Thursday, August 16, 2018

Bears, Bobcats, and Babies, Oh My!

Young black bear down the driveway, Vermont

   It has been a wild couple of weeks here in Vermont with high temperatures and lots of wildlife. The snakes are out at Stave Island, fawn are running around with spots all over them, a mystery animal on the island, and both monarch butterflies and their caterpillar counterparts have been seen. But the biggest wildlife sightings of the summer have both come within the last few days.

   First we had a young black bear sighting right down the driveway. It was munching away on some of the grass and flower in the meadow before crossing the road and darting off into the trees. We figured it was headed towards the berry bushes that have been prolific this summer. We were pretty excited so we grabbed the trail camera and set it up down near the woods hoping to get a shot of the bear. But when we retrieved the camera the next day we were in for shock.

  We didn't get the bear, but in one night vision video we captured a cat-like creature stalking past the camera. Once the cat comes into full view we immediately recognized the little tail of a bobcat! These are solitary, nocturnal creatures that are almost never seen here. We were thrilled to get a good quality snap shot into the life of this nocturnal predator.

   And through all of this it wasn't just Heidi and myself taking in all the excitement. We had Catalina along for the ride as well! She is six months and going strong. It took me 37 years to get my first bobcat footage.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Revisiting Tadoussac: The Foggy Whale Watch

Near miss in the fog
Minke whale sighted!
  I was pretty skeptical about our chances when we arrived at the harbor and we couldn't even see the boats on the dock. The fog was so intense that we could have played a game of hide-n-seek and the seeker would have had no chance. In reality the visibility was about 50 yards, and with the approach regulations inside the marine park being no closer than 200 yards I figured our chances were pretty much nil. But the crew surprised me and with a little help found us some whales!

Horror Movie villain?
The gang ready to go
  Tadoussac is a tiny town in French Quebec, Canada where the Saguenay Fjord empties into the St Lawrence Sea Way. Its hard to understand how whales are here unless you zoom way out on the globe and see that the whales have an easy opening to the sea. They come here in the summer months for good feeding. 13 different species have been seen here, but I feel pretty lucky to have even seen one of those species on a day like this.

Close encounter
Grey Seal
   About thirty minutes of blasting into the fog we could all start to see that there was no escaping it. The fog wasn't lifting and there were no openings. By this time everyone  had gone from being almost too hot on shore to miserably cold and soaking wet. We were driving through a cloud in an open air zodiac. Luckily we had foul weather gear on but it was still a bit extreme. David and I lucked out with the thicker style jackets but poor Lea and Mom stayed tough. At one point I couldn't even see mom's face as she shielded herself against the elements.

Fog rolling back into Tadoussac
  Our perseverance paid off about two hours into the tour. I spotted a minke whale and pointed the direction out to the captain. The whale surfaced again right where I was pointing. I couldn't believe our luck. It must have been about 30 yards away. We got a few close looks at our first minke whale before it disappeared into the fog.

  After this excitement we started coming across more and more life. Birds would suddenly appear above us, and grey seals would plod along. Everything looked much bigger and closer in the fog. It was an optical illusion that made us mistake the seals for whales almost every time. Then we came across two more minkes. We stopped as they quickly changed directions around us. Two became three as we turned the engine off to enjoy. One of my favorite moments of the trip came next. The three whales were surfacing just outside of the our vision but still close enough where we could hear them breathing. There wasn't a drop of wind so the breathing was easy to hear over the silence. Luckily everyone onboard had the same idea to not talk and just take it in.

  The captain gave us extra time to spend with the whales since it was his only whale watch of the day. Once we were back on shore we soaked up the warm weather and admired the fog from a waterside tavern overlooking the harbor. You never know what to expect when you are out on the ocean but I always think if you bring the right attitude then nature will provide.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Revisiting Tadoussac, Canada

Motel de l'Anse a l'eau
After all my stories of visiting Tadoussac for whale watching in the past, it was about time I take some family up that way. So this past week my mother, sister, and brother in law all made the trip up to Vermont where we piled into a rental car and hit the road for the 7+ hour road trip up into Canada.

It was a beautiful drive through French Quebec past rolling farm lands and sparkling water of the St Lawrence. We finally made it to the ferry which took us across the Saguenay River into the quaint little town of Tadoussac. This town is filled with cute, French style eateries and small boutiques. Old wrought iron lamppost dot the streets and walkways while the impressive Hotel Tadoussac dominates the waterfront.  We stayed at the quaint Motel de l'Anse a l'eau, which I think means 'from the cove to the water.'

  Most visitors to Tadoussac come for the whale watching in the Parc Marin du Saguenay-Saint-Laurent. Beluga whales are known to frequent these waters all year round. But in the summer these whale waters really get busy with visits from 12 other species ranging from blue whales, to minke whales, humpbacks to pilot whales. We had a whale watch scheduled for the day after we arrived on one of the zodiac trips so we all went to bed excited, and not to mention well fed on baguettes and cheese.

  The next day we awoke to impenetrable fog rolling into the ocean front harbor. We could barely make out our zodiac at the dock, a few hundred feet into the fog. Stay tuned for how things turned out in Tadoussac part 2.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Up Close with Steller Sea Lions

Sea Lions and the Safari Quest
  They are big. Real big. Think twice the size of an adult male brown bear. They are the lions of the sea, otherwise known as Steller Sea Lions (Eumetopias jubatus). They are the largest of all sea lions (or eared seals), and named after the famous naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller.

Airborne sea lion in Alaska
   In the middle of Frederick Sound, a place known for whales, are a couple islands named The Brothers. Here a number of steller sea lions have set up a haul out, providing a great wildlife encounter. It is just the boys, fighting and barking at each other in an endless game of king of the hill. The females and pups are at some far off beach rookery.

   Whenever the weather conditions are nice and calm we take to the skiffs for a closer look at the haul out. Once we get downwind the smell is unmistakable. The big males fight off the smaller ones for the best spots. Some of the younger ones playfully swim around the boats. And suddenly, whales and bears and seem far away in everyone's mind.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Glacier Sightseeing by Float Plane in Alaska

Me and Dirk ready for adventure
  There are only two real ways to get around Southeast Alaska; a boat or a float plane. Boats here range in size from tiny fishing charters to jet boats screaming up shallow inlets to some of the most massive cruise ships on Earth. But float planes on the other hand are pretty much all tiny and not for the faint of heart. Due to a last minute guest cancellation, my buddy Dirk and I were able to score a ride in one of the smallest float planes that offers scenic tours.

Huge Icebergs below
  The tight quarters inside our amphibious ride could hand a pilot and passenger up front, with 2 more passengers in the back. The company is Pacific Wings and their pilots provide great commentary along the way. I found the windows were much better to photography out of since they weren't as curved and reflection filled as scenic helicopters I've been in. We were all excited to have a beautiful, clear day for this impromptu adventure. I made sure to have my camera in hand, my trusty Canon 5d mark ii with a 17-40 zoom lens ready for adventure.

  We started out by following the winding and shallow looking Stikine River. The entire system was huge, with animal tracks crisscrossing the green embankments on either side of the muddy river. We passed over aqua-marine colored glacial streams entering the main river as well as some secretive hot springs that would take some serious jet boating to get up to.  You can add that to my list of future adventures.

  Then we started following one of the glacial tributaries past huge icebergs trapped in a lake to the face of the glacier itself. That is when we started gaining altitude, flying high up among the jagged peaks and monolithic mountain tops. We were staring out at the birthing place of these massive glaciers.

LeConte Glacier slowly flowing down the mountain

LeConte Glacier
  It was a sight to behold and one I am so glad I had my camera for. The frozen landscapes are almost too massive and unearthly to comprehend. Even now, looking back at the photos, it is so amazing to see what nature can turn a snowflake into. We followed LeConte Glacier down to its terminus, just in time to see a massive calving into the fjord. After four years leading tours in Southeast Alaska it was my first time finally seeing the face of the elusive LeConte Glacier. It was the experience of a lifetime and one that I won't soon forget.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Invited In to the Native Tlingit Village of Kake, Alaska

Getting an insider tour through the native Tlingit village of Kake, Alaska. 

First look at Kake, Alaska
In the middle of Alaska's inside passage lies a village where native Alaskans have been living for thousands of years. The Tlingit culture has been going strong in the Kake region all this time partly because of the sheer amount of resources and food here, but also because of their ingenuity in harvesting and keeping that bounty through the long winters. 
Settling for grass at the moment
 The long winters also brought a bounty of another kind to this small community...a bounty of time. With daylight hours numbering close to the four hour mark in the heart of winter there was plenty of forced leisure time around these parts. That is when the weaving, carving, dancing, and story telling really took hold. This was the culture that we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this week on the Safari Quest.

 Pulling up to the village of Kake, whose residents number in the 500-600s, looks like a quaint fishing village from the outside. A couple of rundown canneries hint at a history of booms and busts in the area. The logging industry also hit the wall in the mid 2000's with a combination of falling timber prices and raising electricity costs for the mill. The families that are here focus a lot of their time on the different hunting seasons. Right now they are getting very excited for the incoming salmon runs. And they aren't the only ones.

Down near the salmon streams, flocks of eagles chatter from the tree tops as they wait for the delicious salmon to return as they do each year. Seals and sea lions cruise by checking out the scene from the estuaries, taking a bold risk as the native Tlingit's are still allowed to hunt things like seals and sea otters. And just upstream black bears hungrily eat the sedge grass as they wait for juicier fare.

Master Carver Mike Jackson
  Our first stop was at a master carver's, Mike Jackson. Here yellow and red cedar trees are turned into animal filled totem poles telling stories of old and marking celebrations of new. At $1500 per foot you can commission your own Tlingit made totem.

  Falen, was our guide through the trip. One of the few native Tlingit speakers in the world, she is focus on saving the language by teaching the younger generation as well as taking people like us through the village to experience this bastion of remaining Tlingit culture. As we sat under their 128ft totem pole she recalled one of the stories encompassed in the massive work of art. As she finished her story a bald eagle landed on the very top of totem, giving it a living top piece for a few moments.

  The last stop of our tour was possibly our most entertaining. The Kake dancing group, in full regalia danced several songs for us from both the eagle and the raven clans. Then they finished by inviting the group out onto the floor to share in the exit dance. It was pretty amazing to be surrounded by the incredible beadwork, carved headdresses, beating drums, and the realization that these dances have been passed down for thousands of years.