Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Alaska Hatchery - Wildlife and Work

The Salmon hatchery is an interesting operation. Basically, the hatchery fools the fish into thinking that they are going into a stream to spawn (which is the fish's life goal) but they are really going into a holding pen where they are shocked and sent up a conveyor belt for processing.
You can see the holding pen and conveyor belt here. Oh, and one of the black bears that pluck fish out of the pen too.
The "creek"
I feel bad for the fish but when you think about it, the fish basically end up with the same fate as if they actually spawned because they die afterward anyway. The conveyor belt drops the fish in the processing shed where workers cut the female fish open. The roe pours into a bucket and the dead fish are sent sliding down a shoot into a waiting boat for processing into dog food. The males are just sent down the shoot.
Egg Take
The eggs are sent to the incubation room where they are tended in a dark warehouse for a few months. The incubation warehouse has stacks and stacks of shelves with water running over them. Each shelf holds 60,000 eggs and there were hundreds of shelves in the warehouse. You can see the pink eggs in the photo.

Incubation Room
We worked really hard to get the new computers and wireless network set up for the staff. The hatchery site is comprised of multiple buildings that needed to be set up. Omar planned out the use of point to point wireless system to connect all of the buildings without digging a trench for the wire. Believe it or not, I ended up on the lift truck!

 Here is a photo of me and the maintenance man Nick up on the lift installing the wireless "Lightbeam" unit.
Me and Nick
This is the view from the top of the incubation warehouse. Yikes! (Yes, that's another bear on the grass)
View from above
We stayed in the bunkhouse in shared rooms with the staff and were served 3 meals per day all prepared by Chef Manny from the Phillipines.

Chef Manny making ciabatta rolls
Beef Bourguignon!
Beef Bourguignon
Meanwhile, lots of life and death action outside between the salmon and the predators. The salmon are thick and easy prey for the bear once they get into the holding pond. We saw 4 different bears during our stay. The staff know all of them individually.

Black Bear
The bears are really nothing to worry about. They are only going after the dead fish along the shore. On the other hand, the real predators are the Stellar's Sea Lions. These are massive creatures that can weigh up to 2500 pounds and be up to 11 feet long. I watched a group of them methodically work the salmon run for about an hour. I positioned myself on the dock and snapped about hundred photos as they surfaced along the outer edge of the salmon. Here are 2 of them with fish.

Stellar's Sea Lions with salmon
Here is a video of them patrolling the water. Look at all of the salmon in the foreground.

They would grab a fish and toss it into the air. I didn't realize how precise this action was until I caught a few with my camera. I realize that each Sea Lion would grab the fish by the head and bite it off as they tossed the fish in the air. This action would release the roe which you can see in the photos below. That's not blood, it's eggs.

Stellar's Sea Lion with salmon
The Sea Lion knows exactly where to bite the fish to get the eggs to pour out. Zoom in and look at all of the individual eggs being sprayed.

Stellar's Sea Lion ripping into a salmon
The gulls would swoop in and pick the eggs out of the water.

Gull clean up
I'm not going to lie, I was a little nervous on that dock by myself with those monsters in the water nearby. Good thing I don't look like a salmon.

Back to work after a short break. We worked until 11 PM every day to get the work done but glad to spend a few minutes learning about the operation and watching the predator/prey dance unfold.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Working in Alaska

A chance of a lifetime fell into my lap a few months ago when I answered a request from someone at Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corp - a nonprofit based in Alaska. PWSAC works with the Salmon fisheries to operate hatcheries in Prince William Sound. They have 7 locations that needed all new computer and network setups. I jumped at the opportunity and won the job for Tech Impact. After months of planning, Omar and I headed out to Anchorage on Tuesday Sept 4th. Our trip started with a hiccup when our pilot aborted takeoff from Dallas at the very last second. The brakes locked up and we sat in the airport for 8 hours. Never arrived in Anchorage until 4 AM on Wed and had to be at the first location by 7 AM. Yuck.

Aborted Flight - Dallas
Wed was a looooong day. We worked in Anchorage for a few hours then packed up equipment and headed to our first remote location called AFK. AFK is a fish hatchery site located on Evans Island. We took a commuter flight on Alaska Air Transit. Here is the pilot and Omar.

Alaska Air Transit Flight

We had a "bluebird" day to sight-see from the plane. Its funny because both times that I've been in this area people tell me that the weather is NEVER this nice. Hmmm. Maybe its me :-) This first photo shows the Seward Highway and Cook Inlet (and the plane's tire). We drove this road on our last trip to Alaska.

Seward Highway from above
One of the other passengers pointed out the Beluga Whales in the water. You can barely see one in the bottom left of this photo.

Beluga Whale
We started over the mountains and got to see glaciers from above.

Glacier View
This is the terminus of one of the glaciers.

Glacier Terminus and Ice Bergs
Our flight landed on Evans Island in a native Alaskan village of Chenega Bay. The airstrip was literally stone.

Chenega Bay Airstrip
Our journey wasn't complete at the airstrip. We loaded the equipment into a pickup truck and headed to the dock where we loaded all of the computer equipment into a skiff. Not even kidding.


Heading to the hatchery
The PWSAC guys let me drive the boat.
Driving the skiff
By now, it's 4 PM Wed and I'm working on 1 hour sleep. We still had to unload the boat and start the actual job. However, I couldn't dive into the computer work without checking out the action at the docks. The water was filled with Pink Salmon. There were so many fish that I could have walked across the inlet on their backs. This is one photo of the fish that congregated under the dock.

Pink Salmon under the dock
More to come about the wildlife activity and working conditions at this site. We worked until 10 PM and passed out in the bunk house where we stayed for 2 nights.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Summer at the Shore

Summer at the shore means "fall migration". Lots of birds are on the move heading south and stopping by our beach on the way. Here are a few recent shots. First is one of our local Bald Eagles. This family likes to sit on the mud flats at low tide.

Bald Eagle
He or she eventually flew off.

Bald Eagle
Another interesting raptor came swooping along the beach. This time, a Peregrine Falcon trying to grab a Sanderling for lunch. I wasn't quick enough with the camera to get a shot of the raptor actually dive bombing the peeps.

Peregrine Falcon
He or she was pissed after missing the meal. You can see that this bird has a black and green band on the leg. I'm trying to find out information about where it is from.

Speaking of pissed off, I watched this neighbor try to start the outboard engine on his boat 2 weeks in a row with no success.

I would have given up and sunk the boat but he took it all with a smile and hauled the boat back to shore.

These Ruddy Turnstones were not impressed by his efforts at all.

Ruddy Turnstones
Meanwhile out in the fields at Higbee beach we've been seeing quite a few of these Yellow-billed Cuckoos. They actually "cuk" and "coo" which is how they got their name.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
This female Cooper's Hawk tried for a meal too. She chased a flock of blackbirds several times before taking a break. She looks pissed too.

Cooper's Hawk

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Utah Wrap-up

I definitely saw a lot of life birds on the trip. A few notable birds that didn't make the other posts include some boring looking birds like this Gray Flycatcher.

Gray Flycatcher
And this Gray Vireo.

Gray Vireo
And this new species of Crossbill that is only found in the Idaho mountains. Cassia's Crossbills are non-migratory and have recently been "upgraded" from a race to a full species. They are specialized to feed on pine cones which they open with their crossed bills. We found these flitting around the trees in a state park after a pretty rough ride in the van.

Cassia's Crossbill
On our way to see the Crossbills, we stopped at a spot that has hummingbird feeders to watch some little gems of the west. We spotted a few of the more common species and then found the one that I was hoping for - Calliope Hummingbird. This is the smallest of our hummers in the US and one that I haven't been able to see until now. Look at the gorget on this guy!

Calliope Hummingbird
Here is a juvenile male that is just getting stubble on his chin like a teenager.

On our last day, we found a family of Sage-brush Sparrows.

Sagebrush Sparrow
We also saw some great animals on the trip. One that I was really happy to see and photograph was Long-tailed Weasel. We watched this fast critter dart around the sage brush. I was lucky to snap this shot which shows how long the weasel is.

Long-tailed Weasel on the move
He finally stopped for a few seconds and looked right at me!

Long-tailed Weasel
It wasn't just little critters. On Antelope Island, we found the large mammals. This Mule Deer was the king of his domain. They count the points on the antlers only on one side. Tim said that this was a 6 pointer. Hunting is only allowed by lottery that costs more than $100,000 so this guy might be safe.

Mule Deer
Antelope Island is known more for it's Bison than Antelope. Here are a few roaming the grasslands.

And here is what we refer to as Antelope but it is actually called a Pronghorn. We spotted a few that didn't run off.

That's a wrap for this trip. I would do it all again and recommend that you go too.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Did I Mention the Owls?

One of the main targets for the trip to Utah was Flammulated Owl. These little owls are related to Screech Owls and found out west. Our tour guide, Tim Avery is an expert on these owls and took us to the mountains to find a few on our last night.

But before we got to that, we saw other owls on the trip. We found a few Burrowing Owls out in the fields. This one sat up on a dead stick for us.

The biggest surprise were all of the Barn Owls that we saw. While looking for the Gray Partridge, Tim told us to get out of the van and walk along the road in case there were partridges in the weeds. He figured that they would react to us more than the van. He parked at the end of a farm field while we walked. There was a row of pine trees along the road. When we approached, an owl flew out into the field. Then another owl flew out. And another one, and another one, and another one, and . . . a total of 10 Barn Owls flew out as we walked past. I caught a photo of this one as she flew above our heads.

I spotted this one still roosting in the pine trees. He was nervous but held his ground while we walked past.

Some of the other birders watched the owls perch in another tree. I was glued to the birds in flight. They were just majestic to watch flying over the farm fields as they headed back to the pine trees.

Our guide acted like he didn't know that the owls roosted in those trees. Whether he knew or not, we all had an experience of a lifetime.

The Barn Owl that we all knew about has a nest box in a hay shed on Antelope Island. After spending time watching the phalaropes, we headed to the shed to see the owls. We expected to see the Barn Owl but we didn't expect to see this gal - a Great-horned Owl sitting on the beam.

Her mate was also in the shed. This dumb guy insisted on sitting on a rafter that was too close to the roof. Ridiculous.
Even more ridiculous was that these Great-horned Owls share the shed with a pair of Barn Owls. This is highly unusual since Great-horned Owls usually kill anything that they come close to including other owls. Our guide told us that these 2 species co-exist peacefully presumably because there is enough food for all. You can see the Barn Owl in the box in this photo with his neighbors just a few feet away.

We finally headed out for the Flammulated Owls that evening and found many. We heard about 10 owls, saw 5 and photographed 3 including this one.

I was really happy to see so many owls on the trip including the uncommon Flammulated Owl which was a life bird for me and a few others on the trip.