Tuesday, June 30, 2015
"Strange things are done, 'neath the midnight sun, by the men who moil for walruses."
- Robert Service
For those who are unfamiliar with Robert Service's The Cremation of Sam McGee, it is probably worth mentioning that the line above is intentionally misquoted. According to Mr. Service, the only ones doing strange things under the midnight sun are men who moil for gold, however given that this photo was taken somewhere between midnight and 3 in the morning, I think my amended quote is equally appropriate. Cruising around the sea ice in small boats in the middle of a light-filled night, collecting skin and blubber biopsies from walruses using crossbows definitely qualifies as strange in my book. Sometimes, though, in the midst of it all, the strangeness fades and becomes something else. In this case, something serene. The wind had calmed until it was barely a breath, and the water had taken on an almost oily stillness. Solstice had come and gone, and even the midnight sun was beginning to tire, dipping close enough to the horizon to add a touch of pastel color to the clouds and soften the lighting of the sky. In the foreground a healthy, adult walrus is contemplating it all, perhaps thinking about the meaning of its existence. Though the sheer size, worn quality of the tusks, and excessive wrinkling of the skin around the neck might point towards this animal being a bull, she is in fact an old girl, of nearly monumental size and imperturbable character. Which is to say, we biopsied her and she didn't even flinch. Thank you, old girl, for the sample, the photo, and the memory I won't soon forget.
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT1, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM, ISO-100 f/4.5 @ 1/125 sec.
Monday, June 29, 2015
After spending a month chasing walrus around the ice edge in Chukchi Sea, Casey and three of his fellow crew members finally arrived back at St. Paul yesterday. Fortunately for me he gets to stick around until Wednesday to clean and 'put away' the three boats. The rest of his crew already flew back to Anchorage.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM +1.4x, ISO-320 f/5.6 @ 1/2500 sec.
Here's a map of the ships track line over the past month.
Sunday, June 28, 2015
If you think these are gulls, you're probably not alone. This is a common mistake. Although similar in size, shape, and plumage, they are in fact not gulls. These are northern fulmars, a member of the Procellariiformes, an order which consists of some of the most iconic seabirds around. This group is less formerly referred to as the 'tube noses', due to a unique tubular structure formed around the nostrils shared by all members of the Procellariiformes. Fulmars, and their relatives the albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, storm-petrels, and prions, have all demonstrated an incredible sensitivity to smell. Pour some fish oil over the side of a boat, and in a matter of minutes 'tube noses' will arrive to investigate. It's assumed that these tubular nasal passages help to funnel smells drifting in the wind, and direct birds to areas of high productivity and potential prey. You can think of fulmars as sort of a stockier miniature version of an the albatross, soaring vast distances across the ocean in search of food.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-500 f/5.6 @ 1/2500 sec.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
Friday, June 26, 2015
Thursday, June 25, 2015
This horned puffin emerged from its nesting crevice while I was leaning over a cliff ledge checking on some red-faced cormorant nests. Curious encounters like this from puffins and auklets really help to break up the monotony of waiting for a sleeping cormorant to stand.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-500 f/5.6 @ 1/800 sec.
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Four out of the five species of seabirds we're monitoring for productivity now have eggs. Red-faced cormorants were the first to lay, followed by black-legged and red-legged kittiwakes last week, and just yesterday we had our first thick-billed murre egg. Now we're just waiting on the common murres. Productivity monitoring basically entails sitting and waiting for birds to stand, to determine the timing and quantity of eggs produced and chicks that hatch, and eventually fledge to sea. Obviously we can't monitor every single nest on the island, so we have plots set up throughout the different sub colonies. This thick-billed murre was not interested in incubating, which made finding its egg rather easy. Normally these birds are sitting tight, which means I also have to sit tight and watch for hours in order to see the contents of all the birds within a plot.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/500 sec.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
The data from last night's auroral activity are huge. The planetary K-index, or Kp scale, represents the magnitude of a geomagnetic storm, like the Richter scale for earthquakes or the Fujita scale for tornadoes. If I were to tell you a magnitude 9 earthquake had just struck the Aleutian Islands (which it hasn't), your reaction would be "damn, that's a big earthquake". Well, the Kp scale of geomagnetic activity ranges from 0-9, 9 being the most active. Last night the Kp index topped out at an 8. Damn, that's a big aurora. People were reporting lights all across the northern portion of the US, with displays reaching as far south as the Moab Desert in Utah. I had hoped last night would be my chance for St. Paul auroras, but a forecast for rain sent me to bed. I was, however, awoken by a sudden 3am thunder storm that lit up the skies above St. Paul anyway. Lightning, the next best natural phenomenon after aurora.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-100 f/4 @ 10 sec - through a dirty window.
Monday, June 22, 2015
The hills are alive, with the sounds of seabirds. Summer kicked off on St. Paul island with a thick layer of fog, but persistent dreariness really makes you appreciate the sun when it eventually shows itself. Like in the photo above, looking down into emerald blue water from High Bluffs on a sunny afternoon.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-160 f/5.6 @ 1/400 sec.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
The Bering Sea is not known for pleasant weather and flat seas. It's usually either windy, foggy, or both in the summer. So we took advantage of the perfect conditions we've been having and made the five mile trip south to Otter Island for a survey. While out on the boat, I snapped a long series of panoramic shots of St. Paul Island from the water. Whenever I make a panorama I always like to see what they look like as "tiny worlds". It only takes a few steps in Photoshop to wrap the image into a sphere. So here's what the continent of St. Paul would look like. A list of the dominate hills from west to east (top of the world going clockwise) are as follows: Rush, Ridge, Cone, Crater, Slope, Bogoslov, and Polovina - directly behind the two water tanks in town. The steep cliffs (dark patches on the coastline) are where we do the bulk of our seabird monitoring, and are listed clockwise as follows: High Bluffs (noon), Ridgewall (1 to 3 o'clock), Zapadni (5 o'clock), Tolstoi (9 o'clock), and Reef (11 o'clock).
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM +1.4x, ISO- 320 f/5.6 @ 1/3200 sec, 15 image panorama stitched and distorted in Photoshop CS.
Saturday, June 20, 2015
After three consecutive days of sunshine, this island has transformed into a garden of wildflowers. Shades of yellows, pinks, and purples dot the landscape like paint spattered on a green canvas. These yellow poppies attract the most attention from the eye, growing along the shoulder of the dirt roads here on St. Paul.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM + Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/1600 sec.
Friday, June 19, 2015
Much of past 200 years of human habitation on St. Paul Island is tied to this animal, the northern fur seal. Rumors of vast rookeries in the far north eventually led to the discovery of these islands by Gavrill Pribylov in the 18th Century, and the rumors quickly proved to be true. Roughly 500,000 northern fur seals breed on the Pribilof Islands, representing half the the estimated world population, with a range that extends throughout the Bering Sea and down to Baja California in the east and the southern tip of Japan in the west. The beaches out here are slowly becoming congested with animals arriving for the start of the breeding season, their low growls and groans echoing across the island like mythical sea monsters.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/1250 sec.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Situated precariously west of mainland Alaska, St. Paul Island is frequently invaded by European and Asian vagrants. Misguided by fog or blown off course by strong winds, land birds seek shelter on this remote rocky refuge after finding themselves lost over the unforgiving Bering Sea. Unlike seabirds which thrive on the wind and waves, land birds are unable to rest on the water's surface, and must find something solid to perch upon. Bird fanatics, for lack of a better term, have caught on to this phenomenon, and pay thousands of dollars to spend several days on St. Paul, relentless searching for those prized species to add to their life lists. This snow bunting is by no means rare or vagrant, and is an abundant local breeder found throughout the colder reaches of North America. Still if, like me, you're from California, it's one to add to the life list. Not that I'm keeping track of course.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/4000 sec.
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
A view of "down town" St. Paul on a rare sunny afternoon, from Reef Point looking north across Gorbalch Bay. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, roughly 500 people live within the city of St. Paul, although that number is likely slightly inflated. Prior to the discovery of the Pribilofs by Russian fur traders in 1786, St. Paul island has uninhabited. Native Aleut people never made the journey out this far, and with the weather we've been experiencing lately, that's not surprising. The Russian-American Fur Company did however bring Aleut people over from Atka and Unalaska as slaves to harvest northern fur seals, several years after the discovery of the islands. Many years later, after fur pelts went out of fashion and the demand for fat-oil subsided, the federal government eventually granted the Aleuts of St. Paul a pardon. They now manage a small subsidence harvest of the fur seals ever year.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, ISO-100 f/10 @ 160 sec, 8 image panorama stitched using Photoshop CS.
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Been thinking a lot about this guy lately. No it's not a photo from today, but it's Casey's birthday and I haven't seen a sunset in quite a long time, so it just feels right. This was taken at San Onofre in southern California, when we spent two weeks living out of my truck and surfing every day. It was the best of times.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-800 f/7.1 @ 1/200 sec + flash.
Monday, June 15, 2015
Today is the 200th day of pictures. I am now just over half way done with this photo-a-day project. A year sure is a long time. I started this project to keep me busy over a slow winter, and now that I'm back to work with things to do, it keeps me even busier. I've spent the last 20 days staring at these red-faced cormorants, waiting for them to stand and reveal their secrets, and I'll be spending the next 80 doing the same, so I feel they are a fitting subject to commemorate this milestone. 165 days to go...and counting.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/1250 sec.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
The bulk of the work conducted by the fish and wildlife service on St. Paul revolves around seabird productivity monitoring. We have plots distributed throughout prime nesting habitat, that we visit on a rotating schedule every three days. For many hours, we sit on the edge of a cliff, and using either a scope or binoculars, note the status (i.e. bird, bird/egg, bird/chick, etc) of all the birds within the plots. We do, however, have side projects that add a little variety to our daily schedule. For instance today we are heading to a nearby pond to collect stickleback from traps we set yesterday. Stickleback are small minnow-sized fish found in both fresh and salt water systems throughout the northern hemisphere. Those that become trapped in ponds and lakes, like the ones here on St. Paul, make excellent subjects for studying evolution. Just like Darwin's finches, isolated populations of these small fish, unable to exchange genetic information with neighboring populations, have evolved different morphology on a relatively brief timescale. For example stickleback found in the ocean contain up to ten times more armor plating than those in fresh water systems. This is likely a response to predatory pressures, a heavier armor protects against fast moving predatory fish in the ocean, whereas a lighter armor, mostly around the head, makes the stickleback faster, and protects against slow moving predatory insects in fresh water. That's the gist of it anyway. Interesting stuff.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-400 f/7.1 @ 1/125 sec.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
Spring is a little delayed up here in the northern latitudes, but better late than never. All over the island small colorful wildflowers are emerging from fresh new green growth, creating carpets of yellows, purples, and whites. This photo of a patch of Sulphur Buttercups was taken up at a place called High Bluffs, on the western side of the island.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-200 f/4 @ 1/800 sec.
Friday, June 12, 2015
To some people St. Paul Island is home, they live out here full time. It's a proper town, with a town hall, a church, a police station, a grocery store, a museum, a post office, a marina, a bar, a cemetery, and of course a smattering of houses and government facilities. Most of this infrastructure is centered on a small peninsula on the extreme southern end of the island. The remaining 43 square miles of St. Paul, with the exception of the airport, a few small structures and ponds, are mostly open tundra. Well groomed roads lead about 6 miles out of town in three different directions: west, north, and northeast. From there, a series of ATV trails connect the circumference of the island. Most of the sites where we monitor seabirds are located off the well groomed road leading west, but a few can only be accessed via the northwest ATV trail. It's a jarring bumpy ride that takes a little over an hour to complete. This photo was taken from the northwest side of the island, looking east to North Hill (left) and Low Hill (right).
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-200 f/16 @ 1/320 sec.
Thursday, June 11, 2015
Crested auklets may very well be the most entertaining bird to watch out here. Aside from their candy-corn bill and decorative head gear, these auklets also use auditory and olfactory signals to establish pair bonds and to compete with other birds during mate selection. They have a very distinct barking call that seems to trump all other sounds of the colony, which they produce while sitting on the water, flying in flocks, and climbing around the cliff faces. I haven't smelled it yet, but crested auklets release a citrus-like odor when their nape feathers are ruffled. This cloud of citrus apparently induces the "ruff sniff" display, where birds will insert their bill into the plumage of another. A bird that smells like oranges, now not is certainly unique.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/2000 sec.
Wednesday, June 10, 2015
I'm often guilty of moving from point A to point B without taking the time to observe the little things around me. For instance when I'm on the road and there's a scenic turnout ahead, I won't stop. I few days back I was hiking up a bluff to a site where we monitor nesting seabirds, when I noticed this brightly colored beetle buried in the grasses. It's species name is Carabus truncaticollis, an arctic species common in Russia and Asia, and found in some locations at the top of North America. Other than it has pretty colors, that's about the breadth of my entomological knowledge of this beetle. Sometimes it's worth stopping to smell the roses.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM + Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II, ISO-320 f/5.6 @ 1/320 sec.
Tuesday, June 9, 2015
Seabirds have the most interesting eyes. This portrait of a parakeet auklet is yet another addition to my ongoing collection of birds looking straight at the camera, which I may someday develop into a coffee-table book entitled "Birds, (long pause) Head On".
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-250 f/5.6 @ 1/500 sec.
Monday, June 8, 2015
St. Paul Island is made up entirely of basaltic rock and pyroclastic tuff from volcanism which ended some time in the late Pleistocene, roughly 12,000 years ago. Extinct cinder cones that dominate the outline of the island, once spewed huge volumes of lava over the landscape, creating solidified flows of twisted black rock. Some of the eruptions were evidently violent, burping out massive clouds of frothy pyroclastic flows, which left behind porous clumps of craggy red rock. If St. Paul were situated in a warmer wetter climate, it could easily be mistaken for a Hawaiian Island. This island, however, is far from the tropics, and the stark black volcanic rock supports no forests or bushes. Vegetative life on St. Paul is stunted by strong winds, a short growing season, and a long cold winter. Still, slowly but surely, leaves are beginning to appear, and soon the island will be blanketed with a lush carpet of green grasses and colorful wildflowers.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM + Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II, ISO-200 f/4.5 @ 1/160 sec.
Sunday, June 7, 2015
This a single vertebrae from the spine of a minke whale, a small baleen whale occasionally spotted around St. Paul. The long flat vertebral processes are characteristic of a whale, and I know its from a minke because the skull was about a mile up the beach. Judging from the length of the spinous process (or vertical, long bit pointing right), I would assume this puzzle piece fits into the lumbar region of the spine, an area with restricted twisting motion that mainly supports the up and down swim pattern of an marine mammal. Huge muscles that controlled this whale's propulsion ran from the base of the skull all the way to the flukes, and would have laid on top of the two transverse processes (or horizontal, two bits pointing up and down) like a slab of meat on a shelf. It's difficult to see in this photo, but in each vertebrae where the three processes meet there's a hole. When combined these holes create a channel that protects the nerves and blood vessel running the length of the body. Nothing like a bit of whale anatomy over a morning coffee.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-200 f/16 @ 1/160 sec.
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Friday, June 5, 2015
The weather here on St. Paul can be tricky for a morning person like me. Typically a cold damp fog looms over this low lying island until about noon, lifting in the afternoon to a high overcast ceiling. We don't bother starting work until around 11am. If we're lucky, and this is rare, the clouds part enough to allow a bit of light in, however blue skies are often coupled with a stiff breeze off the chilly Bering Sea. Situated at 57 degrees north, the sun is up for nearly 18 hours, so we have plenty of day-length to wait for a good weather window. This is a view from High Bluffs on the west side of the island, looking north.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-200 f/11 @ 1/125 sec.
Thursday, June 4, 2015
The elaborate ornamentation of the tufted puffin, sexual selection at its best. Natural selection does a great job at explaining the evolution of morphological, physiological, and behavioral traits of a species, but falls short in providing a rationale for say, the extreme head gear of a tufted puffin. Shorter wings are good for swimming, a darker plumage helps reduce detection from prey, but what advantage do golden rock-star head plumes provide? The answer lies in sexual selection, which focuses only on reproductive success. The development of "attractive" ornamentation provides a gained mating advantage over other birds, it's the mechanism for attracting a mate. Allow sexual selection to run its course for millions of years, and fashions begin to spin out of control in order to maintain the advantage. We've seen this happen before, in the 80's.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/800 sec.
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Red-faced cormorants nest throughout the Aleutian Islands and into the Gulf of Alaska, with the Pribilof Islands colonies marking the extreme northern limit of their range. As black-legged kittiwakes continue to show little interest in nesting this season, red-faced cormorants have been our primary focus so far on St. Paul. Currently we are monitoring 68 nests in productivity plots throughout various sites around the island, many nests with pairs already incubating a clutch of 2-3 eggs. Amazingly, a few days back we already spotted the first chick of the season, a major deviation from a mean hatch date typically in late June.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM +1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/800 sec.
Monday, June 1, 2015
The award for best decorative head gear among the birds of St. Paul would have to be a close tie between the tufted puffin and crested auklet. Most seabird species have relatively uninspiring plumage, with bodies cloaked in feathers colored on a monochromatic scale. Some Alcids in particular make up for this drab existence by developing fiery orange bills and flashy head plumes in the breeding season. Tufted puffins have been hanging around the cliffs in high numbers ever since we arrived on island, but crested auklets are just beginning to make an appearance, or at least I've only just begun to notice they're around.
Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/500 sec.