Outdoors/Adventure

Our behavior has attracted them — there’s no need to leave the city to find wildlife

Cow and yearling moose browsing

People who live in Alaska’s cities wait patiently for the weekend so they can enjoy our great outdoors and its abundant wildlife. However, don’t overlook the wild lives that require cities.

Recently I had the opportunity to spend four hours in what passes for a high-rise in the Interior city of Fairbanks. I was waiting impatiently to be called as a witness in a court hearing that never happened.

The foyer where I waited was glass, floor to ceiling, with a great view of the soon-to-be demolished Polaris building. Pigeons —technically rock doves — came and went at intervals. Three birds made their approach to the roof when suddenly one of the birds went into a forward roll toward the ground.

Overhead, a kestrel appeared, unsuccessfully pursuing the pigeon to ground. The drama was repeated several times in the next hours as I watched and waited. The highlight came when a young peregrine falcon made a full stoop in excess of 100 mph on a flock of a half dozen pigeons. The dive yielded no dinner but was impressive nonetheless. No pigeons reappeared after the falcon incident.

The falcon reminded me of my old friend Vern Seifert, who came to Alaska from New York City where he had become enamored with falcons as a teenager. New York has one of the higher nesting populations of peregrine falcons in the country.

Realistically, how many wild animals does one spot in the woods? I spent a fair amount of time, eight weeks, walking and glassing on the Denali Highway this fall. Rare was the day when I spotted more than a couple moose — rarer still was a caribou day. A couple of fox, a few ptarmigan, some ducks and several dozen trumpeter swans cover the majority of my wild animal sightings.

My recent drive to Fairbanks yielded a group of spruce hen a mile out of Delta Junction, a decent flock of white-front geese over downtown and a couple hundred sandhill cranes as I passed the outskirts of town.

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Farther along, a coyote crossed just past Eielson Air Force Base and a cow with a calf moose braved the freeway between North Pole and Fairbanks.

Anchorage is the place to spot moose for visitors from the Lower 48. Should tourists want moose without buildings, head to Delta Junction. Bull moose are easy to find once the brief hunting season has passed. Bison abound — though they are most always behind a fence, it is impossible to tell if the barrier is keeping them in or out of the fields.

Odds of a bear sighting are better in Anchorage than anywhere on the highway system. Coyotes and fox frequent the outskirts of both Anchorage and Fairbanks.

It wasn’t always that way. I grew up with a small trapline near Anchorage. Over the years I caught one coyote and a couple mink, both near Potter Marsh. The increasing human population has taught coyotes, in particular, that humans mean food.

Irritating as it may be, if it happens to you, the sight of a raven stealing a box of cornflakes from the bed of a pickup is as entertaining as all get-out. I will admit to cussing the big black birds when they break into dog food bags in the back of my truck.

One has to marvel at the tough pigeons who somehow eke out an existence in grocery store parking lots.

[From 2021: Anchorage Costco customers say ravens are stealing their groceries in the parking lot]

We humans are the most wasteful predators in the world. It is no wonder the scavengers prowl our edges.

A red fox takes a nuisance squirrel from the trap set on the edge of my home porch. I once picked up a lynx hit by a car at the intersection of the Alaska Highway and the Whitehorse access road. A grizzly is hit by a car between Anchorage in Eagle River. Indeed the most dangerous place in Alaska for both moose and bear attacks is Anchorage.

We did not move into these animals’ habitat — they moved into ours. I grew up on a homestead just south of Anchorage. I never saw a bear or bear track; and most of my spare time was spent in the woods. Coyotes, foxes and mink were not there either. Today they are. These animals came because of us — for the feed we leave.

Peregrine and gyrfalcon come for city pigeons. Goshawks come for our chickens. Geese come for the early greens the cities foster. Moose live in town for the abundant new browse and the lack of predators. Don’t wait for the weekend folks — take a drive around your town. The saying goes: “build it and they will come.” We built it and here they are.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist 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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