Bald Eagle: Flight and Vision

If you look up on a windy day on Kodiak Island, you will likely see several eagles soaring high in the sky. Bald eagles are built for flight, particularly for soaring and gliding. An eagle expends a great deal of energy flapping its large wings, so to conserve energy when gaining and maintaining altitude, it utilizes thermal convection currents or “thermals,” which are columns of warm air generated by terrain such as mountain slopes. It has been estimated a bald eagle can reach flying speeds of 35-43 mph (56-70 kph) when gliding and flapping and 30 mph (48 kph) while carrying a fish. While not known as particularly fast fliers, eagles can soar and glide for hours at a time.

     The construction of an eagle’s wings and tail make soaring and gliding possible. The wings are long and broad and are covered by a layer of lightweight feathers arranged to streamline the wing. The primary feathers, or primaries, provide lift and control an eagle’s flight during turning, diving, and braking. An eagle can tilt and rotate individual feathers to maneuver and brake. The tail also assists in braking and stabilizes the eagle when it dives toward prey. While soaring, tail feathers spread wide to maximize surface area and increase the effect of updrafts and thermals.

     When an eagle finds an air current or a thermal, it can gain altitude without flapping its wings. If it is dead calm with no air currents moving up or down, eagles cannot soar, and that is why you see more eagles soaring on windy days or sunny afternoons and sitting on their perches on calm, cool mornings.

     When a young eagle first leaves the nest, its wing and tail feathers are longer than those of an adult. As an eagle matures, its wing and tail feathers become shorter and narrower with each successive molt. The larger wings of a juvenile make it easier for the bird to catch an updraft or weak thermal and to fly slower and in tighter circles than an adult. The downside of the larger wings and tail is the juvenile rises slower, sinks faster, and cannot soar as far as the adult. Adult bald eagles can flap their wings faster and fly at a greater speed than immature eagles, making them more efficient at chasing down live prey.

     Female bald eagles are larger than males, and while their wings are also slightly larger, the larger wing size does not make up for the increased weight of the female. Therefore, females require more wind or stronger thermals than males to be able to gain altitude and soar. Since thermals are weaker during the morning and evening hours, females are more likely to remain on their perches during these times and soar when it’s windy or in the afternoon when thermals are stronger.

     An eagle’s large wings make landings and takeoffs tricky, and landing on a perch is something eagles manage to do gracefully only after much practice.   A newly-fledged juvenile looks very awkward when it tries to land on a perch and may even crash land or swing upside down if it grabs the perch while it still has too much forward momentum.

     An eagle’s acute vision allows it to see prey while soaring high in the air. The eyes of an eagle are larger than those of an adult human, and an eagle’s eyesight is at least four times sharper than that of a human with perfect vision. An eagle flying at an altitude of several hundred feet can spot a fish under water. The eyes are protected by a nictating membrane, and each eye has two fovae or centers of focus, letting the bird see both forward and to the side at the same time. Eagles have binocular vision, so they can perceive depth, allowing them to judge how far away their prey is when they begin a dive.

Next week, I’ll write about what bald eagles eat and how they hunt.  Once again, I want to remind you to sign up for my free monthly Mystery Newsletter and read about true crime in Alaska.


Bald Eagle Body and Feathers

Female bald eagles are slightly larger than males. Males range in body length from 30 to 34 inches (76.2 to 86.4 cm), while females measure 35 to 37 inches (89 to 94 cm). The wingspan of a male stretches from 72 to 85 inches (182.9 to 215.9 cm), while a female’s wingspan ranges from 79 to 90 inches (200.7 to 228.6 cm). Bald eagles weigh between 8 and 14 lbs. (3.6 to 6.4 kgs.).

The skeleton of a bald eagle weighs 0.5 lbs (250 to 350 grams), which is only 5 to 6% of the total weight of the bird. The bones are extremely light, because they are hollow, and the feathers weigh twice as much as the bones.

The bald eagle’s average body temperature is 106°F (41°C). They don’t sweat, so they cool themselves in other ways, such as panting, holding their wings away from their bodies, and perching in the shade. In cold weather, an eagle’s skin is protected by feathers which are lined with down. Their feet consist mainly of tendon and are cold-resistant, and little blood flows to the bill, which is mostly nonliving material.

The beak, talons, and feathers of an eagle are made of keratin, the same material as in our fingernails and hair. Because of this, the beak and talons continuously grow and are worn down through usage. An eagle’s beak can be used as a weapon and is sharp enough to slice skin, but is also delicate enough to groom a mate’s feathers and feed a chick. The talons are important for defense and hunting.

An eagle’s call is a high-pitched, whining scream that is broken into a series of notes. They don’t have vocal cords, so sound is produced in a bony chamber called the syrinx, located where the trachea divides before the lungs. Scientists have differentiated four different calls. Eagles are most vocal when they are threatened, annoyed, or mating.

When eagles first fledge, they are mostly brown, except under the wings, which are mostly white. As immature eagles grow, their body coloration changes and they molt and replace feathers each summer. As juveniles mature, their feathers become a mottled brown and white. By three-and-one-half years, the head and tail are nearly all white, and by four-and-one-half, immature eagles are nearly indistinguishable from adults.

Bald eagles have 7000 feathers. Feathers protect them from both heat and cold and offer a barrier to snow and rain. They have several layers of feathers that tightly overlap and provide a solid covering. It is because of this coat of feathers that eagles can spend winters in extremely cold climates. Depending on the ambient temperature, an eagle can rotate its feathers to reduce or increase their insulating effect. They puff up their feathers for a variety of reasons, including preening, to insulate themselves from cold temperatures, to make themselves appear larger when threatened, and when they are sick.

Feathers are of course also necessary for flight and for gliding and soaring. Like the bones, the feathers are hollow and lightweight, but they are structurally very strong. The primaries, the large feathers along the tips of the wings, provide lift and are the main controls for flight. An eagle twists these feathers to brake, turn, and maneuver. The tail feathers are also important for flying, maneuvering, and landing and for stabilizing an eagle when it dives toward prey.

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Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus)

Photo by Tony Ross

Two species of squirrels live on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. The Arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) was introduced a few hundred years ago[1], and the more common red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) was introduced in 1952.[2] The red squirrel population is slowly spreading across Kodiak Island, and biologists estimate at least 10,000 to 15,000 red squirrels now live on Kodiak.[2]

Red squirrels range across Canada and Alaska and south into the North Central and Northeastern United States, west to the Rocky Mountains.[3] Their range in Alaska extends through most of the forested areas, from the Brooks Range through south central and southeast Alaska.[4]

Red squirrels are members of the rodent family, and the species Tamiasciurus hudsonicus has been divided into 25 subspecies.[3] A red squirrel is small, measuring approximately 12 inches (30 cm) in length, with its long, bushy tail accounting for a third of the total length. A large adult may weigh 8.4 ounces (240 g).[5] In the summer, it has a pale red to olive-gray coat with a black line along each side. It is creamy white or buff-colored on its underside. In the winter, it has reddish-brown ear tufts and a bright rusty red strip along the back, while the black stripes along the side fade or disappear. In all seasons, a red squirrel has a white ring around each eye.[5]

Red squirrels are territorial and vigorously defend their territories.[3] A squirrel’s territory can range in size one-half acre to six acres, and each squirrel knows its territory well and may have several nests and food caches within the boundaries of its territory.[4] Red squirrels build their nests in trees. The nests are usually between 10 to 60 ft. (3-18 m) above the ground and are either constructed inside a tree cavity or out of a mass of twigs, leaves, moss, and lichens inside the dense foliage of a branch.[4,5}

Red squirrels mainly eat the seeds of conifer cones.[5] A spruce forest covers the north side of Kodiak Island, and the squirrels living in this forest eat the seeds of spruce cones. Since few spruce trees grow on the rest of the island, though, squirrels in other areas eat and cache alder cones. When collecting cones, a red squirrel cuts green cones from a tree and allows them to fall to the ground. The squirrel then gathers the fallen cones and buries them in one or several caches in its territory. By collecting only green cones, the squirrel knows the seeds are still in the cones.[5]

A squirrel may collect several bushels of cones in a cache, and a cache may be as big as 15 by 18 ft. with a depth of 3 ft. (5 x 6 x 1 m). In addition to one large cache, a squirrel often has several smaller caches in its territory.[4] Besides seeds, red squirrels also eat berries, buds, fungi, insects and bird eggs.[4] They do most of their food collecting during the day but may also be active on moonlit nights.[4] Red squirrels do not hibernate but instead depend on their stored food caches to make it through the winter. In regions with heavy snow, they may dig elaborate snow tunnels to reach their caches.[5]

Photo by Tony Ross

Red squirrels can climb trees with ease. They run up and down the trunks and along branches and can jump as far as 8 ft. (2.4 m) from one branch to another. On the ground, they walk or run and can run as fast as 14 mph (22.5 km/hr) over short distances.[5]

Red squirrels are solitary animals except during the breeding season, when males leave their territories, and females allow males to enter their territories.[4] A female has a one-day estrous period, and one to ten males may pursue her during that time. The dominant male will approach the female while uttering quiet vocalizations. Copulation is brief but may be repeated several times until the female becomes aggressive.[5] After a gestation of 36 to 40 days, the female gives birth to three to seven young. The young are blind and hairless at birth and weigh only ¼ oz. (7 g).[4] The young develop slowly and do not open their eyes until they are 27 days old. By 30 days of age, they are fully furred and begin to leave the nest. When young red squirrels are 9 to 11 weeks old, they begin to establish their territories.[5]

A red squirrel will emit a long rattling buzz when another squirrel enters its territory, and this call is often accompanied by tail-jerking and foot stamping. Neighboring squirrels may respond with similar calls. A slowly repeated “whuuk” call is an alarm call announcing the approach of a predator.[5] Biologists have noted red squirrels often produce a high-frequency alarm call when they detect an avian predator and a low, barking call when they sense the approach of a land predator.[4] In addition to vocalizations, red squirrels use posturing and chemical signals to communicate.[5]                                                                                                                                  

Red squirrels have a high mortality rate, and only 22% survive to one year of age. Females that survive their first year have a life expectancy of 2.3 years and a maximum lifespan of 8 years.[3] Red squirrels may be preyed upon by hawks, owls, eagles, bobcats, coyotes, weasels, minks, foxes, raccoons, and fishers. In the long term, habitat loss is the biggest threat to red squirrels.[4,5}

Beginning next week, I’ll write a few posts about bald eagles.  As always, I appreciate you stopping by to read my blog and would love hearing from you.  Please leave a comment!








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.

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.