Winter seems to come later and later these past few years. And when that happens the local snowshoe hares are left feeling a bit conspicuous against their drab brown and gray habitat. The snowshoe hares count on their turn coats (brown in summer and white in winter) to help them hide from a gauntlet of predators like lynx, marten, red fox, northern goshawk, great hornedowls to name just a few.
Normally shy, snowshoe hares may tire of dodging my efforts to photograph them after a few attempts and eventually allow me a few close-up shots. But days of white snowshoes in their snowless habitat are numbered. Snow is inevitable and soon they will be hiding in plain sight just as nature intended,
Very few birch still have unshed leaves during the long Alaskan winter and most are just too high for the hares to reach. But this winter extra heavy snows, more than three feet deep in places, brought a limited amount of these prefered leaves within reach of the hares.
Alder is on a snowshoes “short list” of favorite winter foods. Of course leaves and small branches are prefered.
This snowshoe hare feeds on the bark of alpine birch. Hares often dig deep into the snow to reach the small twigs of blueberry. And, the large number of willow species found in these northern boreal forests are another important winter food.
In early March, snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) tracks began to appear where none had been all winter long. I guess the solitary males are out and about looking for females. The snowshoe hare cycle has been on the upswing for a couple of years but the hares are still uncommon in most of the black spruce forests around our place on the northern edge of Wrangell/St. Elias National Park. High quality hare habitat, mixed forests with willow and alder thickets are the nucleus of hare populations and often the only places where hares are common during low-cycle years . These “bunny patches” are where snowshoe hares multiply and disperse. A rising (or falling) hare population has a big impact on most predators and their prey. With snowshoe hare populations locally low, their main predators, lynx, red fox, northern goshawks, great horned owls and even northern hawk owls are low as well. Low numbers of predators has relieved pressure on prey species such as spruce grouse and snowshoes allowing them to recover. Grouse populations have the ability to rebound rather quickly as we have seen them do locally. All these cycles are driven to a large degree by the rise and fall of snowshoe hares. Continue reading →
ON THE TRACK OF THE SNOWSHOE HARE A snowshoe hare watches his backtrail.
In the far north snowshoe hares are trapped in an eternal cycle. A ten year cycle of life and death, of peak and crash, of predator and prey. Currently snowshoes are at the bottom of their population cycle. Predator species like the northern goshawk, northern hawk owl, and lynx crash a year or two after the hares. When the hare population is low they can still be found in bunny patches, small pockets of prime habitat. Thickets of mixed forests, spruce, poplar and willow are sanctuaries where a few hares somehow manage to survive extremely heavy pressure from predators. In lodgepole forests of eastern Idaho, my old stompin grounds, the snowshoe hares did not seem to go through the extreme population peak and crash. Continue reading →