July Fun

a ridgetop celebration, an orchid search, and a visit from a black bear

Two Parks and Rec hiking friends share a landmark birthday this year and decided to celebrate with a summertime party on Juneau Ridge. Some of the hikers have better legs than others, and they walked up the steep trail, while those with legs that have seen better days took the easy way up, thanks to Temsco and Coastal helicopters. On a beautiful day in July, the party gathered at the top of the trail and celebrated with lots of cookies, cake, smoked salmon, fruit, and chocolate.

We milled around, chatting and eating and enjoying the brilliant sunshine and long-distance views up and down the channel. The area at the top of the trail gets a lot of traffic because it provides several suitable spots for helicopter landings, as well as a resting place for up-coming hikers. So the end of the ridge is heavily trampled. Nevertheless, in between the rocks and rubble and tramplings, my casual survey found thirteen kinds of wildflowers in bloom. Admittedly, they were not tall or lush on this storm-ravaged and sun-parched ridge-top; they were small–but sturdy and tenacious. I particularly remember one little monkshood plant standing all of four inches tall, bearing a single perfect flower of intense purple.

Looking down from the ridge, we could see several lovely, clear ponds on the sides of the hill. I don’t know what invertebrates might live in those ponds, but two shorebirds that came to visit did not stay long…

Party over, some hikers trekked along the ridge to Granite Basin, thence to the Perseverance trail, some went down the steep side of the mountain to the trailhead, and still others floated down in the friendly helicopters.

The next day, I ventured partway up Ben Stewart on a miserable trail that is nothing but mud, rocks, and roots. Parks and Rec hikers were headed for the top, but my goal was just the beautiful valley to the north of the peaks. There was lots of cotton ‘grass’ (really a sedge), some butterworts (one of our insectivorous plants), and leatherleaf saxifrage in the meadow, bordered by stands of copperbush and small conifers. A little creek meanders across the valley floor. On other visits in previous years, the creek had attracted dippers and hermit thrushes. This time, two shorebirds sailed in, poked around a bit, and took off—rising higher and higher until disappearing over the treetops. A fuzzy photo enabled one of our local ace birders to say that these were solitary sandpipers.

A couple of days before the big party, a little group of friends strolled up Gold Ridge from the tram. Among other things, we were looking for frog orchids, which had been easily found the previous week. But this time, we found only one in bloom. Some taxonomist presumably thought that the flower looked a bit like a frog, although that takes considerable imagination. I would love to know who pollinates these small green flowers (it’s not frogs!).

On the way down from the crest of the ridge, we spotted a ptarmigan family with chicks, so we all stopped to watch. The whole family—papa, mama, and about eight chicks—puttered along down the trail nipping at bugs(?) on the vegetation. After a few minutes, the male and some of the chicks scuttled off to one side and down a bit, and we heard him ‘growl’ a few times. Meanwhile, mama and the rest of the brood leisurely took the next switchback for several yards before finally stepping off and down, presumably to bring the family back together again.

These were willow ptarmigan, the only grouse-like bird in North America in which fathers get involved with parental care. I have to wonder how it happened that only this one species evolved this behavior! This male had molted out of his reddish upper-body plumage and only traces of red remained; otherwise he was in good camouflage plumage.

Earlier in July, I walked with a friend along the bluff trail on the west side of Douglas. We spotted a young red-breasted sapsucker just over the edge of the bluff, tapping on a tree. Creeping closer to get a better look, we could see it was making sap wells in the bark of an alder. Not a very orderly array of wells, but perhaps that happens with more practice. (That’s how this woodpecker got its name, of course; it makes holes in the bark and the sap oozes out, so the sapsucker can lick it up with its brushy tongue.) I also spotted a brown creeper, hitching its way up a tree trunk, but it flitted to another tree and totally disappeared—something that brown creepers do very well..

Back at home, I had a little excitement too. I chanced to look out a downstairs window and saw a large black back trotting along under the deck. A juvenile black bear, probably recently kicked out by its mother, was prowling the neighborhood. This one stood up to sniff the bird feeders that are hung well out of reach and, tried twice to climb the corner of the house to reach the deck (a noisy process). Then it came to the window in front of my computer and left messy paw prints all over the glass as it peered in at me.

From there, it went down to the pond and scared the brood of mallards that was foraging there, crossed the creek below the pond, and headed for the campground. What fun!

Rambles in Gustavus

blossoms and birds, tadpoles and otters and a leguminous puzzle

I recently spent a couple of days roaming the trails in Gustavus, along with three other curious naturalists. Gustavus lies on the outwash plain created when the melting glacier of Glacier Bay poured its silty, gravelly meltwaters through Cooper’s Notch. Post-glacial rising of the land made the sandy plain more expansive. Now Gustavus offers a different array of habitats than are found in the nearby spruce-hemlock forest at Bartlett Cove or in Juneau. I love to visit Gustavus to visit friends but also because I enjoy the variety that’s just a nice ferry ride away.

One of our excursions took us on the Nagoonberry Trail, which passes through meadows, shrublands, and young spruce groves. Just for fun, we counted the number of wildflowers that we found in bloom. There were at least forty-seven species, exclusive of grasses and sedges. For comparison, a similar recent count in the lower subalpine zone on Gold Ridge turned up over fifty species—and there would have been more if we’d gone to the top of the ridge. A few years ago, we found over seventy flowering wildflowers in Cowee Meadows. I think that’s quite impressive. We don’t have to go to the tropics to find good diversity.

For some reason, lady-slipper orchids of several species are found in Gustavus, although I’ve never seen one in Juneau. A favorite one is the sparrow’s-egg orchid, with its very small ‘slipper’; it is also reported to be common in the Yukon. This species self-pollinates, and we found a robust specimen in which every flower had produced a fat seed pod. Nearby, there were three other kinds of orchids in bloom. I don’t recall any place in Juneau where I’ve seen four kinds of orchids growing within a few feet of each other.

We were entertained by bird families wherever we went. Lots of little ‘chip’ notes or thin ‘seet’ notes drew our attention to fluttering wings in the vegetation, which turned out to be little groups of juveniles with their parents—ruby-crowned kinglets, juncos, savanna sparrows, and chickadees. Young barn swallows were on the wing too. Lincoln’s sparrows were singing frequently, perhaps thinking about second broods. Sadly, we found two dead, well-grown juvenile hermit thrushes, in two different locations and so presumably not of the same family. They were very thin, and we wondered if the recent dry conditions had made it hard for them to find their own food.

We made a now-traditional visit to the gravel pits to look for toad tadpoles (aka pollywogs). Thousands of them were tightly clustered in the shallows at the bottom of a pool. At this time, only a few had started to grow hind legs; most of them were still just tadpoles. Presumably most of the remainder (if they survive lurking predators) will metamorphose and disperse as tiny toadlets later in the summer. I was curious about the derivation of their names. An internet source claims that both names come from Middle English: the first means ‘toad-head’ and the second one means ‘head-wiggle’.

One morning we were gifted with a boat exploration of the lower part of Glacier Bay. Around the long, low moraine at Point Carolus there were humpbacks breaching and kittiwakes foraging. Little flocks of red-necked phalaropes flitted about. Phalaropes are unusual because in these species it is the males who do the parental care and the females who are more colorful and aggressive; sometimes a female has two males on her territory, rearing their chicks. On the way back into Bartlett Cove we paralleled a roving pod of transient killer whales. Even the tourists ashore in the cove could watch these whales, but they probably could not observe that a sea otter speedily departed in the opposite direction from that of the killer whales.

Everywhere we looked in the lower bay there were sea otters, foraging and loafing. Our boat captain reported that on trips up-Bay, sea otters were observed hauled out on icebergs and reefs, a behavior seldom reported (in my hearing or reading, at least). This observation reminded me of the historical accounts of the emergency camp of the St Peter’s crew on Bering Island during the winter of 1741-1742, when Captain Bering died and Georg Steller discovered the now-extinct sea cow. The stranded, sickly crew unwittingly wiped out an entire species of flightless cormorant, as well as uncounted numbers of foxes, ptarmigan, and other animals. They slaughtered many hundreds of sea otters, partly for the furs (to gamble with, while passing the time!) and partly to eat. Great numbers of sea otters were hauled out on beaches, where they had never experienced any predators, and were (at first) ignorant of predatory humans, making them easy to slaughter. It seems that sea otters are more inclined to use terrestrial (or icy) haulouts in times and places where they are not harassed or persecuted.

We interrupted the boat ride with a short beach walk on the west side of Glacier Bay. Here we found that others had walked the beach before us, leaving evidence of their passing. Big moose tracks, indistinct prints of canids (wolf or coyote), and very impressive tracks of a big brown bear (at least eight inches wide), along with some prints of a quite small bear. That made us extra-alert.

On many of our Gustavian rambles we saw the purple and pink flowers of beach pea. Or so I thought. A more knowledgeable naturalist said No, not all of those are beach pea. Some have smaller, paler flowers and tend to be less sprawling than ordinary beach pea. So then we began to look more closely and, indeed, there were two different kinds of pea (closely related, in the same genus). The vibrantly colored beach pea has angular stems with no flanges (or ‘wings’), while the paler, smaller-flowered one has stems with wings. That one is called ‘wild pea’ in one field guide but is not even mentioned in another. So now I must revisit some of the Juneau beaches to see if wild pea grows here too.

Altogether, a highly satisfactory Gustavian visit in the company of fine companions.

Excursion to Kluane Park

observations on the dry side of the Coast Range

Past an intensive construction zone, where the Chilkat River had begun to threaten the highway, up over the Three Guardsmen pass, and there it begins—those splendid, wide, sweeping vistas of broad valleys, flanked by sharp-peaked mountains to the west. Trumpeter swans raise their cygnets in the ponds and marshes alongside the road. Long stretches of the highway are lined with bright purple flowers; without a specimen in my hand now, I cannot say which of two species it might be (Confusingly, both are sometimes called sweet-vetch, but only the one that is also called bear root or Indian potato is nonpoisonous and edible).

It’s late June and, with a few friends, I’m bound for a few days of exploring some of the trails in the southern part of Kluane Park. This trip also requires important visits to the bakery in Haines and especially the one in Haines Junction (offering first-class nanaimo bars!). A new and elegant visitor center in Haines Junction houses many fine exhibits of First-Nation crafts and natural history.

As we came down the north side of the pass, we saw a number of Arctic ground squirrels beside the road. They are familiarly–but inaccurately–often called ‘gophers’, but they are quite different from true gophers. Arctic ground squirrels here are near the southernmost part of their broad geographic range (all across Canada and eastern Siberia). They have a very long hibernation period, going to bed in late summer and early fall, not coming out again until spring. Females survive this time on stored body fat, but males make a cache of seeds in their winter burrows. They feed on this cache for a couple of weeks before they emerge in the spring, regaining the weight lost during the long winter fast. The food stash allows them to be ready and waiting for the females, which emerge from their winter burrows somewhat later than the males. Each male has a territory, defended vigorously against other males; a territory encompasses the burrows of several females, but a female is only receptive to mating for about four hours, so the males have to be ready. A territorial male usually sires about ninety percent of the ensuing pups born to the females on his territory, but a few are sired by extracurricular activity.

Descending farther, we entered the forested zone, where some of the conifer stands show signs of the spruce bark beetle infestation that has been in the news. Huge areas are covered with quaking aspen trees, famed (and named) for their trembling leaves that catch the sunlight. (Unlike the leaves of most trees, these have flat, not round, petioles, which let them flutter more). Many of these aspen stands had an understory of blue lupines and bluebells that contrasted beautifully with the pale tree trunks, emphasized by the sunlight that filtered through the canopy of dancing leaves.

As we walked through some of these aspen stands, we noted that some of the leaves looked, not green, but silvery. Looking more closely, we saw that leaf miners had been at work, leaving closely packed, sinuous trails where the tiny larval insect had eaten away the epidermis, leaving a swath of white on either side of its path and a black line of frass (excrement) down the middle. The aspen leaf miner is a moth; an adult female lays an egg in a rolled-up leaf edge and the larva chews its way around the surface of the leaf before pupating in its mine. An emerging adult moth overwinters under bark and other such crevices.

Sometimes huge populations of this leaf miner build up, turning whole aspen stands to silver. The middle layers of leaf cells, where photosynthesis (forming carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water) takes place, is undisturbed, because the moth larvae eat only the epidermis of the leaves. A study in Alaska found that mines on the upper surface of the leaf do not greatly interfere with photosynthesis and so do little harm to the tree, but mines on the undersurface prevent the stomates (small openings) from regulating the passage of water vapor, and that in turn interferes with photosynthesis and so can affect the health of the tree. Trees with lots of mines, especially on the leaf undersurfaces, do not grow as well as others.

A little plant often known as bastard toadflax was extremely common in the forest understory. This is a hemiparasite: it has green leaves and can photosynthesize carbohydrates but it also gets some of its nutrition from other plants of many species, including spruce, aspen, rose, aster, and so on. It occurs in Juneau too, but here it is far less common. I wonder why!

In the sandy soils along several trails, we saw a number of fairly large ant hills, two or three feet across, with several entrances—something we don’t see in Juneau. In some other North American forests, certain ants are important seed dispersers for particular species; these seeds typically have attractive attachments that draw in the ants, which collect the seeds and eat the attractive bit, dropping the seed somewhere away from the seed’s parent. Seeing those anthills made me wonder if this ecological interaction might occur here too.

We came upon a ruffed grouse on the trail in one of the aspen stands. She had a brood of chicks in the nearby shrubbery, and I suspect she was thinking about crossing the trail with her family. However, our coming disturbed her and she put on a wonderful display of ruffled ruff and fanned tail feathers, accompanied by annoyed clucking. The chicks scuttled farther back into the brush, and she settled down after we slunk past.

Ruffed-grouse-female-display-Kerry
Photo by Kerry Howard

This being June, we saw a riot of flowers almost everywhere we went: pink flowers of prickly rose and twinflower, bright yellows of stonecrop and buttercups, pale yellow of oxytropes, white of mountain avens, dwarf dogwood, and Labrador tea, purples and blues of louseworts, wild flax, columbines, and penstemon (aka beardtongue)—a visual treat on every side. We found a showy sparrows-egg orchid and a yellow, parasitic orchid; something new for us was the white-flowered death camas (deadly poison, so it must be distinguished from the edible species of camas!).

This being June in the Interior, it was also mosquito season. On most of the trails, a cool breeze cut down their depredations, but in our cabin it was another story. We called our temporary home “Mosquito Ranch” for the number of mozzies that gathered there (no blame to the very genial owners of the place!). We made a game of demolishing them and slept under mosquito nets. And I bet that the barn swallows were very happy indeed.

Potluck

a selection of summer delicacies

You never know what might be offered at a potluck supper, where you browse over a miscellaneous collection of dishes. This essay is a bit like that—an assortment of unrelated but potentially interesting observations and information.

Last week I mentioned the great abundance of mosquitoes in June in the Interior. Mosquitoes can surely be a major nuisance and in some regions of the world they carry diseases and parasites. But is there another side to this coin?? What good are mosquitoes?

Mosquitos are good bird food. Swallows and swifts catch them on the wing. Certain warblers and flycatchers dart out from a perch to catch them as they fly by. I’d bet that the female hummingbird swooping back and forth in my front yard catches some, too. Mosquito larvae are aquatic and provide good prey for small fish and for larger invertebrates that are also prey for fish. Dragonflies and damselflies feast on them.

Mosquitoes are more than unwilling prey, however; they are the principal pollinators of a diminutive-flowered plant called the small bog orchid. In Alaska, males and females of several species of mosquito are known to visit these orchid flowers and carry pollen from on flower to another (other insect visitors include small moths and flies, but their role in pollination is undocumented). As the mosquitoes poke into a flower, globs of pollen are slapped onto their eyes, where they stick until the mosquito goes to another flower, which is arranged in a way to pull off the pollen, leading to seed development. There may well be other kinds of small flowers that are pollinated by mosquitoes: male mosquitoes commonly live on nectar from flowers and even the blood-sucking females do to in some cases. Some of these visitations might achieve pollen transfer, but sometimes the mosquito might be just a nectar thief.

Flower color is one of the cues used by flower-visiting animals. Color helps identify the species, sometimes the age of the flower, and in some cases, whether or not it has already been visited by a pollinator. Usually, all the flowers of a particular species are the same color, or nearly so. But we see exceptions. For example, almost all of the chocolate lilies we see have brownish flowers, but very rarely we see one with yellowish flowers. Wild lupines normally have blue to purple flowers, but in rare cases we find one with pink flowers. Occasionally, we’ve found white-flowered individuals of fireweed, northern geranium, shooting star, and bluebells (whose flowers are normally pink or blue). These very unusual flower colors are presumably the result of genetic mutations.

yellow-chocolate-lilies-Denise.jpg
Photo by Denise Carroll

These mutants don’t seem to spread and become more common in their respective populations. But why? Do pollinators discriminate against those oddballs, leaving them unvisited, unpollinated, and without offspring? Or, maybe the (presumed) gene that controls flower color also controls something else in the plant’s life, something that interferes with some aspect of normal function. Multiple effects of single genes are common. As usual, a simple observation leads to more questions.

Bumble bees are very important pollinators of many kinds of flowers. They are the principal pollinators of monkshood, lupine, blueberries, iris, louseworts, and beach pea, which have flowers that must be manipulated in a certain way in order to achieve pollination. But the bees also join with a variety of other critters to pollinate roses, salmonberry, thimbleberry, goldenrod, and columbine (to mention just a few).

However, all across North America, from California to the east coast, populations of some bumblebee species have become very rare or even disappeared entirely. Because I have a very unscientific impression that I see fewer bumblebees on our wildflowers in the last two years than previously, I wondered if our bees may also have crashed. I asked the UAF expert, who said that a study currently underway in Denali is designed to detect major changes in bumblebee populations there, but as so often happens, these seem to be no scientific data for Southeast. We can hope that our bumblebees are in good shape, because so many of our wildflowers depend on them.

Finally, and just for fun (?dessert at a potluck?): One day I walked through the Eagle Beach day-use area after a stroll on the beach. I spotted a big black bird sitting on a rock and holding a chunk of something red and drippy in its bill. Through binoculars, I saw that the raven held a succulent piece of watermelon. Just beyond the rock was a picnic table with several plastic containers, temporarily abandoned by a human family that was playing out on the intertidal sand flats. At least two of those containers had the lids removed (?by the raven?) and one of them still held a chunk of melon. That family was in for a surprise when they came back to their table!