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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.

Contents
  1. Garage Entrance Blocked by Moose
  2. About 200 ducks overwinter in Fairbanks
  3. Wastewater of the power plant provides open water
  4. Ducks stay close to the river and feed on seeds from bird feeders
  5. Seven Drunken Ducks in the Driveway
  6. How Wildlife Gets Drunken
  7. Ravens scavenge household garbage for dog food
  8. Christmas bird counting
  9. Squirrels Are Part of the Wildlife in Fairbanks
    • Squirrels Build a Snow Tunnel Network to Protect Themselves from Birds of Pray
  10. Voles – cute unwanted wildlife in Fairbanks
    • Detection of the damage
    • Voles Sleeping Chamber
    • The report
    • My husband’s reaction
    • The German election campaign
  11. More on Alaska Wildlife

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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.

ducks in a yard
Ducks resting in a yard close to Dead Man Slough, one of the many arms of the Chena River. the ducks in the front search the ground for seeds from the nearby trees. The duck looking to the camera is on guard

 

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 overwintering in Alaska
Ducks sleeping and eating in the snow close to Dead Man Slough

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.

View on Fairbanks from the West Ridge in winter
View over Fairbanks from the West Ridge. Ice fog is in the air behind the closed line of spruce trees along the Chena. The small white plumes are from residential heating

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 mp/h, the speed limit on our road.

 

young ducks in the neighbourhood in #Alaska #FocusAlaska #wildlife
Seven young ducks on the lawn of our neighbor’s house

 

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.

 

young ducks munching bird food
Young wild ducks feeding on the seeds that the squirrels had thrown from the bird feeder to “pick out” the sunflower seeds

 

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!

ducks about to cross our street
Two ducks about to cross our street

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.

 

duck after the September 2015 snow storm in Interior Alaska
Duck after the snow storm in Interior Alaska

 

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.

 

ice fog in Fairbanks on a clear sky winter day
View over Fairbanks towards the south southeast. In the background, a power plant steam plume can be seen. Ice fog is visible behind the line of spruce trees.

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.

Alaska wildlife Squirrels made these tunnels
From left, clockwise: Entrance of the squirrel tunnel system at the our driveway; new entrance at the way to our front door; zoom-in on the tunnel at 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.

Alaska wildlife Tunnel made into the snow by squirrels
Left: Our newspaper box that is underneath our mail box and the “road” that the squirrels made up to the snow pile. Right: Entrance of the tunnel system just behind the back of the newspaper box. The tunnel is nearly 85o to the ground surface

 

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.

 

Squirrel munching sunflower seeds at the “squirrel safe” bird feeder

 

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.

 

Alaska wildlife owl on the watch in a tree
Owl in a tree across our back yard in Fairbanks watching backwards

 

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.

 

cute vole munching on iris leaves
Vole munching on iris leaves. Marisszza, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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.

vole wholes in the soil
Zoom-in on voles wholes in the soil

 

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.

dried grass taken off a vole sleeping chamber
Dried grass that filled the sleeping chamber put onto the lawn to take a photo

 

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.

 

vole food storage chamber under rhubarb leave
Storage chamber filled with large red potatoes that was under a rhubarb leave

 

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.

voles chewed harvest
Harvest that was directly recognizable to be chewed on by voles

 

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.

damage by vole wholes in soil
This photo shows how the soil looked like 20 hours after the harvest. Voles had built new tunnels and holes

 

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.

 

buckets with harvest
Pots with our harvest prior to cleaning. We lost another 5 lb of the harvest as some chews were non-visible in the dirt, but well recognizable after washing 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.

More on Alaska Wildlife

You can find other posts about Alaska wildlife like the

 

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Photos: G. Kramm, N. Mölders

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