Monday, June 1, 2015

Mono Lake, CA

Amazing Storm over Mono Lake, California
Amazing Rain Storm over Mono Lake, CA

Mono Lake, Tufa Area

Last month is spend a weekend in the Sierra Nevada visiting Lake Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra, Mono Lake.  As I have traveled to Lake Tahoe quite frequently in May, I was not surprised by the late season snow fall that blanketed the higher elevations (>6700 ft) with fluffy new snow.

From there I drove to the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra to visit the Ghost Town Bodie and then Mono Lake.

Today, I want to share some amazing images made at Mono Lake late in the afternoon when a storm passed over and 'got stuck' over the northern part of the Mono Lake Basin.  Heavy rain made for curtains of rain visible from the shores of the Lake at the Tufa Area.
Needless to say that my plans for star trails over Mono Lake were foiled but what a great reward to be able to capture these amazing images!

Heavy rain on the other side of the Lake

Storm clouds over the Sierra

The rain clouds just never made it over the pass at the northern end of the Lake

A Glimpse of Sunset over the Eastern Sierra

Finally, a bit of light over the eastern end of the Lake before the clouds turned around heading for the southern shore.

Although I had come to capture the stars in the sky, I was not disappointed with my evening at Mono Lake.  What a fantastic storm!  When the rain-laden clouds moved over the southern end of the Lake, it was time to leave.  Most of my fellow photographers, and there were quite a few,  packed up trying to avoid being soaked.  The small community of Lee Vining close by offered a late meal and a well-deserved glass of beer!

Til next time,

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bull Elephant Behavior

(C) M.Raeder-Photography
The Fascinating World of Bull Elephants in the Wild

When we think of the wild elephants in Africa, we most often depict the matriarchal groups of female elephants lead by the oldest and wisest female.  We see the groups of females with grandmothers, aunties, cousins and young babies, both female and male, all working together to raise the next generation of elephants.  The female elephants will never leave this tight-knot group whereas the bull elephants will leave when they mature and enter teenage hood.  They will go in search of other male elephants, band together with other young bulls or find a heard of male elephants who might take them in and teach them the ropes of being a male elephant.

Below is a condensed interview with renowned elephant researcher Caitlin O'Connell where she specifically sheds light on the male elephants behavior and gives us insight into the fascinating world of bull elephants.

(C) M.Raeder-Photography


Why Elephants Are As Ritualistic and Violent As the Mafia

An Interview with Caitlin O’Connell
Caitlin Elizabeth O'Connell-Rodwell is an instructor at Stanford University Medical School, scientific consultant, author, co-founder and CEO of Utopia Scientific, and a world renowned expert on elephants. Her elephant research was the subject of the "Elephant King", an award-winning Smithsonian Channel documentary, and she participated in a new documentary "An Apology to Elephants", 2014 [Wikepedia].  Caitlin O'Connell has published several books on elephants and their behavior in the wild.

Every summer, Caitlin O’Connell, author of Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, packs her bags and travels to northern Namibia to study a group of male elephants.

What she witnesses as the males jockey for power and position around a water hole is both shocking and heart-warming: violent conflicts, tender scenes of affection

But, above all, the elephants show her the importance of family and ritual behavior.

An African elephant herd is on the move in Etosha National Park in Namibia – Photograph by Des and Jen Bartlett, National Geographic Creative
Talking from her home in San Diego, she explains what a smelly T-shirt contest can teach us about elephants, why it is no easier being a teenage elephant than a human one, what she did when she discovered a deadly, black mamba snake behind a canvas wall at the camp, and why it is crucial for humans and elephants to learn to live together.

Your book is based on fieldwork in a place called Mushara, a little known part of Namibia. Put us on the ground.

Our field site is in Etosha National Park, Namibia. It’s a remote area of the park where there are very few water points. It’s great for us because the elephants have to congregate at this particular site and we don’t have traffic from tourism. We have a seven-meter observation tower, with viewing platforms and tents, where we set up camp for the month of July. That’s when elephants concentrate in the area, and we can see the soap opera unfold.

You use the term “Don” to describe one of the male elephants you study. Tell us about Greg—and why he is the capo dei capi?

The way male elephants interact with each other is very similar to a ritual society, like the Mafioso. A subordinate elephant will take its trunk, lift it up and place it in Greg’s mouth. That’s why I call him The Don. There’s this reverence around him, but also a brutality. He has figured out how to wield the carrot and stick to keep his constituency. I’ve seen very aggressive bulls that are not able to hold the kind of posse he does. They’re too aggressive and individuals aren’t interested in following them. But he solicits the subordinate individuals to follow him. It’s a fascinating, secret society.

How old is Greg? Describe him for us.

We estimate he’s in his mid-forties. He’s not the largest bull there, but dominance has more to do with character than physicality, although you have to be very fit to challenge other bulls. He doesn’t have the biggest tusks. In physical appearance he wouldn’t stand out as the most impressive bull at our field site. But your eye is drawn to him because of how he holds himself and how others view him. It’s like there’s a spotlight on him.

The male hierarchy is all about who gets the best water, right?

When one social animal has dominance over a resource, you assume that there’s dominance over others. At the water hole, it’s like the ritual lining up and kissing of the Mafioso ring.

There is one spot at the water hole that is the source of a spring. Elephants are very particular about their drinking water and they fight over access to the best water. So that spot is reserved for the Don. When he comes in, it’s like the parting of the waters. The other males step away so that he can have that spot without contest. Others jockeying for position will ask his permission to drink by putting their trunk in his. Individuals that are low ranking don’t even bother going to the best water. They go straight to the more salty water at the end of the pen. [Laughs]

Elephants gather around a waterhole at Etosha National Park – Photograph by Michael and Patricia Fogden, Minden Pictures

It sounds like the struggle for hierarchy can be pretty violent among males.

Oh, yes! They know how to use those tusks. Even if they don’t have big tusks, they really clash. It doesn’t happen very often, and the clashes are mostly in relation to two musth males competing for a female. You can hear their heads clashing and the tusks clacking, and see how violently those tusks can jab. If you’re off center, you’re leaving your flank vulnerable to being stabbed by a huge tusk. So, they will square off like sumo wrestlers, and never turn their backs. If they do, they immediately run. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

You have used the term musth several times. What is it and how does it affect male elephant behavior?

Musth is an Indian word. One definition is “drunk.” An elephant goes into a state of elevated testosterone, similar to rutting in deer or antelope. But elephants are unique in that they go into this state serially, not altogether, so there’s a turn-taking element when some elephants are in musth and others aren’t.

They have very specific behaviors that signal they are in musth. They dribble urine and have swollen temple glands which secrete a sticky fluid. They take their trunks and swing them across their face, smearing themselves with this smelly substance. They prance and wave their ears and curl their trunks. It’s quite a spectacle [Laughs].

Like the teen male, elephants have a coming of age period, with testosterone spikes and oscillations.

It’s as though they are on stage and it’s their turn to mate with females. Other males will back down, except for those overlapping in their musth period. Then they will challenge each other. Something that’s very unconventional here is that Greg, the dominant bull of what I call ‘The Boys’ Club’ at Mashara, appears to be able to suppress others within his group from going into musth. We’ve never seen that before. So we’re hoping to shed some new light on musth.

Being a teenager is no easier for elephants than it is for humans, is it?

A bull elephant at a water hole in Etosha National Park. Males jockey for position and fight for access to the best water – Photograph by Alex Saberi, National Geographic Creative

No [Laughs]. Like the teen male, elephants have a coming of age period, with testosterone spikes and oscillations. Older males try and put these youngsters in their place, so they’re constantly getting harassed. It’s a very emotional time. It’s like they’re getting their driver’s license. They want to be free from their family but they still want to come home at night [Laughs]. So there are two things pulling at these young bulls.

Once they do make that break with family, they are all alone, and have to find a new family that will accept then. Some of them band together and solicit support from older individuals. Not all older individuals are interested in adopting them. But some are, and Greg is one of the great ones. He will, literally, take them under his wing. He will take his head and put his ear over them and rub them.

You deploy a lot of human behavioral tests on your subjects. Tell us about the smelly T-shirt contest and how it relates to elephants.

[Laughs] It’s a very clever study that a group of Swedish scientists did to show that humans are just as subject to olfactory decisions as other species. They had different men exercise in T-shirts. Then they put those T-shirts in a box and had women at different stages of their ovulation cycle smell them to see which one they preferred. What they’re actually smelling is what’s called a major histocompatability complex. It’s a gene related to our immune system. It’s also connected to what would be called a pheromone: our individual perfume.

The theory is that women select smells that are not so foreign from herself, but yet not so familiar. The not so familiar part is to prevent any species from mating too close to their kin, like mating with your first cousin. A lot of different species have this to protect them from inbreeding, but also to protect them from mating too far outside their gene pool.

Despite the fact that these animals have a trunk and look different from us, they show us how important ritual and family are.

I was curious whether it applied to this group that Greg had formed with his male posse. So, we did the genetics on their fecal samples, and the results were surprising. It turned out that they were more related to each other than the individuals I tested from outside that group. This is something we’d also like to test on long-term memory with elephants in captivity, looking at recognition of a trainer or a mate that they haven’t been with for many years.

An elephant tosses dust on its hide as protection against the African sun on the flats of the Etosha Pan, a prehistoric lake bed in Etosha National Park – Photograph by Annie Griffiths, National Geographic Creative

You are also surrounded by lions in the field. Is it as wonderful as it sounds?

Oh, it is so wonderful! I feel so lucky to be able to have this experience, being out there in the wild every season, reminded of my place in nature and the universe. Listening to lions roar every night—from a position of safety, of course [laughs]—is a real privilege. The night sounds are otherworldly, so is the night sky in Namibia. It’s so brilliant at night. It feels like you can reach out from the tower and touch the Southern Cross.

Your field station also has some serious dangers. Tell us about black mambas.

The black mamba has a formidable reputation for a reason. It’s an incredibly aggressive, poisonous snake. A friend of a friend had his arm out the window as he was driving in a Land Rover, and this mamba reared up on the side of the road and bit him on the elbow!

We had one in camp once. Everyone was in the tower watching elephants, my husband, Tim, and I were down by the door of the camp and he heard some rustling behind the canvas wall. He said, “Caitlin, I think I just heard a snake.” So we stepped over and there indeed was a snake sitting in the shade behind the canvas door! It was a younger one, with that distinctive dark olive color, small head and black, beady eyes. It’s called the black mamba because the inside of the mouth is black.

We looked at each other and thought: Oh my god, what are we going to do? Luckily, there were some two meter-long pieces of PVC for the electrical fencing. So Tim said, “Let’s take that, run a string through it and make a noose.” So we made two of these long nooses and erected some tables as shields. As we moved closer, we placed the two nooses on top of the mamba’s neck, and pulled!

Most of us assume that poaching is the greatest threat to elephants. But human-elephant conflict is also important. Just as no one wants a highway built near their house, NIMBYism plays a role here, doesn’t it?

I think there are three things at play for elephants. One is the urgent poaching crisis. Because I worked with farmers on elephant-human conflict mitigation, I’m also keenly aware of two other problems. One is habitat loss. If we make cornfields instead of elephant habitat, we’re going to say goodbye to the elephant. Third is elephant-human conflict. If elephants are trampling a subsistence farmer’s crops, eating their whole year’s worth of food in one night, you can’t blame them for not wanting them in their backyard. So, we have to help people mitigate conflict so that it’s easier for people to share space with elephants.

What do you love about working with elephants? And what can they teach us?

I love watching ritual behaviors between elephants, seeing how sensitive and caring they are about each other, like when two females kneel down and pull a baby out of the mud. Despite the fact that these animals have a trunk and look different from us, they show us how important ritual and family are. Even shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eye is an important part of the ritual of interacting.

When you see elephants behaving terribly to each other, it’s also a reminder. Humans can treat each other terribly, too. But can’t we rise above that? We’re not so driven by our environment that we are competing for resources in the same way. It’s a reminder to look in the mirror —and try to be better.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Focusing on Wildlife.. 
This article was first published by National Geographic on 19 Apr 2015.


Til next time,

(C) M. Raeder-Photography

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Searching for Spring

Searching for Spring Wildflowers

The weather has been unusually warm and everywhere the flowers are sprouting.  The roses in front of my home were starting to bloom at least 3 weeks earlier than usual.  Although officially, Spring is only starting March 21, here California it definitely looks and smells like Spring.  The daffodils are long gone even in the higher elevations.  The Daffodil Hills Ranch in the Foothill of the Sierra closed their doors this week but 2 weeks ago it was in full bloom and a delight to see.  It was quite crowded the afternoon I visited and seeing the profusion of yellow and white was for sure delightful.


McLaughlin Ranch, an old working ranch



Closer to my Palo Alto home, Gamble Gardens and Filoli Gardens are a-wash in tulip blooms – a colorful palette of reds, pinks and white and all colors in between.

An inviting place to sit and contemplate.
A visitor on a forget-me-not

With the weather almost like feeling like summer, I continued searching for poppies and wild irises spending a day on the coast around Mount Tamalpais and Point Reyes and was rewarded to find the wild iris in full bloom.  The coastal hills were lush green with the occasional poppy [probably in full bloom in a week or so] but lots of yellow mustard along the road.



Pierce Ranch
Heart's Beach
 I ended up photographing the abandoned boat on Tomales Bay and stayed into the late evening/night capturing the north star above the boat.  There I met Lauren, a young photographer who wanted to try her hand with astro-landscape photography and star trails.  It is always nice to share the night and have the time go by faster than being alone.  Lauren, this image is for you!  I hope you got something good out of your efforts to capture the beautiful scenery!

... and a beautiful night it was!
For those of you who are still living with snow and cold, don't despair - Spring will come to your area soon.
Til next time,

[Technical Note:  all images except for the night image were taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M10, a mirroless micro 4/3 that I am evaluating with pleasing results.]
All images:  Copyright M. Raeder-Photography

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Galapagos Tortoises

Conservation Notes:
Good news!
Young Tortoises spotted on Galapagos Island


Tortoise hatchlings spotted on the tiny island of Pinzón last year are the first to have survived there in more than a century.  Thanks to conservation efforts, tortoises are making a comeback.

In 2014, researchers discovered Galapagos tortoise hatchlings on the Galapagos island of Pinzón.  The young tortoises are the first to have survived there in more than a century. It’s a sign that decades of conservation programs to protect the giant reptile are starting to pay off.

Gigantic tortoises were once common on the Galapagos Islands, but after many years of overhunting, habitat destruction, and disruption by non-native species, the population crashed.  Now, thanks to the hard work of the Galapagos National Park Service and its collaborators, the tortoises are making a comeback.

The Galapagos Islands are located in the equatorial Pacific Ocean off the coast of Ecuador.  The remote islands with their unique flora and fauna are famous for having helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  The Galapagos tortoises are among the islands most iconic species.

Scientists estimate that 250,000 tortoises once inhabited the Galapagos Islands prior to the 16th century. In the 19th century, the tortoises were hunted heavily by whalers that often visited the islands.  Moreover, some of their habitat was converted to agricultural land by early settlers. Humans also introduced non-native species to the islands like goats, which compete with the tortoises for food, and rats, which prey on the tortoise eggs and hatchlings.  All of these factors took a heavy toll on the tortoise population. By the 1970s, only about 3000 tortoises remained.

In attempt to boost the Galapagos tortoise population, several conservation programs were put in place.  For example, large areas of the Galapagos Islands are now protected parkland and park officials collect tortoise eggs and rear the hatchlings in captivity until the young tortoises are large enough to withstand a rat attack.  To date, approximately 6,200 tortoises have been successfully reared and released back onto the Galapagos Islands.

In 2012, rats on the island of Pinzón were eradicated through the use of poisoned bait.  During a follow up survey on the island in 2014, James Gibbs reported seeing several young tortoises.  He said:

During our treks around Pinzón, the team also found many young hatchlings, a truly exciting find as they are the first hatchlings to survive on Pinzón in more than a century.  Once black rats were introduced to Pinzón in the late 1800s, they preyed on 100 percent of tortoise hatchlings.  This new bunch of “little guys” is one of the important results of the rat eradication campaign, tangible proof that with dedication, hard work, support, and heart, conservation efforts can effect positive change.

James Gibbs is a professor with the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Today, the tortoise population size has increased to 20,000 individuals.  Clearly, the conservation programs are starting to pay off.

Bottom line: Galapagos tortoise populations are showing signs of recovery after several decades of conservation efforts to protect the giant reptiles.

This article was first published in EarthSky  []
Til next time,

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ringling Circus ends elephant program

Performing Animal Welfare Society Credits California Bullhook Bans as Turning Point
in Circus Decision to Eliminate Elephant Acts
Nation's First Elephant Sanctuary
Applauds Historic Announcement

San Andreas, Calif. (March 5, 2015)  - The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), which founded and operates the nation's first elephant sanctuary, is applauding the news that the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus will end the use of elephants in its traveling shows. PAWS is attributing the decision, in great part, to the Los Angeles City Council's unanimous decision in 2013 to ban the use of bullhooks - a menacing weapon resembling a fireplace poker that is used to control elephants through fear and pain - as circuses had stated they would no longer visit the city.
"The Los Angeles bullhook ban was really the tipping point for elephants in circuses," said PAWS president Ed Stewart, "and PAWS is proud to have played a key role in passing that game-changing ordinance."
 California's Oakland City Council followed Los Angeles in passing its own bullhook ban in December 2014. Other cities across the U.S. were gearing up to consider similar legislation when Ringling announced its decision.
 "We are thrilled at the news that the end is in sight for the use of elephants in the largest U.S. circus," said Stewart. "This is an historic announcement. It signals the beginning of the end of the use of elephants in entertainment."
 "PAWS was the first organization to investigate and expose the horrific lives of elephants and other animals used in entertainment," said Stewart, recalling how he and his partner, the late Pat Derby, began documenting the use of animals used in live entertainment, especially circuses, and started the worldwide effort to end their suffering.
 Derby, a former Hollywood animal trainer, first championed the cause of performing wild animals nearly 40 years ago following the publication of her tell-all book, The Lady and Her Tiger, which exposed the behind-the-scenes abuse of wild animals used in entertainment. Stewart stated, "She was THE voice for lions and tigers in cramped traveling cages and elephants chained by their legs in trucks and railroad cars."
Since its founding 31 years ago, PAWS has continued its investigations, public awareness campaigns and legislative advocacy on behalf of performing animals.
 PAWS cares for nine elephants at its 2300-acre natural habitat ARK 2000 sanctuary in San Andreas, California, along with tigers, lions, bears and a black leopard. Among those are former circus elephants who now spend their days roaming spacious habitats and sunning themselves on grassy hillsides, free from chains and bullhooks.
 Stewart concluded: "This decision should set an example for anyone who uses elephants for entertainment, including in circuses, rides, and in film, advertising, and television. It's all just wrong."

For more information about the Performing Animal Welfare Society, please visit
#  #  #
Founded in 1984, the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) operates three sanctuaries in Northern California, including the 2300-acre ARK 2000 natural habitat refuge, that are home to a large variety of species including Asian and African elephants, African lions, tigers, and other exotic animals rescued or retired from circuses, zoos and the exotic pet trade.
PAWS is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. It is accredited by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, and is rated a four-star charity by Charity Navigator and received an "A" rating from CharityWatch.

Friday, March 6, 2015

PAWS News: Wanda

All of you who have visited PAWS Ark 2000 with me over the years, will remember Wanda, one of the Asian elephants, who with her friend Gypsy enjoyed a large enclosure with grass to forage and a pond to swim in.  The 2 elephants were always seen together enjoying each others company.  They had met more than 20 years ago during their years in captive situations and remembered each other once reunited.  After 10 years at PAWS, Wanda died recently and will be remembered fondly by all who knew her.


PAWS Announces the Death of
Beloved Asian Elephant Wanda
Thirty-one years of protection, education, advocacy & sanctuary.
Press Release


San Andreas, Calif. (February 12, 2015) - The Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) today announced the death of much-loved Asian elephant Wanda at the ARK 2000 captive wildlife sanctuary in San Andreas, California. She was humanely euthanized on Wednesday, following a long history of arthritis and foot disease, the leading reasons for euthanizing elephants in captivity. At age 57, she was among the oldest Asian elephants in North America.


"Every elephant at PAWS is special, but Wanda stood out for her adventurous spirit. She will be very much missed," said PAWS president Ed Stewart. "I'm proud we were able to give her a more natural and enriched life at the PAWS sanctuary for nearly 10 years."

Wanda was born in the wild in Asia around 1958, and captured at a young age to be put on display in the United States. During her lifetime, she was moved from one location to another at least seven times, including to Disneyland (according to the Asian Elephant North American Regional Studbook), a circus, zoos in Texas, and then the Detroit Zoo in Michigan.

The Detroit Zoo, which is recognized as a leader in animal welfare as well as providing sanctuary for animals in need of rescue, brought about the two greatest changes in Wanda's life. Until her transfer to Detroit, keepers trained her with the bullhook - a menacing weapon resembling a fireplace poker that is used to control elephants through fear and pain - and kept her on chains. The zoo instead utilized a more progressive and humane management system based on positive reinforcement training that greatly improved Wanda's quality of life and freed her from chains and bullhooks.

In 2004 the Detroit Zoo decided to end its elephant program for the good of the elephants, after determining it could not provide the conditions necessary to meet their needs, such as a warmer climate and far more space. The zoo opted to relocate Wanda and fellow Asian elephant Winky to PAWS' ARK 2000 sanctuary in April 2005. (Winky passed away in 2008.)

"Everyone at PAWS felt a special obligation to the people of Detroit who loved Wanda so much," stated Stewart. "We provided her with a life that was closer to what nature intended for elephants, which was the Detroit Zoo's goal in sending Wanda to PAWS. We did our very best for Wanda every minute of every day she was at the sanctuary. She was very special to us too."

Upon arriving at ARK 2000, Wanda wasted no time in getting to know her new elephant companions and joyfully exploring her new home that was unlike any captive facility she had ever experienced before. At PAWS she loved to forage for natural vegetation in the sanctuary's sprawling habitat, nap in soft grass on the hillside or under a tree, and take therapeutic swims in the lake. The moderate California climate allowed her to enjoy these activities year-round.

After another Asian elephant, Gypsy, later arrived at the sanctuary, it was discovered that the two had been in a circus together more than 20 years earlier. The elephants instantly remembered one another and could always be found close together. Even in death their friendship endured. After Wanda passed away, Gypsy approached her friend and stayed at her side for a period of time, gently touching her body and "speaking" to her in soft rumbles, before slowly walking away.

Throughout the years, PAWS developed a close personal relationship with the Detroit Zoo staff. Executive Director and CEO Ron Kagan, keepers, curators and veterinarians regularly visited Wanda, with whom they had a deep, loving bond. PAWS staff often sent photos to Detroit of Wanda roaming the habitat, playing in the lake, or simply soaking up the sun.

Stewart concluded: "I want to thank the animal care staff from the Detroit Zoo and past and present staff of PAWS for changing Wanda's life so dramatically and giving her the opportunity to just be an elephant again."

As is customary for all elephants that pass away at PAWS, a necropsy is being performed on Wanda's remains by pathologists from U.C. Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and tissue samples sent to a laboratory.


I will be at PAWS in several weeks and I am sure I will miss seeing her hanging out with her friend Gypsy!  Thank you, PAWS, for giving her 10 good years in your loving care!
In quiet reflection,

Monday, January 26, 2015

Warming Arctic

Little Auks Adapt to Warming Arctic

Last month I gave you a little glimpse into my experience traveling to the Antarctic.
Today, I would like to take you to the opposite pole, to the Arctic, and share some recent findings by researchers who studied the Little Auk, a small black and white bird that is a so-called sentinel species, one that can be used as a proxy for the health of an entire ecosystem, much like the polar bear.  It is a fascinating story and video involving the migration of southern krill to the northern waters as the ocean waters warm and the glaciers melt.

So by studying this little bird, that looks kind of like a flying penguin, scientists are rethinking how polar ecosystems are changing in our warming world.

Little Auks [Copyright Hopkins]

In July of 2013, a team of scientists from France, Russia and the United States descended upon an uninhabited archipelago in the Russian Arctic called Franz-Josef Land, the northern most archipelago in the world. There they spent two months at Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, one of the archipelago’s 191 islands, tagging and studying a small black and white seabird called the little auk (Alle Alle), which nests on cliffs and dives for its dinner in the frigid water.

Their findings call into question some models of climate change impacts on polar ecosystems, argues David Grémillet, the lead scientist of the group, in research published in Global Change Biology in mid-January.

Given its remote high-Arctic location, Franz-Josef Land has long been considered a kind of Arctic Eden, sheltered from the impacts of climate change. Nearly 85 percent of its land mass is blanketed by glaciers and its islands are surrounded by extensive sea ice. But temperatures in the Arctic are rising, and are predicted to increase by as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Grémillet and his colleagues wanted to measure how the ecosystem of this icy Arcadia is responding.

Little Auks in Franz-Joseph Land [Copyright Cory Richards]

They chose the little auk as a subject because it is a so-called sentinel species, one that can be used as a proxy for the health of an entire ecosystem, much like the polar bear. The most abundant seabird in the Atlantic Arctic, with over 40 million individuals, the little auk is a major part of the food chain in polar ecosystems. Previous research has suggested that the little auk is quite flexible in the face of changes to its environment. But Grémillet and his colleagues suspected the bird might reach a breaking point due to its high energy costs and metabolic rate, as well as a diet primarily made up of copepods—tiny crustaceans that are themselves highly reactive to changes in sea ice and water temperature.


Using remote sensing data, the scientists measured changes in the volume and area of sea ice and glaciers between 1979 and 2013. They also tagged a number of little auks from one colony with tiny electronic devices affixed to legs or breast feathers to track their foraging behavior. These devices, called miniaturized temperature–depth recorders, provided information on the depth and duration of every dive, as well as the hours spent each day gathering food. The researchers then compared current and historical data on the diet, body weight and chick growth of little auks at Franz-Josef Land.
The data they collected revealed some bad news and some good news. The bad news: Sea ice in the Franz-Josef archipelago has, in fact, retreated markedly during the last decade, disappearing entirely during summer by 2005—a harbinger of future conditions elsewhere in the Arctic Ocean. Coastal glaciers have also retreated, dumping large volumes of meltwater into the sea. The good news: while disappearing sea ice curtailed the birds’ traditional feeding grounds, retreating glaciers created new ones. The little auks were able to adapt, feeding at the boundaries where glacier melt discharged into coastal waters at Tikhaya Bay, close to the their breeding areas. Local zooplankton were shocked by cold temperatures and dramatic contrasts in salt concentrations between the fresh meltwater and saline oceans, making them easy prey. The little auks were able to maintain chick growth weights, while adults lost just 4% of body mass.

Frozen Franz-Joseph Land, August 2011 [Copyright NASA Earth Observatory]
The little auks’ adaptability in Franz-Josef raises questions about previous research on the birds. In a 2010 paper, Nina Karnovsky of Pomona College predicted that 40% of all little auks would disappear from the Atlantic Arctic by the end of the 21st century, Grémillet and his colleagues note. They argue that this prediction must now be revisited. They also call for further study of little auks at other Arctic geographies, to see if they are as adaptable as the ones making a home at Franz-Josef Land.
The Franz-Josef little auk findings support the conclusions of other recent research on Adélie penguins in the Antarctic and seabirds and marine mammals in Alaska that suggest glacial melt can, in some cases, compensate for disappearing sea ice to support new feeding habits, benefitting certain animals within an ecosystem, according to the authors of the paper.
“There is currently a huge demand for predicting the fate of Arctic biodiversity exposed to ongoing climate change,” the authors write. “At the species level, this is achieved by building habitat models.” But if the models don’t take certain environmental interactions into account, inaccurate predictions will be made.
This article is republished by [with permission from GlacierHub. This post was written by Kristen French.]
Til next time,

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica, the Land of Ice - Penguins - Elephant seals - Albatross - and so much more

Magellanic Penguins

It was just about a year ago that I embarked on a long journey to Antarctica.  That was my second trip all the way to the tip of South America and then beyond.

It was a journey of many superlatives:  Seeing 500,000 King Penguins on a beach in South Georgia, experiencing the magnificence of the 9-foot wingspan of albatross when gliding over the water, hearing the King penguin chicks chirp to get food from the parents, maneuvering through a field of fur seals who can sometimes be aggressive, climbing up the uncharted hills to find the albatross nest and chicks, gliding soundlessly over the water when the zodiac's motor was shut off and just observing nature all around me.  There are many, many stories to tell but my memory all came back when I saw this National Geographic video by film maker Richard Sidey [all the way below], that I want to share together with some of my own images from this trip.

I visited the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.  I always said before the trip that the rough voyage through the Drake's Passage is the part of the price of entry - and although we only crossed through it on the return trip to Ushuaia, it was rough and I had never experienced breakers rolling all the way over the ship.  I stood on the captains bridge [behind glass] and felt at times I was under water.  Quite an experience.  I had taken enough antiemetic drugs to be able to be on my feet most of the time - I did not want to miss this!  During the 4+ weeks in the Southern Ocean, I was reminded how
beautiful unspoiled nature is.  Here the animals are not afraid of people, they are often actually curious.  Young elephant seals were approaching me when I sat still on the beach and King Penguins walked just by me, chatting all the way in their funny 'waddle' and 'talk'.  Words fall short of describing the incredible feeling of awe.  It was a journey of a lifetime!  And I feel thankful that I am healthy and fit to be able to journey into far away lands.  It gives me great pleasure to share just a glimpse of the incredible wildlife in the southern hemisphere.
Sit back and enjoy the images!

Cara Cara with chick, Falkland Island

Black-browed Albatross

Black-browed albatross - when these big birds take off, they run across the water until airborne

Juvenile Elephant Seas - a sleeping giant

Landing in Grytviken, South Georgia, in heavy snowfall.  
This is an old whaling station that is now a museum.

Magellanic Penguin

Antarctic Peninsula

Beautiful blue ice of a floating Iceberg

Squabbling Macaroni Penguins


Just above Antarctica, off the island of South Georgia, lies a breeding hot spot for elephant seals and king penguins known as Gold Harbour.  Filmmaker Richard Sidey captures incredible raw footage and the natural sound of this wild bounty for part of his series, Speechless.  With the absence of narrative, the viewer is left to create their own narrative and their own experience, without being told what to think.  "It gives everyone the possibility of seeing these places for what they are without the restrictions of cost and the environmental impact,” he says.

This video was first published by National Geographic on 12 Dec 2014.

Before I sign off for today, I want to thank all of my readers for their continued support, for your comments and notes - that make my day!  At times I wonder if my posts interest you, if anyone even reads them....  but finding a response from you in my inbox, makes all the efforts worthwhile.

Thank you!  You are a wonderful crowd.

As the year nears its end, I wish you a happy Holiday Season and health, fun, happy travel and all the best for the New Year 2015!  I hope to see you all sometime during the next year, maybe for a coffee, maybe for photographing together or just for a chat.

...til then,