Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Anan Wildlife Observatory in the spring

One of the highlights of the Wrangell area is the Anan Wildlife Observatory which is located about 35 miles south of town on the mainland.  Anan Creek has one of the largest pink salmon runs in Southeast Alaska which brings in a large number of bears in the summer to take advantage of this food resource.  Anan attracts both black bears, Ursus americanus, and brown bears, Ursus arctos, making it a unique area where you have the opportunity to see both species interacting.  Generally they don't interact much as the black bears quickly find something better to do somewhere else when the brown bears show up.  I'll do more posts later in the year about Anan so won't get into too much detail here.
My special lady friend (any Big Lebowski fans reading this?) and I went to Anan on Saturday to get out of town for the day and do some steelhead fishing, steelhead fishing was our excuse to go down there anyway but just being away from town and outdoors was our primary goal.
The bears are just now beginning to emerge from their dens so we didn't expect to see any bears and saw no new bear sign but we did get to see some of the other creatures in the area.

Andrea has never seen killer whales, or orcas, in the wild which I found very surprising considering the amount of time she spends doing things outside so my goal has been to be with her when she sees them for the first time and luckily, I was!  We saw these 3 near Anan slowly swimming into the Bradfield Canal.  These are 2 females and one young one.  Female killer whales have shorter curved dorsal fins whereas the males have huge tall dorsals that can be over 6 feet tall!  We followed these 3 for several minutes making sure to keep a respectful distance from them but as they entered the Bradfield Canal, they suddenly sped up and began heading into the canal at full speed.  We kept pace with them in the boat from several hundred feet away until the young one seemed to start getting farther behind the adults at which point I stopped so as to not cause them any stress.  They kept going at top speed and then I noticed splashing far ahead of us in the middle of the canal so I pulled out binoculars and saw that the splashing was coming from a large male killer whale coming towards the other 3 at top speed!  They eventually met up and slowed back down to a more leisurely pace while several more killer whales became visible ahead making their way toward the rest of the group.  They all met up forming a pod of at least 7 individuals with 3 females, 3 males, and one young one.
The following 3 photos are Andrea's, she is a great photographer and I was busy driving the boat!

If anyone was wondering why I call them killer whales moreso than orcas, I'll explain.  While calling them killer whales is not accurate and in some minds is not politically correct, calling them orcas really isn't that much better when one knows what orca and the scientific name, Orcinus orca, really means.  Killer whale is not accurate in the fact that these guys are not whales, they are in the dolphin family and are the largest of the dolphins.  They are killers though in the sense that they eat fish, sharks, rays, seals, sea lions, birds, whales, and the occasional swimming moose or deer, everything has to eat something and these guys are top predators.  Orcinus orca comes from a Roman god of the underworld, Orcus.  The specific epithet, orca, means "barrel shaped" but also has meaning of monsters, think of the orcs from The Lord of the Rings.  Some interpretations of the scientific name translate as "whale from the land of the dead".  So, in my mind, when you know the meaning of orca or what it can refer to, I don't find orca much better than killer whale, it still has some pretty negative and harsh connotations.  Tomato, tomahto.  They are incredible creatures with an extremely high level of intelligence and language as well as complex social structure and are a treat to see regardless of what you call them.

This is the dorsal fin of the first male that quickly closed the distance to the first 3 that we saw.  Individual killer whales can be identified by their dorsal fins and the white markings directly behind it on their back.  We named this one Corkscrew because of the wavy appearance of the fin.

One of the other males had a dorsal fin that was completely laid over as you can see in this photo.  This is typically found in almost all captive killer whales but isn't common in the wild.  There are many possible causes for this:  old age, sickness, injury, and possibly genetics.  This was a very tight pod that swam very close together for the time that we watched them.  I wish I knew what they were communicating to each other when they were meeting up and then travelling together.

I guess this guy is a little less exciting than the orcas.  He is pretty though and hung out near us on the trail for several minutes while a male and female rufous hummingbird ate from blueberry blossoms and the sapsucker's holes.  I wrote in a previous post about my experience watching hummingbirds follow red breasted sapsuckers from tree to tree to eat the sap exposed by the sapsucker.

A wild terrestrial mammal at Anan.

Monday, April 17, 2017

BAM! Springtime!

The buds on various trees and bushes are popping all over the place!  Spring is springing like crazy.  These are from a red alder tree.

I have quickly come to appreciate just how challenging it is to take a very good picture of birds, it seems like they are either just a little too far away, won't stay still, or in a place that is a little too dark.  Here are two more almost really good pictures of a bird, a male Varied Thrush who was down on the beach foraging when I spotted him as I kayaked by.  The scientific name of this bird means "mistletoe berry eating mountain bird".

Friday, April 14, 2017

A potpourri of sea life

There is a saying that when the tide is out, the table is set.  There is a healthy, 100% natural, and easy to get opportunity for a meal right there in those photos.  The greens and reds are various seaweeds, most seaweeds are edible, and the little fountains are coming from clams expelling water from their siphons.  Clams can have toxins filtered from the environment in their flesh which can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), but in our area it is very rare.  There seems to be a certain amount of fear and paranoia increasing among some people regarding this but statistics and facts show that your odds of getting PSP (in the Wrangell area anyway) is extremely low.  I'd rather take my chances with wild clams than with most of the packaged, manufactured "food" sold in every grocery store.

Some starfish on the rocks at low tide

Starfish close up

This is what sea anemones look like at low tide when their tentacles are retracted.

This sea lion was extremely content basking in the warm sunshine.  This seems to be a preferred relaxation pose for some sea lions as I saw several on this morning in this position.  Sea lion sun salutation!

The previous 3 photos were of a female sea lion and her pup playing in the water.  While sea lions tend to look like big, smelly, loud, grumpy, obese bags of blubber while they are laying on the rocks of the beach, they transform into beautiful, graceful, water dancers when they are in the water.  It was a lot of fun watching these two enjoying each other's company and the beautiful morning.  The red on the sea lion in the first photo is blood from some recent altercation.  I couldn't see the wound but it must not have been too bad as it was fast asleep.

A close up of a sea lion "foot".  The big furry thing is one of the several giant male sea lions that were hauled out on the rocks.

The setting sun on the water.  It was another pretty sunset but not a spectacular one but then this humpback whale worked its way toward me letting me get this slightly blurry picture of it.  I heard a report that there were some herring showing up in the area and there have been some dense flocks of gulls and sea ducks feeding so this whale was probably taking advantage of an easy food source as well.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Moon over Wrangell

A nice evening in the hidden gem while out on the boat.

This was taken from my boat about 5 miles from Wrangell, Wrangell Island is the dark body of land in the foreground with the forest and mountains of the mainland behind.  This is the very northern tip of Wrangell Island called Point Highfield.  Our airport is just on the other side of the hill.

The mountain with the long flat summit on the right of this photo is Berg Mountain which is one of the higher mainland mountains close to Wrangell.  A "high" mountain in southeast is any one over 4,000 feet, this one is somewhere over 4,000' but under 5,000'.  The amount of time, effort, and misery involved to summit a 4,000 footer in SEAK is significant and nothing to take for granted!  Getting to the top of a mountain here generally involves a completely trail-less bushwack from sea level while hoping you have picked a good route and can avoid cliffs, extensive blowndown trees, dense thickets of Devil's Club, bears, getting lost, etc., etc.  Climbing mountains in SEAK requires a different level of commitment and outdoor skills than most other places as well as a sadistic appreciation for being miserable!  Sounds like fun!  This particular mountain is one of the few that I have not climbed that is visible from the Wrangell area due to its long approach.  I hope to get up there this year though, I'm weary of looking at it from a distance and wondering what the view from the top looks like and unfortunately I'm not getting any younger!

Sunday, April 9, 2017


Birds, birds, and more birds on a beautiful spring day!

Some signs of spring I've seen lately:  skunk cabbage flowers are blooming, snow geese are flying north, and the mostly hairless bipedal mammals are in short pants.

An orchid

Orchids are amazing to me!  Coevolution is fascinating but, for me, still does not fully explain how a flower like this could eventually select for a version that can so closely imitate whatever insect it needs to attract for pollination.  There is so much in the world and existence that we can't explain.  Pretty cool!

This next photo for me represents many things - my time of living in and exploring the wilds of western Montana while based in the eclectic small city of Missoula where you could get so many good things so easily like this microbrew porter from The Kettlehouse Brewery which was literally one block from my house; the ice in the drink is from the LeConte Glacier north of Wrangell which is the place where I have been living and exploring from for almost 17 years now and continue to be humbled and awed; and the beverage in the glass is some excellent Jameson Irish whiskey which has led to many stories of its own!