Untamed Land

Untamed Land
Untamed Land

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sortin Out Salmon

When I first moved to Alaska in 1997, I heard people talking about Kings, Reds, Silvers, Pinks, Chums. Cohos, Humpies etc. They were talking about species of Salmon and it was all gibberish to me. I hate fish and fishing just bores me after a few minutes.
My nephew Sterling brought me to a small stream next to his property. It was about 3 ft across and 1 ft deep. It was full of huge 4 ft long salmon. We could have scooped them out with a pitchfork. They were the prized King Salmon, also called Chinooks. They were completely fascinating to me as I watched them migrate up that small stream. Chinooks are the first salmon species to enter fresh water to spawn in early summer.
These are Sockeye Salmon, better known as Reds. They are the second species to enter fresh water. They are displaying and fighting for females on their spawning grounds above Eagle River. They are delicious eating, (not according to me), while they are still silver in color. By the time they turn red, their flesh is not so palatable.
Here a male bites the back of another male in an attempt to drive it off the spawning ground.
The male salmon developes a hooked jaw with formidable teeth when it leaves salt water and enters it's particular spawning stream. These weapons are used only against other males.
Sockeye Salmon spawning right at my feet in shallow water.
A female Sockeye.
Right now is the time for Silvers. Also known as Coho Salmon, they are also considered excellent eating. They also turn deep red while spawning. On a canoe trip with my nephew Danny, we canoed the Swanson River on the Kenai Penninsula. The Silver Salmon were so densely packed in places that they sounded like distant thunder as they swam under the canoe. Individual salmon would hit our paddles so hard that it was hard to keep hold of them. Bears were eating them and only eating the brains because of the bounty of easy food. Eagles, gulls, magpies, and Gray Jays ate as much as they could manage of the remains.
Now is also the time that Chum Salmon migrate upstream. They are distinguished by the striping on their sides. They are also called Dog Salmon because, according to locals, they are only fit to be fed to the dogs. Most canned salmon is this abundant species.
Another species that spawns at this time of year is the Humpbacked, or Pink Salmon. It is the smallest species, and also considered to be of lesser quality for eating. This is the hook-jawed male.
Very soon after spawning, salmon begin to deteriorate. It is a revolting spectacle. I feel so bad for these fish. Nature can be so heartless sometimes.
In a short time they go the way of all the earth.
The local rivers and streams just reek with the stench of so many rotting fish. Meanwhile the next generation wriggles in the gravel at the bottom of the streams.
So let's review,

Friday, August 27, 2010

Dowitcher Day

Most of this Summer has been cool and rainy. Today is no exception, but for several days before today we had wonderful sunshine. On Wednesday I was enthusiastically beginning a nice Macaw painting, but the weather was so nice, I knew I could not stay indoors.
First I did my usual route along the Coastal Trail to Westchester Lagoon. The mudflats were loaded with gulls, mostly Mew Gulls plus a few Bonaparte's, and imm. Arctic Terns. Westchester had a few Mallards and Red-necked Grebes. That's about it.
In a small pond beside the lagoon there was a group of about twenty Short-billed Dowitchers, all in their winter plummage. The yellowlegs and other shorebirds were already absent.
These birds came much closer to the busy trail than dowitchers usually do. The strong sunlight made a harsh contrast between the light toned dowitchers and darker water.
I shot about 70 photos and could have kept going. If I had arrived early in the morning, I could have gotten more pleasant photos.
Two small peeps flew past. Too far away to identify.
I spent a lot of time playing with the brightness and contrast tools in my photo editing program. I could not eliminate the washed out look of the birds.
There were not many birds in the forest along Chester Creek Greenbelt. Spenard Crossing had a few Greater Scaup and Green-winged Teals.
 In the evening I rode my bicycle through Russian Jack Park. Usually I have the place almost to myself, but because of the perfect weather, it was crawling with people. Many of them were part of a university orienteering class. I was not happy to see so many people tromping offtrail through the fragile forest. That is my priveledge, but everyone else needs to keep on the trail.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Russian Jack and a New Painting

Whoever Russian Jack was, he managed to get a park named after him. Lately I have been riding my bicycle along the dappled bike paths that crisscross the park near my new home. It is so nice to glide amoung the trees and hear  sounds of the busy city recede into the distance.
Chester Creek, the same urban creek that feeds Westchester Lagoon, meanders through Russian Jack. There is a greenbelt with bike paths along much of Chester Creek. It also passes through my usual territory in the Christmas Bird Count. One day when I'm feeling ambitious, I'll try to ride all the way down to the coast.
We have been having some good sunshine lately, but the strong light can make photography more of a challenge, dealing with strong contrasts.
Devil's Club.
Red Squirrels like to announce their presense with a scolding trill.
Steller's Jays are also quick to scold visitors who intrude into their territory.
Robins will soon become scarce when most of them head south for the winter.
Black-capped Chickadees are abundant residents of the park, and everywhere else in the city.
This photo was included in an earlier blog post about Westchester Lagoon. I thought it would make a good subject for a painting.
Westchester Geese, 9x12" This painting is really more of a study for a future, more ambitious painting. Two quotes that I recently heard apply to this painting. "Inspiration is for amatuers". I certainly can't lay claim to much inspiration with this one. "Habit is more reliable than talent". Good work habits is a thing that has sustained me for most of my career. I get up in the morning and start painting more out of habit than any particular vision in mind. Once in a while something good comes from it, but mostly I wallow in mediocrity. The actual painting does look much better than the photo.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Other Cumaceiba

When I returned to Iquitos after the Cumaceiba River I went to another local travel agency. There I booked another stay at a lodge on the banks of the mighty Amazon. It just happened to be called Cumaceiba Lodge although it had no connection to the first place. Cumaceiba is the name of a rainforest tree.
This lodge was surrounded by it's own small nature preserve. It was much nicer than the first place, and less expensive. I was escorted to the lodge, along with a friendly Canadian couple in a nicer, faster boat. When the lodge staff learned that I was an experienced birder, and had the new bird guide, they had the same reaction as the people at the first place. They assigned their most experienced guide to be my personal guide, and he pushed me all he could to get me to as many habitats as possible. There was enough dry land that I did'nt have to spend all my time in leaky wooden boats.
There was a colony of Hoatzins nesting not more than 50 ft from my comfortable bungalow. We all ate our meals in a communal dining room to the accompanement of live music. A large Pink-toed Tarantula fell from the thatched roof and landed next to the Canadian couple. I released it outside, and went back to eating. We also shared our meals with a tame Capybara, and several parrots.
A pair of Pied Puffbirds.
A Great Potoo is the size of a Great-horned Owl, but is related to nighthawks and whip-poor-wills.
There were many Black-fronted Nunbirds.
A bad photo of a great bird, Blue-crowned Trogon. There were many Black-tailed, and Violaceous Trogons in the area as well.
This Black-billed Thrush sits on it's nest right near the Hoatzins.
Tropical Kingbirds are probably the most common bird of the Neotropics.There was no shortage of bats here either. This one roosts under a covered walkway.
The White-eared Jacamars were delightful to observe.
Nesting right alongside the Hoatzins and thrush, were Wattled Jacanas and a pair of Red-crested Cardinals.
The baby cardinals asleep in the nest.
I believe this small primate is called a White-bearded Tamarin.
One of the habitats we explored was a large island across from the lodge in the middle of the Amazon River. A specialty of that habitat is the White-headed Marsh Tyrant.
Red and White Spinetails occur exclusively on islands in the Amazon River. This nest was in flooded vegetation only inches above the water.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Cumaceiba River

While I was in Iquitos I walked into one of the many small travel agencies that tout Amazon Expeditions. They all have various packaged tours to jungle lodges etc. The one I chose was a 3 day visit to a lodge on the Cumaceiba River.They took me and a friendly Chilean couple by taxi to Nauta, where we boarded a rickety wooden boat, and headed downriver.
After a few hours we turned up the Cumaceiba River. There were the famous bubblegum, Pink River Dolphins in the river but they would not cooperate for a photo. Several small fish leaped into our boat. The terrain all around was flooded Varzea forest.
The muddy bank where the lodge stood was just about the only solid ground in the area. The lodge was incredibly rustic, and lacked electricity. I have never seen so many spiders and bats as there were inside and out of the lodge. I am not choosy about accommodations, but I was very relieved that the beds had tight fitting mosquito nets. The cacophony of jugle noises outside at night was matched only by the noises coming from creatures inside the lodge.
All our little excursions were done in small dugout canoes through the flooded forest. My butt and lower back were in agony at the end of each day. We pushed though thick vegetation and got covered with biting ants, and non-biting spiders.
We took one night excursion to look for caimans and other nocturnal wildlife. It was so eerie pushing through twisted tree trunks and vines in the dark. We soon got covered with spiders, and the guide in front kept getting stung by huge wasps that were annoyed by our lights. He doubled over in pain every time. Soon we had to extinguish our headlamps, and got completely lost in the forest.
I was really worried but the guide and boatman were not. They grew up in those forests. We saw the caimans, and some frogs etc. I was very relieved when we got back to the lodge, and the sky opened up with a fierce thunderstorm as soon as we got indoors.
There were three Yellow-headed Cara caras that hung around the lodge all day. They were awaiting table scraps, (mostly fish guts) that the kitchen staff threw out after meals.
When the lodge people learned that I was a serious birder, they were delighted because that meant that they didnt have to repeat the usual dumbed down jungle lore that other tourists got. When they saw that I had the new Guide to the Birds of Peru they almost jumped for joy. I never got to look at it because the lodge guides were always studying it.
They assigned me my own personal guides, and taylored all my excursions to see the most birds. The other lodge guests became jealous and were soon coming along on my trips.
The cara caras had to compete with this Roadside Hawk for table scraps. It was very unafraid of people.
Here it poses on the lodge's water tower.
There were also many Black-collared Hawks along the riversides.
A very odd bird species we saw in the mornings were the noisy, Horned Screamers.
A few of the multitudes of bats, roosting on a tree trunk over the water.
Squirrel Monkeys were one of several species of monkeys in the forest.
I have no idea what this rabbit sized critter is.
Russet-backed Oropendela.
Fer de Lance is a pit-viper that is responsible for more human fatalities in Latin America than all other snakes combined. This small individual was completely calm in it's demeanor.
A local fisherman caught this Anaconda in his net and brought it by the lodge to show us. It was not friendly at all. I saw many good birds and other animals on the Cumaceiba River, and it was a great, but uncomfortable experience. The staff went out of their way to please their guests, and share their knowledge.