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by Stan Tekiela
September 24, 2018
I come to Alaska every year for a variety of reasons. I come for the wide variety of wildlife. I come for the amazing adventures. I come to connect with the mountains. This year is no different from any other year, but on the other hand, everything IS different.
In the natural world nothing ever stays the same. There is no consistency from year to year. It might seem similar but in reality nothing ever stays the same. This is how nature works and it must be.
For many years I return to the same region of central Alaska. This year I spent 7 days in the wilderness, away from the world. No electronic connection to the world. No email, no text, no breaking news from around the world. The wilderness turned my cell phone into a very expensive watch, and I must say it was good. After a few days I forgot what day it was and operated each day by the amount of daylight. Woke just before dawn and went to bed after dark.
I spent an addition week on the fringes of the wilderness wondering about the back roads of Alaska just going where the day took me. This really paid off in several way. I was able to capture some amazing images of Beavers living their normal life. Two adults and three young beavers were very busy. One day the sky cleared of all clouds and I was able to see and photograph Denali Mountain for many different angles. This is a very cloudy region and the sky breaks open revealing the tallest peak in North America only a couple times a month.
When you return to a same place for many years you can see the changes. For example, 4 years ago I was very happy to find and photograph a dozen or more Spruce Grouse. This is a conifer forest bird about the size and shape of a chicken. I remember being thrilled to find so many. Male and females along with youngsters. This year I went searching for them again and was only able to find one lone male. He just sat there all alone. I captured some images and let him be.
However, what’s new this year are Snowshoe Hares. Three and four years ago, there were none. Last year there were a couple scattered here and there. This year you can’t travel a quarter mile without seeing a dozen or more. Snowshoe Hares go through distinct population booms and busts on an 8 to 11 year cycles. In response to this, there is whole host of predators that count on the Snowshoes for food. Everything from the Canada Lynx to wolves, coyotes, Golden Eagles and Gyrfalcons.
One little critter who takes advantage of the Snowshoe Hare boom is the amazing Short-tailed Weasel. This tiny predator routinely takes on prey more than double his or her size. They are a small weasel, about 12 inches long. The males are up to 20 percent larger than females. They turn white in winter and are brown during summer. When white in winter they are often called “ermine” and called “stoat” when brown in summer. No matter they are brown or white they always have a black tip of the tail.
They have amazing energy and can be very inquisitive. One day, a Short-tailed Weasel popped out of an Arctic Ground Squirrel burrow near where I was standing. No doubt it was trying to catch its next meal. It poked it head out of the burrow and looked around. For the next few minutes it went down in the burrow then popped back out again. It would run a few feet away from the burrow, look around and run back. Each time it would venture a little further and further away from the ground squirrel burrow, allowing me a number of opportunities to capture some fun images.
Eventually it turned and ran down the river bank away from me in search of something else to eat. Watching him run along I thought to myself, “look out Snowshoe Hares, here comes the Short-tailed Weasel”. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist who travels the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed on www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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