After supper, I built a fire in the hot tub. Overnight the temperature had dropped to about fifteen below zero F. and the temperature in the hot tub was down to about seventy degrees F. It takes about two hours to get the hot tub temperature back to one hundred degrees. Cindy and I jumped in and watched the stars and the occasional meteor streak overhead. An hour later we climbed out and got dressed in the nearby sauna, also heated with a wood stove.
I noticed a green glow of aurora borealis in the north and decided to take out a camera. I set the tripod and camera on the ice of Rufus Creek. The camera was set on interval timer to record a photo every ten seconds that I could later turn into a video. Returning to the house I told Cindy the aurora was really going for it so she got dressed for the cold and we went outside. I took along another camera and set it to record the aurora dancing over the house. We watched as the aurora went crazy. But it was getting chilly so I suggested we walk out to the hot tub and check the temp. I slide the lid over and the thermometer read 106 F. A bit on the warm side but tolerable so we stripped down and jumped in. And for the next hour we relaxed in luxury and soaked it all in.
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 →
The marten scrapes out a tough living in the northern forests. The largely nocturnal members of the weasel family, prey on small birds and mammals.
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.
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 →
The aurora borealis displays are really picking up this year. After a few years of slow aurora activity its an exciting change and a great excuse for stay up late and snapping a few photographs. With todays wonderful digital cameras getting great aurora photos is easier than ever. I remember the day when I had only Kodachrome film with an ASA speed of either 25 or 64. Living in Alaska it could take more than two weeks just to get your processed film returned and check your results. Today you can snap a shot or two check the exposure using your histogram display, adjust your exposure if necessary and shoot away . You can be confident of what you’re getting. Continue reading →
Adult male northern hawk owl is active during the day.
For a few weeks I have been photographing a pair of northern hawk owls that have nested in a stand of tall white spruce. Hawk owl populations are cyclic and for the past three years they have been rare in my part Alaskan interior. Over the past twenty years, I have been trying to capture their little known life history. In those twenty years I have found only six or seven active nests. Continue reading →
Red squirrel has cached black spruce cones in an old flicker hole.
I am still on my backyard safari. This is where I do some of my favorite work. I have had professional photographers scoff at the mere suggestion of doing in-depth work with such “insignificant” species as the red squirrels, voles and the like. But I happen to enjoy photographing all species of wildlife including red squirrels. The idea of a backyard safari is to give one the incentive to compile a complete coverage of the wildlife in your immediate surroundings as well as gaining experience turning photographic potential into great photographs.
Red squirrel pry the scales off a spruce cone and feeds on the tiny seeds.
Red squirrel jumping.
The red squirrel jumping straight on is a tough one. I found a place where the squirrel routinely jumps form one branch to another. The distance is just over three feet and it takes less than a second. The problem lies in the tiny amount of depth of field with the 560 mm telephoto lens. I use a Nikon 200-400 lens with a 1.4 tele-extender and pre-focus at about 4 meters. There is less than one inch that will be in sharp focus. I manage to get off about three frames each time the squirrel jumps and only about one in fifty photos will be in focus. What that boils down to is about one photo every four days will be a keeper. I could increase the percent of successful shots by adding a trigger which trips the shutter as the squirrel crosses a beam of infra-red light. Maybe next week.
One of the few sets of snowshoe hare tracks I have seen in the backyard this winter. They are currently at the low-end of their population cycle.
The male boreal owl is still calling from the flicker holes but not every night. I suspect he is also singing his territorial songs from other possible nesting sites in the area.
The male boreal owl begins his territorial songs just before dark.
The aurora borealis usually begins with a band of green, glowing light in the northeast.
.All week I have been on safari, backyard safari that is, trying to sniff out a few photographs. I continue working with the pine grosbeaks and red squirrels but they have proven tough subjects. Yes even squirrels can be very challenging especially when you try for something new. Last night a fantastic aurora show kept me busy for a few hours after midnight. The unexpected beauty made up for those frustrating red squirrels.
For the past couple weeks a boreal owl has been singing after dark. I had developed this situation by placing a couple of ladders within camera range of his singing posts. He sings his territorial song while sitting at the entrance of a couple of old northern flicker nesting cavities. On top of the ladders, I mounted ball heads so I could climb and place my telephoto lens and flash bracket quickly and quietly. As I photographed the aurora borealis the boreal owl was singing from both of the flicker cavities. During lulls in the aurora activity, I approached the cavities to see what was going on. At one cavity there was no owl at the hole and I could hear the male singing from the other cavity. Just for fun I scratched the tree trunk and to my surprise the head of a boreal owl emerged. There were two boreal owls! The male had attracted a mate. That was exciting news. Perhaps they would choose one of the cavities for their nest.
Male boreal owl stares out from the northern flicker cavity.