Monday, September 28, 2009

Musk Ox

Late in the afternoon while working on the wood pile, I noticed four Musk Oxen on the island just across the river channel.  These were the first musk oxen seen near our home all summer.  They had most likely been spending the summer more to the east, along the Arctic Ocean, and were now heading for higher terrain inland where the wind keeps more of the ground swept bare during the winter months.  I quickly got my camera gear loaded in the boat and headed across the channel  to get a few pictures of them on this bright sunny day. 

The group was comprised of 2 adults and two sub-adults from last year.  As I was taking pictures, I noticed one of the musk ox kept swinging its head like it was watching something near its feet.  Finally I saw that there  was a short-tailed weasel running around the musk ox. Muskox-weasel_3980

Weasel can be seen in the foreground between the two animals on the right side of the photo.

He would dash in close then bolt back towards the river bank, where there were tunnels into which he would disappear.  I worked over to that side of the island to get the sun behind me for pictures, and then the weasel started checking me out.  As usual they never stay still very long, which makes it hard to get a good shot. Weasel_face-male_4018

After I got all the pictures I wanted, I headed home and the Musk oxen continued to feed and rest until evening, when they continued on their way upriver.  At dusk I could see them about 2 miles away,  bedded down for the night on another island closer to the mainland.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Lunar Fog Bow

When I went to bed last night I didn’t think there would be much of a chance for sky watching during the night as we were shrouded in thick wet fog.

But as luck would have it when I checked weather at 0130 hr, a large hole had opened in the fog and one could see high broken clouds and a bright moon overhead.  Also  a few weak aurora were moving about, so I decided to go out on the odd chance I might catch them in an active period.  After about ten minutes of walking about the yard looking for a good spot to try for a picture if the aurora flared up, I noticed a pale white patch off to the west.  It took me a bit to realize that I was looking at a rare Lunar Fog Bow.  I took a few pictures of the fog bow, and in one there is even a hint of aurora in part of the frame. 










Slight reddish cast to top of the lunar fog bow can be seen.

While taking pictures of the fog bow the opening overhead closed up and as the moon disappeared so did the bow. So while I didn’t get any aurora pictures, it was worth while just to see the stars and see the lunar fog bow.   Compared to a rainbow this fog bow was quite broad and it did have a slight reddish cast to the top of the arc.


In this photo the fog bow is starting to fade at the top, but you can see a hit of green aurora in the top left.


The reason that the fog bow is so pale is the fog droplets are so small, usually less than 0.1mm.* 

*more information is taken from “Out of the Blue” by John Naylor. Drops as small as this are found in fogs and clouds, and they are also known as white bows.

The absence of color in a fog bow is due to an overlap of the red and blue bands, which occurs when the drops are very small. The overlap is not always complete, and sometimes a fog bow sports a reddish fringe.  Although the diameter of a fog bow is always less than that of a rainbow, its arc can be up to three times as broad.  Lunar fog bows have been seen, though rarely.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Gyrfalcon Excitement

I took a coffee break from fire wood chores and lucked out to see a Gyrfalcon hunting the  willow ptarmigan that were in the area.

WIPT_flgt18_6976I was watching a snow bunting at the feeder when I saw a gyrfalcon launch from of the tall piling  next to our storage building.  With strong wing beats the bird started across the island, staying about

10 feet off the ground until he was within 200 meters of its prey.  It then dropped close to the ground, nearly blending in as I watched from my position.   The falcon traveled over a half mile to get to its target and I couldn't see what the bird was after  until it made a strike at the end.  Then a large flock of willow ptarmigan exploded into the air, close to 130 birds.  Perhaps in the confusion of all the birds erupting out of the grass, the falcon didn't make a hit.  Most of the ptarmigan headed upriver in one group, but 3 to 4  flushed to the right and away from the main group.  The falcon zeroed in on one of these GyrinFlight1sm_3880birds, which had headed  out across our lake.  The falcon over took it about halfway across the lake and made a solid hit. The ptarmigan tumbled into the water.   The falcon made 5 or 6 attempts to retrieve its prey, but perhaps being an immature bird, it was a bit tentative about plucking it out of the water.  A couple times I could see white feathers drift off when it tried to pick up the ptarmigan, just not getting a solid grip.
After giving up on getting the bird out of the water, the falcon headed back across the island to where other ptarmigan had scattered.  The next ptarmigan flushed, started climbing upward, and was able to stay above the pursuing falcon, but after about a third of a mile and gaining altitude to 150', the falcon gave up the chase, and returned to the general area from where that ptarmigan had flushed.  I have seen a lot of ptarmigan chased by snowy owls and other falcons, and this was the first time I had experienced a ptarmigan executing such a climbing escape maneuver.  Normally they fly fast and low until they find a place in which to hide.
While the gyrfalcon was chasing the second bird, I made my way out past the storage building from which the falcon had started this hunting cycle.  I had just got out there when two more ptarmigan flushed and they both turned and headed for the buildings. The falcon NearMiss1_3859zeroed in on one of the fleeing birds, but just seemed to be a bit slow in reacting to the twists and turns of the ptarmigan.  As they flew towards me, I was able to film a couple of the near misses. 






The start of the run to safety, and a near miss.





Ptarmigan able to make a sharper turn and stay just ahead of the falcon.








After the first try the immature falcon continued to drop back every so slightly.










Away to safety as the falcon looses speed.

Both ptarmigan made it to the safety of the building and hid in the grass.  The falcon landed on a drying rack that was stored next to the metal building and sat for about 5 minutes calling and twisting his head looking for the hiding ptarmigan. 








The young bird was making a call that reminded me of other young birds when begging for food. Perhaps it was thinking how easy Mom made catching things, and if she was here there would be something to eat.  The falcon took off and flew over me, then made two passes around the buildings before landing on the tall piling.



  Willow ptarmigan hiding in tall grass by building as gyrfalcon searches for it.



After a short break it was airborne again and headed off towards the north end of the island a mile away.  I never saw the young falcon catch another ptarmigan but several small groups passed through the yard in the afternoon and evening and they were very alert and acted like they had been chased.

What excitement for a bright sunny day in the Arctic!

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Arctic Smoke Signals by James W. Helmericks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.