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Outdoors/Adventure

Warm weather, abundant rodents make for happy raptors

Jarvis Creek Canyon on the north side of the Alaska Range is home to several water ouzels, also known as American dippers. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

Snowmobile trips into the north side of the Alaska Range are always eventful. This winter the snow season started fairly well, but the weather has also been warm and windy. Chinook thaws coupled with strong south winds left numerous gravel patches, bare tundra and icy slopes. Travel is slow for man and machine.

The animals have had no such concerns.

Caribou are happy with the windblown lichen patches and moose have had an easy time of it, able to work their way along the south side of willow draws without having to plow through drifts.

Unseasonable temperatures have reduced the caloric needs for all of the critters. Coyotes, lynx and fox have benefited from the increasing snowshoe hare population.

A recent trail-breaking run into the foothills of the Range gave me a glimpse into other benefactors of the higher temperatures and excellent rodent population — raptors.

I expected to see moose and caribou. I did a 35-mile run and saw none. However, just after I got underway, a great gray owl plunged from a spruce on the trail-side and winged silently down the trail ahead of me. I was aware that there was a great gray in the vicinity; I had heard him calling.

There are many of the more common great horned owls in the Delta area this season. The difference between the species is obvious at sight. The horned owl has pronounced ear tufts and a brown bring on the body. Great grays are just that — gray.

The call is quite different also. Gray owls have a measured "Who, who, who, who," interspersed with an occasional chirp that reminds one of a quail call.

The "who" has a bit of a spooky overtone. I remember a late-night snowshoe trip just north of the Arctic Circle one February. I was 21 and heard a great gray hoot next to me for the first time. I still recall the chill that had nothing to do with the cold.

Horned owls have a different cadence. "Who, who … who-who-who-who … who." Females are higher-pitched than males.

Often during the early portion of the mating season, you can call them in close by imitating their call. On a recent trip to the Black Rapids area on the Richardson Highway, I was able to bring a female to a tree immediately overhead.

My snowmobile trip to the edge of the Range yielded a couple of great horned owls — together. These big aggressive birds mate early. They are often on eggs in March.

My next sighting was a hawk owl. Hawk owls are primarily vole hunters. They are the only Alaska owl that hunts during the day, habitually sitting on a dead snag overlooking grassy meadows waiting for their prey.

These medium-sized black and gray checked owls are quite tame and will often allow a close approach. This one flew when I was still 100 yards out.

There is a gyrfalcon nest near Jarvis Creek canyon. Not surprisingly, the falcons were gone, but a goshawk came off the rocks next to the nest and spun off down canyon. Goshawks look similar to gyrs at a glance, but the flight pattern is a bit different — flap, flap, flap, short glide, then repeat.

A goshawk will also fly straight and fast when necessary. There is no safe haven for a hare when the goshawks are hunting. These birds will hunt on foot in the heat of a chase.

My last bird of the day was an American dipper, or water ouzel. Dippers spend their entire lives along rushing mountain streams. They are able to walk and "fly" on the bottom of creeks probing for small larvae and crustaceans. They also feed from the surface by ducking their heads under water.

A very low metabolic rate, combined with extra oxygen-carrying capacity in its blood enable the water ouzel to survive minus-40 temperatures and icy waters.

The trail-breaking expedition turned out to be a bust due to the wind-blown conditions in the high country. I didn't see a single moose or caribou the entire morning.

Yet the trip was a good one. There are moose and caribou everywhere, but a great bird day is tough to top.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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