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I was recently able to visit Southeast Alaska.  It was a good time to get out of the hundred degree temperatures in southern New Mexico and I jumped at the chance. Alaska is one of about a dozen states that I had not visited and I was interested in seeing as much of the wildlife as I could, so I booked a cruise to Glacier Bay, with the furtherest end of the cruise at about 59 degrees North at Margerie Glacier. I also spent time at Lamplugh Glacier at the mouth of Johns Hopkins Inlet.  The ship could not visit Johns Hopkins Glacier because of the ice chunks blocking the inlet caused by rapid calving at the glacier (as one might expect just about all the glaciers are in retreat and some are gone - in 1750 all of Glacier Bay was full of ice, now you have to travel 65 miles up the bay to find an active glacier.)  To be fair the Little Ice Age caused the furtherest recorded ice pack and the glaciers have been advancing and retreating for quite some time, but now just about all are in retreat! I also went on a whale watching excursion from Juneau in light rain, visited the Pacific rainforest at the Tongass National Forest near Sitka and took a short tour of the natural wonders near Ketchikan, which included lots of Bald Eagles.

My first excursion was at Juneau with a whale-watching tour.  The weather was not promising as it started to rain almost immediately!  However we pushed on in a cabin cruiser with several other people aboard, plus the captain and naturalist.  At one point I joined a group on the front of the boat, but the rain got too much for me and I moved to the rear.  Our first sighting was of several Steller's Sea Lions on a buoy.  We then did close in on a Humpback Whale and after that three more.  Of the last ones at least two dove and lifted their tails out of the water. I had a better sighting of a humpback from the cruise ship on the way up to Juneau, but these were still exciting.  Photography in the rain was difficult to say the least.

Steller's Sea Lions near Juneau, AK

Steller's Sea Lions on Buoy near Juneau, Alaska.

Back on the cruise ship we entered Glacier Bay National Park early next day, taking on board several park rangers from their headquarters at the mouth of the bay. Several people saw Mountain Goats on the steep cliffs above the mouth, but I missed them. I also missed the dot-like puffins, which were dwarfed by the enormous landscape, where gulls and eagles often appeared as specks themselves.  I did just get a glimpse of a Brown Bear, a nice look at a Sea Otter, and easily identified three gull species that I had never seen - the Glaucous-winged Gull, the Mew Gull and the Black-legged Kittiwake. The latter seemed involved in a feeding frenzy at one spot near the ship. The landscape was huge and at 59 degrees North Latitude at Margerie Glacier, we saw a fair amount of calving activity, as ice fell off the glacier with resultant crashes.  The current retreat of the glaciers was so intense at Johns Hopkins Glacier that our ship could not enter the inlet and so we visited nearby Lamplugh Glacier instead.  

Lone Glaucous-winged Gull - Glacier Bay

Lone Glaucous-winged Gull, Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Black-legged Kittiwakes in Glacier Bay

Black-legged Kittiwakes swarming over the surface of Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay, AK

Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay, Alaska.

After Glacier Bay we traveled to Sitka and I took an excursion to the Tongass National Forest to bird watch. Fortunately, although overcast, the day was not rainy! There were many birds, at least a few of whom I had never seen.  The Dark-eyed Juncos, Common Ravens, Northwestern Crows, Barn Swallows, Wilson's Warblers and Rufous Hummingbirds were the familiar birds, amid Hermit Thrushes, Swainson's Thrushes, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Red-breasted Sapsuckers, Varied Thrushes, Townsend's Warblers, Tree Swallows, and Winter Wrens.  Unfortunately the forest was so thick that several were only heard and not seen.  We did find some interesting plants and one European Black Slug!  The costal area near the forest offered interesting seaweed, a small crab, and Goose Tongue, an edible Plantain.  Salmon Berries grew in abundance. As we left Sitka the characteristic cone of Mount Edgecombe was visible to the northwest.

Sea Coast - Sitka, Alaska

Sea Coast at Sitka, Alaska.

At Ketchikan I took a motor tour to Rainbow Falls, a half hidden cascade in the forest.  We also looked unsuccessfully for Brown Bears, but the Bald Eagles were here in numbers!  The guide told us that the area had over 160 inches of rain a year, but it was a bright sunshiny day!

American Eagle - Ketchikan

Bald Eagle at Ketchikan, Alaska.

This was indeed a whirlwind tour, but it gave me a fairly broad overview of the southeastern Alaskan environment and biota.  I will probably never go there again, but will certainly remember it with gratitude that I was able to see it.  I was constantly aware of the fact that our just being there might alter something and tried to tread cautiously.

 

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Fri Jul 20, 2012 at 05:54 AM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, J Town, and Backyard Science.

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