Here and there

Sundews and sandlance, willow roses and more

The lower muskegs at Eaglecrest were dotted with pink flowers of bog rosemary and the white flowers of cloudberry. Searching specifically for sundews (insect-eating plants), we found plenty of the round-leafed species just peeping up through the mosses. The long-leafed species, which we usually find in somewhat less mossy, more muddy, spots near the ponds, were much harder to find than usual. The few we did find had barely expanded leaves hardly wider than their supporting stems. And most of them were under water from recent rains; we wondered how long they could survive that way. A few days later, the water had subsided and they were still there, with leaves slightly larger and putting up what looked like a flowering shoot. OK, good, but why are there so few of them this year? We also wanted to know if the very small, young leaves could catch gnat-sized insect prey, or if the plant waits to go ‘hunting’ until the leaves are bigger and they can catch larger prey.

Wandering along a beach on Douglas Island at a moderately low tide, we noticed a group of crows strutting over the sand flats. A closer look revealed lots of small pits in the sand, several inches deep. Aha! Maybe if we watch, we will see the crows in action. Pretty soon, we saw several of them digging—and coming up with sand lance in the bill. Both crows and gulls dig up sand lance from their refuges under the sand, but on this day, the gulls were more interested in trying to steal the fish from the crows than in digging up prey for themselves. Crows that successfully retained their catches flew off, perhaps to eat in peace or to cache them for a later meal, or even to feed early broods of chicks

willow-gall-with-catkins-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

There is a myth that ‘willow roses’, which are rosette galls induced when a midge lays an egg on the tip of a twig, occur only on Barclay willow. So some folks try to use the presence of a rosette gall to identify the willow species. But no, the very same species of midge can induce this gall on Sitka willow too, and perhaps some others. When the midge lays its egg, growth of the shoot is stunted, but leaves continue to form, so they end up forming a compact rosette cluster of crowded leaves. In the middle of that rosette, the midge egg hatches into a larva that feeds on the inside of the gall, emerging as an adult midge the next spring. The afflicted twig usually dies.

This spring I noticed some leaves of the pink wintergreen plants that were standing up vertically and looked orange, quite a contrast to the usual green. The undersides of these leaves were covered with dense arrays of orange dots. These turn out to be a rust fungus. In our area, at least two wintergreen species (pink wintergreen, Pyrola asarifolia, and ‘single delight’, Moneses uniflora) are the alternate hosts for two species of rust whose primary host is spruce cones. Called the ‘spruce cone rusts’, they reduce spruce seed viability and can deform the cone. In British Columbia in some years, nearly an entire spruce seed crop was destroyed, but I have not found any indication of such concern for Southeast. There seems to be little negative effect on the wintergreens, in part because the infection occurs on the older leaves. However, the rust infection does cause the wintergreen leaves to stand more vertically; this facilitates dispersal of spores by a passing breeze and attraction of insects that might transmit the spores to the cones.

The life cycle of the rusts is apparently regulated by environmental factors such as temperature and moisture. When the spores from the wintergreens land on the cones and germinate, sexual reproduction takes place among the new fungal filaments, and a new set of spores gets dispersed to the wintergreens, and the orange dots develop. (Thanks to Dr. Robin Mulvey, Forestry Sciences Lab, for helpful information.)

Spring things are happening quickly. Several warm, sunny days followed by showers made the leaves of cottonwood and alder leaves pop out, cheerfully bright against the somber background of spruce and hemlock. New spruce tips add to the contrast with the old conifer needles. And I finally heard my first olive-sided flycatcher of the year, shouting his “Quick, three beers!” from the edge of a muskeg on the Dan Moller trail.

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