanks for the foreseeable future, so maybe I can pull some rabbits out of the local hat.
I sincerely think it’s important to remember that there are a lot of beautiful things happening every day out there, among the chaos and uncertainty. Maybe now, more than ever, it is worthwhile to point those things out as they happen. The moose cows will give birth this spring, and I will have little, gangly moose calves wandering about in short order. The sandhill cranes will soon be flying into the region, bugling their ancient call from the skies and tundra. The puddles and ponds will be full of ducks and muskrats, and the beaver will emerge from their domed hut – hopefully with kits.
Everything changes, and, of course, this blog can change at the drop of a wood duck chick. This was/is always going to be a work in progress. Stop by for a virtual Alaskan break, if that pleases you; feel free to fly over, if you feel Circle to Circle is not your pint of choice. Ask questions, leave comments, drop me a line if you’d like. We are all in this together, even as we stay apart.
Stay safe, and keep your distance.