The hills of home

from Wisconsin to Alaska

I recently returned from a visit to the Midwestern locale where I grew up. There, the hills of home are very ancient mountains, now worn down to their stumps. Pink quartzite cliffs ring a deep, spring-fed lake. Moraines now stretch across both ends of the lake; this is where the last glacier terminated, thousands of years ago.

An Ice Age Trail loops for hundreds of miles across Wisconsin, following the former border of the glacial ice. A nice atlas of the trail provides detailed maps. I walked a portion of the trail, enjoying some old friends, such as Pileated Woodpeckers, goldfinches, chatty little Black-capped Chickadees, and jack-in-the-pulpit with its bright red fruits. I saw ‘real’ Blue Jays (not our Steller’s Jay, which is sometimes called a bluejay). Eastern bluebirds were feasting on wild grapes and the last of the black cherries, alternating between the cherries and a conveniently adjacent grape vine. Fall colors were well underway: sumacs and Virginia creeper in shades of red, and sugar maples glowing red and orange and yellow.

I came back to my Juneau hills of home, with its much more recent mountains, to find that the snowline had crept down to treeline. The low-lying blueberries and dwarf dogwood offered shades of red, cottonwoods provided gold and bronze, and muskeg sedges made brassy tones of orange.

On a walk on the shores of Mendenhall Lake, we encountered a surprising diversity of birds: three kinds of sparrows, hermit thrushes, two species of shorebird, three kinds of waterfowl including a flock of widgeon, some American Dippers, and magpies visiting from the Interior. Kinglets were gleaning vanishingly small insects from the willows; we inspected numerous willow twigs and couldn’t see more than one or two miniscule bugs. I was astonished to see, at this late date, a male and a female yellowthroat (migratory warblers that nest in marshes). They flitted around in the brush, occasionally zooming straight up into the air and catching what looked like small moths.

The sun—amazingly—came out from behind banks of gray clouds. Two ephemeral rainbows emerged from the base of Mt McGinnis and grew toward the glacier, and then disappeared in the same order. The sands of the beach showed signs of passage of beavers, caddis flies, and shorebirds. And no planes or helicopters disturbed the peace!

A happy sighting on the way was an American Coot, busily foraging in a slough and apparently being very successful. Coots are widespread across North America, but they are relatively rare in Southeast. They eat a wide variety of foods, including seeds, greenery, snails, and little fish. This particular coot was probably catching sticklebacks and caddis fly larvae.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

I’ve never found a coot nest here, but they were common in the marshes of eastern Washington where I did a lot of fieldwork many decades ago. Male and female coots collaborate in building a floating nest of vegetation and in other aspects of parental care, right through until the chicks are independent. Young coot chicks are, to my eyes, very silly-looking: body covered with dark down, a ruff of orange and red fluff around the neck and base of the bill, setting off a totally bald crown. Coots defend their nesting territory with great vigor, charging at intruders with loud protests and excited splashing. The females have the unusual habit of dumping some of their eggs in the nests of other coots, and so letting somebody else raise part of the brood.

Coots are prey for many predators, including large gulls, owls, and hawks. In some areas, coots are the main prey of bald eagles. Around here, I see them occasionally in Twin Lakes, especially in fall, but then the eagles are generally busy elsewhere, filling up on salmon.


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