It has been a warm fall. Rainy and cloudy to be sure, but little frost.
It has been cold enough to flatten potato plants in low-lying areas of Delta Junction and Paxson. However, not so cold as to soften blueberries. Sept. 8 is the latest I can recall being able to still use a picker for blueberries on the Denali Highway.
The leaves are loose and fast disappearing. A stiff breeze will leave the tundra brown. The caribou are beginning to get restless and the sandhill cranes have begun their migration.
The cranes are later than usual. Sandhill cranes start to move when their food source starts to go south on them. The waning daylight undoubtedly also affects the migration timing of these birds, and there have been some cranes moving through Delta for a week or so. These were the forerunners of the big flocks that are now heading out of state.
A warm September will hold the sandhill cranes on the barley fields of Delta Junction for several weeks. This could be a boon for bird hunters who have been unable to hunt their Nelchina caribou permits. The last of the quota hunts closed last Thursday, but the federal caribou hunts remain open, as does the community hunt.
Caribou have been scattered along the Denali. The majority of hunters report seeing a preponderance of cows. Cool, rainy days will get the caribou out of the mountains, and snow on the ground will get them moving east. Caribou begin to transition out of their summer feed in late August after feeding extensively on dwarf birch leaves and wheat grass during July. They love fireweed before it flowers.
The leaves are gone on the birch. Fireweed has gone to seed. Wheat grass is still available on the edges of swamps. And, of course, lichens are always prolific on the tundra and in black spruce forests.
Caribou will move for feed. Hot weather isn’t good for lichen growth on the open tundra, and lichens in the Tangle Lakes area and the Maclaren Desert have not fared well in recent years. That could be a factor in the Nelchina animals avoiding some of the traditional hunting hot spots.
Hunters who commonly use the eastern Denali can tell you that in the past three or four years there have been very few animals on the Osar trail, Upper Tangles or 13-Mile Hill. The caribou herds have been staying along the edge of the Alphabet Hills as they migrate east to take advantage of better feed. Higher fall temperatures will not affect the rut. That is controlled by melatonin production.
Are Alaska’s mild fall temperatures a product of general climate change? Or is our present trend an anomaly that may pass in a year or a short decade? Fifty-plus years on the Maclaren gives me enough information to realize that our growing season (that is, frost-free days) is definitely longer by at least 10 days. The majority of that shift is in August and September.
Increasing temperatures will produce winners and losers in the plant and animal world. Some of the losers are becoming noticeable. I have already mentioned lichen growth, which will affect caribou. Will it just change migration routes or will it cause some of the Nelchina herd to split off and join a more northern herd?
The Forty-mile caribou herd is the likely recipient of a Nelchina split. The Delta herd also picked up several hundred Nelchina animals this past winter. If you traveled the northern section of Isabel Pass in early November, caribou could be seen moving north of Rainbow Mountain. There were a number of small herds traveling through the Black Rapids area en route to Donnelly and Upper Jarvis Creek.
Trumpeter swans could be another species that may have difficulty adjusting to the changing seasons. The swans arrive in early May in the Copper River Basin, which has one of the highest nesting concentrations of trumpeters in the world. Spring thaw has not been early the past five years. The swans sit at their preferred nesting sites for weeks and are unable to get their nest in production at their programmed time because of ice.
Some birds stick it out, but many move on and do not nest at all. Cygnets take 16 weeks to get airborne. There is time for that these days, even with a late June hatch, but trumpeter swans have thousands of years of pre-programming to overcome before they realize that. I can count the young swans between Paxson and the Susitna on one hand over the past three years.
Who benefits from the easy fall weather? Possibly moose. Certainly some passerine birds, and of course, those who like to get outdoors.
However, like the swans, we have programmed ourselves -- though it didn’t take a thousand years -- to live in motorhomes and wear polar fleece when we recreate. Thus it may take some re-educating to make our species aware that we can still pick blueberries during the month of September in a T-shirt.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.