Untamed Land

Untamed Land
Untamed Land

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Loons and Stuff

Yesterday and today I took the time to visit some areas that I have neglected lately. Right in the middle of Anchorage is a natural area where there are forest trails and two lakes. The University of Alaska is also there. That is why one of the lakes is called University Lake.
The other lake is Goose Lake, and it is one of several lakes in town that hosts nesting loons, rather than geese.  Pacific Loons are the species that occupy Goose Lake.
There are Common Loons on some of the larger lakes, especially on the military base. Anchorage is the biggest city that boasts nesting loons.

The first place I checked out yesterday was University Lake above. It was beautiful, but I was dismayed to see the first sign of fall colors in some of the trees. Alaska typically has very short autumns, and then comes the endless winter.
There was'nt much on University Lake, just some Mallards, R.N. Grebes, and a few Muskrats. So I followed a trail through the forest, over to Goose Lake. The forest floor above is covered in a layer of green moss.
Someone has been busy taking down trees next to the lake. This is the handiwork of a beaver. This summer beavers have been causing a stir because they were attacking people's dogs when they tried to play in the water.
I forget the name of this kind of mushroom. It's not very poisonous, but not tasty either.
Bunchberries are not so tasty either.
There were not very many passerines in the forest, chickadees, redpolls, juncos, magpies, and these recently fledged, Pine Siskins.
Finally I made it to Goose Lake, and saw the resident pair of Pacific Loons. Their hatchlings were taken by a predator this year. Almost undoubtedly a Bald Eagle is the culprit. In some years, eagles take every single loon chick. It is very discouraging because loons are slow to breed, and their numbers are steadily dropping. They never lay more than two eggs at a time.

Loons are shy, and usually stay out in the middle of the lake. It is hard to get close to them. These photos were all taken from a distance.
They are way cool. There are sometimes Red-throated Loons just offshore in Anchorage. I have never gotten close enough for even a single photo.
Loons in turn, prey upon the young of grebes and ducks. That's why I was surprized to find this juvenile, Red-necked Grebe on Goose Lake. Loons usually drive off the adult grebes on their lakes, so they cannot breed where loons are. Maybe this bird flew in from another lake.
Ducks are prolific breeders by comparison, and they overwhelm the loons by their sheer numbers. That is why the loons tolerate the presense of ducks on their lakes. Including these Mallards.
I was stumped for awhile by the identity of these two, very dark ducks on Goose Lake. After consulting the field guide, I figured out that they are juvenile, Lesser Scaup.
One last loon photo. The reason for disparity in the lighting of these photos, is because it was suuny yesterday with harsh light. Today was overcast, and drizzly. The Coomon Loon photo was taken years ago with slide film.

Friday, August 26, 2011

It Keeps Getting Better

After a week of cool and rainy weather, the sun came out today. It was about 15 degrees colder than the last time I hit the Coastal Trail, but it sure felt good to me. This time there was no weasel, but I shot this photo of a bumblebee on a Dandelion flower. The size comparision shows how diminutive our Alaska bumblebees are.
It may not look like it, but this bird is in serious trouble. At least it's species is. Can you guess what it is? It's overall population has dropped by about 90% in the last few decades. There have been many studies to understand why, but no cause is apparent. Most researchers believe that the problem lies somewhere on the bird's wintering grounds in the Midwest.
There were about a half dozen Rusty Blackbirds next to Westchester Lagoon today. The first I have seen in a number of years. They were still easy to find when I first moved to Alaska 14 years ago. The bird above is a female, or a subadult male.
Nearby, there was this Belted Kingfisher, along with one Greater Yellowlegs and an unidentified peep. Also Greenwings, Mallards, Widgeons, Shovelers, and scaups.
There were also some subadult Bonaparte's Gulls. Someone reported seeing a Common Black-headed Gull, (Old World species). It looks the same, but has a red bill. I looked for it, but did'nt see it.
I was delighted to find 3 Sandhill Cranes on the mudflats. This time, the light was good, and the cranes were only about 100 ft, (30 meters) away from the trail.
There were 4 of them here in the springtime. The same birds minus one? Probably not. Someone saw 9 more of them further down the trail today
.A small crowd of bicyclists and hikers gathered to watch the cranes. I honestly believe that most of them never would have noticed the cranes if I was'nt there, snapping photos like a madman.
It's hard to imagine that I could ever get a better photographic opportunity with Sandhill Cranes. That does'nt mean that I won't  keep on taking photos of them. I wanted to get some shots of them with their wings spread. They would not oblige me.
There is a low fence beside the trail that conceals the lower half of people. I think that barrier is why these cranes were so unconcerned by all the people.
When you get this kind of opportunity, you have to keep shooting photos. I took at least 80 photos of the cranes. I got so many great shots that I would like to post, but these photos will suffice.
Within a stone's throw, (literally) of the cranes, the Bald Eagle was on the other side of the trail. It was in the same tree where I saw it on the last several visits to the area. This time it had some company.
Four tourists from out of state showed me another approach to the eagle tree. In the dozens of visits that I have made to the place, how is it that I never noticed that little side path?
Mt. Mckinley, North America's highest peak, was visible across Cook Inlet. It is only visible from Anchorage about a half dozen times a year. I think that it is about 265 miles away from Anchorage as the crow flies.
A Canada Goose family on Westchester. The adults are in the front and the back. The young goslings already have their adult plummage. There were lots of good birds today. Monday is predicted to be even warmer. Will I waste another day at the Coastal Trail? I ought to go somewhere else for loons and swans. Maybe I'll just stay home and paint. Decisions, decisions.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A New Duck Painting

This is mostly about Greater Scaup. Before moving to Alaska, I had only ever seen one Greater Scaup because the Lesser Scaup was the predominate scaup in Arizona. In the photo above, a female Greater Scaup is being pursued by some male suitors at Spenard Crossing in Anchorage. There were nine males in all. They were practically drowning that poor female in their romantic ardor. She must have been absolutely exhausted by all the attention.
Another view of the same incident. Only the most dominate males got close to the hen. Other males kept flying in to try to displace them.
Eventually one male won the hen. He finally let her rest.
The possessive drake kept all other ducks at bay, by positioning himself between his hen and the intruder. Even this Canada Goose was herded away from the hen..
Along with a pair of Greater Scaup, my new painting includes the sleeping Mallard on the left. I shot this photo late last summer at Spenard Crossing. The little squirt in the middle of the photo is a greenwing.
This is the new 9x12" painting. No title yet. The ducks were originally more brightly colored. As an afterthought, I applied a light wash to create some atmosphere. It almost sucked the life out of the painting.
A detail of the ducks.
Even closer. The drake Lesser Scaup has heavier, dark vermiculations on it's back than this Greater Scaup. It also has a purple sheen to it's black head, instead of the greenish sheen of the Greater Scaup.
Since this is a short post, I'll include this photo of a Common Goldeneye. I like the water droplets on it's back.
I'll end this post with a nice shot of a Northern Shoveler. All of these ducks were photographed at Spenard crossing. Spenard Crossing is seperated from Westchester Lagoon by Minnesota Drive, one of Anchorage's busiest roads. There are two tunnels that allow pedestrians to cross between the two wetlands without creating a traffic hazard.
Spenard Crossing, and Westchester Lagoon are the best places that I have been to for getting close to wild waterfowl.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


This all started with a visit to Palmer Hay Flats, a wildlife refuge about 35 miles from Anchorage. Pre 1964, the place was farmland where hay was harvested. During the big 8.9 earthquake of 64 the land dropped by about 4ft, and became too boggy for farming.
In a short time, waterfowl and shorebirds started utilizing the newly created habitat, so it was eventually turned into a refuge. Both Anchorage Audubon, and the Matsu Bird Club hold annual field trips there in the springtime at the height of migration. We see swans, 3 species of geese, numerous duck species, Sandhill Cranes, and various shorebirds. There are raptors like Northern Harriers, Bald Eagles, Peregrines, Short-eared Owls and more. Passerines like Lapland Longspurs, redpolls, sparrows, etc.
I have used the photo above as a setting for several paintings. The best of them was a 24x48" canvas of Snow Geese that sold for a tidy sum. Unfortunately I have no digital photographs of that painting.

I do have a photo of this small 8x10" Caribou painting called Distance. It uses the same backdrop as the Snow Geese painting. It sold for a much more modest sum.
These White-fronted, and Canada Geese were at Spenard Crossing in the spring several years ago. Both species are also seen at the hayflats along with the Snow Geese.
A nice portrait of a Whitefront. They usually do not allow such close-up views.
In 2007 I painted this one, using the same backdrop. It took a lot of work to paint all these whitefronts, but I was never happy with the painting. Since I put so much work into the painting, I really wanted to find a way to make it look better.
First I decided that the bird's reflections did nothing for the painting so I made them go away by raising the hieght of the sedges. Then I put a pale wash over the background and geese. It's still not right.
Since I felt I had nothing to lose, I decided to be a little bolder with my washes. Not good. Oh well.
I'm tired of remodeling old paintings. Now I'm working on something new.
I'll end this post with a nice photo I shot in the field next to my place last fall. Maybe it will be the inspiration for a future painting.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Weasel and Other Good Things on a Hot Day

Today was probably the hottest day of the year. It was a boiling 75f. Although I think it was an ideal day, most Alaskans were complaining. What wimps. They should have been with me in Murchison NP in March.
I forced myself to stay home and work most of the day, but I could'nt let the whole day go to waste.
At about 4:00 pm I arrived at the Coastal Trail.  Right away I saw a bird flying past rapidly, like it was being pursued by a predator. I became alert and saw the Short-tailed Weasel above. It was in the pile of rocks and logs that keep the trail from sinking into the mud.
What a delightful find. It's been about a decade since I've seen a weasel. It was popping in and out of the boulders at a frenetic pace.  Very difficult to photograph. Short-tailed Weasels turn white in winter and are called Ermines then. Someone else photographed a wolf on the Coastal Trail today but I missed it.
In the same slough where I've been seeing so many shorebirds lately, I got confused by what I saw. The bird on the left is a Greater Yellowlegs. The bird on the right is a little smaller like a Lesser Yellowlegs. Then what is the little guy in the front? Finally I figured out that it was a solitary Sandpiper. I have'nt seen one since May.

Here is a good size comparision between a Greater Yellowlegs, and a Solitary Sandpiper.
There were at least two Solitary Sandpipers in the slough. Also a Muskrat, and some Greenwings.
The Bald Eagle was in the same tree where I saw it before. This time I was able to find a way to get closer without tresspassing. It was contentedly preening in this photo.
Someone told me that it had a nest nearby, and that two young eagles fledged just this week.
Way out on the mudflats I saw this small raptor. All I could see from so great a distance was the rust colored breast. Even though it was way out in the open, I had myself convinced that it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. They tend to be forest birds.
I got as close to it as I could. When I got home and cropped the photos, I could see it was a Merlin.
These are the only photos of a Merlin that I have been able to get. They are certainly pathetic compared to Amber's great photos.
Today there were many more spawning Silver Salmon than last week.
There was nobody fishing for them today.

A little way upstream from them I heard a large animal moving through the forest along the Chester Creek Greenbelt. I was thinking bear (they follow the salmon),but when I looked intently into the trees I could not find whatever made the noise.
I did find this very cooperative, Belted Kingfisher beside Chester Creek. This is probably the best Belted Kingfisher photo I have been able to get. What a beauty. Today was without doubt, one of the best days of the summer.