Some wildlife in Fairbanks Alaska stays over winter. Read how they manage to survive, what they feed on, why they stay even when they are migration birds and what kind of damage they may cause.
- Garage Entrance Blocked by Moose
- About 200 ducks overwinter in Fairbanks
- Wastewater of the power plant provides open water
- Ducks stay close to the river and feed on seeds from bird feeders
- Seven Drunken Ducks in the Driveway
- How Wildlife Gets Drunken
- Ravens scavenge household garbage for dog food
- Christmas bird counting
- Squirrels Are Part of the Wildlife in Fairbanks
- Squirrels Build a Snow Tunnel Network to Protect Themselves from Birds of Pray
- Voles – cute unwanted wildlife in Fairbanks
- Detection of the damage
- Voles Sleeping Chamber
- The report
- My husband’s reaction
- The German election campaign
- Living in the Wilderness – Tracks Tell You Who Is Out There
- Animal Tracks around the House
- More on Wildlife in Fairbanks Alaska
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post.
Garage Entrance Blocked by Moose
When we lived out in Goldstream, we came home from Fairbanks one night and could not get into the house. There were a moose and her calf in the driveway. They did not move away despite our car idling in front of them. After about 10 minutes or so, they decided to lay down in our front yard for the night and we could pull towards the garage. It’s important to never get between a moose cow and her baby. I sneaked out to open the garage door to get into the house.
About 200 Ducks Overwinter in Fairbanks
In my post Alaskan migration birds, I mentioned that some birds stay in town in the cold season. Each year, about 200 ducks stay over winter in the Fairbanks metropolitan area. They build feathers with more branches for insulation from the low temperatures in the double digits below zero (colder than -23oC). However, even in winter, ducks need open water for survival. In the Interior and not far from Fairbanks, what an Alaskan calls not far, several hot springs exist. But the largest open water areas are due to the power plants’ waste water that prohibits a large stretch of the river downstream from freezing.
Wastewater of the Power Plant Provides Open Water
The power plant located in downtown Fairbanks, for instance, leads to open water in the Chena River for more than 1.5 miles downstream. On cold winter days, the river “steams” and white ice fog builds over the open river. When viewed from the hills north of town, the ice fog over the Chena looks like a giant snake crawling and winding thru the city.
Ducks Stay Close to the River, and Feed on Seeds from Bird Feeders
The ducks stay close to the open river stretches either on the river banks or in yards adjacent to the river and its many sloughs. They dig in the snow for seeds from trees, sunflowers, and seeds fallen onto the ground under bird feeders. Often you see them resting close to each other (like in the middle of the photo above) to stay warm, while some other ducks build a larger circle around them and make the watch. When one of them gives an alarm, a Hitchcock-like scene evolves. All ducks go up, and fly towards the open water of the Chena River.
Seven Drunken Ducks in the Driveway
Tuesday, when I came from work, I could see my husband standing in the driveway, nicely dressed for date night. He was looking and bending down and turning around several times. Quite unusual for someone who is waiting to be picked up. When he saw me, he made signs to slow down. I found this funny as I was just driving 15 mph, the speed limit on our road.
I expected squirrels or a cat in the driveway. What a surprise! When I pulled into the driveway, I hit the breaks immediately. My husband was surrounded by seven (!) young ducks. Where he moved, they followed him like their mother duck.
Now his turning made sense to me. When he stood in place, three sat down while the others walked around him. When he walked in a direction, they followed him.
That’s what I call stalking!
How Wildlife Gets Drunken
He told me that they ate the choke berries from our tree. I have seen various varieties of finks eating these berries before. I always had the impression that the berries make the birds sort of drunken – intoxicated. Maybe that’s why the ducks behaved so funny. 😉
I was even more surprised that they started also following me around when I left the car! We played lead ducks for a while, but then we got them distracted and “escaped” for dinner.
When we came back, they were gone. We were quite happy about that. Do I have to say that they left their black and white signatures all over our driveway? Maybe as a good bye? Or a Thank you? Or was it a revenge that we did not take them out for dinner? 😉
Ravens Scavenge Household Garbage for Dog Food
Other birds that often stay over winter are ravens, wild doves, and finches. The ravens feed on roadkill and search the dumpsters at the transfer stations for leftover dog and cat food during the day. They often sit on street lamps to warm up. At night, they fly into the hills where it is warmer during the nighttime inversions than it is in the valley.
The doves work the dumpsters, school yards and the seeds fallen down under bird feeders. Both doves and ducks benefit from squirrels who throw everything out of even “squirrel-save bird-feeders” that is not a sunflower seed. See this post for more on squirrels in winter.
The various types of finches hide on cold snowy days, while on sunny days they sit on the dirt roads of the outskirts of Fairbanks and munch on birch and alder seeds that fell off the trees after the last snow storm. They also visit bird feeders, but again only on sunny days.
Christmas Bird Counting
Each Christmas there is a volunteer bird counting. In spring, Creamer’s field and the University of Alaska Fairbanks experimental farm become bird paradises for all kinds of birds that overwintered in the South.
Squirrels Are Part of the Wildlife in Fairbanks
Squirrels construct huge road networks under and in the snowpack each winter. They dig long tunnels that they use to travel to their food resources with risking to be the victim of predatory birds like hawks, for instance. The photo below shows one of the entrances of such a road system. It ends on our driveway. Of course, when a new snow load came, we shoveled out driveway. Since this winter, there is so much snow, it happened several times that we by accident “closed” the entrance when shoveling our driveway.
We felt pretty bad about closing the whole when it happened the first time. However, the next day, the squirrel(s) had cleaned the entrance. After it had happened several times, a second entrance was built on the way to our door. Here the snow-pack is less deep as the area to be cleared is smaller than the driveway. Therefore, we can still throw the snow into the yard. Along the driveway there is a high snow pile that meanwhile looks like a a snow version of Hadrian’s Wall.
Well, there is also a long snow pile along the road. All newspaper and mail boxes in the neighborhood barely reach above the snow. Some of the mail boxes are now built-into the snow pile like our mail box in the photo below.
Squirrels Build a Snow Tunnel Network to Protect Themselves from Birds of Pray
The squirrels who live in the slough area across the road love to seek for food from the bird feeder on the other side of our house. They built a snow road up the snow pile to our mail box. On the other side of the pile they built a subway system. We assume that the entrances/outlets on our driveway are part of this subway system under the snow surface.
Squirrels build such snow subways each winter. During snow-melt, they keep using the parts of the subways that are still intact, while running fast between the parts that are already gone or have already collapsed. It is then when you get an idea about the subway network as you can see where they come out/go in and that these locations differ. This means there is a real network, not just a tunnel. Sometimes voles make use of the tunnels as well.
Voles – Cute Unwanted Wildlife in Fairbanks
One summer we had a uninvited, little furry guest on our deck – a single vole. A vole is a rodent, a bit smaller than a hamster. Like the boreal forest squirrels, voles have a reddish back and their fur on the side is grayish-brownish. Unlike a squirrel, a vole has no tail. We watch the little vole every day all summer climbing up one of our gooseberry bushes. Once on the deck, the vole fed on the sunflower seeds that had fallen down from the bird feeder. We admired how cute the little vole looks when holding a seed and munching on it. The vole often stayed patiently waiting for seeds to fall down, when a squirrel was rioting the bird feeder. When a squirrel came down onto the deck the vole never disrupted enjoying the seeds. The squirrels never care about the vole either.
Detection of the Voles Caused Damage
Last Saturday, I went out into the yard to harvest a kohlrabi. Upon approaching the vegetable bed, I saw that the potato leaves had turned yellow. Typically, the leaves don’t do so before mid September. “This fall everything seems to be earlier than last year even the onset of the final harvest.” I thought and turned my steps towards the bed to take a closer look.
If someone would have taken a photo of me, my face could have been the blueprint for facebook’s “wow” button. The entire potato bed looked like a Trappist cheese, dozens of little nearly round wholes just side-by-side. “I better harvest the potatoes now before the voles bite more potatoes than the did last year.” were my thoughts and I went into the garage to get the pitchfork and the potato buckets. Last year, we had to discard about 5 lb (2.268 kg) because voles had chewed on them.
The pitchfork went into the soil with an unexpected ease. I lifted the pitchfork and discovered an underground silo-like chamber full of little potatoes of all colors and sorts. They were stapled neatly and small carrots were used as wedges to prevent the potatoes from rolling away. In this amazing storage was also the wrist big mushroom that I wanted to take a photo off, but couldn’t as it was gone when I came with the camera a day ago. I was deeply impressed by this well made and well stocked reservoir chamber. What an amount of work and how diligent the owner(s) have been this summer!
I felt bad and sorry for the owner(s) when destroying and removing the food chamber. The poor owner(s) would loose an entire summer’s work. I felt like being a hurricane or tornado, like a fire, being evil. “What will the owner live off this winter?” were my thoughts.
Voles Sleeping Chamber
After this – in my opinion awful – job was done, I put the pitchfork to the next potato plant. Upon lifting, there was only the smashed seed potato. Ok, the voles had probably transported the potatoes into the chamber. Thus, I went on to the next. Same here, no potatoes at all except the rest of the smashed seed potato. The same scenario repeated for 2 yard (1.83 m), i.e. to the end of the potato row in the bed. From there I started on the second row working back to the other side of the potato bed. I lifted the first two plants. No potatoes either. Instead I dig out a vole sleeping chamber filled with grass for comfort, insulation and a soft bedding (see photo below). Upon pitching into the soil at the third plant in the second row my eyes went over the bed towards the rhubarb bed.
My face froze within a second into a terrified mask. Underneath one of the toilet seat size rhubarb leaves I saw another storage chamber of which the rhubarb leave made the ceiling. I went over to the new detected food reservoir. Here the stored potatoes were much larger in size, and I wondered how the voles had transported them. The entire chamber looked like work in progress as compared to the one before. Pulling out the potatoes from underneath the rhubarb leave and throwing them onto the lawn to the other potatoes, I stumbled because my left foot had hit a third storage chamber.
The Report on the Invasion of the Voles
My head was exploding. In a comic, smoke would have left my ears or the cartoonist would have extended my head with a little erupting volcano. I left the potato bed, threw my dirty leather garden gloves onto the lawn while rushing to the house. While kicking off my shoes I opened the deck door, and went straight to the kitchen sink to wash my hands. “Guess what funny thing happened in the German election campaign” my husband said while I dried my hands. He was sitting in the dinning room with his laptop to check the soccer results of the German, Italian, English and Spanish leagues like every Saturday in the soccer season. My brain queued his words somewhere. I was too upset and terrified about my finds in the potato bed.
My husband looked up at me and my frozen face. It must have looked like an angry, but frightened Halloween mask. “What happened?” he asked standing up and walked towards me. “Have a look at this mess” I heard myself saying. My voice sounded like an echo. I was still upset. He followed me when I left the room for the yard with my camera in my hands. “These were all stored in chambers and here is a third one” I screamed pointing wildly with both arms towards the potatoes, and the bed full of little wholes and yellow dead potato plants.
My Husband’s Reaction
He didn’t say a word and just looked in total disbelieve at the potatoes, the bed full of tunnels, and the still intact chambers. “What was the funny thing of the German election campaign you wanted to tell me about?” I asked him in a calm voice as now his words entered my consciousness. He shook his head and went back to the house without saying a word.
I took the photos for this post and brought the camera back into the house. Upon my return he was busy digging with the pitchfork. The third plant in the second row was the first he lifted. We both smiled. There were 5 big russets totally untouched.
The German Election Campaign
“A member of Die Partei said to the candidate that the city rules require homeowners to label their houses with Arabic numbers. He asked the candidate what he would intend to do about this alienation. The candidate responded that when he will be elected major, he would make sure that all houses will be marked with normal numbers.” my husband said. “Oh, my goodness. Who will give this guy their vote when he doesn’t even know that the Germans use Arabic numbers! One can directly imagine what else he doesn’t know including running a city.” “That we use Latin letters?” “He could go back to Sütterlin.” We both laughed out loud while continuing the harvest.
We sorted out everything that obviously was chewed on, which together with the storage was about 1/6 of the harvest. “Probably the loss is even larger as some were picked early and did grow” my husband said. About 5 lb turned out to be chewed on and had to be discarded when we had washed them. “How do we get rid of these voles?” “Don’t worry, they all go away as there is no food for them anymore.” “Yeah, back to the schoolyard where they came from. Back on a diet of chewed-on lunch peanut butter jam sandwiches thrown away by the kids. Disgusting!” We both laughed.
Living in the Wilderness – Tracks Tell You Who Is Out There
When we moved to Alaska, we rented a house out in Goldstream, in the subskirts of Fairbanks. In this area, houses are at least 200 yards apart, typically built on a clearing of a 20 or more acres property. The Goldstream Valley is covered by discontinuous permafrost. Thus, trees grow low in height and most properties are dry cabins rented out to students, outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, and low income young couples. Dry cabins have no running water, but WiFi. Typically, they have an outhouse and you have to carry a Styrofoam toilet-seat to not freeze with your bum to the toilet when using it at temperatures in the double digits below freezing (-4F, -20oC).
The house we had rented after a long house hunt when coming to Alaska was halfway up on a hill with a view into a small tree-covered valley with a little creek that we couldn’t see. Despite there are houses downhill, we couldn’t see them from the property. In the cold season, we could barely see the house uphill or the next house at same height as the one we lived in. In the warm season, birches and alders totally hide them. Thus, when we moved in, it was like moving somewhere in the middle of nowhere. According to Terence Cole, a typical European would call this area wilderness pure. But the area is considered to be the outskirts of Fairbanks. 🙂
Animal Tracks around the House
When you are a regular reader of this Focus Alaska series, you know that I wasn’t excited about renting this beautiful house. One reason was it’s being so far away from work and the wilderness around it. Therefore, one of the first things I bought was a little booklet by Chris Stall called Animal Tracks of Alaska.
While living out there, I always compared the tracks I found in the snow to figure out what is sneaking around the house. The most common tracks were those of moose, squirrels, and ravens. I once saw the tracks of a lynx, wolverine, and gray wolf in the snow. I never saw the tracks of the two grizzles that roamed the area for several weeks. Today I regret never having taken photos of the tracks I had found. At that time, I was only interested in the tracks for security reasons. We had no dogs so I always was a little worried when being outside for snow removal, and alike.
Because of the moose tracks I always look around when I want to step out of the house from June to March or so. I want to avoid to get between a cow and her calf/calves by accident when a moose is in the backyard. The hooves of a moose are very dangerous. There are many reports of moose cows having killed people when the cow felt they endanger her kid(s).
We finally moved out in 2005. In early January 2005, we had been cut off the roadnet due to heavy snow storm and no plowing during school winter closure. Furthermore, in July 2004, a dry thunderstorm was over the area during the record 2004 wildfire season. There is only one small dirt road out of the neighborhood. If a lightning strike ignites a wildfire down the road, you will be lucky when you still can get out off the area.
More on Wildlife in Fairbanks Alaska
You can find other posts about Alaska wildlife like the
Cole, D., 1999. History of Fairbanks, a Gold Rush Town that Beat the Odds, Transcontinental Printing Inc., Canada.
Stall, C., 1993. Animal Tracks of Alaska, The Mountaineers, Seattle, WA
Photos: G. Kramm, N. Mölders
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