Monthly Archives: January 2017


Our suitcases are packed, and we are headed off on our winter getaway! Part of our trip is business-related, but the rest is a pleasure trip. Our first stop will be Las Vegas, where we will have a booth at the annual SCI Convention. It is a culture shock to leave remote Amook Pass and travel straight to Las Vegas. Here, the only sounds we have heard for the last few months have been the blowing wind and the occasional scream of an eagle or raven, and the only person we have seen is our mail plane pilot on his weekly stop. Las Vegas is sensory overload with constant noise and thousands of people. We always have a great time at this convention, though, because we spend time with friends and talk to past guests. I eat too much and sleep too little the entire time we are there, and when we arrive at the airport for the next leg of our trip, I breathe a sigh of relief because I know we are headed someplace less crazy than Vegas.

For the second part of our winter getaway, we are renting a sailboat with friends and sailing around the British Virgin Islands for a week. I know nothing about sailing, but everyone else in the group knows what they are doing. It will be a fun, relaxing week. After that adventure, Mike and I will spend another week in that area of the world, and we plan to snorkel, dive, relax, read, and I plan to write!

Next, it’s back to Anchorage and back to work. We will shop for lumber and other supplies to finish our new cabin and warehouse, and we will shop for everything else we will need from the city for the next year. We charter a barge once a year in the spring to bring fuel, building supplies, furniture, and any other large items from Kodiak to our lodge in Uyak Bay, so while we are in Anchorage, we will purchase these items and arrange for them to be shipped from Anchorage to Kodiak.

Also while we are in Anchorage, we will take a recertification course for our Wilderness First Responder credentials. We are required to recertify every three years. This course is important to us because it prepares us to take care of our guests when we are hiking in the Kodiak Wilderness.

By March 15th, we will be ready to fly home. We’ll be tired of eating in restaurants and sleeping in strange beds, but most of all, we will miss the peace and quiet of the wilderness. It is always nice to get away from Alaska in the middle of the dark, cold winter, but it is much better to return. By March, the days will be longer and brighter, and while it will still be winter, spring will soon be here.

I will post while on the road, and I already have several posts planned. My friend, Marcia Messier, has again promised a guest post while I’m away, and her posts are very popular. I also hope to keep up with my monthly Mystery Newsletters, and Steven Levi, a well-known author from Anchorage, will write the March edition of the newsletter. You will not want to miss that newsletter because Steve is an expert on crime and criminals throughout the history of Alaska, and I am thrilled he has agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to share his knowledge with us. If you haven’t yet signed up for my Mystery Newsletter, follow the link and do it now, so you don’t miss Steve’s newsletter.

I’ll let you know how the trip goes!

Black Oystercatcher as an Indicator Species

Last week, I wrote about the biology and habits of the black oystercatcher, and I mentioned until recently, this species has not received much attention from biologists. In the past few years, though, researchers have realized the overall health and dynamics of oystercatcher populations can tell us a great deal about the health of the organisms that live within the intertidal zone. The black oystercatcher has been called a keystone species, but I think it would be more accurate to call it an indicator species. A keystone species is a species whose presence and role within an ecosystem has a disproportionate effect on other organisms within the system, while an indicator species is a species whose presence, absence, or relative well-being in a given environment is a sign of the overall health of its ecosystem. The well-being of black oystercatchers is thought to be an indicator of the overall health of the intertidal community along the North Pacific shoreline. Tlingit shamans identified with black oystercatchers and believed that just as shamans inhabit both the human and spirit world, oystercatchers live in the border world between land and water. As a tribute to these special birds, shamans often depicted oystercatchers on their rattles.

As the Tlingits noted, black oystercatchers live in a narrow band of habitat and are dependent on the intertidal area to breed, nest and feed, making them vulnerable to both natural and human disturbances. Monitoring black oystercatcher population trends and movements can better help us understand the health of this intertidal zone. In 2004, the International Black Oystercatcher Working Group was formed. This group includes federal and state agencies from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia. The group’s focus is to learn more about black oystercatchers. In addition to understanding world and local population sizes, researchers hope to learn more about the life cycle of the black oystercatcher. They want to pinpoint natural and manmade threats to oystercatchers and to employ methods to minimize these threats. Understanding black oystercatchers will not only help safeguard these birds but could be key in protecting the intertidal community of organisms and the wide variety of animals that depend on this community for food.

Predation is the major cause of mortality for black oystercatcher eggs and chicks. In Alaska, predators include eagles, ravens, crows, Glaucous-winged gulls, foxes, bears, river otters, wolverines, marten, and mink. Because they live so low in the tidal zone, black oystercatchers are susceptible to flooding, especially in Alaska, where most nests are on low, sloping beaches. Flooding may be caused by natural causes such as extreme high tides, storm surges, or tsunamis or by manmade causes such as boat wakes. Since black oystercatcher nests are on the ground, they are also susceptible to disturbance by humans walking along the beach and stepping on the nests or disturbing the nesting birds.

Black oystercatchers are vulnerable to shoreline contamination, especially from oil spills. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska had a major impact on oystercatchers. Twenty percent of the oystercatchers in the area of the spill were killed immediately, and those that were not immediately killed had to either eat oil-contaminated prey or starve. Now, biologists know the short-term impacts of the oil spill on oystercatchers were only part of the story. Current research shows oystercatchers are still suffering from the physiological effects of feeding on oil-contaminated prey.

We need to learn a great deal more about the biology and habits of the black oystercatcher. Once we understand them, they can help us gauge the health of the intertidal zone from California to British Columbia and Alaska.

If you haven’t already signed up for my Mystery Newsletter, be sure to do that here.  My February newsletter is about people who have mysteriously gone missing in Alaska.

Black Oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani)

ematopus bachmani

The black oystercatcher (Haematopus bachmani) with its black body and bright orange bill is a familiar sight on Kodiak Island beaches, but it is one of the least abundant shorebird species in North America. The total world population of oystercatchers is believed to be less than 11,000 birds, but oystercatchers never have been accurately counted, so their population size is unknown. It is also not known whether their population is stable, increasing or decreasing. When the Exxon-Valdez oil spill directly killed a large number of oystercatchers and damaged the intertidal area where black oystercatchers feed, biologists realized how little we know, not only about the population size of these birds, but also about their biology and behavior. We don’t know how long they live, how old they are when they first mate, or what their migratory habits are. Black oystercatchers have been identified as a species of high concern throughout their range in the U.S. and Canada, and federal and state agencies are now working together to learn more about these fascinating birds.

Black oystercatchers range from Baja California to the western Aleutian Islands. Over 65% of the world population resides in Alaska, and more than 1700 oystercatchers live on Kodiak Island.

The black oystercatcher is a large shorebird, approximately 15 inches (38 centimeters) in length. It has a long, heavy, bright orange-red bill, yellow eyes encircled by orange rings, pink legs, and black plumage. its dark feathers often make it hard to see against the black rocks in the intertidal zone, but its loud shrill call announces its presence. In addition to its loud wheep-wheep call, it also has a softer hew-hew-hew call it uses when it is alarmed.

Black oystercatchers live in the upper end of the intertidal zone. They live and nest near an available food source, and if possible, they live near mussel beds, their food of choice. They are territorial during the nesting season, but they often aggregate in groups of tens to hundreds in the winter months. Kodiak Island is the only documented area in Alaska that supports large winter aggregations of black oystercatchers. Winter flocks of twenty to three hundred birds have been counted in the Kodiak Harbor, as well as in Kalsin Bay, Cape Chiniak, Uganik Bay, and Uyak Bay.

Black oystercatchers forage on low-sloping gravel or rock beaches, where prey is abundant. They eat mussels when they are available but also eat other intertidal creatures such as limpets, chitons, crabs, barnacles, clams, and other small animals. An oystercatcher uses one of two methods to eat mussels and clams. If it finds a bivalve with a partially-opened shell, it jabs its bill into the opening, cuts the muscles that hold the shells closed, and consumes the animal. If the shells of the bivalve are closed when the oystercatcher finds it, the bird hammers on the shell to break it open.

Black oystercatchers nest on the shoreline just above the high-tide mark. They may nest on bare rock, sand, gravel, tufts of grass, or among logs. They often nest on small islands, where they are better protected from predators. Nests are built by both parents and are simply a shallow, circular depression lined with shell fragments, rock flakes, or pebbles. Pairs often build more than one nest in their territory, and then the female chooses which nest to use.

Biologists believe black oystercatchers mate for life, and they return to the same nesting territory year after year. In Alaska, they arrive at their nesting sites in March and leave in September. A female lays one to three eggs. The eggs are pale buff or olive and are spotted and marked with brown and black. Both parents incubate the eggs for 24 to 29 days. When the chicks hatch, they are covered with down and stay near the nest at first. Parents take turns guarding the chicks and procuring food. When the chicks are a little older, they follow their parents to the feeding areas, and the parents feed them there. Chicks can fly when they are approximately five weeks old, and they slowly begin to feed themselves. Biologists are not sure how old a black oystercatcher must be before it is sexually mature and can reproduce, but limited evidence suggests they may not be able to reproduce until they are five-years-old. Biologists know black oystercatchers are long-lived birds, but there is little data on how long they live. Some banded birds have lived nearly 16 years.

Next week I’ll tell you more about recent and current research on black oystercatchers and why these birds are considered an indicator species.  Don’t forget to sign up for my Mystery Newsletter.


Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)

The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) is one of three species of terns found in Alaska. The other two species are the Aleutian tern (Onychoprion aleutica) and the Caspian tern (Sterna caspia). Terns belong to the family Laridae, which also includes gulls.

Arctic terns have a circumpolar range. They breed in the Arctic and subarctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia, and they winter at the southern tips of Africa and South America, all the way to the edge of the Antarctic ice. In the United States, Arctic terns nest as far south as New England on the east coast and Washington State on the west coast. In Alaska, the Arctic tern has the largest breeding range of any Alaskan water bird. Arctic terns nest from Point Barrow through the Southeast Panhandle, and everywhere in between those two points.

Since Arctic terns breed in Arctic and subarctic areas and then migrate as far as the edge of the Antarctic ice to spend the winter, biologists believe they have the longest migration of any animal. The only animal whose migration may rival that of the Arctic tern is the sooty shearwater which migrates between New Zealand and the North Pacific. In a 2010 study, biologist Carsten Egevang and his colleagues fitted 11 Arctic terns with miniature geolocators, and they learned Arctic terns migrate even further than was previously believed. Some individual terns in the study traveled nearly 50,000 miles (more than 80,000 km) round trip. Because Arctic terns spend summer in the high latitudes of the northern hemisphere and then travel to the high latitudes of the southern hemisphere for the summer there, they see more sunlight every year than any other animal species on the planet.

Arctic terns measure 14 to 17 inches (36-43 cm) in length and have a wingspan of 29 to 33 inches (74-84 cm). Their bodies are white or gray during the breeding season, and a black patch covers the head and forehead. They have a sharply pointed red bill and short red legs. Their deeply forked tail resembles the tail of a swallow and is the reason for their nickname, “Sea swallow.” Terns are agile and quick in the air and can even hover above the water while searching for food. Because they have small, webbed feet, terns do not swim well and do not remain in the water any longer than it takes to catch their prey. A tern flies with its bill pointed down toward the water, and when it sees a fish or other prey, it dives into the water, grasps the prey, and flies away with the fish in its beak. During the non-breeding season, a tern’s legs and beak turn black, and the black patch on the head shrinks. Also during the non-breeding season, terns molt and lose most of their feathers. If they lose their feathers faster than they can be replaced, they may be flightless for a short period.

Arctic terns mate for life, and in Alaska, they arrive at their breeding areas in early to late May. During their courtship, the male performs a “fish flight.” He carries a fish in his bill and flies low over the female on the ground. If she sees him, she will join him in a high climb and flight. Terns nest in solitary pairs or colonies of a few to several hundred pairs. A tern’s nest is little more than a shallow depression in the ground, and nests usually have little or no lining material. Terns nest near fresh or salt water on beaches, spits, and small islands. The female lays one to three eggs that are brown or green and lightly speckled. Both sexes incubate the eggs, and the eggs hatch in about 23 days. The young terns immediately leave the nest and hide in nearby vegetation. The parents catch small fish to feed the chicks for the next 25 days until the chicks have fledged. Arctic terns are very aggressive during the breeding season, and they will attack intruders by crying loudly and repeatedly diving at the intruder’s head. Less than three months after they arrive at their breeding colonies, Arctic terns begin their long migration south.

Arctic terns eat small fish, insects, and invertebrates. During the non-breeding season, they are pelagic and forage at the edges of the pack ice, icebergs, and ice floes near shore.

The worldwide population of Arctic terns is between one and two million breeding pairs. Several hundred thousand pairs nest in Alaska. Because terns nest on the ground, their eggs, and chicks are susceptible to predation by foxes, rats, raccoons, gulls, and other seabirds. Arctic terns are also susceptible to pollution, human disturbance, and decreased food availability due to warming ocean temperatures. Arctic terns may live into their late twenties or early thirties.

Next week, my post will be about one of the rarest of all shorebirds, the black oystercatcher.  If you haven’t signed up for my free, monthly Mystery Newsletter, be sure to do so.  This month I am profiling a triple homicide that occurred at the Arctic Circle in -50 degree weather.







Welcome 2017!

Happy New Year, and welcome 2017! I’ll admit I am sad another year has flown by so quickly. Not everything about 2016 was great, but as I reflect on the year, the good times outweighed the bad. For me, the saddest events of 2016 were the sudden death of my oldest brother and the deaths of three friends. I loved the time I spent with my family in in Kansas in May, though, and I enjoyed seeing high school classmates at my reunion. We had great summer and fall seasons at our lodge, and our yard has been full of deer the past several weeks.

A few years ago, I began making New Year’s resolutions. I had always considered resolutions a joke, like a diet that only lasts two days. I never thought I’d feel bound to a resolution, but to my surprise, I have taken my resolutions seriously, and they are in the back of my mind all year as I struggle to fulfill them. I am not great at following through with resolutions to embrace healthier habits, but I do now exercise an hour a day, and I wear a Fitbit to keep myself honest. I never make a resolution to go on a diet because just the thought of a diet makes me hungry. The resolutions that have worked best for me are those related to writing.

At the start of 2016, I resolved to finish the rough draft of my next novel and the rough draft of my wildlife book by the end of 2016. I remember announcing this resolution and then laughing because I doubted I would come close to achieving either one of those goals. I am proud and amazed, though, to say I almost did it!! I’m not quite done with the wildlife book, but I will finish it in a week or two. I finished the rough draft of my novel in October and am now busy editing it. I know I would never have pushed myself so hard on either manuscript if I hadn’t made that crazy New Year’s resolution on January 1st, 2016.

I’ve given this year’s resolution a great deal of thought. I have several projects in the works, but I don’t want to set impossible goals for myself. I think goals should be lofty but within reach. Here’s what I came up with for a resolution. I want to finish editing the manuscript of my next novel and send it out to an editor by June. I don’t believe I can have the wildlife book ready to send to an editor before the end of 2017, but I want to send it out sometime next winter. I also want to finish the manuscript of my fourth novel by the end of 2017, and since I haven’t even written an outline for this novel yet, this may be a tough goal to reach. I would also like to work with Marcia on the cookbook we are writing and have the rough draft of it done sometime next winter. Finally, I hope to compile my Mystery Newsletters into a book and self-publish that. The e-book of my Mystery Newsletters will be available for free for my newsletter subscribers.

Whew! All those goals sound like a great deal of work, and I’ll let you know next year what I accomplished and what I didn’t. Writing a weekly blog post and a monthly newsletter plus doing my day job takes most of my time, but I’m becoming a faster writer and am getting better at multi-tasking, so I am hopeful and excited. At least I won’t be bored!

None of us can see what the future holds for us, but I wish you all a happy, healthy, successful 2017. Take a minute to tell me some of your resolutions!

If you haven’t signed up for my Mystery Newsletter yet, you can check out my latest edition here. If you want to sign up, you can either click on the sign-up button in the upper left-hand corner of the newsletter or sign up at

The next few weeks, I will again concentrate on wildlife profiles, beginning with the fascinating, beautiful, fierce Arctic Tern.