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. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Porcupine Caribou - Denali NP, Alaska

Caribou are a species of deer in North America that are known as reindeer in other parts of the world. In North America there are a number of subspecies. The Peary caribou, the smallest, are found in the High Arctic of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories of Canada. The boreal woodland caribou, the largest, range from the Northwest Territories to Labrador with a few individuals in northern Idaho, extreme northeastern Washington and small portions of British Columbia and Alberta. They are quite rare and listed as a threatened species. The barren-ground caribou, medium-sized, are found mainly in the Canadian territories of Nunavut and Northwest Territories and in Greenland. Finally, the porcupine caribou, also a medium-sized caribou, found in Alaska and western Yukon, are the type of caribou we saw in Denali NP in Alaska. Some lump the barren-ground and porcupine caribou into the same subspecies. 
These were the first caribou we saw, a mother and calf. The calf has spikes for horns and the mother's are not particularly large either, meaning she must be very young. We watched them for awhile as they ran along the hills near the side of the road. 
Other subspecies, generally known as reindeer in other parts of the world, include the: Novaya Zemlya reindeer in Russia; Finnish forest reindeer in northwest Russia and Finland; Kamchatka reindeer in Russia; Svalbard reindeer in Norway; mountain reindeer in Norway; and Siberian tundra reindeer in Russia. 
This fellow took my breath away. He was regal. The brow palm or shovel, the part of the antlers stretching out over the nose of the caribou, is found on the males, but not the females. 
We saw him a few miles before Kantishna, the end of the 92 mile road into Denali NP. That area of the park is where we saw the most caribou, and particularly the big males. 
Here the same male goes over a hill and disappears. The upper antlers that branch out are known as the top palm and the long branch that lifts them up is the main beam. 
One of the things that really sets caribou apart are their amazing antlers. Both males and females have them, but the males are larger and more extravagant. There are two separate groups of points, lower and upper, and lots of variation between subspecies. They shed and regrow their antlers each year, and each year they grow larger. The porcupine caribou antlers can stand higher than three feet. 
These two males were seen off in the distance, also near Kantishna.
This group of females and calves was way out in the tundra away from the road. We could hardly see them with our naked eye. This is a blown up photo from a 500 mm lense. We saw them on our journey back, about halfway along the road.
Male caribou are larger than female caribou, from 10% to 50%. In Denali, an adult will weigh anywhere from 130 to 350 pounds. Fur color varies among the subspecies, with the Peary being whiter, the woodland darker brown and the barren-ground and porcupine grayer. They have two layers of fur, a dense woolly undercoat and a longer-haired overcoat with hollow, air-filled hairs. This is their primary insulation. Their hooves are large and form a nearly circular print, acting like snowshoes. 
This big guy gave us our best look. He was not too far off the road and stayed put quite a while. Imagine holding up the weight of those antlers with a relatively small head. He was even closer to Kantishna, within a mile or two. 
He bends down to graze and gives a different angle to his antlers. 
Here he forages on some plants. His coat reminds me of a rock covered with lichen.
The porcupine caribou, also known as Grant's caribou and Alaska caribou, is named after the birthing grounds of a large portion of them, the Porcupine River, which is a tributary of the Yukon River. They participate in the longest land-migration of any land mammal on earth, going over 1,500 miles a year between their winter range and calving grounds. However, the Denali herd, which we saw, stays almost exclusively in Denali NP. The Denali herd is currently about 1,760 caribou, but it fluctuates greatly. It numbered about 20,000 in the 1920's and 1930's, then dropped to 10,000 from the 1940's through the 1960's. The numbers got as low as 1,000. Population decline was due to predation and some particularly severe winters. 
Here are some caribou antlers sticking up out of the tundra. I was the one who spotted these and asked the bus driver to stop. I was a pretty poor spotter otherwise. 
This female was the last caribou we saw on our way out, about 16 or 17 miles from the park entrance and not too far past where regular passenger cars are allowed to drive. I also spotted this one and got the bus driver to stop. 
I'm not sure exactly why, but I was quite taken by the caribou. I was about as excited to see them as any of the other animals we saw. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Grizzly Bear - Denali NP

I have always been confused by the terminology used for brown bears in the U.S. There were the grizzly bears in Yellowstone and Glacier NP, the larger brown bears in Alaska and the really, really big Kodiak bears on Kodiak Island in Alaska. It turns out that these bears are all subspecies of brown bears that are found around the world. The term "grizzly" came from Lewis & Clark and probably referred to the "grizzled" or golden and gray tips that brown bears have. Scientists have struggled over how many subspecies of brown bear there are. In North America, scientists had generally recognized the following as separate subspecies: (a) Alaskan brown bear (found in coastal Alaska); (b) the Dall Island brown bear (found in southeastern Alaska on Dall Island which is west of Prince of Wales Island); (c) the Alaska Peninsula brown bear (found on the peninsula going southwest from mainland Alaska and ending in the Aleutian Islands); (d) the grizzly bear (found in northern and western Canada, inland Alaska and the northwestern U.S.); (e) the Mexican grizzly (now extinct, which was found in Mexico and in the southwestern U.S., including Arizona and Texas); (f) the ABC or Clade II bear (found on the ABC islands of Admiralty, Baranof and Chichagof in southeastern Alaska); (g) the Stikine brown bear (found in northwestern Canada from the Stikine River to the Skeena River); and (h) the California grizzly (which was found in California and is now extinct). With the availability of genetic testing, scientists now generally recognize only one subspecies of brown bear in North America, the North American brown bear, and two ecotypes of that subspecies, the coastal brown bear and the inland grizzly bear. Ecotypes are capable of breeding with each other, but have distinct differences due to geographical conditions. The coastal brown bear can get as large as 1,500 pounds because it has a steady diet of fatty spawning salmon. The inland grizzly may be as little as 180 pounds in Yukon because its diet is more roots, berries and small rodents. 

While in Alaska we visited Denali National Park. Denali, including its Preserve, is 9,492 square miles, or 2.75 times larger than Yellowstone National Park which is 3,468 square miles. Only one road, 92 miles long, goes into the interior of Denali. Private cars can only go in 15 miles on the road (which we did one evening). To go beyond that, you have to go on a National Park bus or on the bus of a private concessionaire.  We took a private tour bus all the way to the end of the road (to a place called Kantishna) and back out the same day. We started at 6:00 a.m. and finished after 7:00 p.m. The bus included stops at various visitor centers along the way, a lunch at one of the four privately owned resorts (we visited the Denali Backcountry Lodge) at the end of the road, including a botany walk, and stops to view wildlife along the way. 

Two of our exciting sightings along the road were grizzly bears. These would be the grizzly bear subspecies under the old terminology and the inland grizzly bear ecotype under more modern terminology. These grizzlies have a meat diet consisting mainly of Arctic ground squirrels and moose calves, but would also include marmots, voles, fish and caribou calves. However, depending on time of year and circumstances, the diet may be as much as 90% vegetarian, the reason it is so much smaller than the coastal brown bear. They eat various berries, berries, berries galore, including blueberries, in late summer and fall; insects that may be available in large quantities such as bees, ants and ladybugs; roots in spring and fall, including peavine roots; and grasses, plant leaves and stems in summer. 

One of our guides told us that coastal grizzlies are easier and safer to get close to, because there are enough salmon to go around and they learn to share them with other bears and to tolerate humans. Inland bears are in competition for more meager rations and thus less friendly and accommodating. 

Our first bear sighting was a mother grizzly and two cubs. They were quite a bit distant, perhaps 80 yards or more, between the road and a stream. They were on the other side of the bus from where we were sitting, so it was more difficult for us to get good pictures. They were mostly among the bushes eating berries and so we did not get any great photos of them in plain view. I share my best pictures, such as they are. 
Mama grizzly with her nose in the bushes.
Mama with one or both of her cubs near her and the stream behind her.
Mama feeding on berries.
One of the babies with an actual view of the face.
Another view of the two cubs and mama grizzly visible as a brown lump to the left.
I alluded to a botany walk we took near the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna, at the end of the 92 mile road. We encountered many, many blueberry bushes and were able to sample the blueberries. They were much smaller than our cultivated blueberries and less sweet and more tart. From the walk we could readily see that the berries were widely available for the bears. 
This scene is full of blue berry bushes. They are the more grayish bushes among the greenery.
Blueberries on a bush.
Some blueberries we picked and ate.
Denali NP is vast and the area we traveled through was almost entirely wilderness, where no motorized vehicles are allowed, other than on the one road we were on. When the road is covered with snow, as it is much of the year, the road is not plowed. Travel is by use of dog sled and the NPS actually maintains dog sleds for purposes of travel, including rescues, inside the park.
Two glacial rivers (with no fish because of the heavy glacial silt) merge together. The second grizzly bear we saw was very near this spot on the mountain below us. This is prime grizzly country.
A picture very near the spot above, but with a closer view of the upper mountains.
A larger river, a result of merger of many more of those glacial melt rivers,with some larger mountains on the other side.
A closer look into the misty mountains across the river.
More prime grizzly habitat.

Our second sighting was a solo grizzly on a mountain side below and away from us about 100 yards. It was on our side of the bus and did get away from vegetation so that we got better views. Both sets of bears had much darker limbs and faces than the rest of their bodies. 

The second grizzly. We got substantially better views.

Its dark face and legs really stand out.
It was a thrill to see some grizzlies, by far the best views of grizzlies I'd had so far.