Category Archives: wildllife

CARIBOU CROSSING

 

0480For two weeks I’d waited along this frozen river in the hopes of photographing the semi-annual caribou migration.   Altogether I saw about two hundred caribou, a mere trickle compared to some years.  One large group (above) had close to one hundred fifty caribou and the remaining stragglers were in pairs or small groups.  The bulk had passed to the west of here earlier.

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0580I knew from past migrations that the freezing rivers naturally funnel the caribou to this big bend in the Copper River Basin.   The river, frozen on both sides, was still open in most places down the middle.  I had located four  likely places on the big bend where caribou had crossed, places with enough cover for a photo ambush.  I moved between my ambush points to stay warm and pack down the trail between them so I could quickly move from one to another.  On most days I saw no caribou.  Though painfully slow, action could come at any moment.

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And when caribou are suddenly bearing down on my hide, I start forgetting things.  Things like warm cabin and cold feet.  And exactly, what is it I’m supposed to be doing with the camera?   Luckily symptoms of buck fever are temporary.

1398Of course more often than not the caribou would decide to cross where I wasn’t.  With tripod and camera over my shoulder I hurried down my trail trying to stay in camera range.  Out of time and breath, I planted the tripod like a mono-pod into the snow and clicked away as they plunged in and swam across.

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When I first noticed the caribou calf, it was in the river being carried past me by the current.   He managed to climb onto an ice island in the middle of the river.  After a couple of minutes he struggled to stand. Even though exhausted, the six month old calf,  separated from his mom and in maximum migration mode, was pressed by the urge to keep going.  Walking to the edge of the ice he stepped in with a plop and swam across the ten feet of open water but did not attempt to climb out.  Instead he turned back to the island, climbed out, laid down and curled up.   I stayed hidden knowing if he saw me now he might panic. The calf was in trouble and travel would wait.   A rest and recharge now could only help tip the balance in his favor.  Half an hour later the six month-old calf was still asleep on the ice.  As I slowly moved away and headed home, I had a hunch this young caribou was a survivor.

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THE ELUSIVE MARTEN

 

49-19-31A marten pokes up through the snow to look around.

49-19-12The shy and careful weasel, not liking to be exposed, has pulled its prey, a snowshoe hare, into deep snow.

49-19-3Though I have gone several years between marten sightings in the past, i typically have one or two sightings a year.  But, just last week we had a marten hanging out at our place for several days.  The forest around our home was laced with its familiar tracks and all the trails seemed to begin at a big wood pile like spokes of a wheel.  We saw it several times daily and I was able to take hundreds of photographs of the usually elusive predator. From our front row seat at the window, we watched as the marten climbed up a spruce to a red squirrel nest and stole goodies the squirrel had stashed there.  And, once I watched as it chased a snowshoe hare through the black spruce. It managed an amazing burst of speed and very nearly caught up to the hare.  But  when pressed the hare showed he is even quicker   So, I was a bit surprised to look out the window and see the marten tugging and pulling at a hare it had caught during the night.  It pulled the hare into the deep snow where it could butcher its prey concealed from the prying eyes of other predator and scavengers. First the marten gnawed off the hares head and cached it in the wood pile.  The next day it cached the hares front legs.  Cindy and I watched as the solitary marten entertained itself by running an obstacle course around and through the wood pile then roll on its back in the snow.

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49-19-8Though half the snowshoe hare was still left I spent the next two days watching and waiting for it to reappear.  But just like it appeared, it disappeared.  A pair of gray jays began to work the hare carcass hauling if away piece by piece, stashing it among the black spruce boughs.  A pair of ravens wanted their share but only stared.   For ravens, of course, are very cautious,  even fearing their own food.  But ravens are keen spies and watched carefully where the gray jays cached their loads.  A hawk owl made a lightning quick chase and near miss of one of the gray jays.  And later, I saw it swoop quickly again in the vicinity of the snowshoe hare carcass.  Thinking it might have caught the gray jay I approached with my camera and telephoto lens.  But the hawk owl had not caught the jay, instead it stood on the snowshoe hare carcass tugging.  From the thick spruce nearby I heard a second hawk owl calling.  It was the begging call of a female.  After several minutes of biting and pulling the hawk owl, presumably a male, managed to tear off a chunk of the hare.  It flew to a spruce and was soon joined by the female who took the offering.

7324Northern hawk owl continues the butchering process of the marten’s kill.  Though It is true that a predator may not use all of its prey, nothing is wasted.

 

PHANTOM OF SOLOMAN GULCH

60-18-1Sneaking a peek from the thicket of salmon berry and mountain ash a brown bear checks to see if the coast is clear.  The bruin wants to get to the spawning pink salmon but is often kept away by a herd of nosy and noisy bad mannered tourists.  When the bear does arrive, rather than giving the bear plenty of room to feed,  tourists often crowd the bear hastening his departure before he has had his fill.

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Left:  Soloman Gulch

60-18-5The brown bear, hungry but shy pauses as he works up the courage to approach the salmon and the tourists. This reluctance is something I share with the big brown bear.

60-18-9 (2)As the tide moves out exposing fish killed by feeding Stellar’s sea lions,  the lanky brown bear cleans up.  The Stellar’s sea lions, are afraid of the bear and move away from shore.

61-18-4Like the brown bear, Stellar’s sea lions come to Soloman Gulch to feed on the millions of pink salmon arriving here to spawn.  Over the past twenty -five years, I have witnessed an increasing number of Sellar’s sea lions spending the first week of July near the mouth of Soloman Gulch.   This year I counted over one hundred sea lions together at a nearby resting site during low tide.

5504Pink salmon by the millions arrive at the mouth of Soloman Gulch to spawn.

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A stellar’s sea lion bites a pink salmon in half.  This is a common technique used by some of the sea lions.  I overheard some guy telling his wife that they bite them in half so they can swallow the fish in two pieces.  But what actually is happening is a bit different.  Like the bears, the lea lions soon tire of a straight diet of salmon and quickly begin to be more selective.  What they want more than anything are the eggs.  That’s why both bears and sea lions both often drop the males soon often they are caught.  When a sea lion catches an egg-laden female salmon they may bite hard  at the head end of the fish then violently jerk the fish to the side, ripping it in half and keeping the salmon head and guts along with the eggs in its mouth.  The photo above shows the sea lion had the wrong end of the salmon and was left with just a tail.  Visitors often comment on how wasteful the sea lions are but nothing really goes to wast.  Bears, gulls, bald eagles, sea otters, harbor seals get what the sea lions leave behind, not to mention all the other hungry fish and crabs and other marine scavengers.

60-18-10 (2)The brown bear grabs a small salmon and carries it back to the seclusion of Soloman Gulch.

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THE MARTEN

49-20-5The marten scrapes out a tough living in the northern forests.  The largely nocturnal members of the weasel family, prey on small birds and mammals.

49-37-2A tireless traveler, the marten (Martes americana) leaves an endless line of tracks through the Alaskan wilderness.  Like other members of the weasel family, martens successfully hunt quick prey like the red squirrel and snowshoe hare in deep snow. Tracks are the most common sign of the presence of martens.  Following or backtracking marten tracks will tell a story of what this tough, little predator has been up to and gives clues to their habits. Though they are seldom very common, martens are not endangered over most of their range.  But martens are so shy and secretive that little is known about their mysterious lives.   Old growth  forests with large trees and numerous standing and fallen dead trees are a martens prefered habitat, providing cover, food, shelter and cavities for their dens. Continue reading

LIFE CYCLE OF PINK SALMON

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Pink salmon show up in estuaries in early July by the millions. Pink salmon are Alaska’ most common salmon species.  They also have the shortest life cycle than other salmon species.  Pinks return to freshwater to spawn when they are two years old and immediately begin to  change from silver to green and dark gray.  And, males form hooked jaws and humped backs. Continue reading

THE YELLOW HAMMER

_dsc9410TAKING OUT THE TRASH  A female northern flicker bursts out of her nesting cavity with a fecal sack.

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

BEASTS OF THE BUOY

61-16-7Stellar’s sea lions rest on a buoy marking the most remote edge of the Copper River Delta.

Stellar’s sea lions love to hang out on buoys.  Safe from rare but ever-present packs of killer whales, the same sea lions that are so timid and quick to disappear when approached by our boat, feel no desire to leave the buoy.

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61-16-6As they are rocked to sleep, the constant clanging of the bell must be something of a lullaby.

RUFUS CREEK IN WINTER

aurora borealis-16-23Overflow ice floods Rufus Creek as Aurora Borealis dance.

Rufus Creek flows through our ten acres of black spruce forest on its way North to the Slana River.  The northern boreal forest is a patchwork of dynamic land forms and plant communities, niches that a  few hardy species of wildlife can exploit.  Diversity of life here is low but the species and settings are spectacular. Continue reading

RAMS IN RUT

All summer and fall dall rams have shunned the groups of ewes and lambs.  The rams prefer the high country where they hang out in small bachelor bands.  With the approach of winter their association begins to fray as they begin to sort out a pecking order.  The rams stand in tight groups, displaying their massive curls trying to intimidate. They kick, growl, shove, and finally engage in dramatic displays of head butting.   For the most part dominance has been been sorted out when they join the herds of ewes and lambs already on the winter range.14-09-59Dall rams Continue reading