Friday, October 19, 2018

Four out of Five Loons Agree...

Common Loon on Lake Namakagon, Wisconsin. Photo by Emily Stone.
The haunting wail of a common loon drifted through my barely-cracked window one night last May. Amid leaning towers of books and clothes that would soon be headed to Alaska, I gave a wistful sigh. Of all the things I was sad about leaving for a summer, the loons on Lake Namakagon and my duties as naturalist on the Cable Natural History Museum’s weekly Loon Pontoon Tours were near the top of my list.

Loon Pontoon Tours are so much fun! This one was on beautiful Lake Owen.

Sometimes we see incredible behaviors, like this loon rotating the eggs before starting a new sesson of incubation. Photo by Emily Stone. 

After seven years of studying loons’ adaptations and interpreting their behavior for visitors, I’ve developed a much deeper appreciation for these charismatic fish-eaters.  Common loons are just the most southern-ranging (and therefore the most visible) of five different species of loons, though. Despite their name, they aren’t even the most numerous!

To my delight, common loons were a regular fixture in lakes along the highways I traveled during my sabbatical. As I drove from Haines, AK, through a narrow arm of British Colombia, I gawked at my first treeless tundra of the trip. I also spotted two common loons, their bills tucked away against the cold, as they floated on a chilly lake.

It was mid-July before I added to my list of loon species. Ed Berg, a retired ecologist and geologist from Homer, had just taken me across Kachemak Bay to see the Grewingk Glacier. 

Sea otters in Kachemak Bay.

A gorgeous day by Grewingk Glacier Lake!

As our water taxi motored into the harbor, a gray-headed water bird floated around the corner of a barnacle-crusted rock. I snapped two quick photos, then zoomed in on my screen.

Pacific loons are the most numerous of the five loon species. Photo by Emily Stone.

The profile was unmistakably loon. Its pale gray head, black and white stripes down the side of its neck, and smaller checkered patch on its back distinguished it from our common loons, and narrowed the ID down to a Pacific or Arctic loon. The two species look almost identical, and Pacific loons were only classified as their own species in 1985! The range maps for each species made ID easy, though. Pacific loons are found throughout Alaska, while Arctic loons are rare visitors.

Other than being slightly smaller than the common loon and nesting on lakes above tree line, the life history of Pacific loons is very similar to our familiar ones. They nest on shore, eat a variety of small fish, need a long runway to take off from the water, and are clumsy on land. In a unique twist, the ones that winter off the coast of Japan have been observed cooperating with each other to concentrate schools of fish.

Having spotted one new species of loon, my interest in seeing the others now grew. The afternoon that I arrived at the Toolik Field Station to prepare for doing caribou research, I took a short walk around the base to get a feel for the area. The tremolo of a loon flying overhead sent a thrill down my spine, and I watched the large bird land on the far side of Toolik Lake. Was it a common loon? It sounded similar. But the logo for Toolik features a yellow-billed loon, and I was sure the scientists would have chosen it deliberately.

Toolik Lake--the tremelo-ing loon had just landed beyond that point.

Yellow-billed loon on the logo of my awesome new sweatshirt!

During my return trip across the Toolik Lake Inlet and back toward the dining hall, I spotted a couple of loons fishing at the mouth of that little creek. Using my camera’s zoom again, I examined the black and white plumage—exactly like a common loon’s—and peered excitedly at the pale-colored bill where I usually see black. Not only were these my sought-after yellow-billed loons, but the pair was feeding their chick little minnows, in exactly the same way that I’ve watched common loons feed their young on my Loon Pontoon Tours! I later read that a pair raises chicks there almost every year.

Yellow-billed loons are close relatives of our local common loons, with similar breeding and feeding behaviors.
Photo by Emily Stone

It’s no surprise that these pale-beaked loons feel so similar to my old friends. Scientists theorize that common and yellow-billed loons only diverged into separate species during the last glacial period, 100,000 years ago or so. Ice separated loons living in the continental U.S. from loons living in the far north along the Arctic Ocean. Many of their breeding, feeding, and behavioral traits remain similar. The yellow-billed loon is the least numerous of the five loon species, as well as the largest. And, probably due to its larger size, it also has a deeper voice than our common loons.

Now that I’d seen the most similar loon to the ones I’d left back home, my last goal was to see the most different loon. Red-throated loons were probably the first loon species to evolve their current form, about 21,400,000 years ago. They are also the smallest, and weigh only 2-6 pounds compared to the yellow-billed’s 9-14 pounds. Due to their size, red-throated loons can use smaller ponds, take off directly from water or land without a runway, and breed even on the northernmost coast of Greenland.

Tessa and I had barely started our second day of driving the caribou transect together, when I spotted a suspicious bird on a puddle a mile or so south of Deadhorse. I zoomed all the way in and steadied my camera on the truck’s open window, snapping shots until the bird took off in a shower of water droplets. Eager to find caribou, we got going, too. It wasn’t until I loaded the photos onto my laptop that I noticed the loon’s red throat.

Red-throated loons can be hard to find in the U.S., but are actually the most widely distributed loon and range across the far north of North America, Europe, Greenland, and Asia. They can get airborne without a long runway, which allows them to use smaller bodies of water. Photo by Emily Stone.

Ready for lift-off! 

Look as we might on three more days of driving, I never caught sight of that red-throated loon again.

Maybe someday—while I’m out looking for gray-headed chickadees in Scandinavia, Russia, or northern Japan—I’ll be lucky enough to spot an Arctic loon as well. In the meantime, I was happy to return home in time to see the common loons on Lake Namakagon. My journey has ended, and their fall migration has begun.

This common loon has started its fall molt and is sporting white scruff on its face. Time to fly, little buddy! Photo by Emily Stone. 

Emily was in Alaska for the summer! She’s home now, but has more stories to tell. Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.  

Friday, October 12, 2018

Fall Colors and Caribou on the North Slope

Toolik Field Station has a network of narrow boardwalks to help researchers get to study sites without trampling the tundra they are studying.
If anyone had seen my erratic progress across the open tundra they might have assumed me possessed. 

Thankfully, rolling hills of glacial sediment hid me from the view of what little civilization hummed nearby at the Toolik Field Station. Careening from one burst of beauty to the next, I was reveling in the gorgeous rainbows that autumn (i.e. late August) had flung across the landscape. Scarlet carpets of alpine bearberry clustered around boulders. Thickets of dwarf birch sported leafy little doilies in gradients of red and orange. Willows claimed the most vibrant, glossy yellows for their own adornment, but sneakily retained all my favorite shades of green as well. Blue and purple found their homes in the berries and leaves of bog blueberry. Camera in hand, I raced to create a lasting record of my amazement.

Alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina)  is a circumpolar plant that grows all around the top of the globe. Its scarlet leaves carpet the autumn tundra and lingonberry leaves peek through.
Dwarf birch -- Betula nana (the Grandmother of all birches...)
One of several species of willows that grow low on the tundra.

Bog blueberry -- Vaccinium uliginosum

I aimed my camera high as well 
as low, since the colors at my feet spread clear out to the horizon. I’m no stranger to the magic of fall. From the river bluffs of Northeast Iowa, to the pastoral hills of Vermont, the cranberry fields of Maine, and now the red maples of Northern Wisconsin, I gravitate toward places with a kaleidoscope of seasons. Autumn on the Alaskan tundra was a whole new spectacle, though. With ground-hugging shrubs—all of them circumpolar species that grow around the top of the globe--instead of tall trees, it looked like the land itself was drenched in a rainbow swirl of melted crayon.

Melted crayon.

At my feet, wiry brown lichens clutched droplets of melted morning frost in their twig-like tips. Kneeling down to photograph them, I was soon lost in the miniature world of reflections contained in each drop. It’s not a good idea to be too enraptured by the foreground in grizzly country though, so after a bit I stood and scanned my surroundings carefully. A northern harrier floated by looking for voles. Nothing else moved.

So I moved. My purported destination for this walk was Jade Mountain, which still loomed a good distance away. As I neared the edge of the small knoll, something caught my attention in the swale. Brown. White. Skinny. A bull caribou stood with his rump patch toward me, his neck craned around to investigate, and his tree-like antlers towering above. I held my breath and snapped the shutter over and over as he stood on alert. When a sudden movement startled him into a trot, three smaller bulls followed him out of the vale and over the ridge. What a thrill!

I was thrilled to spot these four bull caribou while out on a walk. Antlers aren’t diagnostic of sex in caribou. Some cows can have bigger antlers than small bulls. The research project required me to look between their legs instead of at their head. Photo by Emily Stone.

Caribou were actually the official reason I’d come here, to the Toolik Field Station on the North Slope of the Brooks Range. My research partner, Tessa, had driven down to the snowshoe hare research site near Wiseman to pick me up a few days before. Since then we’d been cruising up and down the rough gravel of the Dalton Highway between Toolik and Prudhoe Bay looking for caribou.

Toolik Field Station, as viewed from Toolik Lake!

Of the 32 caribou herds in Alaska, four of them have their calving grounds on the North Slope. Tessa and I were studying the Central Arctic Caribou Herd. Their population plummeted from a high of about 70,000 animals in 2010, to 22,000 in 2016. Hunters, hunting guides, and pilots noticed the population decline before it showed up in the wildlife manager’s data. Scott Leorna was already doing his master’s project on the caribou, so he added a citizen science component to his research to figure out how the hunters knew.

Scott worked with web developers to create a smartphone app that the public can use to record caribou observations in the study area. In order to calibrate the app and gauge the effectiveness of the public in spotting caribou along the road, he conscripted several pairs of fellow graduate students from the University Alaska Fairbanks. They and other volunteers drive through his study area at no more than 35 mph with the sole goal of seeing every caribou along the road. That 132-mile journey takes more than 6 hours.

Tessa and I saw varying numbers of caribou on each of our five sampling days, and they were mostly solo or in small groups. As I learned, “herd” is a relative term. The animals gather in full force only on their calving grounds, and drift off to other feeding areas for summer, fall, and winter. The population decline that this herd has experienced is pretty normal. Just like with snowshoe hares, when numbers get high, like in 2010, their forage quality declines, birth rate slows, and predators increase. What’s unique about this herd is that ever since the Dalton Highway was built to access the oil resources at Prudhoe Bay, these roadside caribou have become an increasingly important resource to both resident and non-resident hunters.

Bumpy roads and tired eyes notwithstanding, it was a fine gig for a volunteer. In addition to caribou, we spotted red fox, short-eared owls, golden eagles, and muskoxen along the road. I exclaimed every few minutes about the stunning beauty of the fall colors, and, on the one sunny day, snowcapped mountains rimmed our view.

Red Fox

Short-eared Owl


Mountains! There's something beyond the fog! In Alaska, they call the first coating of snow "termination dust."

Tessa earned her undergraduate degree in wildlife management from UW-Stevens Point, is dating a Minnesotan, and has even been to the Boundary Waters. We had much in common.

Tessa, a grad student almost finished with her moose research who was helping her lab-mate Scott with his caribou research. 

Visiting the Toolik Field Station had been on my bucket list since I first started planning my trip to Alaska. Run by the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with support from the National Science Foundation, it is a hub for scientists (my superheroes) who are studying the Arctic. In addition to long-term datasets, labs, and equipment, the field station also provides researchers with gourmet food, rustic housing, a beautiful sauna, and high-speed WiFi.

The sauna at Toolik Lake.

Plus, it’s nestled along the shore of beautiful Toolik Lake, among the prettiest fall colors I’ve ever seen. Possessed? Sure I’m possessed—by an overwhelming sense of wonder at and gratitude for the experiences I’ve had. 

Emily was in Alaska for the summer! She’s home now, but has more stories to tell. Follow the journey in this column, and see additional stories and photos on her blog:

For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: “Bee Amazed!” is open.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Gray Weather and Gray-headed Chickadees

The steady drizzle thickened into real rain as I pulled into the gravel parking lot near the Caribou Creek Trailhead. Damn rain. I was tired of trying to out-guess, out-maneuver, and outrun it. My memory may not be infallible, but it tells me that the average weather during my summer in Alaska was 58 degrees F and misting. Exasperated, I resigned myself to be out in it.

Soggy cottongrass. Also resigned to being out in the rain.

“We just had a cancellation for the public use cabin at Caribou Creek,” said the ranger in the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center when I asked about things to do along the Nabesna Road. The 42-mile-long gravel road is one of only two terrestrial access points into the remote park in eastern Alaska. Within minutes I’d reserved the following night.

Now I was dodging raindrops as I went from door to door on my station wagon gathering the last of my supplies and cramming them into my pack under the cover of my back hatch. Raindrops beaded up like jewels on my brand-new, bright-green rain jacket—purchased in desperation on a rainy day at the end of a rainy week in Anchorage.

Partway up the wide, gravel trail, a bedraggled bumblebee clinging to a hot pink fireweed blossom caught my eye. Then a gray jay whistled from the top of a spruce. My willpower failed and I slid my pack down to dig my camera out from its waterproof layers. It was then I noticed that it had stopped raining.

The rain held off for the rest of my three-mile hike to the rustic log cabin. It waited until I’d had a nice chat with two hikers from France who were exploring the hills above the cabin, and until I’d had a chance to wade through knee-high tundra shrubs up there, too. Then, while I cooked pea soup, sat by a cheerfully crackling fire, painted flowers on postcards, and slept on the wooden bunk, it poured. By morning, rain turned to drizzle, drizzle turned to fog, and then the fog lifted. When I started my hike back down to the road, my camera was slung handily over my shoulder. Sunshine peeked through the clouds with increasing resolve.

Caribou Creek Cabin and Outhouse.

Clouds parted just a bit. There are mountains out there!

Pea soup with cheese, crackers, and hot sauce.

The wood stove!

Postcard watercolor of a dwarf fireweed flower.

Postcard watercolor of a columbine flower.

The stove and bunk.

The "kitchen"

Setting out with clearing skies!

While walking among a grove of spruce near a creek, the striking crimson eyebrow of a male spruce grouse strutting among the roots and rocks caught my eye. With my attention focused through my camera’s viewfinder, my ears picked up on something else.

Spruces and sunshine.

Such a handsome spruce grouse!

Snazzy eyebrow, dude!

Chickadees! Soft “chick-a-dee” and other raspy calls tumbled out of the lichen-crusted spruce bows behind me. These weren’t my friendly Midwestern black-capped chickadees, but every type of chickadee makes me smile. Just like spruce grouse, boreal chickadees reach their southern limit in the lichen-crusted spruces of Northern Wisconsin. Basking in their cheerful banter, I followed their bustling movements with both eyes and lens. When they flitted out of view, I hiked on.

I took advantage of the free Wi-Fi at the Slana Ranger station to post photos to Instagram (follow me @emilysnaturalconnections). Of course, I included a chickadee. At my next encounter with Wi-Fi, a comment popped up on that post “Is that a gray-headed chickadee?” asked @thetundratelegraph. “Boreal chickadee,” I replied. There is no such thing as a gray-headed chickadee, I thought to myself. “He looks so gray to me!” the commenter responded.

I was about to dismiss it again, when I realized that I was communicating with a former college classmate who now lives in Fairbanks. Out of curiosity, I googled “gray-headed chickadee.” This species wasn’t listed on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website that I normally frequent, but a news story popped up on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADFG) website: “The Quest for Gray-Headed Chickadees.” So they are real! How come I’d never heard of them?

Soon I came across a 2017 article written by Gary Langham, chief scientist at The National Audubon Society. His headline named gray-headed chickadees as “the Most Mysterious Bird in the U.S.” Although gray-headed chickadees are common backyard feeder birds in Russia and Scandinavia (where they are known as Siberian tits), they are the least-known chickadee in North America, and only live in remote areas of northern Alaska and northwestern Canada. Langham billed them as “the Holy Grail of chickadees.”

While confirmed sightings in Alaska are confined to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other far-north locales, the Birds of North America range map indicates that it is theoretically possible to see them in eastern Alaska—in the remote haunts near our largest National Park—Wrangell-St. Elias—the one I’d just visited. Langham wrote about hiring a bush plane, rafting an icy river, camping for days, freezing in a blizzard, and still not seeing a gray-headed chickadee. Could I have sauntered in on a pleasant trail, spent a wood-fired night in a cozy cabin, and then come across these rare birds out of sheer luck?

Logic says no, of course, especially as I glean more tidbits of the sparse information that exists about them. Most recently in Alaska, they’ve been seen in stands of balsam poplar trees in the Brooks Range—not at the northern edge of conifer forests like in their Eurasian range. They are also thought to be solitary birds, rarely seen in groups of more than one or two pairs. I know I saw at least two chickadees, and maybe up to five. My focus was getting a sharp photo, not on counting the chattering sprites who danced in and out of shadows.

And finally, there’s my attempt at identification using field marks from the photos. Boreal chickadees have a brown head, cinnamon-colored flanks, and lots of gray on their cheeks. Gray-headed chickadees have a much fainter blush on their flanks, big white cheeks, and the namesake head. My photos are inconclusive, at least to me. The light is odd, the angles aren’t perfect, and one little stinker was preening with his feathers all askew. So, I sent my photos off to eBird and ADFG, and will wait to hear back.

Even if the birds turn out to be “just” some boreal chickadees, they already brought me smiles and enlightened me about their mysterious cousin. Plus, gray-headed chickadees are one of the most common chickadees on the planet...if you’re prepared to travel to Scandinavia to see them. That’s a hardship I’m willing to endure. Who’s with me?

#  #  #

Postscript: Just as I was about to publish this blog, I received a response to my posting of a gray-headed chickadee sighting on eBird:

Hi Emily, 
Thanks for the good photos of the chickadee and honest assessment.
I believe this is a Boreal Chickadee due to the light facial patch not extending to the nape as extensively as a Gray-headed would. Also, Gray-headed Chickadees typically are more contrasting in their white/brown-gray head tones than Boreal are. 
If you agree and would like to change the species in your report it is easily done otherwise I can simply categorize it as unconfirmed. Thank you for your time taken to report this species. Keep it up! 

Hope all is well,

Aaron Bowman

Disappointing, but not surprising. It's nice to have an expert birder weigh in. I changed the species in my report.