Gold Ridge alpine

flower sightings and unusual birds

Gold Ridge is one of my favorite places for wandering around, checking the progress of the seasons and just seeing what I can see. On a fine but crisp day in late June, a friend and I strolled slowly up the trail, stopping frequently to look more closely.

The salmonberry crop was coming along nicely, and the alpine blueberries were loaded with flowers, at least in some spots. So, if the bumblebees do their job, there should be a nice crop of blueberries later on. These are much tastier, to my tongue, than the tall-bush blueberries at lower elevations.

We always look for a few special flowers, and this day we found two of them. The inky or glaucous gentian was presenting its intensely blue-green flowers, still closed and waiting for a sunny day when bees would be granted access. The funny little frog orchid is quite inconspicuous, being short of stature and bearing green flowers, but we finally found some. The common name of this species must have come from someone with a vivid (or twisted) imagination—the resemblance to a frog is remote at best.

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Frog orchid. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The top of the ridge was a sea of narcissus anemones and buttercups, with patches of mountain-heather. We tucked into a small swale, out of the chill breeze, and settled in to watch for a while. Just sitting quietly is often a rewarding experience for a naturalist; one becomes part of the landscape, and creatures start to appear nearby.

And we had our small rewards. Some twitching stems of mountain-heather finally parted, to reveal a foraging gray-crowned rosy finch. This bird was thoroughly covering a small patch of ground, gobbling up small insects. Rosy finches nest in alpine tundra, on cliffs and barren slopes (and on recently deglaciated terrain, as found in upper Glacier Bay); they are known to nest on this ridge.

Another bird was walking on a nearby remnant snowbank, gathering a bill-full of bugs. A slender bird with a fairly long tail, the pipit’s characteristic gait is a walk, not a hop. This one filled its bill and winged off to a nest of chicks around the corner.

A sudden rustling in the low vegetation caught my attention. Some small animal scuttled very rapidly and nearly invisibly for several yards and dove into a burrow. I can only suppose that this was some kind of vole, probably a long-tailed vole. There is another species of vole (the heather vole) that occurs in alpine habitats, but it has seldom been recorded in Southeast.

Loafing around during lunch, we happened to spot two diminutive flowers that we surely would have missed while tramping up the trail. Both species were new to us. We later learned that one is called northern false asphodel, a pink-flowered relative of iris. The other was a dwarfed individual of purple sweet cicely, in the carrot family; it is normally a more sizable plant, but this mature individual was only about two inches tall.

On the way down, we heard a steady series of little barks or yips, which we did not recognize. Then we discovered a marmot perched on a boulder and looking uphill. We looked in the same direction and spotted an adult eagle sitting on a rocky outcrop. After a few minutes, the eagle spread its wings and sailed out over the rockslide where the calling marmot sat. Immediately, the marmot changed its call to the familiar alarm whistle and whistled until the eagle was out of sight. And thus we learned that marmots use different calls, for different levels of danger.

We spent several hours on the ridge, walking slowly and pausing frequently. In all that time, however, we saw no grouse or ptarmigan. No male ptarmigan showing off on rocky points, no females with broods of little chicks, none. We can only hope that this was just bad luck, not a sign that the populations up there have declined.

Gold Ridge

…in seasonal transition

On a hot sunny day in mid June, we set out on the trail above the tram, in search of whatever happened to catch our fancy. Several residual snow drifts offered no difficulties, just a pleasant coolness.

The snow drifts held several bowl-like depressions that were the remains of ptarmigan winter roosts under the snow, each with a pile of scat in the bottom. One such bowl had melted out so much that it was close to four feet wide—so we had fun imagining a giant ptarmigan roosting there–perhaps left over from the Pleistocene?

The big flower show came from thousands of narcissus anemones, whose fields of white were dotted with blue lupines. Yellow northern cinquefoil and reddish roseroot adorned the rocky outcrops. Down near the ground were big purple violets, yellow violets, pink wedge-leaf primroses (a.k.a. pixie eyes), and tiny white alp lilies and starflowers. The heathers, both white and yellow, were coming into bloom.

It was so hot that birds were not singing a lot, but we heard ruby-crowned kinglets and varied thrushes in the conifer forest, fox sparrows, robins, and Wilson’s warblers in the brush, and best of all, at least two golden-crowned sparrows up near timberline. Their plaintive three notes (“Oh, dear me!”) gave us a treat. A little bunch of ravens had figured out what the snow was good for: snow baths! A raven would lay its head on the snow and then shove forward until its whole body followed its bill along the snow (much as a dog might do). Then it would roll a little, perhaps working the soft snow into its feathers. I bet it felt good! I was a tad envious.

Marmots were out foraging in several places. One big snowdrift covered a den with a good blanket, but the marmots had dug their way out and their trails led in several directions over the snow. Down at sea level, this year’s crop of baby marmots is already emerging their dens, so these at higher elevations should be coming out before long. Farther south, hoary marmots are found just at high elevations (and not on beaches as they sometimes are, here) and they are typically quite polygamous. I wondered if our marmots have a similar mating arrangement. We watched our marmots for quite a while—until an unleashed (illegal) dog started snooping around, when all the marmots promptly took cover.

We like to sit quietly in various spots, just to see and hear whatever is in the neighborhood. At one such stop, I perched on a flat rock and inspected the mat of low-growing vegetation at my feet. There were blueberry stems with occasional pendant pink flowers, and prostrate willows sending up erect catkins. And there was another plant, too, that mystified us all. It had tiny, yellow, bell-shaped flowers, rather like a faded, wizened blueberry flower, and firm leaves with marked reticulate venation. None of us had even noticed it before, although in this site there was quite a bit of it.

I took a small specimen of the mystery plant to a botanist, we consulted various plant books, and the mystery was resolved. The plant is alpine bearberry, a species apparently not recorded quite this far south, although it is reported from Glacier Bay and upper Lynn Canal. In autumn, the leaves will turn a spectacular red and the flowers will have made black berries, beautifully set off by the red leaves. It’s a good bet that there are more patches of this species on the ridges, if we’d look carefully.

At the top of the ridge, our famous photographer observed a female rock ptarmigan foraging on the petals of Cooley’s buttercup (now reclassified as a ‘false buttercup’ and placed in a different genus). True buttercups are generally poisonous (even the flowers) if eaten and often cause skin irritation if rubbed, so I wonder if this is the case for Cooley’s buttercup too. If so, then ptarmigan may have physiological means of dealing with the poison, or perhaps can tolerate small quantities of it. Many animals eat poisonous plants, sometimes counter-acting the poison with another food item. Here is another little local mystery to be solved.

Seals

floating bumps of curiosity

Take a walk along the lower reaches of Eagle River, or a beach on west Douglas, or the Boy Scout beach, or any of a number of shore-side spots, and the chances are good that you’ll be observed by a floating bump of curiosity: a shiny dome with big dark eyes. Seals often follow the progress of beach walkers, swimming in parallel and keeping an eye on activity. Are they really just curious or are they on the lookout for suspicious, possibly dangerous, actions?

Seven (or possibly eight) species of true seals are recorded in Alaska, four of them mostly in the Bering Sea and the far north. Two more are occasionally seen: northern elephant seals, especially males, infrequently wander into the Gulf of Alaska from the south, and hooded seals (plus one other perhaps) sometimes drift into the north coastal area from the east. But here in Southeast, we have only the harbor seal on a regular basis. In the Pacific, this species ranges from the southern Bering Sea to California (and it also occurs in the north Atlantic). They are very closely related to the spotted seal, which ranges from the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic, through the Bering Sea, and down the coasts of Siberia and Japan. Spotted seals and harbor seals may even be one species, according to some researchers.

Harbor seals, foraging both in daylight and in the dark, prey on many kinds of fishes, as well as squid, octopuses, crabs, and shrimp. Very young, newly weaned pups concentrate on near-shore crabs and other crustaceans that can be caught quite easily. Adults commonly dive to a depth of up to fifty meters for five or ten minutes, but they are capable of plunging to at least five hundred meters and staying submerged for half an hour. Seals are exceptionally great divers (matched only by sperm whales). Their deep, protracted dives are possible because they have a very well-developed capacity to store oxygen (lots of red blood cells) needed for metabolism and a reduced metabolic rate while diving; and they often rest at the surface between dives.

Seals sometimes congregate at the mouths of rivers when the salmon are coming in to start the spawning runs (giving commercial fishermen heartburn). For several decades in the early 1900s, there was a bounty on them, for their presumed (not measured) competition with human fishers. In several rivers, seals even follow the salmon upstream for a distance; they sometimes appear in Mendenhall Lake. Up north, Lake Illiamna is home to a nearly unique fresh-water population of harbor seals (a few other freshwater populations exist in northeastern Canada). The Illiamna population, along with the salmon runs and other inhabitants of the area, is at risk from the proposed Pebble mine project.

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Photo by Jos Bakker

Harbor seals mature at age three to six years, before they even reach full size. After an underwater courtship, mating typically occurs in summer. However, the fertilized embryo just floats around and does not implant in the uterus for two or three months. After that delay, gestation begins and lasts ten or eleven months; pups are born in spring. The single pup is nursed by the mother for three to six weeks. Toward the end of that time, it starts to follow her as she hunts, learning some basics of prey choice and capture. After the pup is weaned, the female is ready to mate again.

The very short length of time during which the pup is dependent on the mother’s milk is related to the richness of the milk. Marine mammals in general produce an energy-rich milk full of fats, and seal milk is at the top of this group, with about a fifty percent fat content. Protein content is correspondingly low, which means that the lean body mass of a pup at weaning is small—most of its growth in size is due to layers of fat that help sustain it as it learns to forage for itself. Pups can more than double their birth weight (about twenty-five pounds) during the time they feed on mother’s milk. The high energy content of the mother’s milk also indicates a high cost of milk production for the female, who forages seldom while nursing a pup and so pays much of the cost of lactation from her own fat stores.

Pup mortality is often very high, especially during their first year of life, when as many as fifty percent of them may die. This mortality rate no doubt varies from year to year and place to place, depending on the food supply and predation by killer whales, sharks, eagles, sea lions, and humans. Other sources of mortality for seals of all ages include entanglement in fishing gear and coastal pollution. Few harbor seals live longer than about thirty years.

Toads and frogs

…and toadlets and tadpoles

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Toadlet of western toad. Photo by Bob Armstrong

As I wandered around a beaver pond one day in mid-September, I noticed something small and dark moving slowly through the grass and weeds. It was a toadlet, just recently transformed from a tadpole.

That tadpole had lived in the pond all summer, eating mostly plant material. Toward summer’s end, it resorbed its tadpole tail and grew legs. Now, only half an inch long, those legs were letting it disperse from the natal pond to find a place in which to hibernate for the winter—maybe under a log or some tree roots.

Sometimes, when lots of new toadlets emerge from a pond, they pile up in little heaps and mounds, several hundred of them. They may stay in such a mound for some time. The reason for this behavior is not clear; it may help prevent desiccation or protect from temperature extremes, or perhaps it somehow protects them from predation. We’ve seen that behavior in previous years here.

Once emerged from a pond, a western toad (Anaxyrus boreas, formerly Bufo boreas) is a terrestrial creature, only venturing back to the water to breed. Now its diet consists largely of insects. If it’s not squashed on the roads or eaten by a predator, it may grow for four or five years and then reach sexual maturity. In spring, mature males and females head back to the ponds to mate. Females lay long strings of eggs in shallow water, generally in April or May; each female may lay thousands of eggs.

Large numbers of eggs are necessary, because the probability of a toad egg eventually growing up into an adult toad is very small. Lots of dangers beset the tadpoles and only a few may survive. The pond may dry up or become too polluted, and their predators are many, including ducks, diving beetles, dragonfly larvae, and fish. When they transform into tiny toadlets, the dangers continue. Many species of birds would relish a young toad, and as the toads grow, weasels, mink, and other mammals may join in.

Southeast Alaska also harbors two species of frog. Neither one is very common, apparently, but both are known to breed in a few sites in the Juneau area.

Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica or Lithobates sylvatica) live all across northern North America, even above the Arctic Circle. The adults are quite terrestrial, feeding on land and hibernating under the leaf litter. They are justifiably famous for their remarkable ability to freeze solid in the winter. The heart stops beating, even the eyes are frozen, and the frog lives in a state of suspended animation. Come spring, it thaws out and goes on feeding, finding a pond for breeding, and getting on with its life. Eggs are laid in clusters; the tadpoles develop rapidly and transform into froglets in late summer. They mature in two or three years.

Freezing solid and thawing out successfully is no mean feat; very few animals can do it. When water freezes, it expands. So if a living cell freezes, its expanding water contents would normally burst the cell wall, destroying the cell and stopping metabolic functions. Wood frogs avoid that lethal problem by pumping most of the water out their cells and into the spaces between them; they also pump sugars into the cells, where the sugars act as antifreeze. Water that accumulates in the abdominal cavity freezes, surrounding the internal organs with ice.

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Columbia spotted frog. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The Columbia spotted frog (Rana luteiventris) occurs in British Columbia and the western U. S.; Southeastern Alaska is at the northern edge of its range. This frog is highly aquatic; unlike toads and wood frogs, it even hibernates underwater in the mud. Females lay clumps of eggs and tadpoles usually transform into froglets by the end of summer; a few may overwinter and emerge the following spring. They take several years to reach maturity.

How does one distinguish these three amphibian species that live in our area? Western toad adults are usually brownish or grayish, with lots of lumps on the back and a pale belly mottled with black. There is usually a light-colored stripe down the middle of the back. They do not cause warts, but a large gland behind the eye exudes neurotoxins that may deter predators. Spotted frogs are often brownish; the belly and undersides of the thighs are reddish or pink. The back is slightly lumpy and has irregular black spots. The upper lip has a pale stripe. Wood frogs have smooth, brownish or greenish skin and a pale belly. There’s a distinctive dark eye mask and a light-colored upper lip.

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Wood frog. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Many serious dangers afflict toad and frog populations, here and around the world. Habitat loss, for both tadpoles and adults, together with a widespread deadly fungal infection, has decimated their populations. In some areas, toads and frogs suffer develop abnormalities such as missing legs, extra legs, or malformed eyes; the precise causes of these crippling features are not well established but probably include pollution. Furthermore, enthusiastic humans sometimes collect tadpoles and toadlets or froglets for the fun of watching them transform and grow. All these hazards, and perhaps other still undocumented, have reduced toad and frog populations everywhere, endangering many of them.

 

When I came to Juneau, over twenty-five years ago, I found toad tadpoles, toadlets, and toads in many places, sometimes in large numbers. That does not happen anymore; now I feel lucky to find them. Many other residents of Southeast, from Haines to Ketchikan, have noted a similar trend. But perhaps because the species is still widespread, it has not attracted great conservation concern. Columbian spotted frog populations in some of the more southern states have declined seriously and have probably declined in Southeast. Although actual population estimates appear to be lacking, this species has become a conservation priority. The wood frog occurs widely in North America and in Alaska; even though it has disappeared from some places where it was formerly found in Alaska, it is not considered to be a major conservation concern.

 

Regardless of the official conservation status, the warning signs are clearly there. All of our toads and frogs are at risk of becoming vanishingly rare in our area. It behooves us to avoid disturbing them when we see them and collecting them should be avoided. In Alaska it is illegal (statute 16.05.030) to collect toads and frogs without an ADFG permit.

Swans

…big, beautiful, territorial… and threatened

One of the great treats of fall is finding a group of these huge white birds hanging out on a pond somewhere, maybe resting, preening, feeding a bit, or just gliding elegantly from here to there. The swans I see here are usually are trumpeter swans. They really are big: the wingspan is about six and a half feet, in the same size range as that of an eagle. But they weigh about twenty-two to twenty-six pounds, more than twice the typical weight of an eagle.

Their feet are correspondingly large. We are used to seeing the webbed footprints of ducks and gulls, but one could fit several duck footprints into a single swan footprint. Years ago, I stood with a couple of friends on the snowy ice of the Old River Channel, marveling at the footprints of swans, which are six or seven inches long. Given the size of the bird, perhaps this is not disproportionate.

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Photo by Jos Bakker

Trumpeter swans that nest in Alaska generally spend the winter somewhere along the coast of Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, and Washington. They could be found anywhere there is open water and food, but some spots are particularly attractive, such as the Skagit Valley and waters near Vancouver Island.

Swans are primarily herbivorous, eating aquatic vegetation, but they also ingest invertebrates along with leaves and tubers, and occasionally eat fish and fish eggs.

Trumpeters are very territorial when nesting, defending their space not only from other swans but also from various other waterfowl. They are monogamous, sometimes just for one season, sometimes for the long-term. Both male and female build their nest (mostly the female), and she may start to lay her eggs before the nest is quite complete. The usual clutch size is four to six eggs, laid almost two days apart. Incubation, mostly by the female, starts before the clutch is complete, so the eggs do not hatch synchronously. Rather than incubating their eggs with the warm skin of a featherless brood patch on the belly, as most birds do, trumpeters cover the eggs with their huge feet, which have a good supply of blood vessels that carry warm blood.

Incubation takes four to five weeks. When the eggs hatch, the chicks (called cygnets) are brooded for a day or two; after that, the adults may brood them at night and during bad weather. When the cygnets leave the nest, they follow their parents for three to four months, learning how to find food. The adults actually help the very young cygnets, by treading the mud to stir up vegetation and invertebrates. The average brood size in Alaska is reported to be about three cygnets. Sometimes broods of different parents join up, possibly as a way to increase access to food (more stirring) or to decrease the risk of predation (more eyes looking).

They are slow to reach maturity, typically taking four to seven years before they breed. In any one year, however, only a fraction of the population is reported to breed.

Formerly widespread and abundant, trumpeter swans are now much reduced in number, because of habitat loss and overhunting. Breeding populations are scattered across central Alaska to the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and western Canada. Some of these remnant populations are still at risk from loss of good habitat and lead poisoning (from lead shot and fishing weights). This species is now protected—it is illegal to hunt trumpeters (as of 2017), and restoration efforts have led to a moderate increase in numbers.

The tundra swan, also called the whistling swan, is considerably smaller, weighing roughly thirteen pounds. It breeds in tundra ponds across the Arctic of North America and Eurasia. On the nesting grounds, tundra swans are territorial and monogamous; the pair bond is commonly maintained year-round. They mature at age three to five years. Both parents tend the three to five eggs, for about a month, and attend the growing cygnets. Our populations migrate south to winter mostly on the east and west coasts; those from western Alaska stay in the west, while those from the north go to the east coast. Family groups often migrate together.

It is legal to hunt tundra swans, but not trumpeters, so it is important to be able to distinguish the two species. One criterion is obviously size: tundras are roughly two-thirds the size of trumpeters, by weight. Their wingspan is about five and a half feet, less than that of a trumpeter. The shape of the forehead of tundras is steeper than on trumpeters, which have a more sloping profile. Viewed face-on, the border of the forehead where it meets the bill is either rounded (tundra) or v-shaped (trumpeter). And tundra swans usually have a yellow patch at the base of the bill near the eye, a patch that trumpeters lack.

The hunting pressure on tundra swans is high, and only some of it is within the regulations. Many more are killed by hunting outside of the regulations, including native subsistence, than by the regulated hunts. Undoubtedly, some trumpeters are killed illegally, sometimes by mistake, sometimes clandestinely.