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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Urban Wildlife in Anchorage

Location: Anchorage, Alaska
Population: 279,243

Before leaving the Denali area yesterday we got to take a tour of the sled dog kennels at the place where were staying. The owner of the lodge is a dog musher who has been on some pretty extraordinary expeditions and now guides back country dog sled trips in the winter. (Another side note of interest: we were staying on Stampede Road, the site where Christopher McCandless headed into the wilderness and eventually died of starvation while living in an abandoned bus 20 miles from the nearest road. You're probably familiar with his story - it has been documented in the book and movie Into the Wild.)

I have always found dog sledding intriguing but have never learned that much about it, so it was awesome to be able to learn a bit from someone so passionate about it. He raises his own dogs and currently has 22. They aren't Siberian huskies or malamutes, but northern sled dogs - a breed he says you cannot really call purebred or mixed, but rather "neither". They are direct descendants of the dogs brought over by people on the Bering land bridge. There is a lot of variation within them, and overall they tend to be much healthier than the ultra purebred dog speices.

He had a little of puppies in the yard which were almost five months old. I was immediately attracted to the playful female pictured below, and he said he has keyed in on her as a potential future lead dog. As any dog owner knows, dogs have varying personalities and that was very clear in the half hour we spent in the yard. He explained that the qualities he looks for in a lead dog are the same as the qualities you'd look for in a human leader, and that those qualities are just a rare. Most dogs are content to be followers, but some are willing to be out in front, make decisions, and take responsibility for the team. If I ever make it to Alaska in the winter I will have to try dog sledding for sure - I don't think I'd like the darkness of the northern winter, but the lure of dog sledding and seeing the aurora borealis might just be enough to lure me back.

Yesterday and today we've spent in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska and home to nearly half the state's population. The setting for this city is a pleasant one as it is right at the end of Cook Inlet and surrounded by mountains. Even though it is a fairly metropolitan area, the wildlife of Alaska still make a home here. We went to Potter Marsh, part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge and just yards from a highway, to see some of the urban wildlife for ourselves.

Right away we saw this tree swallow that was amazingly accommodating and gave us the closest views you are ever likely to get of a wild bird:

While the marsh is an important stopover for many migrating species, some breed there as well. There were many mew gulls sitting on nests all over the wetlands, and several families of Canada geese as well:

Multiple fish species spawn in the marsh or transit through to higher streams, and off the boardwalks we did see some fish. I don't know a lot about fish, but after looking up some photos these don't look to me like the salmon, char, grayling, trout, stickleback, or scuplin listed as being native to the marsh. Unfortunately they look most like the northern pike, a species that was illegally introduced 10 years ago. Does anyone know for sure if that's what this is?

All the fish provide food for many of the birds, including the Arctic terns that dive-bomb the water from above. This tern caught (by the tip of the tail!) what looks to me like a stickleback:

Speaking of dive-bombing some tree swallows that must have had a nest in the area harassed this black-billed magpie until it took off looking for a quieter place to perch:

Some other birds seen and heard while strolling the boardwalks include the alder flycatcher and Lincoln's sparrow (two species that were life birds for me this trip), black-capped chickadees, orange-crowned warblers, northern shoveler, northern pintail, green-winged teal, and savannah sparrows.

Being Alaska, big animals make a home in this urban area as well. I read that an estimated 30 brown bears and 60 black bears make their home within the city limits, living in the greenbelts and taking advantage of the numerous lakes and streams. At Potter Marsh we saw a moose grazing in the wetlands:

There were dragonflies and damselflies making their home in the marsh as well, and this dragonfly settled down long enough for some photos that allowed me to tentatively identify it as a black meadowhawk (Sympetrum danae). This species is found in Europe and Asia as well, and in Britain it is known as the black darter. Are any of my British friends able to confirm this ID? You guys know more about dragonflies than I do!

After leaving Potter Marsh we headed a little further south of the city to Beluga Point which overlooks Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. As the name suggests this is a good spot to look for the Cook Inlet beluga whales, probably our shot of seeing them this trip. Unfortunately this population has declined dramatically and was recently listed as an endangered population, a fact that is very controversial locally even though the population has plummeted from several thousand to several hundred in a relatively short period of time. The reason for the decline is heavily debated as well, with reasons spanning over-hunting by local natives to pollution, disease, prey decline, over-predation by orcas, noise disturbance, etc., etc. With all the political attention surrounding these whales it was surprising to me how hard it was to find information about where and when to see them. We spent a couple of hours at Beluga Point on the incoming tide when they apparently follow the fish into the inlet, but no luck today. There were some Dall's sheep up on the cliffs above the overlook, another large mammal making a home within a fairly large city.

The incoming tide is a sight to see in itself, however, as this is the site of one of the world's 60 or so bore tides. A bore tide occurs when a huge tidal exchange is funneled into a relatively narrow inlet or bay, resulting in the leading edge of the incoming tide forming a standing wave. We didn't get to see the bore tide today, but with up to a 30 foot (!!) tidal exchange in six hours watching the tide come in is impressive. In a matter of minutes we watched the mudflats get covered in water as the rise rose several feet in front of our eyes. Pretty cool.

1 comment:

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Hi monika - Black darter is what your dragon is known as over here

A species of acidic water, seen a couple over the years around here which have dipersed from the hills to the east.
Pah we laugh in the face of 30 foot tides! Until they come over the sea wall on onto our desks that is!!!