Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Out With the Old

A lot has changed in my life this year, and with change comes the chance for new beginnings. This blog has served me well over the years for keeping friends and family updated on current events, but I think's it's time to try something new. I've developed a professional website to showcases current research interests, photography, a store to purchase prints, and a "notes" section that will likely take the place of this blog. I may revive whalemike in the future, but for now, you can follow my new site at Thanks for checking in!

Thursday, April 14, 2016


The insulated winter boots have been put away, time to break in the xtratufs. Ephemeral ponds have formed across Creamer's Field, a temporary wetland caused from snowmelt in town, perfect for introducing Noosa to the liquid state of H2O. She's still a bit apprehensive about getting her paws wet, but her dad's are ocean people, so she better get used to it. She's also learning that peeing in grass works too. No need to frantically search for lingering snow patches.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Final Show

A daily six minute gain in sunlight means night time here in the far north is rapidly sinking southward as the months progress into summer. With the departure of darkness comes the fading of the northern lights. Yes, auroras happen all year-round, but they of course are not visible when the sun is out. Last night, I stayed up past civil twilight to wish the aurora a fond farewell. Earth has just received a glancing blow by a coronal mass ejection (CME) from an unstable region of the Sun, igniting what was likely the final solar storm of the 2015-16 auroral season for the Northern Hemisphere. The northern lights will soon be overwhelmed by the midnight sun, until darkness once again returns in August. Now it's the Southern Hemisphere's turn to experience the green lights.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Strange Year

Although temperatures reach into the 50's on some days now, nightly lows below freezing means the snow continues to fall. This melt re-freezing pattern should persist for another few weeks, until eventually muddy pools of standing water will become the new normal. One thing that hasn't been normal this spring is the bird sightings. Last year, we would see swarms of redpolls invading the birch canopy or our yard, along with many chickadees. This year, I've seen maybe a dozen redpolls. Sadly, the owl box has so far also been a disappointment. We've seen signs of sporadic occupancy over the past month, but with no male calling during the nights and no female taking up residence yet, I'm afraid this season might be a bust for the boreal owls. Perhaps the pair that bred in our box last year found a more natural home this season, potentially carved out by the hairy woodpecker pictured above. The laying window for boreal owls is still open, but will soon close by early May. Time will tell.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Owl Updates: March 2016

Boreal owls (Aegolius funereus), are small nocturnal predators common to the boreal forests of the far north. Beginning in late January, male owls locate suitable nesting cavities in trees carved out by woodpeckers, and begin calling to defend their territory and to attract a potential mate. Their winnowing calls are a familiar sound during the long winter nights in Fairbanks. If a female is satisfied with a males performance, she will settle into the nesting site some time in March; laying a clutch of around 8 eggs shortly after. 

In response to a high volume of boreal owl calls in our yard last year, we decided to install a nest box in a spruce near our house. While we did see a pair of owls using the box, we had no idea how successful their breeding attempt was. This season, we've upgraded the box to include a spy-cam with infrared LED lights to monitor nesting activity throughout the season. The audio/video feed is routed to the TV in our living room. The following is a summary of our observations, which I will update as the story develops. 
Observations as of March 30th
2/28 - Male observed calling from box entrance for the first time this season (see previous post). 
3/1 - Male seen calling for roughly 20 min, followed by the sudden appearance of a presumed female. Male jumped into the box and gave out a steady low winnowing call. The female then entered the box and the male exited. The female remained for a few minutes, scratching around at the floor of the box while giving out a series of quick high-pitched calls. She then looked up at the camera and left. 

3/4 - Red squirrel rooting around inside the box on two occasions around 10pm, no sign of owls. 
3/6 - No activity within the box or calling from the male. The last two nights have been quite. 
3/9 - Reconfiguration of leaves and sticks within the box, along with the appearance of a mysterious blueberry-sized black orb, indicates more unknown activity when we're not watching. Could be a another squirrel, but after a long stretch of quiet nights with no calls heard from the male, we're hoping the pair is still interested in the box. 
3/13 - Whether or not a good idea, Casey and I brought home a massive puppy who we've named "Noosa", after my favorite surfing spot in Australia. She's a mix of five different large breeds, and yes, I've had several panic attacks. Mostly because having a new pup in the house reminds me of when Reef was little. I mention all of this because last night we found an owl sitting in the box when we flipped on the owl cam, which jumped up onto the entrance hole when I let Noosa outside to pee. 
3/30 - After a prolonged period of no activity following the initial sighting of Owl-berta on March 1st, I'm beginning to wonder if the pair has decided to abandon breeding this year. We haven't heard as much calling from the male this winter, and we've passed the time when the female settled in last season. I'll give it a few more weeks before I lose all hope, but it's not looking good. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Owl-fred Returns

Last winter Casey and I discovered we had a lot of boreal owl activity in the woods around our house, prompting me to secure a taylor made nest box halfway up a spruce tree within viewing distance of our living room window. Several days after installment I climbed up the tree to have a peak inside and found evidence of use, and by March we had confirmed sightings of a boreal owl pair nesting in the box. The pair became known as Owlfred and Owlberta. While Owlberta was often seen poking her head out the entrance hole, and Owlfred was spotted on a few occasions making food deliveries at dusk, we had no idea what was actually going on inside the box. We never confirmed whether the pair managed to fledge any chicks last season, or if they even had any eggs in the first place.

To address this issue, we decided to give the nest box an upgrade this season, and fixed an infrared spy-cam to the ceiling of the box. I routed the 100 feet of audio and video cable through a window in our living room up to the television, and made a custom "Owl Switch" with a red light to indicate when the cam is on or off. This gives us 24 hour access to what's happening inside the box, and for the past month it's been a whole lot of nothing. We've watched the configuration of leaves and sticks in the box shuffle around, adding to the assumption that something had been rustling around in there, but for what has felt like a very long time we've seen nothing. That all changed last night.

Casey flipped on the Owl Switch during a midnight pee run and sure enough, Owlfred had returned. The tips of his primaries and tail obscured half of the box, and he was calling. This meant that Owlfred was perched at the entrance facing out, broadcasting to potential mates that he had found a nice place to raise some chicks. To hear his calls, check out the brief video below.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Peak Aurora Season

I drove across to my favorite local clearing last night to photograph a brilliant although brief burst of northern lights early in the night. The days are finally getting longer again up here, we're gaining about seven minutes of light with each passing day, but there's still plenty of darkness around to catch these solar events.


Friday, February 5, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Reef

For me, writing can be a useful exercise in letting go. I thought it only fitting to say a few words about the late Reefer dog. You might want to grab some tissues. 

As most of you likely know by now, the beginning of 2016 marked the end of the greatest dog I've ever known. Reef was a constant source of support, companionship, and love throughout the majority of my twenties. Reef was my dog, raised as a puppy during my final years of college in Monterey. He used to sprawl out on the bench seat of my 1970 El Camino on drives to work, the beach, the store, friends houses, and pubs; he went everywhere I went. While about on the town, people always used to look at his massive puppy paws and tell me "he's gonna be a biiiiig dog!", and they were right. He was a giant. As he grew older he became a dog I had complete trust in. I've spent the last 9 years making sure that dog lived a good a life. His presence motivated me to get out and explore, if only just for a walk around the block. Now that he's gone, I'm left with an empty feeling only time can heal. Turning 30 to me is just a number, but in a way, Reef's death marks the end of my twenties. 

In case you were wondering what exactly happened, here it is. While on the surface Reef appeared healthy, inside was apparently a different story. When Casey and I got home from holiday travels, we noticed that Reef wasn’t finishing his meals. He normally inhaled his food in seconds, so we knew something was up. While cuddling him on the floor, Casey noticed Reef's heart would beat extremely fast for a few minutes, slow a bit, then start beating fast again. We were worried he was showing early signs of congestive heart failure, so we took him to the vet the next morning. The vet agreed his heart was beating alarmingly fast, so we took chest x-rays and ran an EKG. His heart, although huge in size, looked perfectly normal. In fact the vet complemented him on how "beautiful" it was. Clinically, we were told, he wasn’t sick. He still seemed like the same old happy Reef. Of course, all of the vet techs loved him. He was always very popular at the vet’s office.

There was no way for us to know that Reef had a very small tumor growing on one of his adrenal glands. As we all know to well with cancer, it sometimes doesn't make itself apparent until it's too late. This tumor began putting pressure on his adrenal gland, forcing it to pump an excess amount of epinephrine into his blood stream. Essentially he was receiving intermittent heavy doses of adrenaline, causing his heart to race over 220 beats per minute. More than double the resting heart rate for a dog his size. Over the course of a few days, Reef went from not finishing his food, to completing refusing to eat. He began taking very shallow breaths, almost like he was panting, and his heart continued to race occasionally. We tried putting him on beta blockers to control his heart rate, but he did not respond well to them. He became very lethargic, barely able to walk. 

Based on his symptoms, the vet suspected he had this tumor, a condition known as Pheochromocytoma, and we were waiting on results from a urine analysis for confirmation. We were of course worried about Reef, the vet cautioned this condition could put a deadly strain on Reef’s heart, but we figured we had months, years even, not days. In retrospect, I was in complete denial about the whole thing, and didn’t allow myself to believe Reef was in danger. Before the test results had come in, and before we had any answers, on the morning on January 2nd, Reef took a turn for the worse. He didn’t seem well all morning, he was panting again, and he hadn’t eaten in days. Casey had gone off to school, and I was downstairs in the bathroom when I heard a suitable whimper from Reef, followed by a few quick choking sounds. I ran upstairs and found Reef outstretched on his bed. I put my hands on this abdomen, his entire body was violently quivering, and at that moment everything went still. I felt his final breath drain out as his heart suddenly went quiet. I didn’t know what to do, there was nothing I could do. He was gone. Just like that. Reef slipped away. 

The vet agreed to perform a necropsy on Reef to determine the cause of death. Taking him in, wrapped in his favorite blanket my Mom had made him, was not easy; despite the fact he was such a heavy dog. A few days later the vet had answers for us. The rapid beating of Reef’s heart made it inefficient at moving blood past his lungs and throughout his body. This explains the panting. He was effectively trying to catch his breath during the doses of adrenaline.  Over the course of several days, this poor circulation caused a build up of CO2 in his blood stream, lowering the pH and making his blood more acidic. His heart and other organs were likely healthy enough to keep up with this pattern for a while, but another complication developed.

Cytokines are a diverse group of proteins released into the bloodstream that do a variety of jobs related to cell signaling and immune response, including coagulation and clotting involved with repairing wounds. When the blood pH drops, certain anti-coagulation pathways become disrupted, causing an unregulated coagulation response by these cytokines. Essentially the blood becomes very sticky.  Ironically, although the sole purpose of the heart it to oxygenate the body, in dogs, only a few small arteries actually feed oxygenated blood to the heart. In the end, Reef threw a clot that plugged one of these arteries, causing some of the heart muscle to lose function. A massive hemorrhage developed as blood began to back up, and his heart eventually failed. The vet also discovered severe hemorrhaging in his liver, which likely developed shortly before his heart stopped.  

All that’s left of Reef now are his ashes, a paw print, a sample of fur, and countless memories. Casey and I plan to scatter his ashes in Big Sur next year. If there’s one thing Reef’s death has taught us, it’s that life is short and death is certain. Death comes unexpectedly, often without warning. We never got a chance to meet old man Reef, never got a chance to say goodbye. He died too young. I’ve put together a small memorial for Reefer, which sits next to his favorite chair in our house. It includes a picture of him at the beach, his collar and name tag, and the following passage:

Reef was born in the rugged hills of Big Sur California. Legend has it his he was part lab, part polar bear. His handsome black coat contrasted smartly with his white chest, chin, paws, and tip of tail, drawing attention wherever he went. Raised in a college home, he was a dog of the people. A familiar figure at parties, beach fires, surf sessions, and backpacking trips with friends. 

With a calm demeanor and quick wit, Reef was always a joy to be around. He learned both voice and hand commands of all the popular tricks, and even invented one of his own, which we named “the cuddle fall”. Reef was polite enough to shut the door after doing his business outside, and was a master at killing boxes. He really loved destroying boxes.

Although he had a playful side, Reef also knew the value of hard work. He spent his early years assisting with deck duties on whale watching trips in Monterey Bay. He was especially skilled at line handling and comforting nervous passengers. Equally important to Reef was his love for travel and adventure. He visited all of the West Coast states along with Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, on numerous road trips throughout his life. His final journey took him through Canada on his way north to the last frontier. Reef lived out his final years in Alaska, a fitting landscape for such an immense personality. 

Reef was a big dog with a big heart, loved by all lucky enough to meet him. Ultimately his big heart failed shortly after his ninth birthday, due to complications with a tumor on his adrenal gland. He remained young in mind and body until the very end. Though his sudden absence left a massive hole in our lives, his memory will forever echo throughout the halls of our hearts and minds. So long our beloved Reef. The best dog that ever lived