9/26/16 – Nutrient flow

9/26/16 – When you think about streams, rivers, and oceans you might think that sounds like Bald eagle habitat, which is correct. When ecologists think about these systems they might think about the nutrients that are carried from the forests down the streams and rivers to the oceans.

Juvenile Bald eagle on rock, Aleutian Isl.
Juvenile Bald eagle on rock, Aleutian Island. Photo courtesy of Hal Heatwole.

In some cases this flow of nutrients can be bad. Think about how much ’stuff’ flows into the Gulf of Mexico…everything you put on your lawn, down your drain, on the roads, if you live in the vast middle of the United States. You might be thinking about toxins, but you also need to understand what happens to nutrients. But nutrients are good, right? Well, like with many things too much of a good thing can be bad, and this holds true for nutrients.

Excessive amounts of nutrients can’t be used by the plants they encounter on the journey from your yard to the ocean. These nutrients are then carried into lakes, bays, gulfs, and other large spillways where they are available for algae to use, and this causes algae to overgrow. Ecologists call the process of nutrient overload leading to algal blooms ‘eutrophication’. So there is an overgrowth of algae, other than sounding kinda gross, what’s so wrong with that? The problem is that all that algae leads to low oxygen levels, called hypoxia.

Project to reduce risk of harmful algal blooms in ponds and lakes
Project to reduce risk of harmful algal blooms in ponds and lakes. Photo Credit: U.S. Geological Survey, Dr. Jennifer L. Graham.

But plants produce oxygen, so how can an overgrowth of algae lead to lowered oxygen levels? Well, all that algae is not just growing, some of it is dying too. When the algae dies it begins to decompose, and that process of decomposition uses up more oxygen than all that growing algae produces. Then there is not enough oxygen in the area, eventually everything dies, the fish, plants, and animals. Then we call the area a dead zone. The Gulf of Mexico contains America’s largest and most famous dead zone, but there are other well-known dead zones throughout the world.

But it is not just the plants and animals living in the water that are affected. You can be impacted too. Swimming in or drinking contaminated waters can cause problems for people, particularly if the kind of algae that overgrows can produce toxins. In the early 1990’s people found it hard to believe that algae could produce toxins that can affect humans, but since then scientists have worked hard to track these toxic algal blooms both locally and nationally.

9/26/16 – Reverse nutrient flow?

9/26/16 – When you think of nutrient flow, I hope you are thinking about the nutrients that flow downstream and collect in large bodies of water. But there is another kind of nutrient flow that might not be as obvious. This is the flow of nutrients from the oceans, upstream, out of the water and onto the land, and then into various plants and animals. How does this happen? The answer is salmon!

Salmon spend their lives in the oceans growing and storing nutrients in their bodies. Then, when salmon move up the streams to spawn the nutrients from the ocean are carried inside the salmon far up the rivers and streams, deep into the forests. Nitrogen is one important element that is brought into the terrestrial ecosystem by salmon. Many, many different things feed upon the salmon, from Orcas, to Brown and Black bears, Bald eagles, and even various species of insects and trees. So many different things not only eat salmon, but heavily depend on them for survival, that salmon are considered a ‘keystone’ species.

Bears catch salmon in Katmai National Forest. Image courtesy of Explore Live Bear Cam.
Bears catch salmon in Katmai National Forest 7/9/15. Image courtesy of Explore Live Bear Cam.

Bears are an important link in the flow of nutrients from the salmon into the terrestrial system, where it can be used by trees like Sitka Spruce, Douglas Fir, and Western Hemlock. Bears sometimes drag salmon out of the water and eat only part of the body, leaving some behind to directly enter the soils, or to be eaten by something else. Much of the nitrogen that comes from the salmon that bears eat, shall I say ‘flows or drops’ out of the bear and onto the ground to be incorporated into the soils and then into the plants. The other animals fertilize the plants in the same way, but bears move by far the greatest amount of nutrients. The result is healthy forests with large trees and a variety of plant types. These healthy forests, in turn, result in healthy streams, which are necessary to grow, you guessed it – salmon!

If you have been watching the Explore live bear cams from Katmai National Park you have been seeing this phenomenon in action. You can learn more about the bears you have been seeing on the live camera. Don’t forget to watch the live chat with Ranger Leslie on Monday September 26 at 11:00 Alaska time!

Bears fishing in Katmai National Forest 9/21/16. Image courtesy Explore Live Bear Cam.
Bears fishing in Katmai National Forest 9/21/16. Image courtesy Explore Live Bear Cam.

But all is not well with the salmon, and this spells trouble for the bears, and for many of us. Salmon numbers have dropped precipitously for decades. Humans have dramatically altered the landscape, overfished, and introduced foreign genes into the wild stocks of the Pacific Northwest. When a keystone species is in decline then all the things that depend on them are in trouble too. Because the salmon are a link between the oceans and the forests, management practices in both areas have implications on the other area. That is why is is important to manage salmon in ocean fisheries as well as stream pollution in the Pacific Northwest. If you want to learn more about protecting salmon and all the species that depend on them, check out the Wild Salmon Center.

9/21/16 – An eagle named Challenger

Images © 2016 American Eagle Foundation, www.eagles.org, who has taken on the responsibility to care and provide for Challenger, as well as many other Bald eagles and other raptors, thank you AEF!

Challenger approaches overhead 9/11/16
Challenger approaches overhead 9/11/16

9/21/16 – Challenger  is a 27 year old Bald eagle who was born wild but imprinted on his rescuers when he was a young chick. He was released twice, but did not know how to hunt, instead he sought out humans for food. Challenger was named in honor of the fallen space shuttle crew, and he was trained to be an ambassador for his species. He is used in educational programs, but has also been trained to perform  a truly amazing feat: he flies free during the Star Spangled Banner!

Challenger flies overhead 9/11/16
Challenger flies overhead 9/11/16

He has performed in a variety of settings, including sports stadiums, national events, and even on the David Letterman Show!

Challenger at the reflecting pools
Challenger at the reflecting pools

This year, on the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Challenger flew during the opening of the Baltimore Ravens vs. Buffalo Bills game.

Challenger lands at the opening of the football game on 9/11/16
Challenger lands at the opening of the football game on 9/11/16

And if you ever wondered how you fly with an eagle, Nat Geo Wild explains!

Learn more about the American Eagle Foundation and their mission to protect Bald eagles.

And don’t forget, AEF NEFL Eagle Cam is now live for the upcoming 2016-2017 season! Hooray, Romeo and Juliette are back and starting off the season!

9/21/16 – Orcas and Eagles

9/21/16 – Why am I writing about Orcas (Orcinus orca) on a Bald eagle site?

When you think of Orcas I hope you are not thinking of killing predators, viciously attacking a seal. If you are of the right age, you may remember David Attenborough narrating the dramatic video of Orcas hunting seals. But Orcas are highly intelligent, highly social, marine mammals. Try this video that is narrated with an explanation of the behavior you are seeing and maybe you will have a different impression of Orcas hunting seals.

Even though Orcas live in all of the world’s oceans, we still know relatively little about them. Some of what we do know about Orcas is downright amazing. While Orcas are found all over the world, they are not all alike. Different groups use different languages. They also hunt in highly specialized ways, depending on their target prey. In Antarctica, they hunt penguins, seals and sea lions, near New Zealand they hunt stingray, in the Arctic they hunt Narwhal, and elsewhere they use carousel feeding to hunt fish. Even more remarkable is they have been seen feeding this way with humpback and fin whales.

Juvenile Bald eagle on rock, Aleutian Isl.
Juvenile Bald eagle on rock, Aleutian Island, courtesy of Hal Heatwole

So, what about Orcas and Bald eagles? Some Orcas and Bald eagles share a very important resource…salmon! In the Pacific Northwest there are at least three distinct types of Orcas that live in the area. The largest are the transient, or Biggs Orcas, and they hunt other marine mammals, mostly seals and sea lions. Then there are the resident Orcas, the Northern residents and the Southern residents, they eat salmon.

Juvenile eagle on rock courtesy of Hal Heatwole
Juvenile Bald eagle on rock courtesy of Hal Heatwole

The resident Orcas are not there all the time, and scientists do not even know where they go in the winter, but they return to the area on a consistent schedule each year. The Southern residents use the area from Seattle north to roughly the southern half of Vancouver Island, while the Northern residents use the area north of that. They come to the area to feed on salmon returning to the area to seek out the rivers where they were born. The salmon that make it past the Orcas and find their way upstream will eventually spawn and feed many more things in the area; they nourish the entire ecosystem from the Orcas, to the Brown bears, even the trees, and of course, the Bald eagles!

Rainbow over Orcalab
Rainbow and Orca blow over Orcalab

If you would like a chance to see some of the animals that share the salmon with the eagles, try these live webcams from Explore: Orcalab, or Bears. Click these to learn more about the Southern resident and the Northern resident Orca and the research that is being done. If you missed the opportunity to chat live with Orcalab videographer Megan Hockin-Bennett I encourage you to watch the recording.

9/8/16 – Dispersal has begun?

9/8/16 – The last report I had of both Harmar juveniles being seen was last week (9/1/16). Since then there have been numerous reports of one juvenile being spotted with one or both adults. It is quite possible that one has left the area to begin his or her dispersal, and the other is still around. It is also possible both are still around but only one has been seen at a time. However, studies that use satellite tracking of sibling eaglets show that they do not travel together, even if both travel similar routes. This photo taken by Annette Divinney may be the last photo we see of both juveniles together. Thank you Annette for sharing the photo. To see more of Annette’s pictures visit the …From the Field page.

Hr 2 flies by Harmar female and Hr 3 8/28/16
Hr 2 flies by Harmar female and Hr 3 on 8/28/16

9/4/16 – Stochastic Events

9/4/16 – A stochastic event is a random, unpredictable event. As a wildlife biologist we learned about stochastic events as one of many possible causes for death, and we try to determine how much of an impact these events will have on population viability. A classic example given is a severe weather event, or a roost tree being struck by lightning. Stochastic events can also play a role in gene expression, or species dispersal. Usually a breeding population is not established and these individuals are considered waifs, stranded in a strange location.

Hurricane Hermine passes Skidaway Island nest cam 9/2/16
Hurricane Hermine passes Skidaway Island nest cam 9/2/16. Thank you to The Landings and HD on Tap for providing the nest cam on Skidaway Island, possibly the hardest hit nest cam from this storm.

Hurricane Hermine provided two examples of a stochastic event:
First, as the rains and cold air swept across North Carolina I noticed a Bumble bee (Bombus sp.) that had gotten caught out as the weather turned. She was wet and in cold-shock, barely able to move. Since she was firmly holding on to a flower of chives (Allium sp.), I simply cut the flower and carried her by the stem.

Bumble bee rescue 9/2/16
Bumble bee rescue 9/2/16

I lined an empty plastic salad box with some napkins to help wick away moisture from her body, and I offered a dab of honey. I placed the container near a lamp to slowly warm her. It did not take long before she was grooming herself and fanning her wings. She was revived, but we still had another 12 hours of rain in the forecast, so I wrapped a towel around the container to deter her from flying into the clear sides and I set her in a quiet place. Soon she had crawled under the layers of the napkin, where I thought she would sleep, but she came back out later to have a meal of the honey.

Bumble bee before release 9/3/16
Bumble bee before release 9/3/16
Bumble bee release 9/3/16
Bumble bee release 9/3/16

The following day we had warming temperatures and sunshine, so I released her. Hopefully she will go on with her important work of pollinating flowers. I wonder how many bees and other pollinators were killed by this stochastic event? If you are interested in helping researchers try to save the declining bumble bee species or you just want to learn some more, check out Bumble Bee Watch.

The second example comes from this story of a not so unusual event: thousands of birds got caught in Hurricane Hermine’s eye, and are being ‘transported’ along with the storm as it moves up the east coast. Some of these birds will be killed directly by the storm, some will be relatively unharmed. Birds that survive will need to find food and how much time they have to do that will vary. There are unique opportunities for bird watching after a hurricane blows through, but be sure to always be mindful of flooding and other weather hazards when trying to spot a rare bird blown in by a storm. While birds evolved to migrate with hurricane season, human altercation of coastal habitat can increase the effects of severe weather. Learn more about hurricanes and migrating birds at this Cornell Lab site and on this Audubon page.