11 - 21 March 1996
by Mark Oberle
Notes from Mark Oberle's assignment to Galena, AK, Mar. 1996
The notes below are natural history related items from my assignment to the Galena Health Center March 11-21. I had most nights free so I typed up much more extensive notes on observations about life below the Arctic Circle which people can request if they want more details.
Sun. Mar 10.
I walked around downtown Fairbanks for an hour. It was pretty cold... the forecast had been for -19 degrees this morning. Rock Doves and Ravens flew all around downtown. Frontier Flying Service Flight 588 was a PA-31-310 with a pilot and 5 pax. We left about 12:45. I was glad I had my winter boots on since the gasket on the door by my feet had deteriorated and afforded a neat view of the trees directly below. The view was instantly spectacular. Mixed patches of black and white spruce forest and deciduous trees, frozen spongy muskeg (taiga), oxbows, a patch of brown water indicating what i thought was a hotspring in the otherwise frozen river system (in fact this was refrozen overflow ice, see below).....distant sharp peaks (St Elias range?) and in the far distance Denali and Mt Foraker towering over everything else. We paralleled the road to Anchorage for a while. Near Nenana there were large cleared patches of forest just N of the highway, one of which had windrows of trees that were being burned. As we approached the Kuskokwim Mts, the interplay of spruce and deciduous woodlands, windswept tree line vegetation and oxbows was tremendously varied and beautiful ..
I hadn't realized how much of the mountains just N of the Yukon were above tree line.....it must be only at 1000 feet. Once we passed over the Nenana river, there were no more road or power line cuts except what looked like a power line cut just south of Tanana. As the plane descended to Galena the mountains gave way to a low muskeg forest of black spruce and white spruce with aspen and birch close to the town. The military buildings at Galena looked huge after seeing no buildings at all on the flight except at Ruby----50 miles east. At the airport, all of my luggage showed up except my cross country skis. I had to wait for the larger plane to arrive and for all the beer to be unloaded. After checking in at the Air Force Base barracks, I walked west toward the garbage dump and listened to the comical ravens. Three redpolls called and fed on birch seeds. There is a grease pit where people throw food scraps that attract Pine Grosbeaks, but none were there today. It was so cold that my 10 year old glacier glasses snapped when I jerked them. But I was able to fix them back at the room.
Background on Galena: 270 miles west of Fairbanks: 64 degrees 44 min. W; 156 degrees 56 min W. 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Jan. Average high temp = -2 degrees F. There are often spells of two weeks with temperatures remaining below -20.
Friday, Mar 15
Out at 5AM skiing EOD road to NE of the USAF dike (this road was good for Boreal Owls and someone had seen a Hawk Owl there at a lake a mile out in Dec). Played Boreal Owl tapes with no success, but too late in dawn.
I called the USF&WS office which is the headquarters for two NWRs in the area. Rosy (656-1231) checked the bird sighting reports. A Rough-legged Hawk in Galena on March 7 and Hoary Redpolls at Louden Loop (near the clinic ) were the only reports. A lot of the redpolls I had seen did look pale to me, with pale rumps, but Tim Osborne, a state biologist who runs the CBC n Galena, confirmed that most of these are probably just Common Redpolls.
I heard a kek-kek-kek call (Northern Goshawk) across the street from the clinic.
Sat. Mar 16
Woke and couldn't find my glasses ( I had left on snowmachine over night; It takes so long to dress and undress for cold weather that I was continually forgetting or dropping stuff). So went out heavily dressed (-22) with wirerim glasses, which quickly fogged so I had to take off and just put on for specific moments. Walked to base playfield and photographed the aurora (very faint arc due north with brightest at NNW). Heard a boreal owl. Walked to dike and played tape. Heard total 2-3, but none came close. In severe cold, heard frequent reverberating cracking of wood in trees and also buildings, in contrast to stillness yesterday AM in mild temp.
Mon. Mar 18
At 7AM it was -26 at the snowmobile. Left at 8:30 to find Tim Osborne's house at the last street light east of the new town. He was still busy at the office filing the weekend's wolf survey data. Tim came home and gulped down breakfast and said: you are going to freeze (he didn't see all my gear in the entryway downstairs). He felt my gear was too loosely strapped onto the snowmobile with bungy chords, so he took my extra fuel can and pack and put it on his Polaris' wooden sled along with 3 other 5 gallon fuel cans. We finally took off on the 70-mile Huslia snowmobile trail at 10:15. Most of the route lay in the Koyukuk National Wildlife Refuge. However, after 10 minutes, my snowmobile konked out. The spark plug wire had come loose. Finally, after 4 more repetitions of this, we really looked and Tim found that the wire connection was cracked. He had no replacement, so he left me with his sled and raced back to Galena. It was amazingly quiet for half an hour, except for one raven, a gray jay and then a distant light plane. When we finally got going again just before 11 neither of us wanted to stop too long, so our only major stop was to refuel my machine (5 gallon tank).
Thus I couldn't take notes of times or places. Here are some highlights. The trail was marked on small trees with reflectors, fragments of road signs (a partial school crossing sign 30 miles from the nearest dwelling seemed particularly incongruous), spent fuel cans, oil bottles, soda cans and beer bottles. The reflectors are particularly useful when people drive the trail during long mid-winter nights, but since the last snow had been 4 days previously, I could easily follow the tracks of previous snowmachines.
Close to Galena there was one creek with brown overflow ice from the thaw several weeks ago. I assume that overflow ice is brown from turbulent upwellings of muddy creek bottom water. Otherwise, we had snowpack the whole way. Out of Galena the trail initially followed a creek so straight that it looked like it was diked, with birch on either side. The trail then passed 3 beaver lodges in some long ponds and then several large lakes. The lakes had the only flat terrainwhere we could go fast: 55 mph max. Tim would wait for me every once in a while but on the lakes I could catch up to him. The "portages" between lakes, ponds, or creeks were filled with little stunted spruce growing on permafrost ridges. About 11:50 near Hourglass Lake we flushed one flock of 6 Willow Ptarmigan, and shortly after that a second flock with 2 birds staying on the ground up close.
Unfortunately, my camera had "frozen" up. Then a Hawk Owl sat on top of one isolated tall tree to the W of the trail only 25 feet from us. It stared at us , cocked its tail and hopped to an adjacent tree and then back. It was so close that I at first kept staring in the distance for what Tim was pointing at. He shouted to take my goggles off. It was the first time in 3 years he had seen one in the area. We scattered occasional small flocks of Redpolls and saw distant Gray Jays and Ravens, but otherwise saw no wildlife for several hours. My right foot got very cold (the left one was warmed by the engine) so when we stopped to pour gas, two-stroke oil (1:50) and isopropyl alcohol (Heet) in the tank, I jammed on an extra sock. We also refueled ourselves: (hot tea from Larry's great thermos and dark chocolate my wife had sent with me).
At one stop, I lost my grip on the starter handle and comically fell back into the luggage compartment. For the first half of the trip, I was able to balance my body off the machine as we bumped at 10-20mph into "washboarding" created by snowmobiles on the portage trails, I tried riding various horseback styles, or wedging one foot forward in front and the other in the back on the running boards, but eventually my knees and thighs were too tired, so I just sat on the seat and tried to stay as upright as possible. My upper back was starting to bother me, so I made sure that I was gripping the handlebars lightly just for steering and throttle. Some short pitches at the edge of frozen lakes or streams were 70-80 degrees and some came as a surprise and knocked the wind out of me.
One bend in a portage had a hidden stump that pitched me precariously to the right on a curve but I recovered my balance. At one point Tim's sled popped loose. I looked for the pin while waiting for him to realize he had lost it. We stopped for tracks: an otter beelining down a frozen stream bed left a slight lateral edge mark with his tail (I would have guessed beaver), lots of moose, mice and ptarmigan tracks. And then some fresh wolf tracks just before 2PM. A few minutes later we saw a pair of wolves at the far end of Hatseeqatloth Lake, and they immediately split up. We followed the lake around and then NNE and hit the Koyukuk River at a cabin (Barney's place) with an elevated log cache. The main trail to Huslia took off to the right up river, but we headed west, 14 miles downriver. The river had flatter snow with thin patches, but for the most part we cut the corners at the inner banks of the river's meanders, over the sandbars and often ran into snow ridges, so the jarring surprises didn't stop when we snowmobiled on the river. In several deep spots I veered off the trail and wallowed in large arcs, but eventually figured out that I was supposed to lean into the turn to weight the inside ski.
At 2:50 we reached George "Butch" Yaska Sr's trapping cabin on the N bank of the Yukon (near the SW corner of Peter Cleaver Lake, which is marked on the Kateel River, USGS topo map) in some very old big willows with lots of dead limbs. Tim had collected two Siberian Tits in the early 1980's at the cabin and given them to the U Alaska Museum. They and 2 other chickadee species had been feeding for weeks on a bear skin that had lots of fat (ravens and jays couldn't grip the skin easily). Tim uncovered a skinned wolf carcass that Butch had told him he left there (there was a pile of marten carcasses as well.....
Tim said that some Athapaskan trappers like to put the skinned carcasses back where they were trapped to keep good luck for future trapping). It was 6 degrees (then down to 0 by 7:30PM). Within minutes we saw a Downy Woodpecker and a pair of Black-capped Chickadees (the latter checked out a tape of Siberian Tit as well). We nailed up the moose fat that we had brought. The woodpecker found it, but not the chickadees. Finally got a three satellite read on the GPS: 65 degrees 33' 42"N, 156 degrees 48' 06"W. We swept the snow we had tracked into the wooden floor and Tim lit a fire. Tim popped the question that was on my mind too: since we had gotten such a late start and had the mechanical problems and rough trail, did we really need to drive back to Galena, 70-80 miles away in darkness tonight? The only concern I had then (and repeated later) was that we shouldn't spark a search party. But Tim assured me that his wife Laurel was used to him staying longer on field trips when conditions were good. We then got back on the snowmobiles and drove about 5 miles WNW searching for willow and spruce groves. Soon we heard a Great Horned Owl pair calling and imitated them. That brought in two Gray Jays which mobbed the owls and drove them off, but no chickadees appeared.
We played the Siberian Tit tape in multiple willow groves at the edge of spruce forest, and saw several Black-capped and Boreal chickadees---the Boreals clearly restricted to spruce. At one point at the edge of a large stand of small willows in an open flood plain, a solitary bird flew across an open area behind me. Tim thought it had a long, chickadee-like tail, but unlike other chickadees, it did not come in or call back to the Siberian Tit tape. We waded in deep snow to the willows where that bird disappeared, and Tim climbed a stump, but we could not relocate it.
We got back on the snowmachines: Tim would crash through willow thickets between the lakes and I followed. We occasionally stumbled across a moose (20 in all that day) and a few just ambled parallel to us, checking us out. The wildlife, plus the willows whipping across the windshield and the bucking ride felt reminiscent of a safari in East Africa, but on snowmobile. The area we were in was Yaska's trap line so there were some old snowmobile tracks. At one point I chose to take the old path rather than Tim's new one nearby and got stuck on some thicker willows. I struggled in deep snow to manually crack the willows and push the snowmachine. My glasses fogged, so I put them in my pocket. Tim politely castigated me for not following his immediate tracks since my one cylinder machine was clearly less high powered than his liquid cooled, two cylinder Polaris. Tim helped run the machine while I pulled one ski in the right direction.
By the time we got to the next chickadee site I realized my glasses had dropped out of my pocket. We could not recover them: the horn colored military issue glasses were the same color as new willow bark. Butch had given permission for Tim to use the cabin, but even without explicit permission the protocol is that as long as you leave plenty of split wood inside, it is OK to access a cabin for an emergency. I walked at sunset alone along Peter Cleaver Lake while Tim looked for "some good birch" wood. I played the Siberian Tit tape and a flock of 3 Black-capped Chickadees approached me---one circled within two feet (was it used to large mammals like moose kicking up insects?).
Tim made a single wolf call that would have fooled me if it had not originated from the direction of the cabin, followed by a Horned Owl call. A moose called to the north and then the Great Horned Owls started calling again. It was uncharacteristically still. Some stratus clouds in the sunset suggested a change in weather. Tim showed me willows that had been chomped by moose: 6mm is the maximum diameter for optimal nutritional diameter for willow browse. Along much of the Koyukuk we had noticed that rows of low willows had been chopped off evenly by moose at about 4-5 feet above the ground while a wall of adjacent tall willows were untouched.
The cabin was quite large, maybe 15 x 20 feet inside with a simple board roof. There were holes where the stovepipe stuck through it, so every minute or so, a drop of snowmelt would hiss on top of the stove.
The cross beams were low, so we had to bend over to walk around. We hung clothing and equipment from beams or nails to dry. There was a lot of equipment, a disconnected oven (for warm weather baking outside), a formica table (with a package of graham crackers untouched by mice), a stack of split wood in one front corner, a can lid bent back and holding several packages of soap right at the entrance. There was a marten skin drying inside out: I had no idea what I was looking at at first since the pelt was mostly inverted into a narrow leather pyramid with a little tail at the bottom. We lit two candles and had dinner while melting snow water. Between the two of us we had enough food for three days, in addition to Butch's survival food. We roasted a frozen turkey sandwich on the barrel stove and then ate caribou sausage, a roll of double butter raw chocolate cookie dough for extra calories (they don't crumble like baked cookies), moose sausage, some dates I had brought. At 10PM I slept in my clothes under a thin sleeping bag and on top of a bear skin on some box springs (the skin that a Siberian Tit had pecked on!). Tim slept on the "couch". He got up in the middle of the night and added a few logs to the fire.
Tues. Mar 19
At 1:30AM I woke in the cold with a vision of myself suddenly disappearing in a puff of dust: not a fearful vision, but a detached sense of how frail human existence can be at the edge of the wilderness. I worried that other people would worry about us (especially since Laurel may have known that we had one mechanical problem already). Dehydration may have contributed to my anxiety. Ice had built up in the lower part of the rear window pane, with the steep heat gradient in the cabin. I got up and put MarkS' military parka under me and then slept fitfully the rest of the night. The wind picked up at 2AM.
Dawn came slowly on the last day of winter. But with a sense of excitement, I looked out the two front windows for chickadees. It was -20 and only a few ravens were calling in the distance. After breakfast we put a few more logs in the stove and left at 8:30 snowmachining WNW about 20 miles round trip eventually hooking up with the Dagitli River. A thin cloud deck had moved in with a vague sundog, then a sundog with a long, bright lateral streak. My camera froze up quickly. We could see the spruce covered bluffs on the west bank of the Dagitli River but could not access it because of willows too thick for me to crash through on my Bravo. Eventually Tim found a chute leading down to the river, but it had deep drifts of soft snow. I did not coordinate leaning on alternately shifting sides of the machine and got stuck twice. At a third spot I just didn't keep the momentum up after executing a turn and trying to accelerate out of a dip. Once I pulled a back muscle trying to pull the machine out (on the return Tim got stuck twice in the same chute but I had learned my lesson and did not get stuck). We saw several gray jays, redpolls and the same chickadee pattern as before: boreals in spruce stands and black-capps in the willows. Later Tim said we could have accessed the Dagitli River mouth more easily by snowmobiling 6 miles down the Koyukuk (4 miles as the crow flies) and then up the Dagitli River. At 11:45AM we saw a flock of singing White-winged Crossbills.
We had not had enough time in the field, but decided it was time to head back to Galena. As I packed, Tim sawed off the head of the wolf carcass for a specimen. I had trouble starting my engine, so Tim was waiting for me down on the river opposite a wooden rack for drying moose meat. We drove up the frozen Koyukuk River about half a mile and stopped at what we had thought was a dead moose. It was an emaciated dead wolf with a blow to the back of the head and a lot of hair missing. Tim thought it might have been kicked by a moose and starved. He said that if other wolves had attacked it they would have done a lot more damage (if just 2 or 3 wolves are killed in a pack, the pack will often disperse and then wander into other packs' territories where they will be killed; this is part of the strategy of the state's proposed wolf control program in AK). On the Koyukuk, my thighs were so weak from the previous day, that I could only wedge my legs front to back to cushion the ride, rather than elevate my body when i saw a bump coming. The cloudcover was building, so it got cool without the sun.
Toward the east I could see some distant, rounded mountains above tree line (with dark spruce forests that harbored Siberian Tits). We stopped at Barney's cabin about 14 miles up river where the Galena trail branches to the south. Then a USF&WS plane flew low overhead (the same plane I had passed on the lake just west of the clinic on my commute to work). We headed south and I caught up to Tim talking to the plane's occupants where they had landed on a lake. Brownie (nobody seemed to know his real name), a stocky bearded fellow, and Orville, a short, wiry Native. Tim asked if the town's search and rescue squad had been turned out. Brownie said that this routine patrol was doing a preliminary check. Tim mentioned we were looking for Siberian Tits. Brownie said, " Haven't you heard: they all died out". Shortly thereafter i caught up to Tim who was checking his front skis for damage. He had gone so fast on a portage that he had missed a quick turn and mowed down an 8" diameter spruce and a smaller tree. The ride back was tiring, and difficult since the sun was obscured by high clouds that wiped out contrast on the snow. Bumps appeared out of nowhere to jolt us on the portages. An hour north of Galena the sun peeked out and a vast vista opened up from the taiga plain and lakes leading to Galena and the hills beyond the Yukon. Isolated Galena Mountain loomed to the east. Spectacular! Too bad my camera shutter was frozen.
SPECULATIONS ON SIBERIAN TIT:
Tim Osborne mentioned seeing Siberian Tits on three occasions in the early 1980's. He had seen two Siberian Tits on the December 22, 1983 Galena Christmas Bird Count (CBC). They were south of the Yukon River at the edge of a stand of larger spruce and birch with a willow fringe, much as the area we had checked out on the Dagitli River. That year of course was the year of the big El Ninno (ENSO), which may or may not be relvant, and the year-end snow depth was the lowest recorded in the 15 years of that CBC. For what it is worth, 1983 was also the year they had had the highest White-winged Crossbill count on that CBC. He had also seen one on the lower Dagitli River (but could not remember the date), and of course had the 2 specimens collected at Butch's cabin. Tim did suggest to Butch Yaska that I might contact him in some future year to put out a beaver pelt as a suet feeder.
Siberian Tits are hard to find because adults are relatively sendentary and they thinly populate remote areas. A lot is not known about the species in central AK, because most reports are based on a few site records and specimens (L Balch. The mystery bird. Birding 12(4) 1980). Murie (Auk 45:441-444. 1928) and Gabrielson (Birds of Alaska, Telegraph Press, Harrisburg, PA. 1959) summarize their habitat as the spruce near treeline, including "the higher timbered parts of the mountain ranges bordering the Yukon Valley." Could Galena Mt be a good site to check? Their nesting grounds in Alaska are near the tree line, but details are not well known, so it is not even clear where the best micro-habitat to search for them might be. There are several conflicting reports of prime habitat including isolated willows well removed from conifers. But according to the latest monograph on the subject, the prime habitat is scattered woodland with <20% closed canopy and in tall shrubs, basically the spruce-tundra ecotone [Hailman, J.P. and S Haftorn. 1995. Siberian Tit (Parus cinctus). In The Birds of North America, No. 196 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.]. A friend of Chris Haney's had seen one in dwarf cottonwood N of the Brooks Range, and it was the only chickadee species around.
There are several reasons that Tim and I might not have found Siberian Tits in the area we searched.
1) It is possible that Siberian Tits do not occur regularly in the area that Tim and I searched but are more irruptive. In fact in Europe, adults stay in a limited territory, and only the juveniles scatter widely in occasional years of high productivity or harsh winters. Isolated birds were seen in Fairbanks in the winter of 1967-68 (Audubon Field Notes 22:648, 1968) and at College in 1974-5 (American Birds 29:105 & 729. 1975), but not in intervening winters or since then.
2) We may also have spent insufficient time in good habo. Much of the time we were in isolated willow flats and not near spruce or tall willows, just because of the difficulty of finding a passage to the Dagitli River. Although the Siberian Tit tape I used attracted Gray Jays, Boreal and Black-capped Chickadees, it is possible that Siberian Tits may be less attracted toward a tape (I doubt it).
3) One other possibility is that mid-March may be late for non-resident birds in this part of Alaska, and any roaming tits may have already started to move toward their breeding grounds closer to tree line. The bird in College, AK, was last seen on March 21, 1975.
4) More likely Siberian Tits are just so thinly scattered that it would take several days in the field to find them or for them to find the suet we put out (The wolf carcass at Butch's cabin had been covered up when we got there). Even in the prime habitat at the junction of the Kelly and Noatak Rivers, some birders have taken three days to find them in late July or August (Birding Dec 1985 p268C/D; WS Davidson. Further notes on the mystery bird Birding 18(4):215-219. 1986). The interaction with Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees is another question. In Europe the species interacts with different tit species that may result in winter flocking or exclusion from good habo at certain times of year. One interesting note from the Kelly bar was the suggestion that Boreal Chickadee flocks occupied spruce while nearby Siberian Tits foraged in 15-20 foot tall willows, similar to the habitat at Butch's cabin (FL Carley. Finding Siberian Tits. Birding 20(3):164-165. 1988).
One question that always intrigued me was how birds survive severe cold weather and short day length in Alaskan winters. Siberian Tit roosting sites are unknown outside the nesting season (Hailman 1995). One recent study of Black-capped Chickadees suggested that their hippocampus has a growth spurt of new neurons as the birds memorize the location of fall food caches (Barnea A, Nottebohm F. Seasonal recruitment of hippocampal neurons in adult free-ranging black-capped chickadees. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 91:11217-11221. 1994). Presumably Siberian Tits may have a similar caching behavior (at least adults that don't wander) and may also lower their body temperature when they roost at night to conserve energy.
13 species of birds seen or heard near Galena, AK, Mar 11-21, 1996:
|Northern Goshawk||Accipiter gentilis|
|Willow Ptarmigan||Lagopus lagopus|
|Great Horned Owl||Bubo virginianus|
|Northern Hawk Owl||Surnia ulula|
|Boreal Owl||Aegolius funereus|
|Downy Woodpecker||Picoides pubescens|
|Three-toed Woodpecker||Picoides tridactyluss|
|Gray Jay||Perisoreus canadensis|
|Common Raven||Corvus coraxpillus|
|Black-capped Chickadee||Parus atricapillus|
|Boreal Chickadee||Parus hudsonicusa|
|Common Redpoll||Carduelis flammea|
|White-winged Crossbill (one flock)||Loxia leucoptera|
|Plus in Fairbanks: Rock Dove||Columba livia|
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