ike and I just returned home after six weeks on the road. We had a great vacation, but as always, I am happy to be home, despite the cold weather and frozen waterline.
Spring is still two months away in this area of the world, and we’ve had a tough winter here. After several mild winters, the black-tailed deer population on the island had exploded, but many deer did not survive the freezing temperatures this winter. I haven’t had a chance to go hiking yet to see with my own eyes how bad the winter kill was, but I’ve heard it was bad. The cycling of deer populations is normal, of course, and the deer population here will recover, but I find it difficult to watch animals starve to death and die from exposure.
I was thrilled to get a dose of sunshine and heat on our vacation. We went sailing with friends in the British Virgin Islands, and then Mike and I traveled further south to Bonaire where we snorkeled and dived and enjoyed wearing fewer layers of clothes than normal. Besides spending time with friends, the best part of the vacation for me was that I could snorkel nearly every day. I studied marine and fisheries biology in college, and I have always been fascinated by the underwater world. I could float above a coral reef all day long, watching the interactions between the fish and marine invertebrates in that busy community. The area surrounding Bonaire is a protected marine park, so the coral is healthy, and the tropical fish thrive. I would grab my mask and fins, jump off the dock at our hotel, and instantly be immersed in a gorgeous, underwater world. Getting to Bonaire was not easy, but it was well worth the hassle to enjoy that little piece of paradise.
During the many, long plane rides and mornings on the sailboat on our trip, I had time to edit the manuscript of my latest novel. With each pass, I am polishing it into the story I want it to be. I think most authors would tell you editing is the least fun part of the writing process, but editing is necessary and can’t be avoided. In addition to questioning every comma and semicolon and trying to remember whether a character’s eyes are blue or brown, I worry that the plot moves forward in a logical progression. Will the reader be surprised or disappointed? Are the characters believable? Have I provided enough description or too much description? My working manuscript is long, so I’m concerned I need to cut some scenes. Luckily, I will get help answering these questions. Once I have the manuscript as perfect as I can make it, I will send it to a professional editor who will look at it line by line and then step back and consider the manuscript as a whole. A few friends have also volunteered to read the manuscript, and my publisher will read through it and give me his thoughts.
I also want to ask for your help with my manuscript. In a few weeks, I will post a few excerpts from the book, and I encourage you to let me know what you think, good or bad. I would much rather have the feedback now than read it in a review on Amazon once the book has been published!
Finally, I have a gift for my blog readers. Click on the cover of my book below and receive a free coupon for an e-book of my novel, Murder Over Kodiak. When you click on the link you will be taken to a site provided by my publisher, and you will need to register to download the book, but there is no catch. The book is yours free!
As many of you know, I write a monthly newsletter about crime and mysteries in Alaska. I think of spring as the start of the new season for my newsletter, and I have several interesting topics I plan to cover over the next months. My newsletters are free, and you can always unsubscribe if they aren’t for you. If you think you would be interested in my newsletters, you can sign up here.
A Kodiak bear’s coat may range from dark brown to nearly blonde. Bears are typically darker in the fall when they begin growing their winter coat, and older bears are often darker than younger bears, but these are just generalizations. One cub from a litter may be light, while his brother is dark brown.
Cubs often have a natal collar, a white band around the neck and shoulder. Some cubs have no natal collar, and others have a collar that is bright and distinct. This band gradually fades over time, and it has usually disappeared by the age of three, but occasionally, you will see a four-or-five-year-old bear that still has remnants of a collar.
A bear’s fur is an excellent insulator. It is dense and oily, keeping the bear warm and preventing water from penetrating. The fur consists of two types of hair, the “guard hair” and the “under-fur.” Bears shed both the guard hair and underfur annually. In the summer, Kodiak bears often appear shaggy and matted. The bear in the photo below looks as if she is sporting dreadlocks. To help remove their fur, bears rub against trees and rocks, often standing on their hind legs, backing up to a tree and rubbing up and down. It is humorous to watch a bear “scratch his back” in this manner. While the old coat is shedding, a new coat is growing, and by September on Kodiak, most bears appear darker in color and well-groomed. The old, loose fur is gone, and only the new fur remains.
Brown bears have non-retractable claws up to four-inches long. The claws of young bears are typically dark brown and then lighten with age. Although some young bears have light-colored claws, beautiful, pearly-white claws are usually seen on an old sow or boar. Look at the photos and notice the difference in claw coloration between the sub-adult bear and the old sow.
Brown bears use their claws to defend themselves and fight with other bears, but Kodiak bears primarily use their claws to dig for roots and other food and gripping food. Even though their claws look large and clumsy to us, they are quite dexterous and capable of manipulating small objects. Kodiak cubs use their claws to climb trees, but adult brown bears are poor climbers due to their body weight and the structure of their claws. It is not uncommon to see a sow send her small cubs up a tree if she senses danger, and they stay in the tree until she vocalizes the signal that it is safe for them to come down.
Bears, like all animals, depend on their senses to survive. They use their senses for many things, but especially to find food and detect possible threats. A bear’s sense of smell is its most important sense. A brown bear’s sense of smell is three to four times more sensitive than that of an average dog, and it is difficult for humans with our relatively poor sense of smell to comprehend what this means and how much a bear depends on this sense. A bear uses his nose to find food, locate a mate, and avoid danger. A bear downwind from you may smell your presence and run from you while you are still several hundred yards away from him.
A bear’s second most important sense is hearing. Brown bears have relatively small ears, but they can detect noises at a great distance. A bear can hear the click of a camera shutter over the sound of the wind, crashing waves, or a swiftly running river.
For a long time, biologists believed bears had poor eyesight, but scientific research has shown a bear’s eyesight is similar to that of a human’s. Bears are not nearsighted as was once believed, and they can see colors. Brown bears often stand on their hind legs to increase their sight distance and get a better look at an object. It is not a sign of aggression when a bear stands on its hind legs; the bear is just trying to gain more sensory input.
The important thing to remember is a bear does not use each one of these senses independent of the others. If a bear sees something unfamiliar in the distance, such as a person, a boat, or even another bear, he may stand on his hind legs to get a better look, raise his nose to attempt to smell the interloper, and pick up his ears to try to ascertain unfamiliar sounds. If he still cannot determine what the object is, he may approach it for a closer look or circle downwind from the object so that he can smell it better.
Next week, I’ll write about a bear’s fur and claws. Does a bear’s fur change with age? Why are some Kodiak bears blonde and others a chocolate-colored? What is the white ring some cubs have around their neck? How do the claws change with age?
If you haven’t signed up yet for my free monthly newsletter, don’t wait. You won’t want to miss this month’s newsletter about crime and justice during the Alaska Gold Rush written by Alaska historian and author Steven Levi.
Summer Friends at Amook Pass is a post by my friend, Marcia Messier. I love this humorous story about her animal encounters while she worked for us at Munsey’s Bear Camp. What Marcia doesn’t tell you in this piece is that I named our goat visitor Marcie because the goat’s daring trip each summer from the mountains to the ocean, reminded me of Marcia’s adventurous spirit. Prepare to smile as you read about Marcia’s adventures!
During the summer months at Amook Pass, the animals were my friends. That sounds a bit corny, but they were amusing, startling, and comforting, all that friends should be. I looked forward and anticipated who might stop by for a visit during my busy days.
I was privileged to know Gizzy, Fletcher, Elsie, and Olive during my summers at Munsey’s Bear Camp. They were my very best animal friends. I thought it was interesting that Gizzy and Olive had similar personalities as did Fletcher and Elsie; even though, they had never met. Gizzy and Olive were the sweet ladies, soft-spoken, polite, accommodating for a photo, well groomed, and perhaps just a little bit shy of visitors. Fletcher and Elsie, on the other hand, were true wilderness cats. Fletcher was getting along in years when I first met him, but he told me many a hair-raising tale about his hunting skills as a younger gentleman. Elsie was in her prime, and she loved to stalk bears for days on end. Many a time as Robin and I were mourning her early demise, we would hear Mike yell, “Elsie’s back!”, and there she would be, dragging herself through the door, ragged, dirty and ravenously hungry after her latest adventure.
Fletcher and Elsie loved to hunt voles, the tiny mouse-like creatures close to the bottom of the Kodiak food chain. They must be a very tasty snack because twice daily I’d find their tiny blue and green left-over parts deposited on the front door step. I used to tell myself they were loving gifts, but then again, whoever left the pieces always seemed slightly amused when I reached down to pluck the bits off the doorstep while making slight gagging sounds.
Freddie the Weasel became a daily late-afternoon house guest. Maybe the sound of the old generator starting up interrupted his afternoon nap. He’d shoot in the backdoor, zip through the kitchen and take cover under the couch in the living room to watch and learn about life in the big house. At first, I jumped and shrieked thinking he must be some kind of Kodiak rat, but later in the day, Robin calmly explained about weasels.
Gizzy and Fletcher were still with us then but getting along in years. They knew their limitations, so they decided to pretend Freddie was just a figment of my over-active imagination. Not wanting to insult them, I went along with the game and soon we all looked forward to Freddie’s daily antics. I knew when he heard the boat motoring up to the mooring; I would see the tail end of Freddie flip out the front door.
Early in the summer season, the female Sitka deer would bring their fawns into the yard to nibble the bright green salad-like greens growing around the cabins. Sometimes there would be twins, and I would think happy thoughts as I watched them through the kitchen window while preparing breakfast.
One day I came nose to nose with a deer! I was hurrying to the cabin with a load of fresh laundry, and we met coming around the corner at the same instant. We were both startled and just stared dumbfounded into each other’s eyes for a moment. I’m not sure who moved first, but a hunter later told me I was lucky it hadn’t given me a good kick in the shins before it bolted off! I guess that happens, but ours was a peaceful meeting, and I will forever remember that instant.
I live in Arizona, so the first time I saw a fox on the pathway, I excitedly reported to Mike I had seen a coyote in the yard that day. Laughing, he looked at me like I was nuts and said, “There are no coyotes on Kodiak Island!”. I felt a little foolish but still maintain at a distance, a big healthy Kodiak fox looks very much like a thin Arizona coyote in the summertime!
I’ve seen Bald Eagles before, but in Arizona, they are a special sighting. On Kodiak, they are commonplace, and I was thrilled to see a nesting pair close to camp. On my mid-day break, if the weather was good, I’d sit in a lawn chair facing the bay and watch the eagles fish. It was entertaining; an eagle would fly over the water and scope out a fish, and then in an amazing feet-first dive, catch the fish in its talons. After this, it was usually impossible to get airborne once again, so it had to row itself and the fish, still clutched in its talons, ashore with its wings. There, after expending so much energy, it would devour the fish and do it all over again.
More than once, on a nice day, while taking a siesta in the hammock, enjoying the warm sun on my face, I’d hear and feel the strong wing beats of a very large bird flying close over me, and I’d know I had been checked out by a Bald Eagle!
Some of you may have read my “Encounter” with a bear. I was walking along the path up to the guest cottage one afternoon, my mind far away, when I heard a “horse” snort. The sound brought me back to the present in a flash, and I must say, I have never confused the sound of a bear with that of a horse again!
A secret I’d like to reveal is Mike used to make a bear playground out of old red mooring buoys a distance up behind the generator shed. I heard him and Robin laughing once about how much fun the bears had rolling, tossing and chewing these old red buoys. I never did venture up past the generator shed and burn barrel. Wearing a red jacket, I didn’t want the bears to make a mistake. I did wonder if mother bears warned their cubs, “never go near that playground as there is a dangerous human there who makes frightening loud, smoky blasts come out of the shed and soon after makes fire leap high into the sky out of a barrel!” Thinking back, I was probably quite safe.
Marcie was my favorite yard animal. One warm July day, we spotted a solitary mountain goat strolling along the beach near camp. Mike and Robin reported this was indeed a rare sighting. We couldn’t help ourselves, Robin christened her Marcie, and we began to speculate about her life and why she was here on our beach. She was a rebel. Marcie was tired of billies, she had too many youngsters to raise, and the constant stress of all those steep icy mountain ledges was wearing her down. Maybe she had arthritis in her knees. Maybe she just wanted a vacation at the beach! We happily welcomed her, and for a number of years, she would appear for her annual July vacation at Munsey’s Bear Camp. One year she didn’t arrive. We looked and looked, but no Marcie. Right away we decided, instead of feeling sad, we would celebrate her life. We had a toast to Marcie, how brave she was to break away from the herd and dare to be different!
The sea otter is a zen-like sight floating on its back, paws pressed together as if in meditation pose. It’s a sweet maternal picture with mom floating on her back and a tiny baby resting on her belly. And how clever of them to use tools! They often are observed with a rock balanced on their belly, happily cracking open clams for lunch. Brilliant!
At Munsey’s Bear Camp, I often saw sea otters floating in the cove in front of the lodge, and the sea otters kept to themselves. Their cousins the river otters, however, were a different matter. A family of river otters took up residence under the dock. This dock was now their home, and no one else was welcome. The dock became their dining room and their toilet. A mop had to be stationed on the dock so that the horrid stinky mess could be swabbed away. The mop could also be used as a defensive tool.
With guests arriving and departing from the dock every five days, caution had to be observed. One day stands out in my mind. It was a beautiful, sunny Kodiak day, and we were all on deck welcoming new guests. As they were embarking from the float plane and luggage was being handed down, I took a step back and slid on an unseen mound of otter poo. I wanted to vaporize as I fell on my backside in an ungraceful plop! Afterward, we laughed about this incident, but I never forgot, and every time I saw a sweet little otter posing for pictures, I saw two little horns poking up through the top of its head.
I grew up near Cape Cod where everyone loved to fish. I didn’t. To me, the whole process from baiting the hook, to dragging the poor thing out of its natural habitat with a hook in its mouth, to butchering it, to stinking up the house with fried fish was cruel and disgusting. Fast forward 40 years and I’m a cook in a fishing camp. I politely listened and smiled at all the fish stories and quietly cooked the fish, wondering what all the commotion was about. One day my perception changed. Robin and Mike asked me if I’d like to go out on the boat with them for the day. We had only one guest, and it was a great day to get out of the house. Yes, I wanted to go! Like a good sport, I purchased my fishing license, and away we went. Mike anchored in a pretty cove, and as I sat down in the deck chair ready to enjoy the sunshine, Robin stuck a baited pole in my hands and showed me where to drop the line. Still not paying much attention, suddenly the pole was nearly yanked out of my hands, and the line was whizzing off the reel. “What’s going on?”, I hollered. Robin and Mike replied, “You’ve caught a fish.” They proceeded to give me instructions. Suddenly, the scenario was hilarious, like an old re-run of “I Love Lucy.” I couldn’t stop laughing which in turn made my arms weak and unable to reel in the line. In a second, Robin strapped a belt-like thing around me to support the fishing pole so that I could reel. Now we are all laughing hard, but with perseverance and aching arms, the fish finally emerged from the deep. I was leaned over the rail gasping in amazement at “my halibut” when all of sudden, Mike, with an expert jerk of his pliers, freed my fish from the hook and off it swam! Hey! At that moment I was totally conflicted. On the one hand, I proudly wanted to bring my halibut home for supper, but on the other, I wished it well and was happy it was able to live another day in Uyak Bay.
An eagle can rise on thermals and gain altitude until it is only a speck in the sky, and then it soars until it sees prey and can swoop down and make a kill. When an eagle spots a fish from the air, it begins to glide toward the water. As it nears its prey, it extends its legs and opens its talons. It soars just over the surface of the water and then plunges its legs into the water. The talons strike the fish, and the eagle immediately closes the talons, driving them deep into its prey. The eagle then flaps its wings to pull the fish out of the water and maintain enough speed to remain airborne. If the eagle cannot lift the fish, the bird may be dragged under water and forced to swim for shore. Eagles are strong swimmers, but if the water is cold, they may be overcome by hypothermia and drown.
It is a common misconception that once an eagle grasps its prey with its talons, it cannot let go. While eagles can lock their talons, it is a voluntary action. An eagle can release a fish that is too heavy for it to lift, but sometimes it holds on anyway, perhaps deciding the prize is worth the swim to shore.
Biologists estimate an eagle can only lift a maximum of four to five pounds, but since lift is dependent on both wing size and air speed, the faster the eagle flies, the greater its lift potential. An eagle that lands to grab a fish and then takes off again can manage less of a load than one that swoops down at a high rate of speed and plucks its prey from the water. Speed and momentum allow the eagle to carry more weight.
An adult bald eagle needs between 0.5 lbs (.23 kg.) and 1.5 lbs (.68 kg) of food per day. A study done in Washington State found an eagle needs to consume between 6% and 11% of its body weight per day. If an eagle eats a three-pound (1.4 kg) fish one day, though, it does not need to eat again for a few days. Bald eagles living in coastal Alaska feed mainly on fish such as herring, flounder, pollock, and salmon. They may also prey upon seabirds, small mammals, sea urchins, clams, crabs, and carrion.
In the summer and fall on Kodiak Island, eagles congregate along salmon streams or near the ocean where salmon are likely to school. Large numbers of eagles also gather near fish canneries where they feed on the fishy discharge from the processing plants. Both mature and immature eagles feed on carrion, but research indicates young eagles are more dependent on carrion, and they eat carrion while they develop and hone their hunting skills. Adults, on the other hand, more actively hunt live prey, particularly fish.
The bill and neck muscles of a bald eagle are adapted to allow the bird to gorge itself quickly. An eagle can eat a 1 lb. (.45 kg) fish in only four minutes, and it can hold onto a fish with one talon while it grips its perch with the other talon and tears apart the fish with its bill.
Eagles are the masters of their domain and consider any animal they can lift as a suitable meal. If an eagle flies over a seagull rookery, all the birds on the rookery take flight to chase away the menacing predator. Between fish, birds, voles, weasels, and hares, eagles on Kodiak Island have plenty to eat.
Don’t forget to sign up for my Mystery Newsletter. In March, Steven Levy, a respected author and historian from Anchorage, will be the guest author for my newsletter and will write about historical crimes in Alaska.
If you look up on a windy day on Kodiak Island, you will likely see several eagles soaring high in the sky. Bald eagles are built for flight, particularly for soaring and gliding. An eagle expends a great deal of energy flapping its large wings, so to conserve energy when gaining and maintaining altitude, it utilizes thermal convection currents or “thermals,” which are columns of warm air generated by terrain such as mountain slopes. It has been estimated a bald eagle can reach flying speeds of 35-43 mph (56-70 kph) when gliding and flapping and 30 mph (48 kph) while carrying a fish. While not known as particularly fast fliers, eagles can soar and glide for hours at a time.
The construction of an eagle’s wings and tail make soaring and gliding possible. The wings are long and broad and are covered by a layer of lightweight feathers arranged to streamline the wing. The primary feathers, or primaries, provide lift and control an eagle’s flight during turning, diving, and braking. An eagle can tilt and rotate individual feathers to maneuver and brake. The tail also assists in braking and stabilizes the eagle when it dives toward prey. While soaring, tail feathers spread wide to maximize surface area and increase the effect of updrafts and thermals.
When an eagle finds an air current or a thermal, it can gain altitude without flapping its wings. If it is dead calm with no air currents moving up or down, eagles cannot soar, and that is why you see more eagles soaring on windy days or sunny afternoons and sitting on their perches on calm, cool mornings.
When a young eagle first leaves the nest, its wing and tail feathers are longer than those of an adult. As an eagle matures, its wing and tail feathers become shorter and narrower with each successive molt. The larger wings of a juvenile make it easier for the bird to catch an updraft or weak thermal and to fly slower and in tighter circles than an adult. The downside of the larger wings and tail is the juvenile rises slower, sinks faster, and cannot soar as far as the adult. Adult bald eagles can flap their wings faster and fly at a greater speed than immature eagles, making them more efficient at chasing down live prey.
Female bald eagles are larger than males, and while their wings are also slightly larger, the larger wing size does not make up for the increased weight of the female. Therefore, females require more wind or stronger thermals than males to be able to gain altitude and soar. Since thermals are weaker during the morning and evening hours, females are more likely to remain on their perches during these times and soar when it’s windy or in the afternoon when thermals are stronger.
An eagle’s large wings make landings and takeoffs tricky, and landing on a perch is something eagles manage to do gracefully only after much practice. A newly-fledged juvenile looks very awkward when it tries to land on a perch and may even crash land or swing upside down if it grabs the perch while it still has too much forward momentum.
An eagle’s acute vision allows it to see prey while soaring high in the air. The eyes of an eagle are larger than those of an adult human, and an eagle’s eyesight is at least four times sharper than that of a human with perfect vision. An eagle flying at an altitude of several hundred feet can spot a fish under water. The eyes are protected by a nictating membrane, and each eye has two fovae or centers of focus, letting the bird see both forward and to the side at the same time. Eagles have binocular vision, so they can perceive depth, allowing them to judge how far away their prey is when they begin a dive.
Next week, I’ll write about what bald eagles eat and how they hunt. Once again, I want to remind you to sign up for my free monthly Mystery Newsletter and read about true crime in Alaska.
Female bald eagles are slightly larger than males. Males range in body length from 30 to 34 inches (76.2 to 86.4 cm), while females measure 35 to 37 inches (89 to 94 cm). The wingspan of a male stretches from 72 to 85 inches (182.9 to 215.9 cm), while a female’s wingspan ranges from 79 to 90 inches (200.7 to 228.6 cm). Bald eagles weigh between 8 and 14 lbs. (3.6 to 6.4 kgs.).
The skeleton of a bald eagle weighs 0.5 lbs (250 to 350 grams), which is only 5 to 6% of the total weight of the bird. The bones are extremely light, because they are hollow, and the feathers weigh twice as much as the bones.
The bald eagle’s average body temperature is 106°F (41°C). They don’t sweat, so they cool themselves in other ways, such as panting, holding their wings away from their bodies, and perching in the shade. In cold weather, an eagle’s skin is protected by feathers which are lined with down. Their feet consist mainly of tendon and are cold-resistant, and little blood flows to the bill, which is mostly nonliving material.
The beak, talons, and feathers of an eagle are made of keratin, the same material as in our fingernails and hair. Because of this, the beak and talons continuously grow and are worn down through usage. An eagle’s beak can be used as a weapon and is sharp enough to slice skin, but is also delicate enough to groom a mate’s feathers and feed a chick. The talons are important for defense and hunting.
An eagle’s call is a high-pitched, whining scream that is broken into a series of notes. They don’t have vocal cords, so sound is produced in a bony chamber called the syrinx, located where the trachea divides before the lungs. Scientists have differentiated four different calls. Eagles are most vocal when they are threatened, annoyed, or mating.
When eagles first fledge, they are mostly brown, except under the wings, which are mostly white. As immature eagles grow, their body coloration changes and they molt and replace feathers each summer. As juveniles mature, their feathers become a mottled brown and white. By three-and-one-half years, the head and tail are nearly all white, and by four-and-one-half, immature eagles are nearly indistinguishable from adults.
Bald eagles have 7000 feathers. Feathers protect them from both heat and cold and offer a barrier to snow and rain. They have several layers of feathers that tightly overlap and provide a solid covering. It is because of this coat of feathers that eagles can spend winters in extremely cold climates. Depending on the ambient temperature, an eagle can rotate its feathers to reduce or increase their insulating effect. They puff up their feathers for a variety of reasons, including preening, to insulate themselves from cold temperatures, to make themselves appear larger when threatened, and when they are sick.
Feathers are of course also necessary for flight and for gliding and soaring. Like the bones, the feathers are hollow and lightweight, but they are structurally very strong. The primaries, the large feathers along the tips of the wings, provide lift and are the main controls for flight. An eagle twists these feathers to brake, turn, and maneuver. The tail feathers are also important for flying, maneuvering, and landing and for stabilizing an eagle when it dives toward prey.
Sign up now for my free monthly Mystery letter. The next edition will be mailed out on February 15th.
Two species of squirrels live on the islands of the Kodiak Archipelago. The Arctic ground squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) was introduced a few hundred years ago, and the more common red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) was introduced in 1952. The red squirrel population is slowly spreading across Kodiak Island, and biologists estimate at least 10,000 to 15,000 red squirrels now live on Kodiak.
Red squirrels range across Canada and Alaska and south into the North Central and Northeastern United States, west to the Rocky Mountains. Their range in Alaska extends through most of the forested areas, from the Brooks Range through south central and southeast Alaska.
Red squirrels are members of the rodent family, and the species Tamiasciurus hudsonicus has been divided into 25 subspecies. A red squirrel is small, measuring approximately 12 inches (30 cm) in length, with its long, bushy tail accounting for a third of the total length. A large adult may weigh 8.4 ounces (240 g). In the summer, it has a pale red to olive-gray coat with a black line along each side. It is creamy white or buff-colored on its underside. In the winter, it has reddish-brown ear tufts and a bright rusty red strip along the back, while the black stripes along the side fade or disappear. In all seasons, a red squirrel has a white ring around each eye.
Red squirrels are territorial and vigorously defend their territories. A squirrel’s territory can range in size one-half acre to six acres, and each squirrel knows its territory well and may have several nests and food caches within the boundaries of its territory. Red squirrels build their nests in trees. The nests are usually between 10 to 60 ft. (3-18 m) above the ground and are either constructed inside a tree cavity or out of a mass of twigs, leaves, moss, and lichens inside the dense foliage of a branch.[4,5}
Red squirrels mainly eat the seeds of conifer cones. A spruce forest covers the north side of Kodiak Island, and the squirrels living in this forest eat the seeds of spruce cones. Since few spruce trees grow on the rest of the island, though, squirrels in other areas eat and cache alder cones. When collecting cones, a red squirrel cuts green cones from a tree and allows them to fall to the ground. The squirrel then gathers the fallen cones and buries them in one or several caches in its territory. By collecting only green cones, the squirrel knows the seeds are still in the cones.
A squirrel may collect several bushels of cones in a cache, and a cache may be as big as 15 by 18 ft. with a depth of 3 ft. (5 x 6 x 1 m). In addition to one large cache, a squirrel often has several smaller caches in its territory. Besides seeds, red squirrels also eat berries, buds, fungi, insects and bird eggs. They do most of their food collecting during the day but may also be active on moonlit nights. Red squirrels do not hibernate but instead depend on their stored food caches to make it through the winter. In regions with heavy snow, they may dig elaborate snow tunnels to reach their caches.
Red squirrels can climb trees with ease. They run up and down the trunks and along branches and can jump as far as 8 ft. (2.4 m) from one branch to another. On the ground, they walk or run and can run as fast as 14 mph (22.5 km/hr) over short distances.
Red squirrels are solitary animals except during the breeding season, when males leave their territories, and females allow males to enter their territories. A female has a one-day estrous period, and one to ten males may pursue her during that time. The dominant male will approach the female while uttering quiet vocalizations. Copulation is brief but may be repeated several times until the female becomes aggressive. After a gestation of 36 to 40 days, the female gives birth to three to seven young. The young are blind and hairless at birth and weigh only ¼ oz. (7 g). The young develop slowly and do not open their eyes until they are 27 days old. By 30 days of age, they are fully furred and begin to leave the nest. When young red squirrels are 9 to 11 weeks old, they begin to establish their territories.
A red squirrel will emit a long rattling buzz when another squirrel enters its territory, and this call is often accompanied by tail-jerking and foot stamping. Neighboring squirrels may respond with similar calls. A slowly repeated “whuuk” call is an alarm call announcing the approach of a predator. Biologists have noted red squirrels often produce a high-frequency alarm call when they detect an avian predator and a low, barking call when they sense the approach of a land predator. In addition to vocalizations, red squirrels use posturing and chemical signals to communicate.
Red squirrels have a high mortality rate, and only 22% survive to one year of age. Females that survive their first year have a life expectancy of 2.3 years and a maximum lifespan of 8 years. Red squirrels may be preyed upon by hawks, owls, eagles, bobcats, coyotes, weasels, minks, foxes, raccoons, and fishers. In the long term, habitat loss is the biggest threat to red squirrels.[4,5}
Beginning next week, I’ll write a few posts about bald eagles. As always, I appreciate you stopping by to read my blog and would love hearing from you. Please leave a comment!
Our suitcases are packed, and we are headed off on our winter getaway! Part of our trip is business-related, but the rest is a pleasure trip. Our first stop will be Las Vegas, where we will have a booth at the annual SCI Convention. It is a culture shock to leave remote Amook Pass and travel straight to Las Vegas. Here, the only sounds we have heard for the last few months have been the blowing wind and the occasional scream of an eagle or raven, and the only person we have seen is our mail plane pilot on his weekly stop. Las Vegas is sensory overload with constant noise and thousands of people. We always have a great time at this convention, though, because we spend time with friends and talk to past guests. I eat too much and sleep too little the entire time we are there, and when we arrive at the airport for the next leg of our trip, I breathe a sigh of relief because I know we are headed someplace less crazy than Vegas.
For the second part of our winter getaway, we are renting a sailboat with friends and sailing around the British Virgin Islands for a week. I know nothing about sailing, but everyone else in the group knows what they are doing. It will be a fun, relaxing week. After that adventure, Mike and I will spend another week in that area of the world, and we plan to snorkel, dive, relax, read, and I plan to write!
Next, it’s back to Anchorage and back to work. We will shop for lumber and other supplies to finish our new cabin and warehouse, and we will shop for everything else we will need from the city for the next year. We charter a barge once a year in the spring to bring fuel, building supplies, furniture, and any other large items from Kodiak to our lodge in Uyak Bay, so while we are in Anchorage, we will purchase these items and arrange for them to be shipped from Anchorage to Kodiak.
Also while we are in Anchorage, we will take a recertification course for our Wilderness First Responder credentials. We are required to recertify every three years. This course is important to us because it prepares us to take care of our guests when we are hiking in the Kodiak Wilderness.
By March 15th, we will be ready to fly home. We’ll be tired of eating in restaurants and sleeping in strange beds, but most of all, we will miss the peace and quiet of the wilderness. It is always nice to get away from Alaska in the middle of the dark, cold winter, but it is much better to return. By March, the days will be longer and brighter, and while it will still be winter, spring will soon be here.
I will post while on the road, and I already have several posts planned. My friend, Marcia Messier, has again promised a guest post while I’m away, and her posts are very popular. I also hope to keep up with my monthly Mystery Newsletters, and Steven Levi, a well-known author from Anchorage, will write the March edition of the newsletter. You will not want to miss that newsletter because Steve is an expert on crime and criminals throughout the history of Alaska, and I am thrilled he has agreed to take time out of his busy schedule to share his knowledge with us. If you haven’t yet signed up for my Mystery Newsletter, follow the link and do it now, so you don’t miss Steve’s newsletter.
Last week, I wrote about the biology and habits of the black oystercatcher, and I mentioned until recently, this species has not received much attention from biologists. In the past few years, though, researchers have realized the overall health and dynamics of oystercatcher populations can tell us a great deal about the health of the organisms that live within the intertidal zone. The black oystercatcher has been called a keystone species, but I think it would be more accurate to call it an indicator species. A keystone species is a species whose presence and role within an ecosystem has a disproportionate effect on other organisms within the system, while an indicator species is a species whose presence, absence, or relative well-being in a given environment is a sign of the overall health of its ecosystem. The well-being of black oystercatchers is thought to be an indicator of the overall health of the intertidal community along the North Pacific shoreline. Tlingit shamans identified with black oystercatchers and believed that just as shamans inhabit both the human and spirit world, oystercatchers live in the border world between land and water. As a tribute to these special birds, shamans often depicted oystercatchers on their rattles.
As the Tlingits noted, black oystercatchers live in a narrow band of habitat and are dependent on the intertidal area to breed, nest and feed, making them vulnerable to both natural and human disturbances. Monitoring black oystercatcher population trends and movements can better help us understand the health of this intertidal zone. In 2004, the International Black Oystercatcher Working Group was formed. This group includes federal and state agencies from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia. The group’s focus is to learn more about black oystercatchers. In addition to understanding world and local population sizes, researchers hope to learn more about the life cycle of the black oystercatcher. They want to pinpoint natural and manmade threats to oystercatchers and to employ methods to minimize these threats. Understanding black oystercatchers will not only help safeguard these birds but could be key in protecting the intertidal community of organisms and the wide variety of animals that depend on this community for food.
Predation is the major cause of mortality for black oystercatcher eggs and chicks. In Alaska, predators include eagles, ravens, crows, Glaucous-winged gulls, foxes, bears, river otters, wolverines, marten, and mink. Because they live so low in the tidal zone, black oystercatchers are susceptible to flooding, especially in Alaska, where most nests are on low, sloping beaches. Flooding may be caused by natural causes such as extreme high tides, storm surges, or tsunamis or by manmade causes such as boat wakes. Since black oystercatcher nests are on the ground, they are also susceptible to disturbance by humans walking along the beach and stepping on the nests or disturbing the nesting birds.
Black oystercatchers are vulnerable to shoreline contamination, especially from oil spills. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska had a major impact on oystercatchers. Twenty percent of the oystercatchers in the area of the spill were killed immediately, and those that were not immediately killed had to either eat oil-contaminated prey or starve. Now, biologists know the short-term impacts of the oil spill on oystercatchers were only part of the story. Current research shows oystercatchers are still suffering from the physiological effects of feeding on oil-contaminated prey.
We need to learn a great deal more about the biology and habits of the black oystercatcher. Once we understand them, they can help us gauge the health of the intertidal zone from California to British Columbia and Alaska.
If you haven’t already signed up for my Mystery Newsletter, be sure to do that here. My February newsletter is about people who have mysteriously gone missing in Alaska.