Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Of Moose and Mosquitoes, Part 1: Moose

Alaska is famous for animals big and small, and perhaps the most noteworthy large and tiny are moose and mosquitoes. June is the time we see a lot of both here at the cabin. We kill swarms of the latter but enjoy watching the former. Here follow some anecdotes about them this year. This article is about moose; the following one is about mosquitoes.

Of ungulates, Southeast Alaska has deer (3 feet at shoulder), northern Alaska has caribou and reindeer (which are domesticated caribou) (4 feet at the shoulder) and our area has moose (6 feet at the shoulder). Elk have been introduced, too. Moose are HUGE. They are not only much taller, but also much bulkier than these other animals. Adults weigh between 1200 and 2000 pounds (compared to a light boned Wisconsin deer of 300 pounds). In fact, I understand that they are the largest species on the American continents, unless you count bison, which are shorter but even heavier.

June calf near blue kayak for size comparison 
Moose calves are born in May/early June, and they walk nearly immediately, to be less vulnerable to predators (bear and wolf), which kill one out of three during their first year. We see them once our “yard” greens up. The mother must be ravenous at that point after a long winter, particularly when she is pregnant. Can you imagine being a 1200 pound pregnant herbivore rummaging around through 8 foot snow looking for willow branches to keep up your weight and strength!!!!? 

Right outside the window, munching on fireweed
Our current “Mom” looks enormous – her legs are probably five feet long. Her coloring exactly matches the spruce bark, and it amazes me how something so large can virtually disappear mere yards from my position. The other day, I watched her scarf up fireweed, elderberry, and cranberry bushes as she ambled past our cabin on her way toward young birch trees along the lake. Even though I saw where she had gone and could see the movement of the birch branches being stripped of leaves, I could no longer see the moose herself. This experience reminded me of that movie, "Predator," in which you can't see the alien bad guy himself, just his movement. All ungulates can be quiet, but these huge beasts are far more stealthy than one would expect of such an unwieldy looking animal traversing ground covered with dead leaves and broken branches. One dawn, my husband was startled when he opens curtains to see a moose two feet beyond the glass. “Good morning, neighbor!” Another time we startled a buck that was lying down in the blueberry thicket. It is probably the calves that we hear first, as they trot along behind their mother, trying to keep up with her long strides. In June, I don't see the little ones eating much greenery. Rather, they reach up to nurse whenever Mom stops to eat a shrub or branch or to investigate a sound or smell with her large ears and nose.

Survival of the herbivorous moose is predicated on a richly verdant summer, a winter snowfall that still allows them to find browse worthy plants, and the number of bears and wolves in the vicinity. Animal population numbers move in inverse proportions. When one group is up (either bear or moose), the other is down, and this statistical shift occurs over several years for many pairs of animals (like lynx and hare). Over the past two years, we have seen fewer bear here than in the past, and, as expected, more moose. This means not only more adult moose, but more sets of twins. 

Heading back to the woods at night
This year, the resident mother bore twins, but we only saw the three of them once. After that, we saw her with one calf. The other succumbed to something – maybe a bear, maybe weakness or disease. Whatever the cause, we never found (or smelled) a carcass, even though the family was obviously bedding down nearby. (Their browsing area tends to be within 4 square miles, less with young calves). The most common time of day to see them has been between 6 and 8 in the morning, as they enjoy the “salad bar” along either side of the back path toward our cabin. The mom strips the leaves off woody cranberry and birch branches as though she is running dental floss through her big teeth. The branches of softer tissue plants, like fireweed, elderberry, cranberry and raspberry, are snapped off altogether. Afterwards, whole bushes remind me of Morticia Addams's flower arrangements of thorny stalks sheared of their blossoms. Then the little family wanders down into the lake to drink, or to get away from mosquitoes, or to finish off their meal with a dessert of lily pads and mares' tail. After that, they drift off, more silently than I would imagine, through the blueberry bushes toward the bog, to find some sheltered spot for their daytime siesta. In the evening, they reverse their commute, wandering out front, sniffing the dock, the kayak, the plane, and then working their way back up the path toward the deeper woods for a night time bed.

Any mothering animal can be unpredictably defensive near her young, and so we are cautious when we are out and about, near the woods and berry thickets. Angry moose tend to charge and stomp their victims with their long legs and large hoofs. Since we can't see her in the foliage, we tend to talk or whistle when we are going into the woods.

I realize that I have competition for my berry crops, not only from birds, but also from larger creatures like this particular moose family. But since the woods are vast and the population light, I think we can share the bounty and the space.

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