Sound Ideas: The Edge

by Carl Strang

This recording is my narration of a true story, perhaps the most profound experience of my graduate study seasons in western Alaska. Fair warning, it goes more than 15 minutes, but many have told me it is worth it.

The bluffs, summer

The bluffs, summer

Tundra hare, before its summer molt

Tundra hare, before its summer molt

Tent frame, our field home

Tent frame, our field home

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Sound Ideas: John and the Evinrude

by Carl Strang

I promised a new winter series for this season, and today is the first installment of Sound Ideas. These posts will include sound recordings of various sorts. Some will be more informational, while others, like today’s, are intended more in fun. They often will tie to previous winter series or other earlier posts.

“John and the Evinrude” is a song, and it seems to be my Greatest Hit among adults. It tells a true story from my days as a graduate student in western Alaska. One way we paid back our host, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, was to conduct goose banding roundups. These take advantage of the brief period of time when waterfowl lose all their flight feathers at once. They then can be herded into a trap and banded.

A banding session. I am holding a cackling goose in the foreground, as Dave Eisenhauer (whose thesis work was on emperor geese) looks on. In the background is Dr. Cal Lensink, then refuge manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

A banding session. I am holding a cackling goose in the foreground, as Dave Eisenhauer (whose thesis work was on emperor geese) looks on. In the background is Dr. Cal Lensink, then refuge manager for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Inevitably the end of that season comes, as the geese discover they can fly again. This story begins after one such futile trip upriver. We had a bit of a challenge getting back to camp.

The other characters in the story. John Eisenhauer pulls the boat, Dave Frasier is next, and Dave Eisenhauer pushes from behind. For simplicity’s sake I combined the two Daves in the song. This Grumman was how we got out to the bigger boat when we had to anchor it far offshore, as here when we returned at low tide.

The other characters in the story. John Eisenhauer pulls the boat, Dave Frasier is next, and Dave Eisenhauer pushes from behind. For simplicity’s sake I combined the two Daves in the song. This Grumman was how we got out to the bigger boat when we had to anchor it far offshore, as here when we returned at low tide.

Here are the lyrics, so you can follow along:

John and the Evinrude

by Carl Strang © 2000

It was the last banding trip of the season. The geese all got away.

We shrugged, ate lunch, loaded up the trap for our return to Kokechik Bay.

It was my turn to steer down the river, my turn to be the fool.

My turn to start the Evinrude that was stubborn as a mule.

(Chorus:)

And it took 10 pulls, 20 pulls, 30 or more to get that thing to go.

40, 50, 60, sometimes, let’s give up and row!

But if we get this motor started we’ll improve our attitude.

This open flywheel, nail-handle pull rope gears exposed and 40 horsepower

Ancient rear-mount outboard puts the rude in Evinrude.

(Verse:)

The wind forced us onto the shoreline as I got the motor set

Dave pushed from shore with our only oar. I gave a pull, but nothing, yet.

With the wind and machine both against us the process was so slow:

10 minutes, only 20 pulls were all I had to show.

(Chorus)

Then we said, “Let us throw out the anchor to hold us from the shore.”

Now my pulls went much quicker as Dave put away the oar.

So I kept pulling hard, pulling harder, my arm sore as could be.

Up spoke John and announced to all he’d get it going in just 3.

He’d get it going in just 3.

(Bridge 1:)

Now John, a Canadian student, always had a lie to tell.

His stories and tall tales entertained.

But now his reputation was on the line as well.

His first pull did nothing, nothing gained.

John tried again and failed again. We were prepared to gloat.

He tried to motivate it with a speech:

“For mother, God and country.” All was quiet in the boat.

We hoped, this time, he’d gone beyond his reach.

(Verse:)

Well, the motor gave a cough on the third pull, then sputtered, roared alive!

He’d done it, John had done it and he settled back to drive.

With our backs to the wind we all faced him and his smug forward gaze.

He had beat the Evinrude, he’d be insufferable for days.

(Chorus)

But as we faced to the stern we could see it a-rising from below:

We had forgot our anchor and we had it now in tow.

It skipped all along on the surface, a demented water skier.

John saw our look and turned around, and forgot he had to steer.

(Chorus)

Now, the anchor danced along as we watched it. The sight was so bizarre

That no one thought to look ahead. We ran up on a bar.

(Bridge 2:)

And the Evinrude, it saw its chance, it sputtered and it died.

We couldn’t help but laugh at all the fun.

We pushed off from the shore and brought the anchor back inside

As John prepared the motor for pull one.

(Chorus)

Dave, Dave and John in the big boat. John is tending the Evinrude of the story.

Dave, Dave and John in the big boat. John is tending the Evinrude of the story.

Lessons from Travels: Glaucous Gull Hybrids

by Carl Strang

I conclude the Lessons from Travels series with a question that remains open to this day. Why does a portion of the glaucous gull population at the tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta show signs of hybridization with another species?

Glaucous gulls in a nesting colony

Glaucous gulls in a nesting colony

My study required me to shoot a limited number of gulls for various measurements both external and internal, and I found that the wingtips of some of them showed faint gray patterns reminiscent of other species. The eyes also occasionally showed darker color variations different from the pale glaucous gull ideal. This is what took me to Adak Island.

The nearest candidates for hybridization were glaucous-winged gulls, which are common in the Aleutians.

The nearest candidates for hybridization were glaucous-winged gulls, which are common in the Aleutians.

I documented the descriptive data (DNA comparisons were well in the future), but could not reach a clear conclusion. Two decades later I was contacted by Tim Bowman, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, who was doing impressive work with glaucous gulls in the same region. He had found that the gull population had ballooned, thanks to improved gull winter survival off the Alaska fishing industry. He also looked at the hybridization question I had raised. By then, molecular studies were feasible but very expensive, and he had not found the funds to proceed. He did note, however, that there did not appear to be a graded change in those physical measures connecting the glaucous and glaucous-winged gull populations. Perhaps someday someone will clarify this, but all in all it has to be regarded as more a curiosity than an important question.

Lessons from Travels: Upland vs. Lowland Tundra

by Carl Strang

Kokechik Bay, at the tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, provided a good opportunity to compare upland and lowland tundra communities.

Here is an aerial view of classical upland tundra interspersed with lakes.

Here is an aerial view of classical upland tundra interspersed with lakes.

In western Alaska, the distinction is clear. The more elevated areas, relatively dry and seldom if ever inundated by tides or floods, develop an upland tundra vegetation mix.

Mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and a few characteristic herbaceous plants dominate the upland flora.

Mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and a few characteristic herbaceous plants dominate the upland flora.

Here is a mix of lichens, mosses, and cloudberry, a member of the cosmopolitan genus Rubus.

Here is a mix of lichens, mosses, and cloudberry, a member of the cosmopolitan genus Rubus.

Some animals are connected with the upland tundra.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

The eggs of the black-bellied plover blend perfectly with the lichens.

The eggs of the black-bellied plover blend perfectly with the lichens.

Willow ptarmigans associated more with the upland tundra, but made use of both habitats.

Willow ptarmigans associated more with the upland tundra, but made use of both habitats.

Lowland tundra was where we spent most of our time, in waterfowl related studies.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

In coastal western Alaska, the lowlands are subject to at least occasional storm tide flooding. Many more species of birds nest in the lowlands.

Sandhill cranes are one of the more conspicuous lowland tundra birds.

Sandhill cranes are one of the more conspicuous lowland tundra birds.

The emperor goose is one of the iconic birds of this region and habitat.

The emperor goose is one of the iconic birds of this region and habitat.

As the continental glacier advanced and retreated across northeastern Illinois, the vegetation close to it no doubt had some tundra character. Little evidence remains, however, to give us a clear picture of this. Pollen records are more informative about the vegetation communities that followed as the climate warmed.

Northern Shoveler Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

In honor of the shovelers we saw during our Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, here is my somewhat paltry dossier of observations on this duck, which is strictly a migrant in our area. According to researchers their main direction of travel through northern Illinois is unusual: east-west, between the Atlantic coast and prairie breeding grounds.

Shoveler, Northern

Pair of northern shovelers, western Alaska

Pair of northern shovelers, western Alaska

I have seen these ducks regularly on Lake Maxinkuckee and Hawk Lake in Indiana during migration. Usually they travel as singles, pairs or in small groups. Males have a peculiar zipping call, noted in western Alaska, where occasionally I saw widely scattered individuals and pairs. There also was a call reminiscent of a flipped strip of metal. Usually they feed by sifting the surface of the water with sideways movements of their extraordinarily large bills.

15MR87. Shovelers were in a temporary pond along Geneva Road east of West Chicago.

20MR99. First shoveler of the year, IL.

26MR00. I observed 5 males and 1 female shoveler at McKee Marsh, 20 yards offshore, sticking their beak and sometimes their heads fully in the water and swinging them back and forth, but not tipping up.

24SE00. Several shovelers in small groups feeding at McKee Marsh, skimming the surface of the water.

Shovelers on May’s Lake

Shovelers on May’s Lake

14OC00. About 20 shovelers at McKee Marsh, all feeding by tipping up in contrast to their usual feeding style. No floating algae, and the water area still is large, though the entire corridor to the outlet is dry. Mainly they are in the center of the pool, though a few near the edge also are tipping up.

15DE12. A number of late-migrant shovelers were tipping up in the large pond in Timber Ridge Forest Preserve on the north side of Geneva Road.

Lessons from Travels: Alaska Herbs

by Carl Strang

One advantage of travel is the perspective it gives. This is, of course, the main point of the Lessons from Travels winter series of blog posts, and it is nowhere more evident than in comparative botany. Take this scene, for instance:

This lowland tundra scene from western Alaska, with the Bering Sea just beyond the horizon, features a little pingo, or ice-cored hill, topped by a dense cluster of Polemonium acutiflorum.

This lowland tundra scene from western Alaska, with the Bering Sea just beyond the horizon, features a little pingo, or ice-cored hill, topped by a dense cluster of Polemonium acutiflorum.

That species of Polemonium up close looked just like our own Jacob’s ladder (P. reptans). Our species lives in forests, however; the Alaska one of necessity was adapted to open places. Here’s another cognate, at least by its genus:

There is no mistaking this as a cinquefoil.

There is no mistaking this as a cinquefoil.

This Potentilla (egedii, I think)  grew just outside the intertidal zone, where it had to tolerate occasional flooding by seawater. I doubt that any of our local cinquefoils could grow in such conditions. One also has to broaden one’s perspective on weeds:

The eye-catching reddish plants are a species of Rumex.

The eye-catching reddish plants are a species of Rumex.

Our similar Rumex is the weedy European curly dock, R. crispus. The Alaskan one (Rumex arcticus) belonged in that landscape. I also recall a common winter cress (Barbarea) and a dandelion (Taraxacum) that were native to western Alaska, though their relatives here are regarded as undesirable invasives. At least a couple lessons are offered by such experiences: some groups of plants are extremely cosmopolitan, and one has to be careful about generalizing a plant’s value or ecological role.

Lessons from Travels: Peat Soils

by Carl Strang

With November’s arrival, this blog shifts to its winter mode. I will be bringing in posts that share comments on the year’s scientific literature that are relevant to local natural history. There also will be more species dossiers. Of course, ongoing observations from the present season will continue to appear. Finally, there will be weekly episodes in the winter series. Past winter series have focused on science and spirituality (the Winter Campfire) and prehistoric life. This winter I will continue, and perhaps conclude, the Lessons from Travels series I began last year. The idea is to draw upon comparisons between northeastern Illinois and other parts of the world which cast a light on our local ecology and natural history.

A few years ago the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County collaborated with Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History to conduct a paleontological dig at Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve. Some mastodon molar teeth and bone fragments had been found at the site, and we brought in high school teachers and students to excavate parts of the site.

Here the digging began, 2007. Note the marsh in the background.

The dig went for two seasons. We mainly found fragments of the mastodon’s tusks. During the second year we uncovered some buried black spruce trees.

The stem of one of the trees runs the length of this trench.

The spruces were there when the mastodon died. That tree species no longer occurs in Illinois, though it is common in the North, where it retreated in the wake of the melting glacier. As we dug, we encountered buried soils that were familiar to me.

Buried peat soil.

This was exactly like soils we found when we dug into the permafrost in western Alaska, where I lived for several summers conducting my thesis research on glaucous gulls. Today there is much concern about the amount of carbon dioxide, and perhaps methane as well, that will be added to the atmosphere as climate change melts the permafrost. It seems that tundra fires will be major news in the future. At least then, maybe people will be able to bury their dead.

This scene, fitting with Halloween just past, is from an abandoned village site in western Alaska. The powerful churning of the surface soil as it thaws and freezes each year prevents burials.

We were not able to complete the mastodon dig. We suspect that the major bones remain beneath that marsh. The Field Museum withdrew from the project, and keeping even a small portion of the marsh pumped out for digging is more difficult and expensive than anyone wishes to pursue (though who knows, if we continue to have droughts like this past summer, it may become a practical possibility). For now the buried peat soils, the tree stems we left in place and covered, and the remainder of the mastodon, wait patiently as they have done for thousands of years.

Lessons from Travels: Glaucous Gull Diet

by Carl Strang

This is a lesson in the biases we unconsciously insert in our observations. My Ph.D. thesis work in the 1970’s centered on the diet of glaucous gulls in western Alaska.

The glaucous gull is one of the largest gulls in the world, and it lacks the black or dark gray wingtips shown by many of its relatives.

I was hosted by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which was responsible for coastal refuges where abundant water birds breed. Their emphasis was on the reproduction of geese: emperor geese, white-fronted geese, cackling geese, and brant.

Emperor goose on the nest.

The waterfowl biologists who managed the refuges were aware of the whole range of species on those lands, but their interest and bias was so focused that they thought of other species mainly in their relationship to the geese. They noticed glaucous gulls mainly when they preyed on eggs or goslings, and so had developed the biased assumption that the gulls mainly ate geese.

Remains of a goose egg consumed by a predator.

The gulls are big enough to swallow goslings whole. Thus I was supported in my study of gulls. I started out on the Bering Sea coast, where there were several nesting colonies of glaucous gulls. My study area was at Kokechik Bay, at the very tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The Bering Sea is shallow, and when the tide went out, the bay became several square miles of mud flats with shallow pools. Only the central river channel remained.

Kokechik Bay, low tide, typical Bering Sea weather. The river channel is too far out to see from this low angle.

I found that when the tide went out, so did the glaucous gulls. The bay’s fish became concentrated in the river, and the gulls could be seen diving for them in the distance. As the tide rose, they walked ahead of the water, snacking on marine invertebrates stranded in the mudflat pools. On the coast, despite the large number of gulls, their impact on geese was limited to occasional, opportunistic predation of nests and unprotected young.

I went inland for my final field season, and found the story was different there. Instead of broad intertidal zones, relatively small areas were exposed as the tide rose and fell in the rivers and sloughs.

Inland study area, with a slough empty at low tide. I was able to make use of driftwood observation towers ingeniously constructed by Pete Mickelson, my predecessor on that site, who studied cackling geese.

Glaucous gulls were present only as widely scattered nesting pairs. Their diet had a significantly greater emphasis on eggs and young birds, but the impact was small because there were so few gulls.

This subject has been of sufficient interest that my study has been repeated a couple of times by others in the decades since, but expanded in terms of methods used and geographical area covered. They have confirmed my results, but there has been one new development. Glaucous gull numbers in western Alaska increased greatly after 1980, apparently because of improved winter survival thanks to scavenging from the growing human communities and an expanded commercial fishery. More gulls have meant more predation on waterfowl, to the point where population control measures have been considered. Now, though, instead of simply reflecting the biases of casual observation, the impact on waterfowl is assessed quantitatively, and takes into account the difference between coastal and inland diets. It is mainly the inland glaucous gulls that may be controlled.

Lessons from Travels: Rodent Cycles

by Carl Strang

One of the phenomena of wildlife in the far North is the dramatic cycling of small rodent populations. I had the opportunity to witness this when I was doing my graduate research in western Alaska. I was studying glaucous gulls rather than small mammals, but there was some relevance because the gulls feed heavily on tundra voles early in the season, when the thaw floods the voles into exposed positions.

Tundra vole, enjoying a snack provided by a colleague at the tent frame.

Lemmings were present in small numbers as well, but the only rodent that we saw undergoing violent population fluctuations was the vole. At the low point in the cycle one was hard pressed to find an active runway, and sightings of the voles themselves were few and far between. At the high point the pingos (ice-elevated rounded hills) were riddled with runs.

The voles dug into the soil, chewed a dense maze of runways, and seemed to be everywhere.

I was there in four consecutive summers, and saw one high-density year.

In the peak year they invaded my home.

Now I want to refer back to my recent literature review on food web stability. Species diversity is relatively low in the North, and in general there is a gradient of diminishing diversity from tropics to tundra. Low species diversity is associated with lower stability, and stability clearly is lacking in the vole population. It is not, however, simply a matter of few predators available to exert top-down control. In addition to glaucous gulls there were mew gulls, parasitic and long-tailed jaegers, less common predators like short-eared owls, and foxes. The last were represented by two species.

Red foxes were larger. This one got muddy.

Arctic foxes were the smaller species. This one, which appears to have a tundra vole in its mouth, hasn’t yet molted to its summer pelage.

Furthermore, all of these predators have broad diets and so can switch to focus on the most abundant prey (birds and their eggs being the chief alternative for most of them). Switching, however, isn’t stabilizing the voles. I haven’t followed the literature on this, so I don’t know where the current consensus is, but I think it’s important to point out that for much of the year the voles are protected by a deep layer of snow, and the avian predators all are gone outside the relatively short breeding season. The long winters are depauperate of species indeed, voles can breed in every month, and that surely plays a role in this food web.

While modest cycling of small rodents occurs in Illinois, it doesn’t come close to matching what we saw in Alaska. We have many more kinds of plants, rodents and predators here, and the rodents are vulnerable year round. This seems to be enough to account for the difference in food web stability of the two places.

Lessons from Travels: Migrants Elsewhere

by Carl Strang

When we are at home in Illinois, we categorize our birds with respect to their status when we see them here. They may be year-round residents, breeders that migrate south for the winter, winter residents, or migrants that breed north of us and pass through in the spring and fall. Those categories do not define the birds from their own perspective, however, and we can get some sense of this when we see them perfectly at home in other places. When we think of yellow-throated warblers, for instance, we typically associate them with sycamores, not with palm trees.

Yellow-throated warbler in Belize.

Still, there is a consistency in the open canopies of sycamores and palms that makes sense from the bird’s perspective. Though we commonly think of our breeding birds as being northern animals that head south to escape the winter, it might be better to regard them instead as tropical birds that travel north to take advantage of high summer productivity and fewer predators.

Travel also allows us to broaden our perspective on migrants, when we see them on their breeding grounds. This was one of the side benefits of the summers I spent in western Alaska. On the rare occasions when we see long-tailed ducks in northeast Illinois they are quiet, placid, unobtrusive. They are quite the opposite on their breeding grounds.

Male long-tailed duck, Kokechik Bay study area.

When courtship commences they become very noisy with un-duck-like tenor voices, chasing each other at rocket speeds and coming very close, apparently using people as picks. The females incubate large clutches of eggs, producing tiny dark ducklings.

In those days we called them oldsquaws. Here a mother and ducklings share a pond with red-necked phalaropes, which then were known as northern phalaropes.

Tundra swans have extraordinary courtship and territorial displays, and make huge nest mounds. Biologists can count eggs from the air. The young are placid.

Nonbreeders gather into flocks of 30 or more.

In the treeless tundra, dunlins advertise by hovering 10 feet above the ground, trilling a song that is almost identical to that of American toads. They have well camouflaged ground nests with 4 eggs.

When we see them as migrants in Illinois, dunlins are traveling in small flocks and behaving as shorebirds.

Jaegers are rarely encountered seabirds in Illinois, sought along the edge of Lake Michigan especially during the fall migration. On the breeding grounds they are predators.

Long-tailed jaegers are beautiful and graceful, hovering like kestrels in their hunt for tundra voles and bird eggs.

Two species nested there, the other being the parasitic jaeger.

Parasitic jaegers are larger than long-taileds. Once I saw one chase down and swallow whole an adult red-necked phalarope.

Such experiences sit in my mind, reminding me to think of these animals in terms of their entire lives rather than the more limited glimpses we see in Illinois.

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