Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cheers for Sitka

Sitka might have a huge influx of people on a daily basis from the cruise ships but they strive to keep the town feeling and being real. The small downtown area can get pretty congested with people but stepping off the main strip finds immediate relief from the tour boat crowd. Small coffee shops and a terrific bookstore and TONS of parks with really well maintained hiking trails make Sitka a joy to visit.

We throughly explored the Sitka National Historical Park which was established in 1910 to commemorate the Battle of Sitka of 1804. The park is also known as Totem Park because the main trail is decorated by many large and colorful totems. Another path will take you to the Sitka Raptor Center which gives you the opportunity to see Golden and Bald Eagles, Hawks and Owls up close and personal.

On the North end of the city (there are 12 miles of road in Sitka) is the Halibut Point State Recreation Area with three terrific hiking trails. The Mosquito Cove trail is a 1.25 mile loop through the forest with excellently maintained stairs and steps leading you to a mosquito shaped cove where we watched harbor seals and eagles frolic. On the inland side is a 0.5 mile boardwalk called the Estuary Life Trail which was perfect for watching birds and I'm sure salmon once they begin to travel upstream to spawn.

The South end of the city has an area called Whale Park. There are lots of viewing areas, both at the parking lot level and down several flights of stairs, for people to watch for whales,
sea lions and seals in the sound. The stairs also provide access to the rocky shore below where anemones and star fish can be seen in the tide pools formed by lower tides. Renting bikes or a car to get out of the main area is definitely worthwhile in Sitka.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Noteworthy Meals

I never know where to eat when I travel but I always seem to find places that are spectacular and those that are just blah. This time I found many more spectacular than blah.

Cafe Cups - The food is as quirky as the napkin rings which often have wing-nuts and beads woven into them. Cafe Cups makes use of a wide pallet of flavors and incorporates many sweet berries into their wonderful dishes of local seafood. I could eat there every night and never get tired of the ingenuity. I think there are more specials than there are regular entrees so you'll never get tired of the same old dishes.
The Homestead - Get out of town! If you are tired of the crowds on the spit and want a fabulous dinner without feeling crammed in like sardines, the Homestead is just the place. They specialize in fusion cuisine using all the bounty of the local fisheries. The service was fantastic and the food... wow! Just make sure to save room for dessert because this is the place to have it!
Captain Patties - On the spit

The Twisted Fish - There were many restaurants in Juneau that were very tasty - we enjoyed burgers at the Red Dog Saloon and ate at a few other places but by far the Twisted Fish was the best meal. I had seafood over angel hair pasta with a pesto sauce that was out of this world.

Ludvigs - I cannot thank the tour guide who recommended Ludvigs to us enough. It was by far the most amazing meal of the trip. The homemade breads for dipping in olive oil and seasoning almost spoiled my dinner - I had to set the bread aside though I kept snapping up more in between courses. The chowder was absolutely the best I have had in Alaska and perhaps even New England. I had Paella which was masterfully prepared and incredibly flavorful. I regret that there was no room for dessert as I am certain it would have been divine. A reason to come back to Sitka to be sure.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Juneau Sites

Two highly visited sites in Juneau were our destinations today: The Mount Roberts Tram and the Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier is almost 12 miles long and most visitor only see the foot from the observation deck in the visitors center or across a meadow near the highway coming out of town. Yesterday we flew over the entire glacier in a float plane including the huge Juneau Icefield that spawns the glacier. The view was amazing and seeing the sheer massive size of the glacier from beginning to end was an incredible experience. The glacier had been retreating 100-150 feet a year but in recent year the distance has increased... last year the glacier retreated 600 feet! I had visited the glacier 3 years ago and was amazed to see so much more lake and rock uncovered by the retreating ice.

The Mount Roberts Tramway offered spectacular views of Douglas Island, Gastineau Channel and the town of Juneau. I highly recommend watching the tour boat schedule and heading up accordingly to miss the masses of cruise-line visitors. Unfortunately this year produced an extremely deep snowfall and the hiking trails were all closed due to fear of avalanches. An avalanche took out the towns access to their hydro-electric power earlier this spring so everyone is in major conservation mode. I have a feeling that it would have been easy to disappear from the crowds if the trails were open. Most people never left the main visitors building, racing up the tram, snapping a few pictures and racing back down to see the rest of Juneau before they had to be back on their boat. I recommend taking your time, smelling the pine trees, feeling the wind on your face and watching the eagles and ravens soar gracefully below you. It's a truly beautiful and enchanting spot.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Admiralty Island

Just off the coast of Juneau is an enormous island called Admiralty. It is 1,646 square miles, making it the 7th largest island in the United States. But that isn't what makes it special... the Tlingit people named the island Xootsnoow├║ which means "Fortress of the Bears". Admiralty is home to an estimated 1,600 Alaskan Brown Bears, the highest density of brown bear in North America.

We arrived before the season truly begins, the salmon are not running yet so there isn't much to pull the bear out of the woods just yet. That said, we were greeted immediately upon landing in our float plane by a sow working the shoreline for mussels and clams. She would dig and dig and then chew the clams open with her massive teeth.

She had no intention of moving either and we waited a good long time before we could tie up the float plane and disembark. She was completely unperturbed by the entire proceeding, barely sparing us a glance form time to time. Permits are needed to visit the island which is covered mostly by a sanctuary. The only development on the island is a small settlement of about 570 Tlingit people whom are outnumbered nearly 3:1 by the bears.

We watched four different bear clamming and eating sedge during our visit. I'd love to come back once the salmon are swimming though a longer lens is a definite must.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Photos from the Boat

I finally had the chance to head out to Gull Island and I can't wait to go back! The wind died down overnight but the rain settled in for a dark overcast sky with light drizzle. I punched my iso up to 800 and then 1000 to try and compensate for the rocking of the boat. It seemed to work pretty well. and I was pleased with many of the shots. Of course, I could have spent much more than 2 hours cruising the bay. We followed an enormous raft of sea otters, my focus shifting from otter to wave and back to otter. For all of the wave shots and fuzzy otters I managed to get several in focus shots too! And! I got a puffin in the wild. Not too bad for my first ever... now I am hooked on these cute little guys, I want to go to Iceland and hang out in a rookery like I did with the penguins in the Falklands. Every new discovery opens the door to 20 more opportunities.

Friday, May 23, 2008

My Eagle Addiction

I can't seem to get enough Bald Eagles. I love raptors with the cool talons and the sharp eyes and that strong beak... but there is just something about eagles that makes my camera shutter fly. They don't even need to do anything to look cool - just stand there.

I took some wonderful head shots and close up's while I was here in Homer this winter but I didn't get many scenics. Today my boat trip to Gull Island was canceled due to huge waves so we went driving around the countryside and discovered a great recreation area near Anchor Point. The eagles were wary but with a little bit of patience and without too much trouble I was able to get close enough to get the wide angle shots I was craving. I love the mountains rising up in the background. To me these images scream Alaska much more than the close up portraits.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Wandering in Alaska

We reached Anchorage yesterday evening and after getting a good night sleep, headed out for Homer. Along the way we stopped in Seward to visit the Alaska Sea Life Center. They do quite a bit of rehabilitation work with Stellar Sea Lions, Harbor Seals and sea birds.

I was delighted by their aviary which included long-tail ducks, kittiwakes, harlequin ducks, king eiders, tufted puffins, murres, guillimonts and many more all within reach of a 200mm lens. I wish I had more time to just sit in there and watch the birds but I had to finish the drive to Homer. I saw many more harlequin ducks along the way and I hope to be able to get some photos in the wild. Until then, I'll just enjoy these images from the Sea Life Center.

Monday, May 19, 2008

My Favorite Hummingbird

Last but certainly not least is my favorite of the hummingbirds in Madera Canyon, the Black-chinned. As the name suggests, th male has a black chin until they turn and flash their gorget at you and display a beautiful purple. They are pretty chatty and always let me know when they were near. While they feed on over 90 species of flowers, the black-chinned also eats small insects and spiders particularly during nesting season.

Size: 9 cm (4 in)
Wingspan: 11 cm (4 in)
Weight: 2-5 g (0.07-0.18 ounces)

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Rarity

The White-eared Hummingbird is a rare visitor to the United States, and as it turned out, to our feeders. She much preferred the honeysuckle growing nearby to our feeders but I managed to capture one shot of her on my first day in Arizona. There were many birders visiting Madera Canyon in hopes of glimpsing this rare beauty.

Size: 9-10 cm
Weight: 3-4 g

The Largest Hummingbird

The Magnificent Hummingbird is the largest hummingbird that visits North America. It sounded like a helicopter was landing when he came into the feeder. Just as vibrant as the Broad-billed male, the Magnificent was much more shy. He would zoom into the feeder, take a quick drink and zoom back off without stopping to pose like the smaller bird did quite often. Adding shyness to size and infrequent visits made the Magnificent a very challenging species to photograph.

Size: 11-14 cm (4-6 in)
Wingspan: 18 cm (7 in)
Weight: 7-8 g (0.25-0.28 ounces)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Broad-billed Hummingbird

The second species is quite the little jewel. The male Broad-billed Hummingbird (Cynanthus latirostris) was extremely proud of himself and took every opportunity to flash his lovely blues and greens. The female was extremely territorial... so much so that I watched her chase away a Mexican Grey Jay.

Size: 10 cm (4 in)
Wingspan: 12 cm (5 in)
Weight: 3-4 g (0.11-0.14 ounces)

Southeastern Arizona is as far north as this species ranges and those individuals found there are migratory. The majority of the species lives year round in Mexico. The Broad-billed consumes 1.6 to 1.7 times it's body weight in nectar every day.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Beyond Amazing

I'm sorry to have been away for so long but I hope you'll agree it was worth the wait when you see the images I've brought home. I just spent an amazing week in Arizona with photographers Joe and Mary Ann McDonald. We encountered six different species of hummingbirds in Madera Canyon as well as over 45 species of other birds.

These are the female and male Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus). These medium sized hummingbirds were such talkers you knew they were coming into the feeder well in advance of their arrival because of all the chattering. The male had a lovely pink gorget (throat) which looked black unless he was facing you.

On cold nights these birds enter a state of torpor with body temperatures as low as 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

Size: 3-4 inches
Wingspan: 5 inches
Weight: 0.11-0.14 ounces