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.
Though 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.
Though 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.
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.
After supper, I built a fire in the hot tub. Overnight the temperature had dropped to about fifteen below zero F. and the temperature in the hot tub was down to about seventy degrees F. It takes about two hours to get the hot tub temperature back to one hundred degrees. Cindy and I jumped in and watched the stars and the occasional meteor streak overhead. An hour later we climbed out and got dressed in the nearby sauna, also heated with a wood stove.
I noticed a green glow of aurora borealis in the north and decided to take out a camera. I set the tripod and camera on the ice of Rufus Creek. The camera was set on interval timer to record a photo every ten seconds that I could later turn into a video. Returning to the house I told Cindy the aurora was really going for it so she got dressed for the cold and we went outside. I took along another camera and set it to record the aurora dancing over the house. We watched as the aurora went crazy. But it was getting chilly so I suggested we walk out to the hot tub and check the temp. I slide the lid over and the thermometer read 106 F. A bit on the warm side but tolerable so we stripped down and jumped in. And for the next hour we relaxed in luxury and soaked it all in.
Below are the videos I made.
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,
A pair of northern hawk owls check out the view from atop a prospective nesting cavity. Hawk owls, like other owls, do not build a nest but use natural cavities and bowled out snags. The male establishes a territory that includes potential nests sites, but it seems to be the female who makes the final choice of snags.
After settling on another snag, the female incubates her eggs. Hawk owls nest early, usually in late April and will endure winter conditions.
Check out my photo story about northern hawk owls in the May 2018 issue of RANGER RICK, Just click the link below.
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.
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.
Snowshoe hares in winter feeding on dry alder leaves.
1850 still photos into a one minute video.
Each winter dall sheep migrate to their rugged, windswept slopes. It is here that their dramatic rut takes place.