Thursday, May 21, 2015

Exit Glacier--Alaska Day Seven

 Alaska 2014 continued:

As had most of our Alaska tour since leaving Nome, Thursday June 5th dawned bright and clear. We gobbled down breakfast and climbed in the van for a trip to Exit Glacier, whose terminus is fairly close to Seward.

Visitor's Center at Exit Glacier. 

Exit Glacier is part of the Harding Icefield, and comes down off the mountains to the north. Its outwash plain feeds Exit Creek, which drains into Bear Creek, and on to Resurrection Bay. This is the only part of Kenai that is accessible by car, and there are two trails--one leading the glacier itself, and another leading up to the Harding Icefield.

Map of the Seward/Exit Glacier area.

While we were looking for birds here (the Grey-cheeked Thrush comes to mind) I was much more interested in the scenery, which was as usual spectacular. It seems you can't be anywhere in the southern two-thirds of Alaska without having snow-capped mountains within view.

As with most glaciers these days, Exit is in retreat. There were signs everywhere--made-made as well as those left by the glacier itself--that showed its past. Rock scoured and scored by the glacier's push were visible throughout the area.

Glacier-scoured rock.

As the glacier retreats, plants slowly fill in the bare areas left behind. You can read about plant succession here, but in a nutshell, as the glacier retreats the first plants to move in are mosses and lichens, followed by herbaceous plants. These help anchor the thin soils while adding humus. Next shrubs appear, once there is enough soil to support them, and then trees will become established, usually fast growing, short-lived species first, followed by longer-lived species. In the photo below you can see areas of bare rock nearest the glacier, where plants have yet to get established, followed by low vegetation and then shrubs.

Exit Glacier from a distance. Note the bare rock still surrounding the glacier.

Several things served as a stark reminder of the glacier's retreat. One was this sign, which marked the glacier's terminus just 20 years ago.

No glacier here!

The other is this sign, which is also a PDF currently downloadable from the National Park Service. It shows the glacier's tip reaching the outwash plain, but now the tip of the glacier barely reaches the end of the trail (see where it says "Edge of the Glacier" middle left). It has also shrunk considerably side to side.

The glacier now only reaches to where this graphic says "Edge of the Glacier"

We hiked up the trail to the edge of Exit Glacier, and there it was, looking somehow forlorn. There was a tremendous amount of melting going on, creating some whitewater in the streams leading to the plain.

The terminus of Exit Glacier.

I hung back from the group, as I often do, looking a little closer at the landscape. I like this image for scale. The end of the trail brings you within about 50 feet of the edge of the glacier.

Birding at the glacier's edge.

Finally I made my way to the end of the trail.

Exit Glacier up close. It was not that long ago that it filled this entire valley.

Once again, I was gobsmacked.

Terminus to outwash plain to Exit Creek.

Next: We drive from Seward to Wasilla, with a few stops along the way.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Birds of Resurrection Bay--Alaska Day Six

Alaska 2014 continued:

It is not lost on me that my trip to Alaska was a year ago already, and I'm only halfway through blogging about it. So many other things are going on, so many other places to write about, but I just can't keep up! I will be gone for several weeks in June, doing shows in the Midwest, so let's see if I can get through a few more posts before then.

Our tour of Resurrection Bay and the Northwestern Glacier was without a doubt one of the highlights of our trip. It was, however, much better for mammal watching than for bird watching, although we did see some spectacular birds. I'm saying this mostly from a photographer's standpoint--it was difficult to get good pics from such a large boat. The tour of Kachemak Bay from Homer was much more intimate and we got better looks at the birds, but I would not suggest skipping the Kenai Fjords tour if you're reason for being in Alaska is to bird. It was just too spectacular to miss.

In all I counted 32 species on Wednesday, including the ten we saw on our early morning walk in Seward (asterisk denotes new species):

Wilson's Snipe
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Chestnut-backed Chickadee*
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
American Robin
Yellow Warbler
Fox Sparrow
Song Sparrow

On the boat tour I added sixteen species, four of which were new:

Parakeet Auklet*

Parakeet Auklet, one of several Alcids we saw on Resurrection Bay. Birds in the Alcidae family spend their lives out on the open water, coming ashore only to nest.

Harlequin Duck
Double-crested Cormorant
Pelagic Cormorant
Bald Eagle
Kittlitz's Murrelet*

Kittlitz's Murrelet. It has adapted to the cloudy waters of glacial run-off, able to feed where many others cannot. They nest above the tree line on south-facing slopes on inland mountains, and have not been studied much.

Glaucous-winged Gull
Pigeon Guillemot
Marbled Murrelet
Rhinoceros Auklet*

Rhinoceros Auklet. This bird is a close relative of the puffins.

Tuffted Puffin
Horned Puffin

Horned Puffin on takeoff. This is how we saw most of the birds--they were usually seen either from behind, swimming away from the boat, or taking to the air.

Ancient Murrelet*
Common Murre

Common Murre. We got good looks at this bird at Gull Island in Kachemak Bay, but they are worth another look. 


A flock of Brandt fly by our boat.

Rock Dove
Northwestern Crow
Black-legged Kittiwake

We'd seen lots of Kittiwake on Gull Island as well, but I love this shot of a nesting
pair having a conversation.

Once we were back on solid ground and had eaten dinner, we visited Ava's Place, a private residence outside of town. This woman has a whole bunch of feeders that bring in a whole bunch of birds. We had stopped by the previous evening looking for the Rufus Hummingbird with no luck, so we returned Wednesday, and this time got lucky.

Varied Thrush
Pine Siskin
Downy Woodpecker
Rufus Hummingbird*

Not the best photo of a Rufus Hummingbird the world has ever seen, as I was shooting out the van window, but I'll take what I can get!

Next: We visit Exit Glacier before heading up to Anchorage and Westchester Lagoon.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Steller Sea Lions

 Alaska 2014 continued:

As we chugged along the edge of the Gulf of Alaska and the shore of Kenai Fjords National Park, the boat's captain pointed out various goings on around us. Our first sighting of Steller sea lions came on our starboard side, with a large group of them frolicking in the water. Brown shiny heads bobbed up and down--where they watching us as we watched them?

Steller sea lions near Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Much like the harbor seals we'd seen earlier, I was amazed that these lumbering animals with flippers for legs could climb so far out of the water and up the faces of these cliffs.

Basking in the warm mid-summer sun.

They are a vocal animal, often bickering over resting places. It was rare to pass a group and not see some sort of disagreement going on.

Get off my rock!

According to NOAA and Wikipedia, Steller sea lions are the largest of the eared seals, and smaller only than walrus and elephant seals. Males can be huge, 10-11 feet long and up to 2,500 pounds. The males also grow a thick mane, and so are easily distinguishable from females, who only reach 550 to 770 pounds.

Bull and cow Steller sea lions bickering.

Sea lion pups are born on a rookery, where many females will haul out to give birth. Pups are around 50 pounds at birth. These rookeries are defended by a male, who presumably has mated with the females in the colony.

Steller sea lion rookery. Note the reddish tinge of the blood-stained rocks from the afterbirth.

Sea lion moms identify their pups through smell and sound. The pups retain their dark brown coats for several months before molting into a lighter brown coat.

Oh, and did I mention they like to bicker?

This one's staying above the fray--for now.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Harbor Seals and the Northwestern Glacier

 Alaska 2014 continued

After spending much of the winter in Florida I am back and ready to write more about my Alaska trip last June! My shows in February were so-so, covered my costs and that was about it. I ended up back in Florida at the beginning of March to do some work on my grandma's house, a job that turned out to be several times bigger than we had anticipated, and I didn't get back to Michigan until March 13th. It was good timing though as the snow had begun to melt, and the Red-winged Blackbirds arrived the same day we did.

So back to Alaska. On Wednesday, June 4th, our sixth day in Alaska, we spent the entire day taking a tour of Resurrection Bay and the Northwestern Glacier.  Along the way we'd seen humpback whales, sea otters, orcas, and many birds (which I'll get to in another post). The marine life here was just amazing. It was hard to look around and not see something.

Map of Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park

One of the surprises for me was all the harbor seals we saw. I didn't have any idea where these animals lived, but I guess I didn't think it was here. We came across several groups lounging on the rocks near the Chiswell Islands, mostly adults and older pups.

Harbor seals warming themselves on the rocks along the Gulf of Alaska

Furry balls of blubber, they seemed to either look sad or extremely content. I can't imagine, lacking the ability to walk, how they manage to get that far up the rocks.

As we made our way up Nuka Bay and into the Northwestern Fjord towards the Northwestern Glacier, we began to see chunks of ice floating on the water. Eventually they became numerous enough to form a mat, and there, resting in the sun, were a multitude of seals with their pups.

Harbor seals rest on an ice floe from the calving of the Northwestern Glacier.

They watched us closely as we drifted towards the glacier.

Several moms with younger pups floated on smaller chunks away from the main floe. This female slipped off the ice as we approached. She came back to her pup, either to reassure or to coax it off the ice, which it eventually did. I kinda felt bad that we were clearly disturbing these animals with our presence.

This pair also watched us closely, but stayed on their little iceberg.

The glacier itself was stunning, but what was more amazing was how far it had retreated--nearly ten miles in the past century. It now only barely reached the water at the end of the Northwestern Fjord.

Northwestern Glacier

We lingered for a while, hoping for calving. The sounds of melt water mingled with the crack and boom of the glacier as it moved imperceptibly towards the fjord.

Ragged peaks above the fjord jutted from the glacier like giant teeth.

A part of the glacier that still reached the water showed the high tide line, and how the glacier is eroded from below.

While we didn't see any big calvings, we did see--and hear!--a few smaller ones. It is impossible to describe the sound this made, especially as it bounced around the rocks at the end of the fjord.

Ice and water tumble down the face of the Northwestern Glacier.

While we understand the impact of melting and retreating glaciers on sea level, what I hadn't considered are the animals that rely on the glaciers for their well being. For instance, the harbor seals clearly use the ice floes as resting places, even giving birth there. What happens when the glaciers retreat beyond the shoreline, and no long calve chunks of ice into the water? The seals will be forced onto land, where they will be at risk of predation by land mammals.

The image below came from and shows how the glacier has retreated from the mouth of Northwestern Fjord--it isn't even visible in the top photo. Pretty sobering stuff.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Artwork--A Whole Bunch of Stuff for Florida

I was really hoping to get one more Alaska post in before I had to leave for Florida, but it's not gonna happen. I've been busting my tail for two weeks getting ready for two shows there: Mount Dora February 7th and 8th, and Sanibel Island February 14th and 15th. I've never done two shows back to back without coming home in between, so there has been a lot to do before I leave, which is already a day later than I wanted to.

I have a whole bunch of new artwork that needed scanning, matting, and framing. Then I made prints of all the new stuff (I do all my reproductions in-house) and it all needed matting. Also, I haven't done a show in four months, so I needed to restock older inventory--more matting and framing. Then there's prepping the camper, loading the van, packing clothes, paying bills, shoveling snow.... You get the idea. There's just been no time for blogging!

I decided to post the new work since it's quick to do. All of this new work can be seen--and ordered!--on my website following the link to the right of this post. These pieces were all done to target the Florida audience, although some of the birds are found in other places. They were all photographed in Florida, with the exception of the mockingbird, which was photographed in Piedmont Park in Atlanta last fall. However, it is Florida's state bird, so I figured it was a good one to have.

I'll get back to the Alaska posts by March.

"High Stepper" (American Bittern) 12x15.5, framed to 16x20, $990.00
Reproductions available

"The Bluest Eye" (Brown Pelican) 7x12, framed to 11x16, $575.00
Reproductions available

"Pokin' Around" (Northern Mockingbird) 12x8, framed to 16x12, $600.00
Reproductions available

"Scrubby" (Florida Scrub Jay) 8x10, framed to 11x14, $495
Reproductions available

"Thornless" (Roseate Spoonbill) 14x20, framed to 18x24, $1,400.00
Reproductions available

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Orcas in the Gulf of Alaska

 Alaska 2014

Day six of our Alaska birding tour was another beauty. Calm winds and blue skies streaked with high white clouds provided the backdrop for snow-capped peaks and rugged granite cliffs covered with spruce. Much like the hike from Rock Harbor to Scoville Point on Isle Royale, everywhere I looked was a breathtaking scene.

Tiny islands dotted the shoreline along the edge of Kenai Fjords National Park.

As we moved down Resurrection Bay towards the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, the Harding Icefield became visible.

Many of the regions glaciers no longer make it to the bay, but Bear Glacier is hanging on. Glacial melt in this part of the world is outpacing that of many other areas. You can read about the Harding Icefield at the National Park Service's site.

Bear Glacier and the Harding Icefield

Here's a map of the area showing the location of Bear Glacier, along with the Harding Icefield.

As we approached the mouth of Resurrection Bay, a commotion began off the starboard side. I hurried to the railing as the captain announced...

...that there was a pod of Orcas moving toward us!

Killer whales!

I could not believe our luck! This was a resident pod, meaning they were a family unit that pretty much stayed in the area. They differ from transient pods in a number of ways, including physical attributes such as rounded vs. pointed dorsal fins, as well as a difference in diets. Transients tend to eat marine mammals, while resident pods eat mostly fish. The two types do not intermingle, and on those occasions when they are in the same area they avoid each other.

Killer whales, or orcas, are not whales at all, but members of the dolphin family.

They were clearly a mother and calf. They swam quite close to the boat but I missed them. Someone told me others could be seen from another vantage point, so I ran off, only to have this pair come within 10 feet of where I'd been standing at the rail. By the time I got back I could see them by the boat, but could not get anywhere near the railing due to the crush of people. The boat was actually listing to starboard at this point. So I stood on a bench and watched them swim away.

Orcas in these resident pods are identifiable by the markings on their backs behind their dorsal fins. While I haven't tried to figure out which pod this was, I did find a website that lists each pod in the southern Alaska region, and has an entire photo identification catalog that can be downloaded.

Later that afternoon, on our return trip, we came across the pod again, still busily feeding near the Chiswell Islands. The afternoon sun backlit the mist from their exhalations.

I could have spent all day watching these amazing creatures. But there was a lot to see this day...

...including our next marine mammal, seen here swimming just below the surface.

Harbor seals swim just below the surface--bottom left. I did not see them when I took this photo.

Next: Harbor seals!