Transplants in Southeast Alaska

and the consequences of forced emigration

Since the 1920s, mammals of fourteen species have been transplanted from one location (mostly but not always in Alaska) to another location in Southeast. Many of the official transplants were done with the hope of establishing viable populations of game species in new places, with the goal of providing more prey for humans. The processes of capturing and transporting the unwilling immigrants commonly resulted in high mortality, even before the animals were deposited in their new sites.

Many of the transplantations failed. An attempt to establish a moose population near the Chickamin River in the 1960s failed altogether; all the transplanted young moose died. At that time, officials declared it was too expensive to do a preliminary habitat assessment and thought it more practical to just dump the moose there and see what happened. A number of other transplant attempts over several decades are said to have failed: deer to the Taiya Valley, goats to Chichagof, mink to Strait Island, muskrats and marmot to Prince of Wales, wolf to Coronation Island, snowshoe hare to Admiralty and other islands. Ill-advised attempts in the 40s and 50s to establish populations of non-native raccoons failed.

Some transplants were successful, apparently without any serious preliminary assessments: the mountain goats now living on Baranof are descendants of the transplants in the 1920s, and marten were moved to Prince of Wales, Baranof, and Chichagof in the 1940s and 1950s. After a habitat assessment in Berners Bay, a number of young moose were deposited there in 1958 and 1960; they established themselves successfully and that local population has grown. It may be emigrants from that area that we observe near Cowee Creek, Herbert River, and the Mendenhall Glacier. The possible effects of moose browsing on the structure of the vegetation in Berners Bay are apparently not known; given the notable cropping of willows and other shrubs in Gustavus, one might wonder about the effects on nesting habitats for birds—especially in the light of research elsewhere documenting that over-browsing can drastically reduce bird habitat.

Elk (a non-native species) were brought to four islands in Southeast in the mid to late 1900s. The elk, from Oregon and Washington, were exchanged for mountain goats from Alaska. Only the 1987 introduction of elk to Etolin Island was successful, and elk eventually dispersed from there to nearby Zarembo and other islands. Some preliminary habitat assessments were made, but post-facto concern about possible competition with existing deer populations arose, so continued monitoring and perhaps management are necessary.

After marten were transplanted to the three big islands, red squirrels were often introduced as prey for marten. It later became clear that marten really prefer voles and it is unlikely that the squirrel transplants had much effect on the introduced marten populations. However, it is very likely that the squirrels are having a negative impact on nesting birds on those islands, because they prey on eggs and nestlings.

Collectively, these attempts to establish new populations of mammals are a very mixed bag. There was a high cost in mortality of animals (not to mention dollar costs of capture and transport), many transplant efforts failed, and there was little attention paid to possible consequences. The impetus for game translocations in Southeast may have abated somewhat, and as our ecological understanding has grown over the years, it seems likely that any further transplants would be done with greater concern not only for the animals themselves but also for proper preliminary assessments and the ecological consequences.

Several additional transplants were done in attempts to augment existing populations or to re-establish a previously resident population. However, the effect of adding new animals to an existing population (deer to Kupreanof in 1979, for example) is usually not known. A transplant effort in 1989 attempted to restore a much-reduced population of mountain goats on Mt Juneau, with the stated intent of improved wildlife viewing (!). All the transported goats initially moved away, but by the early 2000s, goats were again seen on the ridge, although no one seems to know if these animals are related to the transplants or from a natural population on nearby ridges.

Sea otters have been re-introduced to many places in Southeast at various times, to restore the natural population that was extirpated by human activity. These transplants are apparently successful and the population of sea otters in Southeast is growing. The consequences of sea otter presence are currently being studied by faculty and students of UAF.

The historical information in this essay derived from Tom Paul’s 2009 ‘Game Transplants in Alaska”, ADFG Technical Bulletin #4. In addition to the official transplantations, there have been an unknown number of unofficial and mostly unrecorded ones, done by private citizens.

Weasels of the forests

martens and fishers in Southeast Alaska

The weasel family is well-represented in Alaska; of the nine species here, three are associated with water and the others are chiefly terrestrial. Of the terrestrial species, marten and fisher are particularly associated with forested habitats.

Marten range over most of Alaska. There are two species of marten here: the American marten lives in the boreal forests across North America including most of Alaska; the Pacific marten lives on Admiralty and Kuiu islands (and maybe some other islands in Southeast). Marten are highly arboreal, spending lots of time in trees but catching much of their prey on the ground. Voles are a favorite prey in most places, but marten can capture prey the size of a marmot or a grouse. Versatile feeders, they also eat carrion and fruit. They have a slender build and an orange-ish patch of fur on the chest.

Fishers live across North American boreal forests but reach their western limit (for some reason) in the southern Yukon and adjacent mainland Southeast Alaska. This species probably originated in eastern North America and spread westward since the last glaciation (but there is said to be an ice-age fossil in central Alaska…). They occur at low densities here and in the Yukon, although there is some evidence that they may be increasing. Fishers are not only rare here but tend to be elusive as well, so sightings of them in the wild are few—and thus they get much less attention than other species. However, in the limited space of this essay, I choose to write more about fishers.

Fishers tend to be larger and burlier than marten, although small female fishers and large male marten may overlap in size. Male fishers commonly weigh 3.5-5.5 kg (some get much bigger!) and females about 2.0-2.6 kg. The fur is usually dark brown, darker than marten, but it sometimes has pale patches here and there. Like all the terrestrial weasels, fishers can climb well, even coming down a tree head-first, like a squirrel. That’s possible because they (like squirrels) can rotate their feet so the curved claws, when extended, hook into the tree trunk.

Both marten and fishers have short legs, so travelling in soft snow can be difficult. Fishers tend to travel less then, or often use existing trails (their own or those of hares). The foot-loading (i.e., body weight per area of foot) of fishers is greater than that of marten, and male fishers have higher foot-loading than females, so they may have a harder time in soft snow. Fishers, perhaps especially males, often leave body-drag marks in soft snow.

Kits are born in spring, often in a tree cavity. Litter size varies with the food supply: usually two or three kits but sometimes more or none at all. Females mate soon after birthing, although the embryo does not implant in the uterus wall until ten or eleven months later (late in the following winter). Gestation takes five or six weeks and the young kits are nursed by the mother for about ten weeks. All mammalian females spend a lot of energy on lactation; for female fishers, the cost of lactation plus the cost of extra hunting activity to fuel that milk production means that the total cost of reproduction is almost three times the energy needed during non-reproductive times. The kits are competent hunters at the age of four of five months, but most females don’t breed until they are two or three years old.

The home range size of fishers varies enormously, from just a few square kilometers to well over a hundred, apparently depending on prey availability. Males range more widely than females. Hares and small rodents are common prey in most places, but fishers also scavenge carcasses opportunistically and eat fruit and invertebrates at times. They can capture prey as big as a chicken or a porcupine; they subdue porcupines by attacking the vulnerable, quill-less nose until the victim is worn out.

The English common name “fisher” is a misnomer. Fishers may scavenge a few dead fish, but fish are not a common item on the menu. The name might come from a French word for the European polecat.

Short-eared owls

A walk on the dike trail near the Mendenhall wetlands in early March revealed the usual resident Canada geese, grazing in small groups but alert to passing humans some distance away. Gangs of mallards nervously shifted from the edges of an incoming tide to deeper water as humans passed by on the trail. Little flocks of juncos dashed for cover in the nearby trees. It was too early in the season for migrating shorebirds, but I was hoping for something out of the ordinary—and I got lucky.

I don’t often walk out there, because I dislike the tremendous noise of the planes, large and small. But I know that short-eared owls come through on migration or sometimes visit in winter. So it happened that less than half a mile from the trailhead I saw one of these owls swoop up from the meadow, turn in front of some conifers, and sail off over the meadow again.

Then I watched this owl coursing back and forth, low over the grass, many times. The flight style is distinctive: a slow, deep flapping beat with short glides in between, often described as moth-like. This individual landed once, looked down at its feet, and took off again, apparently without prey. It sailed off between the spruces toward the airport, which it may see as just another meadow but the airport officials prefer that it does its hunting elsewhere.

Short-eared owls have a huge geographic range across North America and Eurasia, though South America and into northern Africa. The species has established endemic, resident populations on far-flung islands, including Iceland, Hawai’i, the Galapagos, and the Antilles in the Caribbean. These island populations are different enough that they are ranked as sub-species, but further study may decide they are separate species.

Photo by Kerry Howard

Their name comes from the tiny feather tufts (‘ears’)on the forehead. The tufts are often indistinguishable, showing only when erected; they may be used in social signals with other owls. The tufts have nothing whatever to do with functioning ears that register sounds. The real ears of most owls typically are asymmetrical: the shape and location of the ear opening is different on right and left sides of the head. Along with the facial disc of feathers, that’s what lets them localize their prey so well, even in darkness. The facial disc and ear asymmetry are best developed in owls that only hunt at night. The short-eared owl, however, hunts by both day and night, and uses vision as well as hearing.

Short-eared owls are hunters of open areas, flying low over meadows, sometimes hovering, sometimes scanning an area from a convenient stump or snag. They catch and eat all sorts of prey, from large insects to muskrats and grouse. Birds are major prey in some areas, especially near shorelines where waterbirds are popular food items. But in most places, small mammals, especially voles or lemmings, are the main prey. Both the numbers and the reproductive success of the owls often reflect the abundance of these prey items.

In general, prey is decapitated (or de-winged) before being swallowed whole. Later, the owls regurgitate pellets of neatly packed undigestible bones and feathers. We curious naturalists love to find these deposits, so we can figure out the identity of the victims.

Short-eared owls nest in open areas—grasslands, tundra, marshes. Southeast Alaska is not well-endowed with those habitats, compared to much of the rest of Alaska, and if short-eared owls nest here, it must be uncommon. A pair of short-ears defends an area around the nest from other owls but reportedly does not defend a big feeding territory. As a result, nests are sometimes not very far apart (a few tens of meters).

The female of a pair scrapes out a shallow bowl on the ground, lines it with grass and a few feathers, and lays her eggs. A typical clutch of eggs has about four to seven eggs, but occasionally more, particularly when prey is very abundant. She does all the incubating (about a month); the male delivers food to her. When the eggs hatch, he still brings food to her and she doles it out to the chicks.

She lays one egg a day and starts incubating with the first egg, so the eggs hatch asynchronously, in the order of laying. Thus, the chicks are all of different sizes, and cannibalism of the runts may sometimes happen. The chicks are fluffy and nest-bound for a couple of weeks, after which they start to wander (eldest first, youngest last). But it takes another four or five weeks before they can fly and a year until they mature.

Populations of short-eared owls are declining, due primarily to habitat loss.

Snowy blankets

life in the subnivean world

Snow makes a great blanket (albeit damp and cool), insulating whatever lies below it from cold air above. As we found out not long ago, a few inches of snow kept solid (walkable) ice from forming on ponds, even after many days of single-digit temperatures.

Lots of critters make use of the snow. Ravens roll and toboggan; otters slide. Red squirrels often make winter nests in and under their snow-covered middens. Marten, the most arboreal of the weasel family, find winter resting places under the snow. They often use places where fallen branches and stumps intercept snowfall, creating spaces for resting as well as easier access to subnivean prey. They are reported to rest frequently in red squirrel middens, including those occupied by squirrels. Even birds find shelter under snowy blankets. Ptarmigan make burrows for night-time shelter, leaving little piles of fecal pellets in depressions, which we find in spring as the snow melts from the top of the burrow. Redpolls cluster together in tunnels under the snow to keep warm.

A lot goes on underneath the snows. Invertebrates of many kinds live in subnivean places. There are springtails, beetles and other insects, and spiders, some of them dormant, some of them active at least periodically. They are prey for shrews (which have to eat every few hours) and mice.

Keen’s mouse (the coastal form of the deer mouse) makes snow-blanketed nests in crevices or shallow burrows or cavities in logs and stumps. They often have short periods of torpor, to conserve energy, and make small caches of seeds. Unlike voles, they commonly come above the snow when foraging.

Voles and shrews scuttle along their tunnels, sometimes pursued by voracious weasels (ermine in much of Alaska and least weasel in the interior) that fit easily into those tunnels. Their nests are typically balls of vegetation with a cozy cavity, occasionally appropriated by a weasel that consumed the nest-maker. Meadow voles may even breed in winter if the snow blanket is thick and the food supply is good, but their mortality can be extremely high if the snow cover thins or their nests get wet. Many kinds of voles make winter food caches of roots and seeds and shrews often store prey for later eating.

Lemmings stay active all winter. Brown lemmings harvest the bases of grasses and sedges, as well as a lot of moss (an unusual food, not very digestible). Winter nests under the snow are thick-walled and often lined with their molted fur. The northern collared lemming makes long snow tunnels on the tundra in winter; snow burrows have nest chambers and separate latrines. The winter diet includes lots of low-growing willow bark and buds, reachable under the snow. They may even breed in winter, if the snow cover is really deep. The widespread northern bog lemming is the only lemming in Southeast, living in sphagnum bogs and other habitats. It makes nests and burrows under the snow, but little is known about its ecology.

Pikas are small relatives of hares that customarily live on rocky mountain slopes with nearby meadows. There are two species in North America, one in the Rockies and Cascades, and the collared pika in Interior Alaska and Yukon. All summer long they industriously gather grasses and herbs from the meadows to make hay piles in the rocky talus slopes; each pika may collect over twenty kilos of hay, making many trips per hour. Each pika defends a territory from other pikas and thus protects its haystacks. Most of the winter is spent under the snow, in burrows and crevices, living off the stored hay. Pikas are well adapted to cold but are very sensitive to heat; on hot summer days they hide in the rocks. Warming climate is a serious threat to their populations. In the southern Yukon, average temperatures have risen about two degrees C per decade since the 1960s, and the warming trend has already reduced pika numbers in some areas by ninety percent. There is no place for them to go: they can’t just move higher on the mountains since they are already there, and they can’t cross the warm valleys between the mountains.

Loss of snow cover is just one of the many well-documented deleterious effects of human-generated climate warming.


wild neighbors, rarely seen

Mid-February, and Parks and Rec hikers are headed up from Crow Hill Road to Lawson Meadows. The skiers soon disappeared, leaving the snowshoe-ers to plod our way up. The lead hikers got lucky—a snowshoe hare dashed across the trail right in front of them. We almost never see the critters themselves, just lots of tracks and occasional pellets. They are nocturnal, and often active in the twilight hours of dawn and dusk. I was not one of the lucky ones, sadly. I think the only hare I’ve actually seen was a young one (called a leveret) that was clamped in the jaws of a cat.

Hares are distinguished from rabbits in several ways, one of which is the condition of the young at birth. Female hares make a simple nest, just a shallow depression. The leverets are born with their eyes soon open, ready to hop about in a couple of days, while little bunnies are born furless, blind, and helpless, restricted for several weeks to a nest, often in a burrow. In general, hares are larger than rabbits, with bigger ears and feet. Just to confuse the issue, jackrabbits are really hares!

Two species of hare live in Alaska. The Alaskan hare is found primarily in tundra habitats in western Alaska, with scattered occurrences along the north coast. It is much larger than the snowshoe hare (well over six pounds vs three or four pounds), which is the smallest hare in the world.

Snowshoe hares are widespread across northern North America and in the mountain chains that extend southward. They live in forested and shrubby habitats where they eat a variety of woody and herbaceous plants. Winter diets include lots of twigs and bark, but sometimes the hares dig down through deep snow to reach buried herbaceous plants. They may even feed, very occasionally, on carcasses. As is common among hares and their relatives (and some rodents also), two kinds of fecal pellets are produced. A soft form is re-ingested (this is called coprophagy), allowing further extraction of nutrients. Then the more fully digested result emerges as a hard, round pellet. In hard times, hares may even re-ingest hard pellets for a third trip through the digestive tract. Pellets are usually deposited singly, so a pile of pellets means that the animal spent some time in that place.

Snowshoe hare. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Northern populations of snowshoe hares are famous for extreme variations in abundance, with around ten years between population peaks, usually. Reasons for these cycles have been much debated. Hares have many predators and mortality, especially of leverets, is high. The Canada lynx preys heavily on hares, and its abundance closely tracks the abundance of hares, peaking with the same cyclic pattern.

Snowshoe hares are solitary creatures, except of course in mating season. They are territorial, defending their home ranges vs. others of the same gender. A reputable Canadian source says that the trampled runways that we see are made deliberately by territory owners. Each runway is trimmed of intruding twigs and herbs and packed firm by hopping up and down, leaving clear escape routes through the territory.

Female hares can produce several litters a year. They can mate right after producing a litter and gestate the next litter while nursing the first. Considering the high energetic cost of lactation, this is noteworthy. A single litter often has more than one father. Birthing a typical litter of four takes just a couple of minutes, after which the female leaves the nest, coming back once a day to nurse her kids. After about three days, the young ones scatter, coming back to the nest in evening to nurse. They can eat solid food when they are a week or so old and are weaned after about four weeks.

The hare spotted by P&R hikers had patches of brown fur mixed with the winter white. Mid-February seems early for the transition to summer coloration. Timing of the molt is regulated chiefly by day length, not by the amount of snow on the ground, so sometimes out-of- synch brown hares are conspicuous on snow and white ones are very visible on leaf litter.

Sensory systems

detecting magnetic fields

We learn that there are five senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste). And we say that there is the “sixth sense”, meaning intuition or a hunch. But there is a physiological seventh sense that detects magnetic fields and, in some species, an eighth sense that detects electrical fields, and perhaps other senses still to be discovered.

Many animals (and plants!) have magnetoreception: birds, turtles, mice, bats, ants, lobsters, bees, newts, fishes, to list a few examples. The capability is also present in bacteria and may be a basic sense in virtually all organisms. However, it is one thing to demonstrate experimentally that an organism is able to sense and respond to magnetic fields, but it is quite another thing to learn how, or if, the magnetic sense is used by the organism.

A real-life function of magnetic sense is known in many animals. For instance, homing pigeons use magnetic sense to locate their home roost. Migratory birds use magnetoreception as well as celestial cues to find the way between nesting and wintering grounds. Sea turtles use this sense to find their nesting beaches and their hatchlings use it, along with light, to find their way to the sea. Some salamanders and toads use magnetic sense to orient themselves to the shore of a pond or to locate their home pond. Certain ants and bees use magnetic (and other clues) to navigate between their nests and food sources. Salmon use magnetic clues, with odor clues, to navigate back to their ‘home’ streams to spawn. An electrical sense of sharks interacts with magnetic sense, allowing them to orient themselves in the ocean.

The plot thickens, however, as researchers discovered magnetic reception and responses at all stages of fish development. For instance, magnetic fields affect the movement of sperm and their success in fertilizing eggs, as well as the size of the resulting embryos and their orientation. The behavior, orientation, heart rates, and hormonal activities of larvae and fry are affected by magnetic fields too. The biological significance of these responses apparently remains to be determined.

And what about magnetic sense in plants, which don’t move around? Experiments have shown effects of magnetic fields on such features as flowering time, seed germination and seedling growth, photosynthesis, the behavior of pollen and roots, and enzyme activity. But the importance of these responses in the real world is anything but clear.

How does magnetoreception work? Only the briefest, most simplistic explanation can fit in the space of this essay. The earth’s main magnetic field has three features that can provide information to suitable receptors. The field varies in intensity, which varies with location and the horizontal or vertical orientation of the force. Another feature is called ‘inclination’, referring to the distance from the surface to the depths of the earth; inclination is very steep near the poles and flatter near the equator, so it gives an index of distance from the poles (i.e., latitude). The field also can provide a compass direction; the declination of a compass indicates deviation from the North Pole/South Pole axis of rotation of the earth (related, roughly, to longitude, and depending on latitude). In addition to the main field, there are local anomalies, commonly caused by magnetized rock.

How do animals sense those magnetic features? Some animals have tiny particles of magnetic material in their beaks, snouts, brains, or elsewhere. Another way involves a protein called cryptochrome, found in both animals (including humans) and plants, which undergoes a complex reaction allowing detection of magnetic inclination. In bird eyes, cryptochrome is activated by blue light and may create a filter for light falling on the retina, making a pattern that changes when a bird moves its head, changing the angle between head and magnetic field. There are other possibilities too. In any case, any information gleaned from magnetic features has to be related to an internal map or some other point of reference, if it is to be used for orientation and navigation.

Note that the magnetic sense is so sensitive that it can work over very small distances, such as when a bird moves its head. It has also been invoked as a possible explanation for how foxes orient that marvelous jump as they pounce with their front feet on a rodent under the snow.

Who eats ferns?

there aren’t many who do!

Ferns are not a very popular food item for the animal kingdom. Compared to the herbivorous insects on flowering plants and conifers, relatively few insects eat ferns. One estimate is there is about one insect species for every twenty species of fern, compared to one insect per one species of flowering plant. The disparity varies regionally, however; Hawaii, for example, has more ferns and more fern-eating insects than some other places.

The insect community on ferns is different from that on other plants. Although many beetles and moths are herbivorous, these taxa are under represented among the fern-eaters. Instead, sawflies and two taxa of true bugs (such as aphids) that typically suck plant juices (rather than chewing the tissues) are more common.

The reasons for the relative paucity of insects that eat ferns are not fully understood. One factor is surely the lack of flowers and seeds, which many kinds of insects use. Another factor probably is the defensive chemistry of ferns. Although they lack many of the defensive compounds found in flowering plants, they have considerable chemical resistance to attack by herbivores.

Bracken fern is notorious for its toxins, although toxin levels vary among bracken populations. This species has been studied intensively, because domestic livestock sometimes eat bracken. If cows and horses eat a lot of bracken, over a period of time the cumulative effects of the toxins can be lethal. Bracken turns out to be loaded with compounds that cause various blood disorders, depress levels of vitamin B1 (potentially leading to blindness), and cause cancer. The most toxic parts of the plant are the rhizomes (underground stems), followed by the fiddleheads and young leaves. A survey of toxins in other ferns would help our understanding of who eats ferns (lady fern, a common local species, is known to be toxic, to dogs, humans, and presumably others, at least if large amounts are eaten; in small quantities, the filicic acid in it help control tapeworms).

Hoary marmot taking a risk on bracken fern

Vertebrates seem to avoid eating ferns, in general. Among the mammals, white-tailed deer sometimes eat them, and feral pigs in Hawaii eat the starchy tree-fern trunks. Beavers dig up and eat the very toxic rhizomes (how do they deal with the toxins?).

The champion fern-eater is the so-called mountain beaver, a burrowing rodent living in the Pacific Northwest. It is not a true beaver; probably related to squirrels, it is the last survivor of a group that once contained many species, now extinct. More than seventy-five percent of its diet consists of ferns, mostly bracken and sword fern. Female mountain beavers shift away from ferns to a higher protein diet of grasses and forbs when they are lactating, however. Mountain beavers must have a very special way of dealing with all the toxins!

A few vertebrates nibble the spores from the spore-containing packets (called sori) commonly produced on the underside of fern fronds. The European wood mouse does this in winter. The endemic short-tailed bat of New Zealand often forages close to the ground and collects spores. There’s a little parrot in Indonesia that eats fern spores. And the Azores bullfinch eats both spores and leaves in winter and spring. Interestingly, perhaps, I have found no indication that the closely-related Eurasian bullfinch does this.

Humans eat ferns too, sometimes as a springtime change of diet, sometimes more regularly. But there are potential risks to eating very much fern tissue. Clearly, learning more about toxins in a variety of ferns would be useful. And we might learn something from how mountain beavers deal with the toxins. But in the meantime, even though careful preparation might diminish toxicity, it is best to be very cautious about eating ferns.

Strange winter

a bricolage of encounters and observations

December was so warm that beavers stayed active, collecting branches for their winter caches and dam repairs, leaving trails in a thin snow cover. The snow recorded the passage of an otter, sliding over a sand bar in Eagle River. That thin layer of snow also collected a tremendous number of male spruce cones, raising the question of why the trees retained those cones so long after the pollen was shed.

January was more wintery, with a good snowfall and nice cold temperatures. Ptarmigan had come down to the Treadwell Ditch, wandering widely and seldom stopping, apparently not finding much to eat.

On the lower ski loop at Eaglecrest, wildlife had been very active. Porcupines, large and small, had wandered far and wide, leaving their broad furrows and baby-size footprints. As we perched on a log for lunch, a flock of chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets conversed and foraged in a nearby hemlock.

There were lots of deer tracks, of different sizes. The deer trails often followed the edge of the woods, and the lower branches there held only fragments of the dangling lichen Alectoria, suggesting that the deer had been eating one of their good winter foods. Bunchberry plants had been grazed from the bases of trees, leaving stem stubs where deer noses had cleared the snow.

Shrews had left their tiny furrows on top of the snow, leading from one dime-sized hole to another, where a shrew had come to the surface and gone back down under the white blanket. Why do they come out in the open, sometimes travelling many yards before diving back down? That’s a long way to go for the occasional spider crawling slowly on the surface…

Driving out the road, we noticed many small groups of varied thrushes picking small items from the roadside. What are they getting? Grit? Blown seeds? Salt? A subsequent stroll on the Boy Scout beach discovered numerous tiny pinkish shrimp washed up (why?) by a moderately high tide. Ravens attracted by our lunch group lined up on a log came in to scrounge our offerings and then nibbled some of the shrimp.

The long, deep cold in January kept the snow beautifully, brightening the landscape. At my house the temperatures didn’t rise above freezing for many days, dropping to single digits at night. Mrs Nuthatch came to the peanut butter feeder long before there was decent daylight. Mink had been active in several places. One explored the shores of Norton Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec Area, not stopping and clearly going Someplace. Another mink, at Eagle Beach, had made tunnels in deep snow, periodically popping up to the surface but diving right back down. ?Searching?

The prolonged deep freeze let me hope that the ice on the ponds in the MGRA would be sound enough to walk on (with snowshoes, to distribute the weight). However, the ice on Glacier Lake was chancey: there were a few spots of open water and some mushy places. So we crept around the edges to see what we could see. An otter had better travelling over the ice, leaving its trail of prints and a slide between spots where it had dug down through the slushy snow. Was it thinking about getting through the ice to look for fish?

Then warmer weather came back, with rains that ruined the lovely snow. At my house, a raven has come to expect occasional tidbits on my deck railing. One morning I put out some pieces of pie crust. In it came, as if it had been waiting, and grabbed the larger chunks. Then, with the bill crammed, it tried to collect the smaller bits. No luck. So it figured out that it had to drop the big ones, eat the small ones, and then pick up the big ones to carry away.

Down on the surface of my pond, I noticed a female mallard, grubbing for spilled seed in the slush under the suspended feeder. She dug and dug, sometimes burying her whole head, for more than ten minutes. Then she walked to open water downstream, leaving her wide trail in the slush. Late in the afternoon, she came back and did it all over again. I bet this duck is one that hung out here in the summer and remembered this food source.