Sunday, February 24, 2013

Denali Discovery Hike--Part IV

Hiking in Denali is spectacular on so many levels--beautiful expansive views, fascinating tundra foliage, the wildlife communities, and unique geographical features with intriguing stories.
Part of the reason the geography of Denali is so fascinating is that you can actually see for great distances and imagine glaciers carving out the valleys over centuries. With the exception of a few park buildings (or a tent) placed sparingly, to educate and offer comfort for visitors, there are few buildings, no lines of cars, and no crowds. The wilderness is preserved and protected all the way down to how many hikers can actually cross the area of tundra that I walked across in this hike.
Above, you can get an idea of how expansive the land feels as you see how small my fellow hikers appear against the view beyond. In the southeastern United States where I live, in Tennessee, it is impossible to preserve our natural areas with this kind of purity simply because of population density.  Even the air and the water in the Great Smoky Mountains--one of the most visited national parks in the USA with over 9 million visitors in 2011--can not escape pollution carried by the wind and water from development and industry.
Knowing that makes exploring this pristine wilderness even more awe inspiring.  It's ruggedness and wide-open terrain offer a vastly different experience from the tree-covered Southern Appalachians that are familiar to me.
That difference made me want to slow everything down and enjoy every plant and lichen, take in every color, follow every path carved by the river. the wind, the caribou. As it was, I paused whenever I could, and lingered as long as I dared without holding up the hike's progression.

Above and below, you see the views we enjoyed as we rested and had a snack at the edge of the river shelf before continuing our trek back to the road where a shuttle bus would eventually pick us up for a ride to Eielson Visitor's Center.
Hiking in tundra is a unique feeling because the ground is soft and spongy.  Your boots sink down into the moss and short cropped foliage with each step and in some places, deeper than others.  Below, my boot all but disappears.
Below you see tundra plant communities that are so much fun to explore. Just look at the palette of colors! You can see why it was tempting to spend more time with each plant.  The white growths are reindeer lichen and the purple/red leaves, bog cranberry.
Below, a fun find--a harebell still in bloom, rising above blueberry leaves, lichen, mountain avens and yellow willow.

Above, mountain aven leaves (left), raindeer lichen and bright red bearberry leaves.  Below, its down hill to the river bed, where we saw our ptarmigan earlier, and then up hill most of the way on our return hike to the park road.

Below, Ranger Bob King (right) entertains as we wait for the park shuttle to arrive.
Below, views of the area we have just hiked, taken from the Eielson Visitor's Center.   The shelf you see in the distance and to the left of the gorge is where we rested for lunch.

This is the fourth post in a series about my Discovery Hike in Denali National Park and Preserve lead by Denali Ranger, Bob King.  To see the entire hike series click here.  Scroll to the bottom for the first post.

Links and Resources:
Click this link to view all my posts on Denali National Park and Preserve.  To see all posts on my visit to Alaska in August and September of 2012, visit Alaska

Denali National Park and Preserve
Willow Ptarmigan
Alaska wild berries

For an incredible read about caribou:  Being Caribou by Karsten Huer.  Visit the Being Caribou website.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Denali Discovery Hike--Part III

We continued our hike toward the shelf overlook after crossing the creek and a fun encounter with Willow Ptarmigan.   (click here to see previous posts)
While hiking in the wilderness it is always advisable to be on the lookout for grizzlies.  A large group like this makes enough noise with movement to pretty well let any wildlife know humans are around, however, chest high willows can obscure the view of a feeding bear or even a sleeping bear.
Above we stop to examine a bear dig.  Grizzly bears dig down through the tundra soil to unearth roots, voles and ground squirrels, as well as, the foods the animals store.  The freshness of the dig gives an indication of how long ago the bear was present.  This dig was hours old, but later we came upon a large depression in the foliage where a bear had recently taken a nap.  Denali bears nap and feed all hours of day and night.  

Grizzly bears are omnivores and eat foliage and berries along with meat.  Below you see a stand of soapberries, a favored food in August and September.  (Not a flavor I enjoyed!)

Below:  a clump of saxifrage

Above and below, the fire red autumn leaves of the Fireweed.  

Above a variety of lousewort, possibly whorled-leaf lousewort.  Below, the entrance to an arctic ground squirrel's burrow.

Arctic ground squirrel, above.  In one hunting technique, Grizzly bears are known to slam their forepaws against the ground to cause the earth to tremor in an effort to scare a ground squirrel out of its burrow.  In late summer, juvenile ground squirrels are dispersing from their natal homes and dig temporary, shallow burrows.  These shallow tunnels are easier for bears to dig than a deeply tunneled family burrow.
Above and below, tall cotton grass.
Below, flowering Sitka Burnet
Below you see our views as we approach the tundra shelf.  Beyond is the glacial river.

Caribou paths carved in the tundra, below.
The caribou have already begun their migration, but have left behind trodden trails and an occasional hoof print (below).
Next:  Discovery Hike IV and more about the Arctic Ground Squirrel

For more information about Denali's caribou herd click the link.
And for an incredible read about caribou:  Being Caribou by Karsten Huer.  Visit the Being Caribou website.
This is the third post in a series about my Discovery Hike in Denali National Park and Preserve lead by Denali Ranger, Bob King.  To see the entire series click here.  Scroll to the bottom for the first post.

Links and Resources:
Click this link to view all my posts on Denali National Park and Preserve.  To see all posts on my visit to Alaska in the fall of 2012, visit Alaska

Denali National Park and Preserve
Willow Ptarmigan
Alaska wild berries

Sunday, February 3, 2013

An Incidental Take Permit for Whooping Cranes?

Can we afford to add one more environmental threat to our only surviving wild population of Whooping Cranes?
Merricourt Wind Power Project in North Dakota has applied for the first-ever Incidental Take Permit to a wind farm for endangered Whooping Cranes and threatened Piping Plovers.  If USFWS grants the permit, the company would be protected from prosecution under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for killing Whooping Cranes and Piping Plovers.  In addition to Whooping Cranes and Piping Plovers, the wind turbine development will impact Sprague's Pipit, Dakota skipper, and Powesheik skipperling, three ESA candidate species.
The American Birding Conservancy asserts that 1) USFWS has failed to give the public adequate notice on an important endangered species issue, 2) the agency is only preparing an Environmental Assessment for a precedent-setting take permit of significant environmental impact, and 3) there are fewer than 400 individual Whooping Cranes left in the wild.

In fact, there are fewer than 300 individuals in the wild Aransas population.  The rest of the birds in the 400 count that is often quoted are found in the experimental re-introduction populations in Louisiana and in the east.   If any one needs a refresher on the slow reproductive progress of our wild Whooping Cranes, take a look at this excellent graphic provided by Journey North's website below:
Graphic credit:  Journey North

Keep in mind that Whooping Cranes have been facing  winter drought conditions and problems with high salinity levels due to the divergence of fresh river water for human use on their wintering grounds at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.  Also notice that the count methodology for tracking the Aransas population was changed in 2010 by USFWS to estimates rather than the actual counts of individuals.

Whooping Cranes are internationally endangered and protected in the USA and Canada, and are federally protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the USA .  In 2009, USFWS published a paper:  "Whooping Cranes and Wind Development--An Issue Paper By Regions 2 and 6 of USFWS--April 2009".  The issue paper thoroughly discusses the most common causes of mortality for whooping cranes.  I encourage you to read this paper and absorb the nature of the dangers that wind energy turbines and power lines pose to whooping cranes, especially inexperienced juveniles on their first migration.
There is little doubt that Whooping Cranes will be killed if this Incidental Take Permit is granted and the wind turbine development goes forward.  Follow this link to read a description of the wind turbine plan in the Environmental Assessment letter provided by Merricourt Wind Power Project to the American Bird Conservancy.

The American Bird Conservancy has sent the following letter to USFWS and has asked other bird conservation organizations and activists to write letters:
Jeffery Towner
Field Office Supervisor
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
North Dakota Field Office
3425 Miriam Avenue
Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-7926

Subject:  Environmental Impact Statement Needed for Merricourt Wind Power Project

Dear Mr Towner:

The undersigned organizations respectfully request that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) initiate an Environmental Impact Statement under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the Merricourt Wind Power Project, to extend the scoping period for 30 days, and publish notice of the scoping period in the Federal Register.  As FWS has acknowledged, the project has potential for lethal take of two ESA-listed birds, Whooping Cranes (endangered) and Piping Plovers (threatened).  As a result, this project is of considerable public interest and likely to cause significant environmental impact under NEPA.  

In addition, this project's NEPA process is precedent setting.  We believe that no Incidental Take Permit for ESA-listed birds species has been given to any wind farm on the U.S. mainland.  Both of these species are the subject of intensive conservation efforts, and in particular, the Whooping Crane, which still numbers fewer than 400 individuals in the wild, has been the focus of an expensive captive breeding and recovery program.  Thank you for reopening the public comment period.  However, because the project's new NEPA scoping period has not been published in the Federal Register, the agency has failed to involve the public to the extent practicable.  Wildlife organizations, birdwatchers, and members of the public who care about Whooping Cranes and Piping Plovers have not been adequately notified and thereby denied the opportunity to participate.  Instead, notice was given by mail to select groups on a private list kept by the environmental consulting firm that was contracted to create the NEPA documentation.  This is not the open process that such landmark species deserve, nor is it in keeping with the intent of Congress when it created NEPA to ensure for informed and meaningful public involvement in environmental decisions.  

We urge you to initiate an Environmental Impact Statement and because there has not been adequate public notice of the scoping period, to extend it by 30 days and publish notice of the scoping period in the Federal Register.

Thank you for your consideration of our request.

Kelly Fuller
Wind Campaign Coordinator 
American Conservancy

Piping Plover image by Ed Schneider

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal, on February 1st, 2013, concerning Incidental Take Permits for bald and golden eagles granted to wind-turbine companies, "The Fish and Wildlife Service Is Not for the Birds", Robert Bryce, the author criticizes USFWS for failure to prosecute wind turbine companies and asserts that "the wind industry has had de facto permission to violate both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (which protects 1,000 species) and the Bald and Golden Eagles Protection Act.  Federal authorities have never brought a case under either law--despite the Fish and Wildlife Service's estimate that domestic turbines kill some 440,000 birds per year." (Robert Bryce, WSJ)

If the Incidental Take Permit for Whooping Cranes and Piping Plovers is granted, we will be adding the Endangered Species Act to the list of laws that are being systematically set aside to benefit private industry. The USFWS is the agency charged with enforcing our wildlife protection laws.  If this, in fact, is the protection our laws are providing, please urge your elected officials to take a serious look at reconstructing our current species protection laws.  They simply are not working in today's aggressively changing environment.

Send your letters to:  Jeffery Towner, Field Office Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Dakota Field Office, 3425 Miriam Avenue, Bismarck, North Dakota 58501-7926

Links and Resources:

Environmental Assessment letter from Merricourt Wind Power Project
American Bird Conservancy's Answers to FAQ on Wind Power

USFWS:  Whooping Cranes and Wind Development--An Issue Paper by Regions 2 and 6 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--April 2009

Whooping Crane (Grus americana) 5-Year Review:  Summary and Evaluation, USFWS, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Austwell, TX, and Corpus Christi Ecological Service Field Office, Texas [2010]

American Bird Conservancy Rule Making Petition to USFWS for Regulating the Impact of Wind Energy on Migratory Birds

Wall Street Journal Article "The Fish and Wildlife Service Is Not for the Birds", Feb 1st, 2013 by Robert Bryces (unfortunately WSJ requires a subscription to read this article; the link will take you to a secondary posting)

Tom Stehn's December 2012 comments on the current method of counting whooping cranes.  Stehn is the former USFWS Whooping Crane Coordinator and his comments worthy of note.
The Aransas Project
Aransas Wildlife Refuge website Whooping Crane Updates
Industrial Wind Action Group on Whooping Cranes and Wind Energy
Minnesota Company applying for take of bald eagles
Forbes:  Wind Power May Not Reduce Carbon Emissions As Expected:  Argonne
Hidden Costs of Wind Energy

Journey North on Whooping Crane population
Operation Migration field journal on current Whooping Crane issues
More about Whooping Cranes on this blog

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Willow Ptarmigans in Denali

I traveled to Alaska to see Alaska's land and wildlife and my wish list was so long, every encounter held something magical for me.  Seeing a group of Willow Ptarmigans (Lagopus lagopus) under shrubby willows growing along side a stream on our disco hike gave me exceptional delight.  
Thanks to Ranger Bob, who alerted us to their presence so we wouldn't march right up to them, we were able to get some good looks before our hiking group was ready to push on and cross the stream.  I was lucky enough to have a second encounter two days later near the road and in a vehicle that made a perfect blind for these close-ups images.
The Willow Ptarmigan is the largest and most numerous of the North American ptarmigan.  It makes its home in arctic tundra and alpine habitat during the summer months, liking moist tundra with low shrubs of willow and dwarf birch.  The willow subspecies molts almost continuously from spring until late fall, changing its appearance as the season's foliage changes. 
The plumage of both sexes is entirely white in the winter.  In the spring the male acquires a rufous head and neck with the body remaining white during the breeding season, and during the summer the body is brown, with the wing and belly remaining white and the tail black.  As fall advances, the rich rufous brown becomes more grayish to match color changes in the tundra and gradually as the season progresses into winter, more and more white appears.  Clearly camouflage is a key survival strategy for this ground dwelling species.
In the image above you get a nice look at the white wing as this bird stretches.  Also notice the black tail feathers and the feathered legs and feet.  The feathers on the toes serve two functions:  insulating the toes for warmth and reducing heat loss, and providing a larger surface that acts like snowshoes to facilitate walking on top of snow.
The toe nails/claws grow longer in the winter and have the special function of digging through snow.  One of the ptarmigan's arctic and alpine adaptations includes roosting in burrows during the night.  I read two descriptions of how this is done.  In one method, the bird lands on a soft, deep snow bank and digs a burrow for cover.  In the other method, the bird flies toward the snow surface, folds its wings and plunges through.  Once under the surface, the bird moves forward horizontally several body lengths and often causes the "tunnel" to collapse creating a cozy chamber.  The "ptarmigan warms its own surroundings to near the bottom of its thermoneutral zone, the range of temperatures where it does not have to shiver." (Ronald L. Smith, Interior and Northern Alaska:  A Natural History)
A good view of the black tail above and the darker grayish feathers on the back.  This was the plumage stage in early September.  In the summer months Willow Ptarmigan eat the fruits of blueberries, cranberries and crowberries, and the leaves of willows and blueberries, plus a variety of insects.  In the winter the buds and twigs of willows make up 80% of their diet.

Be sure and take a look at the Willow Ptarmigan link below showing plumage stages and, as you scroll down the page, a video of a family of ptarmigan.  The male Willow Ptarmigan stays with the female and young throughout the breeding season and acts as a guard to protect the family.

This is the second post in a series about my Discovery Hike in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska, lead by Denai Ranger, Bob King.  To see the first post click here.
Next:  More hiking discoveries in the tundra

Links and Resources:
Click this link to view all my posts on Denali National Park and Preserve.  To see all posts on my visit to Alaska in the fall of 2012, visit Alaska

Denali National Park and Preserve
Willow Ptarmigan
Alaska wild berries
bog blueberries
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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham