I first saw the gray jays as they flew across the road in front of me. They both carried loads of building materials in their bills. The next day I went searching for their nest. It was rather easy to find as they were both busy with construction. The nest was about twenty feet high in a medium-sized black spruce. They had completed a loose bowl of dry spruce twigs and were currently engaged with stuffing this framework with insulation. The pair gathered black, grizzly hair lichens as well as spruce grouse feathers. But their most prized finds were the long soft plumes of the northern hawk owl. After delivering a load of insulation, the birds would hop into the nest and push with bills and feet as they rotated around in the nest, fitting and forming it to just the right shape.The female begins sitting on the nest and a week later her clutch of spotted eggs is complete. The pair is quiet at the nest site and does not attract attention of those nest raiders, magpies and ravens. When a red squirrel was spotted nearby it was dive-bombed by the male gray jay and driven away.
Both adults help feed the quickly growing gray jay chicks. Gray jays store amazing amounts of food including carrion and I wondered if they would feed their cached supplies to their chicks. But Instead they foraged the ground for insects and larva, much better food for the new chicks.
As the chicks grew the gray jays cached stores of carrion became more important. And it quickly became apparent that the nest would never hold four growing chicks for long. By the time the chicks were about two weeks old, they jostle for the best position at the nest. I witnessed deliberate attempts by the larger chicks to force their smaller siblings out. One morning there were just two chicks left in the nest. Below the nest on the ground were the missing chicks, both dead. From human eyes, a tragic event. But for nature, another one of those mysteries of survival.
Come July of this year the name of the gray jay will change once again. They will officially be known as the Canada jay. And like camp robber and whiskey jack, gray jay will be just another nickname used to describe this gray-colored jay of the northern forests.
HUNTING IN WINTER
From a perch in a stand of stunted black spruce, a well camouflaged immature northern goshawk stalks its prey. Their short, wide wings and long tail give it both speed and manoeuverability to pursue prey in the forest. No small bird or mammal is safe from a sudden ambush, but this winter the large accipiters key on snowshoe hares.
The snowshoe hare has perfected the art of camouflage, but as an extra defense against the goshawks, they often use snow burrows. But the snowshoe hares’ best defense against the sudden attacks by goshawks is its nocturnal behavior.
Often northern goshawks show little fear of humans. When I approached it flew a few yards away but quickly returned to its prey. The goshawk fed for nearly an hour leaving only the feet, fur, guts, head and large bones.
While the snowshoe hare population is near its peak this year, their primary predators populations (northern goshawk, lynx, coyote and great horned owl) are also peaking. And this heavy predation will inevitably cause the next snowshoe hare population crash.
ALONE WITH THE NORTHERN GOSHAWK
After the chicks hatch, northern goshawks become very aggressive at their nests. By visiting the nesting territory on a daily basis, starting early in the nesting season I seemed to have gained the trust of the goshawks. By building my blind near their nest under the cover of darkness, wearing the same clothes everyday and never disturbing the nest, I was able to climb into my photo blind or walk around the forest below unmolested.
The great female goshawk rose up from her eggs and stepped to the edge of her three-foot wide nest. Eyes of blood locked onto her target. Diving headfirst off the nest, she pumped her wings quickly accelerating to attack speed. Long tail feathers flared and pivot, sending the goshawk speeding around the base of a large douglas fir and crashing into the understory. Squealing in terror, a red squirrel jumped to the trunk and instinctively darted to the opposite side, sticking like velcro to the rough, dry bark, then squirrel shot up the trunk into the canopy. Again the goshawk attacked. Going up, the squirrel was faster but on the way back down the goshawk closed the distance.
Among the thick branches of the canopy the squirrel had the edge, but not by much. Using feet, bill and wings, the goshawk literally swam through the boughs. Desperate to lose the hawk, the squirrel spiraled up the nest tree and right over those precious eggs, before jumping to an adjacent tree. The squirrel somehow missed being snagged by those talons, utilizing unearthly tricks of speed and anti-gravity. I could keep track of the chase through the various observation and lens slits cut into the photo blind, but the action was much too quick and hard to follow so I missed getting any photos. It was inevitable I guess, when I felt the squirrel coming up my blind tree, the gos riding his wind. A vision of the squirrel taking refuge up my pant leg was suddenly a painful possibility. Just as the squirrel shot inside the blind I yelled and smacked the side of the blind. Luck was cheap that June morning. After a couple of quick laps around the legs of me and my tripod, the squirrel dashed back out and jumped to the next tree about five feet away.
Slamming through the branches with little regard for its plumage, the gos didn’t let up. But the squirrel had a little luck of his own stashed away. Running headfirst down the trunk, the squirrel made an Olympic jump 25 feet from the ground. Bouncing off the forest floor the squirrel made for thicker scenery. After orbiting several more big trees and an amazing sling-shot the squirrel made it to a thick jungle of downfall. For the next 30 minutes, the goshawk perched 20 feet below her nest and preened. The squirrel barked, chattered and buzzed and told the world what he thought of goshawks nesting in his five acres.
Three weeks earlier, the goshawk had calmly sat on her eggs while this same squirrel climbed the nest tree, dug into the bottom of the nest to find and nibble on mushrooms. I guess it seemed like the perfect place to dry mushrooms.
A female northern flicker approaches the nesting cavity.
Life at the nest of northern flickers is at a frantic level. Most of the long, Alaskan summer days keeps the adults working at a breathless pace. The pair at this nest take turns guarding the nest from the resident red squirrel or trespassing northern flickers and taking forays out into the black spruce forest to hunt for their main food, wood ants and their larva. When the female arrives back at the nest cavity with food for the young, the male departs.
To listen to the audio clip, click on left side of the bar. Volume at right. Adult male northern flicker responds to his mate appearing near the nest. Then listen as female enters nesting cavity to feed chicks. Continue reading
A pair of beautiful northern flickers has again taken up residence in our big back yard to raise a new generation. Their distinct repertoire of territorial calls and hammering adds a welcome touch of wilderness. These yellow hammers are perhaps the most striking birds of the northern boreal forest. As they dart about their forest territory flashing their brilliant feathers of gold I am unable to resist the temptation. I simply must try to capture some of their uncommon beauty with my cameras. Continue reading
Interior Alaska is definitely spruce grouse country. But along creeks and river bottoms, in old burns, in fact almost anywhere where several species of trees grow in thickets, narrow veins of ruffed grouse habitat can be found. Along the Slana River not far from where it enters the still modest Copper River, aspen, poplar, birch, white and black spruce, alder and a jumble of willow species form thickets where the cryptic ruffed grouse lives. Rose and high bush cranberry in the understory provide year round food for the few grouse that survive there. Continue reading
Ravens have been lurking around mankind ever since humans began making footprints. They are quick to learn and take advantage of any food sources we provide. And, ravens are smart, perhaps the smartest bird on the planet. They have the largest range of vocalizations of any living creature except of course, for us humans. Continue reading
For over a month I have been monitoring the female in the nesting cavity. A couple of times a week I would walk into the dark spruce woods and scratch the bottom of the dead poplar snag making a sound like a red squirrel climbing. Instantly her round head pops out and she stares down at me. Continue reading
For more than two months this male northern flicker and his mate maintain a territory centered around their nesting cavity in an Alaskan black spruce forest. Flickers are the most common woodpecker in Alaska’s interior. Continue reading
Yesterday I climbed a ladder twenty feet up to a natural hole in a decaying poplar within the boreal owl territory. I had found the male inside the cavity once, so I had always thought it was a likely place for a nest. I took a quick look inside the cavity with flashlight and mirror but there was nothing inside. A single gray, downy feather clung to the bark on the outside. The owl must have been spending some time there, I thought. When I looked around I was surprised to see the little boreal owl glaring at me from about ten feet away. It was clearly agitated that I was at the hole. A few minutes later as I photographed the owl from the ground, I suddenly heard the rapid calling of the male. But it wasn’t the owl I was photographing. There are two boreal owls here!
This morning just after six a. m. I returned to the owl territory. As I neared the poplar the cavity seemed to have vanished. Through binoculars I could see the female was at the cavity entrance peering out at me. What perfect camoflauge. It has been fifty one days since I first located the little male boreal owl. Well, it seems that all his persistant singing has finally paid off.