Monthly Archives: June 2015

My Second Novel: Murder Over Kodiak

My second novel, Murder Over Kodiak, is based on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where I live. Most of the story takes place in the town of Kodiak, where Jane works as a biologist at a marine science center. Later in the novel, Jane travels to the west side of Kodiak Island to Uyak Bay to collect clams to test for the presence of a natural toxin. Her campsite on this field trip is approximately fifteen miles from my actual home in the Kodiak wilderness, so describing the ambient temperature and other weather conditions Jane might encounter on a July day, as well as what she would likely see and smell, is easy for me, because I’ve spent many July days in this pristine wilderness. At one point, Jane has an encounter with a bear, and since there more than 3500 Kodiak bears on the Kodiak Island Archipelago, seeing a bear in the woods or on the beach is a common experience.

When thinking up an idea for a new mystery, I like to think, what if . . . . In the case of this novel, I thought, what if a floatplane crashed not because of bad weather, pilot error, or a mechanical malfunction, but what if the cause was something much more sinister such as a bomb? How would the residents of Kodiak react when problems from the outside world invaded our normally peaceful island?

Kodiak Island is beautiful with lush vegetation, steep mountains that rise nearly straight up from sea level, fjord-like bays, and at times, some of the worst weather on the planet. We see a few storms each year where storm-force winds spawn waves towering over 30 ft. Throw 3500 bears into the mix, and you have an awe-inspiring setting that can evoke many “what if” questions in an author’s mind.

The rugged men and women who call Kodiak home include commercial fishermen, bush plane pilots, guides, fish and wildlife researchers, and Coast Guard pilots and rescue swimmers, all who do their jobs by being willing to brave the challenging environment in which they live and work. I don’t have to use much imagination to create colorful, inspiring characters for my books. In fact, I know some actual people who are so colorful that no one would find them believable as characters in a novel.

I am lucky to have this rich, unique environment to inspire me when I write. I think and hope my novels will appeal to readers who love mysteries, but also to people who enjoy reading about Alaska and the wilderness.

Arctic Terns


Artic terns are our most punctual spring visitors. Their arrival at the rookery near my house occurs somewhere between May 11th and May 13th each year. They can’t afford to be casual, because they are on a tight schedule. These beautiful, little birds that are distant cousins of gulls have one of the longest migrations of any animal. How far they travel is still not certain, but they fly at least from Alaska to Antarctica and back in a year, a distance of 25,000 miles (40,234 km). Only the sooty shearwater has a migration as long, or perhaps even longer, than an arctic tern’s, since they travel between New Zealand and the North Pacific.

Another interesting fact about Arctic terns is that since they spend summers in Alaska during our long days and then fly to Antarctica for the summer there with the corresponding long days, this species spends more hours in daylight than any other animal.

Arctic terns are slim and graceful. They have the largest breeding range of any water bird in Alaska, nesting from Point Barrow in the north to the Southeastern Panhandle. An adult Arctic tern is gray to white in color. Its pointed beak and its legs are red, and it has a black patch over the head and forehead. It has webbed feet, long, gray wings, and a forked tail. Because of their long wings and forked tails, terns are very agile and can make sudden turns and even hover in place. They look much like swallows and are sometimes called “sea swallows.”

Soon after their arrival in Alaska in May, they choose mates and begin nesting. During mating, the male performs a “fish flight,” in which he carries a small fish in his bill and flies low over a female on the ground. If she notices him, she will join him in a high climb and flight. An Arctic tern’s nest is a simple, scraped, shallow depression in the ground with very little or no lining material. The female lays two eggs that are brown or green in color and are lightly speckled. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch in approximately 23 days. As soon as they hatch, the chicks quickly leave the exposed nest and hide in nearby vegetation. The parents bring the chicks small fish to eat for the next 25 days, until the chicks fledge.

Less than three months after their arrival, by about mid-August here, terns leave their breeding areas and start their southward migration. It is interesting to watch the interaction between adults and their chicks when the young terns are just learning to fly. Because their webbed feet are small, terns don’t swim well. They hover over water until they spot a small fish and then dive into the water to catch it, but they don’t sit on the water, so young terns must learn to land on solid surfaces, which is tricky. Once a young tern lands, sometimes it is hesitant to take off again, and the adults will dive-bomb it until they force it to leave its safe perch. This behavior may seem harsh to an observer, but the adults must prepare the young Arctic tern for a 12,000-mile flight in the very near future.


Tufted Puffin in Uyak Bay, Kodiak Island

Puffins arrive in Uyak Bay in May, and it is a welcome sign of spring to sight the first one. These colorful, almost comical birds are members of the family alcidae, which includes guillemots, auks, auklets, murres, and murrelets. We have both horned and tufted puffins here. The two species sport different head gear, but the most obvious difference between them is that horned puffins have a white breast and a black back, while tufted puffins have a black breast and back. Both species have large, colorful bills. Horned puffins have a small, fleshy dark “horn” above each eye, while tufted puffins have tufts of long feathers on either side of the head. Both males and females have the same markings. One of the most interesting things about puffins is that they shed the outer layers of their bills in the late summer, and their plumage fades to a dusky gray. In late May, we see colorful parrot-like birds, but by early September, their somber plumage and plain bill make them appear to be a totally different species.

In this part of Alaska, puffins arrive at their breeding colonies in May. It is believed that breeding pairs mate for life or at least for a prolonged period of time.  They strengthen their bonds during a courtship ceremony that take place in the water. The male lifts his bill straight up and opens and closes his mouth and jerks his head, while the female hunches over and pulls her head and neck close to her body. Next, the two birds face each other, waggle their heads and touch bills repeatedly while opening and closing their mouths.

Puffins prefer to nest underground. They have sharp claws on the toes of their feet, and they are able to scratch out a burrow three to four feet deep into a steep hillside. They use the same burrow every year, and they clean and may even lengthen the burrow each year. At rocky sites with very little or no soil, puffins nest on slopes or cliff faces. Females lay a single whitish-colored egg that is incubated for 42–47 days by both parents. The egg hatches in July, and the parents take turns feeding the chick for the next 45 days.

After the first five days, the chick can keep itself warm, allowing both parents to leave the nest to gather food. The adults catch small fish such as herring, capelin, and sand lance to feed themselves and their chick. They have a raspy tongue that holds each fish against a double row of backward-facing spines on the roof of the mouth, and they often carry as many as ten small fish at a time when they return to the nest. As soon as the chick fledges, the adults leave for the winter. They shed their beaks and head to the open ocean, where they spend the winter feeding. Young puffins will remain at sea until they are two years old, and then they return to the nesting colony for the summer. They are sexually mature at age three.

I can’t help but laugh when I watch a puffin fly, because with their chubby, round bodies, they are poorly built for flight, and they are actually much better at swimming than flying. When a puffin takes off to fly, it appears to run on the water, furiously flapping its wings until it gains a few feet of altitude. Then it flies for a short distance and splashes back into the water. Landing on a cliff is a tricky maneuver for a puffin, and crash landings are not uncommon.

Seeing a brightly-colored puffin in May is a sign to me that spring has arrived, and catching a glimpse of that same drab-colored bird in September is a reminder that winter is on its way.

Reproduction for Deer, Foxes, and Goats



Spring is an active time for Sitka black-tailed deer, red fox, and mountain goats on Kodiak, especially once the weather warms, the snow on the mountains begins to melt, and the vegetation starts to grow again.  All three species give birth in the spring, and while we rarely see nannies with their kids, we will soon start seeing does and fawns, and in a couple of months we’ll see young fox kits as they begin to play outside their dens.

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Sitka black-tailed deer bucks begin growing a new set of antlers in the spring, and I’ve seen several with little nubs beginning to grow.  During the spring and summer, the antlers receive a rich supply of blood and are covered by a fine membrane called “velvet”.  At this time, the antlers are very fragile and are vulnerable to cuts and bruises.  By August, antler growth slows, and they begin to harden, and a few weeks later, antler growth stops, blood flow to the antlers ceases, and the velvet dries up and falls off.


Mating season on Kodiak for Sitka black-tailed deer occurs from mid-October to late November.  The gestation period is six to seven months, so fawns are born from late May through June.  Does begin breeding when they are two and continue to produce fawns until they are ten to twelve years old.  Does between the ages of five and ten are in their prime and usually produce two fawns a year.


Newborn fawns weigh between 6.0 and 8.8 lbs. (2.7 to 4.0 kg), and for the first two weeks, a fawn produces no scent, allowing the doe to leave the fawn hidden and safe from predators, while she browses for food to rebuild her energy reserves after giving birth.


Red foxes breed in February and March on Kodiak.  Right after mating, the female makes one or more dens, and the extra dens are used if the original is disturbed.  The den is a hole in the ground that measures approximately 15 by 20 ft. (4.57m x6.1m) and may have several entrances.  Inside the den, the female constructs a grass-lined nest where the babies are born.  The litter is born after a gestation period of 51 to 54 days, and an average litter consists of four kits; although, litters as large as ten are not uncommon.  Kits weigh 4 ounces (113 grams) at birth.  They have fur but are blind, deaf, and toothless.  A kit cannot regulate its body temperature when it is born, and the mother must remain with it all times for the first two to three weeks.  During this time, the father or adult females bring food to the mother.  If the mother dies before the kits are old enough to care for themselves, the father will take over as the primary provider.  The kits’ eyes open eight to ten days after birth, and they leave the den for the first time about a month later.  Kits begin hunting on their own when they are three months old.


Breeding season for mountain goats occurs between late October and early December on Kodiak.  Mountain goats seem to avoid mating with relatives, and billies may travel long distances to find suitable mates.  Males breed with several females, but nannies breed with only one male.  Nannies do not give birth until they are at least four years old, and billies between the ages of five and ten do most of the breeding.  Nannies give birth in late May after a gestation period of 180 days, and they normally have only one kid, but sometimes produce twins.  Twinning is more common when goat populations spread into a new habitat with an abundant food supply, and as the goat population on Kodiak has increased and expanded its range, biologists have noticed more twinning than is normal.  Nannies seek out an isolated area to give birth but then form nursery groups with other nannies and kids.  The kid remains with its mother at least until the next breeding season and may stay with her for several years.

It is always a thrill to see the young of any species of wildlife.  Babies are shy but curious as they learn about their surroundings, and often they are unaware of potential dangers.  It is important to remember not to approach any wildlife, but especially mothers and their young, too closely.  If the mother runs one way and the baby the other, they may never reunite, and the baby is not yet equipped with the knowledge and skills to survive on his own.

Check out these pages for more information on Sitka black-tailed deer, Red foxes, and mountain goats.