Sitka Nature Show #109 – Sue Karl (Part 1)

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The 26th of June show featured the first part of a conversation with Sue Karl of the USGS. She was in town to give a talk on the geology of Baranof Island as part of the Natural History Seminar series. She began her study of the geology of Baranof Island doing graduate work in the 1970s and is the lead author of a geologic map of Baranof Island published by the USGS last year. In this part of the conversation we spoke mostly about the geological history of Baranof Island, including some theories on how and where the rocks that make up the island may have formed and what processes brought the to their current position.

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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Red-necked Stint in Taylor Bay

While up in Elfin Cove this past week, my field partners (Kent and Kitty) and I had a chance to get out with Steve and Debbie from Elfin Cove to visit Taylor Bay (across Cross Sound from Elfin Cove). We made kind of a big loop walking around the beach dunes and a large estuary meadow, and on the way back I ended up lagging a bit behind taking pictures of tracks and things. We had been seeing quite a few Semipalmated Plovers and Least Sandpipers (both of which seem to nest in the bay), but I noticed one sandpiper that seemed a bit different than the others when several took flight. It ended up flying over by a Semipalmated Plover, where I was able to get a better look at it.

At first I thought it might be a Sanderling, as that was the only small sandpiper I have experience with that shows quite so much red. However, it did look quite right for Sanderlings that I had seen (and it seems like they’re usually down near the water’s edge), so I began to wonder if it could be a Red-necked Stint. I have never seen a Red-necked Stint and, although I know I’ve seen pictures, it was not a species I was overly concerned about seeing, as there are only three prior reports that I am aware of (from Glacier Bay and Juneau). Given the rarity of a Red-necked Stint, and the general difficulty small shorebirds can present, I did my usual thing and took pictures so I could ask more questions later.

The bird seemed fairly cooperative, so after getting a few photos, I walked over to where everyone was waiting for me and mentioned I had seen an odd (to me) looking shorebird. It might be a Sanderling, but it might be something pretty unusual like a Red-necked Stint. They decided it was worth walking back to look (as Kitty put it, it would have been pretty annoying to have just assumed it was a Sanderling and then found out later it was a rare bird), and we were able to find it again, with everyone getting very good looks at it.

Upon getting back to Elfin Cove we reviewed the birds, and saw Sanderlings should be closer in size to a Semipalmated Plover, while this bird seemed distinctively smaller. Based on the illustrations, this bird seemed a better fit for Red-necked Stint as well.

Given the remoteness of the location, I did not figure anyone would be wanting to rush out to see the bird (even if we were correct about it being the stint), so I waited until getting back to Sitka where I could more easily share the photo and get confirmation of the id. In his email confirming our id, Steve Heinl said to note the unspotted head and neck.

Thanks to Steve and Debbie Hemenway for sharing stories and showing us around their part of the world, and thanks to Steve Heinl for confirming the identification.

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Sitka Nature Show #108 – Allison Nelson

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The 12th of June show featured a conversation with Allison Nelson, who recently had a paper published about breeding areas of Hermit Thrushes that winter in the San Francisco Bay area. Her research, and the discovery that some of the thrushes wintering there were nesting in Southeast Alaska was the inspiration for a vacation which included a stop in Sitka. We talked about her work with Hermit Thrushes, including the research on migration, as well as some of her experiences getting to know the breeding birds during her work.

Allison was kind enough to share a picture of one of the Hermit Thrushes in the study with its geolocator.

Hermit Thrush with Geolocator (photo contributed by Allison Nelson)

Hermit Thrush with Geolocator (photo contributed by Allison Nelson)

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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Hermit Thrush Conversation

Today I spent much of the day out birding with Allison Nelson (who was motivated to come to Southeast Alaska because of her work with Hermit Thrushes wintering in the bay area), and her husband. In her work with geolocators, she found evidence that birds from the north bay sites nested further south than the birds from the south bay sites. The latter appeared to have nesting locations into Southeast Alaska.

It was interesting how few Hermit Thrushes we heard today. She mentioned that Gwen Baluss had told her it seemed to be a poor year for Hermit Thrushes in Juneau. I had not really thought about it (in part because it’s been a strange year overall, with the very early spring), but it does seem like I have heard fewer Hermit Thrushes singing than normal. I’m not sure if that is weather dependent (it’s been a wetter May and start of June than normal), or if there is a lower population this year. We did hear one singing at the park, and a few singing up on Harbor Mountain, so that was nice. It was also nice to see a nest with a female sitting on eggs (presumably). I had been told about the nest previously and was a little surprised to see how close it was to the trail. I suspect very few people will notice it until the young start begging. At that point, the nest could be easily discovered by a dog that hears the calls – the nest is only 3 or so feet off the ground.

One thing I was interested to learn, is that studies so far seem to indicate Hermit Thrushes are very faithful to winter and summmer locations. Birds will be recaptured on wintering grounds at the same location year after year. Similarly, birds have been found to return to the same nesting territory in subsequent years. I think it would be interesting to confirm whether that is taking place on the islands up here, also.

Today’s photos (when they get posted) will show some of my favorite trail whimsy in town. I’m not sure who is responsible for it (some of it looks like it has been there for years, with updates from time to time), but I do appreciate it.

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Rainy end of May and start of June

May ended up wetter than normal (7+ inches compared to an average of 4.4 inches of rain). However, almost 6 inches of that fell during the first week of the month, so overall the bulk of the month seemed to be not too wet. The last few days have been a bit drizzly, but temperatures were warm enough that it was not unpleasant to be out.

I had a chance to get out with some folks yesterday up Indian River. One of the people was visiting Sitka to consider it as a possible location for school groups to use as a destination for educational/adventure travel. Apparently this is kind of a regular thing for some schools to do, not just from the United States, but from other countries as well. Although it did rain on us a bit, the walk was quite nice. I spent the walk visiting with and/or listening to others and did not end up taking any photos.

Today’s outing was a trip to Blue Lake road to do some invasive plant surveys. Once again it was overcast with occasional (light) showers. I was interested to see the lake is less than 5 feet from spilling. Unless we get a dry spell, I suspect the lake will spill within the next week or two.

There are now quite a few salmonberries ripe, and there were half a dozen folks picking at various places along the road. The recent rains have not done the ripe berries any favors, and I noticed at least a couple covered in mold, while others were starting to break down a bit. Another interesting thing that I had not noticed before was a bunch of insects on the ripest berries. Most were march flies (Bibio sp.) which seem to be especially common along Blue Lake road (something I’ve noticed in prior years as well), but I did also see a few beetles that I have had identified as Podabrus sp previously, but I think that genus is getting split up, so I suspect they are going to have a different name soon.

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Gavan ibuttons

The Gavan ibuttons were overdue for a data download, so a friend and I spent the better part of the morning on a walk to take care of them. The weather was pleasant for walking, light overcast with comfortable temperatures.

The older gravel section at the start of Gavan Hill seems to have had an impact on the surrounding muskeg. Over the years since it was put in, there has been a transition to more grasses and a meadow-like character adjacent to the trail. I am not sure if this has to do with altered water levels/drainage or perhaps other changes due to the gravel (maybe availability of minerals?). It was striking to me today how far out the more meadow looking area extended.

Getting to where the Gavan Hill trail starts uphill has become a little less direct with the new trail completed last year, but the new route goes through some areas that seemed to be popular with birds. We had some nice views, including a Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Hermit Thrush, and male Rufous Hummingbird. I was also interested to see both native and introduced mountain ash trees growing. It appeared the native ones were already bloomed out, while the introduced ones were still at their blooming peak.

Further up, it was fun to notice two forms ofMertens’ Coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana) getting ready to bloom side by side.

I also noticed a tree that was rotting away, but in an interesting way. I suspect it was still fungal, but the way it appeared there were many tubes hollowing out the wood made me wonder if perhaps it was a lot of insect larvae doing some excavating.

(pictures to come)

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