Watching young animals

a bear family, ducks at war, a porcupine child, and flocks of young birds

The first part of July gave me some very nice opportunities to observe young critters just learning to make their way in the world.

Above the tram in Bear Valley, we watched a bear family foraging on green herbage. Mama was all business, but the cubs were more interested in playing. The two larger ones wrestled and rolled, boxed and bumped, flattening the vegetation after mama had forged ahead. Cub number three was a little smaller than its siblings but eventually trotted out of the thickets to follow the rest.

The forest at the top of the tram gave us a close-up look at a mixed-species flock of birds. First we saw a nuthatch, then a chickadee and a couple of siskins, and then the trees were full of a family of golden-crowned kinglets, including numerous fledglings. Accompanying this gang were two brown creepers, hitching up the tree trunks and acrobatically working along on the underside of branches. The entire flock foraged in plain sight for at least five minutes. Mixed-species flocks are thought to be advantageous to the participants, especially in keeping multiple eyes on the lookout for predators, but all the fluttering activity may also stir up insect prey.

On my home pond, we’ve had the duck wars. Three female mallards have brought broods of ducklings to forage along the pond margins and rest in the weeds on shore. Three broods, all of different ages, and the female with the oldest ducklings tended to rule the waters. She often chased all the others, sometimes very aggressively. Her ducklings were quite well feathered in mid July, and those of the next oldest brood were just beginning to show real feathers amidst the down. Then calamity struck—I heard a female quacking loudly and persistently, and I looked out to see that her brood had just been reduced from four to three. With the remaining ducklings closely huddled around her, she fussed continually for at least two hours, and I finally went out—to discover a sorry little pile of down under the trees on the far bank. I suspect a goshawk had found its lunch. The female went on fussing for another hour or more before accepting the new reality.

A friend and I were scrambling along the bank of one of the tributaries of Fish Creek one day. As the valley narrowed down to a canyon, we practically stumbled over a female porcupine with her offspring. Mama quickly hid her head under a log, leaving her spiny back bristling in our direction. Baby, on the other hand, fiddled around a few minutes, then clambered over a stick and slowly made its way between two tree roots. There if finally did the right thing (for a porcupine) and wedged its head into the fork between the roots and erected its defensive spines over the only exposed part of its little body. This little guy was a tad slow off the mark: baby porcupines can execute the typical defensive maneuvers almost immediately after birth. And this one had had weeks to practice. We left them in peace, of course.

Another friend and I led a guided hike up Gold Ridge on a nice but rather foggy day. There were some spectacular flower shows, and an assortment of marmots, including a young one just poking its head above the flowers. We also had a treat, in the form of a juvenile golden-crowned sparrow. The juvenile looked nothing like its nearby parent except in general shape; it had no strong black and gold crown stripes, but it did have conspicuous almost-golden spangles all over its back. This observation was special, because we’d never before seen a juvenile so close-up, even though this bird nests up there regularly.

We saw one female sooty grouse, with some wee chicks hidden in the low vegetation, and one rock ptarmigan, which might have been guarding an invisible brood. But both grouse and ptarmigan seem to be much less common on the ridge than they were just a few years ago.

Gray-crowned rosy finch adult. Photo by Bob Armstrong

On top of Gold Ridge, we hoped to find gray-crowned rosy finches that nest in the cliffs up there. And, in between swirls of fog, there they were. Adults were feeding fledglings at the edge of a remnant snow bank. The fog made it difficult to see plumage colors, and all the birds just looked black, but eventually we could discern some pattern and distinguish parent from chick. The juveniles were plump, active, and fully capable of doing their own foraging, but –in the way of all young songbirds—they wanted their parents to deliver.

Where curiosity can lead

a chain of discoveries… and more questions

Remember Kipling’ story about the Elephant Child and how his ‘satiable curiosity kept getting him into trouble with other animals? The Child asked so many questions, of so many different animals, and the impatient adult animals just would spank him. But the Child persisted, eventually asking a crocodile what it had for dinner. Invited to come closer, the Child got his nose grabbed by the crocodile. When the Bicoloured Python Rock Snake helped pull the Child to safety and the crocodile finally let go, the Child’s nose was ‘badly out of shape’! When the Child protested about his new, long nose, the Bicoloured Python Rock Snake told him that ‘some people don’t know what is good for them.’ And that’s how the elephant got its trunk!

For better or for worse, some humans share the Elephant Child’s ‘satiable curiosity. Readers of these essays often ask me where the ideas for the essays come from. Well, there are several sources: sometimes something I’ve read, or something someone observed, or something I’ve dredged up out of my past research. And sometimes the idea starts with a simple observation, that leads to more observations, some literature searching, and eventually there is a chain of curiosity-driven questions and, if I’m lucky, answers. Here is a simple, recent example:

Swans were back in the Mendenhall River by late March. They were feeding in the shallows, pulling up great gobbets of vegetation. Curious about what that vegetation might be, the observer took a sample to a local expert on algae, who opined that it was a filamentous green alga and gave it a name. Having a name allowed us to do a little digging on the internet and in the literature. What would have been most useful would be information on nutritional value, who else eats it, season of availability, and so on. Alas, in this case, we couldn’t find much that was useful for present purposes. So that lead petered out.

However, among the algal filaments were tiny insect larvae that looked like midges. So a local expert on aquatic insects was invited to take a look. On the edges of the ice were hundreds of cast-off ‘skins’ of midge larvae. That told us that some of the midge larvae had been transforming into flying adults and emerged from the water into the air to look for mates.

Searching the surface of the snow, we found a number of crumpled, dead midges. There was no way to tell if they had completed their reproductive mission or died before they could mate. Eventually we spotted a living female, with thin antennae, crawling slowly over the snow. Shortly thereafter, we found a male, with fluffy, plumose antennae full of sense organs for finding females.

Having the adults in hand, it became possible to get more specific identifications. So a photo of an adult midge was sent to a national midge expert. Getting specific IDs of insects very often depends on microscopic examination of tiny body parts and the distribution of minute hairs, so from a photo alone we couldn’t expect to get a species’ name. We did, however, learn the name of the group to which these midges belong, and that allowed us to dig up a little information about them. They are non-biting midges, occurring in many aquatic habitats around the world. The aquatic larvae of most of the species in this group eat decaying leaves that fall into streams or pools. They can be important decomposers of vegetation, thus contributing to nutrients available in the stream. A study on a small rainforest stream in British Columbia found that the midges decomposed alder leaves faster than cedar leaves, and that cedar was decomposed faster when alder leaves were also present.

While wading in the shallows for another alga sample, we noted that the mud was covered with duck footprints, probably made by mallards. The mallards may be been feeding on the alga, but it likely that they were also preying on midges that were struggling out of their larval skins.

Thus, starting with swans, the chain of curiosity-driven inquiry led to algae, thence to midges and their role in stream ecology, and to mallard foraging. And that’s how it goes; one thing leads to another. No doubt the chain could be extended still farther! Sometimes our own ‘satiable curiosity may get us into trouble, like the Elephant’s Child, but most of the time we can have a lot of fun (without getting our noses pulled out of shape!). Sometimes maybe we even know what is good for us…

Wildlife CSI

natural history mysteries

In early November, there were a few late coho in Steep Creek, and a friend saw a pair that seemed to be close to spawning. They hid out under a ledge of ice, in a little pool near some overhanging branches. That was at nine in the morning. At noon, I happened to visit this location, just checking for anything of interest. A big patch of scarlet stained the snow on my side of the stream. Of course, I had to look more closely. Then I found what was left of a salmon: the spine, picked clean, and the skin, turned inside out and covering the tail. I saw no live fish.

All around the bloody remnants were raven tracks, and ravens still perched in nearby trees. Occasionally one would come down and pick minute bits from the bloody snow. But did ravens catch the salmon, themselves? That seemed unlikely, even if they had worked as a team (which they do, sometimes).

Could a mink have been the hunter? There were mink tracks in the snow a few yards away, and some indeterminate, bloodless drag marks on the bank. A full-size coho would seem to be a challenge for a mink that weighs perhaps half as much, but a mink can carry off a chicken, so we can’t rule it out. So, possibly an otter, accounting for the drag marks on the bank, but there were no definitive footprints. An otter could certainly snag a coho from under the ice.

An adult eagle sat, proprietarily or hopefully, in a cottonwood just upstream. No eagle tracks were visible under the carpet of raven tracks, but an eagle could surely grab a coho—and open it up for the ravens to scavenge whatever the eagle left.

Our detective skills were inadequate for the case!

A few days later, on the west side of Mendenhall Lake, Parks and Rec hikers found a matching scarlet stain, but no carcass, on the snow, and a big fish was stirring the nearby waters where a small stream entered the lake. This could have been another would-be spawner that had just lost its partner. A little crowd of eagles watched over the blood-smeared snow, perhaps hoping to nab the remaining fish. And the ravens had been here too, making tracks all over the site..

As we passed the small, wooded almost-island on the west side of the lake, we spotted an ermine (a.k.a. short-tailed weasel), dashing over the ice from the island to the shore. It was just a blur of motion, marked by the black tip of the tail. Its white fur blended superbly with the snowy background.

The white winter coat of the ermine was fine camouflage on the snow. But that lovely fur would be a visual stand-out against the brown leaf litter of the shoreline forest. The ermine’s seasonal change of coat color was out of sync with the existing background in the forest, making it more likely that an owl or other raptor might make a grab for its slender body. The color change is probably regulated mainly by hormonal responses to daylength and perhaps temperature. But there may be an out-of sync transition time in fall, if snow does not come with the shorter days and lower temperatures. And there may be another transition time in spring, as days grow longer and warmer, if brown fur comes in before the snow is gone.

Are ermine whose fur does not provide camouflage in the transition seasons able to choose habitats with more protective cover, to reduce the risk of predation? The evidence is equivocal. There may be some slight compensation for having a prematurely white coat in fall: The winter coat is thicker and provides better insulation, retarding heat loss (and simultaneously slightly reducing incoming heat gain from solar radiation). In spring, however, prematurely brown coats would mean loss of insulation and possible energy costs just to keep the body warm. And besides, it would be possible to change color without changing the thickness of the fur. In short, the problems encountered by coat color changes that are out-of-sync with the color of the background have apparently not yet been resolved by research.

Winter wildlife extravaganza

in Juneau’s Auke Bay

During late November and early December, 2015, Auke Bay harbor put on a wildlife spectacular, drawing photographers, reporters, and just plain gawkers (such as me). Hordes of young-of-the-year herring, mixed with a few capelin and sand lance, milled around the docks and boats. The banquet of small fish also drew many predators, who put on a good show for observers.

Why are there so many young herring in the harbor this year? There are possibly several reasons, suggests Michelle Ridgway (Oceanus Alaska). It may have been a good spawning season in spring. The sunny spring, plus an El Niño, warmed the harbor waters, even at considerable depths, and all the spring run-off from the soggy land brought in nutrients. Those conditions produced a fine bloom of phytoplankton, which led to good body condition and burgeoning populations of zooplankton. For example, Ridgway has noticed extended reproduction of little shrimp-like crustaceans called mysids, extra-large fat globules in copepods, an abundance of amphipods not far from the surface, and an unusual influx of ‘sea butterflies’ (molluscs that fly through the water). That made excellent foraging for baby herring. In addition, young herring may seek protection from the massive maws of humpback whales by moving into shallower bays and harbors, with docks and boats, where the whales are less likely to forage intensively.

Herring and other so-called forage fishes often form densely packed balls, especially when predators are lurking about. When a predator dives through the ball of fish, the survivors scatter in all directions, but not far and only briefly, before returning to the tight cluster. Researches have called this behavior ‘the geometry of the selfish herd’: each fish trying to put as many other little fish as possible between itself and predators. The result is a tight ball of nervous, jittery fish.

The baby herring in the harbor had every reason to be jittery. The millions of small fish were being attacked on all sides by throngs of predators. They may have eluded most of the whales in the confines of the harbor, but other predators took advantage of the great aggregation.

A gang of Steller’s sea lions cruised rapidly back and forth, diving continually, probably after pollock that were gorging on the herring. The pollock drove the little fish toward the surface. The sea gulls knew this, of course, and hung about, just waiting for the fleeing fish to get close to the surface where the gulls could nab them. Indeed, the fish were caught ‘between the devil and the deep’ (the gulls and the aquatic predators respectively).

Several harbor seals were there, some with well-grown pups. They did their share of fish-driving too, but usually not near the sea lions. I watched one seal surface-swimming slowly along, on its back, in a most relaxed fashion. It may have been looking down into the depths, for eventually its head went down, followed by the plump body, into a mob of fish.

Scattered Pacific loons and little clusters of common mergansers foraged away from the biggest crowds of predators. Marbled murrelets in snazzy winter plumage could be observed at close range; they were much less skittish than in the breeding season.

The most amazing sight was the huge flock of common murres—many hundreds of them. They rafted up just beyond the last float and split off occasional smaller bunches that moved in among the inner floats. They, and everybody else except the gulls, avoided the sea lions that charged to and fro. I had never seen so many murres before, except at the St Lazaria nesting colony on the outer coast. The murres talked to each other constantly, except when they were diving.

Photo by Jos Bakker

That huge concentration of murres was arguably the most unusual happening in the harbor. All the other predators visit the area rather regularly to feast on small fish that spend the winter there. Although murres nest on the outer coast, they tend to move closer to shore in winter, congregating where prey is abundant. But we don’t customarily see the murres in such numbers in Auke Bay harbor. Furthermore, over near Glacier Bay, good observers reported uncountably huge numbers of murres moving about.

The throngs of murres may be a sign of bad news, however, according to John Moran (NOAA). A mysterious oceanic anomaly in the Gulf of Alaska called the Warm Blob (because water temperatures are as much as five degrees (F) above average) created nutrient-poor conditions that greatly reduced productivity and thus decreased the abundance of fishes that feed on plankton, or at least caused them to move to deeper waters where diving birds can’t get them. The Blob developed in 2013 and its effects have contributed to reduced nesting success and great mortality of some marine birds in the Gulf. The poor food supply may have been one factor that drove the murres we’ve seen in Auke Bay out of their usual foraging areas in search of better feeding conditions.

All those baby herring in the harbor seem to offer a ready banquet but, in fact, those little fellows have very little fat because they put their energy into growing as fast as they can. On a gram-for-gram basis, they are much less rewarding than capelin or adult herring, for example, and even less than krill, according to data of Moran and colleagues. So a murre or any other predator would need a lot of them in order to survive—and that’s certainly what was available in the harbor.

Humpback whales were reported to pass by the harbor upon occasion, but there are other spots where they might find better foraging. Seymour Canal is a good place for foraging on krill, for example, and adult herring (far more nutritious than the young ones) from all over Lynn Canal winter in deep, dense schools northward of Tee Harbor. When a whale dives deep through such a school of herring, some of the fish try to escape up shallower water, but there the sea lions can get them. Sea lions themselves may attract the attention of transient killer whales; a few years ago, Moran watched killer whales take down five sea lions (plus two probable kills) in five days. But in Auke Bay harbor, the foraging sea lions were quite safe from the killers.

Eagles were notably scarce in Auke Bay harbor during this extravaganza, although they are known to feed on murres (we saw the evidence in Berners Bay one spring). Perhaps the eagles sought out the adult herring to the north.

A little squad of goldeneye ducks quietly kept to themselves along a rocky shore of the harbor. Seemingly uninterested in the shimmering mass of herring, they may have been looking for molluscs.

Thanks to John Moran of the NOAA lab and Michelle Ridgway of Oceanus Alaska for extensive discussion, not all of which could be packed into this essay.

Wanderings in early November

a lucky porcupine, a seed pod investigation, earthworks, and some notes from the field

Before I even left the house, I saw that a porcupine had trundled over the ice on my pond. Back and forth couple of times, and then—oops!—the ice near shore apparently gave way. Lots of scrabbling marks around the edges of the collapsed ice indicated that the critter had saved itself and wandered on.

A little expedition to collect seed pods for a class project showed that seed pods of wild iris and chocolate lily were abundant and full of seeds. Pollination had been very successful, no doubt thanks mostly to the fine summer just past.

We collected a few blue-gray seed capsules of starflower, in order to make a closer inspection. A look at the exterior of each capsule revealed a very pretty pattern of roughly hexagonal shapes, each one enclosing a finely reticulated surface. Each capsule is about the shape and size of a BB, so dissection required a steady hand and good light. When we (that’s the editorial ‘we’; my friend did the work) opened the capsules, we could see that the seeds lining the capsule bore the reticulations that showed through to the exterior, and the center of the capsule was composed of a jelly-like material. We were left with questions, of course, about how the capsule normally opens and how the seeds are dispersed.

Several hiking friends noticed that shrubs such as willow, blueberry, and salmonberry bore leaf buds. Of course they do, in preparation for spring. But the surprising –and possibly worrisome—thing was that some of the buds had become fairly large and plump, as if they might open prematurely. A few nice, warm days (and we did have some) in late fall might send a mistimed signal to the plants. We can hope that these buds didn’t develop so far that the ensuing low temperatures would wreck them.

Shallow digs by bears had left big clumps of uneaten chocolate lily root nodules on the surface of the ground in the meadows. As always, we had to wonder why bears seem to leave these edible parts behind. A bear, or something else of good size, had dug deep between the roots of a big spruce tree. This exposed part of a red squirrel’s cache of cones. But what other animal would want the squirrel’s cones? Or could the digger have been after the squirrel itself (probably in vain)?

Other sightings:

–Somewhere out the road, we found a carnivore (coyote?) scat full of soft, silky fur, perhaps of a hare.

–Relatively recent tracks of a small bear pressed into the mud on the west side of Mendenhall Lake. This was rather late in the season, but one was seen about that time near the Back Loop. Other tracks had been left by an eagle, a heron, and a magpie.

— The grasses on the wetlands on the west side of the Mendenhall River hid numerous vole tunnels punctuated by special latrine chambers. These little animals seem to be very tidy.

— Out on the wetlands, we also saw a young northern shrike and a rusty blackbird, both uncommon around here, but seen occasionally in winter. The shrike was perched, in typical fashion, on the tip-top of a small alder, possibly hoping to spot a careless vole.

–Going up the snowy Dan Moller trail, with the snow still falling, I noted a cranefly resting in mid-trail, and moved it aside. There were many tiny insects (probably stoneflies) crawling about and making short flights, presumably in search of mates. An interesting time of year for that activity.

Willows, midges, and moose

connections between tiny insects and big herbivores

The many species of willow are subject to chewing, nibbling, gnawing, and poking by a huge variety of consumers. Here are just of few of the complex interactions.

Most of us here have seen the ‘willow roses’ or rosettes that develop on the twigs or shoots of certain species of willows. The rosettes are galls, induced when a certain tiny fly called a midge lays eggs on the tip of the shoot. The normal elongation of the shoot is suppressed but leaves continue to develop and become crowded together, forming the rosette. The midge’s larva develops inside the rosette, feeding on the bases of the innermost leaves. The larva pupates inside the rosette gall, and the adult emerges the following spring, in time to lay eggs before leaves develop.

The rosette is formed of more leaves than would occur on normal shoots, perhaps forming a wall of defense against enemies of the midge larva (such as parasitoid wasps that would lay eggs on the larva). The inner portions of the rosette also have less photosynthetic capacity and more defensive compounds than the outer portions, which may deter parasitoids and pathogens. The midge larva is presumably is physiologically capable of dealing with the defensive compounds. However, I’ve not found out how well these deterrents work against such enemies. I’ve read that European titmice know how to open the rosettes to gobble up the larva; so of course I now wonder if our chickadees can do the same.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Female midges are quite choosy about where to lay their eggs. Only some species of willow are susceptible to attack by this gall-forming midge; Barclay and Sitka willow are among them here. Experiments in other regions have shown that individual plants of the same species differ genetically in their susceptibility to these gall midges. And I have observed that rosette galls seem to be more common on shoots that are not shaded.

The rosette-bearing, stunted shoots cannot produce catkins, so the reproductive capacity of the willow plant is reduced in proportion to the number of rosettes. Eventually, the rosette kills the shoot, without apparently affecting neighboring twigs. The rosette, however, offers winter protection for spiders and beetles that shelter among the crowded leaves.

Willows are often heavily browsed by snowshoe hares, moose, and reindeer, and this activity can affect the abundance of various kinds of galling insects on the plant. Several studies have shown that some galls can be more abundant on heavily browsed stems. Unfortunately, I have found no such information for the rosette-forming midge specifically.

However, there is evidence for the reciprocal interaction: moose browsing is affected by the presence of rosette galls. Experiments with captive moose in British Columbia showed that moose clearly preferred to eat willow shoots that bore no rosettes. Although they sometimes bit a shoot with a gall, they soon spit out the rosette.

In the absence of rosette galls, browsing by mammalian herbivores, such as moose and hares, can have significant effects on willow growth and reproduction (by removing stems that would bear catkins). Some studies have shown that severe browsing, which leaves little more than a stump, leads to the production of so-called juvenile shoots and leaves. These often have a somewhat different shape from normal leaves and commonly have more defensive compounds, which reduce palatability and nutritional value; this protects the new shoot from further browsing, at least for a year or two. Moose and hares tend to avoid browsing twigs with lots of those defensive compounds.

However, moderate browsing may have very different effects: One study showed that winter browsing by hares on feltleaf willow twigs led to bigger, more nutritious leaves the following spring. In other cases, moderate browsing has elicited compensatory growth of the willow, but this is not feasible in habitats with low nutrient availability and poor growing conditions. The bottom line here is that the interaction between herbivorous mammals and willows varies a lot, depending on severity of browsing, growing conditions, the species of willow, and no doubt many other factors.

It is clear, at least, that herbivores selectively forage on different species of willow; even within a single species of willow, some plants are more palatable than others. Some such differences are genetic, while others have to do with growing conditions, such as the amount of shade. In either case, selective removal of favored kinds of leaves and twigs makes them unavailable for decomposers below the plants. Heavy browsing obviously reduces the amount of litter fall and can change the availability of soil nutrients that result from decomposition. So moose browsing can affect the soils, leading to changes in plant species composition and, potentially, the course of early plant succession below the browsed shrubs.

Strolling on the Treadwell Ditch Trail

a trail report, fungal diversity, and fall colors

One fine day in early October, three friends set out to walk the Treadwell Ditch from the Dan Moller trail to Paris Creek. On our way up from the parking lot off Pioneer Avenue, we noted major timber cutting not far above the trail; trees had fallen over the trail earlier but had been trimmed back. The lower part of the Dan Moller trail, up to the Ditch, winds through some pretty, little meadows, but the boardwalk is in serious need of repair: there are many broken boards and popped-up nail heads. A big, sad contrast with the Dan Moller trail above the Ditch to the cabin, where the trail is in pretty good condition.

The Treadwell Ditch trail south of the Dan Moller has received a huge amount of recent work and is now in good shape, as far as Paris Creek. In addition to the big bridge over Lawson Creek, there are many new, smaller bridges that save hikers and bikers and skiers from scrambling in and out of eroded gullies. One especially nasty gully is now circumvented by a re-routed trail with steps that may be tricky for skiers and snowshoe-ers in winter. A few muddy spots remain to be ‘hardened’ by the deposition of gravel, but we strolled by a lone volunteer who was in the process of doing just that. Thanks to Trail Mix for all the good work!

We’ve been told that a bridge over Paris Creek has been planned and funded, so eventually Treadwell Ditch walkers can readily join up with the Mt Jumbo trail to the south. That will avoid the risky, slippery-log walking now required for the creek crossing and the extremely muddy informal trail that parallels the creek down to the lower end of the Jumbo trail. We did none of those things, but back-tracked to the CBJ trail down to Crow Hill.

So much for the trail report (in brief). Now for the fun stuff.

Fall is a good time for fungi of many sorts, and this trip was no exception. We were particularly pleased with the numerous delicate white ones known as angel wings. These dainty fungi grow on conifer logs and stumps, especially on hemlock. Although it is often said to be edible, it is reportedly toxic and potentially lethal for some people. Another interesting one was a small, translucent jelly fungus growing out of the softer growth rings on top of a stump.

Angel wing fungus. Photo by David Bergeson

The muskegs were awash with colors, a real treat for the eyes. The sedges provided a backdrop of lustrous golden orange. Bunchberry leaves showed off every possible shade of red. Avens leaves were deep red and high-bush cranberry leaves ranged from pink to red. Low-bush blueberry leaves gave us muted maroons and purples, and deer cabbage added some yellow and orange. We don’t have the blazingly colorful tree canopies of the boreal aspen forests or of the eastern forests with their maples and ashes, but if you look lower and think smaller, we sure do have spectacular fall colors!

In the forest, the devil’s club leaves had mostly turned yellow, brightening up the somber tones of the conifers. They were so conspicuous, I paid them more attention than I had earlier in the summer. If you look carefully at these leaves, you can observe that they are usually spaced out laterally so that they don’t shade each other. When one leaf does occur above another, there is usually quite a good vertical distance between them. That way the lower leaf still gets some light. It turns out that the bigger the leaves, the more vertical distance must separate them in order that they don’t shade each other too much, so the big leaves of devil’s club will be more widely separated than the small leaves of willows or blueberry bushes. In fact, this intuitive principle has been quantified and formalized mathematically, for the benefit of those who like such things.

Switzer headwaters

ice formations, a smattering of tracks, a goshawk encounter, and a secretive snipe

At the eastern reach of the Switzer Loop Trail, there is an old logging road that goes straight up the hill to end near a long-abandoned beaver pond. On a recent exploratory prowl there, I was accompanied by a two-footed friend and a four-footed friend—although it might be more accurate to say that I accompanied these two quicker and more agile hikers.

The first observation of interest (for the two-footed hikers, at least) was a set of raven tracks in soft snow, zigzagging from one side of the trail to the other. At each point of the zigzag, the raven had probed into the snow with its bill, leaving a smudge of blood. What could be the story behind this record in the snow? Our speculations lasted until we reached the end of the road, where a set of mousy tracks wandered about and a weasel had meandered in and out of burrows and stumps.

The road runs through an old clearcut, several decades old (probably cut in the 1950s). Sometimes known as the Dismal Woods, this second-growth stand is indeed rather dismal. The dense canopy of young trees cuts out so much sunlight that few plants (except mosses and lichens) can grow in the understory. The forest floor is littered with rejected branches and abandoned logs. Remarkably, red squirrels traveled here often enough to leave a few well-used little trails and a porcupine had passed through.

The old beaver pond is filled with grasses and sedges. The ice-free little rivulets entering and leaving the pond were flowing well (at a time when most other streams in Juneau were frozen over), so the pond ice was feeble and offered treacherous footing. We never knew when we’d punch through the flimsy ice or humps of bent grass; after a few stumbles and lurches, we elected to go around the pond. It was reminiscent of hiking on the wet tundra Up North—which I hope never to do again.

A fine grove of red alders grows between the pond and the hill-slope behind. Where a tree had been uprooted by the wind, we saw an astounding array of needle-ice; many of the thin strands were perhaps twenty inches long. I think this formation occurs when water is forced up out of the freezing soil, and it is pretty common around here, but I’d never seen such long strands. A few big alders showed signs of long-ago bear claws. And here we found an enormous stump whose top made the entrance to the burrow of a red squirrel.

Just beyond the needle-ice, we inadvertently flushed a goshawk, which took off at high speed from behind a log pile. Closer inspection of the site revealed no signs of a goshawk lunch – no feathers or fur or blood, so perhaps it had missed its prey or was just resting.

Working our way along the upper edge of the Dismal Woods, we crossed and re-crossed the rivulets that feed the old beaver pond. At least one of them pops right out of the hillside with no sign of the origin of the water, so we guessed that the water flows down the side-slope under the soil until it reaches the little gully that holds the stream.

The clear little streams were floored with layers of dead alder leaves, which undoubtedly harbor some interesting invertebrates. A foraging snipe certainly hoped so–it was probing in the leaf packs and mud with its long bill. This one had left many lines of footprints with three forward toes and no back toe (like many shorebirds but very unlike most of our forest birds) as it walked in and out the stream, around log jams, and down to where the stream entered the old pond. It’s always a surprise to me to find a wintering snipe in the forest, because I think of them as living in marshes and wet meadows, where they often nest.

Snipes commonly eat many kinds of invertebrates: insects, worms, snails; their digestive tracts also contain seeds and vegetation, but it is reportedly not certain how much nutrition they obtain from plant material. Snipes forage by probing with their long bill; sometimes they put their entire head underwater. They can swallow small items while the bill is still in the mud, probably by using the tongue to push them back along the backward-oriented serrations inside the bill. The bill is very flexible, and snipes can open the tip without moving the base. There are sensory pits near the tip of the bill that help them find buried prey.

On the ice in one corner of the pond, we found tracks of a hopping bird (with four toes). Judging from the size of the foot and a tail mark, we guessed that a Steller’s jay had searched the edge of the pond.

After bush-whacking over to what looks like another abandoned beaver pond, my companions pranced (and I bumbled) over the piles of discarded branches through the Dismal Woods back to the road and the car. A very successful prowl!

Thanksgiving Week strolls

mallard perambulations, mustelid meanders, and enchanting ice

We had deep cold, then big snows, and then huge rain, and now the gray, foggy, misty rains seem to have settled in. But it’s no fun just staying home, so out we went, on a couple of leisurely strolls.

The home pond offered some interest, even before I left the house. Two mallard drakes had ventured up the creek to the frozen pond, where they scarfed up spilled bird seed. Their perambulations over the ice left muddy trails to and from the lower end of the pond. Red squirrels had made several visits to the spilled seed, leaving a fan of trails in several directions. And –oh,oh!—mama bear and two cubbies came by. The cubs romped over the ice, wrestling and chasing, while mom checked out the out-of-reach hanging feeders. I’m told that this family has been roaming our part of the Valley lately, well past the time they should be in bed.

An easy walk along Montana Creek began by discovering the new gate across the road, near the rifle range. The issue of placing this gate was discussed at least two years ago, and I had despaired of it ever happening. But here it was. Hallelujah! The gate will at least help the serious problem of dumping trash along the road; whole truckloads of junk used to be off-loaded on the roadside by irresponsible citizens. A nice set of ski tracks clung to one side of the road, and the several skiers made the skiing look good.

Near the bridge, a mink had come along the bank of the creek, then up and over the approach to the bridge, and back down to creek-side, apparently unwilling to get wet by going under the bridge. A weasel had meandered all over the place, looking in nooks and crannies for something to feed its voracious appetite. We finally spotted a dipper, busily nabbing small insects around the boulders in the creek.

Across the creek, we saw a long groove in the snow, way too loopy and curvy to be a simple crack in the shore-fast ice. It led from under a log, around a boulder, and finally over the ice edge to the gravel. The groove was too wide to have been made by a shrew, so presumably a mouse or a vole. Another traveler on the road had left baby-sized footprints with long claw marks: a small porcupine taking advantage of the shallower snow in the ruts between the deep stuff. It had really hustled along, with a stride length much greater than the more common shuffle we often see.

The next day, Parks and Rec walked the East Glacier Trail in mist and fog. There might as well have been no glacier, because the entire upper part of the lake was obscured by fog. We could just discern a dark, fuzzy shape across the way, where the rock peninsula is. A pavement of ice fragments marked the foot of Nugget Falls. The snow was sufficiently soft that walking was quite easy, and we were glad that the footprints of previous walkers had not frozen into lumps and bumps that make walking miserable.

Perhaps the biggest attraction along the trail was the ice, draped over boulders. Water still ran in thin sheets over the surface of the boulders, creating a lacework of frozen crystals that grew up from the ground into even finer filigree. Where ice had formed over bumps in the rock, the surface was decorated by beautiful, very fine traceries, creating what I would call vermiculations and reticulations. Of course, there were lots of icicles, of all sizes and shapes. There were all the usual spears of ice, but I was particularly enchanted by some of the complex joinings and separations among adjacent ice-spears, creating little networks of related icicles. (I would, in other circles, call these ‘anastomoses’; there’s another new word for some of you!).

There were signs that red squirrels or maybe some crossbills had been active, leaving scatterings of alder cone scales on the snow. Porcupines had waddled through deep snow, leaving characteristic trenches. The most fun was discovering a very young porcupine near the visitor center. It was intent upon eating grass and was not the least disturbed by the presence of several fascinated observers. This little guy was much smaller than expected for this time of year; it was about the size of those we had watched and followed last summer, four months ago. Good luck, small one!

The crossover

above the snow and under the sky

The day was overcast and gray when we started up the Spaulding Meadows trail, but by the time we passed the junction where the Auke Nu trail splits off, the sky was clear and a welcome sun appeared. The trail was in fine shape: nice, hard-packed snow, with only a few spots where deep post-holes made for uneven walking. We put on snowshoes and skis in Second Meadow.

Spaulding Meadows were splendid, as always. A clear view for three hundred and sixty degrees revealed shining peaks and gleaming waters, set off by dark conifers. Sad to say, some snowmobile tracks marred the surface in places, providing evidence that there always seem to be a few riders who don’t respect the boundary that is supposed to leave half of the great meadow for folks who let their legs do the work.

Wind had crusted the snow a bit in some places, but there was a thin layer of loose snow on top of the crust. This was perfect for good tracking. Animal tracks registered clearly, at least on parts of their little trails, so we could identify most of them. Mice had left tiny, paired prints in lines emerging from under bent-over conifers. A marten had looped its way across open spaces, mostly breaking through the thin crust but, luckily, occasionally leaving clear five-toed prints on the surface. A weasel (probably) had left small prints and long body marks as it leaped through some softer snow. Ptarmigan had been very active in one area, leaving footprints in a two-footed walking pattern and occasional wing marks at take-off points. A red squirrel had ventured out for a short scamper and a raven touched down briefly, leaving long wing tracings. And some small songbird had hopped along by some blueberry bushes.

After floundering around for a little while, and fortifying ourselves with shared chocolate, we found the start of the crossover to the John Muir cabin. I hadn’t done this route for a while, but parts of it began to look familiar. Lunch at the cabin, sitting in the sun, sharing more chocolate—does it get better than this??

Presently, two friendly acquaintances came along, with two Cairn terriers (still energetic after that long uphill walk on those short legs) and a black lab, all of whom had their own lunches. But when my attention was focused elsewhere, that black lab very neatly and quickly filched one of my petit écolier cookies that I’d stashed alongside me. Her person told me she gets half an oreo cookie every day, so I guess she thought she’d have a little dessert at lunch too. And goodness knows, I didn’t really need it!

Just before reaching the cabin, two of us stopped to watch some crossbills. One female sat in the top of a scraggy mountain hemlock, looking golden in the slanted sunlight. Two others clambered around in a dead hemlock, gleaning small items from the seemingly barren branches. We’d heard crossbills, both white-winged and red, all day, but these were the first we saw. We thought ourselves lucky, because it is not often one gets to see these birds at such close range.