Friday, February 3, 2017

Warning, Bird Nerd ahead

The town of Wrangell came into existence because of the Stikine River, which is a transboundary river meaning that part of it is in Canada and part of it is in Alaska.  The headwaters of the Stikine begin in interior British Columbia up on a beautiful plateau called the Spatsizi.  There is also a Spatsizi River which is a tributary of the Stikine, one of many.  The word "spatsizi" means "land of the red goats" in the language of the people who have inhabited this area the longest, the Tahltan.  The reference to red goats comes from the fact that the white mountain goats of the area have a habit of rolling in the reddish, iron oxide rich soil of the area.  I won't get too involved with Stikine River information here as there are many books written about its history, ecology, etc. and I will discuss various aspects of it in future posts.  In this post, I would just like to give a bit of information related to the photos and too offer up something of possible interest since the photos themselves aren't anything special! 
The Stikine travels about 350 miles from its headwaters lake to where it meets the Pacific Ocean just a few miles north of Wrangell.  It is a very big river!  Not Mississippi River big, or Yukon River big, but big nonetheless.  On an average summer river level there are almost 900,000 gallons of water flowing down this river per second!  It is a big, powerful, high volume river.  Being such a big and powerful river means that it has an equally large valley through which it makes its journey from source to sea.  This valley is one of the few corridors penetrating the massive barrier of the Coastal Range of mountains which separate our coastal, wet, and temperate environment from the dry, hot and cold, interior environment.  This corridor allows for the movement and migration of animals and plants,that are normally blocked by the mountain range, into areas where they are not typically found.  For example, there are Ruffed Grouse up the Stikine but nowhere else in the area, a few mountain lions, which are not found in SE AK, have been seen in the Wrangell area, and there are several species of warblers, vireos, and raptors that are found in our area because of the Stikine.
Bored yet?  Don't worry, if you aren't into birds it gets worse!

See, I told you it gets worse!  A somewhat blurry photo of a dull gray bird, this blog is the best!  Yesterday, I took a hike around a muskeg system just outside of town and this guy caught my eye as it flew from tree to tree and occasionally down to the ground and then back up onto a tree branch.  It's behavior and its long tail immediately told me that this was a bird that I have never seen here before.  I couldn't get very close to it but these photos are good enough to clearly show the marks that identify this bird as a Townsend's Solitaire.

The Townsend's Solitaire, Myadestes townsendi, is listed as a rare species in Alaska during the non-winter months and a very rare or accidental bird in Alaska during the winter months.  A sighting to make a closet bird nerd like me kind of excited.  And with pictures to prove it to those doubting bird snobs!  (Another story about doubting bird snobs soon)  (And I mean bird snobs in a light-hearted, teasing way............mostly)

The identifying marks for this bird are:  a white eye ring, tan colored feathers on its wings, a long tail with some white visible, behavior of flying from tree to ground in the pursuit of insects, and typically solitary (Solitaire  - get it?)  Check, check, check, check, and check.  What does the Stikine River have to do with this bird being in Wrangell in February?  Maybe nothing at all, I just thought it would be a good way to get the point across that we see some atypical things around here mostly because of the Stikine.  We also have a species of Bigfoot in the Wrangell area typically only found in Canada.  It is distinguishable from our normal species by the way it says the words "sorry" and "about".

Just some Ravens and a beautiful blue sky.  There were a lot of ravens in the area, especially in one spot leading me to think their was a carcass of some kind but I couldn't find one and neither could my dog friend I had with me. 

Want to read another bird story?  Yes    No   (Circle one)

If you circled yes, here it is:

My first summer in Wrangell was in 1999 working as a seasonal laborer for the U.S. Forest Service on the trail and cabin maintenance crew with two older sourdough Southeast Alaskan men, Mickey and Steve.  The three of us were spending a few days at a very remote cabin on a lake reachable only by float plane doing routine maintenance and cutting firewood.  One of the normal maintenance tasks was to cut the vegetation in the "yard" of the cabin with a power weed wacker which we did on our first day at the cabin.  During our first night there, I awoke with the need to urinate so of course I laid there deciding if I could wait until morning to avoid getting out of my warm sleeping bag.  As I laid there, I heard a high pitched sound coming from outside of the cabin.  There was something very rodent-sounding about the sound so I figured that was what it was - a mouse.  Then I heard the same sound again and then again and then again but from a different side of the cabin.  At this point, I was interested to find out what was making the sound so got out of the bag, grabbed my headlamp, and went out onto the porch to relieve myself first.  As I was taking care of business there from the porch, I heard the high-pitched sound again but this time it sounded like it was coming from one of the big spruce trees next to the cabin.  And then I was able to vaguely see a dark shape go from the ground in the "yard" of the cabin up into a different spruce tree.  Business finished, I turned on my headlamp and shone it into the second tree where I immediately saw a Barred Owl sitting on a branch looking at me.  Barred Owls, Strix varia, are relatively large owls and are one of only two species of owls in North America with dark rather than yellow eyes so they are pretty easy to identify.  While I was watching this owl, I heard the sound again from the other tree so I turned my light to it and saw another Barred Owl sitting on a branch looking at me!  The owls were making the sound!  As I watched them both with the light and without it, I realized that they were taking advantage of the freshly cleared area around the cabin to hunt mice.  Several times I watched one of them swoop down and catch one while the other one sat in a tree and occasionally made the high-pitched sound.  They were hunting together obviously but to this day I still wish I knew what the sound was all about.  It definitely sounded like a mouse squeak but was being made by an owl.  Were they just communicating with each other or was one imitating a mouse to bring them out into the open so the other owl could catch it?  I wish I knew!  Not long after this encounter, I told this experience to a biologist who immediately told me that they were not Barred Owls because Barred Owls are not found in SE AK and that they could not be imitating mice.  Too many biologists spend too much time indoors and don't give nature the credit for being the dynamic thing that it is.

One other future story about the cabin in this story - it is where I spent September 11, 2001.  Just Steve and I mostly cut off from the rest of the world not really sure what was happening, just that our float plane pick up would be indefinitely delayed!

These are a couple of deer rubs on small cedar trees that I came across yesterday on my hike.  The deer we have here are Sitka Black Tailed deer, Odocoileus hemionus sitkensis, and are related to mule deer although Sitka black tails are much smaller, the average weight of a buck is 120 pounds according to Alaska Fish and Game although there are most definitely bigger ones.  We have had several mild winters in a row without a lot of snow so the deer populations seem to be doing really well, I've seen a lot of nice big bucks during hunting season.  In my opinion, deer hunting in SE AK is the best.  The season is very long, August 1 to December 31 in the Wrangell area, and you can start the season by hunting the big bucks up in the alpine and then work your way down to lower elevations as the season progresses until you might be hunting deer on the beach in the early winter when the snow has driven them down low and they are eating seaweed at low tide.

Yesterday's sunset.  The haziness is because of the silt in the air blown down the Stikine River by the cold winds that scream down from the high pressure air mass sitting over interior British Columbia.  Another effect of that massive corridor cutting through the Coastal Mountains.

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