Wild Spring Adventure!

Wild Spring Adventure!

Wild Spring Adventure!

6 minute read (and/or) watch the video!

Spring is the sign of new life! It’s the circle of life intertwined and flourishing from increased sunlight.

It’s a time of birds migrating. Some, like swans, stop only a short time on their way to nesting grounds further north; some stay for the season, like the chickadee and bluebird – they build nests, attract mates and raise their families.

There’s a saying – “Spring is in the air” – that implies a renewal of spirit and perhaps a bit of friskiness in certain species, like Red Foxes, that may lead to becoming parents to this year’s young (or perhaps they already ARE parents!). Of course, some species breed in the autumn, so that as spring progresses, we will start to see babies being born – at Yukon Wildlife Preserve we are hopeful that we will see Bison, then Caribou calves in the coming weeks and months. We expect to see wild fox kits and ducklings as well.

At the Preserve, Arctic Ground Squirrels started popping their heads above ground April 7 this year, with the males the first to break their winter hibernation. Juveniles and females are soon to follow their lead. We see, sitting on the cliffs and soaring above fields, birds of prey like bald eagles, coming in to hunt this prolific prey species. Spring is a notable return of the constant cry of alarm calls of ground squirrels, as their many predators hunt them from land or sky – displaying the full Circle of Life.

New growth has begun with grasses and early flowers like crocuses, to name only two plant species. This is important nutrition to many animals after a long cold winter, and grazers like Thinhorn Mountain Sheep can be found on south facing slopes, enjoying the tender new shoots, and the ease of eating, now that the deep snow has melted.

Crocuses are one of the first signs of spring – and important nutrition to many animals after a long cold winter.  Here we see a very early crocus found by the authors on their spring adventure hike at Yukon Wildlife Preserve.   Photo by Lindsay Caskenette

Water, water, water everywhere! Swans have returned with a splash – their honking fills the air with the best kind of noise as they stop over to feed while on their long migration to their northern nesting grounds . There is a year round marsh in the moose habitat at the Preserve, but the seasonal one next door in the mule deer habitat seems to be preferred by the swans – to the seeming curiosity of one of the female mule deer.  Everyone seems to love jumping and running through puddles, no matter how big or small the puddle…..or animal…..moose, humans and muskox! After a winter of conserving energy while food is scarce and energy is focused to survival, jumping in a puddle can lead to manic runs around the yard (or habitat). It seems spring can be about fun and burning off extra energy!

Swans have a long migration in the spring – open water at Yukon Wildlife Preserve is a frequent stop over for food and rest by migratory birds.  Some, like bluebirds, stay for the season, some, like the swan, typically move on to nesting grounds further north.  Photo Lindsay Caskenette

When you need a meal, sometimes you have to “spring” into action. Lynx are natural jumpers and we took the opportunity to provide enrichment to our resident lynx females by placing their food in trees. In the wild, lynx prefer snowshoe hare and will use powerful leaps to catch their meal within only a few “springs”….we mean jumps…..

Limited smells in winter mean that spring unearths a plethora of new scents on the air. Red Fox have an excellent sense of smell, making it easy for them to follow their nose to food sources. When they’ve eaten their fill, they will cache extra food as snacks for later. They keep an eye and ear out to avoid anyone following them to their cache site – other foxes and many birds in the Corvidae Family – grey jays, magpies, and ravens are known to steal their snacks.

Whether you’re human or animal, winter coats are shedding – and that wool, hair and fur can be found on the environment – rocks, trees, and fences (and sometimes finds its way into lining the nests of birds and small mammals like ground squirrels…..)  Shedding coats leads to a period of time not known for its fashion sense….and much shagginess in animals like bison.

Winter is over and the cycle of the year continues. Spring arrives, bringing increased sunlight and changes in everyone’s behaviour and appearance – humans and animals alike. We shed layers, feel the sun on our faces, enjoy the smells and the sounds of life renewing around us. We experience a rejuvenation of our spirits. Be well and enjoy spring, wherever you are.

Lindsay Caskenette & Julie Kerr

Lindsay Caskenette & Julie Kerr

Visitor Services Manager and Visitor Services Coordinator

Lindsay and Julie love to share the Preserve the same way they explore life – full on and full of adventure!  They have a collective love of:  Animals....Lindsay dogs, Julie foxes; Adventure.... Lindsay dog mushing, Julie extreme camping;  both take on animal personas during story telling.  Together they support the Preserve with a strong Visitor Services presence and often, they even get work done (this happens most often when the other one is out of the office).   

867-456-7400
 info@yukonwildlife.ca

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Stay Put – The Muskox Mantra

Stay Put – The Muskox Mantra

Stay Put – The Muskox Mantra

6 minute read – “Winter Is Here” series continues with the legend of cold climate survivors – Muskox! 

 

Ice age survivor – Oomingmak (Inuit for The Bearded One) is living proof of long-term successful adaptation to a narrow niche – the treeless and blizzard-beaten landscape of the High Arctic Tundra.  In the wild, Muskox inhabit parts of the Circumpolar North – Greenland, Alaska, Norway, Russia and Northern Canada – thriving in some of the coldest, longest and darkest parts of the world. 

Muskox have evolved to have a stout body posture and short legs to conserve body heat in the winter. Their coat, however, is the most fascinating part within the array of adaptations Muskox possess. While the long guard hair reaches all the way down their legs, like a skirt, to offer protection against wind and snow, their thick undercoat, called qiviut, is really what keeps them alive. Qiviut (kiv’-ee-ute) is warmer than sheep wool and is considered one of the softest and warmest materials on earth (and also among the most expensive). Thanks to the unique make-up and extremely high density of this undercoat, combined with the protection provided by the guard hairs, the cold and wet hardly penetrate all the way to the animals’ skin. The qiviut underlayer is grown every year before winter and in the spring, the animal sheds the dense hair again to avoid overheating during the summer months.

In addition to structural adaptations that are easily visible, the Muskox have a number of behavioural traits and physiological adaptations that help them in their harsh natural environment. For instance, food availability and the severity of weather affects how old a muskox female is for her first breeding cycle and also whether calves are born on an interval of every year or every 2 to 3 years. This results in a low reproductive rate for the species but does lower the stress on an individual muskox so they can breed during a year when conditions are more favourable.  From the moment of birth Muskox calves are even prepared to withstand the harsh elements of their new, still winter, world. Born between April and June, their landscape (unlike many of our own that time of year) is still heavily blanketed in snow featuring temperatures well below 0°C.  Calves do not tend to take on the stay-put mantra at birth since that could lead to trouble, quickly. Instead, within minutes of birth, calves are mobile miniature woolly mimics of their adult family members, cleaving to their mothers side and her additional protective skirt. 

A newborn Muskox calf at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve from 2017 and its mom on the move within minutes of being born. 

One behavioural adaptation to the cold is sometimes observed in howling blizzard conditions. Standing stoically in a tight group, Muskox have been able to withstand temperatures up to 70 degrees below zero.  Only in the most severe weather will a Muskox lie down with its back to the wind as added protection. Another behavioural adaptation is to be slow moving and to not roam on long migrations like caribou do 1Learn more about Caribou adaptations. This keeps energy output low and allows the large muskox to thrive on low quality food available in their area.

The Arctic Tundra, the only wild home to Muskox, enjoys winter for up to 8 months per year.  By September there may be snow on the ground and muskoxen are well equipped with front hooves larger than hind, to dig through wind-blown crusted snow, to get to the food below – grasses, sedges and willows.  Muskoxen typically feed in areas where the snow cover is relatively shallow (like valleys). It is usually easy for the Muskox to dig down to the food below, but when the snow crust makes it more challenging, they can lift and drop their head on to the crust to break through to gain access to vegetation.

Where muskox find ways to meet their nutritional needs in a winter-barren landscape their predators, arctic wolves, just the same must test the muskoxen’s formidable stay put mantra. As a survival adaption and anti-predator strategy, fight or flight physiological reaction is important for any prey animal. Many ungulates will choose flight at the sign of threat – fleeing to the protection of forests, like caribou, or to a precipice perfect for only a thinhorn sheep or mountain goat. However, without the protection of any trees; a low variety land form landscape and a dark skyline that merge into one seemingly endless marathon; it’s critical to choose energy conservation, to stay put, and put up a fight through a protective ring. If the Muskox chose flight, it would be less favourable for those calves to keep up to a swiftly moving herd – unless you’re the arctic wolf.   

Muskox are built to last – they persevered through an ice age, after all!  At the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, which is located in a more southern environment than their natural range, they are applying millennia worth of adaptions even in this niche.   Their habitat intentionally faces north, with options for them to take rest in the shade provided by trees of our lower latitude. This further helps preserve a longer snow patch during a typically earlier spring thaw for our muskox, while their more northern and wild cousins still endure weeks to months of true winter.  You might see them as dark bumps resting in the snow, apparently doing nothing. Now you know though, they are just doing what they do best –  saving energy.

To learn more about Muskox and their unique habitat check out Wildlife Management Advisory Counsil – North Slope

A special animated video sharing this incredible animals Yukon story can be watched here!

 

Sarah Stuecker

Sarah Stuecker

Wildlife Interpreter

As a wilderness guide, Sarah has spent many days out in the bush over the years. Sitting out there glued to the scope is just as fascinating to her as observing and following animal tracks in the depth of winter, trying to draw conclusions of what this particular critter might have been up to. Sarah is passionately sharing her stories as part of our team of wildlife interpreters. 

 

867-456-7300
 info@yukonwildlife.ca

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