When I was home for Christmas break one of the questions I got asked fairly regularly was “what’s it like to live in Alaska in the winter?”. I always grin, which seems to be what people expect because they grin back, but I think I disappoint them by explaining that a lot of times the winter conditions are not as desperate as you think. Yes, 40 below is cold, but in Fairbanks the wind rarely blows making the cold very tolerable. 20-25% humidity ensures that it is a ‘dry cold’ (think of someone from Arizona explaining the dry heat). In the eyes of many, the hardest thing to adapt to is the short days in the winter. Although we are gaining length now, the dark days at bottom of winter make getting out of bed hard and sleeping easy. In Alaskan winters I celebrate and cherish the sun because I miss it! The darkness lately has been compounded by cloudy skies, so when the sun was out this morning I knew I wanted to be outside for it as much as possible! I gathered together my gear for setting burbot lines (more on that soon!!) and headed to the Tanana river. But, my trip to the river certainly was not linear, all along the way I found things to swing my camera lens at in that beautiful sunshine. So, today I give you a snap shot of January 17th in Alaska, a beautiful day! Photos are time-stamped and in order of occurrence. Hopefully you’ll see that not all winter days are so bad in Alaska!
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.