Visiting the wetlands

toad ponds, goose foods, and owl pellets

Instead of the more usual approaches via the dike trail or Industrial Boulevard, we went in via the public access off the Mendenhall Peninsula Road–down the slope through the bear-clawed alders, past the deer-nipped skunk cabbages, across a swamp. Under some sprawling roots we found a heap of mallard feathers, where some ground-predator had enjoyed a meal. Off toward the end of the peninsula lie several shallow ponds, where toad tadpoles could be found in summer, but I don’t know if toads still use those ponds.

Finally out on terra firma again, the beach rye was barely beginning to send up green shoots. We could hear Canada geese talking to each other in several portions of the wetland. Where the beach rye thinned out, and especially in patches of some smaller vegetation, there were thousands of shallow divots in the damp soil, along with lots of evidence of goose digestion. We watched a flock of foraging geese for a while, observing that their head motions indicated digging and clipping. Of course, we had to see if we could determine what they’d been grubbing up!

Photo by Katherine Hocker

Near many of the divots we found discarded lumpy rootstocks (if that’s the right word) that often bore a thin green shoot; the tap root was cut off. A few of these green shoots had matured enough that we could discern the shape of the developing leaf, which suggested to us that this favored plant was silverweed. We then sought some intact silverweeds and grubbed them up (my fingernails may never be the same again). Oh yes! It’s silverweed. I tried to pull up some of the taproots and discovered that they are very reluctant to come out of the ground, but the geese can break them off. In the bottoms of the divots we could often see the snapped-off lower part of a tap root, and by looking at the intact plants, we could see that the geese were selectively feeding on the upper part of the taproot, just below the lumpy rootstock.

Our education continued when we consulted Pojar’s book of regional plants. Indigenous people have long used silverweed for food and medicine. In some cultures, the tap root (cooked) was eaten by high-ranking men and the lumpy rootstock was given to commoners. So the high-grading geese knew what they were doing, so to speak, but I have to wonder why they so often rejected the lumpy part. According to other sources, silverweed is also known as goose-wort (even its scientific name indicates association with geese!), because it is a favored food, and we were merely late-learners. A residual question lingered: could the discarded rootstocks take hold and regenerate the plant?

The geese offered us another puzzle too, but this one remains unsolved. Many of the goose feces that were scattered on the ground had a strange look, with lots of short, thin, red bits. So I picked up a few and broke them open. They were full of mashed up green material (no surprise there) and the little red pieces. With the help of a hand lens, we could clearly see that these scats were chockful of moss! The red bits were stems, some still bearing their moss-leaves. Who knew that geese eat moss—and in some quantity!

There were many other treasures to be found by curious naturalists. Feathers of a short-eared owl—taken by an eagle or shot by a human and later scavenged? Feathers of an immature glaucous-winged gull (this took some searching on the internet). Several owl pellets composed of vole bones and fur. Vole tunnels and runways and digging sites, usually deeper than those of geese. Porcupine scat on top of a stump; this is an odd place for porcupines to visit, but we do sometimes see them wandering about in the wetlands. Some of the stray white-to-tan hairs we found could have come from porcupines.

A few days later I returned to this area, this time focusing mostly on the wonderful miniature gardens growing on the old, stranded logs and rootwads. A weather-beaten blueberry shrub, a couple of thriving currant bushes, and a venerable elderberry bush had sent down roots. The diversity of mosses, lichens, fungi, and even slime molds on the old wood was impressive, considering that they are totally exposed to desiccating winds and (sometimes) sun, salt spray, sleet, and pounding rain. I have to wonder how this community of diminutives might differ from that on similar logs and rootwads under the forest canopy; to do this comparison using rigorous science would be very difficult (because of the many different microhabitats on the gnarly rootwads), but a more casual approach could be instructive.

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