Winter wanderings

ptarmigan tracks, porcupine trails, a busy hare and a winter-kill

There aren’t many activities I enjoy more than simply prowling around the forest and meadows, looking for signs of animal action. Sometimes I go solo; when I’m lucky, I have a companion or two. All this recent sunshine has enticed me out several times; it’s a shame to waste a day of sun in Juneau by staying indoors! So here are some observations (and questions) from some little explorations in the last few weeks.

–Cropley Lake: a ptarmigan had landed, sinking down a few inches in the soft snow. But for some reason, it took flight immediately, leaving a few running foot prints and two sets of wing prints, the second one very faint.

–Mendenhall Lake: ptarmigan often come down from the alpine zone in winter and forage in the shrubby flats near the lake. Sometimes I’m lucky and actually see the birds, but this time I only found a trackway where the ptarmigan had run, with long strides, from one thicket to another. There it had nibbled on willow buds, leaving barren stems.

–Crow Point near the Boy Scout camp: a porcupine had trekked all the way across the wide meadow where the geese commonly graze, from the hillside out to the spruce groves above the beach. In one of the groves we noted a cluster of young spruces with dead tops. Closer inspection revealed that the tops of the trunks and some of the upper branches had been de-barked. But this had not happened all at once: some gnawings were recent and the twigs were not long dead, but others were gray from long exposure. Thus, it seemed that porcupines had foraged here repeatedly, and I have to wonder what made that particular cluster of trees so attractive.

The beach itself was covered with bird tracks: gulls, crows, and something smaller, whose tracks were very indistinct. I was interested to note that a vole or mouse had ventured well out onto the sand; what was it after?

–Low elevation muskegs off the Dan Moller Trail: This little exploration was quite productive. We found a place where a hare had run back and forth, stopping long enough to eliminate (colorful!) waste products and nibble the buds from the tip of a spruce branchlet that had been cut from a low-hanging branch several feet away. A perambulating deer had cropped the very tips of some blueberry bushes, taking just the tenderest bits and buds.

That red isn’t blood… it’s hare urine! Photo by Katherine Hocker

The snow was so deep that most small mammals could just burrow around under the white blanket, safe from aerial predators at least. The only small mammal tracks we saw were in the bottom of a tiny gully where the snow was thin. The mouse had run across the ice in one direction, but then walked back.

A surprising find was a dead Steller’s jay, lying toes-up under a tree. It was emaciated, with no fat deposits, so the keel on the breastbone was very prominent. Later examination revealed a digestive tract empty of all but little stones. With all the bird feeders in most human neighborhoods, it seemed strange that this bird would starve.

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