Snowshoe hares in winter feeding on dry alder leaves.
Snowshoe hares in winter feeding on dry alder leaves.
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
A 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
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
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
Our home in the wilderness.
This post is in support of the recent story that appeared in the February 2016 issue of Country Magazine. The story is about our families life in Alaska. The following photographs are some that did not make the final layout in the magazine. Several Country Magazine readers have requested to see more photos. This is for you. Continue reading
Red squirrels work overtime in late summer/early fall gathering mushrooms. I spent several days this week photographing them. Though red squirrels can be a nuisance around our wilderness home I try to tolerate them. Our current red squirrel seems to be satisfied living a life in the wild so as long as he minds his own business he is on the payroll. I discourage bad squirrel behavior such as chewing on the house and if they persist, they get that one way ride up to my mean old neighbor ladies place. And she handles red squirrels just like most of my neighbors do. Continue reading
Red squirrel has cached black spruce cones in an old flicker hole.
I am still on my backyard safari. This is where I do some of my favorite work. I have had professional photographers scoff at the mere suggestion of doing in-depth work with such “insignificant” species as the red squirrels, voles and the like. But I happen to enjoy photographing all species of wildlife including red squirrels. The idea of a backyard safari is to give one the incentive to compile a complete coverage of the wildlife in your immediate surroundings as well as gaining experience turning photographic potential into great photographs.
Red squirrel pry the scales off a spruce cone and feeds on the tiny seeds.
The red squirrel jumping straight on is a tough one. I found a place where the squirrel routinely jumps form one branch to another. The distance is just over three feet and it takes less than a second. The problem lies in the tiny amount of depth of field with the 560 mm telephoto lens. I use a Nikon 200-400 lens with a 1.4 tele-extender and pre-focus at about 4 meters. There is less than one inch that will be in sharp focus. I manage to get off about three frames each time the squirrel jumps and only about one in fifty photos will be in focus. What that boils down to is about one photo every four days will be a keeper. I could increase the percent of successful shots by adding a trigger which trips the shutter as the squirrel crosses a beam of infra-red light. Maybe next week.
One of the few sets of snowshoe hare tracks I have seen in the backyard this winter. They are currently at the low-end of their population cycle.
The male boreal owl is still calling from the flicker holes but not every night. I suspect he is also singing his territorial songs from other possible nesting sites in the area.
The male boreal owl begins his territorial songs just before dark.
The aurora borealis usually begins with a band of green, glowing light in the northeast.
Aurora begins to dance.
Aurora borealis dancing over our little homestead
.All week I have been on safari, backyard safari that is, trying to sniff out a few photographs. I continue working with the pine grosbeaks and red squirrels but they have proven tough subjects. Yes even squirrels can be very challenging especially when you try for something new. Last night a fantastic aurora show kept me busy for a few hours after midnight. The unexpected beauty made up for those frustrating red squirrels.
For the past couple weeks a boreal owl has been singing after dark. I had developed this situation by placing a couple of ladders within camera range of his singing posts. He sings his territorial song while sitting at the entrance of a couple of old northern flicker nesting cavities. On top of the ladders, I mounted ball heads so I could climb and place my telephoto lens and flash bracket quickly and quietly. As I photographed the aurora borealis the boreal owl was singing from both of the flicker cavities. During lulls in the aurora activity, I approached the cavities to see what was going on. At one cavity there was no owl at the hole and I could hear the male singing from the other cavity. Just for fun I scratched the tree trunk and to my surprise the head of a boreal owl emerged. There were two boreal owls! The male had attracted a mate. That was exciting news. Perhaps they would choose one of the cavities for their nest.
Male boreal owl stares out from the northern flicker cavity.
Ever feel like going on a safari but just can’t get away? Well, take a safari in your own back yard. Here you’re the expert. You know the terrain and what to expect. And believe it or not everyone can benefit from this little exercise. In fact, even with the smallest back yard, some amazing and beautiful images can be made. I regularly take a backyard safari.
My Big Backyard
I bet my back yard is bigger and wilder than yours! Our ten acres of northern boreal forest borders Wrangell/St. Elias National Park, Alaska, our largest National Park. My back yard stretches south for a couple hundred miles through the wilderness of Alaska. We have had grizzlies, wolves, red fox, lynx, great gray owls, nesting hawk owls, bald eagles, golden eagles, willow ptarmigan, great horned owls, sharp-tailed grouse, boreal owls, marten, caribou, Alaskan moose and much more on out little ten acre homestead. But still it is usually a difficult challenge to photograph the local wildlife . Nothing comes easy.
Developing Photo Potential
Getting the most out of your backyard safari is the same as any photo trip. In fact your own backyard offers the best opportunity to learn to develop photographic potential. And, there is no better place to gain valuable experience in finding solutions to photographic problems we all encounter in the field.
Look for a unique perspective.
Create feeding stations for birds and squirrels.
Take the time to let wildlife become used to your presence.
Build a blind if you have shy wildlife species.
Red squirrel jumping