Friday, July 31, 2015

Sunshine: Day 246

Yesterday the fog lifted, the sun broke through, and St. Paul really shined. Dark roving shadows blotched the landscape around Antoine Lake as they roamed across bright green hillsides. Colors reappeared, contrast, blue skies, lofty clouds, and even a golden sunset, following nearly a month of dreary grey conditions. The fog is thick this morning, but I'm hoping this scene unfolds again soon.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM, ISO-200 f/7.1 @ 1/1000 sec, 61 image panorama stitched together in Photoshop CS.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Navigating the Fog: Day 245

A yacht from its harbor ropes pulled free,
And leaped like a steed o'er the race track blue,
Then up behind her, the dust of the sea, 
A gray fog, drifted, and hid her from view.

"A Marine Etching" - Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

All of the field camps operating within the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge check in daily either via radio, phone, text, or email to the point of contact on Adak, to share stories from the day's work and confirm all is well. Here is excerpt from yesterday's entry that provides context for the photo above.

"Through a menacing morning fog, guided by our combined seamanship (compass and GPS), we navigated upon a greasy sea the 8 mile gap between St. Paul and Otter Island, and conducted both a cormorant and kittiwake nest/chick count and census. Our final visit to Otter for the 2015 season..."

Canon EOS 60D, Bower 8mm Fishe Eye CS, ISO-320 f/16 @ 1/640 sec.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Pups: Day 244

As per request by Jessica, a loyal reader of this blog and frequent writer of comments, may I present to you all the arctic fox pup. Commence oohing and ahhing.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-320 f/5.6 @ 1/500 sec.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

First Comes The Egg: Day 243

After 30 days of dedicated incubation and meticulous rolling by both parents, many of these hardy emerald gems are beginning to hatch. With the red-faced cormorant chicks nearly ready to fledge, and a complete failure of both black-legged and red-legged kittiwakes, murres have become our primary monitoring focus during this last month of field work on St. Paul. By next week, the cliffs will be covered with tiny thick-billed and common murre chicks; miniature versions of their parents. This egg is from site T6 at plot 87 (see map below), and is due to hatch within the next two days. Neighboring sites T4 and T3 just hatched yesterday, my first chicks of the season. Finally seeing these little downy rock-stars hiding under the warm breast feathers of their parents is a nice reward after countless hours watching through a scope, in the wind and rain.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/400 sec.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Perceptible Passage: Day 242

This weathered skull of a walrus has been fixed to the end of this wooden stick all season, and likely for many seasons before, and has served as a benchmark for the passage of time out here. Earlier in May, when the island's starkness was at it's maximum, this clump of white calcium stuck out like a sore thumb amidst a field of brown. Over the months, lush grasses have slowly crept skyward, threatening to conceal this dead landmark with new life. As the brief Arctic summer comes to a close, and the tall grasses go to seed, die, and wither back to brown, this skull will once again reclaim its elevated dominance. That is until winter returns and buries the landscape in white.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, ISO-100 f/2.5 @ 1/1600 sec.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Have You Seen The Sun Lately? Day 241

In my mind it's unfair to claim credit for the aesthetics of a sunset photo, because the colors and shades they paint in the sky are inherently pleasing to the eye. It's nearly impossible to take a bad picture of a good sunset. This particular one last fall in Fairbanks was so brilliantly orange and pink I couldn't help but snap away. It's been many weeks since the clouds have parted enough over St. Paul to allow for the pastels of evening light to break through, so while they might be a cheap means to a good composition, photos of sunsets at least remind me they existed once before and will inevitably continue to exist at some point in the future, so long as the sun continues to burn.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-100 f/22 @ 1/5 sec.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Steep Cliffs: Day 240

The base of High Bluffs on the west side of St. Paul, hundreds of feet of prime nesting cliffs, hosting the highest density of ledge-nesting seabirds anywhere on the island. Photos don't do it justice.

Canon EOS 60D, Bower 8mm Fisheye CS, ISO-200 f/? 1/50 sec.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Banding: Day 239

The three main monitoring objectives of the US Fish and Wildlife Service on St. Paul are productivity, survival, and population counts/estimates of kittiwakes, murres, and cormorants. Productivity monitoring, checking the status of followed nests every three days at various plots around the island, represents the bulk of the work. Survival monitoring comes in second, involving securing plastic field readable color bands on either chicks or adults, and resighting them in subsequent years when they return to breed. Yesterday, the red-faced cormorant chicks in this photo were outfitted with a shiny new engraved metal band on the right leg and a yellow plastic numeric field readable band on the left. In total we were able to reach five nests containing twelve chicks large enough to receive bands. We also took a few morphometric measurements (wing chord, tarsus length, and weight) and plucked some breast feathers for a PhD student working with stable isotopes. Hands on work is always a welcomed relief from passive monitoring, even when the birds regurgitate onto your pants and attempt to take out an eye. 

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-640 f/6.3 @ 1/250 sec. 

Not sure what's going on with the font...

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Herd: Day 238

I googled "white reindeer" to check how common they are, but apparently someone made a movie of the same name that's cluttering up the search results, and I don't have the internet capacity at the moment to sift through them. Maybe white's their winter coat? For now from this photo we can at least say they exist. I came upon this herd of about 200 animals on my way up to High Bluffs yesterday, and sneaked up on them in the fog. Reindeer hunting season on St. Paul kicked off a few weeks back, so the herds are less conspicuous and tend to graze in the interior of the island, away from roads and town.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/6.3 @ 1/2000 sec. 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Culvert Fox: Day 237

Greg came across this fox den in a drainage pipe along the main road out to Southwest Point the other day. When I drove by yesterday, mama fox was standing guard at the entrance protecting the pups inside.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-640 f/5.6 @ 1/400 sec. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Auklet Barfing: Day 236

Late last night we completed round two in a series of three least auklet diet collection sessions at a colony called Zapadni on the west side of the island.These birds nest in rock crevices within boulder beaches and scree slopes, hatching a single chick each year. Both parents take on the incubating, brooding, and feeding duties, switching out twice a day to forage at sea. As one would guess from their small stature, least auklet diet mainly consists of tiny prey items like euphausiids (krill), copepods, and larval fish. Parents return to the colony in mass generally at noon and midnight, with crops full of food for the awaiting chicks. Some prey items are better energetically than others, so it's important to monitor what these birds are eating and feeding their chicks to help better understand the overall health of the population. It's also a great way to sample what's available in the waters around St Paul. To do this we simply set up a mist net in the colony during peak attendance, wait for a bird to fly into the net, and collect the sample they inevitably barf onto the rocks. We have a target of ten barf samples per session.The three netting seasons are spread ten days apart to capture the early, middle, and late chick rearing phases.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-250 f/5.6 @ 1/800 sec.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Cliffs of Otter: Day 235

A view of the western face of Otter Island on a nice day. Spectacular stratified depositional layers create uniform lines of nesting seabirds, all standing in a row. We had hoped to do a complete count of red-faced cormorants on Otter a few days back while onboard the Tiglax, but strong winds and rough seas forced us to count only the lee. It's pouring rain out this morning, but if and when the weather improves, we hope to skiff back out to Otter and finish the job.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-320 f/5.6 @ 1/160 sec.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Tiglax Departs: Day 234

I was planing on writing a paragraph outlining specs and interesting facts about the R/V Tiglax, but our internet on St. Paul has been annoyingly cutting in and out every other minute for the past three days, and I'm pretty beat from a full day of helping load outgoing cargo onto the instead here's a LINK. The Tiglax departed St Paul this afternoon, bound for Dutch Harbor following a brief pit stop at St George. They're heading into a strong southerly with steep seas, so although the ship is awesome and the crew is great, I'm happy to be staying dockside this time.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Boat Day: Day 233

Spent the entire day surveying adjacent islands Walrus and Otter from Alaska Maritime's research vessel Tiglax. Great day. Too tired to elaborate.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-640 f/11 @ 1/400 sec.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Candy Corn: Day 232

I sneaked up on this crested auklet standing at the top of a bluff during a brief fair weather wndow a few days back. The candy-corn company ought to sue these birds for copyright infringement.

Canon EOS 60D,  Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-200 f/7.1 @ 1/500 sec.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Curious Fur: Day 231

Another product of the circumnavigation conducted the other day. Fur seals in the water would practically maul our little inflatable whenever we'd stop to count cormorants near a haul-out or rookery. The fur seal breeding season is now in full swing, the rocky coastline of St Paul in places has turned into a continuous carpet of fur. 

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f4/L USM + 1.4x, ISO-640 f/5.6 @ 1/2000 sec. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Do You Smell Citrus? Day 230

For some, more than sight, sound, or touch, smell triggers a very powerful emotional response. A freshly baked apple pie, an ocean breeze, the cigarette smoke from grandma’s house, smells play a vital role in cognition and memory of key experiences in our lives. The mammalian nose contains a patch of sensory receptors embedded in a mucous layer called the epithelium. Chemical odorants wafting about in the ambient air enter the nose, dissolve into the mucous layer of the epithelium, and bind to these sensory receptors. Like a lock and key mechanism, the shape of each individual receptor determines which odor molecule it will accept. For example, the chemical brew of an apple pie fits into certain group of receptors, while the recipe for grandma’s cigarette smoke fits into another. The human genome contains roughly 1,000 separate genes for encoding different odor receptors, although only about 40% of these genes are expressed. In other words, the human nose is capable of discerning about 400 different chemical odorants. Once bound to the appropriate receptor, combinations of odor molecules get encoded through a complicated chemical pathway, sent to the brain, and are finally interpreted by the brain as a specific smell. Yesterday, during a complete circumnavigation of the island by boat, we came upon this raft of crested auklets, and for the first time in the history of my nose, odorants from this group of birds made their way into my nasal passage, bound to specific receptors in my epithelium, got encoded and sent to my brain, and I experienced for the first time the tangerine smell of a crested auklet. It was awesome.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-640 f/9.0 @ 1/1600 sec.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Very Cross Crossbill: Day 229

White-winged crossbills have highly specialized beaks that enable them to pry open the cones of conifers and access the seeds within. Considering there's not a single tree on St. Paul Island, let alone a conifer, this particular bird is probably not doing so well. In fact I nearly ran it over in a dramatic break slide on the ATV trail coming down for High Bluffs the other day. It likely got blown off course from the mainland in strong easterly winds and became disoriented in thick fog over the Bering Sea. It is also possible that these birds are being displaced by the 300+ wildfires now raging across nearly five million acres of Alaskan forest.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, Two images: ISO-800 f/13 @ 1/400 sec & f/10 @ 1/1000 sec.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Difficult Conditions: Day 228

This is High Bluffs, one of the locations I try to visit every three to four days to conduct productivity monitoring of kittiwakes and murres. On the left is the ATV I road in on, and on the right is a stake marking the spot where I sit and view plots 54 and 55. At least, where I normally view plots 54 and 55. Being in a cloud is not terribly conducive for using a scope to watch birds from a distance.

Canon EOS 60D, Bower 8mm Fish-eye CS. ISO-100 f/16 @ 1/40 sec.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Please Stop Raining: Day 227

Remembering the good ol' days when the sea was blue and the sun used to come out. It's been grey and drizzly for close to two weeks now, and it's beginning to wear on me. This must be what it feels like to live in Seattle.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/500 sec.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Pacific Wren: Day 226

Once thought to be a monotypic species throughout the northern forests of Europe, Asia, and North America, based on genetics and variation in song patterns, the winter wren was split a few years back into three separate species. The east coast got to keep the original namesake, while western North American populations were changed to Pacific wren. These tiny energetic birds breed on St. Paul, and although inconspicuous by sight, their deafening calls, audible above the busy noise of seabird colonies, are difficult to miss. Click HERE for a video demonstrating the song of a winter wren.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM, ISO-640 f/5.6 @ 1/800 sec.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pelage: Day 225

The literal translation of the Latin word Pinniped is fin-footed, and represents a group of marine mammals most generally referred to as seals. Pinnipeds actually comprise three distinct families of animals; Odobenidae the walrus, Phocidae the earless or 'true' seals, and Otariidae the eared seals. Well known examples of Phocidae include behemoths like the elephant seal and the curious harbor seal. True seals lack the ability to rotate their hind flippers, and thus move around on land by undulating their bodies. Looking at this hairy specimen above, you can see two stubby ear flaps on either side of the head, which tells you this northern fur seal is a type of Otariidae. Members of the eared seal family do have the ability to walk on all four flippers, allowing them to climb up steep inclines while hauling out. Along with a generous layer of insulating fat, northern fur seals also contain a very dense fur coat of roughly 46 thousand hairs per centimeter squared. That dense pelage was the sole motivation by Russian fur traders for finding the Pribilof Islands, and is the reason St. Paul Island is inhabited today.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-640 f/5.6 @ 1/400 sec.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Red Phalarope: Day 224

Encountering this bird in the surf along the beach one might think it's just another shorebird. A sandpiper perhaps. In reality, however, these tiny birds spend the majority of their lives well out to sea, and like any other true seabird, only come to land to nest. Worldwide there are three living species of phalaropes, of which all breed in the high arctic; Wilson's, red-necked, and red (pictured here). Defying gender norms, female phalaropes are larger and more brightly colored, and leave the incubating and chick rearing duties to the smaller drabber male. Females lay up to four eggs in miniature nest cups woven into the tundra during the brief arctic summer, before migrating south again to forage in the tropics far offshore. Males eventually follow suit once the chicks have fledged. Phalaropes are a common winter occurrence off the west coast of North America, who's arrival signals a change in the seasons.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon Ef 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-200 f/6.3 @ 1/500 sec.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ichneumon Wasp: Day 223

Lush green vegetation now dominates the rolling hills of St Paul, with stalks and leaves reaching knee high heights along the trails. Some plants, like the lupin and grasses, have already gone to seed, while others are still advertising colorful pedals to pollinators. By pollinators, of course, I mean insects. Most days the hoards of insects seek refuge within the vegetation, to avoid getting blown out to sea, but when the wind is down and the sun comes out,  those insects make themselves known. This particular specimen I found yesterday is a species of Ichneumon Wasp, characterized by a long thin stripped abdomen (that happens to be tucked away and concealed by a wing in this photo). Easily mistaken for a stinger, female Ichneumon Wasps have a long needle-like extension on the end of the abdomen called an ovipositor. As one might guess from the name, females use the ovipositor as a syringe for injecting eggs into trees and logs, fortunately for me not living tissue.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM + Canon EF 25mm Extension Tube II, ISO-800 f/9 @ 1/100 sec.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Auklet Trio: Day 222

A small social group of crested auklets on the rocks of Zapadni.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-800 f/5.6 @ 1/640 sec.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Internet Returns: Day 221

I doubt this juvenile red-faced cormorant even noticed the internet was down for 48 hours. Actually, I doubt this particular cormorant notices much of anything. It doesn't look like there's a whole lot going on behind that eye.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/7.1 @ 1/1000 sec.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Parade: Day 220

No internet on St. Paul today for some reason (too much patriotism yesterday, must've shorted out the wifi), so I'm posting this picture on Mike's behalf.

- Casey

Canon 60D, some settings or something, ISO, aperture maybe? Shutter speed?

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy 4th: Day 219

The red face mask, white bill, and blue gular pouch makes the red-faced cormorant the most patriotic bird on St Paul. I like to imagine, in this photo, the puffed up bird looking left is belting out the national anthem. The two birds in the foreground are gazing up to the American flag with wings clutched over their hearts, while white symbols of our freedom explode in the background. What can I say, I spend all day staring at these things.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-400 f/5.6 @ 1/1000 sec.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Killer Whale: Day 218

Killer whales are one of the most geographically widespread species in the world, occurring in all oceans and all latitudes. Through observational work it has been widely accepted that three distinct ecotypes exist: "resident", "offshore", and "transient", based on distribution, behavior, morphology, and diet. There are some weird things going on with Antarctic killer whales, but we won't go into that here. Recent evidence of both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA suggests that these three ecotypes are in fact genetically distinct. For each ecotype, based of photographic identification of individuals, animals are bound within discrete sub-populations or "stocks". In Alaska, transient killer whales, the type that hunt marine mammals, appear to be segregated into two slightly overlapping ranges, the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands/Bering Sea. Again using photographic identification and line transect estimates, roughly 450 individuals occur within in Aleutian Island/Bering Sea stock. Over the past month on St Paul, we have spotted small pods of transient killer whales on six separate occasions. Yesterday this pod of five, consisting of one male, three female types, and a calf, approached close enough to shore to snap a few decent photographs from the cliffs. With half a million fur seals arriving for the breeding season, it's not surprising these killer whales are lingering offshore.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-800 f/5.6 @ 1/5000 sec.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Auk Cloud: Day 217

Least auklets on St Paul should be in the process of hatching chicks by now. They generally lay eggs in the first weeks of June, with an incubation period of roughly one month. Although we don't directly monitor the productivity of least auklets on this island, we will be collecting a handful of diet samples from parent birds returning to their chicks towards the end of July.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM + 1.4x, ISO-500 f/5.6 @ 1/4000 sec.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Murre Egg: Day 216

Murres take extreme ledge-nesting to a whole new level. Unlike kittiwakes and cormorants, which build well defined nest bowls for their eggs from mud and vegetation, murres simply lay a single egg directly on bare rock, often on narrow exposed ledges that can be hundreds of feet above the water below. Most of the time one of the two parents keep the egg securely tucked away below the breast feathers, cradled in place by their feet. Parents have to switch incubating shifts, they fight with neighboring birds, and are sometimes flushed from their nest sites by predators. When these disturbance events happen, most eggs would simply roll off the edge of the cliff, but murre eggs are unique. They have an exaggerated teardrop shape, with one end pointier than the other, that causes the egg to roll in a circle. If the egg is left along, it generally stays in place. Unless of course the parents decided to lay on a slope...which happens. Then they fail.

Canon EOS 60D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO-400 f/4 @ 1/1600 sec.