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Why, a friend asked, are there so many birch seeds on top of the snowpack in Fairbanks? A day later, the answer hit me in the head.

As I walked through the forest, I looked up just in time to get peppered with frozen specks from above. Redpolls, finches that fit in the palm of your hand, were in a birch tree overhead, hammering at clumps of seeds clinging to otherwise naked branches.

A rain of seeds came wafting down, slowed by their oval wings. On the snow, redpolls pecked at the seeds, each shaped like a pumpkinseed but not much larger than a period.

Those tiny seeds are one of the best available energy sources for redpolls, which often spend the entire year in Alaska but have been known to show up en masse farther south.

During “irruptions,” birders in New England can suddenly find their feeders clogged with redpolls from Canada and Alaska. People in the Lower 48 documented winter irruptions (“to increase rapidly or irregularly in number,” according… read more

While walking the streets of Washington, D.C., last month, a pleasant sound stopped me. A male robin was singing, high in a sidewalk sycamore.

It was December, months away from when that bird would use the same voice to declare his breeding territory. I wondered why he practiced now, as I stood amid the urban noise and listened to a melody that transported me back to April in Alaska.

Later that day, at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, I sat in on a talk by Ruth Oliver, a graduate student at Columbia University who has studied the most common songbird on the continent as it makes its way to Alaska.

Oliver traveled to Lesser Slave Lake, a three-hour drive north of Edmonton in Alberta, during the last three springs to learn more about the American robin. Lesser Slave Lake is a popular stopping place for robins that migrate north during springtime.

Some of the 320 million robins on the continent spend their summers in the same areas they… read more

While most of Alaska has not felt too wintery yet, 175,000 moose have noticed a change. As biologist Tom Seaton pointed out in last week’s column, moose are now seeking out what amounts to a large dog-food sack of twigs each day. There are no more pond greens to slurp or succulent leaves to strip from stems.

 

“In the winter, all that’s available is wood,” said ecologist Diane Wagner of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

 

Wagner was part of a study on how a tiny moth affects that wood and in turn alters the behavior of moose.

 

Wagner, graduate student Brian Allman and ecologist Knut Kielland studied a gray moth called the willow leafblotch miner they noticed on the flats of the Tanana River. The tiny larvae of the moth feed on the leaves of the sandbar willow, browning them out by midsummer.

 

Though the infested leaves look as unappetizing as a wormy apple, moose don’t eat leaves of the sandbar willow, Wagner said. Winter… read more

The magnificent creature was fooled by vocal plumbing — similar to its own but much smaller — imitating the groan of a receptive female. The bull moose grunted twice, then strode through spruce trees at the far side of a river. Brushing branches away with its antlers, it emerged, expecting to see a cow moose.

 

I knelt and plugged my ears with my fingers. My friend raised his rifle and shot. Twenty minutes later, as daylight faded, we found the bull moose dead beneath a small spruce tree. 

 

We pulled out our headlamps and began the work of processing an animal as large as a grand piano. We pushed up our sleeves with a sense of gratitude, anxiety at making the correct cuts, and the knowledge that we would not be slipping into our sleeping bags any time soon.

 

Hunter reports for 2018 are still trickling into the offices of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but my friend is now in the group of successful moose hunters for the year. In… read more

Leaving cloven hoofprints from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more than 3,500 muskoxen live in Alaska. All of those shaggy, curly-horned beasts came from one group of muskoxen that survived a most remarkable journey in the 1930s.

 

In 1900, no muskoxen existed in Alaska. Though the stocky, weatherproof creatures have survived in the Arctic since the last ice age, the last reports of native muskoxen in Alaska came from the late 1800s.

 

As Peter Lent reported in his book Muskoxen and Their Hunters, Henry Rapelle in 1895 visited a Native man living on the bank of the Yukon River who had the skull of a muskox. He told Rapelle he thought the muskox was “a bear with horns” when he shot it a year earlier on the Kandik River. That muskox was perhaps the last of the Alaska population.

 

In May, 1930, members of the U.S. Congress gave U.S. Biological Survey scientists $40,000 “to acquire a… read more

Maybe she has the right idea, the arctic ground squirrel. Sniffing the chilly air, looking up to see the first stars of the season, she has decided to check out. A few weeks shy of fall equinox, the squirrel is now bunkered up for winter, three feet beneath the tundra of the North Slope.

 

“There’s tons of food, there’s tons of light, so why are they hibernating?” said Cory Williams of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

 

Williams studies ground squirrels at Toolik Lake and near Atigun River in northern Alaska. The biologist with the Institute of Arctic Biology is interested in — among other things — how quickly the animals tune their body clocks to sunlight in summer, and how they ignore solar rhythms while underground.

 

Arctic ground squirrels are one of the star organisms of northern science. The size of a loaf of pumpernickel, they are the subject of dozens of scientific papers. Why? Ground squirrels are easy… read more

Thanks to her six-year-old grandson, Janet Klein of Homer recently hosted a few interesting house guests.

 

Five experts on ancient creatures slept in Klein’s Homer house last month as they searched local cliffs for another chunk of a mammal that lived in Alaska millions of years ago. Her guests were Patrick Druckenmiller of the UA Museum of the North, Grant Zazula and Susan Hewitson of the Yukon government, paleontologist Analia Forasiepi of Argentina, and Ross MacPhee, curator of mammology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

 

Along with Klein, a Homer resident and naturalist, the scientists were looking for a rock that might fit into the petrified jawbone of a tapir Klein’s grandson Kai found about a year ago on a beach near Homer.

 

Kai Reising, then 5, was beachcombing in July 2017 with his grandmother; his mother, Deborah Klein; his father George Reising; and his younger brother Silas. In an… read more

The evidence is in: Snowshoe hares near Wiseman eat lots of dirt.

 

“I have thousands and thousands of photos of hares eating soil in this one little spot,” said Donna DiFolco, a biologist and cartographer with the National Park Service. 

 

DiFolco has studied hares in the eastern portion of Gates of the Arctic National Park since 1997. That’s when she started counting hare tracks near Wiseman as part of a lynx study. 

 

A few years after that, the hares disappeared, as did the many creatures that eat them.

 

Since then, hares around Wiseman have started to boom, lynx have followed, and DiFolco, collaborating with UAF’s Knut Kielland, now uses GPS collars and trail cams. That newish technology helps her confirm what researchers have seen in the lab and Wiseman residents have noticed at river banks: Snowshoe hares are engaging in geophagy, and, unlike the lynx that eat them, they are probably better off… read more

YUKON RIVER — “She’s starting to wail,” Chris Florian says, referring to the worrisome shriek of a peregrine falcon across the river.

 

Florian, her biologist husband Skip Ambrose and I are sitting on warm gravel a few steps from the river on a sunny summer evening. We just ate dinner, and Ambrose is repeating an action he has performed for the past 46 summers — squinting through a spotting scope aimed at a far-off rock ledge. He is trying to see white puffballs that are peregrine falcon chicks.

 

Now is not the time to see them. The evening sun is pleasantly baking us on the east side of the river, but 500-foot Tacoma Bluff, on the west side, is in the shade. Knowing they will see better in the morning light, Ambrose and Florian have tied their 24-foot Wooldridge motorboat to a spruce log for the evening.

 

After hearing rumors of them being just ahead of me for several days, I finally caught up with Ambrose and… read more

Floating down the Fortymile River, we heard the roar of a rapid just ahead. At the same time, we noticed the caribou, about 50 of them, clustered on a cliffside near the water.

 

It was too late to pull over. I aimed the canoe for the bumps of frothing brown water. As we plunged in, six antlered heads bobbed single-file in front of us. Caribou were swimming across the river at the pinch point.

 

My neighbor, eight-year-old Nora Carlson, watched from the bow of the canoe as we parted the sea of caribou. As we splashed through, three caribou swam on toward the far bank. Three others saw the red canoe and U-turned back to the rocks from which they had stepped into the water. Nora could have combed the coarse hair of their backs with her paddle.

 

A few seconds later, we were past the splashy water, and the caribou. We spun into a river eddy and turned to watch the two other boats in our party slip past. 

 

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Just beneath the owl box, hung 20 feet up the stem of a balsam poplar, the backyard barbeque continued late into the evening. Despite the thwap of badminton birdies and the chirp of human voices, the boreal owl had work to do.

 

With a vole in its talons, the hand-sized bird perched on a branch outside a wooden box nailed to the tree. After a quick scan of the activity below, the owl bent and grabbed the vole with its beak. It fluttered up, hovered, and slam-dunked the vole through the hole. 

 

The owl then disappeared into the shadows of the spruce forest. Scratching noises came from the nest box as the adult female within tore apart the vole into pieces her hatchlings could swallow. 

 

Over much of their range, boreal owls operate in the dark every night. They live south to Colorado and in a forested belt around the northern part of the globe. 

 

People know boreal owls in Europe and Russia as the… read more

Of the five species of salmon that swim Alaska waters, the pink is by far the most plentiful. Some scientists think the fish is an overabundant predator that outcompetes other salmon and some seabirds.

 

In the late 1990s, Japanese researchers noticed an intriguing pattern while studying in the Bering Sea just north of the Aleutians. During every odd-numbered year, populations of tiny ocean creatures called copepods were very low. The year after, their numbers were high.

 

Pink salmon eat copepods. And, the Japanese scientists noted, pink salmon are most abundant in odd calendar years. The Japanese scientists postulated that pinks, which have exploded in numbers since the early 1990s, had gobbled up many of the copepods.

 

About a decade ago, biologists Alan Springer and Gus van Vliet noticed a similar pattern among tufted puffins in a well-studied colony on Buldir Island in the Aleutians. The puffins were laying… read more

May 11, 2017

In the early going of my second hike across Alaska along the route of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, I chose to walk the highway rather than the pipe's route to get up Thompson Pass north of Valdez. The road added six miles to our day. But I tried the pipe route up the pass 20 years ago and it was like trying to climb a 90-meter ski jump.

Most of my mileage so far on this trip has been on the shoulder of the Richardson Highway. The pipeline pad here in the mountains is still deep with punchy snow. You'd think a guy would have checked that out before starting.

The road, surprisingly, is quite pleasant. Cora doesn't seem to mind being leashed. And only about 10 cars and trucks pass us each hour. Is Alaska becoming the land gone lonesome, with people headed down the Alaska Highway and moving out? I've seen a good number of U-Hauls. Or is it not Memorial Day yet?

If the people are still on their way in, the birds have beat… read more