Northern Mockingbird

Last Friday I was visiting with Larry, another pizza-day regular, over lunch at the Backdoor and he happened to mention that there had been an unfamiliar bird in their yard. From his description of a bird with white outer tail feathers and white on its wings (he thought primaries), it didn’t sound like a very good fit for anything I could think of. I got an e-mail from him today that mentioned the bird was still around and he had attached some pictures that his partner Martina had taken which made it clear that the bird was not one typical for Sitka. I was able to get over there with a few other birders keen to see it. The photos with this post are ones I was able to get during that visit.

The bird is kind of ragged looking, and my best guess is that it’s an immature bird undergoing molt. I would certainly be interested in hearing other thoughts about it in the comments.

As far as I can tell, this is the third record of Northern Mockingbird for Sitka. There were a couple of them reported in two different years in the early 1990s, one in July the other in August. Marge Ward told me one was at Starrigavan, the other up at the Kimsham landfill (which is now the site of ball fields). There are scattered reports from elsewhere in Southeast Alaska, but the normal range of this species appears to be no further north (in the west) than the southern portions of Oregon and Idaho.

Many thanks to Larry for mentioning this bird and Martina for getting pictures!

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Banded Dark-eyed Junco

Banded Dark-eyed Junco with Left leg Red over Black and Right leg Aluminum over White; it’s been reported only four times since it was first banded, the most recent before this week was back on 25 March 2013.

Over the past couple of weeks, the number of juncos visiting the bird food in our yard has increased dramatically. Among the returning birds we’ve started once again seeing birds that have been banded over the past couple of years as part of the Sitka Bird Banding Project. Dark-eyed Juncos have been banded at multiple locations around town and in addition to the typical aluminum band, they’ve also been given 1-3 additional colored bands that makes it possible tell where and on what day the bird was banded, and in many cases, even track individual birds. If you have feeders or are seeing juncos around, those of us who have been working on this project would really appreciate it if you could take some extra time to check out the legs of the birds you are seeing and report any banded birds. In the case where there are two bands on a leg, it’s important to note which color is on top, and it’s always important to note whether left or right leg.

I’ve created a form to enter in observations or you can e-mail or leave a comment on this post if you see any. Thanks!

Note that the Left/Right determination is the bird’s left and right, so that makes this Left-Red over Black and Right-Aluminum over White

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Mountain Ice and Yard Birds

I considered going back out to look at the landslide again this afternoon, but ultimately decided to just take care of some errands and then go home. While running the errands, I noticed conditions seemed better for seeing the exposed alpine glaciers/ice than they had been earlier in the week, (though looking back at those photos, I think it was probably a mistaken impression on my part). With temperatures continuing to be increasingly unseasonably warm, the snow/ice will probably continue to melt. Tonight it actually got warmer than it had been during the day, rising to 60F at some point after sunset, and remaining there until at least midnight, despite the start of (light) rain.

While waiting in line at the Backdoor I heard a report from someone who had seen the little toads at Thimbleberry recently, but also noticed birds (he didn’t remember what kind, but thought probably a heron at least) going for the toads.

I spent some time late this afternoon watching birds in our yard and trying to get pictures of a banded junco. The one I managed to capture hadn’t been reported since back in Spring of 2013, so that was kind of interesting. The juncos really have really been increasing in numbers over the past couple of weeks. It would be interesting to know where they are coming from. Another recent addition to the yard birds is an adult White-crowned Sparrow. It’s a Gambel’s subspecies which breeds north of here. In the past we’ve also had the more southern breeding Pugetensis subspecies show up in the winter (in fact, that’s what was banded) – so I’ll keep my eyes open for it in the coming weeks.

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Starrigavan Landslide

I was curious about the Starrigavan valley landslide, so this past Wednesday morning my kids and I went out to see what we could see. We were not the only ones, as we passed another father with kids and a couple with a dog both coming back. I noticed an aerial photo posted on the gate that had the atv trail system with indications of where the trails were impassable. It appeared that a shorter section of lower trail was compromised, with a much longer section of trail a bit further up no longer passable.

ATV trail transformed to a stream

Walking up the beginning of the trail, there was only occasional evidence of recent high waters. Some clear signs of deep puddles (now mostly dry), and an occasional bit of eroded trail. We experienced occasional pulses of noticeably warmer air that I think probably were due to irregular mixing of warmer air above with the cool air that had settled into the valley.

The first sign (though we didn’t know it at the time) of our approach to the landslide was the strong smell of wood. Cedar was very apparent at times, but it didn’t seem to be only the smell of cedar. I couldn’t quite sort the mix of smells that we were passing through, but it was fun to try.

We passed the junction with the south trail and went a little further to find a culvert that was almost entirely exposed, with the trail above it having been converted to a stream channel. We did not have much trouble picking our way along the edge of the former trail (now stream). As we walked up, we had occasional glimpses of a larger amount of water flowing through the adjacent forest, so apparently only part of the flow had been diverted onto the trail.

Debris piles in the forest

It did not take us long to get to a point where the trail was no longer apparent. The water at this point was much deeper, and there was much debris piled around the bases of still-standing trees. It seemed apparent that there hadn’t been a devastating slide/debris flow here (or the trees would have been gone), but we were getting close to the end of the run out. Most of what was piled here was was fairly small woody material that I am thinking probably floated in and collected when the water was at least a couple of feet higher.

Massive log jam

It was a little trickier crossing here, but both kids found (different) places to do so, and I just opted to take my shoes off and wade across a shallow spot. From this point it was a short distance to a massive pile of logs. We couldn’t really see how extensive it was until we climbed up on some near the edge. At that point it became apparent that this was probably the source of what we had been smelling early. Cedars, spruces, and hemlocks, most at least a foot or two in diameter were jammed together in a pile that was probably at least 10 feet off the ground in places. The chaotic tumble that these recently standing trees had undergone to reach this point had left the bark damaged or missing entirely, exposing the fragrant bearing wood to the air. It was hard to comprehend how this might have happened without a massive amount of water. The wood seemed fairly clean. If it had been placed here while entrained in the landslide/debris flow, I would have expected more dirt and smaller bits of debris to be present. My best guess at this point is that there was enough water to float the logs, but it’s hard to imagine how that much depth of water could have been present.

Washout Zone

Connor wanted to cross the log jam, but I didn’t think that was a good idea. While the logs seemed jammed together pretty tight, it only takes one lose log to tip or roll, and a person could end up pinned in a very unfortunate situation. We worked our way around the jam to an additional section of intact trail, which we walked up until it was once again blocked by fallen trees. This time there was much more mud mixed in with the trees, and climbing up on a fallen spruce at the outer edge, I was able to see we were just a short distance from a broad set of open gravel cut through by the stream channel. It didn’t take much to figure out that getting across the debris clogged margin required some care. The mud was very soft (we did not want to test how deep, so stayed on logs/wood as much as possible), and a few of the smaller pieces of broken log were a little loose and did not offer as solid of footing as one might prefer.

The view of this washout zone left me with a feeling of devastating beauty. Clearly great violence had torn through this valley, however the now peaceful clear flowing stream running through broad clean gravel bars, albeit with haphazardly placed logs and other woody debris scattered across them, bordered by debris flow remnants of mixed mud and trees that marked the margins of the original debris flow, all lined by apparently untouched alders and young growth conifers standing tall above, resonated with me.

Remains of early 1970s logging

One thing that impressed me was seeing still well anchored stumps that were left from the logging that took place 40 years ago. It made me wonder how this slide might have played out differently if the old forest were still intact. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been much different, as no doubt part of what made these stumps less prone to being pulled out was their relatively low profile. I am also guessing the stumps were probably mostly (or perhaps entirely) buried, as otherwise I would have expected them to be much more rotten than they appeared.

180 degree multi-image pano showing the main slide area

The easiest off-trail walking of the day was up the washout zone. It was almost entirely free of mud (which had probably been carried down river during a higher flow – Starrigavan river had been quite muddy last weekend). It didn’t take long for the impressively large slide area to come into view. We were careful to avoid any of the still muddy slopes, as we were finding any mud that we accidentally stepped on was still quite soft. As it was a dry day, I was not too worried about further movement, but it seemed prudent not to test matters (and I think I would have kept an even further distance if it were raining).

I am not sure quite how far up the top of the slide was, but I’m guessing it’s pushing towards 1000 feet in elevation. It’s not entirely clear (to me) that the slide started at the top, as it’s easy to imagine a scenario where it cuts loose below, but that creates less support for what’s above, and so takes some additional land down as well. It was also interesting to see a small patch of 10 or so trees still standing right in the middle of the upper slide zone.

One of the things that also stood out to me was the exposed layers of what I presume to be glacial till covered by multiple layers of volcanic ash, and finally the organic material on top. It’s not often that I see such a clean exposure of all the layers (this one probably won’t last long), and I find myself curious to find out what details these layers could give about the general story of glaciers and volcanoes.

Bear Tracks in Fresh Mud

We went back the way we had come to get out of the washout zone, then followed a different trail back for a time. Along parts this trail it appeared some slower moving water must have carried in and deposited sediments which made for some nice fresh mud. There were some interesting tracks along the edges the mud/puddles, including the bear tracks shown above. It turned out this trail was one that connected the different forks, but I did not know that at the time, and as we were getting short on time and the trail was going in the wrong direction, I opted to have us cut through the forest back towards the main trail we had come up on. Along the way we found many more bear tracks (interesting to think about them hanging out in here with the atv folks regularly zooming by not too far away) and remains of an old foot trail.

Overall the slide was very impressive. I’m not sure how safe it is to wander around up there to look at it, but at the time I didn’t feel like I was taking much risk. (Though in hindsight, looking at some of the pictures – especially of the log jam, I wondered.) I wouldn’t be surprised if there is more downward movement of mud and other debris as the fall moves on, and I would probably prefer not to be there for that (or if I was, I would want to be across the way where I could watch from a safe distance).

Additional photos from the trip

If you have any thoughts or questions about this, I would be interested to hear them – Please leave a comment!

I’ll end with some of my own questions:

  • How much of the event can be reconstructed from the remains?
  • Was there a dam/flood that released and resulted in the relatively clean washout zone and created the big log jam?
  • How long will it take the slide slope to stabilize?
  • What will the process of succession look like? (I’m thinking alders will be thick within a year or two, and probably several feet high through much of the zone within a handful – at least assuming there’s no further slide activity, and people don’t intervene in some way)
  • Will the river channel in the broader washout zone be able to maintain a fairly broad set of gravel bars, or will vegetation (alders) come in fast enough to constrain it?
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Early Fall Young Growth

On a walk up Starrigavan Valley yesterday, I was struck by the contrasting greens of the red alder (Alnus rubra), spruce (Picea sitchensis), hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) trees that comprise the young forest growing after early 70s clear cuts in the valley.

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Starrigavan Valley and an Intense Sunset

Today’s excitement consisted of a walk up Starrigavan Valley to see the recent landslide. All of today’s pictures come from that trip, but I think it deserves it’s own post, so I’ll only comment generally in this one. In a nutshell, an impressive amount of material was moved down the valley, including a substantial log jam that seems like it must have been floated into place (which suggests a hard-to-imagine-where-it-came-from amount of water).

This evening was ultimate frisbee at Moller Park. It’s getting dark much earlier, and the lights switched on a little before 7 (they’re scheduled to come on 30 minutes before sunset) – I hadn’t brought my camera, but I was thinking it could have made for a fun photo of us playing under the lights with the colorful sunset silhouetting Mt. Edgecumbe in the background. The sunset this evening was actually quite spectacular, I was slightly bummed I didn’t have my camera, but I was not really in a great location anyway, so I just tried to enjoy the intense colors with the mental filters that allow one to appreciate it despite all the foreground things that would be a distraction in a photograph.

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