Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Living With Tundra Swans

About 5 PM I loaded my dog Ruby into the 6-wheeler and drove down to the big aircraft hanger to close one of the big sliding doors, which I had left open to allow the interior to dry up some.  The northeast wind had been picking up all day and now that it was doing 18-20 knots, I didn't want the door to shake loose and get broken if the wind continued to build during the night.

As I pulled up in front of the hanger, I realized that the Tundra Swan family had been feeding in the ditch that runs along the outside of the runway.  They were starting to climb out onto the runway, and Ruby started barking.  After quieting her, I quickly shut the hanger door, and then slowly turned the rig around so as not to frighten the birds and headed the half mile back to the house. The male was airborne when I started back but the female was still standing on the edge of the runway with the three cygnets.   I figured she would either move the cygnets back into the river, which was only 50 meters from the edge of the runway, or lead them off to the pond system north of the buildings and runway. 
Imagine my surprise when Ruby and I pulled up in front of the house and two big swans TUSW3_3801 passed low overhead. Both adults had followed us to the house and when we stopped at the house they circled several times in formation.  They were just flying above the roof of the house and a couple times they rode the air currents around the end of the house, almost playfully. It reminded me of when the ravens would ride the current off the end of the house,diving and playing with each other.  The swans were riding the currents and twice the female acted like she was going to grab the male's tail, like they do when chasing other swans out of their territory, often trying to pull them out of the air.  I have seen a few individuals loose tail feathers if they weren't quick enough to dodge or pull away from the attacker.   Once these swans seemed sure that we were not going any further, they flew off going up river away from where the cygnets had been left.

I made a quick run back to the hanger to see where the cygnets had gone.  They were making good time across the tundra away from the river and runway to the ponds about 1/2 mile away. I turned around and hurried back to the house and just as I was pulling up to the garage door one of the adult swans went by, headed back to the cygnets.
I have never had our local swans follow me before when I have encountered them while they were feeding along the runway or river. This pair has had its territory around our homestead for 4 years now so they are quite used to the activities around our place and their nest site is just over a half mile up river of the house.

I have seen non-breeding swans in June follow a grizzly bear as it wandered past where they were feeding  and as the bear swam the river channel the whole group of 30 swans  followed, staying about 40 meters behind the bear.  When the bear reached the other side and ambled down the sand spit the swans stopped in shallow water but continued to call until the bear was about 1/2 mile away,then the whole flock swam back to their feeding spot.  I have also watched Sabine’s Gulls, Arctic Terns, and geese escort golden eagles out of the nesting area. They follow the eagle staying off to the side and slightly higher and all are calling and scolding the raptor till it gets far enough away from the nesting area that they feel safe enough to return to nesting duties.  But this is the first time I have had  swans escort me away from their young. 




Nest  from the Tundra Swans that nested near our home this year.







Cygnets just out of the nest.







Cygnets are growing up, but still have a ways to go before fledging and heading south for the winter.





Swan family sleeping edge of our lake not far from the house, view out kitchen window.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Arctic Renewal

We have drifted from spring into summer and a rapid  renewal has been taking place.  The tundra is now covered with many different flowers and the ground is getting a nice green tinge to it.  With the warm days, the butterflies have  been busy  flitting from flower to flower getting nectar.

Most of the birds have hatched so there are many young about, either in our yard or around the edge of the lake by the house.  Several broods of both Snow Buntings and Lapland Longspurs are now around the feeder out the kitchen window.  With the 24 hour daylight, they go through lots of seed, especially when we have a cold foggy day and the parents have a hard time finding bugs to feed the hungry little ones. 


 WhiteAvens_9282 On the left a young Snow Bunting  (  Plectrophenax nivalis) with its short tail and a few tuffs of down on the head.

  On the right is a group of white avens (Dryas integrifolia ).




With access to the nest boxes we put up on the various buildings, the Snow Buntings are the first to hatch, followed closely by the larger geese.  Since the Snow Geese only need 22 days to hatch, they are the first to start hatching, followed closely by  Brant and White-fronted Geese.   The last part of June sees a flurry of hatching activity as the shorebirds, ptarmigan, longspurs,  and some of the early duck species hatch.  The hatch continues into the first part of July with eiders, scaup, Long-tailed Duck, swans, loons, and late shorebirds finishing up.







Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens) brood left, and a Black Brant brood (Branta bernicla) moving through the yard.



  Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons) hatching out.

Even as the hatch is taking place, there are signs that this is a place of a short growing season.  The geese that didn’t nest or failed early on have moved out of the area, headed off to one or more of the summer moulting  areas.  This frees up the limited food  in the brood rearing areas for the young that need lots of good forage to be ready to migrate south in less than two months.




Willow Ptarmigan  ( Lagopus lagopus)  family feeding in the grass around the house.

The shorebirds are also starting to flock up and non-breeding and extra adults will be starting their migration  south in the nest few days. Usually one parent stays with the chicks till they are flegged and then they are pretty much on their own.  The Semipalmated Sandpiper is our most common shorebird that nests on our island and we usually have at least 10 nests near by our house.  By late July the yard is full of Juvenile Semi’s of various sizes, and all the adults have already left on their southbound journey.  Summer activities must progress quickly in the Arctic.  Time is of the essence.


I will end this entry today with a photo of a young Caribou taken next to our house last week.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Early Spring Catch-up

I have been trying to get back to posting, but seem to be to easily distracted with other projects.  The long nights of winter have given way to spring and the time of long daylight hours.  

For most of the winter the only birds seen were Common Ravens as are able to find enough to eat  even in the coldest time of year.  The population in our area has increased from only one pair in the early 1980’s to over 45 individuals these days.  most of the increase has been from all the added  buildings and pipelines in the area that now give the ravens a place to nest.  The  flat tundra was never home to many ravens.

We enjoyed having the muskox herd continue to winter not far from us and we could watch them from the house with the spotting scope.  I also made a couple snow machine trips to film the winter herd.





Winter Muskox in the glow of  a low sun January

April brought our first new birds, our local nesting population of Snow Buntings started arriving.  To us spring has arrived when you can step out the house and hear the lovely song of a Snow Bunting.  The other April bird I saw was a male Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus) on a short snow machine trip up river from the house. 








                                                              Male Snow Bunting


  Rock Ptarmigan Male

April also saw the end of our Polar Lights viewing as the night were becoming to light and only extremely bright ones could be seen by the middle of the month.   And of course the sun started to have some strong solar activity which we weren’t able to enjoy.

Pulsating_Aurora_7401                                              Pulsating Polar Lights over our home.

Early May brought a couple highlights for me. First I found my first local Raven’s nest on one of oilfield bridges.  The nest showed that the raven was using all the products around to line its nest from traditional to modern, caribou hair, moss, and fiberglass insulation.  She had four greenish blue, speckled eggs.

                                                              Common Raven Nest & Eggs.

RavenNest-1097 CORA_Eggs1-1108







The other event was getting to see a couple of very small muskox calves playing on a bright sunny day. Still plenty of snow and we were still having night temperatures dropping down to –20F.  Little muskox are tough being born at this time when we are still having such cold temperatures and winter type blizzards.








               Muskox Herd Early May- Small Calves Dashing About.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Super Moon in Mirage

After a mostly overcast February, March has presented us with lots of clear skies and  the sun is up for over 12 hours (pasted the 12 hour mark on the 18th)  now and generates a nice amount of heat during the day.  This has also lead to many days with superior mirages, both at night and during the day light hours.

Mirages and distortions are produced when the rays of a low sun or moon pass through atmospheric regions where there are strong temperature gradients. Temperature per se has no direct effect but a vertical temperature gradient is also a density gradient.

The strong  inversion layers created some spectacular images of this months full moon, which also happened to be  what is called a “Super Moon”, or a super “Perigee Moon”.     Full moons very in size depending on where in the moons elliptical  orbit around the earth it is. This months full moon coincided with the its orbit being  within one hour of perigee, or the closest it comes to earth.  Being this close to the actual perigee event only happens about every 18 years.  When it is at perigee it is about 50,000 km closer to earth than when it is at apogee (farthest away) and is about 14% larger, and 30% brighter than the more normal full moons.

The full moon occurred on March 19 this year and this posting is to share several photos of the moon  a couple days around full, both in the day time and at night.

Almost full Moon-March_6930



Photo on left from March 17 at 7 PM AST.



       Setting SuperMoon-mirage_6947


Photo on right     shows moon setting on the 18th being   affected  by inversion layer, also a touch of green on the upper edge.





Moon rise over the Kuparuk Oilfield at 7 PM on the 18th.





       Moon setting morning of the 19th through thin layer of clouds. The bottom of the moon is starting to be affected by a inversion layer , thus the distorted effect.




  This photo is one of my most dramatic in regards to the amount of distortion to a moon I have seen in all my years in the Arctic.  

  This strong mirage effect is explained by atmospheric expert Les Cowley.  "This is a very strong mirage produced by rays bent while crossing intense vertical temperature gradients between a layer of cold air beneath warmer air. The lunar disk details are vertically stretched, suggesting that the mirage is part of a fabled Fata Morgana.  

It is an extreme and complicated variant of a superior mirage and called a "Fata Morgana" after the fabled Morgana, enchantress half-sister of King Arthur. The mirages are perhaps views of her island palace. The Morgana needs a temperature inversion, warmer air above cooler, with temperature gradients in parts increasing strongly with height. Then, several rays from a relatively low lying object or even the ground are all curved towards the eye giving the impression that the object is smeared upwards. In reality the Morgana is more complicated with parts inverted and stepped. The temperature inversions making them are not simple and may also have waves that cause different mirage sections to vary in height. Although the Morgana might be seen anywhere it mostly occurs during very cold weather or in Arctic regions where heavy frigid air overlays the ground.


This video has a whole series of moon mirage pictures taken at the same time as the marshmallow shaped moon picture posted above.

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Arctic Smoke Signals by James W. Helmericks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.