Thursday, May 17, 2012

Loon, Crane, Weasel, Bear and Moose Neighbors, with Pictures

(This entry combines animal related passages that are scattered amongst prior blog entries (like Kayaking Happy Hour), with additional information and pictures of some of my favorite birds, weasels, voles, bear and moose in my yard)

Laura welcomes your comments and questions, signed or anonymous, in the comment section below any entry.)

Although I think of the pike in the lake as food, other fish, birds, and animals I tend to regard as neighbors.  And because the rapidly changing seasons rotate in and out several sets of migrating birds, I think of them as seasonal tourists.  Some I am delighted to see again, like long lost friends.  Others are more like loud, obnoxious travelers, arriving en masse and making sure that no one in the vicinity doesn't notice their arrival!   I am still unsure of many bird identifications, but let me tell you about "the regulars."  


The seagulls are obnoxious tourists.  They always nest in the stunted black spruce trees that grow in one particular location where the bog meets the far corner of the lake. They are noisy and territorial.  When the eggs are in the nest or the chicks are just learning to swim, the parents will dive bomb us like something in a Tippi Hedren movie, in which case, we maneuver the kayak out of their defended range. They aren't afraid of anything! I have even seen them work in formation to successfully, and noisily, push predatory eagles away from "their" lake. 

I am far fonder of loons, and always delighted when, in most years, a pair returns to the lake to breed and raise their babies. I love everything about those birds- their elegant black and white coloration, their haunting cry, and the way they dive and fly. They seem to play "Marco Polo" with us. They always win, since they tease us to follow them in our kayak and then dive with their strong feet, appearing a surprising distance away. I understand that their feet are so far back on their bodies that their evolutionary trade off is a gain in diving propulsion at the expense of flight take off. They are extremely noisy as their wings flap and flap against the water in a long, shallow departure. Watching the parents teach their chicks how to fly before the end of summer is nature's version of a Keystone Cops comedy.  We count the chicks as the summer progresses and mourn the losses of the slower and smaller ones.  When very small, they are vulnerable from below, to the large, predatory pike in the lake.  Beyond a certain size, they are more vulnerable from above, to eagles and other raptors that survey the lake from tall, strong white spruce trees on our property.   

Two Sandhill Cranes
In the mornings, I wake up by taking coffee out to the front porch to say hello to all my "neighbors" - the serene loons and the noisy gulls and all their babies.  I look around for the eagles, which come and go as they please.  I particularly look forward to the latter half of the summer when the Sandhill cranes  leave their nest near the bog and travel to and fro in family formations.  Their stealthy silence, as they fly low past me, just below eye level (when I am in the cabin or on the deck), is astonishing given their 5-7 foot wing span.  According to Wikipedia, these birds apparently have the oldest unequivocal bird fossil on record: 2.5 mm years (which is 2.5 x older than the fossils of other birds). I wonder why?    

We also have a returning pair of trumpeter swans.  I have never seen them fly - which would be impressive at such close distance (10 foot wing span).  They arrive in the mornings before I awaken, gliding along the water slowly enough to be duplicated in reflection, and then they depart for somewhere else during the hottest part of the days. 

Small Yard Neighbors

Three spruce grouse in the yard
My most entertaining "yard neighbors" are spruce grouse and weasels. (Bears and moose are down below).  This summer, we had two families of spruce hens, each with its own set of personalities.  When I first came here, I was surprised to see birds nesting on the ground instead of in the tree branches. But because there are no snakes or rats in Alaska, the birds are presumably more vulnerable to all the raptors above than to anything below. The spruce hens are about 15-20 inches long, and as their name suggests, nest at the foot of spruce trees. After their babies are born, the mothers coo the brood of little ones toward the open, disturbed earth around our cabin,  to safe places to eat grass seeds or fluff their feathers in a sunny dusty spot.  Once she has found the right location, she jumps up on a tree stump or one of my raised gardens to have a slightly higher vantage point from which to watch her 4-7 children, reminding me of a teacher at recess.  One mother seemed young and skitterish, and made the alarm call (to scatter) more often, but the other was calmer, and perhaps for this reason, both her young and she seemed fatter. If I needed to, I could walk amongst this family to get to something or other in the yard. They are so tame in this regard, they are sometimes referred to as "fool hens."  As the summer progresses, the babies grow rapidly and expand to other areas of the property, too.  The males leave first, while the females remain longer with their mother.  Not so different from humans, perhaps.     
A Least Weasel

Weasel antics are extremely diverting.  Related to mink, ermine, and stoats, the Least Weasels in our yard are about 8 - 12 inches long. A family starts out the spring in tunnels under the spruce trees but then moves into our "Alaska sized"  woodpile. The adults are so brave! They will stick their heads out and chitter at us when we walk by. They keep Bryan company when he chops wood nearby, apparently commenting to each other on his form or speed with a variety of vocalizations.  In the fall, when we moved a ten day portion of wood to the back porch, one of the weasels was displeased. He (or she) moved into that satellite pile and started pushing out pieces of wood, as though to dismantle the whole structure and move it back where it belonged!  They are very active creatures whose metabolism requires that they are frequent eaters.  We are delighted to have them, not only because they are entertaining but also because they are fantastic hunters, who keep down the vole population (little furry meadow mice) that breed five times a year, in warm, cozy places... like human cabins. We have found three voles in our cabin (one startled me from the sink when I went to wash my face in the morning!). I worry each year that one will get in and repopulate the place. So far, though, between the weasels and good construction, my fears are unfounded. Several times a day, we see the weasels trotting across the yard with voles in their mouths.  I have read that they can kill hares many times their size.  Weasels are regarded as a good omen in Greek mythology and emblematic of bravery and wisdom in various Native American stories.  I believe it!


We are highly aware of our bear neighbors, both black and brown (grizzlies) although we see their scat and trails more often than they let us see them. The best fishing spots along the creek, for example, are often those criscrossed by bear tracks.  Every time we engage in some noisy construction project on our property, a day or two later, a big pile of scat has marked the spot, indicating that a curious bear neighbor was near enough to surreptitiously check it out when we weren't looking.   One pile appeared on the newly poured cement for the supports of the power tower (See blog entry about Building a Power Tower).  Another was on the floor of the new outhouse (Read entry about Building a Cabin 40 miles from the Nearest Road).  The two behaviors that have made quite an impression on me have been their absolute silence in transit and their astonishing speed and agility in climbing trees (black bears, not brown/grizzlies). Several bear hunters tell of bears climbing up their bear stands!  

The interaction with humans that surprise me relate to their omnivorous nature. Bears will chew on plastic gas lines and eat snow machine seats. The two hunting/fishing cabins on our lake see much more bear activity than we do, as their motion detector cameras attest.  Perhaps that is because they are closer to the creek (with its food source of salmon, trout, and grayling), whereas we are between the lake and a ridge. Both owners are very careful about burning or carting away trash, dumping water far away and covering up windows with bear shutters (plywood) to leave few inducements to bears, which are curious and clever creatures that have learned that cabins often have food. If you have ever had campsites raided by clever raccoons that were able to open your coolers and tents, picture that, but 100 times bigger. 

One summer morning after arriving at our cabin, we awoke to find bear prints all over a marine cooler we had left on the back porch (with food in it). One evening we heard the bear bells ring on the burn barrel lids. I had put garbage out that morning but it failed to burn well when it started to rain. A black bear was rooting around in it. I learned that lesson! On Alaska cabins, you can see tooth marks on the porches, scratches high on the posts, and occasional snatches of bear hair where they scratched their backs against a corner. I have seen pictures of one cabin totally trashed when a bear got in through a window. In fact, when our friend landed (his plane) and walked up the path to his cabin, carting his gear, the bear poked his head out the window to see who was coming! On another occasion, a group of tired hunters was sitting around a fire after having butchered and wrapped the meat when another bear wandered into camp, probably attracted by the smell of the blood. Bam. For many remote homesteaders, the watch word is "a fed bear is a dead bear."   This is because a bear's life goal is "maximum calories with minimal exertion."  A full garbage can or an accessible cabin is a source of free food worthy of repeat visits. (By the end of the summer they are eating an estimated 20,000 calories to gain enough fat to keep them warm through the long winter's hibernation, when they will lose approximately 1/3 of their body weight).    

Perhaps you read about or saw a PBS special on "Bear Haven."  A retired Anchorage science teacher named Charlie Vandergaw owns a cabin about 4 miles from us (as the crow flies).  His flying friends and he hauled out something like 10,000 lbs of dog food over the years, to feed black and brown (grizzly) bears, not as hunting bait, but to induce them to stay.  Pilots said when they flew over his property, they would see dozens of bears milling around the cabin - and around people.  Feeding wild animals, particularly big ones, is highly discouraged by the Department of Fish and Game because they can become habituated to people and and their habitations, which increases the incidents of dangerous altercations.  However, they left Charlie alone, perhaps because his cabin was so remote, until a British film maker made a documentary three years ago about what Bear Haven was like.  Once the videos were shown, including pictures of guests with beer and sometimes children, sitting around a campfire surrounded by 20 bears and pallets of dog food, and of Charlie swatting a bear that walked into his cabin in a very familiar manner, official and resident Alaskans were alarmed that some other nutcase would decide to do the same thing - in a more populated region.  The judiciary swung into action, charging him with feeding wild animals, a misdemeanor, and profiting from it (paid by the film maker) and endangering others.   My fear was that once they were no longer being fed by Charlie, scores of bears would sniff their way toward us.  Fortunately, though, the ensuing summers don't seem to have increased the number of bears in our vicinity. Presumably the terrain encouraged them to head in a different direction. 

I'm not particularly uncomfortable with the bears I do see. In fact, I regard those occasions as important for learning about their behavior, which I clearly need to do, so that I can modify mine appropriately.  It is the ones that I don't see that are disconcerting.  One time I was walking around a woodsy glen on our property, collecting fiddlehead ferns for dinner.  I was down by a shooting gallery we've set up of tin cans dangling from nylon fishing line, and we had shot there the day before.  I smelled fish.  Since there is no creek or lake back there, the only reason I could think of for the scent of fish was something very nearby that had recently eaten or rolled in them.  Oh-oh!  The hair rose on the back of my neck and I walked slowly and carefully up to the meadow and back to the cabin, planning in future to wear a whistle and a can of bear spray, even on my own property.

The presence of bears has encouraged me to learn more about them.  They are impressive, fascinating creatures.  Did you know that the females can get pregnant in the summer but the embryo floats, without implantation, until the female or nature determines that she'll have enough food to take her through gestation!  Maybe other mammals can do this too, but this was the first one I have learned about.  How about this:  The sow delivers, often twin cubs, in January, in the den, without really waking up out of hibernation!  Don't you love that!  The cubs weigh only about 5 oz when born (maybe that's why she doesn't wake up) and gain weight far more rapidly than most other mammals, thanks to the 24% fat in her milk, which is much higher than other mammals. The heart rate and temperature of hibernating bears do not drop as low as other creatures so the military and other medical scientists are studying these large animals, to ascertain whether there is anything useful we might learn, for example, to lower body temperatures of severely injured soldiers to transport them more safely from the field to a hospital.      
Moose seen through a window


We see moose (that's the plural, too) less often in the summer than in the winter, but we see their distinctive hoofprints and pellets throughout the area, sometimes even on our footpaths near my gardens.  In late May/early June, just after the calves are born, we sometimes see a cow and her gangly calf or calves drinking water at the lake.  Cute as these vignettes may be, a cow/calf (or sow/cub) combination is the most dangerous to a human because the mother will aggressively defend her young.  Adult moose in Alaska are HUGE - the legs alone can be 5 feet long, stand 7 feet at the shoulder, with antlers 5 feet across, weighing 800-1400 lbs.  These animals are much larger than other ungulates, like deer or even others you might think are big, like elk and caribou.  One unusual sighting (for us) was seeing a single moose swim gracefully across the lake about 9 pm one evening.  I'm not sure what prompted that.  Eluding a bear?  Usually they stay in the woods, nibbling on willow leaves.

Moose hunting season is in September.  Hunters bang trees to sound like rack banging bulls or make these nasal bleating sounds like cows in estrus.  One time my husband was making particularly provocative, come hither cow sounds and found that he was being followed by a bear, but no bulls.  After hours or days of boredom looking for a moose, imagine the anxiety after shooting one: taking several hours to butcher and then transport an animal this size ) in the middle of bear country, where those inhabitants, with their exceptional sense of smell, are attracted by the scent of blood to head toward you and a meal they want! 

In the winter, we see more moose because they want to travel on the packed snow machine trails for the same reason we do - ease of movement.  So far, the sound of our arriving snow machine has prompted them to quit the trail.  They lumber through the soft powder all the way up to their torso, looking back at us to determine how safe they are and how soon they can return to the path. Each winter, though, there are stories of hungry moose defending "their path" against snow machiners or dog mushers or even "their parking lot" against incoming cars or returning shoppers, stomping the dogs, people or vehicles with their strong legs. The males shed and regrow their large antlers (paddles) each year, providing calcium to the woodland creatures who happen upon them or the ubiquitous above-door decoration for one cabin or another.  Despite their enormous size and bodies that look like they were built by some unaligned committee compromise, they can be amazingly quiet and difficult to see in the woods.  On one hike, we startled one not 30 feet from us, while we were studying the very fresh tracks and pellets that should have been a clue that she was very nearby.       

One result of our switch from an urban to a rural existence is that, instead of talking about this or that person we know, we will talk about this or that animal "neighbor."  The former sometimes seemed like insignificant gossip.  Somehow the latter seems like an exercise in appreciation and discovery.   

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