Tag Archives: snowshoe hare

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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HUNGRY HARES

 

28-18-35Very 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.

28-18-31Alder is on a snowshoes “short list” of favorite winter foods.  Of course leaves and small branches are prefered.

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28-18-3This 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.

18-63Snowshoe at sunset checks out a birch sapling.

 

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 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.

SNOWSHOE HARES

 

DSC9993In 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

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

HUNTING LIKE A HAWK

DSC_2027A northern hawk owl perched atop a dead, black spruce overlooking its preferred hunting grounds, an Alaskan muskeg wetland.

The northern hawk owl is named after its hawk-like hunting behavior.  Like hawks, the hawk owl hunts by day using its keen eyesight to spot small birds and mammals.  The red-backed vole is by far the most important prey species. But the hawk owl is an opportunist and other species of voles and several species of shrews are also caught. During those years when snowshoe hares are plentiful, hawk owls will add these much larger prey species to their list, as will many species of birds from the tiny, common red-poll to birds up to the size of ptarmigan. 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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PHANTOM OF THE BLACK SPRUCE BOG

 

55-15-17Alaskan lynx

Some authors claim the lynx is strictly a hunter-predator.   I have observed several lynx that do not fit perfectly into that mold.  I do think lynx prefer fresh game they have killed themselves, But what if game is scarce and lynx are very hungry?  This is the situation in much of interior Alaska this winter.  The snowshoe hare population is currently at the bottom of its ten-year cycle.  There are always a few snowshoe hares in prime habitat which is thick, white or black spruce mixed with a variety of other trees such as aspen, birch or poplar as well as willows and alder.  But in the stands of pure black spruce, which dominate much of the landscape near my home snowshoe hare tracks are nearly absent.  What remains for the lynx are primarily red squirrels, spruce grouse, willow ptarmigan, and voles.  Lynx have been known to kill and eat red fox but that is not common.  Same goes for mink, marten and the short-tailed weasel.  And I suppose the lucky lynx could catch a woodpecker or gray jay if they were distracted. Continue reading