In northern Minnesota a chain of bogs and open forest near Sax and Zim are full of winged wonders. This track of land, the Sax Zim Bog, is renowned for its migrants from northern Boreal Forests that flit among the spruces and for the ghostly shapes of owls that drift on silent wings among the tamaracks. Spending time in the bog can provide amazing opportunities to watch these birds and learn about their survival skills in a harsh winter.
A Great Gray Feast
My dad and I arrived at Sax Zim Bog at 7:50 AM. The sun was just coming up in a bright blue sky, but it did not provide much warmth to the -20F day. However, without wind the day was quite pleasant and the conditions were perfect to find active owls. At 8:05 AM we found two active Great Gray Owls. The pair hunted 100 yards apart, perched on short, wooden power poles. In the typical behavior of owls, the closer owl swiveled its head back and forth, gathering the noises of its surroundings. Great Gray Owls are the largest owl in the world and their unique facial disc funnels sound directly into their ears like a satellite dish focuses a signal. This adaptation allows them to be efficient predators able to locate rodents under the snow.
When the owl swiveled its head and focused its gaze I knew that the hunt was on. Soaring silently on a 5-foot wing span the owl plopped down in the snow 30 yard away. Its body was half in the snow and half out, and for 10 seconds it just sat in the snow giving the illusion that it was unsuccessful. But then the owl surged from the snow with a large vole grasped in its talons! I stood in awe at having witnessed the hunt first hand.
Pouncing Northern Hawk Owls
As their name suggest, Northern Hawk Owls are an owl of the far north that migrate south in the winter. Because northern climates do not get much darkness in the summer these unique owls have adapted by hunting at all times of the day. We found our first hawk owl at 1PM, characteristically perched at the very top branches of a dead tree. After watching for awhile the owl zoomed to a perch further in the forest and then another perch even further out. They do this to find new and unsuspecting rodents to munch on.
When we saw the Northern Hawk Owl kill its first vole, I was struck by how much different their approach was than the Great Gray. It took off from a branch and then hovered (stooped) silently above the ground (thanks to modified wing edges that dampen sound) much like a hawk or falcon would do. It rapidly came out of the stoop and crashed to the ground to catch its first dinner. 20 minutes later it exhibited the same behavior. It is amazing to think how many voles the Owls of Sax Zim Bog must kill on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis!
A day at Sax Zim Bog can bring about AMAZING experiences, but please practice ethical photography of the residents that live there. Owls are very susceptible to the unethical practice of baiting. For the safety of the owls, please DO NOT bait them! Also, please give them their space as they make and consume kills and do not stay with an owl too long. Most of theses images were taken with an 800mm lens and thus were taken from a respectful distance. Doing these things will keep the owls safe and ensuring that you have the best day possible observing these amazing animals!
When many people think of Alaska they imagine wild places and providing for themselves while taking on the harshness of the wilderness. This notion is true. In fact, up to 70% of Alaskans report harvesting wildlife and almost 100% of Alaskans report harvesting fish. However, in hundreds of small communities which are deemed as “rural” Alaska for regulatory purposes, harvesting local food can offset the high cost of store-bought food. It is simply impossible for many to live on $15/lb beef, 6$ gallons of milk, and $5 loaves of bread. The Alaska Department of Game Division of Subsistence estimates that nearly 37 million pounds of wild, subsistence food are harvested in rural Alaska. In Hoonah, many of the harvested foods are just as important for cultural reasons as they are sustenance. The rich, Native Alaskan history of Hoonah ensures that regardless of whether you are pursuing shellfish, halibut, deer, crab, salmon, berries, or plants, that there is plenty of advice on how to prepare and store your catch.
Every day I appreciate the wealth of food in my freezer and in jars on my shelves. Five mornings a week I eat the same thing for breakfast – oatmeal with wild blueberries from the freezer. The other two mornings of the week pancakes are likely to be spread with thimbleberry jam or other preserves made from wild berries. For lunch? Well, there’s a good chance that it was a simple fair of halibut with a salad and at the end of a long day of work its venison, not beef, that finds its way onto my plate. These are just a few of the foods that I have grown to enjoy and expect in my first year of living in Hoonah, Alaska. Although I have always enjoyed harvesting wild foods, they have never been more abundant, accessible, or important than here in this small, rural community. I wanted to convey a fraction of what I’ve learned and of the general subistence culture in Hoonah.
Once the summer warms up it doesn’t take long for the first berries of the year to come into season. Orange and red salmon berries are the first to ripen. These luscious berries are best enjoyed fresh and are found in the sun of the tidelands and open river corridors. They are a staple of the bears on the island which feast on them until the salmon runs begin. While on the subject of bears, it’s impossible not to have them on your mind when out picking. Chichagof Island has the highest density of brown bears in the world and contains no black bears. The best berry patches are those where you have good visibility to see the bears coming, but just in case always make lots of noise and carry protection. Throughout the season there are upwards of 15 species of wild berries that can be harvested and used. To date I’ve harvested or tried blueberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, strawberries, lingonberries, cloud berries, salmonberries, huckleberries, crow berries, high bush cranberries, black currents, gray currants, nagoonberries, and red currants.
A caveat of wild berries is they are never sprayed with pesticides, and hence you have to clean them to separate them from the wriggling chunks of protein that like to live on them and in them. We experimented a lot this year on how to quickly sort and clean blueberries which we found had about a 25% chance of having a small to medium (0 – 4mm) worm inside of them. The best solution was to roll the berries down a towel to remove the leaves and then float them in water. I scooped off the floating berries with the assumption that trapped air inside meant a worm or some defect. The rest of the berries were quickly examined and then frozen. Although that all sounds simple, there was a steep learning curve and lots of trial and error – it’s a necessity to clean them quickly as two people can pick 5 gallons in about an hour in a good patch.
Rolling blueberries down a towel ramp to clean them.
Abudant blueberries for subsistence in Southeast Alaska!
Berry claw make the picking fast and easy!
A mix of blueberries and red huckleberries.
A mix of blueberries and red huckleberries.
Wild blueberries after a rain.
All wild berries can be made into a jam or jelly, but of all the berries picked last summer we found that high bush cranberries and thimbleberries made the best jam. Each are tart, sweet, and full of flavor. When making highbush cranberry jelly, be sure to save the pulp! We found this cranberry catsup recipe from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to be incredible! It is sweet and tangy and excellent of poultry.
Turning cranberries into Jelly.
Finalizing some thimbleberry jelly.
Black currants dangle from a heavily loaded bush.
Chicken of the woods provides a welcome change from berries!
In the thimbleberry patch and keeping an eye out for bears :).
Fried chicken of the wood.
Diced chicken of the wood.
Mollusks and Fish
Moving on from the produce aisle, the seafood aisle in Hoonah is an excellent next choice. Dungeness and Tanner crab are abundant all year around and subsistence/pots use is permitted rural Alaskans. If shellfish legs is not your thing, pick up a rake and scrape the beach for six different species of clams. Many people enjoy Butter Clams, and steamers (Pacific Little-Necks), but the real pride-and-joy of Hoonah is the cockle. This bi-valve is abundant and coveted. Their ruffled shell makes them easy to identify, and once smoked-and-jarred they make incredible fare for the summer months. Unlike some clam species they are not very chewy, and they soak up the smoky flavor of smoldering alder readily.
Smoked and jarred cockles.
Getting ready to smoke some cockles.
A smoker full of cockles – yum yum!
A successful night of digging cockles! We dug these 15 gallons in about 30 minutes with 2 people!
A bowl of fresh dungeness crab.
A successful day of crab pots!
Setting a dungeness crab pot.
Steaming some dungeness crab.
A pot full of dungeness crab.
Each of the 5 species of Alaskan salmon may be caught in Hoonah or its surrounding waters. King salmon are pursued by boat all year in Hoonah, with “winter kings” being one of the most sought after fish for their delicate meat and flavor. Huge runs of pink salmon, chum salmon, and cohos surge up the rivers around Hoonah each year and they can be caught with hook-and-line once in the rivers. In the salt water subsistence fishers often use nets to capture salmon. Sockeye salmon may be caught near Hoonah, although most sockeye fisherman cast their nets at Hoktaheen inlet. When trolling for salmon you are very likely to catch a halibut. Although these flat fish are most associated with the bottom, schools of fish may feed in the middle of the water column as well. Because of the rural status of Hoonah, many halibut are caught on skates – subsistence longlines of up to 30 hooks allowing users to rapidly fill their freezers.
A large halibut jigged near Hoonah, Alaska.
Fresh coho salmon caught before it went up river.
These pink salmon were caught on the fly from the ocean as they staged to make a run up river.
Although not subsistence, this beautiful cuthroat trout is one of many that I’ve wrangled on the fly rod.
A beautiful dolly varden became a pan-fried dinner later that day :).
Cleaning a catch of Pink Salmon.
Pink salmon caught during the run in Hoonah.
A large halibut caught near Hoonah.
A rack of smoked salmon waiting to go into jars.
A smoker full of color, red salmon just before smoking.
A smoker full of color, red salmon just before smoking.
Sitka Blacktail are the only ungulate on Chichagof Island, and are extremely important as a red-meat source. Hunting here is far, far different than the White-tailed Deer hunting that I grew up with in Minnesota. First of all, trophy hunting is all but non-existent in Hoonah. Although many hunters target bucks so as not to be too detrimental to the deer population, the subsistence lifestyle here is all about filling the freezer and any-buck or nice deer will do. Hoonah enjoys some extra benefit as a rural community including up to six deer per person and a one-month extended season which ends in January. Many hunters proxy hunt for elders in the community and much of the venison that is shot is shared around quickly. I saw this first hand this year as although I shot 3 deer, I ended up giving away about half of what I shot, but received that same half back from others who were willing to share.
The last aspect of the Hoonah subsistence lifestyle that I’d like to leave you with is the idea maximizing effort. For example, a day out in berry picking isn’t just a trip for berries. We often cut and gather firewood or fish for salmon at the same time. When taking a skiff out to go ‘beach combing’ for winter Sitka Blacktail, that same trip will involve checking a crab pot, trolling for salmon and perhaps jigging for a halibut. If you find a couple of deer on the beach and can harvest one all the better! Stretching a dollar by capitalizing on multiple opportunities at once, and then taking the time to properly prepare your harvest and store it for the winter is rewarding, healthy, and can save your some money to boot. Happy Harvesting!
This entry details a portion of my thesis work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and is intended to communicate the findings of that work in a four-part series. You are reading part three examining wolf movement in the Yukon Flats, Alaska. In order to make the article concise, you may review the general background of this work in part one. I have truncated the background and methods of this work and focused on a portion of the results.
Wolves are highly studied because they are charismatic, exhibit interesting pack behaviors, and are a key predator in the systems where they exist. Their behaviors including movement speed, movement distances, number of prey killed, and travel distances have been well documented in high prey-density systems, but practically no information exists on these behavior in low or very-low density systems. In an attempt to rectify that, a study was initiated in 2008 to understand the kill rate of moose by wolves in the Yukon Flats, Alaska, where moose are held at low densities (<0.20 per square kilometer) by predation. In an interesting twist, that study found wolves are maintaining kill rates (moose per wolf per day) similar to wolves in high prey density systems. Certainly these results counter what I would predict and lead to a natural question – how are wolves accomplishing such high kill rates in low-prey densities? A known mechanism is that wolves in the Yukon Flats keep small pack sizes to cope with low densities of prey; if you have fewer wolves in a pack, more nutrition is available per wolf during each kill. However, if wolves were traveling further or faster in this low prey-density system was unknown. I predicted that wolves in a low prey density system were traveling further, but not faster than wolves in a high prey-density system to maintain these kill rates. I also predicted they were selecting for river corridors when traveling.
To understand wolf movement, I used the same dataset from the 2008 kill rate study. It was composed of Global Positioning System (GPS) collars on six packs. Thanks to diligence in the kill rate study, I knew where kills occurred along each of the paths. For each pack, I characterized if the wolves were traveling, resting, at a kill site, or revisiting a kill site. These behaviors gave me enough information to calculate the rate of speed they were traveling, the distance they were traveling, the number of days traveling to make a kill, and how long they spent at kill sites. I also using a Generalized Linear Mixed Model to understand what landscape features were important for traveling wolves.
I found some interesting results, and put them in context of 16 comparable research papers of movements of wolves in high or medium prey-density systems. I am presenting the most applicable comparisons from the literature review (i.e., systems where moose are prey and studies where GPS collars were used) here. I found search time was slightly longer and search distance was 2.4 times greater in my low prey-density study area. Search time and search length are correlated together given that wolves are (almost) always hunting when moving. Due to that relationship, the search time is expected to go up as search days goes up. I found no evidence that wolves were handling prey longer or traveling faster in the low prey-density system. Those results were not surprising as one researcher found that handling time of moose was not significantly different among packs which varied in size from 2 – 20. Since wolves were not traveling faster in our system, it is probable that regardless of prey density, that on average wolves travel at their maximum comfortable speed that maximizes efficient travel.
I also found that wolves were utilizing river corridors and that they were selecting strongly against brushy habitat. In the Yukon Flats, that means they were selecting against thick stands of alder and willow. This was similar to previous studies where they found that wolves were able to travel 2.8 times faster if they used a river corridor rather than moving through a brushy environment. By using rivers, wolves were traveling faster and are likely taking advantage of increased prey density along river corridors.
The results of this work have some useful applications in helping us broadly understand wolf behavior. First, wolf territories are very large within low prey-density wolf systems. The mechanism that creates these large territories was unknown, but long-distance movements by wolves would create large territories by default. Next, back in the mid 1980s a researcher suggested that 0.20 moose per kilometer squared was the lowest density that wolves could persist at. Within the Yukon Flats, they are already persisting at lower densities than that, and since they are able to extend their travel distances to maintain kill rates it seems a minimum prey-density threshold could be much lower. A final implication of this work is that managers should expect wolf territories to increase in size if prey density decreases. In other systems (for instance deer in the mid-west), wolf territories should inflate in size as they move further in search of prey.
I look forward to presenting part four to you soon, which ties together moose hunting by wolves and humans by starting to understand the likelihood of competition.
It seems I have inherited a family legacy. Why? Well, outside of my window as I type this a red squirrel, whose fat rolls are bulged to the size of small golf balls under its elbows, is eating my birdseed and I am choosing to do nothing about it. Many chipmunks and squirrels were spared from my arrows and bullets because they were decreed ‘off-limits’ by my dad although they were destroyers of gardens and wasters of seeds. Bird feeder construction attests to the cumulative frustration of birders everywhere watching their money being vacuumed up by greedy rodents. Undoubtedly, if I were to figure out how many pounds of bird seed the family of squirrels living in my brush pile were responsible for chomping down at my buffet line, I would find that my 40 pound bags would last indefinitely longer. In the back of my mind, I know the squirrels are any easy target for my stew pot, but I never seriously consider harvesting them around the house because the feeder is a sacred place. Besides, it hardly seems sporting to shoot a happy squirrel on top of his seed supply.
A winged candidate for dinner has also taken up residence under the feeder and watches me from the surrounding birches or from the hoops of my fallow garden each day that I walk by. Like the mind of the Wiley Coyote, that sharp-tailed grouse has transformed into drumstick in front of my eyes several times. But, seeing as I have not even thrown a rock at it, it has become fairly accepting of pedestrian traffic. I think anyone that has a bird feeder can give nod to the benefit of these wildlife for watching far outweigh their worth in their pan.
My feeder has been a great source of entertainment, and has also given me insight into natural bird foraging behavior. The birds interact with the Alaskan Birch and my feeder. During the last couple of days I have come to appreciate the importance of the catkins of the Alaska Birch as a food source. Both the pine grosbeaks and black-capped chickadees have been taking mouthfuls of them. Seems like pretty meager forage to me!
Spending time watching wildlife in your backyard is rewarding! Observing this sharp-tailed grouse nearly every day for the last two weeks has been a privilege, and I’ve learned a lot. For instance, they do not move far, and this one roosts in the same trees near the house every night. During the day it spends most of the time on the ground and does not move farther than about 30 yards. Although sharp-tailed grouse are not traditionally common in the Fairbanks region, they seem well adapted to the cold and can puff their bodies up to large sizes much like chickadees, jays, and other boreal species.
I will leave you with a ‘feeder first’ which occurred just two days ago. A northern shrike came and perched outside of my window. It was near dark, but the chickadees started squawking and kept their distance from the carnivorous bird. I must say, I was rooting for this bird to whack a chickadee, just to see it first-hand! Shrikes are actually songbirds, and are known as “butcher birds” because they cache food by impaling it on sticks or anything sharp. They eat rodents, small birds, and insects (in the summer). Ordinarily they are found in habitats with tall trees where they perch and survey the area. It was very rare to see one in a closed spruce and birch habitat, and especially at this time of year in Fairbanks! Due to the time of day (we are down to 5 hours of light), I wasn’t able capture to an incredible shot of the bird, but here’s what I have. It shows very clearly the curved beak for tearing meat, a feature you would normally attribute to being a raptor.