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.
Though 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.
Though 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.
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.
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.
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.
Snowshoe hares in winter feeding on dry alder leaves.
1850 still photos into a one minute video.
Each winter dall sheep migrate to their rugged, windswept slopes. It is here that their dramatic rut takes place.
At 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.
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.
Adult female drinking.
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.
The 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)
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.
Visit next week for the final post in this series, SECRET LIFE OF A FOREST HUNTER-PART THREE