Wary of leaving the security of the Slana River, an adult beaver slowly approaches a scent mound. Interrupting an invisible beam, the beaver triggers a digital camera to capture this self portrait.
Hauling armloads of mud and moss, beavers continually add to their mounds and frequently add a fresh scent. Bulletin boards for beavers, scent mounds are important features of their territory. And a good place to set up a camera trap I thought. You know, just to see what might pass. Kind of a wildlife selfie station. I pick the place, they pick the time.
Once or twice a month this wandering lynx passed the lens.
Over the spring/summer months the camera had several views of this scent mound. To the beavers the camera was part of the scenery. I had nightmares of them chewing on the camera or even pulling the whole camtraption into the river. But they completely ignored it. Beavers sometimes used the mound as a feeding platform or to just sit and chill for a few minutes. A late night surprise, the south end of a northbound grizzly. (below)
After a couple weeks of rainy weather I arrive at the camera station with a dry Nikon. The set-up is prone to problems. False triggers, battery failure, flash and sensor failure due to moisture, even snowshoe hares chewing cords. The beavers were busy refurbishing an old bare-bones lodge downstream and had all but stopped coming to the scent mound. But I kept the camera station operating. I like unexpected surprises.
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,
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 →
Once again I have made the trek into the sheep hills to photograph the majestic dall sheep. Its getting tougher, the mountains bigger, but fear if I ever quite, I’ll probably just keel over.
As I struggled up the mountainside towards the distant white dots, I paused on the edge of a deep canyon to catch my breath. From across the canyon and out of the deep green of the spruce forest came a shrill screaming. Sounding like the death scream of a snowshoe hare, just not quite. I had an idea what was making that sound. An hour later I stood among a group of ewes and lambs. Suddenly the whole herd spooked. They dashed to a ridge top and stared back down. Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
Some authors claim the lynx is strictly a hunter-predator. I have observed several lynx that do not fit perfectly into that mold. I do think lynx prefer fresh game they have killed themselves, But what if game is scarce and lynx are very hungry? This is the situation in much of interior Alaska this winter. The snowshoe hare population is currently at the bottom of its ten-year cycle. There are always a few snowshoe hares in prime habitat which is thick, white or black spruce mixed with a variety of other trees such as aspen, birch or poplar as well as willows and alder. But in the stands of pure black spruce, which dominate much of the landscape near my home snowshoe hare tracks are nearly absent. What remains for the lynx are primarily red squirrels, spruce grouse, willow ptarmigan, and voles. Lynx have been known to kill and eat red fox but that is not common. Same goes for mink, marten and the short-tailed weasel. And I suppose the lucky lynx could catch a woodpecker or gray jay if they were distracted. Continue reading →
I’d been on their track for a mile or two. It had taken nearly two hours to get this far moving slowly through the forest on snowshoes. The thick and stunted boreal forest was mostly black spruce. Small stands of tall aspen and veins of thick and lofty white spruce stood where the nutrient poor soil drained enough to prevent permafrost. The understory consisted of numerous species of willow along with Labrador tea and blueberry. Tracks and trails of snowshoe hares were everywhere. The snowshoe hare population undergoes huge swings in numbers during their ten-year cycle. Likewise, other prey species such as spruce grouse were on the upswing driven by years of low predator numbers. The hare population had peaked. And with the increasing snowshoe and grouse population, lynx, coyotes, red fox, northern goshawks and great horned owls, and even the smaller northern hawk owl populations were once again on the rebound. Continue reading →
I’ve spent the last four afternoons looking for willow ptarmigan. One of my photographic goals is to document more of their interesting behavior. On top of that list of photo wants are photos of willow ptarmigan in their snow burrows. Ptarmigan use snow to help insulate them against the frigid winter temperatures of interior Alaska. Their use of snow burrows can occur any time of the day but most common as they prepare to roost for the night. Willow ptarmigan are cyclic and their numbers have been quite low over the past two or three winters. But as Justin pointed out, they seem to be bouncing back. Continue reading →
Curiosity, pure and simple, the kind my two year old grandaughter is full of, is an essential element for the creative photo naturalist
THE PHOTO NATURALIST
Welcome to my new blog, THE PHOTO NATURALIST. I hope to share what little I have learned from forty years as a professional wildlife photographer.
Nature photography is nothing new, it’s been around for onehundred and sixty five years. George Eastman’s camera was manufactured in 1888. Pre-loaded with one hundred exposures, the Kodak Brownie had to be returned to the factory for processing and reloading. For the first time photography was available to everyone. Continue reading →