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.
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.
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,
Sneaking a peek from the thicket of salmon berry and mountain ash a brown bear checks to see if the coast is clear. The bruin wants to get to the spawning pink salmon but is often kept away by a herd of nosy and noisy bad mannered tourists. When the bear does arrive, rather than giving the bear plenty of room to feed, tourists often crowd the bear hastening his departure before he has had his fill.
Left: Soloman Gulch
Like the brown bear, Stellar’s sea lions come to Soloman Gulch to feed on the millions of pink salmon arriving here to spawn. Over the past twenty -five years, I have witnessed an increasing number of Sellar’s sea lions spending the first week of July near the mouth of Soloman Gulch. This year I counted over one hundred sea lions together at a nearby resting site during low tide.
A stellar’s sea lion bites a pink salmon in half. This is a common technique used by some of the sea lions. I overheard some guy telling his wife that they bite them in half so they can swallow the fish in two pieces. But what actually is happening is a bit different. Like the bears, the lea lions soon tire of a straight diet of salmon and quickly begin to be more selective. What they want more than anything are the eggs. That’s why both bears and sea lions both often drop the males soon often they are caught. When a sea lion catches an egg-laden female salmon they may bite hard at the head end of the fish then violently jerk the fish to the side, ripping it in half and keeping the salmon head and guts along with the eggs in its mouth. The photo above shows the sea lion had the wrong end of the salmon and was left with just a tail. Visitors often comment on how wasteful the sea lions are but nothing really goes to wast. Bears, gulls, bald eagles, sea otters, harbor seals get what the sea lions leave behind, not to mention all the other hungry fish and crabs and other marine scavengers.
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.
A 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.
To 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.
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.
The 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.
A 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
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.
Pink salmon show up in estuaries in early July by the millions. Pink salmon are Alaska’ most common salmon species. They also have the shortest life cycle than other salmon species. Pinks return to freshwater to spawn when they are two years old and immediately begin to change from silver to green and dark gray. And, males form hooked jaws and humped backs. Continue reading