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.

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