Catching Fish by Michael Johns

Sometimes a net works best when catching fish. In this case, seabird interns on Southeast Farallon Island are extracting a rhinoceros auklet from a mist net, in order to identify and measure fish the bird is bringing back to its chick. Seabirds sample the marine environment for us, and provide insights into the types of fish available around the island and within the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. This particular auklet was carrying a bill load of 2 northern anchovy, a common prey item for this location.

Rent by Michael Johns

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Our days are numbered in Fairbanks. Coming up this fall, Casey and I are heading south to the Emerald City. While we’re both looking forward to being close to the water again, it will be hard to leave our little cabin in the woods. Yes, it regularly stays below -20F in the winter, but you can’t beat the rent prices in Fairbanks. The above graph shows median rent for a 1 bedroom apartment in Seattle vs. Fairbanks, with the dashed line showing how much we currently pay for our cabin.

Family of Ancient Murrelet by Michael Johns

Every season on Southeast Farallon Island has its share of surprises. From the residency of a northern gannet in 2012, to the invasion of hundreds of fork-tailed storm-petrels in 2017. This year it’s a family group of ancient murrelets, a species of wing-propelled diving seabirds that breeds well north of the Farallones.

Seabirds generally seek out remote predator-free islands as a refuge to lay eggs and rear chicks. This strategy ties individuals to their respective breeding colonies, limiting the maximum distance parents can travel to search for provisions for their chicks. Possibly as a means to overcome this limitation, ancient murrelets have adopted a different strategy. Rather than bringing food back to their chicks, they bring their chicks out to the food. A mere 1-3 days after hatching, persistent calls from devoted parents compel their chicks (up to 2 in a clutch) to take a plunge into the cold North Pacific ocean and paddle out to sea. These chicks, nothing more than buoyant balls of down with legs, follow their parents into the productive waters of the Pacific, slowly growing off a diet of zooplankton until they are big enough to fly and forage on their own.

What makes this sighting of a family group unique and exciting for the Farallones, is the fact that ancient murrelets predominately breed hundreds of kilometers away on the Aleutian Islands and throughout Southeast Alaska. A sighting of a chick off the island, which was likely no more than 25 days old, means it must have hatched somewhere relatively nearby - a noteworthy observation considering Washington State is the furthest south they’ve ever been confirmed to breed.

One Of Many Thousands by Michael Johns

A single common murre perched above tens of thousands more. Although their nesting behavior and overall appearance resembles that of a penguin, these wing-propelled diving seabirds are actually more closely related to puffins. And unlike penguins, these birds have retained their ability to fly…but just barely.

Auklet Family Tree by Michael Johns

Part of the basic seabird monitoring work we do on the Farallones involves tracking the reproductive history and lifespan of Cassin’s auklets that were given uniquely marked metal leg bands as chicks. Just over 400 wooden nest boxes were installed across the island in 1983, which mimic the natural burrows used by the auklets, and birds quickly started breeding in them. Over the past 35 years, each box that contained a known-age pair was checked every 5 days to note when an egg was laid, whether or not that egg hatched, and whether or not the chick reached fledgling age. Some of these chicks from known parents recruited into their own nest boxes and started breeding, resulting in multiple generations of birds all within close proximately to each other. Above is a family tree created with the kinship2 package in R, showing the largest pedigree in the known-age dataset that spans 6 generations from 1987 up until 2018. Click HERE for a higher resolution version.

Bill Load of Fish by Michael Johns

This animation represents the total number of prey delivered by common murre parents to awaiting chicks during a 14-hour diet watch. Each red dot depicts a single breeding site in one of our followed study plots on Southeast Farallon Island. Circles appear when a fish is delivered, and intensify in color as more fish are brought in throughout the day. Common murres deliver a single item after each foraging trip, the size and species of which are identified by Point Blue field scientists as birds fly into their respective sites. On this particular day in 2016, foraging parents were bringing in predominately anchovy, followed by juvenile rockfish and a mix of less common items such as squid, smelt, flatfish, and juvenile salmon.

Kilowatt Plot by Michael Johns

Kilowatt hour (kWh) is the standard unit of energy consumption, equivalent to 1000 watts per hour. For example an electric oven that consumed 1000 watts in an hour, or 100 watt heater that ran for 10 hours, both used 1 kWh of energy. On average, according to the US Energy Information Administration, an American household consumes just over 850 kWh per month. Looking at this plot, where each blue dot represents total kWh used each month, even in the dead of winter here in Alaska Casey and I stay well under the national average. Of course we don’t have an kids, don’t have air conditioning, and live in a small 800 square foot cabin heated by burning oil. Still, temperatures regularly dip below -10F in the winter, and we have to do things like plug in our cars to keep the engine oil warm, so I think we’re doing alright. Just for fun, I fit a simple linear model to our monthly energy consumption, which takes into account average monthly low temperature, day length on the 15th of each month, and number of days per billing cycle. The model (yellow line with shaded confidence region) predicts our monthly usage pretty well, tracking lower consumption during the longer warmer days of summer, and higher consumption during longer colder nights of winter. Of course the model isn’t perfect, but something odd did happen during the months leading up to 2017. A mystery that has yet to be solved.

Tasmanian Honeymoon In A Van by Michael Johns

Thanks to all the generous contributions to our honeymoon fund by friends and family, Casey and I were able to spend 3 awesome weeks touring Tasmania in a camper van. And we managed to spend every last cent... so thanks again to everyone for your gifts! Here are a handful of photos and some anecdotes from our travels.

Preamble: 3 Days in Hobart

Prior to getting the van, we stayed at an Airbnb in Hobart for 3 nights to take in the sights of the city. We treated ourselves to a fancy 6-course meal, pub food and beer, and a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) via a ferry that used plastic sheep and pink rockets as seats (art). The museum was a highlight of our trip, and if you ever find yourself in Hobart I highly recommend a visit.

Day 1: Hobart to Remarkable Cave

After picking up of Hertz rental van from the Hobart airport, stocking the cupboards with food and drink, and remembering to drive on the left, we set off for the Tasman Peninsula. Our destination was a spot on the southern corner of the peninsula called Remarkable Cave, a cavernous forking cave system carved by the erosional force of waves. From the parking lot, we hiked out to Mount Brown, offering views of a rugged coastline and secluded sandy beaches. We took a side trail down to one such beach in Maingon Bay, a great place for a swim. Later in the afternoon on our hike back, we spotted our first echidna digging for ants along the trail, Australasian gannets patrolling beyond the breakers, and a lone albatross gliding past the shore. We spent our first night in the van under the southern stars in the parking lot of Remarkable Cave, and speculated that the built in mini-fridge was quite possibly the noisiest fridge on the planet.

Day 2: Remarkable Cave to Fortescue Bay

“You can drive on unsealed roads, you just won’t be covered by insurance”. Turns out you can’t get to any of the preferred destinations in Tasmania by only staying on paved surfaces, so despite the lack of coverage by Hertz, after a long drive down a dusty washboard we arrived at the Mill Creek Campground in Fortescue Bay. Surprisingly, our tiny bald tires survived the puncture-threatening rough road (and the many kilometers of future unsealed routes we later took). Fortescue Bay was where I spent a few days hiking on my first visit to Tasmania back in 2011, and is arguably one of the most beautiful spots on the island. I dug up the following passage from my travel notes back then, which I think sums up this part of Tasmania pretty well.

“I’m looking across Fortescue Bay to the cathedrals of rock, reaching vertically 300 meters. The sun’s late afternoon low light, absorbed by the lichen, paints a golden orange on the cliff faces with contrasting black boxy shadows. The wind is high, blowing wave tops into spray, creating miniature rainbows as the water rains down. Dozens of Shy Albatross furrow their brows as they patrol the surface in the wind, while Australasian Gannets, with a flash of white wings dipped in black ink, soar high above. Black Faced Cormorants dawned in elegant tuxedos stand idle by on the rocks around me, their wings outstretched and heated by the suns reseeding rays. Sooty Oystercatchers pierce the exposed limpets and mussels with their fire red bills, while the broad leafy fronds of Bull Kelp dance and slap as they fold in and out with the waves. Somewhere in the distance I hear the muted bark of an Australian Fur Seal, masked by the howling wind and the crash of the boiling surf. The entire scene, the setting sun, the chill in the air, the epic cliffs, and the abundant wildlife, is absolutely beautiful.”

Fortescue is where the Cape Hauy Track begins, a strenuous trail through dense forest that eventually gives way to epic views along steep dolerite cliffs sculpted by erosion into vertical geometric pillars of rock. Waiting until the morning rush of hikers had ended, we traversed the many steps on the 4-hour return trail and found ourselves at the scenic lookout with only a few other lone hikers. Brief refreshing squalls of heavy downpours rolled in as we neared the end of the trail, with thunder booms echoing through the hills behind us. After our hike, we cooled off with a swim in the Tasman Sea, where Casey nearly waded into a huge Smooth Stingray, the largest species of ray in Australia, which I thought was merely a massive clump of detached kelp.

Day 3: Fortescue Bay to Swansea

Waiting for a break in the pouring rain, we explored the Tessellated Pavement on our way out of the Tasman Peninsula, a bench of crisscrossing cracks in the rock that form a natural tile-like texture. Our next major destination would be Maria Island, but we decided to overshoot the ferry terminal a bit to spend a night in a caravan park in Swansea, a humble little town tucked in the northwest corner of Great Oyster Bay. Access to power and water hookups gave us a chance to charge batteries, top off the drinking water, and take a hot shower, while the town provided a few extra groceries and beer. Another little known perk to this holiday park was a five minute walk to a modest short-tailed shearwater colony fringing a golf course built on a nearby headland. We sat post-sunset and pre-sunrise the next morning watching dozens of shearwaters crash land and awkwardly waddle in and out of their earthen burrows; seabirds after all are better adapted to a life at sea. Little blue penguins often accompany shearwater colonies, the chance of seeing them drawing in a handful of other tourists staying in the holiday park, but none were seen. The fact that shearwaters cover the entire Pacific Ocean basin on an annual migration to the Bering Strait and Arctic Ocean made seeing them on land at their breeding colony way more exciting than penguins for us.

Day 4: Swansea to Maria Island (via Ferry from Triabunna)

Wombats are all over Tasmania, but the place were they are most concentrated must be Maria Island. Leaving the van behind in Triabunna, we jumped on a 30-minute ferry out to Maria Island, pronounced by the Aussies with an “h” like Mariah Carey. Clearings from former human occupation makes the historical shore-based whaling settlement of Darlington, where the ferry docks, the perfect habitat for grazers like wombats and pademelons, and an absence of cars and lack of any natural predators means their populations have exploded. We spotted a few upon arrival and evidence of their presence in the form of cubic droppings everywhere, but once sunset neared the grassy slopes began teeming with brown lumps of wombats trundling across the landscape. We also observed quite a few eastern grey (or Forester’s) kangaroo and many Cape Barren geese.

Aside from the abundant wildlife, another major natural attraction on Maria Island are the Painted Cliffs, a short walk north from the campground. The natural canvas of white sandstone was carved by waves and stained red by deposits of iron oxide. We hung around the Painted Cliffs until dusk, in hopes that the orange of sunset would enhance the color of the rock, which it did.

Avoiding the sprawling tent communities of two competing youth groups, we pitched our tent on the edge of the far grassy field near a windy beach. Before heading to bed we spent about an hour spotlighting for Tasmanian devils, which were introduced to Maria Island in 2012 to serve as an insurance population against a prolific contagious nose tumor that is killing off much of the natural population. While we saw many brush-tailed possums, we had no such luck with the devils.

Day 5: Maria Island to Denison Beach

Next on our list of places to see was Wineglass Bay in Freycinet National Park, located east of Swansea on the Freycinet Peninsula. When we arrived, however, we found ourselves adrift among hordes of cars, camper vans, and motor homes. People everywhere. Wineglass Bay has been voted by a few apparently important travel guides as one of the top 10 beaches in the world, and tourists have obviously taken notice. After some deliberation, we decided to leave the crowd behind and keep driving north, and ended up finding Denison Beach, what we thought must be at least one of the top 10 beaches in Tasmania, and best of all, with no one on it. We relaxed in the sun, swam in calm clear blue water, and enjoyed a sunset of fluffy pink clouds. The small dirt parking lot at the entrance to the beach served as our campground for the night, a space we shared with likely another refuge of the Freycinet complex.

Day 6: Denison Beach to Humbug Point

After morning coffee on the beach and one last swim, we continued trekking north en route to a campground at Humbug Point just south the Bay of Fires, a stretch of coastline named by an English navigator in 1773 in reference to a string of beach fires from Aboriginal people. Coincidentally, this area of Tasmania also contains granite boulders coated with vibrant fiery orange lichen. The scrabbling sound of claws on metal woke us up late at night, and we were convinced a gang of brush-tailed possums would soon bust through the mesh of the vent windows and raid out food cupboards. Turns out they didn’t, and we also discovered in the morning that we had left the passenger window down.

Day 7: Humbug Point to Stump’s Bay

We spent the morning at Eddystone Lighthouse on the north end of the Bay of Fires, where we enjoyed the endless white sand beach for a bit and attempted to body surf the small wind waves. By mid afternoon, after driving past long stretches of cow pasture and farms, we arrived at Stumpy’s Bay, the furthest north we would travel on this trip. Wallabies frequented our camper van.

Day 8: Stumpy’s Bay to Narawntapu

Leaving the east coast behind, we set off on our second longest leg, passing through small towns and farmland to Narawntapu National Park, considered the Serengeti of Tasmania. The campgrounds contained warm coin-operated showers, which were nice. We hiked out of Bakers Beach to kill time, a densely vegetated walk where blotchy patterns of leaves from crown shyness of the trees blocked out a grey overcast sky. The north coast of Tassie had a cold, lonely bleakness to it, but then again it may have just been the wind and grey skies. Living up to its reputation, by late afternoon the fields of Narawntapu were peppered with Forester’s kangaroos and Bennett’s wallabies. If we squinted we could almost envision herds of gazelles grazing across the Serengeti. The rumbling of a passing lightning storm shook us awake in the middle of the night, soaking my boots that had been visited by a wallaby earlier in the day.

Day 9: Narawntapu to Cradle Mountain

One might say the north coast of Tasmania defines the urban sprawl, and while it was nice to see this side of the state, we were ready to get back to the wilderness.  With a refueling and water stop in the town of Burnie, we headed south towards the interior. After waffling on where to stay for the night, we managed to snag the last campsite at Cradle Mountain. Despite similar hordes of people that scared us away from Freycinet, Dove Lake backdropped by the bowl-like silhouette of Cradle Mountain is an iconic scene we didn’t want to miss. We circumnavigated the lake early to beat the crowd, along one of the most well maintained trails I’ve ever been on. A heavy mist made the multi-colored zebra patterns of the tree bark and rich green leaves really pop. Among the wildlife sighted was an echidna foraging dangerously close to the road, and a wombat seeking shelter from the mist under the boardwalk trail.

Day 10: Cradle Mountain to Mountain Valley Reserve

We really wanted to catch a glimpse of a Tasmania devil in the wild, so after some research Casey stumbled upon the Mountain Valley Nature Reserve, which boasts a near guaranteed chance of seeing them right outside your cabin window. It turns out they do this by putting chicken on the lawn off the front porch of each cabin, but we won’t get into that here. So we booked one of the six cabins and parked the van for two nights. Devils are only active at night, and with a nearly full moon, we would have to stay up pretty late in order to see them. Casey made it to 2AM the first night, and although we were very excited to see our first spot-tailed quolls, no devils showed up. The next morning our neighbors said they saw a single devil at 2:30AM, so perhaps we had just missed them. So the second night, we stayed up as long as we could. Again, we were visited by a different quoll and a possum, and just before I was about to call it a night, a devil appeared from behind a nearby bush. The encounter was brief, and it didn’t like to stay in the light of our porch for very long, but we managed to finally see a Tasmanian devil in the wild. As a bonus, we saw several platypus in a nearby river and even got a private tour of a glow worm grotto at a limestone cave on the property. The lack of sleep was worth it, but we were pretty tired by the end of our stay here.

Day 12: Mountain Valley to The Neck (Bruny Island)

A traveling day. Desperate to return to the coast, we made a beeline for Bruny Island. A little over 6-hours later, we picked a spot to camp for the night at The Neck.

Day 13: The Neck to Jetty Beach (Bruny Island)

A major draw to visiting Bruny Island was the chance of spotting little blue penguins from an observation platform at The Neck, a narrow strip of sand bounded by ocean. It turns out there is a massive short-tailed shearwater colony there too, with thousands of burrows covering the entire sand dune. The smell of seabirds was ever present. So after waiting for dark, a slow trickle of a few shearwaters flying in from the east erupted into a sky thick with several thousand birds. It was amazing. They were crash landing all over the place, their silhouettes visible with the diminishing twilight. A group of high schoolers showed up with red lights, which helped illuminate the scene. I was pretty happy to see these kids were so interested in observing such a relatively unknown seabird. As the shearwaters began to find their burrows and quiet down, 5 little blue penguins appeared from the beach, and slowly made their way to their respective homes.

We finished our tour of Bruny Island with two flights of beer from the Bruny Island brewing company (which were all delicious), a visit to the lighthouse at the south end, and camping at Jetty Beach for the night.

Day 14: Jetty Beach to Cockle Creek

For our final night in the van, we felt it would only be fitting to camp at Cockle Creek, the farthest south you can drive in Tasmania. Although the guidebooks stated this place was off the beaten path, most of the desirable parking spots for camper vans were taken, but we managed to find some space. The beach here was amazing, and we spent our final full day drinking beer in the sun on the sand. 

South of a Sunburnt Country by Michael Johns

Using a gridded sea surface temperature dataset from NOAA, and a handy orthographic projection of Earth centered on the South Pole, you can see Tasmania hovering just above a cold ring of water wrapping around the frozen continent of Antarctica. Although a part of the sunburnt country of Australia, Tasmania’s southern position and proximity to this cooler band of ocean temperatures gives the island a more temperate climate. February in the Southern Hemisphere means shorter days and cooler nights, marking the beginning of a transition to fall. Cooler temps and rain couldn’t come soon enough, as the whole of Australia has been hit with the one of the most extreme heat waves on record, with bush fires sparked by lightning strikes raging across much of Tasmania. These heat waves may become the new norm for this and many other parts of the world, as global average temperatures begin to creep up from a long-term baseline. While not as pronounced as places like the Arctic, records indicate sea and air temperatures are slowly on the rise for this unique southern island of Australia.

Graphics created in R with packages ggplot2 and touched up in Photoshop. SST data are interpolated high resolution average daily values for January 30th, 2019. I tested out a cool new package put out by the BBC graphics team on the temperature anomaly plot, which allows you to apply the graphing styles they use for publications. Check out the link HERE.

Where Are the People? by Michael Johns

Aside from a major city and a handful of townships, Tasmania is mostly an island of rugged landscapes and remote wilderness. There are roughly 522,000 people currently living on this island state of Australia, nearly half of whom reside in the greater Hobart region; Tasmania’s only city center. The heat maps above depict the spatial distribution and densities of people across the island. Each circle represents a 0.05 x 0.05 degree pixel within a larger spatial grid, colored by the total number and density of people within each pixel. Rather than using a raster or contours to display the population data, I went with a simple grid of points using the package ggplot2 in R, which I think gives it a retro “Lite-brite” look. If you never had one as a kid then you missed out. Hobart glows red hot, followed by the town Launceston (called “Launy” by the Aussies) and the northern coastline. We will be flying into Hobart and exploring the city for a few days, before heading out in a camper van rental to check out some of the darker corners of these maps.

Population data used to create the maps above can be found at the following link: http://sedac.ciesin.columbia.edu/data/set/gpw-v4-admin-unit-center-points-population-estimates-rev10/data-download

Rather messy but mostly functional R code used to make maps can be downloaded HERE.

Waiting for Australia by Michael Johns

Casey and I still have 5 weeks to go before our belated honeymoon to Tasmania, and already I’m dreaming up cool ways to display data from our trip. So far I have plans for comparing our heart rates in response to different situations using data collected from our Fitbits, tracking the routes we take during our 3-week road trip around the island, and summarizing the different species of plants and animals encountered along the way. To kick things off, I’ve put together a map showing the 8 different flights required to complete a roundtrip ticket from Fairbanks Alaska to Hobart Tasmania. Aside from some text, airplane vector art, and a custom legend (designed to look like a passport stamp) which I added in Photoshop, all of the features of the plot were assembled in R using the ggplot2 package. The coord_map( ) function in ggplot created a spherical projection of the earth, and the white stipples you see on the continents depicts light pollution data, highlighting the city centers. Not counting layover times, it will take us nearly 46 hours to complete the journey.

Seabird Sizes by Michael Johns

This figure depicts the relative sizes of seabirds that breed on the Farallon Islands. Larger circles mean more massive birds, smaller circles less massive. Species in the order Pelecaniformes, colored in shades of blue, are among the largest birds that breed on the island. The Ashy Storm-petrel in yellow, although a part of the order Procellariiformes which includes some of the largest seabirds like albatrosses, is small enough to fit inside the palm of your hand. The diverse order Charadriiformes in shades of red includes all of the gulls and auks, the latter of which contains all of the wing-propelled pursuit divers like puffins, murres, guillemots, and auklets. Mass information was gathered from the Sibley guide to birds. This plot was made almost entirely in R, with a few minor tweaks made in Photoshop. A full size image can be downloaded HERE.

Make It An Animation by Michael Johns

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Sometimes, an animated figure tells the story better than a static one. We have been tracking the non-breeding movement patterns of Cassin’s auklets from Southeast Farallon Island since 2015, in an effort to understand the environmental drivers of their winter dispersal. Part of the work I’m doing for my PhD is linking the movements of auklets to remotely sensed conditions relevant to their foraging ecology, in the case of this animation chlorophyll-a concentration (left) and sea surface temperature (right) from November 2017 through January 2018. Chlorophyll, the photosynthetically active molecule that gives plants, algae, and certain types of bacteria their green pigment, is used as a measure of the concentration of phytoplankton. Krill, which comprises much of the Cassin's auklet diet, graze on phytoplankton, so it’s reasonable to assume productive areas with high concentrations of chlorophyll-a likely contain greater densities of krill than areas of low chlorophyll-a. Similarly, lower sea surface temperatures are generally associated with nutrient rich cold water from depth, which help spark blooms of phytoplankton. One hypothesis, visualized with this animation, is that Cassin’s auklets are searching for colder regions of higher productivity during the winter months. The next step is to test this hypothesis with a series of competing models, to see which best explains the patterns observed in the data.

Denali Road Lottery by Michael Johns

More than a century ago, the United States congress was persuaded to create Denali National Park, a now 6 million acre wildlife preserve named after the tallest mountain in North America. By design, the human footprint within the park remains minimal, with few facilities, no real hiking trails, and a single 92 mile-long dirt road. Private vehicles are restricted beyond the Savage River Campground, at mile 15 on the park road. From there, a fleet of buses services the remainder of the road, allowing visitors to hop on and off wherever they like. This enables the public to access the spectacular wildlife and scenery the park has to offer, without the headache and chaos of thousands of vehicles clogging up the road every time a brown bear crosses.

At the end of the summer tourist season in mid September, the buses are parked for the winter and the full length of the Denali park road opens to select group of lottery winners. Every year people can enter what is called the Denali Road Lottery, where up to 1600 private vehicles (400 per day over a 4-day period) are selected at random and allowed to drive the 92 mile stretch of wilderness road all the way to its terminus at Wonder Lake. Winners of this lottery have the freedom to drive at their leisure, stopping whenever and wherever scenic vistas and wild animals are encountered.

According to the National Parks Service website, roughly 11,400 applications were received in 2017, equating to a 1 and 7 odds of getting drawn. Casey was lucky enough to be drawn, which aligned perfectly with a visit from our good friend Amy. So on the final day of the road lottery, we got to experience the fall colors, sweeping views, and iconic Alaskan wildlife of Denali. Except the actual mountain itself, which was cloaked in low clouds and fog…

One of the big draws to visiting Denali National Park is the chance to get close looks at wildlife that is otherwise more elusive outside the park’s boundaries. Just minutes into the drive, we spotted a large flock of willow ptarmigan waddling along the gravel shoulder. Birds don’t stop up traffic in quite the same way as the large mammals like bears, moose, and caribou do. It was easy to tell when a grizzly had been sighted, where sometimes 20 or more cars would pull over with long expensive lenses sticking out of passenger windows, aiding newcomers by pointing out which direction to look for the bear. The following is our sightings list for the day:

Birds
Horned Grebe - 2
Greater Scaup - 12
American Widgeon - 8
Spruce Grouse - 1
Willow Ptarmigan - 27
Grey Jay - 5
Black-billed Magpie - 10

Mammals
Brown Bear - 3
Moose - 3
Caribou - 8
Dall Sheep - 49
Red Fox - 1
Porcupine - 1
Arctic Ground Squirrel - 1

We were lucky to win the road lottery, but not so lucky with the weather. A very wet and rainy fall this year in interior Alaska meant that most of the towering mountains, including the biggest of them all, were obscured from view. Still, what we could see at ground level was more than enough to make the trip worth while. Perhaps next year we will win another day in the park and try our luck again.

Visualizing Long-term Data by Michael Johns

Point Blue Conservation Science has amassed an impressive long-term dataset on the breeding histories of known-age Cassin's auklets on Southeast Farallon Island. These data are visualized in the figure above. The dedication to maintaining and checking 400+ artificial nest boxes every 5-days for the past 34 years has allowed researchers to reveal some unique patterns in the life history of this small seabird. For example, Cassin's auklets are the only member of the taxonomic Alcid family to attempt two complete broods in a single breeding season, known as double brooding. In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, my colleagues and I used these data to examine how double brooding impacts future reproductive potential and survival for birds that attempt such a behavior multiple times over the course of their lives. It turns out that so called "repeat double brooders" represent a subset of high quality individuals that can offset the short-term costs of increased reproductive effort, living well into old age and producing more offspring than birds that never double brood. Visit the publisher’s website by clicking HERE

Orange is the New Fairbanks by Michael Johns

For a brief moment in time, vegetative colors in the far north shift from the middle of the visible spectrum (green, where photosynthesis occurs), to the " far right" shades of amber and red. September in interior Alaska offers a narrow window for fall foliage, with reduced day-lengths and colder nightly temperatures signaling to the trees and shrubs a change in the season. The tundra is particularly breathtaking this time of year, as the grasses become fiery orange and the ground cover of blue and bear berries develops a rich red hue. Contrasting this warm color palette are patches of mint green lichen, wind swept grey granite, and the occasional stunted dark green spruce. The golden hour of sunset, still prolonged given the sun's path at such a high latitude, only serves to enhance the overwhelming golden look of the landscape. 

To take advantage of this narrow window of fall colors, we packed up the truck for a quick overnight camping trip with our friend Kyle, at his "secret" berry picking spot just over an hour's drive outside of town. Clear skies offered sweeping views of Minto Flats, a 500,000 acre wetland and state game refuge. As darkness fell, a complete absence of the moon allowed the Milky Way an it's billions of other worlds to shine. Later in the night, material flowing from our own star triggered a decent display of northern lights over our tents, with subtle pinks and purples not visible to the naked eye revealed with a long-exposure of the camera. Waking up to a frosty morning tundra and sundogs were a sobering reminder that winter is just around the corner. 

Winter Movements by Michael Johns

After several years of geolocator tagging work (see image below), we finally have enough information to begin to paint a better picture of the non-breeding winter distribution of Cassin's auklets from Southeast Farallon Island. At the start of any research project, the most important first step in the analysis process is to visualize the data. The idea behind this visualization was to depict three key environmental characteristics of the auklet's winter habitat in a single plot; sea surface temperature (SST), depth, and distance from island. SST will be used as a proxy for productivity, as colder water in this region is generally associated with nutrient rich upwelling processes, depth to characterize the preferred ocean zone (shallow shelf, steep slope, or deep abyssal plain), and distance from island to explore the possible limits of their dispersal. 

Glancing at this plot, you can see by October birds are fairly spread out between 45°N (dark purple colors - Northern California area) and roughly 33°N (orange colors - Southern California). They are also exposed to quite a range of SST, from 14°C up to nearly 22°C. By late January, all of the birds are relatively close to the island (small bubble size) and experiencing roughly the same SST, before spreading out again in late February, with most birds staying at around 35°N. The 2015-16 season was a particularly warm year for SST, which my explain why only birds in the northern reaches were finding water colder than 14°C. The next step in this exploratory process is to look at auklet movements during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, which were moderate to average years for SST in the eastern north Pacific. Ultimately, these and possibly additional environmental covariates will be used to model the winter habitat use of Cassin's auklets off the California Coast. 

Note the geolocator tag on the left leg of this Cassin's auklet. Geolocators are devices which record ambient light levels that are later used to estimate latitude and longitude. 

Tagging data courtesy of a partnership between Point Blue Conservation Science and the USFWS. Remotely sensed environmental data were downloaded from the NOAA repository https://coastwatch.pfeg.noaa.gov/erddap. This plot was created in R with the ggplot2 package. 

New Aurora Season by Michael Johns

The Kp index, a measure of the strength of geomagnetic storms from the sun, spiked last night; jumping from a mild 3 to a strong 7. It turns out the Earth had passed through the wake of a coronal mass ejection, where the sun essentially burps out a giant plasma cloud that travels outward from the source as solar wind. This wake weakened the magnetosphere of our planet, allowing solar wind to spill into the upper atmosphere and take on the form of bright green aurora. Space weather forecasters were not predicting this event, a surprise display of northern lights that kicked off the 2018-19 aurora season. 

Ken's Pond in Late Summer by Michael Johns

A brief visit from our good friend Laura prompted a much needed cabin retreat, this time a return trip to Ken's Pond. This public use cabin offers sweeping views of the snow-capped Alaska Range towering over a small beaver pond. Accessible by "highway vehicle" in the summer, we traversed the 5 mile rutted dirt road in my Tacoma to a pullout at the top of a ridge line, where we walked the remaining 800 yards down to the cabin. Highway vehicle is a bit generous for this road, as 4 wheel drive and a high clearance was necessary for navigating the deep mud puddles and trenches.   

As is typical for Ken's Pond, the wind was fierce. The high altitude wind shear, however, created some awesome lenticular clouds; stationary UFO-shaped features formed when a steady stream of moist air encounters an obstacle, in this case a mountain range.  

Highlights from our quick overnighter included circumnavigating the pond, a rousing game of scattergories categories, admiring Noosa, pond-chilled beer, finding coal, wind, and sightings of a beaver (Ken), caribou, and a bull moose. Another memorable visit to Ken's Pond.