Tag Archives: naturalist

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.

THE ELUSIVE MARTEN

 

49-19-31A marten pokes up through the snow to look around.

49-19-12The shy and careful weasel, not liking to be exposed, has pulled its prey, a snowshoe hare, into deep snow.

49-19-3Though 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.

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49-19-8Though 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.

7324Northern hawk owl continues the butchering process of the marten’s kill.  Though It is true that a predator may not use all of its prey, nothing is wasted.

 

WINTER IS LATE

28-16-7Winter 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.

28-16-5Normally 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.  28-16-2But 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,

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PHANTOM OF SOLOMAN GULCH

60-18-1Sneaking 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.

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Left:  Soloman Gulch

60-18-5The brown bear, hungry but shy pauses as he works up the courage to approach the salmon and the tourists. This reluctance is something I share with the big brown bear.

60-18-9 (2)As the tide moves out exposing fish killed by feeding Stellar’s sea lions,  the lanky brown bear cleans up.  The Stellar’s sea lions, are afraid of the bear and move away from shore.

61-18-4Like 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.

5504Pink salmon by the millions arrive at the mouth of Soloman Gulch to spawn.

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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.

60-18-10 (2)The brown bear grabs a small salmon and carries it back to the seclusion of Soloman Gulch.

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HAWK OWLS, HOME HUNTING

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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 3

DSC4708At nearly four weeks a fledged great gray owlet has jumped from its nest to the forest floor.  Free from the confines of the nest, (I too am finally freed from the solitary confinement of my photo blind)  the owlet walks and leaps to a place to perch.

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Fledged owlets move about fifty to a hundred feet every day,  picking out a slanting tree to climb.   The ground is a dangerous place for the young, flightless owls. The mobile owl family becomes more difficult to locate by the day.

 

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DSC3553Adults continue to care for their owlets.  The female (above), usually staying near the owlets, will do some hunting when an opportunity presents itself.

DSC3700The female with a young snowshoe hare delivered by her mate.

DSC3245The snowshoe hare, large prey for a great gray owl, will feed her and her owlets for a day.  The prey is cached on the ground between feedings.

DSC3803Female perches on log after caching the snowshoe hare.

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Adult female drinking.

DSC4875Regurgitated great gray owl pellets and white spruce cones on a bed of sphagnum moss below an owlets perch.

DSC5028Female delivers her owlet a freshly caught red-backed vole.  Fledged owlets swallow voles whole.

DSC4858A tough job but it must be done.

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SECRET LIFE OF A FOREST HUNTER- PART 2

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Female great gray owl holds another red-backed vole just delivered by her mate.  The well fed owlets are not hungry at the moment so the vole will be placed in the nest for later.  For nearly four weeks I had a rare and intimate view of the owls family life at the nest.

DSC7601As the female raises up from her brooding, she gives me my first look at the tiny owlets.

DSC9643The owlets hatching over a period of about a week account for their age and size difference.  Competition among the owls for food favors the older owlets.  The smallest owlet, here just a couple of days old, could not hold its own and one morning it was gone.

Watch video of male delivering a red-backed vole. (above)

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After a couple of weeks there is no longer a need for constant brooding and the female finally gets a little time to herself.  But even then she stays close and alert for danger.  One day a pair of ravens hung around the nest in an attempt to harass her from the nest long enough to steal a chick.  She held tight and her mate arrived to chase the ravens about.  Eventually the ravens left.

OWLS IN THE FAMILY

DSC4140As the female perched near the nest her mate arrives with prey and she follows him in.DSC3045

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Arriving at the nest the female takes possession of the red-backed vole from  her mate. (right)    After a brief pause at the nest the male is off again to continue hunting. (below)DSC3370-b

Visit next week for the final post in this series, SECRET LIFE OF A FOREST HUNTER-PART THREE