Thursday, August 30, 2012

First Trail Camera Photos!

Take a look at what we've been seeing with our trail cameras! As to be expected, there is a lot of bear activity this time of year. But at the cameras we're setting a short distance away from the river, we're seeing some smaller carnivores, too!

Bear! Look at that fish!

 Look who's checking out the salmon carcass!

Hey bear!

 Stretch those wings, eagle!



 Do you think it sees the camera?

 Cub! And mama, of course.

Yes! A rotting fish carcass! Oh, wait.... 

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) are one of the more desirable species of salmon in Alaska. Sockeye tend to have rich, fatty meat, and their muscle ranges from pink to deep red in color, making it the preferred fish of canneries. In this region, most people that eat fish think King is king-- King salmon have the best flavor of them all-- but Sockeye probably comes a close second.

Sockeye are, in my opinion, the prettiest of the bunch when they're breeding. Males and females both take on a deep red hue, with green heads and tails. They only develop this color scheme when they're spawning. When living in the ocean, and before they begin to spawn, Sockeye are silvery blue. Check out this video of Sockeye on their spawning grounds in Chilkoot Lake:

Remember that Sockeye (like all the salmon we study) are anadromous fishes. Anadromous comes from the Greek word anadromos, meaning "running upward." Anadromous fish spend most of their lives at sea before migrating to freshwater streams and running upriver to breed and die. Most Sockeye spawn between July and August, so we're just seeing the tail end of the Sockeye run around Haines.

Imagine seeing hundreds of fish swimming together in a narrow stream bed or shallow pond just off of a major river:

The setting seems idyllic. Tree boughs overhang the creek, providing shade. The rocky bottom, interspersed with sandy patches, is a great place for a female Sockeye to build a redd (nest), lay her eggs, and attract a male to fertilize her brood. In the spring, her eggs will hatch, and the fry (young fish) will spend up to three years living in this stream, growing, before migrating out to sea*.

But before too long, the strain of migrating anywhere from hundreds to thousands of kilometers, breeding, defending territories and redds, and chasing off competing fish, all without eating, begins to take its toll. During spawning, salmon put all of their energy into breeding. All the normal things that we do on a day-to-day basis to stay alive (eating, for example), and all the things our bodies do to keep us healthy (fight off infections, destroy damaged cells, etc.) salmon neglect in favor of procreation. In fact, by the time salmon reach their spawning grounds, they've already begun the descent to senescence. The salmon start rotting before they've even died.

Can you see this white patches on these salmon? Those are parts of their skin that have died and begun to decompose. Some salmon appear in relatively good condition before they die; others are heavily mottled with patches of decaying flesh. In a short period of time, the idyllic creek filled with spawning fish turns into a apocalyptic wasteland of decomposing salmon carcasses. Bears get to many of them:

Others are left in the stream to decay:

Just one week ago, Jenn and I set our trail cameras in this area and recorded the video of the peaceful stream above. When we returned, seven days later, to check the cameras, we walked into a wasteland of salmon carcasses. What a difference a single week makes! Very quickly the salmon in these areas are finishing their breeding cycle and dying off. It may seem unpleasant (and in fact they do smell terrible) but it is endlessly fascinating. The carcasses these decomposing salmon leave behind will provide valuable nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorus, to both the stream bed and surrounding terrestrial vegetation. And, of course, they also provide plenty of food for the carnivores!

*Not all salmon species spend extended periods of time as frys in freshwater areas before migrating to sea. Some species spend more time (upwards of four years for some Sockeye), and others, less. Chum salmon, for example, are born in freshwater streams and migrate to sea immediately.

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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Human impacts on carnivores

Even though there are very few people here in Haines, their presence is still deeply felt by the local ecological community. Humans will come watch animals (forming traffic jams along the Chilkoot River to watch grizzly bears feed), fish for salmon, mine for gold and, of course, hunt predator and prey species alike. Different species  (and even individuals) react uniquely to these impacts. Male grizzlies and wolves avoid humans and roads to protect themselves from hunters. In contrast, female grizzlies take advantage of the lack of males to fatten up themselves and their cubs on the salmon rivers. Part of the reason we are conducting research in this region is because we want to observe how the growing impacts of human activities will alter the ecological balance of this community. 

However compared to many other parts of the world, Haines is still relatively untouched. For example, our lab also works in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which borders bustling Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay Area. Here, humans far outnumber the animals, and any species that survives on this landscape has learned to adapt to human development. Specifically, we focus on mountain lions, the only apex predator remaining in California, and how their behavior is impacted by the people who live, work, play, and drive in these mountains. Today, an article highlighting the unique lifestyle of one of our study lions just made the front page of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the San Jose Mercury News. We invite you to read the article here and to find more about 16M, the aforementioned mountain lion here.

16M in tree

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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Trivia Question of the Week

Alright, time for the trivia question of the week! This week's question:

What is the largest bird in the United States?

Hint #1: The species neared extinction in the 1970s

Hint #2: The decline was likely caused by a combination of factors: habitat loss, poisoning, and lead ingestion

Hint #3: They have a wingspan of over 10 feet, can weigh up to 30 pounds, and can live up to 60 years in the wild

Hint #4: They are scavengers

Hint #5: They live in California


If you guessed California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), you're correct! California Condor once ranged over the entire western United States, but today they're one of the most endangered species in the world, and their habitat is limited to parts of California and Arizona. Just over 100 birds live in the wild, and most of these were captive-bred animals that are still very closely monitored and regularly fed. The photo above is an image of a California Condor in Grand Canyon National Park.

So, was that a trick question? ;)

The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is no lightweight either-- it's the largest raptor (bird of prey) in the United States. With a wingspan between 6 and 8 feet in length and weights ranging between 7 and 14 pounds, Bald Eagles may not be as large or hefty as California Condors, but they are definitely big birds. Just check out the size of their tracks!

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Setting Cameras

These last couple weeks, we've been busy! We finished up scouting out areas, and selected three different spots for our first round of camera trapping using our trail cameras. This past week, Jenn, Quark, Rigby, and I set 20 trail cameras on Sockeye spawning grounds: one site in a pond off the Chilkat River and two sites at creek drainages along the banks of Chilkoot Lake. This pond near the Chilkat River is just upstream of one of our camera trapping sites. If I were a Sockeye, I might spawn here, too. Look how pretty it is!

There are many different ways to set trail cameras. If you want to maximize your chances of getting lots of photos of varied wildlife, it's a good idea to place them in areas wildlife are likely to be traveling. The most straightforward location is to set them on actual trails. Most animals have dedicated home ranges and travel the same areas frequently using trails, whether they be deer trails, bear trails, or roads or hiking paths made by humans. They can also be placed near a resource, such as a good water source (creeks, springs, ponds) or food source (berry patches, grassy areas, squirrel middens) that animals are likely to stop by. In this picture, the clearing on the ground is an intersection of two narrow game trails-- a great spot to set a camera!

Yet another way to set trail cameras is to bait them-- set out food or a scent lure to attract animals to the vicinity of the camera. We're interested in figuring out not only what types of animals live in this area, but also how many of them might rely on salmon as a food source during late summer and autumn. For that reason, Jenn and I are baiting our trail cameras with salmon carcasses.

After salmon spawn, they die. Many salmon are predated by bears before they have a chance to spawn. Bears prefer eating the fatty, energy-rich roe, sexual organs, or brains of the fish. Less desirable tissue, like muscle, is often left for other scavengers. Although bears are more likely to target and feed on fish that haven't yet spawned, salmon carcasses are attractants for most carnivores. Even if they find that the salmon staked in front of our trail cameras won't make a decent meal, the smell of decomposing fish acts as a strong lure for any passers-by.

Here, Quark poses next to one of our assembled trail cameras. The salmon carcass, which we pulled from a nearby creek, is staked in front. Note the steel casing, intended to protect the camera from curious bears. The branch wedged between the camera housing and the tree acts to both stabilize the unit and direct the lens of the camera downward, so that the fish and the ground surrounding it are in the field of view.

Despite most of our gear smelling like rotting fish, Jenn and I had a great week hiking into these areas and setting up our cameras. We were able to avoid rainy days, find plenty of spawning activity and carcasses to use as bait, and didn't meet up with any bears on the trail. Hiking into these areas is not something to be taken lightly. We head straight into prime brown bear habitat-- this time of year, bears don't stray far from spawning grounds. It's a nerve-wracking experience walking through brushy areas knowing bears could be very close by. We take every precaution to keep ourselves and the bears safe. I'll post more about this soon.

We'll leave the cameras up for two weeks. This coming week, Jenn and I will return to each of our three sites and check up on the cameras. Many things can go wrong with trail cameras, and we want to ensure we're getting the best data possible. Curious bears can shift camera angles away from the intended view, or occasionally, knock them off trees completely. Dirt, bird poop, and vegetation can block camera lenses. Salmon carcasses, although staked to the ground, can be carried away by hungry scavengers. SD cards can fail. In this photo, Jenn is securing one of our cameras to a tree with a cable lock, an additional method to stabilize the camera, and one that will hopefully deter theft.

By checking our cameras this coming week, we can address any problems, and, more importantly, get a sneak peek at what may be stopping by. We'll be revisiting our first field site tomorrow, so in a few days we'll hopefully have some great photos to share!

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Hello everyone!

My name is Jenn and I'm here in Haines with my dog, Quark. I'll be working as a field assistant on the project and Quark is employed as Rigby's suitor. First order of business - raft the Chilkat River.

I came to Haines last summer and fall to work with Alaska State Parks. I fell in love with it here and vowed to come back the next summer, and here I am. One of the many things I love here is the subsistence lifestyle Alaska, and Haines in particular, has to offer. I would like to talk a bit about it because it's such an important part of the culture here. Wildlife management officials work hard to strike a balance between the subsistence fishermen and the commercial fishermen, which, of course, are constantly at odds with one another. Right now, I am camping at a friend's fish camp where we put out set nets to catch Sockeye and Coho salmon. Drift netting is another method of catching salmon, and is much more efficient. The Humpies and Chum are usually thrown back into the river as they have less desirable meat. If you catch King, it is mandatory to throw them back in unless you have a separate stamp; a subsistence license won't cut it. Basically, they taste the best. There are far fewer King in the ocean than any of the other species, therefore they are more heavily regulated. Here is my friend, Mike, pulling in a set net.

Then into the smokehouse they go.

Sick of salmon? How about Dungeness crab or shrimp? With a boat, you can go out into Lutak Inlet, which drains the Chilkoot river, or Letnikov Cove, which drains the Chilkat river. I went out to Letnikov with some subsistence fishermen to check crab and shrimp pots. All the female crabs have to be thrown back, and the males have to measure 6.5" or more across the largest part of their shell. Slow day, we only caught 4 legal crabs, but who doesn't enjoy an evening out on the bay?

We'll go out this weekend and set Halibut skates. They haven't had too much luck yet this year, but a single Halibut should yield a good 50 lbs. or more of meat. Once the fishing and smoking ends, everyone packs up fish camp and heads out to moose camp. I'll be spending one week at Assignation Creek up the Chilkat River this year for moose camp. Of course, I won't be able to hunt a moose. This management area only allows 25 resident permits which people had to apply for in February. If you are one of the lucky 25 to get a moose, clear out the smokehouse and start hanging meat! This is tiny part of a moose we were given last year. We hang it in the smokehouse for a day or two to dry out, then into the freezer it goes.

Hanging out with the locals is a great way to learn about this ecosystem. Working with Rachel, I'm given a chance to explore deeper into hard to reach areas, either by boat or on foot. It's great having Rigby and Quark around. They are hyper-vigilant to the sounds and smells of the forest and also make our pack a little bigger. With all the bounty of the land, the threat of brown bears is considerable here. Stay tuned for some great pictures and videos of our work here!

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Check your mailboxes- postcards are on their way!

Hi Everyone -
Rachel has just mailed out the postcards for everyone who responded to our address requests! If you don't receive one in the next two weeks, please let us know and we'll send you a replacement! Hope you are having a great summer and that you've been enjoying the pictures of beautiful Haines and some spawning salmon!
Yiwei, Rachel and Taal

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

It's Salmon Time!

The salmon are starting to spawn in earnest. Salmon spawn throughout the year, although most species' runs are concentrated between August and December. Different species spawn in different habitats and up different watersheds, at different times of year, so for wildlife that feed on salmon, the entire fall is a veritable smorgasbord of delicious food! Check out this great article published online by the University of Washington about diversity in the way salmon spawn.

There are five different species of salmon that spawn in the eastern Pacific up freshwater rivers and streams along the west coast of the United States: Chum, Coho, Chinook (also known as King salmon), Pink, and Sockeye. 

Yesterday, Jenn, Rigby, Quark and I started scouting areas to set up some of our trail cameras. We wanted to check some Pink and Sockeye spawning areas to make sure there is good fish activity this time of year. Check out this video I took of some Pink salmon spawning in a small creek just off the Chilkat River:

Male and female Pink salmon, as with many species, are sexually dimorphic when they breed. Sexual dimorphism is a term that refers to the fact that males and females have different physical appearances-- Male pink salmon are larger, and grow a hump and hooked jaw, while females remain smaller and streamlined. Pink salmon are also called "Humpies," and I'm sure you can tell why by watching the male Pink salmon in the video above!

There is plenty of evidence of bear activity in these areas. When salmon are high in abundance and bear densities are low, like the Pink salmon at this creek not far outside of Haines, bears high-grade salmon, eating only the most fat-rich parts of the salmon, including the roe (eggs), brains, and sometimes the skin, which often has a fatty layer underneath. Bears then leave the remnants of the salmon carcasses on the stream bank, where they're later accessed by scavengers, or sometimes washed back into the stream.

WARNING! If you don't want to see pictures of dead salmon, don't look below! (But I promise they're not super graphic... this time!)

This is a picture of two Pink salmon, one male and one female, that a bear left on the creek bank. Note that the bear was high-grading these fish: the female, on the left, had only the roe removed; the male, on the right, was missing its brain. Otherwise the carcasses were intact! It may seem wasteful to us, but bears have only a few short months this time of year to put on hundreds of pounds of weight to survive their hibernation during winter. The best way to put on weight is to eat only the fattiest, richest, and most caloric foods. No sense in filling up on muscle-- brains and eggs are the way to go.

We scouted some additional areas yesterday for Sockeye salmon, one which we'll revisit next week to install trail cameras. Before too long, we'll be able to share photos of scavengers that help clean up these leftover carcasses. Until then, you'll have to be content with this scenic picture of Nataga Creek, near its confluence with the Kelsall River.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mt. Ripinsky

Last week, I decided to do some scouting of the area and try to get a better vantage point of the layout of Haines, the Chilkoot and Chilkat Inlets, the Chilkat River, and the various surrounding mountain ranges. The easiest way to do this (aside from renting a plane for a flight-seeing tour... which would be awesome, but too expensive), was to climb Mt. Ripinsky.

Mt. Ripinsky, a 3,650 ft. peak directly north of the city of Haines, is the southern terminus of the Takshanuk mountain range. Although not the highest peak in the range, it's easily the most accessible. There are three different hiking trails that lead to the summit-- two that converge and approach from the south, and an additional trail that approaches from the north. All three trails vary in length and steepness, but the entire trail system is fairly well-maintained and very popular with residents and the more adventuresome tourists that visit the area. Since it's frequently used during summer months, there is also a lower likelihood of encountering brown bear* while on the trail.

Low likelihood or not, I definitely brought along bear spray for the hike. This was one of my first purchases after getting into Haines. I carry it around everywhere I go hiking, even if I'm walking the roads around my neighborhood. Brown bears don't typically frequent human-inhabited areas, but a young, sick, injured, or habituated bear may at any time start checking out the dumpsters, grills, and casts-offs around housing developments for easy food. Better to have it on hand then get caught in a dangerous situation without it.

Rigby and I, along with a friend we met at the State Fair, hiked the trail to Ripinsky from the southern edge of the range, beginning in town. This 8-mile out-and-back hike took just just over six hours from start to finish, with time spent on the way up taking plenty of photographs and breaking for lunch.

The beginning of the trail lies in temperate rainforest that covers the Chilkat Peninsula. This area sees a lot of precipitation year-round, and so, much like many tropical rainforests, has forested areas with dense undergrowth and many different species of plants, trees, and fungi, as well as numerous creeks and drainage areas.

The trail eventually climbed past tree line, and opened up to gorgeous views of the Chilkoot Inlet. This region is often cloudy and overcast, but I wish the sunlight would have been just a little better-- there were some gorgeous wildflowers blooming once we hit the alpine meadow.

Even during the summer, the area around treeline stays cold. Without trees to buffer winds, temperatures are lower, and even at an elevation of around 2,000 ft., there are snowfields year-round. Rigby, having grown up in California's Central Valley, hadn't ever seen snow. I should have taken a video of his first experience. He went wild for it-- dancing around, digging, sliding on his belly, prancing around like a madman. I can't wait until some of the fresh stuff falls. If he likes the dirty, old, hard-packed stuff this much, I'm sure he'll love it when it's wet and powdery. I'm really looking forward now to snowshoeing with him this fall.

Another thing Rigby hadn't ever seen before was moose! We came across this cow moose and her calf in a pond a few hundred meters off the trail. We were able to watch them feed for a few minutes before they sighted us and moved back into the forest. We weren't close enough for me to get a very good picture, but I'll post the one I took, anyway. If you squint, you can almost tell what they are. We also saw a mountain goat near the summit, but it was definitely too far away to photograph. It blended in too well with the snow.

Once we got up high enough, we had a nice view of Haines from the trail. Here it is!

You can see the cruise ship dock and the harbor in the bay on the left, and the golf course (yes, Haines has a 9-hole golf course) is on the lower right. I live just downhill from this spot, to the right!

Here we are not too far above treeline, with Haines in the background.

Here is a picture looking NNW, up the Chilkat Valley at the Chilkat River. This valley is where we'll be doing most of our research.

And, finally, the summit! You can see the summit marker on the left-hand side of this panoramic photo. The Chilkat Peninsula stretches south out in the middle, and Haines is below, blocked from view by the hillside. On the right-hand side is the Chilkat Range, to the west, and on the left-hand side, the Coast Range, to the east. Even with the clouds, it's a great view!

Rigby was even good enough to pose for me at the top. :)

*Brown bear, grizzly bear, and Kodiak bear are all the same species-- Ursus arctos. Bears that live inland and in mountain ranges are called grizzlies. Coastal bears, like those around Haines, are referred to as brown bears. Kodiak bears live only on Kodiak Island. Some scientists consider them subspecies because of differences in their genetics, diets, and body sizes/coloring. Many people are more familiar with the term grizzly when talking about the species; Regardless, they are all the same species, but since we're on the coast, we'll refer to them as brown bears here.

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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Trivia Question of the Week

Okay, so I might not actually post trivia questions each week, but who knows?

Do any of you recognize this town?

Fifteen bonus points if you guess what's special about it without cheating!

Hint #1: The people in the picture here are fair-goers. The people that used the town for its original purpose were probably wearing fur coats and leather boots. And there might have been a French beret around. I'm not sure.

Hint #2: It's called Dalton City

Hint #3: Ethan Hawke was here.

Hint #4: There were also probably some wolf hybrids running around.

Hint#5: Jack London may or may not have been impressed.

Hint #6: It's a set from the Disney adaptation of White Fang!

Hint #6 is less of a hint, and more of the answer to this week's trivia question. Disney's adaptation of Jack London's classic novel, White Fang, was filmed entirely in Haines. Dalton City, pictured above, was a set used for the film. Dalton City remains standing in the fairgrounds, and most of the buildings are now used as shops.

White Fang was released in 1991. If you're interested in seeing more of the scenery around Haines in a live-action format, you could rent and watch the movie.

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Friday, August 3, 2012

The Southeast Alaska State Fair

Last weekend (July 26th through the 29th) was the Southeast Alaska State Fair, held in Haines. I love fairs, and since I just moved out here and had nothing better going on, of course I had to go and check it out! I visited the fair both Friday the 27th and Saturday the 28th.

Friday afternoon was the Zombie Adventure Race 5K. Every state fair has zombies, right?

The race seemed to be designed in the spirit of Tough Mudder or Warrior Dash events-- a 5K peppered with obstacles. The route ran from one end of the fairgrounds in a loop through the forest and back toward the fair entrance. There was no trail, just route signs to follow, so there was a lot of bushwhacking involved. Alders, roots, mud, creek embankments, tree branches, hillsides, and rocks made up a large proportion of the natural obstacles. In the way of man-made obstacles, there were tires, a large ramp to run up and jump off of, a wooden wall to climb, a mud pit to crawl through, a fire hose, and a bouncy house obstacle course, complete with tunnels, a rope climb, and a slide.

Oh, and there were zombies.

Every 500m or so there were "kill zones," where hordes of zombies waited to attack racers. Sometimes they ganged up on runners; other times they hid in bushes or stood near tricky bottleneck spots. These were not your average partially-decayed, leg-dragging undead. These were quick, agile monsters with a thirst for blood.

The zombies attempted to "kill" racers by pulling flags from a loop of rope around each racer's waist. If a racer lost all four of their flags before finishing, they were considered "dead." Anyone with at least one flag remaining at the finish line lived.

I survived, but only just so. I had one flag left when I finished. I was soaking wet, muddy, and had scrapes on my hands and knees.

It was a harrowing experience.

Later I ate some nachos. I also visited the animal barns. ZOMG! Look at the baby bunnies!

Saturday morning there was a parade down Main Street to celebrate the fair. There were contests for groups to create the most imaginative parade float, people in costumes, and bags of candies to chuck at the children along the street. Dogs aren't allowed at the fair, but there was a "Most Loveable Dog" contest that began with walking in the parade. Rigby and I decided to enter, just for fun. He wore his red bandanna.

After the parade the "Most Loveable Dog" contest participants congregated at a local park, where judging occurred in several categories-- Most Alaskan Dog, Look-Alike, Most Obnoxious, Best Trick, Best Dressed, Ugliest, Cutest, etc. Rigby entered in several categories. Most of the contest winners were announced on-site and awarded prizes. In three categories, however, (Look-Alike, Best Dressed, and Best Trick), three finalists were selected to make an appearance at the fair, where they would compete on the main stage for the crowd's attention.

I entered Rigby in the "Best Dressed" contest mostly because I thought it would be funny. He was wearing a bandanna, while other dogs were dressed as fairies, cowboys, hotdogs, ghosts, hippies, and frogs. The judges must have taken best dressed literally in our case, though, and since Riggs has a naturally fantastic coat, we were selected as finalists, and Rigby got to go to the fair!

We ended up third out of three finalists, unsurprisingly. Our competition on stage was a little girl dressed like a princess and her dog in butterfly wings, and a woman dressed as an inmate chained to her terrier, a sheriff. Rigby wasn't really dressed as anything, and I dressed as a normal person. The crowd clapped politely. I think they were confused.

Rigby was pretty happy, though. Along with a spiffy third-place ribbon, he won a box of Milk-Bones.

Rigby couldn't stay to enjoy the rest of the fair, but he took a nap in the pickup while I checked out the logging relay race

obstacle bucking

log rolling

and everything else the fair had to offer!

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