Paul Klaver’s 13-minute film, Alaska the Nutrient Cycle beautifully captures the critical role wild salmon play in sustaining a rich, diverse ecosystem. Unscripted but with beautiful background music, this breathtaking footage speaks for itself. This is why wild salmon and their environments are worth fighting for, and illustrates why we oppose farmed salmon.
With a brood of chicks waiting to be fed, this Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) hovers above the water in search of small fish, its primary food source. Minute control over individual tail and wing feathers enables terns to be graceful, formidable hunters as well as inspiring to watch.
Making an annual round-trip of roughly 50,000 miles (80,000 km) between their breeding grounds in the Arctic and their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic , Arctic terns are a species that fill one with awe and wonder. Unlike most of their cousins in the gull family, they are true seabirds as their migrations take them over vast oceans far from land. To stand on northern beach and watch terns fly is to watch an artist redefine the air.
Breeding pairs mate for life and most terns return year after year to the same grounds where they were hatched. There they scratch out a shallow depression in the earth and lay one to three eggs (sometimes more) the size and color of large, brown-flecked olives. Approximately three weeks later the eggs hatch and three to four weeks after that the young birds are fledged. In fall, they will join their parents in making the longest migration of any bird species.
Inky black eyes almost disappear into a jet black cap. Although their legs seem impossibly short, terns are fairly adept on land. A specialized gland allows Arctic terns and other seabirds to extract the salt they ingest and expel it through their nasal cavities.
Although one individual is reported to have lived to the advanced age of 34, the average lifespan of an Arctic tern is about 20 years. Their preferred nesting sites are on islands where they’re relatively safe from predators such as foxes and domestic cats, although they lose some eggs and young to gulls and other birds. At one point the millinery trade took a heavy toll on tern populations, but in recent years the greatest threat appears to be decreasing food supplies due to human overfishing. At present, there are estimated to be about one million Arctic terns worldwide.
Above: An Arctic tern scans the water below for the tell-tale silvery flash of a school of small fish.
Often flying with a scissored tail and the ability to execute amazing aerial acrobatics – including backflips – account for the Arctic tern’s genus specific name paradisaea – paradise – reminiscent of birds of paradise.
He’s probably not really looking at his own reflection, but with a snappy red bell and a handsome black cap like that, who could blame him if he is?
At some point during my youth in western Pennsylvania, I read about a magnificent bird – the ivory bill woodpecker, the Lord God Bird. I wanted badly to see one and I knew that my dad – a naturalist – would know where to look. “They’re gone,” he said. I looked at him quizzically. “They’re extinct. They need big, old forests, and the big, old forests have all been cut down.” My dad was right. You should know that going into this film – a feature-length documentary that is powerful and sad and very much worth seeing.
Ghosts of Trees, Ghosts of Birds
People imagine they see them still,
in remnant stands of virgin forests
too small to sustain these great birds.
In that way God Lord Birds are everywhere –
an image in burnt toast, a shadow pulling itself
into a triangular head,
a flash of red
as the late sun slants through the canopy,
or a fractured rock on a hillside gathering the feathered light
and darkness like a black and white diamond on a water oak trunk.
Ghosts of trees, ghosts of birds
Their nesting holes,
five inches across, 50 feet up –
hewn into hardwood with bone-chisel bill –
vanished with the ancient forests
into the humid air
above the endless spread of soy bean fields
Ghosts of trees, ghosts of birds
And so we pause
in the late morning
and set our paddles across the canoe’s gunwales
amidst the cypress knees, black gum and snags
as the mist lifts from this swamp
far enough away from all that
that it could be
the last place on earth
these birds exist
and strain our ears
and listen for double knocks
that rose and died 60 years ago.
Patrolling Hyder, Alaska’s Fish Creek like she owns it, 600-pound Monica fattens up on a freshly subdued chum salmon.
With a population of fewer than 100 residents, Hyder, Alaska, bills itself as “The Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska.” The town is one of those gems that is far enough off the beaten path to still be something of a secret, known mainly to the relatively few people who travel the Cassiar Highway in western British Columbia. Many of these travelers are on their way to or from Alaska, and not even all of these travelers are aware of what Hyder offers.
A prize for any grizzly, this beautifully marked chum salmon makes its way up the air-clear water of Fish Creek.
In addition to rare opportunities to watch and photograph grizzlies up close from a safe vantage point (an elevated viewing deck runs along a short portion of Fish Creek), Hyder boasts what is surely one of the world’s most unusual destination restaurants. We’ve written about the Seafood Express in a previous post. Established in 1998, the school bus Jim and Diana Simpson converted into a restaurant continues to turn out the very best fish and chips we’ve ever had. Even when the salmon and bears aren’t in, the restaurant alone makes taking the turnoff to Hyder worthwhile. Jim, a fisherman by trade, supplies the fresh salmon, halibut, shrimp and prawns Diana magically transforms into perfectly crispy, golden-brown, airily light creations that seem to disappear in one’s mouth. Complimented by a bottle of Alaskan Amber Ale, lingering over a meal there is the perfect way to relax after a morning of nature watching while Rufous Hummingbirds trill musically from the nearby spruce and fir forest.
A female common merganser (Mergus merganser) leads her brood of chicks (next photo) down Fish Creek’s crystalline currents.
Merganser chicks scurry to keep up with their mother. This type of duck typically nests in tree cavities near water. They feed on small fish, insects and (I’m guessing) salmon eggs when they can find them.
Since 1998, the Seafood Express has been serving up gourmet-quality fish and chips.
The viewing platform on Fish Creek provides one of the very few places in North America where people can routinely and safely view wild grizzlies from a fairly close distance. The platform is manned by knowledgable U. S. Forest Service Rangers. The best viewing is from late July through September.
A trip to Alaska through British Columbia by car, camper or motorhome is a trip of a lifetime. If your route takes you along the Cassiar Highway, Hyder should be a “must visit” destination!
For more, click here to see our iReport on CNN.
Driving into Homer, Alaska one summer we encountered this beautiful pair of gray and rust colored sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) foraging on an expansive lawn. Cranes are opportunists, and although they are mainly herbivores seeking grains and seeds, they supplement their diet with insects, small mammals and other animals they encounter.
Bird weights can be deceptive due to their hollow bones. Even though adults have wingspans of six to seven feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) and stand four to five feet tall (1 to 1.2 meters), they typically weigh less than 10 pounds (4 kilograms).
Since cranes are hunted in Alaska and can be quite wary, we felt lucky to find a pair that wasn’t too skittish.
Other times we’d seen cranes, they were flying overhead, or, as was the case one summer in Yellowstone, far out on a plain.
We stalked them for awhile, snapping photos, gauging our distance without spooking them into flight, and then we left the couple to continue their hunting.
Of course, this being Alaska, when we looked up from the field where we’d been intently watching the cranes, this is what we saw – the Kachemak Glacier, which flows out of the Harding Icefield.