A Windy Ken's Pond by Michael Johns

Sustained 30 knots, gusting to 70, horizontal snow and possible white-out conditions ... why not go for hike? Casey and I had already cancelled our much needed overnight cabin trip last week, so we were determined to make the short five mile trek out to Ken's Pond this time despite the blowy weather. The occasional gust knocked us sideways over a few exposed stretches, but overall it was a fairly painless walk.

The wood stove was fired up immediately upon arrival. It was unseasonably warm for mid December at this latitude, in the high 30's, but our faces needed a bit of warming up from the wind chill. Trapped inside for most of our short stay given the howling wind outside, the cabin journal kept us entertained for a little while, as we caught up on all the Ken's Pond happenings since our last visit in March. 

Noosa was pretty wiped from the walk in. She normally sleeps all day. 

The northern lights appeared to be putting on a good show above a thin layer of clouds throughout the night, but no tripod could stand against those winds, so I didn't attempt to photograph it. A momentary pocket of clear sky, however, allowed the lights to shine an eerie green onto the Alaska Range to the west, and I did manage to get a few shots through a window framed by a warm fire. 

The winds remained strong in the morning, but gradually subsided on our hike back out. On the drive home to Fairbanks, we came upon a small herd of caribou just south of Delta Junction. It was a nice conclusion to our quick escape from Fairbanks.

Tern-niversary by Michael Johns

Today is the 5-year anniversary of the great microburst of 2012, a brief yet destructive meteorological phenomenon that effectively put an end to a remote long-term seabird monitoring camp on Tern Island in French Frigate Shoals. This event also prematurely ended my scheduled six month deployment as a field of this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific. I wrote about my experience of the great storm back in 2012, and decided to repost the old blog here. The following is my account of that day, along with some grammatical fixes and updated photos.

Sunday December 9th, 4:30 AM:

I awoke as I always did around 4:30 in the morning to start the day. It was muggy and warm when I went to bed so I left my windows open to get some breeze. It had apparently rained throughout the night, slightly flooding my room. I normally got up this early to use the unlimited download time we were given for the internet (from midnight to 6am), but it had been down the night before, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bother getting out of bed to test it. But the lightning outside was pretty cool, and a cup of coffee sounded really good, so I got up anyway. The lightning was indeed amazing; it was like storms I had seen visiting my brother in Alabama, the sky lit up like a dying light bulb blinking every few seconds. It kept going, never really producing any bolts, it just lit the clouds a brilliant purple hue. Although it was raining steadily, the direction the rain was falling kept the water off the porch, so I sat outside with my coffee in the warm morning air and photographed the lightning show. The wind was coming from the south, so I stayed relatively dry sitting in the lee of the building.

5:45 AM:

After watching the weather for a while, trying to catch the occasional lightning bolt, the wind abruptly swung from the south to the north, driving the rain straight onto the porch. At first it was tolerable, but then the rain grew heavier, getting me and my camera gear wet. I immediately took my tripod down and went back inside, and as I shut the front door to keep the rain out I noticed that the temperature had rapidly dropped at least ten degrees, like I was standing in front of an open freezer door. It got so cold I almost felt I could see my breath. I didn’t think much of it. I figured the cold front had just passed over us, explaining the shift in the wind and the sudden increase in rain.  Although this had never happened before, so I thought it noteworthy. In the meantime the lighting intensified, it was now producing proper bolts and very loud thunder, the storm was right on top of us. With nothing else to do I sat down at my computer in the radio room and gave the internet a shot. Amazingly, it worked enough for me to send an email out to Casey, bragging about how cool the lightning was and how monstrous the surf sounded.

Sometime around 6:00 AM:

I had just sent Casey an email, and was sitting at my computer thinking what I was going to write about the storm (I usually wrote up or edited a journal entry in the morning), when out of the blue the VHF radio on a shelf behind me started producing static, like the sound an analog TV makes when it’s not receiving a signal. I had never heard it do this before, I wasn't even aware the radio was on, so it startled me. With this and the extremely cold air minutes earlier, I began to worry that something was off. Then the sky just opened up and dumped the heaviest rain I had ever heard, as if the building was sitting beneath a massive waterfall. The radio kept chattering and the rest happened so fast it’s hard to describe. Like a shockwave the pressure in room grew so strong my ears started popping, and I began hearing a faint rumbling sound that swiftly grew louder. This was immediately followed by a swift blast of cold wind to the face, as if someone had just kicked open the emergency exit of a plane in mid flight. Books from the shelf behind me and pieces of debris started flying about the room, and I instinctively dove under the computer desk and covered my face. At this point the rumbling was all around me. It sounded like metal and wood were being run through a blender, lots of banging, cracking and screeching. It was the most violent sound I had ever heard. I had visions of the movie Twister playing in my head, dairy cows levitating and all, but I had no idea was going on and I thought for sure the whole building was falling down. I wondered if the Mayans had been right all along, the world was coming to an end (This was 2012 after all). I figured I was going to be buried in a pile of rubble when it was all over. The chaos lasted for about 5 seconds and then stopped. The rain, the wind, everything was calm again. I stayed under the desk, not knowing what was going on. Then I heard Morgan say from the hall, “where’s Mike?”, and at that point I got my first glimpse of the extent of the damage. Initially, I was shocked to see one of the interior walls and the door to the radio room had been knocked down, and the place was littered with soggy books and sheets of data.

Then I saw the common room. It was just after six now, still too early for the sun, and the whole building was dark. The lightning flashed and revealed all the walls were gone. It was such an eerie sight. Every time the lighting went off, where the entertainment center stood, the bookshelves, the chalkboard with our daily schedule, it was all just an open view of a tumultuous sea and a nasty sky. The wind was blowing salt spray and rain right through our dining area, chairs were strewn about the room, and the kitchen was covered with knives, pots and pans – it was a mess. The wind had been so strong it moved stoves in the kitchen, and blew a heavy freezer full of old video tapes clear through a wall and out the building. We had just rearranged the movie area, and set up the Christmas tree for the holidays, and it was now a massive pile of junk. Broken glass, bad novels, random debris had been blown out with the east walls, landing in a fan outside on top of albatrosses incubating eggs. The entire scene was a disaster.

Four rooms, including mine, had been completely blown out. It was a jungle of shattered drywall and mangled aluminum framing that had been ripped from their foundations. Fortunately I wasn’t in my room, and all other occupied rooms only received minor damage. The west end of the hallway was so mangled the last three rooms were inaccessible. One unused bed was buried under three different walls. If anyone had been sleeping there they would have been crushed. We really lucked out.

The damage was extensive. The boathouse looked like a bomb had gone off, the tractor shed had gaping holes in its concrete walls, there were many leaks in the plumbing, the solar panels were torn from the braces, radio antennas were stripped off the roof, six bedrooms, one office, two bathrooms, the laundry room, and all of the common room had their exterior walls blown out, and a few other structures including fuel storage units and a couple fiberglass boat hulls were scattered around the west portion of the island. We took a big hit, and it was all a major shock to witness.

Even more disturbing was searching for injured and buried birds. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for rescue workers on scene at the World Trade Centers or in Japan after the tsunami. It was very difficult seeing albatrosses, birds that I have been admiring for years, with broken wings and bloody necks stuck beneath sheets of wall panels. Some were killed instantly by projectiles, others were flattened on their nests, and many were simply limping around with mangled wings. Since the debris from our buildings had inflected the most damage to the wildlife, it was our responsibility to euthanize the suffering birds. Something I hope to never have to do again. The death count is as follows: 62 Brown Noddies, 97 Black Noddies, 10 White Terns, 17 Red-footed Boobies, 6 Great Frigatebirds, 1 Pacific Plover, 24 Laysan Albatross, and 22 Black-footed Albatross, for a total of 239 birds of which 79 were banded.

It’s amazing how selective these storms can be. You always hear stories about how tornados will completely disintegrate one home, and leave another only feet away untouched. The microburst we experienced only affected the west end of the island where all of our facilities stood. The east end of the island showed no signs of damage. It appeared every leaf and branch hadn’t even been rustled. The wind apparently stopped at the warehouse to the east, and was most intense near the boathouse to the west. As much as I can gather from Wikipedia, a microburst forms by the rapid evaporation of highly saturated air in a thunder head. As the mass of air evaporates, it cools. The sudden cooling forces the air mass to descend from the cloud, accelerating as it falls through the wet air below. When the air mass eventually collides with the ground it can reach speeds of 150 mph, leveling anything that stands in its way. At least that’s what I think happens. Either way the point is it gets very windy very fast, and causes intense localized destruction.

The storm carried on for three days. It was difficult to sleep the first night after the disaster. No longer did we trust the integrity of the building. We were convinced that the next big gust could blow the whole place down. The rooms in the north wing where we moved all of our valuables and beds were mostly intact, although the roofing had been compromised and new leaks had sprung open.  We were able to recover most of the archived data, although some had been saturated, and luckily all of our expensive computers and camera gear survived. My computer was covered in dirt and debris and had a desk lamp fall on the keyboard, but it still worked. We boarded up the kitchen and the exposed hallway, and somehow managed to recover the internet, although its functionality was limited. The solar panels were damaged, but remained intact enough to still charge the battery bank. Chad fixed the broken pipes in the plumbing and shunted all water to the north hall. We limped along for 10 days. In the meantime we piled all the wooden debris on the runway for a bonfire, and did what we could to secure all other lost items that might otherwise blow around and cause more injury to the birds.

Christmas Harvest by Michael Johns

Our 4th and final post Thanksgiving Christmas tree harvest in Fairbanks. Despite the cold temps we were committed to finding the best one, since this will be our last white Christmas in the far north. After shaking the snow off of several duds, we eventually stumbled upon the one while heading back to the truck. As usual, I spent the whole time documenting Casey's work. 

Gear by Michael Johns

My first digital SLR was a Canon Rebel, purchased with the money I had saved working as a deckhand on whale watching boats back in college. The motivation for this purchase was originally for photographing whales, in between vomit cleanup duty and selling hot chocolate to underdressed and hypothermic passengers. My interests in photography, and acquisition of new gear, slowly diversified over the years. Here is a sample of the gear I currently carry in my pack. 

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Cameras:

Canon 6D - My first full frame sensor. I use this body to shoot landscapes and portraits. It handles low light situations requiring higher ISO very well, and has come in handy in particular for photographing the northern lights.
Canon 60D - I picked this up while working in Australia. The 60D body always has my long lens mounted on it, and is now solely used to photograph wildlife and action scenes. 

Lenses:

Canon 70-200mm f/4L - I couple this lens with a Canon 1.4 extender. The combination of the cropped sensor in the 60D and the extender gives me plenty of zoom for photographing the birds and beasts. This workhorse has been in use since 2006, and the only old age related issue I've had with it is a sticky focus wheel. 
Canon 85mm f/1.8 - I purchased this 85mm prime for portrait sessions, mostly of my dog Noosa. The large aperture creates some smooth bokeh, and it's super fast in low light. It doesn't have the elusive red ring of an L-series lens, but the images still come out sharp and crisp.
Canon 17-40mm f/4L - My everyday lens. This mid-range zoom is dedicated to the 6D, and is great for wide landscape photos. I occasionally pair this lens with a Canon 12mm extension tube for the rare macro shoot. 
Bower 8mm f/3.5 - My only non-Canon lens. This cool little fisheye was an impulse buy, but I've put it to good use over the years. The 180 degree field of view makes for some unique perspectives. Sadly, the domed objective element was badly scratched recently. The blemish is hardly noticeable in shots of the night sky, so I'm holding onto it until I find a replacement. 

Lighting:

No fancy external flashes yet, but they're on my wish list. I do, however, always carry a headlamp and handheld LED for light painting with long exposures, and for seeing my way around during long winter nights in Fairbanks. 

Accessories: 

Intervalometer - This device, which trips the shutter on a preset time interval, was essential during my time lapse phase. I still occasionally use it for shooting aurora and short time lapse sequences in the field.
Canon RC-6 Wireless Remote - I picked this up to use as remote shutter release for a DIY photo booth that never happened at my wedding, and will be used going forward for putting myself in the frame. 
Spare Canon Battery - For obvious reasons. 
Gerber Pocket Knife - Protection from grizzlies when out in the bush. 
Paracord - Mainly to hang weights from the tripod when shooting a time lapse, or to fix items in the frame. 
Zippo Hand Warmer - A Christmas gift from my husband that has proven crucial for photographing the aurora when temps drop below zero. Keeps my fingers nice and toasty. 

 

More Snow Dog by Michael Johns

Noosa makes a great subject for photographing snowy scenes. 

Wedding Preview by Michael Johns

Like any amateur photographer, I've occasionally toyed with the idea of getting into shooting weddings. So just for fun, I've photographed some of the items that appeared in my own wedding in an art studio in Seattle that just wrapped up last night. Something to look back on while Casey and I wait in anticipation for the full suite of images from the photographers we hired. 

Spontaneous Camping Trip by Michael Johns

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A massive coronal mass ejection aimed dead on Earth smashed into the magnetosphere last night. Geomagnetic storms were forecasted to be severe, with visible auroras possible from the poles down to the lower 48. It's hard to stay home when the data looks this good. So we didn't. Casey and I quickly pilled the camping gear into the truck and drove above the tree line to achieve sweeping views of the horizon. The auroras ended up being less than we expected, and will likely be best tonight, but we managed to see some displays before the chill of the wind whipping across the open tundra forced us to retreat back into the tent. 

Overnight Trip to the Arctic by Michael Johns

Casey and I decided to get a preview of fall by driving past the Arctic Circle to the Brooks Range. The 9 hour drive along the Dalton Highway, from Fairbanks to Galbraith Lake where we camped for the night, slowly progressed into large expanses of fiery colors. As we approached the mountains to the north, the foothills of red and yellow transitioned into a snow-capped winter landscape. Below are some photos of our brief overnight getaway. 

Seasonal Visitor by Michael Johns

I'm told that at least one barn owl is a commonly observed winter resident on the Farallones, possibly feasting on seabirds in a inconspicuous location during the summer months and emerging once the noise of the breeding western gulls subsides in the fall. This owl was regularly roosting on one of the three trees on the island outside my bedroom window before I left for Fairbanks.

It's August by Michael Johns

Change is in the air on this wind swept heap of rock. Warm moist air from the south has been pushing the fog offshore and replacing it with rolling waves of stratus clouds, creating some contrasting pastels in the morning light. To provide a bit of context for this photo, on the left is the "PRBO House", where we live and work. On the right is the "Coast Guard House", an identical twin to the PRBO House used sporadically by the Fish and Wildlife Service when on island. 

Catch Of The Day by Michael Johns

Part of the work we do includes monitoring the diet of several seabird species that serve as indicators of fish populations in the Gulf of the Farallones. This involves sitting in arm chairs near nesting areas or in blinds with a pair of binoculars and watching birds fly in with bill loads of fish. Species such as pigeon guillemots and common murres deliver a single fish held in their bill with every foraging trip, so we can identify the type and size of each prey item fed to the awaiting chick. Earlier in the season, we were seeing a lot of juvenile rockfish in their diet, and it turns out pinnipeds like to take the adults too. This Steller's sea lion was seen tossing a vermillion rockfish at the surface, shredding it into more manageable pieces while the western gulls snatched up the smaller bits. 

Natural Fireworks by Michael Johns

We do a fare bit of night work out here on the Farallones, from banding Ashy Storm-petrels to access population trends to netting Rhinoceros Auklets to collect diet samples. On this particular night, on our way back to the house after conducting cave surveys for an endemic cricket species, we noticed the waves in Maintop Bay were giving off tiny flashes of bright blue-green light. It was bioluminescence, a natural emission of light produced by living organisms, in this case by microscopic phytoplankton called dinoflagellates. The agitation of the surf causes them to give off this glow, lighting up the shoreline with a natural display of fireworks. Although not visible in this photo, I can assure you the sparkling waves evoked several "wows". 

History by Michael Johns

Southeast Farallon Island has an eclectic mix of old structures from the days of the Russian fur trade, the Gold Rush, and the lighthouse keepers families, that have been repurposed for modern use. This old stone building for example now serves as our wood shop, or "Carp Shop" as we like to call it. 

Final Light by Michael Johns

Summer weather offshore of Central California typically falls into three categories: wind, fog, or both. This often catches tourists off guard, where people expecting a warm July whale watch outside the bay end up wearing shorts and a t-shirt on a 5-hour long cruise in cold pea soup fog. Occasionally, however, the fog vanishes and the wind subsides, setting the stage for a fleeting phenomena of pleasant weather. On these rare clear evenings, usually towards the end of summer and into fall, lofty stratocumulus clouds paint the sky brilliant shades of sunset colors during the final minutes of remaining light. 

They Grow Up Fast by Michael Johns

After a two week hiatus from the island, I arrived yesterday to the signs of change. The landscape on the Farallones is now significantly drier, the gulls less intense in their areal assaults, and many of the seabird species we monitor now have chicks big enough to leave the protection of their parents and start life as individuals. The common murre chick pictured here is close it 3 weeks old, and will soon follow the male parent through a busy colony, past a dense pile of hauled out sea lions, and over a steep cliff into the sea. Thousands more murre chicks will do the same, in nightly mass fledging events that take place just after dusk. These chicks will then be reared by the male at sea until they are big enough to fly and forage on their own, bringing the chick to the fish instead of the fish to the chick. 

Stormy Netting by Michael Johns

The wind has finally dropped and the moon is close to new; prime conditions for working the mist net. We've started a third round of Ashy Storm-petrel netting to put out more bands for a long-term mark-recapture study, and PIT tags for a graduate student's PhD work. Last night we opened the net just after 1030PM to a flurry of activity, catching 6 birds within minutes. Red filters on our headlamps help to minimize handling stress to the palm-sized seabirds, while we record wing chord, brood patch status, mass, and secure the band and tag. The pace slowed by the second hour, forcing us to quit an hour early due to a lack of activity. The night was slow, but the stars and a freak lightning show over San Fransisco kept things interesting until it was time to head back to the house.  

The Other Inhabitants by Michael Johns

Along with 13 species of breeding birds, the Farallones are used as a haul out and pupping site for 5 species of Pinnipeds. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Pinnipeds are the "fin-footed" marine mammals, a taxonomic distinction that describes all of the seals, sea lions, and walrus. Northern Elephant Seals, Fur Seals, Steller Sea Lions, California Sea Lions, and Harbor Seals can all be seen in various numbers and reproductive stages on the island throughout the the year. They offer a visual reprieve from many hours of waiting for birds to stand off their nests and reveal what's brooding underneath. These two massive adult male Steller Sea Lions were occupying the same territory, and likely had just finished an epic battle that must have ended in a stalemate. True Chewbaccas of the sea. 

Eggs, So Many Eggs by Michael Johns

Common murres, pictured here, are some of the most devoted parents on the island. Although their mint green eggs are laid on precarious rocky cliff ledges, few are lost given intense parental care and attention. Tucked beneath soft breast feathers and wedged between a pair of webbed feet, common murre eggs withstand driving wind and harsh weather for roughly 28 days before a chick eventually emerges from within. We have been waiting and watching patiently from blinds above the colony for weeks now for this event to happen, with the first hatches scheduled to occur sometime in mid June. 

When Night Falls by Michael Johns

Somewhere between four and nine thousand ashy storm-petrels breed on Southeast Farallon Island, roughy half of the world's population. These sparrow-sized seabirds are tiny versions of more familiar open ocean wanderers like shearwaters and albatrosses, and like their relatives they brave extreme oceanic storms in a truly pelagic lifestyle. Ashy storm-petrels only arrive on colony after dusk and depart before dawn, and are almost never seen on island during the day. So in order to study this species, you have to forgo normal working hours and venture out into the field at night. During lulls in the spring winds, we head out just before 10PM to suitable storm-petrel breeding habitats and set up a long wall of fine mesh netting called a mist net. Calls of ashy storm-petrels are played with a loud speaking near the net to attract unsuspecting birds. Storm-petrels caught in the mist net are then measured, weighed, and banded with a small metal numeric leg band before being released; part of a mark-recapture study aimed to arrive at a more accurate estimate of the breeding population on the Farallones. Along with the joys of working with such an incredible seabird species, on clear nights we are also treated to a dazzling display of our own galaxy.