Otter skull

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I went on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count a couple of weeks ago, and while we didn’t have any stand-out birds to report, it was a banner day for bones and skulls. The day’s discoveries included a murre skull, an eagle skull, a partial sea lion skull, a moose jaw, and numerous bird and mammal bones.

Plus this sea otter skull. Sea otters are increasing dramatically in Southeast Alaska. Fifteen years ago it would have been a shock to find a sea otter skull; I’ve seen at least three on or near the local beaches just this year.

Sea otter skulls are similar to river otter skulls, but there are some key differences. The average sea otter skull is visibly bigger than the average river otter skull, with a bigger nasal opening (I wonder why?) But even without these differences, the teeth distinguish them easily. Eaters of hard-shelled prey such as clams and crabs, sea otters have flattened, smooth-cusped molars where river otters have tendon-shearing carnassials.

This otter was probably several years old, judging from the skull size and the worn condition of its molars. I think the canine tooth was broken post-mortem; the break was sharp-edged and splintery, not worn at all.

Sea otters spend a huge amount of time grooming their fur, which is their primary insulation (they don’t have blubber). Looking at those precisely-shaped, comb-like incisors makes me wonder if their shapes have any special adaptive functions for fur maintenance…

The one that didn’t migrate

A few days ago, a friend called and said she had found a hummingbird in her garage. It had come inside sometime this fall and had either not been able to find its way out, or had just been too weak or cold to survive. It had freeze-dried, hanging by its feet from a wire, with its tail splayed out against the wall. The unusual position, in which it can “sit” balanced on its tail, with beak straight up, made for an intriguing view to sketch.

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More from Wrangell

Wrangell-park-sketch-hockerOne of the fun things about traveling in Southeast Alaska is noticing the often-subtle differences in vegetation from place to place. Wrangell is just far enough south so that cedars are a major component of the forest, lending it a a different texture. Here in Juneau, we have to hike quite a ways in to find the little pockets of cedar that exist here.

The fauna's a little different too. Northern flickers are fairly common around Wrangell, but not so commonly seen here. I love watching their wings and tails flash fiery orange as they fly.

Spring, 1 year later

Wrangell-hbird-hockerIt's amazing how quickly a year passes. I've traveled and taught and sketched a lot in the past year, but haven't returned to my lonely blog til now. 

Just got back from a teaching trip to Wrangell, Alaska, for the Stikine River Birding Festival. Bird highlights for me included sandhill cranes chortling overhead, flocks of white-fronted geese descending on the school football/soccer field, snow geese whirling over the Stikine Delta, and a fascinating talk about the wildlife of Wrangel Island, Russia by biologist Vassily Baranyuk. Also, this sad highlight, a female rufous hummingbird that hit a window. I tried to capture her iridescence by starting with white Prismacolor for the feather texture, then layering metallic green watercolor and several shades of Neocolor pastels and water.

Today, two hummingbirds–a male and a female–are tussling over the feeder outside my window, swirling around each other and surrounded by swirling snowflakes. It has been a long, cold spring.Nice to see these little spots of warmth.

Gustavus willow

Hocker-gustavus-willow-sketchI just got back from a great two weeks in Gustavus, where I was working with students and teachers at the school.The school is wonderful; there are just over 50 students, grades K-12.  And Gustavus is a fascinating place: a broad, flat landscape, formed by outwash from the Glacier Bay glaciers over many centuries. The combination of flat land, lush meadows and wetlands, wandering rivers, and pine/spruce/cottonwood forest are an unusual mix in Southeast Alaska.I saw swans and herons, listened to a wolf moan under the stars, and got thrilled (even a little over-thrilled) by moose.

I'll post a series of Gustavus sketches next, starting with an iconic plant: willow.

What the Jays Showed Us

Hocker-marten-sketch Was on a walk with my friend Jill this afternoon, when we noticed about six Steller's jays hollering at something in a cluster of spruce and alder. After craning around a bit, we spotted a small, round-eared animal, the first wild marten I've ever seen. On the way home, I tried to hold the spring-steel body, rounded ears, downy fur in mind until I could get to my sketchbook. This page of memory sketches is the result.

View from the Mountain

Hocker-mountain-sketch Went up Mount Roberts today–the view is gorgeous though a little surreal: because I went up on the tram I didn't have that feeling of pain-earned and endorphin-fueled accomplishment one usually gets from climbing 1000 feet up that steep trail.

I had sketchbook and a variety of supplies; I wanted to do a very fast watercolor sketch (10 min) of the view down Gastineau Channel. Decided to play with the metallic watercolors, which I hadn't done in a while. I like the earthiness of them.

When it came time to add the human elements in the lower left (bridge, harbor, town), I totally lost interest…Ah well.

Fringe benefits

Hocker-hummingbird-sketch An expedition in search of dippers had me scrambling through devils-club and alder tangle, up a steep, fast-moving creek above Juneau. The dippers kept zinging upstream past me with food, so I knew the nest was even higher. Just about the point where I decided it wasn't worth six million more devils-club stabs and the risk of spraining some valuable joint, I sat  down for one more vigil. I never did see the dippers, but while I waited, this rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) nest was revealed to me–a great example of the fringe benefits of keeping still and paying attention.

The sketch is from a photo, as I had my camera but not my sketchbook…

Oystercatcher Morning

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Hocker-oystercatcher2 Spent a pleasant couple of hours yesterday morning on a small island in Auke Bay, observing a pair of black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachmani) at their nest site. I especially enjoyed watching the different behaviors of the female and the male. The female was very vocal, stood and walked tall when in motion, moved around a great deal. The male crept among the rocks, keeping his head low, and sat still for many minutes at a time. The female was the one to settle on the nest, though.

The scrape nest held three eggs, just at the edge of the ryegrass zone, green with black speckles and very hard to see. It was an eloquent case for being very careful when exploring the shore this time of year–and perhaps just avoiding this type of habitat altogether and staying below the tideline…

 

UPDATE: I have just learned that the tagged bird is actually a male, so the above-described behaviors should be role-reversed… This male was banded and satellite-tagged about four years ago. He has been returning to the same nesting area ever since.