Monarch butterflies are beginning visit our milkweed plants, which always makes us happy.
Although milkweeds can be a trap for honeybees (https://amylaw.blog/2016/07/17/bees-and-butterflies/), they are required for Monarchs to feed and lay their eggs. Monarchs are in steep decline due to habitat loss and herbicide use, so we try to help them out when we can, by growing milkweeds in the odd corners of our yard.
My son and his girlfriend are in Fairbanks, Alaska, for the next few years for graduate school. We went up to visit them earlier this month.
Fairbanks is only two and a half hours away from Denali National Park. So we all piled in the car and went!
There is only one road in Denali, and you can only drive your car a short distance on it into the Park. After that, you take one of two kinds of bus: a free shuttle bus that will drop you off for a hike, or a tour bus with a driver-guide who will help you spot wildlife. This being our first time in Denali, we chose the wildlife tour bus.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Many, if not most, National Parks in the lower 48 have gone to this system because of the tremendous overcrowding that is set to destroy the very things we love most about the Parks — silence, wilderness, the sense of being alone.
But the whole thing had a very managed feel to it, something of the Disneyland experience. And that was a problem for me. I wanted to discover Denali, or any National Park, on my own.
One of the most common animals in Denali are moose. They thrive on the willow thickets that line the rivers. There are a lot of willow thickets.
Moose are possibly the most dangerous animals in Denali NPP. Bears, either black or grizzly/brown, will generally stay out of your way, as long as you don’t get between them and their cubs. Moose will stomp you to death just because they are feeling grumpy.
A little further on, we saw these Arctic fox kits, playing outside their den. It won’t be long before they join their parents for hunting outings.
Then we saw one of the parent foxes hunting something on the road in front of us. This is one of the advantages of not allowing private cars on the road — fewer chances of hitting animals. The animals aren’t as wary of the road and come closer.
Glacial rivers are often “braided”, meaning that they don’t have a main channel except when they are running high. This is because they suddenly go from steep slopes to fairly flat valleys. They don’t have enough energy on the flats to carry the sediments, so the sands, silts and clays build up as the river constantly looks for the easiest way down.
Here, you can see how muddy the river is below the glacier.
While stopped, I took the opportunity to get some close-ups of Arctic tundra plants…
This is Arctic sandwort, in the carnation family. Carnations are surprising well represented in tundra plants. Although it is just a few inches tall, it stands higher than most tundra plants in the Colorado Rockies. This was true of the tundra plants in general. The reason is that there is much less wind in the lower elevations of Denali, at least. That really surprised me.
A little further on, we saw a sow grizzly and her yearling cub. This was when I was glad we had taken the tour — I don’t think I would have seen the grizzlies without the driver pointing them out. But once I knew to look for blond, almost white, dots on the slopes, I saw them easily.
This was our best view of Denali. Most of the time, the Big Mountain is socked in with a weather system it creates all on it’s own. You can see what I mean by looking at the mountains in the foreground — each one has a puffy cloud above it, created by the humid air having to rise to get around the mountain. As the air rises and cools, clouds form. As high and isloated as it is, the moisture-laden air almost always get caught at Denali.
Our closest view, while not as clear as just a few minutes before, is still better than most folks get. Denali is the bit of blinding white under the red arrow. But it gives you an idea of just how much higher Denali is (20,310 ft, or 6190 m) than anything else around. It dwarfs the next highest mountain, Mt. Foraker (17,400 ft or 5304 m) in the Park, and pretty much anything else in North America including #2 in elevation, Mt. St. Elias (18,008 ft or 5,489 m) in Southeast Alaska.
From this overlook, we turned around.
A caribou, browsing on a willow thicket along the side of the road. Caribou are the wild North American version of reindeer. They are such unusual animals that I could easily do an entire blog on them. Among many other characteristics, they are unique among deer in that both males and females have antlers.
Caribou on the tundra with the Alaska Range behind them. This photo calls to my northern European Neolithic genes.
And just a few miles on, we spotted a grizzly taking a nap among blue chiming bells, literally just off the road. You can see how light their fur is.
Back at the Visitor’s Center I took more pictures of flowers. I’m not sure how I like this business of other people having cameras…
But I got a great photo of chiming bells, in the heather family. This charming plant was all over the lower part of the Park.
Final conclusions: Animals were closer to the road — in some cases on the road — than they would have been with people zipping up and down it. The driver-guide was able to spot wildlife we didn’t know how to see yet, and she answered questions about what we were seeing. The tour still had a slightly industrial feel to it, but it was a reasonable compromise to having hordes of tourists tromp across the tundra without being aware of it’s fragility, or it’s dangers.
It’s been almost a month since I last posted about the eagle chicks. A lot’s happened in that time.
Before they can live independently, the chicks need to learn how to eat on their own. The parents have brought the chicks a rabbit to eat, but then they left. The chicks have to figure out how to get into the carcass on their own.
With those razor-sharp beaks, you wouldn’t think that would be a problem, but it seems to have stymied them here.
They must have figured it out, because when I checked in a couple of hours later, the rabbit was pretty much eaten.
And so it went…they practiced flying, and hopping and tearing into prey…
…with an occasional tug on a sibling’s tail…
…until one day, there were no chicks in the nest.
According to NOAA’s drought monitor (https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/), almost no place in the US is currently in drought, which, if you follow these things, is pretty amazing.
But here in Colorado, we have been really wet. How wet? Take a look at this:
100% of Normal would be an average year — we are getting all the snow we normally do. So when it says that the San Juan Mountains are at 728% of normal that means they have over SEVEN TIMES as much snow as they normally do.
In Colorado, we tend to like the extra snow in the mountains; we view it as a bank account we can draw on — more is better.
As a violent spring storm crosses the country, the temperatures along the Front Range of Colorado are hovering in the low 40 degree range, and may dip below freezing tonight, and the drizzle we’ve had all day may turn to snow.
Yet hummingbirds have been in the area for a month. These little guys have to burn through a lot of energy to survive a cold wet storm like this.
Fill up, little hummer! We’ll keep it coming for you!
The day after I last posted, I noticed new behaviors with the Bald Eagle chicks — they began stretching and flapping their wings…
…and they began feeding themselves — just a little at first, but it’s a milestone.
As with all new skills, wing-flapping takes a lot of practice, and the willingness to fail. They need to practice until they get it right. Once they try to fly, they have to get the basics right the first time.
One of the Eagle chicks spent a fair amount of time staring into the camera this day. I suspect that the lens caught the light and that caught the attention of the chick.
More wing-stretching. Only one chick stretches at a time, often in sessions of fifteen minutes or more at a time. They have also moved closer to the edge of the nest.
A new twist to the wing stretching — hopping as they flap.
I don’t know for sure that this is the same bird, but as I pointed out last fall, it is a little unusual for them to be hunting in the semi-wooded suburbs.
And this bird is hunting. Another neighbor said that he came out to get the morning paper, and it was ripping up a rabbit it had caught in his front yard. He said it didn’t fly off as he approached, so he decided to get the paper later.
Today I heard a Crow burbling as it flew fast overhead. It joined another to harass the Red-tail, at times almost driving it into the ground.
This is one of the few times I have seen both the chicks go after the same morsel of food.
Notice that the unhatched egg is no longer visible. I don’t know if they carried off, or if it just finally got buried in nest material.
One of the things that has really surprised me has been the constant remodeling of the nest. Here the male (I think) has brought back a new branch. He hasn’t trimmed it yet, so it obscures the rear chick.
The adult bird really has no idea how big this branch is, and just smacked the chick in the foreground with it.
The chicks are beginning to stretch their wings.
As the chicks grow, they are becoming more active, and more curious. The chick in the background has been wrestling with the piece of wood, while the one in the foreground seems to be checking out the camera. Notice that their juvenile feathers are coming in.
It was a windy day in Platteville — the nest was rocking back and forth a fair amount. This chick very deliberately stood up, spread it’s feet, and started stretching it’s wings, evidently enjoying the feel of the wind going over them.
Mama eagle shades the chicks. At this point, they are 9 days old.
Up until this day, I hadn’t seen them out of the central depression, where the failed egg remains. But once they started exploring, they rambled all over.
I’m a little annoyed, because Mama eagle is in the way of a nice shot of the little ones. There were two cameras on the nest, but the bomb cyclone took out one of them, so I can’t switch for a better view.
Oh! I get it now! Mom providing shade for the chicks while they sleep. Now that I understand what she’s doing, I see that she actually shades them a lot.
You can see the remains of a fish at her feet. The failed egg is still in the nest, too.
She spends a lot of time feeding them.
The last couple of days, the male has been covering the chicks up with nest material. I have no idea why.
The male has covered the chicks up. The female finally took nesting material out of his beak and put it back where he had picked it up. Hah! I could practically hear her saying “Will you just stop?”
Not only have the chicks grown, they are beginning to lose their downy feathers, and their beaks and talons are turning from black to grey.
Above: The female has already fed the right hand chick the first half of the fish in her beak. A previous fish is in the left foreground.
I always thought that it was kinda a free-for-all at feeding time for birds — the chicks opened their beaks as wide as they could and the adult dropped food into the biggest mouth. That hasn’t been the case with the eagles — one chick is fed until it is full, then the other is fed. This could be a problem in lean years, but the male has kept the nest full of fish this year.
It took her 8 minutes to feed the second half of the fish to the left chick. By the time she finished, all that remains of the fish are under her talons — not much. She feeds them several times a day, not always as much, but a lot.