Sitka Nature Show #127 – Chris Whitehead and Esther Kennedy

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The 19 March show featured a conversation with Chirs Whitehead and Esther Kennedy of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab. We talked about their work testing shelfish for toxins and the natural history of the plankton that produce the toxins that can result in sickness and death when concentrated in shelfish eaten by humans.

If you have questions or observations you want to share, please feel free to leave a comment here or on the page I’ve set up for that purpose.

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Rail Quest

Unable to look for the Virginia Rail after it was seen yesterday, I was prepared to dedicate some time to the effort today. 

Clear skies and cold temperatures prevailed – I think it’s now been a full week since the last high temperature above 30F, and I walked in full sunlight to the lake a little before 8am.

The rail was first seen back in the first week of the year, and had not been seen since. Yesterday’s sighting was in the same general marshy area at the upper end of the lake. There are seeps that run out of the ground there which stay open despite the cold temperatures, and I am guessing the rail has been making use of this area to survive the chilly winter weather.

I arrived to the sound of much song bird chatter. I think it was mostly juncos, but there was also a White-crowned Sparrow singing, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Song Sparrows, Varied Thrushes, and Pacific Wrens contributing to the mix. I walked slowly to a spot nearing the edge of the more open areas and stopped to listen and look.

After a few moments a snipe popped and up and flew from beside a small clump of trees a short distance in front of me. Almost simultaneously, I looked up and saw what I believe was an accipiter in something of a stoop headed toward the upper end of the marsh. It was impressive how silent it was in the moments after. I think the threat was just a fly-through, as it did not take long for the chatter to pick up again.

After standing and watching for a few minutes longer, I noticed Lucy had showed up to look. As she was nearing my location, I caught movement off to my right, looked over just in time to see the rail take a couple of steps and fly up towards the thickets and open water at the very upper end of the marsh. 

Lucy hadn’t seen it, and I wanted to get pictures, so after visiting briefly, she went through to sit under the trees near a patch of open water where Connor had seen the rail yesterday. After some indecision, I decided to try and make my way across the open marsh to the far side. I was curious whether there was any likely habitat over there and also wanted to be in the sun, which had not yet moved far enough to illuminate where I had been standing.

Despite the cold weather, the thick layer of snow and remains of last years vegetation sufficiently insulated things so the ground was not consistently frozen. As a result, I ended up with wet feet after crossing. This did not bother me much as I found a nice spot to sit in full sun, which felt warm despite the cold air temperatures.

Things on the side where I sat were definitely more frozen, and after sitting for a while, I made my way across the very upper edge of the flat below the steep rising slope.

Lucy had briefly seen a bird fly from the sloped area and thought it might have been a snipe (though upon consultation with her bird book later, she realized it had been the rail).

With cold and wet feet, I decided to head back home and try again later in the day. Lucy had some things she needed to do as well, and while we were making our way back to the street, she noticed a Downy Woodpecker working a pine tree. That was an unexpected, but nice find which I was able to get my best photo of a couple of minutes later when it moved to an alder closer to me.

Given the secretive nature of rails, I decided my best option was to sit in a likely place and watch for an extended period. So I dressed warmly and headed back to the lake after lunch.

The sun had swung around and was now lighting the east side of the marsh. I was interested to note that the bird activity seemed to have followed the sun. The birds seemed no less active than earlier, but now they were more active on the slope going up to Lake Street rather than the far slope at the end of the lake where they were more active this morning.

I picked a spot to sit that was at least a bit in the sun and had a nice view of some of the open water areas. It was not far from where I had briefly seen the raill this morning. 

With my backpack as a little bit of insulation against the cold snow and my back against a willow, I settled in. I am not sure what time I started sitting but I had already been there for a little while when I first looked at the time just after 2. For the next hour I sat and waited – listening to the birds and watching.

Around 3pm Connor arrived to watch. He had noticed me and went up near where Lucy had been watching this morning. By this time I was starting to feel a bit cold, and I was not sure how much longer I would wait. 

Before I was ready to give it up, I noticed movement in the bushes between Connor and I. It was brief, but suggestive, and I got my camera ready in case it was the rail (I had previously seen Varied Thrushes hopping aorund in the same area). 

Over the next few moments I only saw it briefly as it popped up between clumps of last year’s sedges and snow. Staying in the open only briefly, it made its way over to a small clump of trees (where I had seen the snipe fly out this morning). It came around from behind that clump and was actually fairly close to me, but there was a little bit of vegetation between, and the direction of the sun resulted in backlighting and poor conditions for additional photos. 

I was able to watch it for a little while longer as it ducked in and out of cover, and used it’s relatively long bill to probe the water and soft mud along the edge of the small stream of open water. After it had worked its way down stream (toward the lake) and I could no longer see it from where I sat, I got up to see if I could tell where it went, and then get ready to go.

I saw the rail still foraging its way down along the trickle, but there was too much vegetation for me to have a very clear view or try to get picutres. As I was standing there, it seemed to take notice of me and flew back up from where it had come. 

In the excitement of seeing the rail, I had momentarily forgotten that I was cold. However, now that I was standing up and turning my attention towards leaving, the cold came back quickly and I started shivering pretty hard.

I took a brief side trip to check in with Connor and  learned that when I first saw the bird, he happened to look over and notice my camera up, so he started paying more attention. He said he only just got a brief glimpse of the bird’s head, and nothing more until it flew back. From there he saw more or less where it landed. He planned to stay longer and watch for it (he later reported that he did not see it again, though he thought he found a place where it probably hides out).

Once back in the car and off to run errands, it did not take long for my core to warm up, but it was at least a couple of hours before my feet felt back to normal. 

My iNaturalist Observations for Today

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Sandy Beach Observations

Overcast this morning soon gave way to clearing skies. Despite the overcast, there was little change from the cold temperatures that have prevailed for nearly a full week now. Although winds were light, what breeze there was felt very cold (and white caps out on the bay suggested it was not calm everywhere).

I had some errands to run downtown between calls, so decided to take another trip to Sandy Beach on the falling tide. I followed some bird tracks in the sand thinking they were from a gull, only to be a little surprised when I looked up and saw a couple of Mallards getting uncomfortable just before they took off. In hindsight I wonder if the ‘pigeon-toed’ look should have tipped me off that they were not gull tracks.

I made my observations of a couple of seaweeds and a small snail on the rocky are north of sandy area. Conditions on the water here were calm (I saw the white caps on Crescent Bay), but even the very slight breeze was enough to be a strong chill into my fingers when I did not have the in my gloves.

I was curious to notice a decent sized snail on an otherwise bare looking rock in the middle of the sand – I guess it could go across the sand when the tide is up, as it seems unlikely that the snail had been on that rock for its life. I was also curious to see a couple of hermit crabs slowly making tracks across the sand. If my fingers had not been so cold, I probably would have taken pictures of both these – but perhaps I’ll run into the again.

In other news, I got a report that the Virginia Rail was still around. I had something I needed to do, so was not able to go and look, but Connor went down and caught several glimpses of it (with no photos).

My iNaturalist Observations for Today

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Visit to Sandy Beach

Despite overcast skies overnight, there was no real warning. As the morning progressed, the overcast thinned out from the north, and by later afternoon, mostly clear skies prevailed.

I did not have much time for getting outside, but did make it out on a brief trip to Sandy Beach to look for some new observations. I was curious about some dark red circles I noticed on rounded boulders partially buried in the sand. I think they could make an interesting subject for some abstract photographs at some point, but did not spend much time with them today.

It is interesting to have such cool temperatures with the sun rapidly gaining strength. Air temperatures are staying below freezing, but there is enough warmth in the sun to melt snow whenever here is any dark surface near or on the the snow. This has lead to some interesting formations of snow/ice where there is a strong melting occurring on the south facing surfaces of snow piles and such.

My iNaturalist Observations for Today

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Walk to the Park

Curious about the temperature, I briefly ventured out of bed around 6:30 this morning. The sky was light, but the sun not yet high enough to be shining directly on anything I could see, the thermometer I have here was reading 13.5 F. I am confident it hasn’t been that cold in at least two years, and it may be longer than that.

When I rose for good a couple of hours later, temperatures had warmed a bit, but official highs only reached the low 20s. The sun did not feel as strong today, at times dimmed a bit as a haze of high clouds pushed up from the south.

Although winds were not strong here in the house, there was a enough breeze that I regularly heard the tinkling of a set of chimes I have hanging outside. Later in the day, I noticed much of Crescent Bay and out to Eastern Channel was covered in white caps.

My morning and first half of the afternoon were spent on calls for work, but I did get out for a walk in the latter part of the afternoon to get my observations for today.

With the cold and snowy conditions, I aimed to get my three species without spending a lot of time. With the tide cycle more in my favor today, I figured I could pick up a couple of things on the beach, and thre was a small fungus I saw yesterday that I figured I would document today.

Once at the park I noticed a couple of Canadian Geese out in one of the larger pools. I had seen some earlier this year, but held off on documenting them for the big year project. I was grateful for that choice today. I took a couple of shots of black pine (a seaweed), and then the small fungus.

On my way out of the park, I saw Rowan and asked her to take me to where she and Connor had been seeing a river otter lately. We took one of the trails that cuts across the park, then crossed the bridge (where I was interested to see very little ice in the river) and up through the forest on the east side of the river. Although I saw few birds today, especially compared to yesterday (no sapsuckers, and only a couple of Varied Thrush), there were many tracks in the snow all through the forest where we walked. I also noticed many seeds – I think primarily from conifers (this dry weather tends to result in the cones opening up). I wondered if the Varied Thrushes were eating the seeds.

When we got to the road bridge, Rowan showed me where she had seen the otter, and told me it was there again. I had to stick my head out over the rail to see it as it dipped into the water moving up river.

We walked down below the bridge and peaked into what seems like it might be a den that it’s routinely using (Rowan says she can tell she keeps seeing the same one because of a patch of paler fur on the back of its neck).

We sat and watched the otter slowly work its way up river. It seemed like it must be foraging, though I am not sure what it might have been looking for. A nearby dipper seemed undisturbed by the otter.

Connor reported seeing drops of blood on the snow around the base of some trees in the lower Gavan Trail area. He said there were no associated tracks, and the only other thing seemed to be some bark that had fallen off the tree where there was the most blood. We talked about what it might have been.From his description, my best guess is an injured squirrel moving around through the canopy.

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Sitka Nature Show #126 – Lauren Wild

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The March 5th show featured a conversation with Lauren Wild, PhD student at the College of Fisheries, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and part of the Southeast Alaska Sperm Whale Avoidance Project team for the past 8 years. We talked about sperm whales and some of the work she is doing to try and understand their diet in northern Southeast Alaska.

If you have questions or observations you want to share, please feel free to leave a comment here or on the page I’ve set up for that purpose.

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