Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mr. Pickles Goes Missing

Blog writing always grinds to a halt for me over the summer, as I am running around with my hair on fire doing shows and trying to keep up with things on the home front. This year has been worse than past years, as I've done a number of out of state shows, back to back (to back), got wrapped up early in the year with some drama with my grandmother in Florida, and now, with the disappearance of our beloved beagle, Mr. Pickles.

The last weekend in July saw all three of us were out of town--Lori had a show up in Marquette, Lisa and I were headed to Ely, Minnesota. We made arrangements for Mr. P. to stay at my aunt's, as he has done many times in the past. He's a shy and somewhat fearful pup but he loves Terry, and she has the right personality to deal with his quirky-ness. But this time she was to be out of town over night one of the nights, and my uncle who lives nearby was to stay the night and watch Mr. P. and her dog Spirit.

Mr. P. and Louie, looking out the window.

Mid-afternoon Saturday, July 25 I got a call from Terry to say that Mr. P. had escaped from the house when Mike went to take the dogs out. Oh my heart just sank. I knew there was no way that crazy dog was going to come to Mike. And he didn't. Terry and her husband Joe drove all the way back from Chicago that night, getting in around midnight, to be there in the morning to help look for Mr. P. The problem is they had no way of knowing that by Sunday morning he was already five miles away.

Canoeing last summer

We were sick with worry, and left Ely Sunday as soon as we'd packed up the show--which we did in record time. We drove all night, stopping for just a few hours to try to get some sleep, which did not come easy despite our exhaustion. We arrived in Grand Blanc around noon Monday and joined the search. We determined that he had last been seen behind a church on Green Road near M-15 sometime Sunday afternoon, July 26, and that still stands as the last time anyone has seen him.

Oh sweet face!

Mr. Pickles clearly hasn't had it easy in life. He's afraid of most things, including loud noises, children, strangers, things thrown at him, strangers....  It is very hard to catch a dog who is afraid of everything. When we got him from the rescue he was filthy, had a yeast infection in his ears, rotting teeth, and has cataracts. He spent three days running around our house, terrified, until he finally decided I was his person, and he has been my constant companion ever since. The thing is, though, that he panics any time he can't find me. If he's asleep and I leave the room, and he wakes up, he will run around the house, frantic, trying to find me. He gets so frantic that he will run right by me, and I have to holler at him before he sees me.

Snoozing on the stairs.

We have done everything we can think of to get him back. Visited shelters. Gone door to door. Put up signs and posters and handed out fliers. Police, post office, delivery people. Started a Facebook page,, which already has over 500 likes and has reached a staggering 35,000 people. Put together a group of 12 people who drove the area August 1st, talking to folks and passing out info. We've driven backroads and scoured barns and farms and he is just nowhere. We are really afraid that something happened to him Sunday evening or night, that he died of heat stroke or had a heart attack or got hit by a car and crawled off into a cornfield to die.

But maybe he collapsed for a while behind the church, then left in the dark of night, still searching for me and our home, which of course is nowhere near where he got lost. At this point we have no idea where he is, and the haystack has gotten so big that we have had to give up actively searching for him, and instead hope and prey that he gives up and let's someone find him. We so desperately want him home.

Selfie with beagle, last fall at Hartwick Pines State Park

So we continue to search, to check shelters and take calls and hope and pray, and send good thoughts out to the doggie gods that he is safe and will come back home some day.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Dall Sheep, Denali National Park, Alaska

Alaska 2014 continued:

As we bounced along the road on a Denali National Park shuttle bus, we were on the lookout for wildlife. The bus was not overly crowed, which was really nice because I could move from one side to the other depending on where the critters were. One of the first things we saw was a small herd of Dall sheep on a hillside very near the road. Our driver stopped and we lingered for a while, watching the goings on.

It was June so there were, of course, babies.

Young Dall sheep..

They were a little rough looking, in the process of shedding their winter coats. I didn't mind--I'd never seen a Dall sheep and I was thrilled to get such close looks!

I initially thought this was a young male, but that didn't make sense after reading that the males hang out in groups with other males, and are only with the females at mating season. My assumption then is that this is a lactating female.

Scratching an itch.

The little ones are awfully cute!

Both sexes of Dall sheep have horns, though it's only the male's that curl around. It takes about seven years for the horns to fully curl, at which time the rams begin to compete with each other for mating rights.

As we drove along the road we came across a pair of rams as they moved down the slope to a shrub right next to us.

I had to switch lenses we were so close. It was hard not to squeal with delight.

A pair of rams munching on a shrub.

Evidently this is the only population of Dall sheep that is not hunted, and that still lives with large predators, so biologists study them pretty extensively. I also read that the park was established, back in 1917, to protect them from hunting, but I haven't been able to verify that.

Unlike antlers, which are shed each year, horns are permanent, and grow throughout the life of the ram. Ewe's horns stop growing after a couple years, and do not curl like the ram's.

This magnificent fellow paused on the hillside for several great shots. I expect he will be a new art piece somewhere down the road.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Denali and Mt. McKinley, Alaska

 Alaska 2014 continued:


What can I possibly say about Denali? Words are not enough. While I was only there for a day, and viewed it primarily from a bus, it has left such an impression on me. The whole state did, really, but this place....  The National Park is two million acres. Two MILLION. Add to that the four million acre refuge surrounding it and you have a whopping SIX MILLION ACRES of protected land. This is about the size of the state of New Hampshire.

We arrived at the park early and boarded a bus that would take us to the Eielson Visitor Center and back, a round trip of 132 miles. The shuttle bus service is pretty much the only way to enter the park past the Savage River--private vehicles are not allowed, and you have to take a bus, bike or hike past that point. The park has a short season--May to September--and over 300,000 people visit in that time. Allowing cars in made for an awful mess of traffic, so shuttles were implemented.

Map of the park road in Denali National Park. The road past Eielson Visitor Center opened the day after we were there.

Unbeknownst to me when we departed, you are allowed to disembark pretty much anywhere in the park, except for areas closed due to nesting eagles and bears with cubs. You just stand up, holler "Stop!" at the bus driver, and they will pull over and let you out. You can wander around, then when you're ready, you walk up to the road and flag down the next bus that comes by. Wow. I don't know if I would have taken advantage of this had I known about it, but I was not prepared for hiking in the Denali wilderness, so had to be satisfied with the shuttle bus.

The shuttles will also stop for wildlife. Again, if you spot something you holler stop, then give the driver coordinates and what you think you saw--"Grizzly, two o'clock!" They allow us to lower windows to get photos, but ask that everyone be quiet. This is an attempt to not habituate the wildlife to humans. They know the bus, but maybe not that it's full of gawking people, and the park wants it to stay that way.

One of the main draws to Denali is to see Mt. McKinley. It is visible periodically throughout the tour, first at mile marker nine. We were thrilled to see it there, cloudless. Woo hoo! 30% Club here we come!

Mt. McKinley from the shuttle bus. Clear as a bell in the morning light.

The road into the park passes through tiaga forests up into alpine tundra. It's arid and wet at the same time, with much of the park relying on melting snow to keep the streams running. There was not a bad view in the place.

Tiaga forest in Denali NP.

As we wound through the park, the mountain loomed larger at each viewing area. Here's what Wikipedia says about the mountain:

"Mount McKinley or Denali is the highest mountain peak in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,237 feet (6,168 m) above sea level. At some 18,000 feet (5,500 m), the base-to-peak rise is considered the largest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level. Measured by topographic prominence, it is the third most prominent peak after Mount Everest and Aconcagua. Located in theAlaska Range in the interior of the U.S. state of Alaska, McKinley is the centerpiece of Denali National Park and Preserve."

As we neared the visitor center, a lenticular cloud began to form above the highest peak.

McKinley looms above the tundra.

While McKinley dominated the landscape, it was not always in view--and not always the prettiest thing out there.

Tarns in the tundra.

At miles 30 and 53 the bus stops for 15 minutes for bathroom breaks and some quick explorations. At one of the stops there was a large tent set up with gifts and books and stuff. There are also two observation stops where clear views of the mountain can be had. I think this was taken from the Stony Hill Overlook. McKinley was still cloudless!

Mt. McKinley from the Stony Hill Overlook (I think). What a sight.

By the time we reached the Eielson Visitor Center, clouds had begun to obscure the mountain. We spent about a half an hour here. A few from our group actually went looking for birds, but I hung behind, taking in the center and the views because, well, this.

Mt. McKinley from the Eielson Visitor Center. You get a sense of McKinley's size when you look at the snowline. It's so tall most of it is above the snow line.
As we headed back, more clouds descended upon the mountain. I was very glad we'd gotten out so early and had a chance to see it unobstructed.

Next we take a look at the park's wildlife.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Birding the Parks Highway, Wasilla to Denali

 Alaska 2014 continued:

Our 8th day in Alaska marked the unofficial end of the birding tour, for me at least. We were heading to Denali, a place of my dreams, and I could not wait to get there. I couldn't care less about birds at this point--I wanted bears and wolves and moose and.... But there was more birding to be done, so I had to be patient.

We made several stops along the Parks Highway between Wasilla and Denali, looking mostly for the Arctic Warbler (which we never did find). We did come across a Gray Jay along a rutted dirt road, looking after a noisy fledgling.

Gray Jay, or Whisky Jack, or Canada Jay, is a member of the Corvid family

Little one begging for breakfast. Loudly.

We made our way to the South viewing area for Mt. McKinley, but the mountain was veiled in clouds. At 20,320 feet, it is the tallest peak in North America. Not only did it loom above the other mountains but it was entirely snow-covered, looking much like a ghost haunting the other peaks. This view is not unusual--clear views of McKinley happen only about 30% of the time, while the other 70% the mountain is either partly or totally hidden in the clouds. There's even an unofficial "30% Club" for those who have gotten a clear view.

When we first saw Mt. McKinley on the horizon from the Parks Road, I thought it was a cloud bank. This image is from the South viewing area along the Parks Road. McKinley is in the background, shrouded in clouds.

But McKinley--and the rest of Denali--would have to wait. From the viewing area we traveled to the little town of Cantwell, where we stopped at a bandstand used for the annual bluegrass festival and had our cold-cut lunch. Sled teams in training passed by, pulling two large fellows on an ATV.

Sled dog training--the ATV was not running.

The McKinley Express also passed by. I think this would be an interesting way to see the area.

The McKinley Express passes through Cantwell.

As I have a tendency to do, I wandered off down a trail along a creek, just be alone in the quite for a few minutes. I stopped and waited, encased by shrubs, until the birds got curious and decided to check me out. The first visitor was a Wilson's Warbler, who landed about six feet away--what a treat to have him so close!

Wilson's Warbler

Then a Grey-cheeked Thrush appeared. These were some very good looks at birds I'd seen earlier in the trip but not gotten good shots of. I was so happy to be out of the van I really had to drag myself back.

Grey-cheeked Thrush

Leaving Cantwell, we drove about 20 miles down the Denali Highway, and took a side road down to the Savage River to look for waterfowl. The scenery was, as usual, fantastic.

A creek along the Denali Highway

There were a few birds out on the river, including Bufflehead and Surf Scoter, but they where a long way away. We did get great looks at a pair of Lesser Yellowlegs, one of whom attempted to perch atop a small spruce. The wind messed with his balance, making this long-legged bird look even more ridiculous perched in a tree.

Lesser Yellowlegs has its balance tested on a spruce.

We dropped our gear at Creekside Cabins, where we were staying just outside Denali. We drove north up to Heely for dinner, and Bill was going to take us up to the trailhead where Chris McCandless (made famous by the book/movie Into the Wild) wandered off into the wilderness, but there was road construction and we didn't want to wait in traffic. So we went back to Denali, and drove as far as private vehicles are allowed to drive into the park, about 15 miles. It was late, and there was little bird activity, but there were a couple of caribou gazing below the road grade.

Shades of things to come!

Caribou in the evening sun.

Next: Denali!!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

From Seward to Wasilla, Alaska Day Seven

 Alaska 2014 continued:

The drive from Seward to Wasilla was punctuated by several stops for birding. Traveling up along Turnagain Arm, a branch of Cook Inlet, we stopped at a roadside park where a creek flowed under the road, and found a pair of fledgling American Dippers sitting on a log. We never did see an adult. If you're not familiar with the dipper, it is the only aquatic songbird in the U.S.  That's right--the dipper feeds entirely on what it catches underwater clean, swift-moving streams, which is about the craziest thing I've ever heard. (If you'd like to see the bird in action, follow this link. Notice how the bird nearly always faces upstream.)

Immature American Dipper waiting for lunch.

We made another stop near Anchorage, at what I think was a ski park, and walked the trails there after having lunch. I don't recall exactly what we were looking for, but I got another great look at what was one of my target birds, the Boreal Chickadee. I'm pretty sure nothing so cute has ever lived.

Boreal Chickadee posing.

The big birding spot of the day was Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage. This pretty, public park surrounds a large pond which has a small island. It was in the 60's, sunny, but breezy. Even so, the Alaskans were out in number, dressed in shorts and t-shirts and enjoying the sun. You could tell us apart from them because we were all in jackets and long pants.

The man-made lagoon is a waterfowl sanctuary. Downdown Anchorage and the Chugach Mountains frame the park.

 Right off we got great looks at an Arctic Tern sitting on a post near the boat launch.

Arctic Tern. I love how tiny their feet are in relation to those long wings and tail.

A mother Mallard took to the water with her brood as we approached.

A Mallard hen with chicks because who doesn't love chicks? Like the sign on the Kachemak Bay boat tour said, they're all good birds.

Bill pointed out a small flock of Hudsonian Godwits resting on the shore of the island. The lighting was terrible for photos but I was excited anyway as these were a new bird for me.

Hudsonian Godwits with a Herring Gull.

While there wasn't the abundance of waterfowl that Bill would have like to have seen, what was there was pretty close to shore, probably used to being fed. I got some nice shots of a Lesser Scaup preening.

Lesser Scaup preening.

This pair of Greater Scaup floated by too.

Greater Scaup. They are differentiated from the lesser primarily by head shape as well as size.

A Gadwall also made an appearance near to shore. While none of these were new to me I was quite happy to get some really nice up-close photos.

Gadwall drake.

We finished the day with a drive up to Wasilla, where we stayed at the Best Western on Lucile Lake. After dinner I crashed on the shore, utterly worn out. The short nights and busy days were starting to get to us all. I really wanted to climb in a canoe and paddle to the middle and sleep. We saw Lesser Yellowlegs on the hotel dock and several pair of nesting Red-necked Grebe, and heard Common Loons calling from across the lake. It was a picture-perfect evening.

Next: We travel up to DENALI!!

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.