Last week, I was lucky enough to head over to the Peterson Bay Field Station with Americorp coastal ecology educator Leah Thon for a mid-winter overnight trip. Our primary purpose was to check out the much-beloved sea stars that inhabit the rocky intertidal at Otter Rock, China Poot Bay, and even the tidal lagoon right in front of the Field Station.
Two summers ago, a phenomenon called Sea Star Wasting Syndrome (or Disease) emerged on the west coast. Similar unusual mortality events among sea stars had happened before, but this one is bigger and more widespread. Alarmed by the severity of the outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, accounts of some suspicious lesions on sea stars at the Anchorage Museum, and a few distressed sea stars observed by naturalists on the Kachemak Bay beaches earlier in the summer, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies contacted the MARINe program (Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network) through the University of California, Santa Cruz to learn more about their sea star monitoring efforts. Working closely with them, we determined that the threat of sea star wasting syndrome could exist in Kachemak Bay and that it would be valuable to establish a set of permanent plots for monitoring, and did so in the summer of 2014.
Unfortunately, we saw some symptoms of sea star wasting syndrome in these populations during our monitoring in the summer and fall. It seemed to be at a low level, but we became increasingly concerned about the fate of Kachemak Bay sea stars after hearing that true star (Evasterias troschelii) and sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) populations around Sitka, Alaska had plummeted in November and December after sustaining low levels of sea star wasting through the summer and early fall. At this point, researchers have identified a densovirus that may be linked to sea star wasting, but no one is sure yet if that is the cause or whether there are additional agents or environmental factors at play. And more frustrating, there seems to be no way to stem the spread of the disease, aside from vigilance to not carry it from location to location on our boots, hands, or equipment. We are just waiting and watching to see what happens here in Kachemak Bay. So as we hopped off the water taxi, last week, nightmarish images of Sitka's disintegrating sea stars flitted in the back of my brain. The tide was high, though, and I would have to wait until after dark to see what was actually going on with the stars.
We conducted all of our surveys by headlamp as the low tides took place in the late evening and early morning, devoid of any winter daylight. We found lots of apparently healthy true stars, sunflower stars, and leather stars (Dermasterias imbricata) at both China Poot and Otter Rock with just a few individuals showing symptoms of wasting. This is similar to what we found during July and October surveys. We also spotted a number of juveniles, something that has been observed in other areas hit harder by sea star wasting and suggests a mechanism for the recovery of sea star populations. And we saw a few less common species, all healthy, including a sun star (Solaster stimpsoni) and blood star (Henricia spp). The ghastly images vanished, at least for the time being, as we delighted in these stars and other tidpool finds, including Leah's first octopus!
At our third plot, on the beach between the PBFS stairs and dock location, we only found one juvenile true star and a little 6-rayed star (Leptasterias spp), both under a rock. I’m not sure if this low density is due to sea star wasting, or – I think more likely – some sort of seasonal or weather-related shift in sea star distribution. We’ll survey again this spring, paying special attention to whether or not we see a return of sea stars to the PBFS plot. And we'll keep sanitizing our boots and marveling in the amazing diversity and tenacity of Kachemak Bay's intertidal invertebrates! We hope to see you out in the tidepools sometime soon!
It has certainly felt like summer lately, but at the Wynn we are still seeing the products of spring emerge and grow. What products, you may ask? Babies! The baby moose are on the move, seen here at the Wynn in the past few days by some of our guests. Stretching their gangly legs, navigating over roots, they follow their mother through the forests and meadows free and easy. Only rarely do they truly need to test the developing muscles in those long legs. Two weeks ago, we had the privilege to witness two calves and their mother chased across our wildflower field by a black bear – quite the exhilarating moment, and a resolute reminder that survival in Alaska’s wilderness is no easy task for any animal.
Another baby that’s out and about at the Wynn is the baby porcupine, also called the porcupette. Porcupines usually give birth to only one offspring per year, so seeing a dark-colored, short-quilled porcupette is a real honor. Earlier this week, one was spotted behind the Wynn cabin. Absorbed by the fresh fireweed it was munching, the seemingly soft ball of fast-hardening quills didn’t pay us much mind. When we got closer, however, it started to lumber off, doing its best to clear the way and part the tall grasses before it with endearing adolescent limbs.
Mammals aren’t the only ones to bring new generations into the wooded world. On a tour last week, a Townsend’s Warbler fledgling, testing its wings, awkwardly flew right across the trail to land on a branch three feet away. As it looked at the world from this new point of view, twitching its fuzzy, chubby head back and forth, up and down, we watched in awe. One of the parents soon flew up to it with some grub and shoved the food down the thin tilted throat, as birds are so efficient at doing. Refueled, the youngster took off again to revel in the feeling of the wind beneath its wings.
If you’re a lover of wildlife interactions, with creatures both big and small, the Wynn Nature Center is the place to visit. The forest is full of new life and quiet occurrences this summer. Come and see for yourself!
Alaskan women have a lot of amazing stories to share. As a descendant of Alaskan homesteaders myself, I can really appreciate the unique conditions and experiences that can be told by women who have spent a good amount of time in this great state, some even before it was a state. A book about their stories became the topic of a recent Fantastic Friday event at the Wynn Nature Center on Skyline Dr. Ladies from the Homer chapter of the Association for Family and Community Education, a former Cooperative Extension program, brought their new book filled with Alaskan tales to share with the public at this free event. The storytelling women arrived in Alaska at various times between the 1950's and the 1970's and many had spent time living in the bush. They told their own histories as well as read excerpts from the book on topics ranging from preparing salmon to the 1964 earthquake. The stories were lively and well-told and through them the women exhibited why their newly published book was titled "Spirit of Alaska Women." A special appearance was also made by long-time local, and namesake of the cabin at the Wynn Nauture Center, Daisy Lee Bitter.
The Wynn Nature Center staff spent a lot of time kidding around at the 30th Anniversary Block Party last Saturday. Naturalists Adriana, Ali, and Lindsey brought kid's activities to the shin-dig to celebrate thirty successful years of Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies outdoor education efforts. Despite a very cool July temperature, blustery wind, and even some sprinkling rain we had a great time providing activities for kids and adults alike. The party also included wine from Bear Creek Winery (with a special Alaskan Coastal Studies label), delicious food from Two Sisters Bakery (and from party-goers), a judged pie contest, and some hoppin' music from Burnt Down House. But, as one of the Naturalists running the kid's activity booth, I wager that the most creative fun was being had at the face-painting table! Check out these pictures for proof!