Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Common Murre

Gull Island is three miles by boat from Homer on the south side of Kachemak Bay on the Kenai Peninsula. It is the summer home to 5,000 to 8,000 nesting common  murres. We took a cruise with Mako's Water Taxi out to and around the island and common murres were very abundant. They are also known as the common guillemot and thin-billed murre. Outside of the breeding season, they spend most of their time at sea. 
Common murres nesting on Gull Island with a few black-tailed kittiwakes and cormorants thrown in. 
Those not nesting were offshore swimming and diving. 
They breed in high density colonies and do not build nests. A group is known as a "bazaar" or "fragrance."   They lay an egg on bare rock and may be so close together that they are touching other nesting birds right next to them. After they breed they moult and become flightless for up to two months. During breeding, when we saw them, they are black to brown on the entire head, back and wings with white underparts. After molting, the lower face turns white. They commonly dive for their food, using their wings for propulsion. They can stay underwater up to two minutes. 
A solitary bird floating.
A solitary bird on the rock.
A solitary bird in some of the relatively sparse grass and foliage on the island. 
They have black beaks and brown eyes and secondary flight feathers that are tipped white, forming a narrow white wing-bar on  closed wings. 
I like how two of them have their beaks sticking straight up in the air.
There are five subspecies. We happened to see the Uria aalge inornat, the largest subspecies, which is in the Northern Pacific from Japan, Korea and Russia to Western Alaska and Northwest British Columbia. 
These are all brown, but many pictures I've seen show them as dark black. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Steller Sea Lion - Chiswell Islands, Alaska

The Steller sea lion is also known as the northern sea lion. The only seals larger than them are the walrus and the two species of elephant seal. Pups are born black and stay dark for several months. We saw quite a few pups with numbers emblazoned on their sides by scientists. At birth they are quite hefty, weighing about 50 pounds. Adult females are 7.5 to 9.5 feet long and weigh 530 to 770 pounds. Adult males are even larger, from 9.3 to 10.7 feet long and weighing 990 to 2,470 pounds. Males are distinguished by broader, higher foreheads, flatter snouts, and darker hair around their necks giving them a maned appearance. 
The males really stand out with their large necks and upper body. They also have lots of open wounds, indications that they have been involved in territorial battles for females.
A good look at the mane-like appearance on a male.
This big guy is surrounded by females and pups. 
I love the pup in the middle resting on mama's body. Domestic tranquility. 
A nice spot to catch some sun and some zzzs. 
They are found in the western Pacific from the Okhotsk Sea of Russia, north to the Gulf of Alaska, then south in the eastern Pacific to central California. 
Another male with body wounds. 
This big guy has woken from his slumber and is making a racket. 
If you look closely at the fins on this seal scratching its neck you'll see claws sticking out. 
On our eight hour boat tour in Kenai Fjords National Park, out of Seward, Alaska, we visited a rookery in the Chiswell Islands, out in the Gulf of Alaska. They were found high up on very steep rock jutting precipitously out of the water. Despite rough seas and a rolling boat, we watched offshore for awhile. They made quite a racket. Judy missed them as she was inside the boat dealing with seasickness issues.
This photo provides more of a panoramic view. The ocean is just below and the sea weed is sticking to the rocks at the bottom. It is quite a climb from the ocean up onto the rocks. 
One more view with a couple of bulls yodeling. 

Friday, August 26, 2016

Eastern Pacific Harbor Seal - Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

The Eastern Pacific harbor seal is one of five subspecies of harbor seals. I've seen this subspecies before, along the coast of central California. They are found from central Baja California, in Mexico, to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. This is by far the most populous of the subspecies and it is increasing in numbers. However, our guide told us that those in the area we were in Alaska are declining and scientists are trying to figure out why. 

We took an eight hour boat ride out of Seward into Kenai Fjords NP. Not too far from Seward our boat skipper pulled up along some rocks at the base of a cliff and noted that harbor seals were basking on the rocks. He indicated that this was a very unusual spot for them - that they normally are found on dislodged ice near the glaciers. At first I only saw a couple of seals. Then as I looked harder, I saw more. As I got home and looked at pictures I saw even more. They really blended in and looked like rocks. 
There are seven harbor seals in this picture. I didn't even see three of them until I got home and looked at pictures. They vary in color and blend in with the rocks. I was really surprised at the color variation, something I've not noticed on other harbor seals I've seen. 
This two-toned seal looks like a giant slug covered in lichens. 
These two are what I think of as the traditional color.
My favorite sighting, by far, was near the Northwestern Glacier. The seals were using floating ice from the calving glacier as platforms. As we pulled into the bay and approached the glacier, we passed ice flow after ice flow with harbor seals on them. It stands out as one of my fond memories of our trip. As we pulled away from the glacier I was awed as I looked out over the ice flows and saw them perched everywhere. It was truly an awesome sight. Quite a distance from the glacier our skipper pointed out a chunk of ice covered with harbor seals. 
These seals are gathered together quite closely on one small chunk of ice with other ice chunks dramatically behind them. 

It is amazing that these seals are floating at all as the ice is very broken up and does not look like much of a support. 
I love their expressive faces. The one in front, to the right, reminds me of an obedient dog just waiting to be summoned. 
Two share this piece of ice, but seven or more share a piece not much larger, behind them. 
I love the wrinkles on the seal in front, sleeping. The folds of blubber make it look like a wrinkled tube sock. 
The magnificent blue ice of the Northwestern Glacier is at the back. We actually saw it calving. I count about 70 seals on the ice in front of the glacier. 
I count about 16 seals squished together on this ice flow. This was a long way from the glacier and the other seals. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Northern Sea Otter - Kenai Peninsula, Alaska

There are three subspecies of sea otter: (a) the common sea otter, also known as the Asian, Commander or Kuril sea otter, found in the Western Pacific; (b) the Southern sea otter, also known as the California sea otter, found along the coast of central California; and (c) the Northern sea otter found in Alaska and along the Pacific west coast to Northern Oregon. 

On our trip to Alaska we saw Northern sea otters on several occasions, but had two really good sightings in particular. The first was in Kachemak Bay, off the Homer Spit, near Gull Island. Two otters were near each other, one wrapped in kelp. 
Sea otter near Gull Island. That face is about as cute as it gets.
There was some interaction between these two otters, but not as extensive or as rough as the other two otters we saw.
However, this otter's nose looks kind of scarred up, so I assume she is female and has been in some mating wars. 

I love the webbed hind feet with the outline of toes and dark marks indicating what I assume are toe nails. 
The other was in Resurrection Bay near the dock in Seward. I assumed they were mating. One was really going after the other in a fearful fashion, biting and rolling over in the water and going under. Wikipedia notes: "Mating takes place in the water and can be rough, the male biting the female on the muzzle - which often leaves scars on the nose - and sometimes holding her head under water." 
These otters were in Resurrection Bay. The guy on top shows some of the aggressiveness in the look in his face.


This one rolled over several times, giving a look at the back. We usually saw them floating face-up.
They are such a joy to watch, and so cute. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Brown Bear - Chichagof Island, Alaska

My post on grizzly bears noted that scientists now view the North American brown bear as one subspecies of brown bear, with two ecotypes, the coastal brown bear and the inland grizzly bear. That post featured the inland grizzly bear in Denali NP, a bear with primarily a vegetarian diet. This post features coastal brown bears on Chichagof Island, in Southeastern Alaska, bears that eat lots of salmon and get much larger than the inland grizzly bears. 
Chichagof Island is part of the Alexander Archipelago which consists of 1,100 islands. It is the second largest island of the archipelago, after Prince of Wales Island, and one of what is known as the ABC islands, also including Admiralty Island, which is third in size, and Baranof Island, which is fourth in size.  Chichagof is west/southwest of Juneau, west of Admiralty Island and north of Baranof Island. Chichagof is 75 miles long, by 50 miles wide, has a land area of 2,048 square miles, and a population of 1,342 persons as of the 2000 census. Chichagof is entirely within the Tongass National Forest and is a temperate rain forest. It also has the highest number of bears per square mile in the world, although I have seen the same claim for Admiralty Island
The beautiful temperate rain forest on Chichagof Island.
We were in Juneau on a Princess Cruise and took a shore excursion with Bear Creek Outfitters. We were driven from the cruise ship to the Juneau Airport where we got on a small float plane. There were ten of us from the cruise ship and a guide and we were flown over by two small planes. It was a 30 or 40 minute flight each way, which took us over Admiralty Island. We landed in the small Pavlof Bay, in the southeastern part of the much larger Freshwater Bay, south of the Iyoukeen Peninsula. We walked a short distance up the Pavlof River to a waterfall, just down-river from Pavlof Lake. It is a good place for brown bears because the river is shallow and chum salmon, primarily, spawn up the river and are relatively easy pickin's for the bears. 
A float plan lands in Pavlof Bay. Iyoukeen Peninsula is in the background. This plane was bringing in people from another group.
Judy next to the float plane we came in on. Pavlof Creek is behind Judy and around the bend. 
View of the cockpit in the plane. 
View from the front window on our return trip. It is either Chichagof Island or Admiralty Island below. 
The waterfall we were near on the Pavlof River.
We set up several wooden benches that our guide had stored in some bushes about 80 or 90 yards from the waterfall. We waited about an hour with no sightings other than a few jumping salmon and a bald eagle that flew above us down the river course. Then one of our group spotted a mother brown bear and two 2-year old cubs on the opposite side of the river behind us and for the next hour plus we watched them make their way up the river, eat berries, jump after fish in the river, then settle down at the waterfall where they attempted to catch fish (and actually did once while we watched them). We were joined by a couple of other groups, perhaps another ten in all, before we had to head back to Juneau. 
We were thrilled to see three bears on the opposite side of the river.
This youngster went to a tree for berries.

Then the youngsters started chasing salmon in the shallow river. It is a salmon making the splash in front of this startled bear. 
Mama just sat back and watched her youngsters attempt to catch salmon. She seemed to know that the kids had to try it out on their own - they weren't about to listen to her. 
This youngster unsuccessfully tries to pounce on a salmon.
Mama came out into the river...
...and sat on a rock to watch.
More unsuccessful chasing.
Mama was content to watch.
Eventually the kids joined her. 
They sauntered up to the base of the waterfall.
There again, Mama was just content to watch.
The falls must be nice with those warm coats on a summer day.
Eventually one of the youngsters went into the water and snagged a salmon. 
A scuffle ensued as the youngster's sibling tried to get a piece of the fish. Lots of growling and tussling.
Mama just looked on and did not intervene. 

At one time the bears in this vicinity, sometimes called the ABC Islands bears, were treated as a separate subspecies of brown bear. They have DNA characteristics of polar bears and brown bears. Just within the last few years, scientists from the University of California at Santa Cruz determined that the ABC Islands bears were a result of male brown bears mating with female polar bears that lived on these islands during the last ice age. When things warmed up the ABC Islands bears switched demographically from polar bears to brown bears. These interactions apparently occurred while the changeover was happening.