Backyard Wildlife

April 4, 2020

Wildlife photographers are known to travel to the far reaches of the globe in search of their subjects, from Kamchatka, Russia, to Botswana, Africa. Here in Alaska, we have several remote locations that are desired for wildlife opportunities, from Anan Creek for black bears to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for caribou.

But, we don't have to travel so far or at such expense to photograph wildlife. Sometimes we can just do it in our backyard.

Everyone has a different size, style or shape of backyard. If you live in an apartment, you don't have a "backyard," but there must be a city park nearby that you use as a backyard. The key is to observe the wildlife that frequent your backyard. Like any wildlife photography, you have to know the animal to understand its habits, habitat, motivations, and desired food sources.

We currently live in the Anchorage hillside, in an area zoned with lot sizes that are a minimum of one acre. Like most areas on the Anchorage hillside, that one acre plus includes a lot of native habitat. As such, we get a lot of wildlife. Their patterns are based on time of day, time of year, food availability, and weather - just like if I were making a trip to Denali National Park to photograph wildlife. I need to know these things for success. Or I need to know that the best time to visit Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge for migratory birds is between December and February.

A red-backed vole rummages for food in the gravel outside of our theater room.

For the most part, my success with backyard wildlife has come from responding to sightings on the property. I see an animal in the yard, I grab my camera and start taking pictures.

Ermine in our wood pile

One of my favorite infrequent visitors to our backyard is an ermine, aka short-tailed weasel or stoat. The ermine is an incredibly challenging critter to photograph, as it is constantly moving, and rather quickly at

Most of the time when we see the ermine, he is darting around in our backyard as we are doing various yard chores. Once, we spotted him from our deck in the winter time, and I was able to capture some images of him in his winter fur (they turn completely white except for a black tip on their tail).

Snowshoe hare munching on spruce in front yard

At our property on the hillside, we routinely see snowshoe hare on our property, at all times of the year. Like the ermine, the snowshoe hare turns completely white in the wintertime. Here, I caught one munching on spruce in our front yard, as he is transitioning from winter to summer fur. The shoulder seasons can be tough for the snowshoe hare, as the fur color change is triggered by daylight, not temperature. Thus, there are times in our increasingly unstable winters where the hare is either white against a brown background, or brown against a white background.

Tree swallow fledgling on shack roof

We like to make our property attractive to birds, providing bird houses for swallows, bird seed and suet in the winter months for various songbirds, and encouraging the presence of snowshoe hare for the raptors that we see on our property. One year, we found a tree swallow fledgling sitting alone on a shack roof in our backyard at our previous home down by Jewel Lake. We left him alone for quite a while, until we determined that no one was going to be claiming him. So, we gathered him up and turned him in to the Bird Treatment and Learning Center.

Our hillside home is also in prime moose habitat, offering at least a half an acre of alder, one of the favorite winter food sources for moose, and a variety of edible plants, particularly the fireweed - their favorite. So, we see moose all year long. We have witnesses a variety of behaviors over the year, from nursing to expelling of yearling calves in the spring. We have come close, but have not yet seen a cow moose give birth in our backyard. That's on our bucket list. Despite our gardens, we enjoy having moose in our yard. We have taken the necessary precautions to protect the plants we want from being browsed on by the moose. Their appearance is fairly unpredictable, with sometimes daily appearances to not seeing them for weeks. This is definitely an animal I have to react to when it comes to photographing.

Downy woodpecker in side yard tree

I really enjoy woodpeckers, but we do not see them as often as I would like. We typically get a mix of the downy, hoary and very occasionally a three-toed woodpecker. I can count on one hand the number of woodpeckers we see in a year. So, when I get a chance to photograph one, it is a real treat. They are one of the principal reasons we hang suet in the winter, as that is their food of choice over seeds.

Great Horned Owl resting on deck of our gallery/greenhouse building

Several times a year, I will hear a Great Horned Owl hooting in our neighborhood, typically late in the evening. In the seven years we have lived here, we have only seen one on the property once. It was an August day after we got back home from a trip to Hawaii, and it was raining quite heavily. I was down in the office downloading photos from the trip, when Michelle came down and told me to grab my camera - there was an owl on the greenhouse deck. Sure enough, sitting on the railing was a Great Horned Owl. He was staring out over our backyard, which is an area where the snowhshoe hares tend to frequent. He sat there for at least an hour before moving on. I have seen this in Great Horned Owls before, finding refuge during heavy rainfall to sit and rest, and watch for potential food.

Wood frog in backyard

The most-rare wildlife I have had an occasion to photograph in our backyard is actually a frog. Alaska is not a hospitable climate to reptiles and amphibians, as you can imagine. So we only have one toad, two frog species, two salamander species, and one newt species in the state - and no other amphibians and no reptiles (excluding some sea turtles). Here, while out mowing the lawn in our previous home by Jewel Lake, I (fortunately) noticed this frog hopping around along the edge of a little patch of birch forest we had in the yard. Having grown up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, as well as some time on Guam, I miss reptiles and amphibians as part of my life in Alaska. It was a real treat to find this guy and have a chance to photograph him.

But, there are times when I have had success in photographing wildlife in our backyard simply from sitting and waiting with my camera, or anticipating the wildlife.

Flock of redpolls in alder

We have six video cameras stationed around our property, set up to start recording once anything moves in front of them. This is how we came to know that we were getting regular visits from a family of Canadian lynx - an adult and four juveniles - and that they always took the same trail through our backyard when passing through the property. During a particular week in January, the seemed to be passing through at about the same time of day. So, for several days in a week, I sat out there and waited. Of course, they never came during that period. But, sitting there and waiting allowed me to see a lot of other activity. One unexpected result was seeing a large flock of about a hundred or so redpolls moving around and nibbling on the alder cones.

Northern goshawk takes flight from backyard birch tree

Another nice surprise from that period of waiting for the lynx was seeing a large adult Northern goshawk fly in and perch on a branch in an old birch tree. He sat there for quite a while, watching and waiting for a snowshore hare or a red-backed vole. I captured a few images of him sitting and waiting, but my favorite was when he took flight to go hunt at another location. The angle allowed me to see the patterns on the underside of his wings.

A Canadian lynx crosses a trail in a patch of alder

Eventually, my moment finally came for the Canadian lynx. I was snowblowing our hundred-foot driveway, up at the top of the driveway, and turning around to return back down the driveway toward the house. I looked up the hill and saw a lynx crossing the road and trotting along, looking down the hill at our property and clearly hunting for snowshoe hare. Knowing that the lynx always travel in a group, and knowing where they go when they traverse our property, I ran down the hill, into the house, grabbed my camera and lens, and headed to the backyard. The camping chair was still sitting in the spot I had waited before when sitting and waiting for the lynx to pass through. Within four minutes, the first lynx crossed through the alder and in the open spot that is a trail in our backyard. Over the next fifteen minutes, the other four members of the family came through, one-by-one, and I was able to capture each one. It was the wildlife photography highlight of my winter!

An ermine (short-tailed weasel) in winter colors pauses briefly while skittering around in a patch of alder in our backyard on...

An ermine (short-tailed weasel) in winter colors pauses briefly while skittering around in a patch of alder in our backyard on the Anchorage hillside. Incredibly cute and elusive, they are also fierce predators. Ermine are also a challenge to photograph because of their speed and constant movement.

Posted in Anchorage, Wildlife and tagged Urban, wildlife, backyard.