Insects in August

nesting bees and willow galls

An observant friend was hiking up Mt Juneau one day in mid August. He was apparently the only one of the hiking group to notice a bumblebee that was digging a hole in the dirt at the side of the trail. A little farther along, he spotted another one, doing the same thing. I am envious, because this is something I’ve never seen here.

These bumblebees are queen bees that will hibernate in such holes over the winter. It seemed early to be thinking of hibernating, but perhaps our cold summer is sending them to bed before fall really arrives. Or perhaps they need to scout around for a while to find a suitable site. The queens have already been fertilized by the males, and these newly-fertilized queens are the only ones to live to next year: the males, the worker bees, and their queen-mother all die.

Bee digging nest

Next spring, the queens will emerge and forage on flower nectar and pollen. Each one will build a small nest of plant fibers and lay a few eggs, usually less than ten or so. Sometimes the mothers-to-be take over old mouse nests for rearing their broods. The queens provision the nest with pollen, on which the larvae feed. After roughly three weeks, the larvae become worker bees (sterile females). The queen makes several broods during the summer, each batch of short-lived workers helping to feed the next brood. Bumblebees live in much smaller colonies than honeybees; most nests are only two or three inches in diameter.

Both kinds of bees, however, are seriously declining, apparently because of virulent pathogens to which they have little resistance. The decline of the bee populations becomes a serious problem for humans, because so many of our fruits and vegetables are pollinated by bumblebees and honeybees. Think tomatoes and squashes, peas and beans; think apples and cherries, blueberries and blackberries and strawberries…the full list is very long indeed. If a solution to bee declines is not found, our diets will be much impoverished.

Out near the glacier, watchful rangers noticed a bear, which had just feasted on sockeye salmon, nipping off certain willow leaves. Each of the selected leaves had at least one and sometimes six or eight spherical lumps near the midrib. A few of the lumps were reddish on top, but most were pale green. Each one was about the size of the end of my finger.

These round lumps are galls, produced when an insect lays eggs on the plant. The insect’s activity, and that of the developing larva, manipulates the plant’s hormones in a way that induces the plant to divert some energy and materials to making the gall.

The galls are hollow, each inhabited by an insect larva that feeds on plant tissue inside the protective sphere. Dissection of a few galls by a helpful researcher at the Forestry Sciences Lab showed that the larvae are Hymenoptera—the order that includes bees and wasps. A little further research identified the gall as belonging to a kind of sawfly that specializes on willows. They are called sawflies because each female has a long ovipositor (egg-placer) with which she saws a hole in plant tissue to house the egg.

From the larva’s perspective, the gall provides not only a degree of protection from many (but not all) enemies, but also nutrition. The lining of the gall contains lower concentrations of several defensive chemicals than the outer part of the gall or the rest of the leaf.

From the willow’s perspective, the gall does relatively little harm to the plant. But male willows may be attacked more heavily than females by the galling insect—in at least one willow species, males provide more nutrients because they have more nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in the leaves than females. In some cases, the gallers prefer to use willows that grow most vigorously and have the longest shoots.

What might the bear be getting from its selective foraging? No one knows!

Snowy tracks

stories written on the winter landscape

Snowshoes crunched over deep snow. The sky was cerulean blue and the sun gradually crept around the mountain peaks. These were fine days to be out, seeing what we could see. We were especially interested in the tracks left by the wild critters as they went about their daily lives.

–A shrew left a long line of tiny marks by the side of a beaver pond. Short digressions led to tufts of grass or a buried stick, where spiders and bugs, slowed by the cold temperatures, might be found. Shrews only weigh a few grams and have a very high metabolic rate, so they have to eat almost continually. We often see their trails running over the snow and plunging into miniscule holes that lead under the snow blanket where prey might be found.

–Mouse trails are much less common. But one day we found a line of hopping prints that went out of the forest and across the upper intertidal zone to the most recent wrack line. The piles of tumbled rockweed might harbor small crustaceans, wayward seeds, or lost insects—all suitable for a snack. Another line of tracks went straight back into the shelter of the forest.

–Snowshoe hares had been busy in some areas. They too were looking for food, maybe willow or blueberry buds. But occasionally there were heavily trampled spots, very localized, as if there had been a dance or other social encounter. Popular routes became hare highways, packed flat along a small ridge or between two dense spruce stands.

–An otter had cruised for hundreds of yards along a frozen slough, making side excursions to visit (briefly) several beaver lodges. The deep trough left by its passage seldom came out in the open but usually stayed under the fringing conifers. Reaching the shore of a well-frozen lake, the otter abruptly turned around and went back the way it had come. The only open water on its route was a very small runnel below a beaver dam—a place not likely to hold good otter food.

–Across some thin pond ice, a great blue heron had gingerly minced its way from one patch of open water, at the inlet, to another, at the outlet. Taking very short strides on its long thin toes, it seemed to have been treading carefully. Little sticklebacks and juvenile coho, beware.

–In several places, we spotted narrow grooves on the snow surface, where a slim body had propelled itself on small feet. These wandering trails led to grassy tussocks, dove under logs, circled a pile of branches, disappeared under the snow and came out again. A mighty hunter was at work: a short-tailed weasel or ermine, whose coat turns white in winter, except for the tip of the tail. The short-legged, long body of a weasel is well-adapted for diving down vole tunnels and other tight places. However, that body form means that a weasel can’t afford to put on heavy layers of fat; the belly would drag when the weasel tried to run—not good for a hunter that has to keep moving for much of the day in search of prey. In addition to their small size, the body shape of weasels gives them a lot of surface area (where heat is lost) compared to the body volume (muscles and organs that generate heat), so they have a high metabolic rate to keep themselves warm. And that means they have to eat a lot. They eat mice and voles and small birds, and carrion when it’s available.

–Porcupines seem to wander widely, and we’ve found their trails in many places, often still distinguishable under a layer of new snow. One day we found a very fresh trail of footprints and even some quill-drag; we followed it along a little dirt bank until it disappeared over the edge. Looking down, we saw that a small log, sticking out parallel to the bank, had been wiped clean of new snow by the animal’s passage; the trail ended near the end of the log. Of course, we went around to an easier place to climb down the bank and investigated the trail’s end. There we found a deep burrow, with hairs and a few dried-up fecal pellets and a good barn-y smell, that ran into the bank for over two yards: a snug, dry den that had been used repeatedly for some time. Upon close inspection, that little access log had thousands of scratches, evidence of many balancing acts as the porcupine had ventured out and back.

Harbor birds and snowy tracks

loons, shrews, and a peripatetic dipper

Sometimes, perhaps especially during the holiday season, it’s hard to fit a long, exploratory walk in among all the other activities. Then a quick trip to the harbors may produce some interesting observations.

On a recent harbor visit, we enjoyed watching Pacific Loons. They dove frequently, but we never say a loon with a fish in its bill, so we guessed that they were foraging on very small fish or even invertebrates—small enough to be swallowed immediately. The loons sported a variety of plumages: one was in good adult plumage, one seemed to be an unusually young juvenile without the typical juvenile plumage, and most were in well-marked juvenile plumage (check a good bird book!).

3 juveniles, and 1 adult, Pacific loon. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Pacific Loons winter all along the northern Pacific coast but nest on deep lakes in the Interior and across the Arctic tundra. Like other loons, they are typically monogamous and both parents incubate and rear the chicks. Loon legs are placed far back on the body, which is good for swimming and diving (when the legs are almost like propellers) but very bad for walking. So loons place their nests right next to the water’s edge. This makes them vulnerable to motorboat wakes that swamp the nest and to droughts that lower the water levels and make the nest too far from water.

The harbor visit also produced a couple of seals, several Marbled Murrelets in winter plumage, some Long-tailed Ducks, Red-necked Grebes, Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, one or two Great Blue Herons, and a Song Sparrow. We wondered if Song Sparrows (in springtime) might sometimes nest under the decking of the floats or if they merely forage there and nest, as usual, in shoreline shrubbery.

There were some large ‘jellyfish’ slowly pulsating in the cold water. Perhaps a foot or so in diameter, one was translucent white and the other was a murky orange with thick wads of tentacles. In our land-based ignorance, we didn’t have names for them.

On another day, after a recent snowfall, a tracking expedition was profitable. Snowshoe hares had seemingly conducted small riots under the spruces; their feet had created a maze of interlocking pathways and localized spots of concentrated activity. We saw no scats, perhaps suggesting that the hares had re-ingested them. Hares and rabbits (as well as many rodents) produce two kinds of feces: the ordinary kind, which is not re-ingested, and a softer kinds, produced by a digestive organ called a caecum, which is consumed—recycled, so to speak, to extract more nutrients from their food.

No small mammal trails were evident. Shrews, voles, and mice were presumably active but stayed under the soft snow. A porcupine lefts its customary trough where it had waded, up to its ears, in fluffy snow.

We followed the trail of an otter that seemed to know just where it was going. Several long leaps were followed by a smooth slide, then more leaps and another slide mark. Nobody else makes a trail like that! The otter had crossed a sizable pond, cut over a hill to another pond where it checked out a beaver lodge (from the outside), and gone down a small frozen stream to a deep channel where fish could be found.

The best find was along a shallow slough in which there were still small stretches of open water. A narrow furrow led out of one little pool straight over to the next one. ?A water shrew? But no, there seemed to be alternating footprints lightly covered with new-fallen snow. So, some critter that walked on two feet, from one bit of open water to the next, and then the next one, and so on for fifty yards or so. Finally we found some clearer footprints and a spot where something had landed and started to walk. Definitely a bird! But not a shorebird, because the hind toe was well-developed. So—a songbird, not very big, but not tiny, either. Well, who would be foraging in shallow water, going from pool to pool? Most likely an American Dipper, looking for aquatic insect larvae or maybe sticklebacks. Dippers often wander far from their nesting streams in winter. The real mystery is why it walked through the snow instead of flying.

High tides

long-tailed voles and short-eared owls

In early October, the highest tides of the year (over 20 feet) brought sea water up close to the airport dike trail. Much of the extensive meadow of grasses and sedges was flooded. Although there had been 18-foot and 19-foot tides in previous months, this area is so flat that just another foot or two of water means that much more area is covered.

In intervals between big tides, long-tailed voles move out into the meadow, looking for food and perhaps even nest sites. Voles typically eat green vegetation and seeds. They have a very rapid reproductive cycle; the time from conception to sexual maturity is just a few weeks. But that short period is not sufficiently short to fit between monthly big tides of 18 or 19 feet. The mega-tides of 20 feet, however, occur at wider intervals, and voles could nest successfully in the meadows that are only covered by the biggest tides.

Whether nesting or exploring, the voles in the tidal meadows encounter major adventures with the coming of the mega-tides. As the water creeps up through the grasses and sedges, the voles flee. We can sometimes see them swimming for their lives toward higher ground, including the sides of the dike itself.

When that happens, predators have a good time. During the early October mega-tide, a friend watched an eagle snatch a vole from the water. Then a gull swept in and took another. (I was on the dike trail but apparently in the wrong place at the wrong time, since I missed the action).

In a different year, another friend saw a short-eared owl perched out in the meadow. The owl pounced on a swimming vole and sank partway down into the water. The owl pulled itself and its prey up and went to a nearby little snag, where it swallowed the vole whole. Twice! Down the gullet once, then coughed back up, and then down again, this time permanently. (What a trip!)

Photo by Jack Helle

Short-eared owls are widespread, but they are quite specialized. They inhabit grassy areas and open fields, where they flit low over the ground in search of prey. They sometimes take large insects and small birds, but voles are a favorite food. Naturalists have collected regurgitated pellets of short-eared owls from the wetlands, inspected the undigested bones and teeth in those pellets, and found that long-tailed voles comprised most of the diet. Here in Southeast, they are migratory, passing to or from their nesting areas in the Interior.

Sadly, they sometimes view the grassy edges of the airport runway as foraging habitat, where they are at risk of being shot and killed. I wonder if that grass could be replaced by some other material that wouldn’t attract voles and owls (and geese), and thus reduce the worries about bird strikes by airplanes.

January junkets

the force of ice, and a leisurely beach walk

The Fish Creek trail, going upstream from the Douglas Highway bridge, was –as expected—very icy in spots, with occasional little rivers flowing in it. Biologically, things were pretty quiet. The cool story was the ice along the creek. Impressive ice jams had built up in several places, piled on rocks or backed up behind stacks of logs. The cakes of ice were about eight inches thick, and they ranged is size from great plates ten or twenty feet across down to crumbs (relatively speaking). In some places they were layered on top of each other; in others they were stacked vertically against logs or streamside trees.

The creek flowed well within its customary banks. But it had obviously been more than three feet higher a day or two before our visit. Numerous cakes of ice had been carried into the small floodplain that’s just over the first ridge, as much as fifty feet from the creek banks. Chunks of ice littered the trail itself. It seemed odd that all those traveling ice cakes had not left scar marks on the mossy tree trunks, as the water carried them overland.

As we paused just where the trail starts the real uphill route toward the Eaglecrest road, one belated ice cake came floating by, twirling gracefully around partially submerged boulders. We noticed that, under the flowing water, the bottom of the creek appeared to be encased in another layer of ice. How do small fish and invertebrates survive under there? Even if they can tolerate freezing (as some stoneflies can), is there enough oxygen? How long can they go without feeding?

One mild, gray day, Parks and Rec hikers strolled out the Crow Point and the scout camp. Once past the icefalls and frozen puddles in the forest, the beach walk was easy. The north end of the beach showed distinct lines of shells left by several high tides. In particular, we noticed thousands of small, pink clam shells, many of which still held occupants, apparently.

The small, pink clams are called Macoma baltica. These clams move around the intertidal and subtidal zones, mostly at night. Typically, they live buried in the sands, using their siphons to suck up detritus from the water or from the surface of the sand. Flatfish graze on the siphons, and clams with shorter siphons have to live closer to the surface, in order to feed. Shallowly buried macomas often take in more food and grow faster than deeply buried ones, but at a cost: the shallowly buried ones are more susceptible to predation by birds. Macomas can regenerate their siphons, particularly if their food is abundant. But if there is little food for the clams, they are more likely to crawl on the surface, where the predation risk is high.

Did these windrows of macomas mean that they were torn up from the sands by recent storms and stranded at high tide? Or waves washed them up at night while they were engaged in their nightly movements? Or food was scarce, so they were on the surface more often?

Waves continue to eat into the sandy berms at the upper side of the beach. Great clumps of grass have caved in, exposing long-buried decaying logs in some places. Otters had gamboled up and down the beach, leaving their distinctive footprints. In a zone where black sand lies atop the ordinary sand, we found a set of otter tracks that I think may be the best I’ve ever seen.

Lunchtime, as we leaned back against an eroding sand bank, brought us two entertainments. As usual, a raven came in to scavenge crackers, bread crusts, and even bits of apple and orange. (No cheetos today!) All the while, another raven (?its mate?) called from the trees behind us. The bolder bird cached all its scavengings in different sites at the edge of the forest.

The second amusement was of human origin. One hiker discovered a plastic bottle with an enclosed message, assorted odd objects, and a dollar bill! The message was written by some kids at the camp in 2007, who provided their email addresses in hopes that the finder would notify them. We’ll see if they answer the notification, or if they have just outgrown their earlier game.

December rambles

tracks and sightings from high elevation to low

By early December, heavy rains had mostly spoiled our lovely early snowcover. Even up at Eaglecrest, a Parks and Rec group could walk around Cropley Lake without snowshoes or skis, borne up by a hard crust.

On top of the crust lay a thin layer of new, soft snow, just enough to show good animal tracks. Porcupines had left many traces of extensive wanderings. Occasional snowshoe hares and red squirrels had ventured out. One trail looked like a weasel had looped along, and a raven had investigated a possible source of food.

We followed the route of ptarmigan as they had trotted from bush to bush. Under these bushes were scattered crumbs from the buds the ptarmigan had eaten. A small puzzle was provided by a narrow furrow in the loose snow—too wide to belong to a shrew, so probably a mouse or vole. A long tail-drag mark suggested the passage of a deer mouse across an open area toward the shelter of low-hanging conifer branches.

On another day, a friend and I watched a gaggle of mew gulls near the mouth of Fish Creek. Every so often, one would fly a few yards upstream, then drop to the water surface and float there briefly before taking off again. On a few of these ‘touch-and-go’ episodes, the gull would dip its bill into the water, possibly picking up some small item. We wondered if the high water levels in the creek might be washing down some prey items, but if so, they were too small for us to see.

In mid December, several friends ambled out the trail to Crow Point at the mouth of Eagle River. Bird-watching was unusually low-key. The only land birds seen or heard was a pair of ravens, surprisingly too shy to come close for treats. Gangs of gulls rested on the sandbars, retreating to higher ground as the tide came in. Among the usual glaucous-winged and herring gulls was a more unusual species—a Thayer’s Gull. I seldom try to distinguish Thayer’s from herring gull, but the more experienced birder in the group recalled the difference in the wingtips (check your bird book for details). Thayer’s Gulls nest in the Canadian high-Arctic but winter along the coast. A significant portion of the world’s population of this species stops in Berners Bay on the northward migration in spring, to feed at the eulachon run.

The stars of the show for the day were lichens, those much-ignored combinations of an alga with a fungus, whose precise relationship is subject to dispute and to change through time (of which more, perhaps, anon). We were on a campaign to learn some of the common lichens and easily found about fifteen conspicuous kinds, no doubt by-passing numerous others. We noted a grove of alders well-festooned with strands of beard lichen, which seemed to shine when the sun’s rays poked through the partial cloud cover. At the edge of a meadow, we found a spectacular colony of what we thought is ‘lettuce lichen’ (Lobaria oregana) draped along all the lower branches of one spruce tree. What conditions made that particular tree such a favorable site.

Along the beach, we followed a beautifully clear trail of an otter for several hundred yards, and it looked like a coyote had run across a meadow. But the day was made complete by watching the shifting light on the sharp peaks of the nearby Coast Range.

Dredge islands

…there’s so much to be learned!

Gastineau Channel rounds the north end of Douglas Island with a short stretch that is roughly east-west. On the north side of this part of the channel lie islands mostly made of the material dredged from the channel in the 1950s; actually, they are islands only at high tides. One island is apparently a rocky outcrop that may have been a real island. Post-glacial uplift has raised the islands well above the reach of the tides, so that they now support a diversified community of plants. Most of them are now capped with stands of vigorously growing spruces and cottonwoods.

After careful consultation of the tide tables, we set out to explore the eastern series of islands, on a nice low tide. Although I’d previously visited the westernmost islands, this was new terrain for me. We waded through wide expanses of tall grass and crossed several tidal sloughs where dowitchers and yellowlegs foraged and mallards loafed on the banks.

A characteristic of most of the islands we visited was what might be called a lichen barrens—a habitat quite reminiscent of recently deglaciated lands. Not really barren at all, they are wonderfully rich in lichens, mosses, and a few small flowering plants. They are generally surrounded by a ring of trees, lending them a feeling of seclusion. As we reveled in their diversity and beauty, we also wondered why they are there—why didn’t the trees grow there too?

We were pleased to find abundant meadow rue on some islands but much less happy to find a big stand of hemp-nettle. This prickly plant is an invasive weed from Eurasia. There was evidence of the passage of some large creature through the grasses and herbs, and eventually we found several scat piles that told us the creature was a deer.


Perhaps the most intriguing observations came from fireweed. The flowering stage was different on every island: flowers just opening on this island but nearly finished on another, with intermediate stages on still other islands. One bumblebee was flying busily, but two very wet bees rested, each nestled in an open flower. Bumblebee workers often sleep outside the nest, wherever they happen to be. These bees were so wet that we wondered if they had died as they slept, but we did not disturb them to find out.

On one island we noted some swollen buds on several fireweed stems. These flowers had not opened and all the sexual parts were present; no pollinator could have visited. Nevertheless, the fruits (or pods) below the flowers were well developed. The pods contained lots of the white fluff that we see on each seed when the pod opens and the seeds become airborne, but no seeds were visible. Why did the pod develop if no pollination had occurred?

The swollen buds frequently contained tiny insect larvae about one millimeter long. If no larva was detectable, then the female parts of the flower were often mutilated and deformed. Do these larvae somehow prevent the flower from opening and cause the pod to develop anyhow? There is much to be learned here!

Early May on North Douglas

a spring meander and some rare sightings

With two treasured companions, I set off on an easy stroll on the Rainforest Trail on North Douglas. As usual, we went in search of nothing in particular and whatever things of interest we could find. Not having a specific, predetermined goal is often a good way to stumble upon the unexpected or just touch base with the familiar.

At the trail head, we meet a couple of Fish and Game biologists who were monitoring bat movements. They shared their discovery of a marked bat that was apparently roosting in the cliffs next to the beach. This little brown bat, a female, had been tagged at Fish Creek. The biologists reported that other marked bats were also moving around to different places in Juneau.

On down the trail, we encountered a small flock of ruby-crowned kinglets that included a brown creeper. The creeper hitched its way up a big dead tree and spent at least a minute checking out the space behind a loose flap of bark—just the kind of place creepers like to put their nests.

Brown creeper. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Down on the beach, we found deep windrows of rockweed piled up way into the beach-rye zone, clear evidence of recent high tides and high winds. Now the tide was low, and we ambled along the water’s edge, peering into rocky crevices and turning over rocks (and turning them back, too!). Some rocks were obviously favored habitat, housing quite a community of miniature critters: dainty six-armed sea stars only half an inch across, tiny limpets and chitons just two or three millimeters in size, sea cucumbers an inch long or less, and an occasional miniscule sea urchin. Toothpick-size towers stuck up from the mudflats; excavation revealed skinny tubes of sand grains, presumably inhabited by some kind of worm.

I was fascinated by the burrowing anemones, buried up to their tentacles in muck. They came in many colors, including green, tan, yellow-orange, and brownish, all with white bands on the tentacles. They may come in many other colors as well, including red, blue, and black, depending on location. Many of them had bits of shell stuck around their bodies, so when they retracted, all one saw was a ring of broken shell about the size of a silver dollar. They are reported to feed on fish eggs and small, floating invertebrates.

We perched on Shaman Island for a while, just to watch what might be going on in the coves on either side of the tombolo (a.k.a. the spit) that connects the island to mainland when the tide is out. A group of twenty or thirty black-bellied plovers prospected over the sand flats (and I got a quick reminder-lesson on how to tell them from other plovers that have black fronts). Crows were foraging in the mussel beds, sometimes walking around with straggling bits dangling from their bills and seeming to cache their prizes among the cobbles. Groups of harlequin ducks and common goldeneyes floated peacefully around the edges of the covers.

A sizable flock of scoters suddenly erupted in panicked flight and fled out around the point. Just the sort of thing they would do if an eagle swooped down over the flock. But the eagles were quietly perched in spruce trees on shore. The perpetrator of the panic was a male harrier that coursed low over the flock, briefly followed the birds around the point, and then turned to follow the beach, perhaps looking for something of a more convenient size. Could a harrier actually take a scoter that weighs twice as much as itself?

On the way back up to the parking lot we noticed quite a few flowering fern-leafed goldthread; close inspection showed that all of these were male. Maybe those that also have female parts (that is, they are hermaphrodites) flower a little later?


Finally, as we left the parking lot, we spotted a snowshoe hare scampering up the bank. Not white, not brown, but in between, and not well camouflaged in any habitat. Although I’ve seen thousands of hare tracks, one dead leveret (baby hare) in the jaws of a cat, and one dead adult hare in the clutches of a goshawk, I can’t remember seeing a living adult hare around here. So this was a minor coup.

During our short perambulations on the beach, we also filled a yellow litter bag to the very brim, with cast-off food and drink containers, oil rags, broken plastic parts of unknown objects, and a thick, sodden seat cushion. The bag containing all that mess we deposited near the trash container at the trailhead. However, on the shore of Shaman Island there was a wheel, with tire, that was too much for us to carry out; we hope some kind soul with a boat might go and remove it to a more suitable location.

Early September observations

bear behaviors, sleeping shorebirds, and a diligent squirrel

The numbers of sockeye in Steep Creek had declined markedly, but there were still enough that a female bear with two cubs was able to catch five of them in about thirty minutes. When I came upon them, mama and one cub were busily chowing down on a fresh sockeye, while cub number two was perched up in a big spruce. Pretty soon, mama went out and got another fish—it took her maybe three minutes—to share (somewhat grudgingly, it seemed) with the first cub.

Suddenly, we all heard a loud ruckus just down the trail, as two young bicyclists approached. Fortunately, a ranger was on duty in the area and the raucous disturbance was quelled. But the bears were agitated, and cub number two was sent up the tree to join number one. After a watchful period, the female went back to fishing and caught three more fish in less than twenty minutes, but she didn’t share them.

Another pleasing bear observation: one day I drove up Riverside Drive, with no other vehicles in sight. Out of the brush on one side of the road popped a young bear. It looked both ways, saw me coming, and stopped. I stopped too. Then the bear took another look and rambled safely across the road. A street-wise bruin!

The Crow Point trail near the Boy Scout camp was littered with washed-up, pecked-over chum carcasses. I salvaged some nice clean vertebrae that still had all the ribs and dorsal spines attached: these were useful to me for clarifying a few long-standing puzzles of comparative anatomy—comparing the spinal columns of deer, bears, whales, and whatever else I can get my hands on.

Out on the sandy beaches, I found five dowitchers, all sleeping, with long bills tucked over their shoulders into their feathers. Some were standing on two legs, some on one leg. I was amused to see that as the tide came in, the one-legged individuals just hopped a few steps up-beach without bothering to lower the second leg—which of course was fully functional but resting comfortably up in the belly feathers. I’m not sure the birds even came fully awake—they seemed to go right back to sleep.

Signs of autumn were everywhere: gold leaves of mayflower, orange and red leaves of fireweed, all-shades-of-red leaves of highbush cranberry. Bands of migrating warblers were on the move, searching among the leaves for insects to fuel their southward journey. Mixed flocks of Lincoln’s sparrows and savanna sparrows rustled about in the brush. When I got back to my car, I fund a woolly-bear caterpillar crawling up a rear tire. I suggested to it that a wheel well was probably not a good place to pupate and assisted its transfer to a more productive spot.

Woolly bear caterpillar

Back home, I glanced out a window and saw a red squirrel trying to haul a thick, four-inch-long, white cylinder (maybe a mushroom stem) up a tree. The squirrel was having a tough time with this object, which often seemed to crumble or break, so the squirrel lost its tooth-hold. Somehow, the squirrel always managed to catch the thing when it started to fall, but progress up the tree was slow, irregular, and arduous. But the object got shorter with every attempt to haul it up to the next level; by the time the hard-working squirrel was out of sight, its prize was only about an inch long.

The annual Juneau Symphony whale-watching cruise was a treat: Great food, lovely string quartet, good conversations, and best of all, spectacular whale-watching. Several humpback whales were busy in the area just south of North Pass. All of them were lunge-feeding—making shallow dives and surfacing on their sides with mouths agape as they surged forward. A group of three whales seemed to collaborate; they came up side by side, so close together that it was hard to sort out which jaw belonged to whom. We saw an occasional pectoral fin waving, or half a fluke emerging. This activity went on a good long while; I had never seen such prolonged, concerted lunge-feeding before. We could not identify the prey that was so assiduously sought, but we did not see small fish jumping off to the side in efforts to elude the giant maws (as we often see when the whales feed on schools of small fish), so perhaps krill were the big attraction for the hunters.

Exploring the shores

of Lincoln Island

Our tents were securely tucked into the forest above a broad beach, a kitchen rainfly was stretched in a sheltered spot in case of storm, and we were free to start exploring. Parts of the forest on Lincoln have had lots of wind-throw, making huge tangles, and most of our wanderings were focused on beaches and the beach fringe.

Off we went in our kayaks, accompanied by jumping salmon and numerous tiny fish (?herring) flipping up into the air. We chose to paddle up the west side of the island, hoping to stop at beaches for mini-explorations. For me, this turned out to be difficult, because the so-called beaches were made of big cobbles, on which I have trouble walking, much less toting a kayak up to a safe parking place. But with some help, it proved manageable, if somewhat humiliating.

Explorations were rewarding in several way, however. Most impressive were the rocky cliffs that bordered most of the beaches. How I wished I knew some geology! Even to my ignorant eyes, the exposed rocks were greatly varied, changing as we rounded the curving shores. How much ancient history is tied up in those old layers, fractures, twists, and tilts! One boulder at the base of a cliff bore markings like those of a petroglyph; does Mother Nature make those too?

Many of the cliffs were damp, with tiny cascades and dribbles of rainwater. They held small but lovely gardens of columbine, harebells, butterworts, and mosses. I usually see butterworts in bogs, or on gravelly soils (such as on Gold Ridge, and also near the glacier), and other nutrient-poor sites where their insectivorous habit is so useful; this was my first cliff-hanging stand of the species.

Oysterplants sprawled over the sand on the uppermost beaches. We noted that the flowers were often white, in addition to the more usual blue. Bees seemed to like them both. We found cottonwood branches, with new leaves, that showed clear signs of beaver chewing and wondered where they originated. A river otter den on a small headland was served by at least six entrances, and a family of otters swam by, including at least three young ones.

Just coming into bloom at the tops of the beaches was the robust plant called beach groundsel or seaside ragwort; its huge leaves set off the cluster of yellow flowers at the top. I was fascinated by the structures around each flower. Small leaves arc over the cluster of buds. Each flower bud is circled by thin arches, each of which supports a gauzy curtain of material that drapes over the bud; the whole array closely surrounds the developing bud. Protection of some sort, I imagine, perhaps from desiccation. But some insect is able to penetrate the shielding structures and destroy the buds, leaving only blackened remains. I would love to understand more about the functioning of all those floral parts.

We did a little tide-pooling on a small minus tide, finding lots of familiar things and three new (to us) kinds of anemones (two brown ones with unusual tentacles and one brilliant orange one with lots of babies all around it). The most notable aspect of this intertidal habitat, for me, was the abundance of hermit crabs that carried shells much too small for the size of the crab. Most of these crabs, no matter how large, bore tiny periwinkle shells that covered only the tip of the crabs’ abdomens, leaving most of the body exposed. Only two of the many hermits owned whelk shells big enough for the owner to withdraw entirely into the shell’s protection. It seems that the supply of suitable shells here is very limited. Could the crabs go elsewhere in search of good housing? Does the lack of protection mean that these crabs have higher mortality than crabs with lots of available shells? Why are empty snail shells so few here? Lots of questions, as always, but they are sometimes as much fun as answers.