Strolling in the March sunshine

basking and strolling through spring changes

After a deluge in late March, the sun showed itself, prompting residents to enjoy some serious basking. Some baskers took the lizard approach: finding a spot out of the wind and relaxing. Others chose to stroll, in hopes of seeing things beside the insides of their eyelids (mind you, that is quite fine, too!).

One gloriously sunny morning I strolled with a friend out to Nugget Falls on a blissfully ice-free trail. Two mountain goats were visible on the ledges on the far side of the falls, and we spotted four of them on the base of Mt McGinnis, not far above the glacier ice. Juncos were singing from the tops of small cottonwoods and varied thrushes squalled and trilled from the forested hillside. A red bird with white wing patches perched in the alders and gave us a quick look. I thought I saw the crossed bill tips, making it a male white-winged crossbill. But after our stroll we checked the books to pick up other marks for distinguishing these crossbills from the larger and rarer pine grosbeak.

Cottonwood buds were plump and aromatic with that lovely, delicate, characteristic smell that beats any commercial perfume. We found purple mountain saxifrage plants, green and sturdy, but not yet in bloom; just as well, because we’ve not yet seen any bumblebees that could do the pollination.

On the sand flats, lichens have become established. One of the common ones stands an inch or two tall, is white in color, and looks vaguely like small cauliflower heads. This is called foam lichen or snow lichen (Stereocaulon). It and some other lichens are important to the ecological development of these areas, because they take atmospheric nitrogen and ‘fix’ it into a form that plants can use, facilitating the colonization of the area by plants. There are many species of snow lichens around the world, found especially in cold, quite barren locations. They do best in dry, well-lighted places, but at least some species are subject to thermal stress on warm days. They typically are not the very first to move into a barren area, and when the taller vegetation takes over, the habitat is generally not suitable for the snow lichens, and they disappear.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

In the afternoon of this sunny day, I went out to Eagle Beach, to soak up some more rays. There was a stiff little north wind, so summer dress was definitely not yet in order. Common goldeneyes dove in the estuary and dozens of Canada geese slept or foraged in the shallows. The usual mob of crows fossicked about on the sands near the edge of the incoming tide.

I tucked myself into a comfortable grassy nook at the upper edge of the beach to contemplate the shining Chilkats. The hundreds of big gulls that had been sauntering along the edge of the sands suddenly got excited and took to the air: hovering just above the water, continually dipping down to the water surface, the whole gang of them slowly moving along the shore for perhaps ten minutes or so. Whatever they were catching was really small—small enough to be swallowed immediately and therefore not big enough to fight over. I’m guessing the prey was juvenile fish of some species, traveling in a big school, but it seemed a bit early for baby pink salmon to be cruising along the shore. Maybe young sand lance?

The weather forecast for the next day was rain, but the sun prevailed in the morning. Parks and Rec hikers trod the Treadwell Ditch trail from Dan Moller to Jumbo, in dappled sunlight. We could see a weather change building up to the south, but the sun was still shining at noon. We were delighted with the new bridges over some badly washed-out gullies, but noted that bikes were leaving deep ruts in portions of the trail. Water levels were low, and we were able to cross Paris Creek: by walking on the mossy dam with the aid of a new rope railing, hopping on wet logs, or stepping on gravel bars and scrabbling over a log jam. If funding comes through, there may someday be a real bridge over this creek.

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