Of Mountains and Murres

Mountains and murres you ask? A fair question, those two things don’t go together in my mind either. Yet here in Homer, Alaska, the still snow-covered slopes of the Kenai Mountains reach right down to the cold waters of Kachemak Bay, where rafts of thousands of Common Murres are staging for summer. Roughly pigeon sized, these matte black and white birds are one of the deepest diving bird species on the planet, reaching depths of nearly 600 feet in pursuit of the small fish they primarily feed on.

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A small flock of murres on the bay below the cloud-capped peaks

The mountains and murres are far from the only attraction to this area. I am here in Alaska for the Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival, held annually to celebrate the massive amounts of migrating shorebirds that visit the area on their journey to their breeding grounds even further north. I was honored to be invited here to speak and guide through support from the Schantz Brothers Foundation, which supports a young ornithologist to travel to the festival every year (and if you feel like you qualify for that travel grant, be sure to check out http://schantzbird.org/ for 2019!).

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A Black Turnstone patrols the stony beach in search of invertebrates

Over the last several days, I have been fortunate enough to be able to thoroughly explore and bird this incredible area of the world. From the opportunity to teach new birders about the local songbirds in the nearby boreal spruce forest, to scampering on wet rocks in the sea break in search of birds like the tattlers pictured below, to birding by boat in the bay, surrounded by swirling flocks of murres and kittiwakes.

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Wandering Tattlers are a unique species to wet, rocky Alaskan coastlines

As I’m writing this from a coffee shop in Homer to wait out one of the frequent rain showers, bracing for a lull in the weather for me to shoulder my monstrously large pack to head back out to the Homer Spit for some last minute birding. I’m catching my red-eye through the night flight back to Colorado tonight, only to start work within hours of getting back. I will be conducting bird surveys for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies through the summer, so expect to hear of some more amazing adventures soon!

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A pair of Harlequin Ducks, one of my all-time favorite species

A huge thanks is in order for the Schantz Family for their support of my travel here, this amazing opportunity would have been completely unachievable for me otherwise! Additional thanks to Robbi Mixon for organizing such an incredible event, and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies for organizing my travel logistics! And finally, thank you to the one-of-a-kind community here in Homer and the new friends I have made, I can honestly say that this is one of the few places I have ever visited that I have genuinely enjoyed at least as much Colorado, if not more. I would highly encourage anyone to consider attending the shorebird festival next year in 2019!

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Sonoran Venturing – Photos

Just a handful of photos from my recent trip to Sonora, México! All photos © Marcel Such.

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Birding the basin above Arroyo Santa Barbara for the ReMM Christmas Bird Count

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Photography in low-light can be a challenge, but Colima Pygmy-Owl is well worth it
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Five-striped Sparrow in its shrub of choice
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The trail to Sierra de Álamos was fully socked in, rainy, and windy on the day of the Álamos Christmas Bird Count.
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A little break in the weather
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Crane Hawk can be a challenging bird in this area of the world!

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Finally managed a decent photo of a Greater Roadrunner…even if it was so close I could not quite fit the entire bird into one frame!
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Another species that almost never makes it north to the states, the Social Flycatcher!
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Birding stinks…when you visit the Álamos dump in search of first state record Common Grackle (lowest left bird), along with the abundant Bronzed Cowbird
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Sinaloan Crows were also quite numerous at the dump!
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A candid photo of Raymond Van Buskirk, aka the most fashionable birder in the world

Gothic Musings

When I get busy in life, I tend to lose track of writing for this blog, but one of my favorite stress releases is photography. As today happens to be the first day of fall, here are a few of my favorite images that I took last weekend while attending the 2016 meeting of the Guild of Rocky Mountain Ecologists and Evolutionary Biologists, hosted by the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic, Colorado, plus a couple from a mountain bike competition at Crested Butte Mountain Resort! Hope you enjoy!

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Under the gaze of Gothic Mountain
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Swallow’s Nest Cabin, built 1880

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Fall is in the air

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Former roommate Cameron Smith tearing it up in the short track

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Current roommate Levi Stone shredding the downhill
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Young Shredders
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Gothic Mountain at night

 

Trails Lost, Life Found

Monday, 8:00 pm: Realizing that I don’t have anything to do tomorrow, I recruit my roommate Christian to climb a mountain with me. We promptly start rounding up the gear we will need for the ascent.

9:00 pm: The Wildebeest, my 1992 Nissan Pathfinder, is packed and we are en route to the Matterhorn Creek trailhead, near Lake City, Colorado, to attempt Mount Wetterhorn, whose summit sits at 14,014 feet in elevation.

11:00 pm: Arrive at the trailhead, finish packing and organizing our backpacks, immediately fall asleep on the full size futon that we threw into the back of the Wildebeest. Car camping at its finest.

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Tuesday, 3:30 am: The alarm on my watch starts beeping. It is becoming more apparent by the day that I have an unhealthy love of early mornings. Looking outside, I see that it is quite cloudy, which is never a good sign when attempting a long hike above timber line.

4:00 am: With a bit of coffee and just over four hours of sleep in our systems, Christian and I hit the trail. Christian forgot his headlamp, so he walks in front of me to benefit from the illumination of mine. Even so, the trail seems to be out to get him, though he only actually fell once before sunrise. With only one source of light, we lose the narrow winding trail several times, and have to spread out in search of it.

5:00 am: A faint glow begins to illuminate the eastern horizon. The clouds broke before we broke tree line, so we decided to push for the top. Soon, we are able to see the colossal silhouette of the peak in front of us, its sheer cliff faces daunting. By this point we had given up on following the barely visible trail, and instead cut through the alpine meadows to where we believed the route up Wetterhorn to be. We find our route, and we take it.

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6:00 am: True sunrise. I miss taking out my camera for the first rays of red light, as I am too occupied with the keeping myself on the mountain and not careening down it with the innumerable rocks we have kicked loose in our attempt for the summit. Upon choosing and taking our route, we quickly realized that it was not the line we had planned to take, nor was it even depicted on the map. With that realization, we were chagrinned to discover that we had already climbed too far to safely down climb…the only way out was further up. On the nearby cliff face, I am at least happy to hear the calls of breeding Brown-capped Rosy-Finches.

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6:30 am: Summit. The blessed summit. My legs are shaking and my heart rate is through the roof, having nothing to do with the physical exertion of the climb, but rather the sheer perilousness of what we just put ourselves through in the last hour. I finally have the opportunity to sit down, take pictures, and snack on Clif bars and beef jerky without fear of causing a rock slide with the slightest movement. Better yet, we also discovered the correct, proper, and safe route to descend back off the peak.

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7:30 am: We finally are off the mountain, blessed with a flat trail that does not require hand contact to travel. The wildlife up here has been incredible, with rosy-finches, ptarmigan, pipits, pika, and marmots around every turn. Near the end of the trail, we discover where we went wrong in our sleep deprived stupor…apparently a black sharpie amendment on a dark trail sign is difficult to see in the dark.

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9:30 am: Reunited with the Wildebeest at the trailhead, five and a half hours after we set out on the trail. While things may not have gone as planned, we realized that life had happened. Real, genuine life, the kind that cannot be obtained in any other fashion but by going out into the wilderness and finding it for yourself.

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