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


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. 

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". 

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. 

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. 

Taking A Puffin Break by Michael Johns

Every morning, following a hot cup of coffee and a quick tune in to NPR, we head up to our respective blinds to check a series of common murre plots. Using a map of known sites and a pair of binoculars, we scan the plots looking for birds that have laid an egg. It's at task that a times can be quite tedious, particular for sites tucked behind rocks or other birds, which makes it difficult to see their feet. The tedium, however, is occasionaly broken by a sighting of a blue whale just off the island, a surprise visit by a brown booby, or a fly by of a puffin, the islands most decorated bird. The photo above shows a tufted puffin coming in for a landing over a dense colony of common murres, holding nesting material in its bill. 

Stormy-petrels by Michael Johns

What makes people on the Farallones stop what they're doing for a field trip to "The Domes" to stare at the ocean? Well anything unusual really. In this particular photo, we are watching a large flock of fork-tailed storm-petrels which were spotted surfing in the breakers just off the intertidal rocks. An unprecedented event first because storm-petrels only approach the island at night and are almost never seen from shore during the day, and second because unlike ashy storm-petrels which breed on the Farallones, fork-tailed storm-petrels breed much further north in British Columbia and Alaska. We occasionally catch the odd fork-tailed during mist netting for ashies at night, but for the most part this northern species is a rare find off central California. We even had some flying into coves just below out feet at one of the island landing sites.

It has been said that storm-petrels are often seen in harbors and close to shore during approaching severe wind fronts, and mariners considered them indicators of fowl weather. This aligns with the 45 knot northwesterlies we've had over this past few days. There have also been reports further south of fort-tailed storm-petrels in Monterey Harbor and thousands more throughout Monterey Bay. 

Breakers In Fisherman's Bay by Michael Johns

Twelve species of seabirds and five species of pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) use the exposed granitic outcroppings of the Farallon Islands as a place to breed. During the peak of the summer season, close to 250 thousand seabirds can be found on Southeast Farallon, in burrows, crevices, terraces, and cliffs throughout the island. Part of the reason the Farallones is teaming with marine life are the productive waters that surround the islands; productivity that is driven by strong northwest winds. Spring winds cause deep nutrient-rich water to well up to the sunlit surface waters, sparking massive phytoplankton blooms that support a diverse marine food web. Over the past few days, we've been experiencing those strong northwest winds out here, with sustained speeds of 35 knots and gusts of over 45! While the wind makes it difficult for us to conduct our work, it's essential for providing food for the seabirds we study. The photo of the islets in Fisherman's Bay above shows huge swells and foamy seas wrapping around Sugar Loaf on the right. 

Back to the Farallones by Michael Johns


Every 30 mile boat ride out to the Farallon Islands begins with a crossing under the Golden Gate Bridge. Unless of course you're leaving on a morning socked in with fog, which is not uncommon for coastal California. This will be my third summer season spent on Southeast Farallon Island, and early morning views like this never get old. I plan to post photos and brief stories of the work we do on the Farallones throughout the summer months, so follow this space if you're interested. 

Another Season Ending by Michael Johns

It finally happened again. Another winter in Fairbanks has come to pass, which means another aurora season is wrapping up. Last week, a pulse of warm air from the south took a toll on the snow pack here in Interior Alaska. Many of the roads are now ice free, and brown patches of bare dirt are gradually becoming exposed. The break up is upon us. The added solar input from increasingly longer days will soon transform this winter landscape into a sea of fresh green buds. With the arrival of green leaves comes the departure of green clouds, when the midnight sun once again overtakes the aurora in the "night" sky. A lull in auroral activity was suddenly broken yesterday evening by a brief geomagnetic storm (see data below), sparking potentially one of the last displays of northern lights we will see up here until darkness returns again in late August. 

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Ken's Pond and a Visit from Denise by Michael Johns

Spring break in Fairbanks means longer days, browner snow, and visitors from the south. This year we had my long-time friend Denise stay with us for a week to experience the best interior Alaska has to offer. Actually, showing her around town made us realize that Fairbanks isn't such a bad place to live after all, although we still have no intentions of staying beyond graduate school. Along with cocktails at Ursa Major, a brief lesson at the curling club, and the Museum of the North, the highlight of Denise's visit was an overnight trip to a public use cabin on Ken's Pond. Conditions were ideal for the five mile trek out, with sunny bluebird skies, a well packed trail, and sweeping views of the Alaska Range to the south. As a bonus on our way to the trailhead, we discovered where all the moose seem congregate during the winter, on a stretch of flat exposed land just south of Delta Junction used by the military as a landing strip. We counted at least 15 moose in one area, with 5 exhibiting herd-like behavior. 

The skies turned cloudy and full of fine snow as the night fell over the cabin, thwarting our plans of viewing the northern lights. Instead, we drank a bottle of champagne each and played Phase 10 in the warmth of a blazing wood-stove; a card game which I have no intentions of ever playing again. The clouds parted at sunrise, allowing for grand views of mountains steeped in a morning glow. The sun fully broke through by mid-morning, when we wrapped up our stay at the cabin with a celebratory sledding session across the frozen pond. 

Spring break always aligns with the timing of the World Ice Art Championships, where folks from all over the US and other countries travel to Fairbanks to create single and multi-block masterpieces. The impressive ice sculptures are accompanied by a playground of colorfully illuminated slides, rides, houses, and this year even a maze, all carved out of ice. 

After several nights with no luck, Denise finally got to see the aurora borealis on one of her last nights in Fairbanks. We drove up to Cleary Summit to get better views to the north, and managed to catch the lights before the rising of a nearly full moon. Not the most spectacular show, but enough to convince her of a second visit to the frozen north to try again. 

Phil by Michael Johns

This is Phil, an Anna's hummingbird that has taken up residence in the backyard of Casey's parent's house in Bellingham Washington. Anna's are the only species of hummingbird that overwinters in the Pacific Northwest, where temperatures can drop to near or below freezing. A feeder refilled every morning with a concentrated sugary brew fuels his daily activities. At night when temperatures begin to fall, Phil goes into a state of torpor, where his internal temperature also drops from 107 to around 48 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Bringing Reef Home by Michael Johns

Sunset scattering of Reefer dog at Soberanes Point, Big Sur. From left to right: Denise, Lydia, Renee, Rachel, Reef (in the box), Alex, Casey, Mike, Carl, Louie.

When our dog Reef died a year ago today, Casey and I decided it would be best to scatter his ashes in Big Sur, where he was born and where he spent many days during his younger years on hikes and walks on the beach. This past weekend, a group of my closest friends made the pilgrimage to Monterey Bay to celebrate the life of Reef and share stories of times past. At the edge of a cliff on Soberanes Point, just before the sun dipped below the sea, we toasted Reef with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, said a few words, cried a bit, and one by one tossed a handful of his ashes into a calm offshore breeze. It was the perfect farewell to a dog who was once a giant figure in all of our lives. 

While in town, we visited all the old sites of our college years; including surfing in Santa Cruz and Hotel Beach in Seaside, an early morning whale watch on the bay, sunset at Moss Landing and Marina State Beach, and walks along the rec trail on the Peninsula. Casey and I met five years ago while I was working for the whale watch and he was finishing his masters at Moss Landing Marine Labs, so the Monterey area is a special place for both of us. In the first few minutes of 2017, while dancing to a bluegrass band in the pub where we had our "first date", I asked Casey to marry me. He of course said yes. We had been talking about getting married for a while now, and the time just felt right. 

The four days we spent on the Monterey Bay were filled with sunny days, striking sunsets, familiar wildlife, and gorgeous scenery. Most importantly it was great to catch up with some of my favorite people, remember the past, and embrace the future. 

Return to Fielding Lake by Michael Johns

Casey and I set out on our first Alaska public use cabin trip on New Years Eve two years ago to a place called Fielding Lake, roughly three hours south of Fairbanks along the Richardson Highway. With a cheap Fred Meyer sled that buckled under the weight of excessive fire wood and gear, we walked the short two miles with our late dog Reef to a small cabin situated next to a calm stream within a snowcapped valley. To celebrate the end of a long semester, Casey and I decided to pay a second visit to the Fielding Lake cabin, this time with less weight, a beefier sled, and our new pup Noosa. 

Fair weather and warm temps (for the sub-Arctic) made for a pleasant walk out, with stunning views of the surrounding peaks and stark windswept landscape. A golden sunset mirrored over the unfrozen outlet of the lake, before dipping below the ridge line just after 2pm. Our visit happened to coincide with the winter solstice, with a day length of only three hours and forty minutes at this latitude. 

Our visit to the Fielding Lake cabin also happened to coincide with the arrival of a steady stream of solar wind spewing from a massive hole in the Sun's atmosphere. Space weather forecasters predicted Earth would enter this solar stream during the night of our stay, expected to cause intense displays of Aurora Borealis. The timing, it seems, was a bit off. After checking the sky between games of cribbage and chatting around the wood stove, only minor auroral displays were visible. Still, I managed to capture a few solid bands of green over the cabin before a haze of clouds moved in to coat the landscape with a fresh blanket of snow.