For the past six weeks or so we have been delighted by the nocturnal trilling song of a little boreal owl. I believe the male has claimed our little forested yard as his own. He sings almost every night from one of the old northern flicker cavities in the black spruce stand surrounding our home. With his little round head filling up the hole he serenades the darkness, or sometimes accompanies the glow and flicker of the aurora.
Click on the left side of the audio bar to hear the song of the boreal owl.
The boreal owl is a nocturnal hunter of voles, shrews, flying squirrels and small birds.
Overflow 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 →
Adult male northern hawk owl is active during the day.
For a few weeks I have been photographing a pair of northern hawk owls that have nested in a stand of tall white spruce. Hawk owl populations are cyclic and for the past three years they have been rare in my part Alaskan interior. Over the past twenty years, I have been trying to capture their little known life history. In those twenty years I have found only six or seven active nests. 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.
Red squirrel jumping.
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.
.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.
Northern flying squirrel and boreal owl at the entrance to the same old northern flicker nesting cavity. The flying squirrel taken with a Nikon D3s digital camera and boreal owl shot with a Nikon F3 on Fujichrome film were taken more than ten years apart. The images illustrate the importance of the northern flickers, a keystone species. The flickers nest building activity increases forest biodiversity. Photographs were taken near my home in Slana, Alaska.
Alaskan flying squirrel peers out of an old northern flicker cavity just as darkness sets in.
Northern flying squirrels are more common in Alaska than most realize. They are found in coastal rainforests as well as the boreal forests of the interior. Flying squirrels are nocturnal thus rarely seen. I began to see them as I photographed the nocturnal activities of a pair of nesting boreal owls. As it turns out, boreal owls and flying squirrels share the same habitat preferences. They seem to prefer the big white spruce stands that grows along streams and other places where permafrost is not close to the surface. They share these places with the red squirrel. Red squirrels are active during the day and flying squirrels are active at night. But in the far north where it does not get dark for a several weeks during the summer, their activities overlap. Flying squirrels nest in abandoned northern flicker nesting cavities or other natural hollows.
Adult male is a night hunter and his prey consisting of small birds and mammals, such as this red-backed vole, are located by sight and sound.
Since nesting began, the male has been impossible to locate in the dark, damp forest near Slana, Alaska. But each evening he arrives at the nest site to deliver prey to the owlets. As the Alaskan days grow shorter, the male becomes active as twilight engulfs the stand of tall white spruce and poplar. He is the sole provider for the five owlets snuggled inside a hollow stub. The female abandoned her owlets when they were three weeks of age. They no longer needed brooding so apparently her role is complete. Continue reading →
Yesterday I climbed a ladder twenty feet up to a natural hole in a decaying poplar within the boreal owl territory. I had found the male inside the cavity once, so I had always thought it was a likely place for a nest. I took a quick look inside the cavity with flashlight and mirror but there was nothing inside. A single gray, downy feather clung to the bark on the outside. The owl must have been spending some time there, I thought. When I looked around I was surprised to see the little boreal owl glaring at me from about ten feet away. It was clearly agitated that I was at the hole. A few minutes later as I photographed the owl from the ground, I suddenly heard the rapid calling of the male. But it wasn’t the owl I was photographing. There are two boreal owls here!
This morning just after six a. m. I returned to the owl territory. As I neared the poplar the cavity seemed to have vanished. Through binoculars I could see the female was at the cavity entrance peering out at me. What perfect camoflauge. It has been fifty one days since I first located the little male boreal owl. Well, it seems that all his persistant singing has finally paid off.
I have been continuing to keep track of the little boreal owl in Slana. Its calling is falling off. I no longer hear it in the daylight hours though my friend still reports hearing it during trips to the outhouse late at night. Less calling means it is much harder to locate but I am still finding it in the thick dark woods by searching an area of about one hundred yards by two hundred yards. This small area seems to be its preferred daytime roosting area. Slowly walk back and forth through the spruce and poplar forest and scanning every tree I find it about 30 percent of the time. Once I was guided to its location by the calling of a couple upset boreal chickadees. It is never in the same perch. Continue reading →