Monthly Archives: December 2016

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays from Kodiak Island! For many people, this is a busy time of year filled with holiday events, family gatherings, shopping in crowded stores, and long-distance travel. It’s an exciting season, but it is also very hectic. For many, the holiday season is a happy time, but for others, it is stressful and even depressing. Most of us experience all these emotions to some degree throughout the holiday season.

I won’t say I escape the psychological highs and lows of the season, but I think my holiday experience is unique because I spend it in the middle of the Kodiak Wilderness. I haven’t been to town since early June, and I don’t plan to fly to town until late January when we leave for our vacation. For me, the holidays are quiet! I find myself missing Christmas music and sometimes even the hustle and bustle of stores before Christmas (this is only a fleeting feeling, though). I miss family gatherings, and I’m sad when I remember past Christmases spent with my family. We only get a mail plane once a week in the winter, so we wait each week eagerly for Christmas cards and presents to arrive. We have to ship out our Christmas cards and presents by mid-December, so the first two weeks of December are busy, but then everything slows to a crawl. I take a deep breath and relax.

I spent the last two weeks of December and plan to spend the first two weeks of January doing what I want to do. This year I am editing my next novel and finishing the rough draft of my wildlife book. I take the time to fuse glass jewelry in my kiln, weave baskets, and make metal jewelry. I walk on the beach and through the woods with my cats, always with a downcast glance, hoping to spot a recently-shed deer antler. I read, write, watch wildlife, and enjoy the beauty of a Kodiak winter. This may not be the customary way to celebrate the holidays, but I have learned to love it. In a season when we talk about peace on earth, I truly do have two months of peace and quiet in my world, and I remind myself every day how lucky I am.

I don’t forgo all the holiday indulgences. We decorate the house, I make candy, we open presents, and we have a special dinner on Christmas day. I have a wonderful friend in Anchorage who sings with the Anchorage Concert Chorus, and he has sent me several CDs of Christmas music performed by the Chorus, so I enjoy those while I remember Christmases past and relish the present holiday.

Wherever you are and whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year, I wish you peace, quiet, and love in your world.

I recently published a new Mystery Newsletter.  Check it out here.  You can subscribe for my newsletter either in the upper left-hand corner of the link or on my home page.  Anyone interested in our summer season at Munsey’s Bear Camp can read that blog post at the Munsey’s Bear Camp website.

Puffin Biology

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Last week, I posted about the two species of puffins we see in Alaska. These are the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).  This week I’ll describe puffin nesting behavior and other facts about these interesting birds.

 On Kodiak, puffins arrive at their breeding colonies in May. Breeding colonies are usually on cliffs along the shoreline or on small islands. The steep nesting areas not only help protect puffins from predators but provide a good take-off perch for these heavy birds with small wings. Horned and tufted puffins may nest in the same colony, and they sometimes also share nesting grounds with other alcids, and with glaucous gulls, glaucous-winged gulls, kittiwakes, and cormorants.

Puffins are monogamous and form pair bonds that last many years. Courtship takes place soon after they arrive at their breeding grounds. Mates sit on the water, and the male lifts his bill straight up while opening and closing his mouth and jerking his head. The female hunches over close to the water while keeping her head and neck close to her body. Then, the two birds face each other, waggle their heads and repeatedly touch bills while opening and closing their mouths.

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

Puffins nest underground. They have sharp claws on the toes of their webbed feet that they use to scratch out deep burrows, measuring three to four feet (1 m), into the steep hillside. At rocky sites with little soil, puffins nest in rock crevices or on cliff faces. Puffins may line their nests with grass, twigs, feathers, or even manmade materials. Mates often use the same nest year after year and may lengthen the nest each season. A female lays only a single whitish-colored egg, and the male and female take turns incubating the egg for 42 to 47 days. The parents put all their energy into this one offspring, and because of this, the success rate is high for a puffin chick to survive until it fledges. In a study, biologists determined 65% of the tufted chicks and 60% of the horned chicks in the study group survived until they left the nest.]

The chick hatches in July or early August. At birth, it is covered with down and its eyes are open. Parents take turns booding the chick until it can maintain a body temperature of 103.1⁰ F (39.5⁰ C); this usually takes six days. The chick remains in the burrow for the next 45 to 55 days, while the parents take turns watching and feeding it. The parents feed the nestling by catching small fish in their bills and dropping them on the ground in the nest or near the entrance of the burrow. When it is weaned, the chick leaves the nest between dusk and dawn to avoid predators. It cannot fly well at this point, so it either walks or flutters to the ocean where it remains. The parents do not accompany the chick, but they also leave the nest around this time. Young puffins head to the open ocean and remain there through their first summer. When they are two-years-old, they visit the colony during the summer. They are old enough to breed when they are three, but they are not certain to breed until they are four-years-old.

Not much is known about the lifespan of Pacific puffins, but they are believed to live 15 to 20 years in the wild. Tufted puffins have been known to live 25 years in captivity, while an Atlantic puffin survived 39 years in captivity.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

With its heavy body, short wings, and webbed feet, a puffin is built more for swimming than for flying. A tufted puffin is the size of a crow but weighs twice as much and has short stubby wings. It must beat its wings 400 times per minute just to stay aloft. Not only is it difficult for a puffin to take off from the water and gain altitude, but it lacks maneuverability in the air, and crash landings and mid-air collisions between puffins are not uncommon. When a puffin takes off from the water, it usually remains close to the surface for a ways and may even hit the water with its wings and bounce off the waves to gain altitude. When flying, a puffin uses its feet to change direction. A puffin is much more graceful in the water, and when swimming, it uses its wings for propulsion and its feet for steering. On land, puffins walk in an upright position, using their claws to cling to slippery rocks and rough terrain.

Fights between puffins are common and occur when one puffin perceives another is invading its territory. The resident puffin threatens the intruder with an open bill that exposes its brightly colored mouth lining. It also shakes its head, jerks its head upward and back, and rocks its body from side to side.

Puffins feed in small flocks and can dive as deep as 262.4 ft. (80 m) to catch their prey. They feed on lipid-rich fish such as sand lance, capelin, and herring, and they also eat euphausiids (krill). When catching fish to take back to the nest, a puffin can carry a large number of fish crosswise in its bill with the heads and tails dangling from the sides of its mouth. It can hold several fish in its mouth and continue to catch more fish without losing any of them due to spines on its tongue and on the roof of its mouth that act as hooks to hold onto the prey.

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

Surveys in Prince William Sound suggest the horned puffin population in that area declined 79% from 1972 to 1998. Biologists believe this decline in numbers is due to major changes in the food base as a result of global warming.  This fall, the bodies of 217 dead tufted puffins have been recovered on St. Paul Islands in the Pribilofs, and biologists have determined that the puffins starved to death. Their deaths, like the earlier deaths of horned puffins in Prince William Sound, were blamed on a shortage of food linked to higher-than-normal ocean temperatures in the Bering Sea.  Biologists believe thousands of tufted puffins may die in this region this winter.

Puffins need a predator-free nesting area and an abundance of food. They are subject to predation by foxes, river otters, rats, eagles and other birds of prey. Ravens may attack nesting chicks. When traveling from the winter feeding area to their nesting grounds, puffins fly in large groups in a pattern that resembles a wheel, making it difficult for an eagle to attack an individual bird. Puffins are susceptible to oil pollution. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, 162 dead horned puffins and 570 dead tufted puffins were retrieved from the oiled waters, but biologists believe several thousand puffins were killed by the spill. Puffins are also often caught as bycatch by gillnet and driftnet fisheries.





Horned and Tufted Puffins in Alaska


Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Two species of puffins live in Alaskan waters. The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) belong to the family Alcidae, which also includes guillemots, murres, murrelets, auklets, and auks.

There is no sexual dimorphism between male and female puffins; both sexes are the same color and size. They have stout bodies, short wings, and orange, webbed feet which are located far back on their bodies. From a distance in the spring and summer, the most obvious difference between the two species is that horned puffins have white breasts, while tufted puffins have black breasts and bodies. A horned puffin has a black back and neck and is white on the sides of the head and the breast. Its bright-yellow, oversized beak has a red tip. Its common name is derived from the small, fleshy, dark horn above each eye that is present in the spring and summer. Horned puffins resemble Atlantic (or common) puffins, to which they are closely related, but horned puffins are larger than Atlantic puffins, have slightly different-colored beaks, and have horns, which are lacking in Atlantic puffins. In addition to its black body, a tufted puffin has a white face and a red and yellow bill. Its common name is derived from the long tufts of yellow feathers that curl back from behind the eye on each side of the head. Both adult horned and tufted puffins are about 14 inches (36 cm) long, but tufted puffins are heavier, weighing 1.7 lbs. (771 g), while horned puffins weigh approximately 1.4 lbs. (635 g).

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

At the end of the summer, after adults leave their nests, their plumage fades. The white face patches become smoky-brown in front and silver-gray in back, and the body of the horned puffin fades to blackish-gray above and brownish-gray below, while the body of the tufted puffin fades to a dusky gray. The bills of both species fade and the outer plate sheds, leaving them with a much smaller, duller bill. Their feet fade to a fleshy color, and horned puffins shed their horns, while tufted puffins shed their tufts. In the winter, when puffins are on their wintering grounds offshore in the North Pacific, they undergo a complete molt and are flightless for a period.

Puffins are well-suited to life in the ocean. Their feathers are waterproof, and their short, stiff wings are built more for swimming than for flying. They have strong bones to help them withstand the increased pressure of underwater dives; they can store oxygen in their body tissues, and they use anaerobic respiration to allow them to make long dives.

Tufted puffins nest on the coast and offshore islands from lower California to Alaska and from Japan to the shores of northeastern Asia. In Alaska, tufted puffins nest from Southeast Alaska to the Chukchi Sea coast. Horned puffins range from British Columbia to Alaska and southwest to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Kuril Islands. Their range in Alaska is similar to that of tufted puffins, but horned puffins are more abundant than tufted puffins in the northern part of their ranges.

Puffins are not easy to count because they nest in rock crevices or burrows where they can’t be seen. Also, a few puffin pairs often nest on rookeries dominated by other species, so an observer would have to watch each bird rookery for a long time to know if there were any puffins on the rookery. Population statistics are rough estimates and should not be considered exact counts. The world estimate for horned puffins is 1,088,500 individuals with greater than 85% nesting in North America. It is estimated that there are 608 breeding colonies in Alaska with a population of 921,000 individuals. The world population estimate for tufted puffins is 2,970,000 individuals with greater than 80% nesting in North America. It is estimated that there are 693 breeding colonies for tufted puffins in Alaska with a population of 2,280,000 individuals.

In next week’s post, I will describe puffin mating and nesting behaviors as well as detail  more about their biology.  As our days here on Kodiak steadily shorten, and we brace for what seems like one winter storm after the next, I enjoy writing about and looking at photos of puffins because they, more than any other bird, make me think of warm summer days.

I hope you are staying warm out there.  If you want something to read, sign up for my Free Mystery Newsletter and read about true crime in Alaska.  This month I am profiling another serial killer who recently roamed the streets of Anchorage.


Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Bald Eagle

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is only found in North America. Its range stretches from northern Mexico to Canada and Alaska and covers all the continental United States. Due to a variety of factors, including the use of the pesticide DDT, bald eagles nearly became extinct in the contiguous United States by the 1950s. The 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibited commercial trapping and killing of bald and golden eagles, and more significantly, DDT was banned in 1972 when it was proven the pesticide interfered with the eagle’s calcium metabolism, causing either sterility or unhealthy eggs with brittle shells. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, and the bald eagle was listed as an endangered species. In 1995, when eagle populations in the continental U.S. began to rebound, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list and transferred to the threatened species list. On June 28, 2007, bald eagles were removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.dsc_0005-2

While Alaska’s eagles were never threatened by the use of DDT, Alaska has its own nefarious history with bald eagles. In 1917, commercial salmon fishermen convinced the Alaska Territorial Legislature that eagles killed large numbers of salmon and were competing with the fishermen’s livelihoods. This claim was later shown to be false, but the legislature enacted a bounty system on eagles that paid two dollars to anyone who turned in a pair of eagle legs. This bounty system lasted for thirty-six years and led to the killing of a confirmed 120,195 eagles, plus countless others that were never turned in for a bounty. The bounty system ended in 1953, and when Alaska became a state in 1959, its bald eagles were officially protected under the Federal Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Alaska’s eagle population is now considered healthy, and one-half of the world’s 70,000 bald eagles live in Alaska. Twenty-five-hundred bald eagles reside on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.


The genus Haliaeetus, the sea eagles (in Latin, hali means salt and aeetus means eagle), includes eight of the sixty species of eagles. The sea eagles live along sea coasts, lakes, and river shores. The species Haliaeetus leucocephalus (leuco means white and cephalus means head) consists of two subspecies. The southern bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus leucocephalus, is found from Baja California and Texas to South Carolina and Florida, south of 40 degrees north latitude. The northern bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus alascanus occurs north of 40 degrees north latitude. Northern bald eagles are larger than their southern cousins

Eagles are well-insulated by their feathers and are good at regulating their body temperature. Unlike many birds, they do not need to migrate to warmer areas each winter, but in many parts of the country they do migrate, sometimes long distances, in response to varying food supplies. Due to its abundant year-round food supply, Kodiak has a non-migratory eagle population. Furthermore, hundreds of eagles from the Alaskan mainland migrate to Kodiak for the winter months. Effluent from canneries and fish processing plants in the town of Kodiak provides a consistent source of food for these birds in the winter months, and hundreds of eagles can be seen in town perched in trees, on cannery rooftops, on the edges of dumpsters, and even on pickup trucks. In Uyak Bay and other remote bays on Kodiak, eagles stay near their nests all winter, feeding on fish and winter-killed deer among other things.

Since the ban on DDT and related pesticides in 1972, bald eagle populations around the country have rebounded to some degree. The bald eagle population in Alaska is healthy and stable and has never been listed as endangered or threatened by the Federal Government. Eagles in Alaska never suffered the scourge of DDT poisoning, and even now in most areas, they live in a relatively contaminant-free environment.dsc_0099-2

The Bald Eagle Protection Act imposes a fine of $10,000 and two years imprisonment for anyone who harms a bald or golden eagle. It is illegal to even have an eagle feather in your possession without a proper permit. Nevertheless, humans are still responsible for many bald eagle deaths. On Kodiak, Refuge biologists have recovered eagles that have starved to death, been killed by airplanes and cars, caught in traps, and oiled by fish slime or fossil fuels. The Exxon Valdez oil spill killed hundreds of eagles in Alaska. In January 2008, fifty eagles swooped down on a dump truck filled with fish guts outside a Kodiak seafood processing plant. Twenty of the eagles were drowned or crushed, and the rest were so slimed they had to be cleaned. Bait left unattended on a fishing boat can cause a frenzy when eagles land and start fighting over their find. If their feathers become oiled by fish slime, they become less-waterproof, and then if the eagle falls into the water, it is more susceptible to hypothermia.kodiak_alaska_microgrid_508

In 2009, the Kodiak Electric Association (KEA) erected three wind turbines on Pillar Mountain near the town of Kodiak and added an additional three turbines in 2012. Many people worried the turbines would be a danger to eagles since turbines elsewhere in the U.S. kill an estimated 573,000 birds a year. KEA funded a study to address the concerns, and researchers determined that eagles went out of their way to avoid crossing the ridge among the turbines. No eagles were killed during the study, and according to avian biologist, Robin Corcoran, she has never received a report of a dead eagle near the turbines.

Eagles do die from electrocution on Kodiak. Many of the power poles near town are fitted with devices designed to protect eagles, but in January 2011, an eagle was electrocuted when she landed on the lowest of three cross bars on a power pole. That particular crossbar did not have a protective device because utility authorities believed there was not enough room for an eagle to land on it. The dead eagle had been banded years earlier by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, so biologists knew she was 25 years old, the second-oldest bald eagle documented in Alaska, and one of the oldest-documented eagles in the country.

While these manmade disasters are tragic, they are uncommon and do not appear to be a threat to Alaska’s bald eagle population. A greater and less-obvious threat is the destruction of eagle-nesting habitat by logging and commercial and residential development. Eagles tend to nest in large, old trees that are not easily or quickly replaced once they are removed.

Once an eagle attains its adult plumage, it is impossible to determine its age unless it has been leg-banded by biologists. For this reason, we have limited data on the life span of bald eagles. Biologists believe 50-70% of all juvenile bald eagles die in their first year, and as many as 90% die before they are fully mature. Eagles in captivity may live 40 to 50 years. The oldest documented eagle resided in Stephentown, New York and lived to be 48-years old. On average, eagles live 15 to 20 years in the wild, and the oldest documented wild eagle was a 32-year-old bird from Maine. Alaska’s oldest eagle was a 28-year-old from the Chilkat Valley.

Eagles are fascinating birds and have been studied a great deal. Later this winter, I will dedicate more posts to eagle biology. Please leave a comment if you have a question or anything you would like to share about eagles.

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