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Journal of the Wild

The Journal of the Wild is a resource for teachers, students, and librarians about the natural world of Alaska and other wild places around the world.


May 19, 2014: Golden Plover

Word of the week: Kolea: The Hawaiian word for the Pacific Golden Plover, meaning "one who takes and leaves."

Two weeks ago, I walked along the shores of the island of O'ahu in Hawaii.  The sweet fragrance of  plumeria flowers drifted with the ocean breeze.  In the grassy areas near the beach I spotted many Kolea, or golden plovers.   The males looked stunning with their black velvet breasts, white racing stripe down the neck, and golden-flecked backs.  From a distance these regal birds looked like they were wearing tuxedos.  

These shorebirds were busy feeding, snatching insects from the grasses.   They were building up their fat layer in preparation for a very long migration to Alaska.  Since the golden plovers feed in Hawaii during the winter and then leave for Alaska to nest in the summer, the Hawaiian people call them the Kolea --- "one who takes and leaves."

On a golf course I spotted a golden plover standing next to a much larger shorebird, a bristle-thighed curlew.   The curlew had a long downward curved bill and a satellite tag on its leg.  Scientists will track the curlew's migration through a little antenna attached to the bird.  The golden plover and the curlew in this picture will fly nonstop to Alaska, over 3,000 miles of ocean.  Depending on winds and weather, it takes these birds 2 to 4 days to reach land.  


It's amazing to think that birds can fly so far over the ocean, without stopping!  When the plovers and curlews reach Alaska they will establish their territories, find a mate, and build a nest.   Usually the female plovers lay four eggs.   After the chicks are born, and become strong enough to be alone, the parent birds fly all the way back to Hawaii!   About a month later the young birds make their first migration to islands in the middle of the Pacific that they have never seen, with no parents to guide them. 


To learn more about the life cycle of the Pacific golden plover read Flight of the Golden Plover: The Amazing Migration Between Hawaii and Alaska,  illustrated by Daniel Van Zyle.



             Imagine that you are a bird.   What would it be like to spread your wings and fly 3,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean to find your nesting grounds in Alaska?   What might you see?   What kind of weather might you encounter?  How would you feel when you arrived in Alaska?

April 25, 2014: Koalas

Word of the week: Eucalyptus: a beautiful, tall tree with crescent leaves that koalas love to eat. Eucalyptus trees are native to Australia and there are many species.

Cute and cuddly, koalas are adorable animals. While walking through the eucalyptus forest on Raymond Island in Australia, I searched for koalas. This particular island is a wildlife sanctuary established to protect these beautiful creatures.


Lucky day! During the three hour walk, I counted 17 koalas! Many of them were sleeping in the notch of a tree, or clinging vertically to the trunks with their sharp claws, and eyes closed. One koala mother climbed straight up a huge eucalyptus with a young joey clinging to her back. Like kangaroos, the koala is a marsupial, raising its young in a pouch. This joey was big enough to leave the pouch and ride on mother's back.

Koalas spend their whole lives in trees and they feed on several types of eucalyptus leaves. They spend about 20 hours a day sleeping, and digesting the fibrous, bitter leaves. They are most active at dusk and dawn.


When I first heard a male koala growl, I thought it was some type of lion. They really roar! This was very surprising given their soft, gentle appearance.



          Look carefully at the picture of the mother koala climbing the eucalyptus tree. Do you notice anything similar between the bark of the tree and her fur? Imagine if you were the young joey riding on mother's back. How would you feel climbing a tree that might be 100 feet tall? What might you see looking down, or up? What might you hear? Write a poem or story about life in a tree. Think of times that you've climbed a tree or looked at a forest from a tree house. Have fun writing!


One of my favorite books about a very special koala: Koala Lou by Mem Fox.



To hear the sounds of real, live koalas, you can listen to a radio program about koalas on Raymond Island if you visit

April 3, 2014: Kangaroos

Word of the week: Marsupial: a mammal whose young live inside a pouch. Australia has many marsupials such as the kangaroo, wallaby, koala, wombat and possum.

While traveling across Australia we’ve seen many kangaroos bounding across the meadows, or grazing in open areas. These beautiful creatures hop gracefully across the land, sometimes in large groups known as mobs. There are millions of kangaroos in Australia. In eastern Australia we often see the Eastern Gray Kangaroo.


Look at this picture and you’ll see a round shape beneath the body of this mother kangaroo. It looks like she is carrying a bowling bowl. Hidden beneath the fur is a little joey inside her pouch!


When the joeys are born they weigh about as much as a dime. These tiny pink-skinned creatures crawl through their mother’s fur and find her pouch. They live inside the pouch for several months nursing on mother’s milk. As they get bigger they stick their heads out of the pouch and nibble on the same plants that the mother eats.


The little joeys are adorable! Here is a short video that shows an Eastern gray kangaroo mother with her joey. I was kneeling down quietly, very close to them.

           Imagine that you are a joey inside a warm, cozy pouch. You’ve grown just big enough so that you can see over the edge of the pouch. What do you see, smell and hear as you look at the world around you? When your mother starts hopping, what does it feel like? When she grazes and your nose is near the ground what do you discover in the grasses?

March 20th, 2014: Emus

Word of the week: Ratites: flightless birds in the southern hemisphere including the ostrich, cassowary, rhea, kiwi and emu.

Greetings from Australia, the great continent of kangaroos, parrots, giant lizards and emus! This is an incredible land to explore and write about.


Standing eye to eye with an emu is a humbling experience. Australia’s largest bird stands over six feet tall! They have huge, curious eyes and an enormous beak, similar to Africa’s ostrich. When they become agitated or upset, the skin on their necks gradually turns from white to an iridescent light blue.


These flightless birds are found throughout Australia’s arid, grassy lands. They have shaggy, loose feathers that insulate the bird from the heat and cold. A few days ago, I walked behind an emu and its body looked like a thatched hut on long scaly stilts.


Emus have an unusual family structure. Males scrape a shallow ground nest that is lined with grasses and leaves. The female lays 6 to 12 eggs (each about the size and color of a giant avocado), then she leaves. The male incubates the eggs for two months! When the chicks are born they stay with their father for as long as 18 months. They eat insects, fruit, and leaves.


What unusual voices! The females make a hollow drumming in their throats. It sounds like a deep heartbeat. Males have a throaty growl. When the males challenge each other they extend their ruffed necks and hiss at each other, face to face. Emus are amazing birds!

           Think of a wild animal that you’ve met eye to eye. Describe the animal and your experience with that animal. Perhaps the animal was in a wild setting, the zoo, or your backyard? Write a poem or story about your encounter with the animal. How did you feel? What do you think the animal was thinking? How did the animal react to you?

March 10th, 2014: Wolves

Word of the week: Carnivore: animals that feed on other animals.

On a warm day last summer, we walked along a beach in Glacier Bay National Park. Suddenly, the movement of another animal caught my eye. What a surprise to see a wolf trotting along the shore, following our footsteps . This tawny brown wolf was panting. It waded across a shallow stream, and stopped to sip the water. Then it continued to approach us. I stood quietly, my heart pounding. When the wolf was about 20 feet away, it paused, glanced at us, then walked on. It was an amazing feeling to look into the eyes of this wolf.


Wolves are carnivores. They feed on a variety of animals such as caribou, moose, hares, salmon, lemmings, voles and birds. There are an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 wolves in Alaska.





               Wolves have unforgettable voices when they howl. Listen carefully to the voice of this lone wolf, then describe what you heard. Did you hear anything else beside the wolf? What do you think the wolf was saying? Can you imagine and describe the habitat where this wolf lives? Write a poem or a story about this wolf, using your imagination. Use at least three sound words in your writing.


To learn more about Alaska's wolves you can listen to an excellent podcast about wolves at:

Photo by Richard Nelson

Click here to hear the wolf's voice

Sound Recording by Richard Nelson

February 17th, 2014: Bald Eagle

Word of the week: Talon: A sharp claw found on the feet of some birds, such as the bald eagle

Bald eagles are magnificent birds of prey that take your breath away! While paddling a kayak along the coast of Alaska this regal bald eagle perched on a spruce tree branch above me. Bald eagles have sharp talons that they use for catching fish and other animals. They also have a curved, sharp beak that they use for cutting and tearing. They are powerful birds.


About 30,000 bald eagles live in Alaska. These huge birds weigh 10 to 14 pounds, and their wing span can reach 7 and 1/2 feet! In November, as many as 3,000 eagles gather in the Chilkat valley in Southeast Alaska to feed on salmon.



Do you have a special stuffed animal? This is Everett, a traveling bald eagle that lived in a 4th grade classroom at Central School Elementary in Wilmette, Illinois. The students sent Everett to Alaska to visit me, and I showed him the sights. Everett had the opportunity to see Denali National Park and other places. He loved experiencing snow, watching dog mushers, and seeing wild bald eagles. When he arrived he wore a backpack which held a journal, sunglasses, and a camera. Everett flew back to Illinois with lots of pictures and stories in the journal to share with the class. Everett inspired me to write a book about a wild bald eagle that travels around Alaska. Big Alaska: Journey Across America's Most Amazing State is dedicated to Everett. Thanks for visiting Alaska Everett!



                Have you ever gone a special trip or adventure with a favorite stuffed animal? Describe your animal and why it is special to you. Does it have a name? Does it have a personality? Have you shared a particular adventure with it? Write a story or poem about a favorite stuffed animal.To learn more about Alaska's geography and bald eagles, read Big Alaska: Journey Across America's Most Amazing State.

February 10th, 2014: Ground Squirrel

Word of the week: Siksik: Inupiaq Eskimo name for the Arctic Ground Squirrel. This name also describes the voice of the ground squirrel, or the sound of its alarm call.

Imagine that you are an Arctic ground squirrel, curled up into a soft ball of fur, hidden beneath the snow in your burrow that is stuffed with dry grasses. It might be 40 or 50 below zero during the frigid winter of northern Alaska, but it is much warmer beneath a quilt of snow, inside the burrow.


Ground squirrels remind me of prairie dogs when they stand up on their hind legs. They are a little less than a foot tall, and weigh close to two pounds. During the summer they eat lots of seeds, grasses, plants, and insects to fatten themselves for seven months of hibernation. As they scamper across the tundra, you can often hear their calls: siksik...siksik.


While studying ground squirrels, I gently held a hibernating squirrel in the palm of my hands. The squirrel was part of a scientific study at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. As a soft, cold ball of fur, this squirrel was in a deep state of hibernation. I could barely feel its heartbeat. To conserve energy, ground squirrels lower their heart rate to 2 or 3 beats a minute, taking very few breaths. These warm-blooded mammals can also lower their body temperature to around 32 degrees, and they don't freeze to death. They are amazing well-adapted creatures!


To learn more about their hibernation and fascinating sleep cycle, read Survival at 40 Below.

             There are more than 200 species of squirrels that live all over the world, except in Australia and Antarctica. Have you seen a squirrel in your neighborhood or near your school? Write a story that describes the type of squirrel you have seen. How does the squirrel move? Where does it find its food? Does it have predators to worry about? Is it active during the winter? Is there something special about the behavior or characteristics of your squirrel?

February 3rd, 2014: Caribou

Word of the week: Migration: the movement of animals from one region to another. Some caribou migrate hundreds of miles to reach their summer or wintering grounds.

In the glow of the midnight sun, I sat on a gravel bar watching caribou mothers with their young calves swim across the river.  The week-old calves looked like puppies with long bar stool legs.   They paddled hard to keep up with their mothers, splashing through the cold, arctic water.  One pair crossed the river and the mother easily bounded up the bank with her long, sturdy legs.   The little calf tried to scramble up the bank, but it was too steep.  The calf slid and somersaulted backwards, tumbling toward the river.

After several failed attempts, the calf decided to swim back across the river alone.  Nose above the water, the calf swam directly toward our camp!  The calf emerged from the river, shook the water from its fur, then approached our tent, calling for its mother. When the calf was just a few yards away, I took this picture. I could almost reach out and touch its black, shiny nose. Then the calf trotted off, searching for its mother. You can hear the voice of the calf if you listen to this recording made by Richard Nelson, who was camping with me. After you hear the calf's voice, what do you think this animal was saying?  


Click here to hear calf's voice

           Imagine that you are a caribou calf, born on the tundra in early June.  How much do you weigh? What will you eat?   How is the weather? What do you smell?  Who will protect you?   What kind of adventure might you have during your first week of life? Write a story about being a caribou calf using all your senses. 

 To learn  about Alaska's caribou, read A Caribou Journey.  On the web, you can visitWild Explorer to see photos, hear sounds, and find out more about Alaska's caribou:

January 27, 2014: Sled Dogs

Word of the week: Diphtheria: A highly contagious bacterial disease that causes swelling of the throat, making it difficult to breathe and swallow. Thanks to today's immunizations, this disease is now rare.

Just before midnight on January 27, 1925,  a steam engine train pulled into the small town of Nenana carrying a life-saving package of medicine. This antitoxin serum was desperately needed by the distant town of Nome. Without this medicine, many people might die from a diphtheria epidemic that had struck the town.  This was an emergency!

Even though it was nearly 50 degrees below zero,  musher Bill Shannon and his dog team were ready to carry the serum package across the frozen wilderness. In the soft light of a crescent moon, Bill raced off in the frigid air. He was the first of 20 dog mushers who would risk their lives, and the lives of many sled dogs, to save the town of Nome. All together these amazing dogs and mushers traveled 674 miles in 5 and 1/2 days through the worst weather you can imagine. 

Togo was a Siberian Husky and a famous leader of the dog team that ran the farthest with the legendary dog musher, Leonhard Seppala.  His team ran 261 miles. Balto and Fox were the leaders of the last dog team to carry the serum with dog musher Gunnar Kaasen.   At one point the wind and blizzard conditions were so horrible that Gunnar's sled flipped over, and the serum package flew out of the sled basket and was temporarily lost!

Thanks to the heroic dogs and mushers, the serum package reached Nome and sick people were immediately treated. All of the sled dogs and mushers were heroes!

Photo courtesy of Ingelborg MacMillan

Balto and Musher Gunnar Kaasen
Photo courtesy of Ingelborg MacMillan

               Imagine if you were one of the sled dogs that raced to Nome. Write a story from a dog's perspective of what might happen  running across a frozen wilderness through day and  night. Here are some of the words that I used to describe the conditions in my book, The Great Serum Race: raging blizzard, icebound, frozen sky, bitter-cold, frost, extreme cold, brutally cold, biting cold, deadly weather, ice fog, howling wind, powerful gale, glare ice, and ice-coated faces.

To learn more about the life-saving serum race to Nome, read The Great Serum Race:  Blazing the Iditarod Trail.

January 20, 2014: Arctic Fox

Word of the week: Camouflage: Wearing something that conceals you, and allows you to blend in with the environment.

In the winter the Arctic Fox wears a beautiful coat of soft white fur so that the fox blends in with the snow.  This camouflage allows the fox to hunt prey and escape predators without being seen.    The fox wears two  coats of fur to stay warm and comfortable when winter temperatures are below zero.   One coat is a soft underfur that insulates him like the down in a fluffy sleeping bag.   The second outer coat has longer hairs that have tiny air pockets inside each strand of hair.  Even on the coldest days, arctic foxes can be toasty warm.


One summer day I sat on the soft cushion of a tussock, a mound of cottongrass that grows on Alaska's tundra.  I looked out at the Arctic Ocean and a sliver of sandy beach that separated the land from the sea.  On this calm day, there was not a trace of wind. Suddenly, a dog-like animal with a pointy snout, appeared on the beach.  It was an Arctic Fox!  I sat quietly and the fox trotted up a narrow ravine toward me.  It was so quiet that I could hear the fox panting and its paws compressing the lichens and mosses beneath its feet. The fox sniffed the ground, then looked up and our eyes met. He studied me closely and raised his tail. At that moment I snapped this picture.

          Can you think of another animal that uses camouflage to protect itself from predators, or to help capture prey?  Draw and color a picture of your camouflaged animal in its environment. Then see if your classmates can locate the animal in the picture.

To learn more about arctic animals and their winter adaptations,  read  Survival at 40 Below.   If you read this book carefully you'll see and learn about other arctic animals that are well camouflaged. 


To learn more about arctic animals and their winter adaptations,  read  Survival at 40 Below.   If you read this book carefully you'll see and learn about other arctic animals that are well camouflaged. 

Photo by Jim Davis

January 6, 2014: Animal Tracks

Word of the week: Imprint: A mark or impression made, such as an animal's track.

January 1, 2014: Polar Bears

Happy New Year! While we celebrate the New Year with friends and family, think about the world of polar bears....


January is the time of birth for polar bears in the Arctic. While you sit in your classroom, imagine what it would be like to be born inside a snowdrift. The temperature might be 30 or 40 below zero outside, but you are snug in a den next to your warm, sleepy mother. As a newborn cub you only weigh one pound, about the size of a guinea pig! For the next three months you hear the wind roar outside, but you are safe inside the cozy den, nursing your mother, growing bigger and stronger each day.


       By springtime polar bear cubs are ready to leave the den and see sunshine for the first time. If you were a cub, what might you be thinking? Write a poem or story about what these cubs might be thinking or feeling.


To learn more about polar bears, read A Polar Bear Journey

Word of the week: : Nanuq (nah-NOOK) meaning polar bear in the Inupiat Eskimo Language

Photo by Jim Davis


In Alaska there are many animals that imprint their tracks in the snow, mud, sand, or on the mossy floor of a forest. If you follow the fresh tracks of an animal you might be lucky enough to see the animal. But if you don't, it's still exciting to know that you are walking along the same path as another creature. Tracks come in all shapes and sizes, and they reveal stories about the wanderings of fascinating animals. Can you guess which Alaska animals made these tracks?   

These carnivores can weigh over 100 pounds and they have big paws.  As social creatures, they live in packs that average 6-7 animals.


This enormous mammal can weigh over 1,000 pounds with tracks that are bigger than a man's boot. The width of its partially webbed front paws can measure 12 inches.



This smaller carnivore weighs 15 to 30 pounds and has a sleek, thick coat of fur. These animals eat fish, clams, mussels, frogs, and other animals. A strong swimmer, they can dive as deep as 60 feet.




















        Can you think of a set of tracks that you've discovered? Imagine following those tracks.  Describe the environment:  the habitat, sounds, weather, and smells. Think about the animal that made the tracks. Where was it going?  What was it doing? Did the tracks tell a story or did you see the animal?  Write a poem or story about your journey.





Let's look for tracks!





                                                                                                                                                           Answers: 1. Gray Wolf 2. Polar Bear 3. River Otter


















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