Tag Archives: red squirrel

NORTHERN GOSHAWK

 

HUNTING IN WINTER

533-19-8From 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.

28-19-5The 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.

533-19-1An adult northern goshawk feeds on a snowshoe hare.

533-19-3As I photographed a snowshoe hare this immature northern goshawk suddenly appeared out of the blue shadows and killed my photo subject.  She mantles her prey with powerful wings.

533-19-9Often 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.

28-19-6While 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

GOS_011For months, over two nesting seasons I spent nearly every day in the company of northern goshawks.  Slowly they would reveal their secret lives.

533-48-1High in the canopy a female tends to her day old chicks.

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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.

 

SQUIRREL SMARTS

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.

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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.

533-268-2Slamming 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.

533-163-1Three 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.

 

 

 

SECRET LIFE OF A FOREST HUNTER- PART ONE

 

DSC6522A 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.

DSC7359Eggs laid in the third week of April must be protected from the weather, as incubation begins with the first egg. The female does all the incubating and will sit on her eggs for thirty days.

DSC7473To 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.

 

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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.

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DSC2049A couple of times a day the female flies off the nest to drink, cast her pellet and perhaps stretch before returning to her precious clutch of eggs.

DSC6427The 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.

THE MARTEN

49-20-5The marten scrapes out a tough living in the northern forests.  The largely nocturnal members of the weasel family, prey on small birds and mammals.

49-37-2A 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

RED SQUIRRELS, HOARDING BEHAVIOR

32-15-185Red squirrel carries mushroom which will be added to its growing winter larder.

32-15-131Each fall in preparation for a long, cold winter red squirrels here in Alaska begin a frenzied gathering of food.  Their hoarding behavior has very important survival benefits.  Gathering food in the fall, before snows arrive will save time and energy.  During the short days of winter red squirrels need to conserve their energy.  When snows cover the forest floor red squirrels are more exposed to predation and the less time they must spend searching for food the better. Continue reading

MUSHROOMS AND RED SQUIRRELS

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Red squirrels work overtime in late summer/early fall gathering mushrooms.  I spent several days this week photographing them.  Though red squirrels can be a nuisance around our wilderness home I try to tolerate them. Our current red squirrel seems to be satisfied living a life in the wild so as long as he minds his own business he is on the payroll.  I discourage bad squirrel behavior such as chewing on the house and if they persist, they get that one way ride up to my mean old neighbor ladies place.  And she handles red squirrels just like most of my neighbors do. Continue reading

OWLS BY DAY, OWLS BY NIGHT

BY DAY

DSC_1262Adult 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

BACKYARD SAFARI PART 3

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Red squirrel has cached black spruce cones in an old flicker hole.

RED SQUIRREL

32-15-30I 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.

32-15-22Red 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.

TRACKS

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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.

BOREAL OWL

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.

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The male boreal owl begins his territorial songs just before dark.

AURORA BOREALIS

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The aurora borealis usually begins with a band of green, glowing light in the northeast.

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Aurora begins to dance.

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BACK YARD SAFARI

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 Boreal chickadee

Ever feel like going on a safari but just can’t get away? Well, take a safari in your own back yard. Here you’re the expert. You know the terrain and what to expect.  And believe it or not everyone can benefit from this little exercise. In fact, even with the smallest back yard, some amazing and beautiful images can be made. I regularly take a backyard safari.

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Pine grosbeak

My Big Backyard
I bet my back yard is bigger and wilder than yours! Our ten acres of northern boreal forest borders Wrangell/St. Elias National Park, Alaska, our largest National Park. My back yard stretches south for a couple hundred miles through the wilderness of Alaska.  We have had grizzlies, wolves, red fox, lynx, great gray owls, nesting hawk owls, bald eagles, golden eagles, willow ptarmigan, great horned owls, sharp-tailed grouse, boreal owls, marten, caribou, Alaskan moose and much more on out little ten acre homestead. But still it is usually a difficult challenge to photograph the local wildlife .  Nothing comes easy.

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Red squirrel

Developing Photo Potential
Getting the most out of your backyard safari is the same as any photo trip. In fact your own backyard offers the best opportunity to learn to develop photographic potential. And, there is no better place to gain valuable experience in finding solutions to photographic problems we all encounter in the field.

Look for a unique perspective.

Create feeding stations for birds and squirrels.

Take the time to let wildlife become used to your presence.

Build a blind if you have shy wildlife species.

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Red squirrel jumping

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Pine grosbeak

NORTHERN FLICKERS

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Male northern flickers call to establish a breeding territory and attract a female.

This week was spent working on northern flickers which have shown up on our  homestead.  I have worked these beautiful woodpeckers extensively in the past yet there are still great shots to be had.  I concentrated on getting the best shots I could of the opportunities that presented themselves.  The leading off photo of the calling male was one shot I needed to improve on.  This kind of shot presents a challenge because normally the eyes will be in focus but the long bill is not.  I shot this at F16 to give enough depth of field. Continue reading