The Obtuse Sponge-Dwelling Necklace Worm

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Last Gasp

Long time no see! Haven't been home much over the last month. I went up to Yakutat for what was supposed to be four days and came back two weeks later. The weather has NOT been ideal. People are starting to wonder what happened to their summer up in this part of the world. Regardless, I managed to go surfing in the relentless rain in Yakutat. Arctic Terns, getting ready to head back south to Antarctica to continue their endless summer, were diving for juvenile salmon that jumped from the water all around me.

Arctic Tern resting on ice.

Despite the weather, we have powered through and accomplished some big tasks, including finding several Kittlitz's Murrelet nests. One, that we are unable to access, is on a nunatak. Nesting on a 1500-foot cliff face surrounded by ice and snow, this bird flies over 10 miles inland from the ocean up to it's rocky perch 8000 feet above sea level.

A Kittlitz's Murrelet is trying to make it's way in life on the cliff face in the foreground.

Above the Pacific Ocean and then a sea of clouds and ice, a Kittlitz's Murrelet protects its single egg.

Trying to track a nesting, radio-marked murrelet up in the snow above Icy Bay (photo N. Hatch).

Although humbled by the massif of Mt St Elias (towering another 10,000 feet higher), this is an impressive feat. But maybe it's a smart choice; most of the time, this nest is probably above the clouds and crappy weather that has been plaguing us mere mortals down below.

Not all nests are this dramatic, but all are inspiring.

A nest site above the Tyndall Glacier, only a few hundred feet above sea level and not far from the sea, in 2009.

Tomorrow I'm going back to Icy Bay for almost a month. Am I ready? For the challenges, I am mentally preparing myself. Long, sleepless nights catching birds. Cramped quarters on a boat with a crazy captain who washes himself with a dish sponge.

For all that I find beautiful there, yes. Navigating a skiff through ice and fog-bows. The greatest evenings on earth, as the sun slips through the clouds, shining spotlights down over the Robinson Mountains and onto the sea. A quiet wilderness bay along the Lost Coast, one that I'm starting to feel I've seen more than most and my most regular home over the last four years, I may never see this place again.

Untitled from Jonathan Felis on Vimeo.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Heading back out into it

On my way to Icy Bay again tomorrow for about a week to fly telemetry and locate our murrelets. Maybe I'll find a nest! Until then, a couple more pictures and a final update from the last month of field work.

nest searching

Written while stuck in Yakutat on June 2:
Well, I'm on my way back to Juneau. But not too fast. We got to Yakutat yesterday through some stormy seas and the weather is taking a turn for the worse, 12 foots seas and 30 knot winds, so we are holed up in Yakutat indefinitely. I'm kinda ready to get home. Every day I'm deciding which of my clothes are the least dirty and most acceptable to wear. I want to ride my bike and grab a beer with some friends. Although, after living in close quarters on a boat with six others for over a month, maybe I could use another day or two of anti-social time. Yesterday, when we pulled in to Yakutat, I got off the boat and went for a walk up the road towards Yakutat-town. It was sunny and quiet and wonderful. Nothing but some birds singing and my footsteps on the asphalt. It's funny how comforting the pavement felt beneath my feet. Usually I don't like roads a whole lot. But being on that boat for so long, the majority of the walking I ever did was between the bunk room and the galley. I was on shore some, but only to trudge through sand or bushwhack through alders. A few winters ago I tracked wolves in Yellowstone and spent all of my time on the snow - on snow machine, skis, or snowshoes. The only graded surface I ever walked on was the floor in our house, between the kitchen, the bathroom, and my bedroom. At the end of the season, my friend Tim and I wanted nothing more than to go for a long easy walk in normal shoes down a paved road. It's funny, the things you miss.

Following the only road away from the water, I kept passing those "Tsunami Evacuation Route" signs, directing me away from the water. I guess whatever government policy was enacted to install those signs in every coastal community spared no expense, even in towns where it should be obvious which way to go. After about a mile or two I passed the post office and a bar with no name. I thought to myself that I must be getting close to town. A few minutes later, I passed a sign on the opposite side of the road, aimed at those heading back the way I just came, declaring "Welcome to Yakutat!" I guess I expected a little more than a post office and a bar – but what more do you really need? At that point, I think I'd seen more eagles than people.

It’s hard to swallow that the oil well in the Gulf of Mexico is still hemorrhaging into the ocean. The rig exploded a week before I left for Icy Bay – over 30 days ago. Call me optimistic, but I never believed when I departed Juneau that this thing would still be going a month later. I figured we would be on to clean up by now. Studying seabirds along this shoreline, where offshore drilling is a future possibility - not to mention our proximity to Prince William Sound, the site of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill -
I've been haunted by visions of something similar happening up here. I can't imagine what a horror it must be in the Gulf of Mexico right now.

Written today:

ice in the upper fjords

Kittlitz's Murrelets - ice murrelets

In addition to Kittlitz's Murrelets, Icy Bay is a mecca for Harbor Seals. The ice that is calved off of glaciers in the upper fjords provides a sanctuary for seals to haul out and, in the spring, give birth to pups. In years past, I've certainly been amazed by the sight of adult seals and pups dotting icebergs and smaller bergy bits as we slowly trudge through the icepack in our skiff. For some reason I was re-amazed by it this year in a new way.

adult and pup Harbor Seal

I found out from another biologist that aerial surveys in Icy Bay have counted up to 5000 seals at once; that's a lot of frakking seals. Spending more time in the air this year, flying telemetry flight, allowed me to see more of this than ever before. Seals and pups sit on the ice wherever they can. Often, the ice is stained red - blood and afterbirth from pupping. Bald Eagles flock to the upper bay to forage on these spoils, gaining physical and spiritual strength from the leftovers. The ice moves with the tides and the seals ride along.

The following time lapse video depicts about an hour of real time one afternoon this May as the tide was going out, sucking ice along with it:

Untitled from Jonathan Felis on Vimeo.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Catching up

Written on May 9:
I missed this place more than I thought. You leave a place, you stay away from it for a while, your start to let it drift into your past. Then suddenly, before you know it, you are on a boat rounding the tip of Riou Spit at the entrance of Icy Bay. The sun is low and flooding in bright and yellow from the west, lighting up all 18,000 feet of Mt St Elias as you wade through whales.

It's good to be back.

Bull Orca and glacier near Cape Fairweather.

Mt St Elias after 9:30pm sunset.

The Curlew anchored in Icy Bay.

The head and the view.

The galley.

I've only got a few minutes. The short of it is, we made it to Icy Bay. The boat almost broke down, but we got here. Maybe it will break down on the way home. We've caught a lot of murrelets. Gray and Humpback whales are taking over the Bay. I held a Bald Eagle a few days ago; it kinda smelled bad.

Written on May 10, about May 9:
Black-legged Kittiwakes and Glaucous-winged gulls start following the boat. White-winged Scoters jump out of the waves to fly out of our path. I climb up on top of the pilot house in the sun and wind as we come alongside Riou Spit. We are close now. We reach the point of the Spit and make the final turn into Icy Bay, the Curlew pointed straight at Mt St Elias, now hulking and bright white above the Bay. Marbled and a few Kittlitz’s Murrelets flush from the water. A flock of Greater White-fronted Geese flies west from the tip of Riou across our bow, contrasted in size by a tiny pair of Semipalmated Plovers. Then there are whales everywhere. Gray Whales. More than I have ever seen here. Blow sprays shoot up left and right, at least a half dozen are nearby, and one surfaces and dives right off our bow. We pass Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks on the edge of Riou Bay and cruise into Moraine Bay, where the Arctic Terns still roost on the metal buoy and Pigeon Gullimots troll the water, plunging their faces below the surface to look for a meal. Caspian Terns screech pterodactyl calls and all is calm but for their splashes as they hit the water diving for fish. Joe shuts down the motor and generator, we float quietly around our anchor line. The Bald Eagle is still perched in a spruce above Moraine Bay Creek. Icy Bay Lodge, my old home, still sits on shore catching the late day sun before it slips below the Robinson Mountains and we sleep.

Written on May 21:
Last night was my birthday. Under the half moon, out searching for murrelets, I suddenly was beside a few Gray Whales resting at the surface. A good gift, indeed.

What am I doing here? I realize that I haven't really talked about it, maybe because I've worked here before. The short story: I'm studying an enigmatic seabird, the Kittlitz's Murrelet, that is potentially threatened.

This is a pair of Kittlitz's Murrelets. They look different. The one on the right is still in basic (winter) plumage. The one on the left has already molted to alternate (breeding) plumage.

We come to Icy Bay, we capture them, we put radio-transmitters on them, we track them, we invade their private lives. It's somewhat invasive; however, we hope that what we learn about this little-known species will benefit their conservation. We come for a month, all of May. We live on the MV Curlew. We go out night after night, catch murrelets, welcome them to science, and release them.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Grand Tours, part 2

Just a few images on this one. I went on a door-to-door ski tour from my house last weekend. Got up, ate breakfast, walked out my door with Colin and Julee to the trailhead 2 blocks up the hill. We started off in the woods:

A little while later we were here:

It was hot out:

A massively wide panorama in google earth from the top of Sheep Mountain (double click on the weird blue "G" icon to enter the photo):

Julee descending Sheep Mountain:

Walking back to my house, nine glorious hours later:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Grand Tours, part 1

As the day of departure for Icy Bay quickly draws near (May 6!), I've been doing my best to get outside and recreate before I don't have another day off until August. The past two weekends have been grand here in "Little San Francisco." This is apparently one of Juneau's nicknames. Absurd! There aren't nearly enough hipsters up here for Juneau to grab that title. But, to the chagrin of hipsters everywhere, Juneau has much more to offer than their skinny jeans ever will.

Like this baby King Crab:

Barely a fish stick now, this little guy will be prized for his leg meat later on (more than most hipsters can say).

This Sunflower Star has nineteen legs. Need I say more?

A little over a week ago I went on a kayaking adventure with a few friends north of Juneau in Berner's Bay, a large inlet fed by a few big glacial rivers.

This time of year, the eulachon (a small forage fish) are running up into streams from the ocean to spawn, bringing in seals, sea lions, eagles, and gulls en masse to feast on the bounty. At one point we had at least twenty Bald Eagles circling overhead.

Mixed flocks of gulls (Glaucous-winged, Mew, and Bonaparte's) swarm to feed on eulachon:

Harbor seals take a break from snacking to pop their heads up and check me out:

Eagles and gulls working hard for the money:

This 3 day trip culminated with humpback whales surfacing and breaching all around us, a spectacle I was unable to capture with my camera. You'll just have to believe me!

Taking a break on the beach:

3 kayaks on a half-sized car:

Stay tuned for Part 2...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Time Travel Exists in Alaska

Herons and gulls in Juneau

Two weeks already? It feels like I got back to Juneau just yesterday. On top of that, it doesn't really feel like anything has changed here at all since I left a year and a half ago. The same folks are here, they are all still great people, I know how to get everywhere, the bus schedule is still the same. The thrift store moved to a new location, but, other than that, it seems like Juneau was frozen in time. It's as if Juneau was launched in to space and traveled at the speed of a light for the past 1.5 years, aging only a few seconds, while I stayed back here on Earth getting older. I never understood physics, but you get what I mean....

This Kingfisher hasn't changed a bit; he is still fishing the Mendenhall River next to my office, just where I left him in 2008.

I'm living in a great house on the hill above downtown Juneau. I share it with a marine biology professor.

All in all, it's pretty freakin awesome to be back here. It's a great change of pace from the Bay area. No traffic, my commute is 10 minutes (with lots of eagles along the way), we don't have to lock our door, and there are giant animals everywhere.

Humpback whale, you are so large.

Humpback whale, lunge-feeding, mouth agape.

Steller's sea lion, you are also large.

Large sea lions gather on rocks above the water where large whales feed below large mountains.

But let me take a minute to recognize the smaller, but equally awesome and overwhelming wildlife around town.

Great Blue Herons have spring fever, despite the snow.

Armies of Surf Scoters decimate benthic invertebrates by brute force...

While they may be small, they, too, hang out below large mountains...

Finally, let me acknowledge the small but ferocious murrelets, of which you will likely see many more photos in the weeks to come.

Marbled murrelets on the prowl, looking guilty.

More soon. Additional photos always available at