Jeff Clarke Ecology

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A dark presence looms in the water below our hull, while two radiating shafts of white swirl and twist, attached but seemingly independent of the whole. A barnacle encrusted fluke lifts clear and appears to be dripping salty tears. Its trajectory surely destined to slice into the side of our, suddenly tiny, craft, but the whale understands its proportions and the tail sinks back into the drink, leaving eddying whirlpools at the surface to mark the point of departure.

The faces of the humans carried on this vessel are universally contorted into beaming smiles and glittering eyes. We are small. Momentarily insignificant when measured against the mass of the leviathan.

Bubbles begin to rise, erupting in an ever-widening arc. They burst through the meniscus, galvanising the watchers, who brace for the culminating thrill. The bubble-ring is almost complete when slivers of silver sparks shoot from the inner edge of the now completed circle. These are the last desperate efforts of the Pacific Herring attempting to flee their fate from the engulfing abyss below. The cauldron boils and busts as four cavernous, open-hinged jaws power skywards, for a moment the expanded throat pleats are clear in view and each maw has turned into a pool of doom for the little fish, some still strive to live and leap for their lives, but the trapdoor with its baleen fringe is already closing. It slams shut and the throat pleats convulse expelling the salty brew, leaving the precious cargo of energy to be licked clean, consumed, and converted into blubber. This scene will be replayed countless times in the coming months as the Humpbacks break their exhausting fast and participate in an orgy of feasting in these frigid waters.

The watchers depart, their retinas etched with the frenzy they have witnessed. Indelible memories are lodged for a lifetime and accessed for the retelling when they meet their loved ones again.

Humpback Whales bubblenet lunge-feeding, Icy Strait, Alaska © Jeff Carke 2022

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(left) Humpback Whale closing the trap (right) close-up of fluke, Icy Strait, AK © Jeff Carke 2022

The limpid water of the fjord creates the illusion of a world that has forgotten which way is up and which way is down. As the brain searches for visual clues to back up the messages being sent from the inner ear, an imperfection appears in the image. It’s a dark smudge, smeared across the distant surface. There is a mobility to it, the form is in a constant state of minor adjustment. High powered optics allow for a resolution to this oily conundrum. The singular mass now becomes a series of discrete dots. Roughly half of them possess strikingly obvious white patches on their napes and crowns, these same beings also have colourful bills. The riddle is solved, we are slowly approaching a slick of sea ducks, more precisely Surf Scoters. The flock is in agitation, the pixelated mass seems to flicker as scattered birds dive and others reappear in a random sequence. Ever the same, ever changing. A switch to the telescope brings more clarity. The antics of individual birds are defined. Some drakes are engaged in wooing, throwing shapes and “gurgling”, as the seemingly unimpressed objects of their desire, paddle on in disdain. There are couples on this liquid dancefloor so at least some of the males know how to impress. They chaperone their mates with assiduous attention, lest she have her eye gladdened by some other would-be suitor. Other individuals have headed for the buffet, shellfish are on the menu and a smorgasbord of benthic animals await the intrepid divers. This ‘way-station’ is a vital refuelling stop on the journey to summer breeding grounds.

As Orion serenely progresses through this labyrinth of waterways flock after flock of northbound birds hove into view, scoters, scaup, loons. Those on our flanks may sit tight and observe our passing with minimal interest. Those in our path eventually scatter at our approach, only to reform some way ahead and have the whole process repeated. Some of these flocks comprise several thousand birds and by journey’s end we have noted hundreds of thousands of migratory waterbirds, all of them attempting to time their arrival at their arctic breeding grounds to coincide with the big thaw. The Inside Passage and the Gulf of Alaska act like an artery through which the lifeblood of North American web-footed birdlife can flow. A wonderous spectacle, on a grand scale, in an epic landscape.

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Surf Scoter male left female right Alaska © Jeff Carke 2022

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(left) Viking Orion in Haines AK with slicks of Surf Scoter: (right) White-winged Scoter © Jeff Carke 2022

The Tlingit legend has it that Natsilane carved the first of its kind and the Orca was born. The greatest of the dolphins come in three distinct ecotypes in these waters. The ‘Residents’ are fish eaters, with a particular love of salmon. They are noisy, chattering away in dialects discernible even to the human ear. Though we know not what they say. They patrol the coastal waters in extended matrilineal clans and rely on the elders for knowledge and wisdom. The most important member of the pod is the grandmother. Her sons stick around growing 2m tall dorsal fins with a slight forward tilt.

Offshore they have smaller relatives, also fish eaters, but with a peculiar diet that is heavy on shark. The skin of their favoured prey is so rough that it wears their teeth flat, not so much a chowder as a rasp. They possess curving dorsals of modest proportions, with distinctive rounded tips. The males are only marginally greater in size than their female counterparts. They compensate for their smaller stature by hanging around in large gangs.

The third member of the tribe, Bigg’s Orca, is deserving of the alternative name, as it is a killer of whales, though more typically the local Stellar’s Sea Lions, Dall’s Porpoises and Pacific White-sided Dolphins are their usual targets. These are the biggest Orca in the North Pacific; males can top out at 9.8m with towering pointed dorsal fins. They can be vocal in social situations, but once the hunt is on, they run silent. Travelling in small groups across their domain, this predator is the apex. All others fear it and the unwary are run to a standstill by these wolves of the sea. These are discerning, sentient creatures. Should you fall into the water with them, you may expect your fate is sealed, but fear not, they will not harm you. Perhaps humans just don’t taste good. Or maybe it’s because Natsilane forbade the Blackfish from harming humans.

Orca lobtailing, Alaska © Jeff Carke 2022

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Offshore Orca ecotype off HaidaGwaii, Alaska © Jeff Carke 2022

Bigg's Orca near Hanson Island B.C. © Jeff Carke 2022

The eye of the fish eagle is keen, some might say “beady”. It spies a trace of movement rippling the surface, where the water from the creek enters the ocean. It drops from its perch, two beats of its mighty wings and a glide-path to rendezvous with its intended target. The undercarriage is lowered, its feet kiss the interface between the sea and the sky and the downdraught from the next powerful beat lifts it clear with its wriggling prize in a skewered embrace. Scan the shores of the Pacific Northwest and you can witness this spectacle pretty much the length of the Gulf of Alaska, many times a day, almost every day. The deftness and precision of these predators seems at odds with their proportions. Deeply fingered, eight-foot wingspans, like swinging barn doors. Beacon yellow bill, so hooked and sharp it could render the thickest hide. Its talons deliver a crushing vice-like grip to impale the toughest carapace.

This is no silent hunter, sitting aloft a Sitka Spruce, or Western Hemlock, where the Tongass temperate rainforest stands like a fortress at the edge of the ocean, the birds stuttered, surprisingly high-pitched calls echo across the landscape.

Like most hunters, they are smart, smart enough at times to let others do the heavy lifting. A bait ball, more than a mile from shore is discovered by Glaucous-winged Gulls. Even at this range the eagles on the shore can determine that the prize is worth the effort of energy expenditure to fly out to claim it. Soon an endless loop of eagles is crashing the party. As one lifts clear with talons full, another eagle replaces it on the merry-go-round. A conveyor of eagles cycle from spruce, to prey, back to shore to eat and then repeat, until the bait ball disperses, or dives for the deep.     

When Europeans arrived on these shores they gave the bird the name Bald Eagle, when so named the word ‘balled’ used to mean ‘white-headed’. Only the adult is in possession of full set of white head feathers. North Americans, whether they be first nation peoples, or more recent settlers, have embraced the symbology of this impressive avian predator. Pure power and grace.

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Bald Eagle adult, Valdez AK.  © Jeff Carke 2022

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(left) Bald Eagle immature Sitka AK. © Jeff Carke 2022 (right) Bald Eagles over bait ball © Jeff Carke 2022

Staring down from an elevated watchpoint, admirers gaze dewy-eyed at one of the most beloved creatures on planet earth. Schooled in a scientific approach to the environment I should be able to resist the temptation and not succumb to anthropomorphism. It turns out I’m just another sucker for a cute face. I look around and see I’m not alone in being beguiled by the urchin munching Sea Otter.   Hard to believe that anyone would want to harm this charismatic mustelid. There was a time, not so long ago, when having the densest fur in the animal kingdom, was a double-edged sword, it insulated the Sea Otter from the icy waters of the North Pacific coast, enabling it to survive exclusively in a marine environment, without need to come ashore, but it also made this unique animal a target for trappers. No matter how much humans believe themselves capable of exploiting a natural resource sustainably, all evidence is to the contrary, especially where profit is the motivation. As a consequence, the estimated 300,000 were reduced to a rump population of fewer than 2,000 by 1911, bringing it to the precipice of extinction, before an international ban on hunting them came into force. Thankfully conservation efforts have enabled a significant recovery in numbers and range, though this endearing ‘keystone’ animal remains on the endangered list.

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Sea Otter, Alaska © Jeff Carke 2022

Old Growth
There are still trees standing in Alaska that remember a time before the Europeans arrived, before the wood-cutters axe and latterly chainsaws, clear-felled vast tracts. Spend time in the realm of these veterans and you’ll soon learn to respect their value and importance, it is here you can find the full compliment of forest denizens, because it is here, and only here, that the full complexity of the ancient forest is realised, a place where a myriad of ecological niches has been created and ingeniously exploited by evolution. This is where abundance and biodiversity reflect the true carrying capacity of the ecosystem. Look about you and you may think most of the forest survives unchanged. You would be in error, most of what you see is secondary growth, it is a poor copy of the original and cannot prevail against detailed scrutiny.

The forest is humming an old tune as birdsong fills the few gaps in the canopy. It is Spring and the shackles of Winter have finally been thrown off, at least in the lower elevations. Higher up the mountain slopes, Winter’s grip is still apparent, though it is lessening by the day. An onrushing of migrants have arrived on cue. Shimmering jewels twinkle like feathered Christmas decorations as the cross they dappled light. Myrtle, Wilson’s, Orange-crowned and Townsend’s warblers blaze momentarily before retreating to the shadows.

It takes time for your eyes to adjust to the gloom, you need to sit awhile, let all your senses be tuned to detect the smallest of rustles, the beat of a wing in the shadows. Take your time, something will come. A dainty Hermit thrush perhaps, or maybe an inquisitive Stellar’s jay, curious to know what this human is about. Open yourself up to the elemental forces in the forest and now you see with sharp focus, your eyes and ears catch every movement and sound. A barely perceptible flick and whisper of leaves. Muted hues of orange, brown, black and grey begin to resolve. Here is the moment your search image finds its matching pair. Your winning hand is played, and your payoff is a Varied thrush. You hold your breath. You remember that you are holding your camera and very slowly you position your eye to the viewfinder. Index figure on the button. You squeeze. The shutter fires. The moment is digitally secured in your box of memories. Not a feather is out of place, you leave only footprints, that quickly fade in this timeless place.

Alaska has captured your heart. You miss it even before leave, just the knowing that your time here is ending, makes you yearn to return. A Raven ‘cronks’. Your time is up…for now.

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(left) Townsend's Warbler (right) Wilson's Warbler Alaska © Jeff Carke 2022

Varied Thush, Haines, Alaska © Jeff Carke 2022

Acknowledgments and Thanks
Grateful thanks to Viking Cruises and the crew of Viking Orion for inviting me to act as their wildlife speaker on this cruise. Thanks also to my agents at Peel Talent and in particular Sara Andrew for their work on my behalf. To the passengers aboard Orion from 13th May to 23rd May 2022, Seward to Vancouver, thank you for joining me so often and in such numbers on the front of the Explorers Deck as we searched for the amazing wealth of wildlife during our journey. Thanks also to Laura, who helped me locate the wildlife for the passengers and also brought me regular infusions of, much needed, coffee and hot chocolate.

More images from this cruise are displayed via my Twitter account @birderjeff

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