Bountiful Nature in Seward, Alaska

Seward Harbor

Seward is a small port town on the southern coast of Alaska, tucked in a harbor on the Kenai Peninsula. Surrounded by glacial water and snow-capped mountains, it is a small town with a big presence and abundant beauty.

 

Seward Wikipedia

 

This town is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park. Situated on Resurrection Bay in the Gulf of Alaska, it offers many ways to explore the Harding Icefield and its nearly 40 glaciers that dominate this area.

 

We took a half-day boat trip out of Seward and had the thrill of seeing a glacier from the boat. Occasionally a huge mass of blue glacial ice broke off (“calved”) and tumbled into the frigid waters below.

 

There are only four remaining icefields in the U.S., the Harding Icefield in Seward is one, and covers 300 square miles (777 km2).

 

Gulf of Alaska and Glacier

 

Seward Highway Vista

 

There are 190 different species of birds here, and a plethora of land and sea mammals.

 

Moose

 

In addition, the Gulf of Alaska waters are teeming with sea lions, sea otters, humpback whales, and more. We were there in the month of August, and saw thousands of wild sea mammals and migrating birds.

 

Sea Otter, Gulf of Alaska

 

There in Resurrection Bay sea lions bulk up on fish, otters gorge on shellfish, migrating birds reproduce over the summer. We witnessed dozens of bald eagles perched atop boat masts in the Seward marina, strategizing their next fresh catch.

 

Bald Eagle, Seward Marina

 

We never tired of spotting numerous humpback whales and other marine mammals and seabirds.

 

Humpback Whale Fluke

 

Common Murres

 

Common Murres nesting, Alaska

 

Steller Sea Lions, Gulf of Alaska

 

Located only 120 miles (193 km) from Anchorage, Seward can be reached by many different modes of transport. We drove the 2.5 hour trip along the Seward Highway, a National Scenic Highway. Along this highway with breathtaking vistas, we saw both moose and fishermen up to their hips in the water.

 

Kenai Peninsula, Alaska, Moose

 

 

Fishermen

 

Sea islands, Gulf of Alaska

 

As inhabitants of planet Earth, we are all so lucky to have the natural wonders of Alaska and Seward.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander, except the photo below.

How the historic Iditarod Dog Sled Race is connected to Seward. 

 

Photo by Derek and Julie Ramsey. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

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California On Fire Again

Gulls and Sailboat, San Francisco Bay, California

Last week, as most people are aware, there were more firestorms in California, and they continue to burn. We’ll look at scenes of California on better days in the past, as I tell you about life here this week.

 

Bottom line: I am safe. The local air quality is registered as “unhealthy,” due to smoke. But other than that, I am fine. Each fire is over a hundred miles away.

 

There has been much news coverage, I don’t need to repeat the horrors. But for people who want information, here are some links.

  • Northern California “Camp Fire,” 45% contained. Camp Fire 2018 Wikipedia.  63 people found dead, over 600 still missing.
  • Southern California “Woolsey Fire,” 69% contained.
  • CalFire Map— the website many Californians consult frequently for updates on containment, evacuation centers, road closures, etc.

Sierra Nevada Mountains, California

 

California Quail, California’s state bird

 

Last fall I was evacuated during the Wine Country fires, our property sustained substantial damage, and I couldn’t move back home for a year. This week, as we struggled with high winds and foul air, and the terrorizing memories of last year, I took time out to remind myself why I live in California; thus, these photos.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

The smoky fire-choked air is sometimes blue or lavender, sometimes gray, sometimes as white as milk. It’s eerie, ghostly.

 

There’s less oxygen in the air, many of us get headaches. It’s a lot like altitude sickness, I discovered…same principle, oxygen deprivation. The headaches force us to slow down. Not such a bad thing sometimes.

 

Cows, Wildflowers, Carrizo Plains, CA

 

Friends and neighbors, acquaintances…we talk about air purifiers and respirator masks, and the need for more underground electrical wiring. We hang our respirator masks on the front door key rack or the steering column in the car. If we have extras, we hand them out to someone who’s using their coat collar to cover up their nostrils.

 

Elephant Seals, California coast

 

Two days this week the local schools were closed. There is a website map they consult, purpleair.com, to see if the Air Quality Index is safe; this number determines if school is open or closed. If the school is open but it’s still very smoky, kids eat and play inside.

 

The sunsets and sunrises are more colorful this week, lots more hot pinks, reds and oranges. It has to do with excessive particles blocking out some colors and highlighting reds and oranges. If the winds change and it gets smoky again, then the haze takes over.

 

San Francisco skyline, Sunrise after the 2017 fires

 

We go on with our headachy days and sleepless nights, craving big breaths of fresh air and the days when we can go back to our outdoor exercise routines.

 

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Big Sur, California

Western Gull, Bodega Bay, California

 

These days are dark as we think about the people who burned alive in their cars or homes as they tried to escape; we have gratitude for the firefighters and responders, so many heroes; try to have more patience for one another.

 

And we all wait for rain. Yes, we say to ourselves, that’s what we need.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

McWay Falls, Big Sur, California

 

California Poppy, state flower

 

American Bison

Bison Bull, Yellowstone NP, WY, USA

The largest surviving terrestrial animal in North America, American bison still roam the prairies of this continent.

 

It is estimated there were once 20-30 million wild bison in North America. Habitat loss and unregulated hunting brought the numbers down to 1,091 individuals by 1889. Today in North America, after over a century of regulation and protection, there are approximately 500,000.

 

The herd of which many of us are familiar are the Yellowstone bison, seen in these photos. They total approximately 5,000 individuals; and are the only free-range bison population in the U.S. who ancestrally date back to prehistoric times.

 

Bison in Lamar Vly, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming

 

Bison, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone River, Yellowstone NP

 

It is extraordinary that any bison exist today after the relentless slaughter in the 1800s.

 

There is a lot of information about the near-extinction of this mammal, and the heroic recovery; many sub-species, different herds in the U.S., and in-depth research about the American bison.

 

Wikipedia Bison gives a good overview.

 

Yellowstone Bison from the National Park Service offers a thorough look at the current herds in this park, including a 2:52 minute video of a just-born bison calf.

 

Bison herd, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP

 

American bison are creatures of the prairies. Nomadic grazers who travel in herds, they eat grass, weeds, and other plants. Herbivores with an average weight of 1,000-2,000 pounds (453- 907 kg), you can imagine how much grass it takes to satisfy a bison’s belly. They spend 9-11 hours a day eating.

 

When we were in Yellowstone in September, 2014, some of the bison’s coats were shaggy. Their bodies were preparing for the brutal Wyoming winter months ahead. They have two coats: a heavy one for winter, a lighter one for summer.

Shedding bison in back, Yellowstone NP

Also in winter, the bison come down out of the higher elevations to the valleys, where they can generally find more food. See diagram at end.

 

I like this winter note: the bison’s humpback design, with large spaces between certain vertebrae, allows them to use their head as a snowplow. Swinging their head from side to side, sweeping away the snow, they can reach the grass even in the coldest seasons.

Skeleton of adult male American bison. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Bison crossing road

All traffic stops in Yellowstone for the bison.

 

Sometimes they meander so close to the car that you can hear them breathing. I found it so intimate, hearing the deep, labored breath of this behemoth.

 

A huge animal that exists on mere grasses, still roams the prairies after millennium, adjusts its wardrobe to the season, and thrills visitors from around the world. That’s a remarkable animal.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photographs by Athena Alexander.

Lamar Valley bison, Yellowstone NP

 

Chocolate bison — molded chocolate dessert from Jackson Lake Lodge

 

A map of Yellowstone's elevation, rivers and major lakes, park and state boundaries, the breeding and fall-winter ranges of bison, and the 2013 Interagency Bison Management Plan area

Yellowstone bison range, courtesy Nat’l Park Service. Light tan is fall-winter range, brown is breeding range, purple is Bison Mgmt Plan area. Blue is lakes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Great Plains and Pawnee Grasslands

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

Over the years much of America’s expansive Great Plains have vanished due to human development, but there are still some grasslands that glow with the pureness of the prairie. A prairie area in the northeastern quadrant of Colorado, one that I love, is the Pawnee National Grasslands.

 

In the U.S., the Great Plains lie geographically between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. North of the U.S. border, Canada also has substantial prairie ecosystems in parts of Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. See map at end.

 

There are significant contributions to the earth that prairie ecosystems offer. The dense grass roots absorb rain, preventing erosion run-off. Prairies increase our ecological diversity, encouraging native plants and wildlife, species migration; they also capture carbon and support pollinators.

 

Native Prairies, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

 

There is a sweetness of life on the prairie. The melodious songs of the meadowlark, the gentle flight of the longspur, prancing pronghorn, clever coyote, quietly grazing cattle, rustling grass, and moody thunderstorms.

 

Pawnee Buttes, Colorado

 

Pronghorn, Colorado

 

Many people think of the plains as boring. Unless you’re in one of the major cities, there isn’t a lot of what some people consider activity. It’s true, I suppose, that things do move a little slower, it’s not the urban rush or the suburban sprawl.

 

Here there is agricultural industry and rural living.

 

Pawnee Grasslands, Colorado

 

But there is most definitely activity. Prairie dogs industriously build entire towns underground. The storms that erupt in those vast, open skies are more electric and exciting than any city light show. Fox, deer, coyote, rabbits, and rodents abound. Several dozen bird species animate the country air. Prairie wildflowers nod peacefully.

 

Prairie Dog, Colorado

 

Impending Storm on the Pawnee Grasslands

 

Western Meadowlark, Colorado

 

Western Kingbird, Pawnee Grasslands

 

Ranchers work diligently on their livestock, and put on a lively rodeo in nearby Grover every June.

 

Little Cowboy, Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

Rodeo, Grover, Colorado

 

And it’s not just the outdoor marvels of nature here, either. As Americans approach Election Day next week, I am reminded that the first woman to vote did so in the western prairies.

 

It was in Laramie, Wyoming, just a short drive from the Pawnee Grasslands, where in 1869 the first woman in the world legally cast her vote.

 

Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne. Statue of Esther Hobart Morris “Proponent of the legislative act … which gave distinction … to Wyoming as the first government in the world to grant women equal rights.”

 

Wyoming Wikipedia

Great Plains Wikipedia

Pawnee National Grassland Wikipedia

 

The jagged ridges of the Rocky Mountains can be seen from the Pawnee Grasslands. If you’re ever headed west toward the Rockies, take a few days to pause in the Pawnee area, you will be enchanted.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Pronghorn

Map of the Great Plains.png

Great Plains in red. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Bats

Spectacled Flying Fox Bat, Australia

With Halloween around the corner, a bat celebration is in order.

 

Bats occupy every continent except Antarctica, and represent 20% of mammals worldwide. There are 1,200 different species.

 

Grey-headed Flying Foxes, Sydney, Australia

 

Grey-headed Flying Fox, Sydney, Australia

I have only one memory of bats when I was young, and it was my grandmother getting hysterical because one had somehow gotten into the attic. It was a big thing for us girls, who were repeatedly warned that bats make nests in your hair. We all feared bats.

 

This is a curious memory, because I spent many nights outside, playing, and I am sure they were all around me. But all I remember is the bat in Grandma’s attic and my deathly fear of getting one in my hair.

 

Fortunately I grew up. Fortunately I found the beauty of bats.

Grey-headed Flying Foxes, Sydney, Australia

Grey-headed Flying Fox, Sydney, Australia

Bats have so many outstanding qualities, here are just a few. They…

  • navigate by echolocation  — use sound to see.
  • are the only mammal who can fly on their own power.
  • consume large quantities of pests — up to 1,000 mosquitoes a night.
  • are prolific pollinators — over 530 species of flowering plants rely on bats for pollination.

 

Bats — Wikipedia

 

Canyon Bat, Calif., in his favorite spot on our deck, inside the deck umbrella

I often go out in the dark to look at stars and listen for owls. Sometimes a bat will come near me, I feel their flutter. Even though I am a tall pillar in complete darkness, they zoom around me effortlessly. And no, they never get caught in my hair.

 

While traveling, I have had some fantastic bat sightings.

 

In Trinidad we came upon a species in the rainforest that we discovered came out every night from underneath our lodge. Fortunately we found them on the first night, and every night thereafter had the thrill of witnessing their emergence.

 

One whizzed by so fast I didn’t even see it, I just felt the breeze on my ear. A post I wrote about it: Enjoying the Bats. 

 

Long-tongued Bats emerging, Asa Wright, Trinidad

 

Pallas’ Long-Tongued Bat, Trinidad

My favorite place to see bats, however, is in Australia, because they have megabats on that continent. Big bats called Flying Foxes.

 

Megabats are the size of birds and assist in re-seeding forests. These days humans are taking down the forests at devastating rates, so having a mammal actually regenerate the forest is a refreshing change.

 

Grey-headed Flying Fox colony, Sydney, Australia

 

Pair of Spectacled Flying Foxes, Australia

 

I love this Australian Aboriginal cave art drawing of bats, because it’s a great reminder of how long bats and humans have been coexisting on our planet.

 

Aboriginal cave art, bats. Photo by Les Hall. Courtesy allaboutbats.org.au

 

More info about bats:

Bat Conservation International (This week is Bat Week)

Merlin Tuttle, bat conservationist and bat photographer. The real Batman.

White-nose syndrome. Caused by a fungus from Eurasia; mass mortality problems have not affected bats there, but the U.S. is suffering a loss.

 

“To the Batcave” (to borrow one of Batman’s lines):

Bat Viewing Sites Around the World

Bat-watching Sites in Texas, the state with the most bat species in the U.S.

 

So as the sun goes down on Halloween, while you’re out there tricking or treating, keep your eyes peeled on the sky. Look for silhouettes of what the ancients called flittermouse. One of these mammalian marvels is probably out devouring pesky insects, giving you a treat.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Grey-headed Flying Fox

Batman and Robin. Art by Jack Burnley. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Acorn Woodpecker Granaries

Acorn Woodpeckers, Costa Rica

At this time of year when the acorns are dropping, California’s acorn woodpeckers are busy. They store their nuts in a most unique way.

 

A medium-sized woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus uses its bill to pick up acorns, one at a time, then flies each nut to a designated storage facility, called a granary. Usually granaries are dead oak trees, but sometimes they are man-made wooden structures, like a telephone pole or fence post.

 

Acorn Woodpeckers at a granary, Belize

 

Fencepost granary. Photo by Giles Clark. Courtesy atlastobscura.com

 

Last month I had the pleasure of taking my morning walks through a state park, and was enchanted by the large population of acorn woodpeckers. As I walked down the lane, I spotted the characteristic dip of the woodpecker flight pattern, and heard their delightfully raucous voices.

 

Calif. State Park, lane with numerous acorn woodpeckers

Such an attractive bird, with their bright red-capped heads and flashy red, white, and black markings. Every day I saw at least 20 acorn woodpeckers.

 

Here in California we see granaries often. From a distance it looks like a dead tree; but when you get close you see the tree trunk is filled with holes. Upon closer examination, each hole has an acorn stuffed into it.

 

The social structure of acorn woodpeckers is extensive and complicated, with cooperative breeding and large family groups. Not only do they tend their nests together, they also build their granary together.

 

There’s an ancient phrase that’s goes something like…a granary wasn’t built in a day. Each granary is a culmination of years of acorn gathering. A granary can be pocked with thousands of acorns and perfected over a decade.

 

Male acorn woodpecker at granary. Photo by Johnath, courtesy atlasobscura.com

 

Photo by David Litman, courtesy atlastobscura.com

The woodpeckers actually work all year long on their granaries, but this time of year is especially exciting when the acorns have become harvestable.

 

Building the granary is only half of the work; maintenance and protection are also important.

 

To keep other birds and squirrels from stealing the precious nuts, each acorn is tightly fitted into a hole. The woodpecker has a sharp bill and excavates the hole, then pounds the acorn in with no extra space, making it difficult to be removed.

 

Over time, however, the old, dry acorns tend to shrink. When this happens, the woodpeckers remove the loose acorn and find (or create) a smaller and more suitable hole.

 

Acorn woodpeckers also eat insects, other nuts, lizards, seeds, grass, and more.

 

Acorn Woodpecker Wikipedia

 

This bird species, dependent on oak trees, lives primarily in the western and southern parts of the U.S., as well as Mexico and Central America. We are lucky to see them all over California. See range map below.

 

Excellent short video of acorn woodpeckers at a granary:  Click here.

 

With their clown-like look, colorful markings, cheerful laughter, and productive activities, this bird will bring a smile to your face even before you see their masterpiece.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photos by Athena Alexander, unless otherwise specified.

 

Range Map for Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker Range Map. Courtesy allaboutbirds.com

 

The Remarkable Fresnel Lens

Fresnel Lens, Vashon Island, WA, 5th Order

A modern invention of the 1820s that revolutionized the science of light and shipping was the Fresnel lens. This invention, created by Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827), is a lens with an array of prisms capturing light and extending its reach. Today we are still influenced by these lenses around the world.

 

Fresnel (pronounced fray-NEL) lenses were originally created as a solution for the tragic ship wrecks that were prevalent in the 1800s. Ship captains, sometimes unable to see coastal waters due to low light, crashed their vessels into the reef with disastrous results.

 

Light naturally diffuses in all directions. Finding a way to cut down on this diffusion was the challenge for many years. At the time, shiny metal reflectors around the light source (oil lamps) were used to enhance the light, but this only gave about 50% reflection.

 

French physicist Augustin Fresnel’s skill and brilliance in interpreting the mechanics of light led to innovative lens inventions. Lighthouse visibility improved tremendously, and consequently made shipping safer.

 

Although I have been to many lighthouses, I never regarded the light as anything special. Then last year I was in the Visitor Center at a California State Park, Angel Island, and became instantly dazzled by a waist-high glass piece mounted on the floor. It had once been used in the lighthouse on Angel Island, and was on display.

 

It captured the light of the room in the most extraordinary, and beautiful, way. I’ve been a fan ever since.

 

Vashon Island, WA Lighthouse. You can see the Fresnel lens in the tower through the windows.

There are numerous aspects that make the Fresnel lens unique and effective:

  • the beehive-shaped design to capture multiple levels of light
  • it is constructed with concentric grooves that act as individual refracting surfaces.
  • the center is shaped like a magnifying glass, concentrating the beam

 

The first lens was installed in 1823 off the west coast of Fresnel’s home country, France, near Brittany, a land long-known for its rugged coasts. Here there were treacherous reefs that tragically and repeatedly snagged and destroyed ships. The new lens was a success.

 

Thereafter the French coast was lit up by Fresnel lenses. More info: Cordouan Lighthouse.

 

Early innovations began in France and Scotland, with America and other countries following. Chronology of Fresnel Lens Development.

 

Fresnel lens, Vashon Island, WA. Mt. Rainier in distance

Each lens was produced in brass-framed sections and could be shipped unassembled from the factory.

 

They were made in six different classifications, or orders. A 1st order lens is the largest size, at approximately 12 feet high (3.7 m), lengthening the light beam 26 miles.

 

Wikipedia Fresnel Lens

 

Here is a cross section of the Fresnel lens (on left) compared to a conventional lens of equivalent power (on right).

1 Cross section of a spherical Fresnel len, 2 Cross section of a conventional spherical lens

Courtesy Wikipedia

 

Article:  “The Fresnel Lens” written by Thomas Tag

 

Lighthouse Science: Why the Fresnel Lens Costs a Million Dollars

Fresnel Lens classifications. Courtesy partsolutions.com

 

Lighthouse beacons have been  significantly modernized since the 1800s, but there are still lighthouses with Fresnel lenses–some in working order, some just on display. There are also many Fresnel light-refracting techniques in use today: spotlights, floodlights, railroad and traffic signals, camera and projector lenses and screens, and emergency vehicle lights.

 

List of U.S. lighthouses with Fresnel lenses

 

Many photographers and artists, including myself, hold a deep fascination and reverence for the miracle of light. How fortunate for us to have had Fresnel’s engineering skills to brighten this further.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

 

Rotating Fresnel lens, 1st order, dated 1870, displayed at the Musée national de la Marine, Paris. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

1st Order Fresnel lens, Cape Meares Lighthouse, Tillamook, OR, USA. Courtesy Wikipedia.