Tag Archives: camouflage

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.

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.

GOS-012

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.

NationalGeographic_492285

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.

 

 

 

HAWK OWLS, HOME HUNTING

6271

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.

northern hawk owl sits hidden on its nest, Alaska

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.

NORTHERN NESTERS

 

SECRET LIFE OF A FOREST HUNTER- PART ONE

 

DSC6522A female great gray owl spreads her wings as she gently lands on the edge of her nest to resume incubating her four eggs.   For two months this nest is the nucleus of activity for a pair of great gray owls.  Owls do not build their own nests. Instead they use a variety of ready-made and vacant nests, like this one built many years before by northern goshawks.  The great grays I had photographed three decades ago in Idaho prefered the bowled out tops of large broken pine trees for their nests.

DSC7359Eggs laid in the third week of April must be protected from the weather, as incubation begins with the first egg. The female does all the incubating and will sit on her eggs for thirty days.

DSC7473To gain access to the nesting great grays, more than fifty feet above the forest floor, I scabbed two long extensions ladders together and added an additional extension using two by fours.  I had located the nest thirteen years ago.  The three-foot wide nest was built by northern goshawks in a towering quaking aspen. Every spring I’d hike to the remote nest site to check its status. Goshawks had used the nest only once during the last thirteen years.

 

DSC6083

 

From my self-imposed confinement in the lofty, swaying photo blind, I witnessed much more than just the daily activities of the great gray owls.  The female owl and I watched red squirrels, that rarely seen red squirrel predator, the marten, groups of migrating caribou, and a variety of bird life.  Early one morning, not long after arriving, a huffing grizzly bear sow and yearling cub who had caught my scent quickly moved off beneath the blind.  Once a curious cow moose who could hear my camera clicking finally looked up.

DSC1064

DSC5985

DSC2049A couple of times a day the female flies off the nest to drink, cast her pellet and perhaps stretch before returning to her precious clutch of eggs.

DSC6427The male hunts for his mate and has just arrived with prey, a baby red squirrel.  The male, who hunts during the day using sight and sound, is an opportunist and preys on a variety of small birds and mammals.  Red-backed voles are by far the most important prey but shrews, small birds, and young snowshoe hares are also prey.  Adult red squirrels are usually too alert and quick to be given much attention by the hunting male.  But young squirrels, probably raided from their grass and sphagnum nests, are regularly on the menu.

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

HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT

518-12-100 A group of willow ptarmigan huddle beneath a willow in Alaska.

It seems hiding in plain sight would be risky business in our hostile and unforgiving world.  But few strategies for survival are as effective as camouflage.  Countless species of wildlife including birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, insects have adapted diverse methods of camouflage for offense as well as defense. Continue reading