Copper River Record November 15, 2018
By Robin Mayo
The Kenny Lake Christmas Bird Count will be Saturday, December 22nd this year. This event is a part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which has been collecting data annually for over a century. Everyone is invited to participate, and no special knowledge is necessary. One of the benefits of winter birding is there are very few species in residence, so identification is far easier than in the summer months.
The Kenny Lake count is taken in a 15 mile diameter circle centered on Kenny Lake near mile 8 Edgerton Highway. You can participate by going out and looking for birds on foot, skiing, snowshoeing, or any other mode of transportation. Feeder watchers are also needed if you would rather stay inside and enjoy your birds through the window. As well as the concentrated bird count done on count day, counters are asked to note any other species they see during count week, from Wednesday December 19 through Tuesday December 25th.
If you plan to participate, it is important to contact WISE and let us know where you plan to count, so we don’t overlap and can cover as much of the area as possible. We will be sending out packets of information to past participants in late November, and information and forms will also be available on the wise website at www.wise-edu.org/christmas-bird-count.html . You can call the WISE office at 822-3575, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are a beginning birder who would like to team up with an experienced counter, we may be able to help you with that as well.
Why is this important? The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is one of the longest running citizen science projects in the country, and provides a baseline of bird populations through the decades. Scientists use the information to determine the range and habitat of birds, and identify population changes. This is especially important as we try to understand the impact of global climate instability.
After counting from dawn to dusk on December 22nd, participants are invited to meet at the Kenny Lake Library to compare notes, and enjoy some hot drinks and snacks. This meeting is not mandatory, it is just a fun way to finish up the day. WISE will compile the results and return them to Audubon to be included in the national results.
Copper River Record November 8, 2018
By Robin Mayo
Albert Einstein once said “Play is the highest form of research.” Kids of all ages desperately need free-form outdoor play to develop their creativity, problem solving, self reliance, coordination, and many other essential skills. With this in mind, WISE is planning to develop a “Pop-Up Natural Playground” for Copper Valley youth.
I first saw this type of playground at a Children and Nature Network Conference in Vancouver BC in 2017. A large area of a waterfront park had been roped off and filled with a wide variety of materials including bales of straw, a large pile of soil, logs and sticks of all sizes and shapes, rope, burlap, and lumber. There was no formal instruction and very few rules, but kids knew exactly what to do. Every time I walked by the area was full of kids creating forts, making their own play structures, or digging industriously in the dirt. At the end of the week they raked up the mess and packed up the materials to donate to a local school.
This type of play has become increasingly rare, and both research and common sense indicate that it is valuable for kids, not just as a welcome break from an over-structured world, but an essential ingredient for developing brains. It is a chance to try out ideas, make mistakes, and figure out how the world works. It also happens to be a ton of fun.
WISE is working on planning and funding for a project we are calling the “Pop-Up Natural Playground.” We will collect materials and come up with procedures for setting up, supervising, and dismantling temporary natural playgrounds at local schools and public events. The playgrounds will be roped off areas stocked with natural materials to encourage free-form play, which can be set up for an afternoon, or for several weeks. WISE volunteers will supervise, making sure the play is safe and inclusive. Afterwards, we will pack the materials into our trailer, ready for the next adventure.
One of the keys of this type of playground is that it is kid-directed, with minimal leadership or interference from the adults present. In the reading I’ve been doing, one of the challenges is encouraging parents and other adults to step back and let the kids do what they want. Perhaps we’ll have to designate adult times when the more mature “kids” in our communities can also have a go at building forts!
On “Giving Tuesday,” (November 27th) WISE will launch a crowdfunding campaign to help raise funds for this fun new program. We will also be looking for donations of materials such as bales of straw, cable spools, rope, and logs to stock our pop-up playground. This spring we will be recruiting and training volunteers to help make our “Pop-Up Natural Playground” a reality in all the communities of the Copper River Basin. And once it is up and running, we will be looking for events where we can share the playground. If you are interested in getting involved, please call the WISE office, or email me at email@example.com.
This temporary playground in Vancouver BC was the inspiration for WISE’s new Pop-Up Natural Playground. Photo courtesy of Bienenstock Natural Playgrounds.
Copper River Record November 1, 2018
By Robin Mayo
Lampreys were the topic of the first WISE Science Lecture of the season, held October 19th at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Auditorium. Our speaker was Andres Lopez, of UAF Museum of the North. 29 people attended, with a wide variety of ages, communities, and backgrounds represented.
To begin, Dr. Lopez answered the question of exactly what is a lamprey, specifically how it is related to eels. Although he must be asked this question very often, he answered it with grace and humor, by showing the evolutionary track of both creatures. It turns out that eels and lampreys are not even distant cousins, in fact eels are more closely related to humans than to lampreys, as people and eels both have mineralized hard skeletons, while lamprey are cartilaginous, lacking jaws and several other accoutrements we take for granted.
Most of Dr. Lopez’ research has been on Arctic lamprey (Lethenteron camtschaticum) which are found throughout northern, central and western Alaska, and even the Susitna River drainage. Here in the Copper River watershed we have Pacific lampreys (Entosphenus tridentatus) which are larger. Worldwide, there are about 40 living species of lamprey, occupying almost exclusively far northern and southern latitudes. Some are freshwater, some marine, and some anadromous.
Over and over during this lecture, I found my conceptions about some basic facts of life challenged. For instance, it was long thought that there were two species of lamprey occupying overlapping habitat, Arctic lamprey and Alaska Brook Lamprey (Lethenteron alaskense.) Through genetic analysis of diverse populations, Dr. Lopez and his colleagues have proven that they are actually one species, despite their quite different habits and appearance.
Here is when it gets a little weird. In their larval stage, lamprey are called ammocoetes (pronounces ammo seats) and are blind filter feeders who live in the mud on the bottom of waterways. Locals attending the lecture reported observing ammocoetes in the mud at the Richardson Highway Gulkana River bridge. When they are about 6 inches long, they emerge from the mud and develop eyes and a sucking disc for a mouth. Some then migrate out to sea, following an anadromous pattern much like salmon. But others stay where they are, and never even grow a working adult digestive system. They live off their stored nutrients for several months before spawning. Both life strategies are semelparous, meaning that like salmon they spawn once then die.
For many Copper Basin residents, our experience with lampreys involve harvesting salmon with round scars from a lamprey, or even finding live lampreys in fish wheels. We were entertained before the lecture by a story from Mike about pulling a lamprey out of the fish wheel live well, and having it try to latch on to him. Because of this, I’ve always thought of them as parasitic, living off other creatures without killing them. But analysis of the stomach contents of seagoing lampreys showed that a small fish called a Capelin is one of their most frequent prey. The lampreys had ingested large chunks of flesh, not just blood, indicating that they are also predatory, and may scavenge for food.
For Alaska natives on the lower Yukon, lampreys are an important subsistence food. When the lampreys are due to migrate in the fall, they cut a hole in the ice and keep watch. When the migration starts, it comes in large enough numbers to sometimes even lift the ice. Villagers then pull out the lampreys with hooks, freezing them on the ice. I’ve seen a lamprey flung up onto the beach make its way back to the water in a sidewinding motion, so I’d love to know how they keep them from slithering back into the river.
The state of Alaska has recently established a commercial fishery for lamprey with a 40,000 pound limit, as they are considered a delicacy in some cultures. However, there is almost no real data on the size of the population, a gap that it seems they ought to get a handle on before going encouraging large harvests.
This lecture was a fascinating reminder of how little we know about the natural world, especially the aquatic world. Dr. Lopez did a great job of answering many of my questions, but the fascinating information he shared has caused many more questions to bubble up. There is much more to tell, but I’ll close with advice from Dr. Lopez to google “hagfish” or “slimefish.” This is the lamprey group’s closest living relative, with a defense mechanism that is truly bizarre!
Harvest of lamprey on the lower Yukon River. Photo Courtesty of Kwik’pak Fisheries
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.