Tag Archives: backyard safari

GRAY JAY

4A pair of gray jays have finished their nest by early April.

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.9The 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.

8For nearly three weeks the female incubated her four eggs.  A few times a day she will leave the nest but only for a few minutes, perhaps to drink.

11The male gray jay shows up at the nest about once an hour or so to feed his mate.

5Laying eggs is an energy drain and the female spends hours sleeping.

10 Early nesting grays jays  must be able to handle cold, wet conditions in their Alaskan habitat.

12Both 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.

3851As 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.

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.

 

NORTHERN GOSHAWK

 

HUNTING IN WINTER

533-19-8From 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.

28-19-5The 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.

533-19-1An adult northern goshawk feeds on a snowshoe hare.

533-19-3As I photographed a snowshoe hare this immature northern goshawk suddenly appeared out of the blue shadows and killed my photo subject.  She mantles her prey with powerful wings.

533-19-9Often 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.

28-19-6While 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

GOS_011For months, over two nesting seasons I spent nearly every day in the company of northern goshawks.  Slowly they would reveal their secret lives.

533-48-1High in the canopy a female tends to her day old chicks.

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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.

 

SQUIRREL SMARTS

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.

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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.

533-268-2Slamming 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.

533-163-1Three 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.

 

 

 

SNOWSHOE HARES

 

DSC9993In 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

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

NESTING FLICKERS

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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

RUFFED RHYTHM

28A ruffed grouse male moves slowly through thick cover as it feeds on buds, last years berries and new leaves.

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

LAST HOMESTEAD

aurora borealis-15-115Our 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

MUSHROOMS AND RED SQUIRRELS

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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