Red Phase Western Screech-Owl

Red Phase Western Screech-Owl photographed by P. Deviche and shared with permission

Considered Rare in Alaska, Western Screech-Owls seem to be at least Uncommon around Sitka. Though they are infrequently seen by the general population due to their nocturnal habits, they can be heard at night (and occasionally during the day) throughout the year in the forests, and even some neighborhoods. Starrigavan seems to be an especially good place to listen for them, but they’re also reasonably common in the vicinity of the Sheldon Jackson campus and Totem Park. (Back when SJC was open, I heard from students that they routinely saw them around 10pm near the student center as they were leaving due to its closing for the night.)

After first hearing of these photos of a red phase Western Screech-Owl some time ago, I was excited to finally see them when they arrived in my inbox recently. Earlier this fall, Ryan, local bird enthusiast and park service education specialist, shared a story of some photos taken by a co-worker’s father who had been visiting during the summer. I don’t have all the details, but he was about halfway to Medvejie from the gate at Herring Cove when a couple of owls flew up into a tree beside the road. He was able to get some good photos of one bird that appeared to be a red phase of the Western Screech-Owl. I didn’t remember having heard of a red phase Western Screech-Owl previously, but it didn’t take long to find the account of Western Screech-Owl which indicated there are two color morphs. The red phase is said to only occurs in coastal British Columbia and Alaska, but even here it is not typical.

Seeing the photos for the first time, it was easy to be impressed by how cooperative the owl had been. I was very intrigued by the much redder look (compared to the one I’ve seen best) as well as it being out and about at mid-day, and thought others would be interested as well, and maybe some people have their own stories they can share.

I am curious what other screech-owl experience people have. Have you seen them during the day? If so, when, where, and what were they doing? Have you seen any that were this red before? I would be interested to know – please leave a comment or send me an e-mail (

Special thanks to Ryan C. for telling me about this in the first place, L. Deviche and P. Deviche for passing the photos on to Ryan, and to P. Deviche for giving me permission to share his photos. Thanks!

Red Phase Western Screech-Owl photographed by P. Deviche and shared with permission

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Indian River Valley

Connor, Rowan, and I took advantage of the clear (but cool, and fortunately calm) weather to swap out the ibuttons. The overnight low in the low 20s (coldest of the season so far) actually made things a bit easier, as the muskeg (and wet areas surrounding it) were frozen enough to support my weight. Ordinarily it takes getting my feet wet or taking extra time to carefully pick my steps. Unfortunately, they were a couple of weeks past when they had filled up, so there will be a gap in the data.

We made good time up the trail, but my underestimation of how long it would take to get started resulted in the last couple getting placed closer to the start time than I would prefer. I’ll need to check when I collect the data later to make sure the initial reading is not influenced by being in my pocket too close to the temperature recording time.

In the muskegs, puddles were frozen solid enough to walk on, though we were still wary of doing so. There was not really that much frost accumulation, but perhaps that takes more days of freezing nights than we’ve had in this spell.

We walked up to the end of the long muskeg and arrived just as the sun started hitting the area. I wanted to sit and enjoy the sun and quiet for a little while and challenged Connor and Rowan to each find a deer bed before we left.

I was a little puzzled by one muskeg puddle that had very cloudy ice when pretty much all the others had clear ice. Now I kind of wish I had taken a picture, but that’s the way it goes.

On the way back we had some miscommunication and Connor ended up going back a different way than Rowan and I, though we met up on the trail at the second bridge.

Just down the trail from the cascade and blue swing, Connor spotted what he thought was a Song Sparrow. I was skeptical at first, as I don’t ever remember seeing them not on the beach or in residential areas, but we were able to get good looks and confirm that it was a Song Sparrow. I’ll probably write more on that in a follow-up post.

There were still 30+ cohos and a couple of smaller fish (dolly varden?) in the large pool down river from the swing.

Forecast for overnight is increasing clouds and a chance of snow. Ultimately that’s expected to change to rain Saturday or Sunday.

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Harbor Mountain ibuttons

I had hoped to get the ibuttons on Harbor Mountain changed before the third gate closed, and even had tentative plans to do so back on the first weekend of the month (the gate had originally be scheduled to close on 3 November). However, when the snow level dropped low enough to start hitting the upper part of the road on Friday or Saturday, they closed it a couple of days earlier.

After missing the gate closure, I was less inspired to get up there right away, and with warm temperatures keeping snow levels up, there wasn’t really a pressing need, as they just needed to be swapped out before the snow got too deep. With snow levels dropping again this weekend, it seemed like a good time to make the ~2 mile walk up. Despite somewhat dismal weather, a friend and I drove up to the third gate and began the hike. I was a little surprised to see several other people on foot at various points (above and below the gate), some jogging, others walking. I would have guessed that with the cold wet weather, not many people would be out. It seems likely that Harbor Mountain road (which I don’t really enjoy walking on that much) might be more popular than I realized.

At the third gate, snow was mixing with the rain, and as we gained elevation, a higher percentage of the precipitation fell in solid form. Fortunately there was an inch or less of accumulation, so it was really no hindrance for us. We were able to get the ibuttons swamped out and make it back down in a couple of hours, leaving time for a stop by Starrigavan before noon. Out there I was interested to see a Red-throated Loon close to shore. Unfortunately it moved farther out before I could get my camera out for a photo, but it was nice to see.

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Totem Park Walk; Whale Watching

I walked around Totem Park this morning with the intention of getting some photos of the huckleberry leaves that were still persisting. This afternoon I went on an Allen Marine trip for Mt. Edgecumbe seniors that was focused on recording sea birds and dive times of whales. It was an exercise intended to give students a sense of the sort of data collected by marine biologists. The weather was not as nice (by a long shot) as it had been on Thursday, when I had been invited to go on a couple of similar trips for middle school science students (unfortunately my day was already filled up with other activities). However, we were able to get good looks at birds in the channel as well as see some whales out in Eastern Channel. I even got the splash of a breaching whale.

I was interested to see some Common Murres that were still/already transitioning into/out of winter plumage. I’m beginning to wonder if there is any point during the winter when none are in transition.

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Afternoon Showers

Occasional showers seemed to be the weather for today. This morning there was some hail associated with them, but later in the afternoon it was just rain. With the low angle sun, if there’s enough of a break in the clouds between showers it can make for some dramatic lighting. I missed some during a brief walk at the park, but stopped to take pictures of the showers out over the sound when I was out by Sandy Beach this afternoon.

There are still a few yellowed leaves on the red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) bushes along the trail in the park. I feel like there’s an at least semi-interesting photo there somewhere, and would like to try and find one before the leaves are all gone. At the very least it would be nice to document the phenomenon.

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Yax̱latit Noow

A prominent feature at the north end of a long sandy beach, Yax̱latit Noow looks out over the northern lobe of Sitka Sound

Over the past few years one of my side projects has been to try and learn to speak/understand Tlingit. There is an active group of enthusiastic learners and teachers of the language in the region, which I am gratified to be a part of. I am sure everyone has their own motivations for engaging in this effort, and for me it is an outgrowth of my interest in natural history. One especially interesting (to me) resource that has been published is Haa Léelk’w Hás Aaní Saax’ú: Our Grandparents’ Names on the Land, an atlas of native place names around Southeast Alaska. The Sitka area has an especially rich collection, which, as I understand it, is due in part to some early (for this project) work to document place names with Charlie Joseph in the early 1980s.

Yax̱latit Noow is at the location called Kamenoi Point on current charts (though strictly speaking I’m not sure they are entirely equivalent – depending on the fuzziness of how feature names are applied). In Tlingit, as I understand it, Noow refers to a fortified place. This can apply both to constructed forts as well as rocky hills along a shoreline that presumably would have provided advantages in defending against attack. An example of the former type would be Shisk’i Noow, the fort at what is now Sitka National Historical Park. It was built to defend against the Russians after the Russian outpost at Old Sitka was destroyed. A more well recognized local example of the latter would be Noow Tlein, more widely known as Castle Hill. Although you wouldn’t know it now, it was formerly a tidewater island.

I do not know if every feature named as a noow actually was the sight of some sort of fort or defended location, nor do I know if Yax̱latit Noow in particular may have been associated with a settlement of some sort. I do suspect that in centuries past, it probably had less attachment with the main part of Kruzof Island. In the picture below you can see young spruce trees growing up in the gap between the hill and the forests of the main island. Relative sea level has been dropping for some time (due mainly to tectonic uplift and isostatic rebound), and it seems likely that within my lifetime or not long before, Yax̱latit Noow was regularly completely surrounded by water at high tides.

As for the name, Yax̱latit Noow is translated as Drifting ashore fort in the book. It’s easy to imagine this might associated with a story (as many names are), but I don’t know whether it is or not.

If anyone knows more about this or other names in this area, I would be grateful to learn more.

Gap between Yax̱latit Noow and main part of Kruzof Island. As the Young Spruce trees grow, this gap is likely to disappear

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