Fall into winter

mallards at home, late-season hummingbirds, bears, otters, swans, caddisflies… oh my!

If autumn comes, can winter be far behind? There was ice on my home pond for the first time this year on 10 November. The mallards that gather there all summer had deserted the place for better forage elsewhere. One lone male peered up over a log in the stream but apparently didn’t want to break the ice—he went back downstream.

That male is in full-dress plumage now: glossy green head, tidy white neck ring, rusty chest, clean white and gray flanks. But in mid-October, males were in all stages of molting into their handsome breeding dress; some still looked rather like motley brown females while others had nearly completed the molt. Even some of the patchwork-plumaged males were regularly associated with females–pairs that stayed together as the other ducks shifted around on the pond. That suggests to me that handsome male dress is not just about getting girl-friends.

Mid-October also saw the last strawberry flowers blooming (in vain) by some beaches. Anna’s hummingbirds visited the pansies still flowering in pot on my deck, and other folks had Anna’s at their feeders. I’ve heard that they sometimes stay here all winter, but I don’t see them then at my house. I think that the more common rufous hummers probably have departed for their wintering grounds. A special treat, in fall and winter, is the occasional magical song of dippers as they forage in streams, tuning up for spring.

In late October, near the dam at Moose Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec Area, a single Canada goose was hiding under a clump of bent alders. It was so still, at first I thought it was an escaped decoy. But, no—it slowly raised and lowered its head. It stayed put as my naturalist friend and I walked by. I reckoned it was sick or wounded or just plain scared. In any case, it was gone the next day.

We were pleased to see a chubby little bear running across the road near Moose Lake. The coho run in the Dredge Creek area and in Steep Creek by the visitor center seemed small this year; some spawners made it all the way up the usual distance, but I thought it unlikely that there were enough to feed the usual lot of hungry bears, which indeed seemed scarcer than usual. So chubby was good—perhaps a function of the incredibly plentiful berry crop this year. Even in November, berries still hang on the bushes; there weren’t enough bears and birds and humans to harvest them all.

In early November, I chanced upon some friends at the main viewing platform on lower Steep Creek. They were watching two otters slide in and out of a pond tucked back in the trees. Presently, the otters went up over a small ridge and disappeared toward the visitor center. But when I subsequently went up the ramp toward the pavilion, I spotted them down in the nearby pool. The larger of the two (mama?) splashed briefly at the pool’s edge and came up with a nice coho; she dragged it up the bank, followed by the smaller one (?offspring). Otters may well be better at finding those fish than I am.

A few days later, on a tip from a friend, I found a group of swans on Moose Lake: six adults and three large juveniles, just resting there. They were wary as I walked by, but stayed in the cove where I found them. I later saw four adults separated a short distance from two adults with the juveniles, which probably comprised a family. I was told that the whole group got alarmed by dogs the next day and took off for other parts.

swan-family-on-Moose-Lake-Jos
Photo by Jos Bakker

On a nice day in early November, I walked with a friend in the Eagle Beach rec area. We make it a regular habit to pick up trash from beaches and trail-sides as we walk; on this day we filled two grocery bags and gathered up a long length of tangled rope that was eroding out of a riverside sand bank. But that junk was not the main purpose of this walk, of course; we were just looking to see what we could see, as usual, and it turned out to be quite a good day.

Cottonwood trees had lost their leaves by then. This is an area where we sometimes find unusually big leaves; some specimens measured ten and twelve inches long. I would like to know why some cottonwoods make such enormous leaves. In some other species, juvenile trees make larger leaves than adult trees, but these are not juvenile cottonwoods. An interesting feature of a few leaves was the color of the petiole—bright scarlet, quite a contrast from the usual yellowish-brown. Another puzzle.

Just above a little wooden bridge, we noticed lots of small ‘sticks’ slowly moving across a muddy streambed. No, not sticks, but caddisfly larvae, all wrapped in their protective cases built of tiny bits of plant debris. We could keep track of individual larvae by the variegated colors of the little bits; for instance, this one had a yellow spot on its right flank, but that one had a white mark near its head, and that one was all dark.

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Photo by Bob Armstrong

Out on the intertidal sand flats, a sizable gang of crows fossicked around something lying on the wet sand. Of course, this required investigation, so we splotched our damp way out to see. The last few crows left as we approached, and the thing was then seen to be an old, barnacle-encrusted log. I suspect that all those crows were snacking on small barnacles, accounting for the bare patches on that log.

To finish off a good walk, we met a very small porcupine on the trail. It was not afraid of us and just wandered about, apparently not finding anything edible. Down along Eagle River, a mother bear left very clear, recent tracks, while her cub trotted along on the sand bank above. An otter had travelled over the sand bars in the river bed, probably hoping for fish too.

Horse Tram Trail

new developments along an old trail

In the early 1900s, exploring gold miners discovered good prospects near Eagle Glacier, ultimately establishing the Eagle River Mine and the settlement of Amalga. To service the settlement and the mine, a horse tram ran between there and a salt-water cove with a good landing beach for boats. The horse tram route went from the landing beach, over into the west side of the big meadow near the Eagle Valley Center, northward over the low pass toward Herbert River, over that river and up the flood plain, eventually crossing Eagle River and reaching Amalga. The mine and settlement lasted less than three decades but left a residue of scrap metal and other junk behind. The steel rails of the horse tram are still to be seen, in places, and the dike that raised the rails above the wet meadow is still there (now sporting a row of small trees).

CBJ decided to make a trail connection between the Eagle River Landing beach and the Boy Scout Camp/Crow Point trail that goes along the lower Herbert River. This connecting route avoids the big meadow, which is home to interesting wildlife and plants. Instead, it goes from the landing beach on an existing informal trail up a hill and through a small muskeg, rejoining (approximately) the old horse tram route on the north side of the low pass. Total length is about a mile and three-tenths.

Most of the new route is presently a morass of mud roiled up by hikers’ feet, but this year Trail Mix has begun some serious trail improvement. Just after the first bridge on the Boy Scout Camp trail, a wide, packed-gravel trail starts up the hill. It soon parallels part of the old horse tram route for several hundred yards; the tram route itself has become an eroded drainage ditch that channels water down the hill. Broken branches, rocks, and other debris line the new trail, waiting to be covered by mosses and lichens. Not far from the end of this year’s work, there is a junction, where the old tram route goes over the low pass to the big meadow and the new route heads up the hill.

Coming up the other side of the hill, from the landing beach, the trail crosses a small creek and turns up a route that was partly graveled some time ago. As it approaches the top of the hill, however, cribs made of logs await loads of gravel to fill the mud-holes that the cribs now guard. The first layer will be gravel from the beach; that will be topped by the same kind of gravel that surfaces the rest of the trail. I’m told that it takes a Corps of Engineers permit to put gravel down on a trail—does all of Juneau qualify as a ‘wetland’?

CBJ hopes to connect the two ends of this trail next year (2020). In the meantime, a new spur trail has been cut and graveled to a new clear-cut above a rocky beach not far from the landing beach. CBJ intends to build a cabin there: supported on concrete posts, the cabin will be built from an Icy Straits kit, delivered to this beach by landing craft. It will resemble the cabins at Eagle Beach State park but have a larger deck; the view will be very pleasing. The cut timber will be used to build an outhouse. CBJ hopes to have the cabin available for rental (from Parks &Rec) by next summer.

Two other CBJ trail projects have been funded and are planned for next year. The Amalga Meadows Trail (a short six-tenths of a mile) from the Eagle Valley Center to the Eagle River Landing beach will get a new bridge over the slough, probably next year. The Brotherhood Bridge (Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei) will get a new section that reroutes the beginning of the trail at some distance from the Mendenhall River, avoiding the rapidly eroding bank. The new trailhead is at the north end of the parking lot; the new section goes right across the meadow and joins the existing trail where the forest begins. It should be paved next spring. The entire trail will be repaved and the eroding bridge over Montana Creek replaced, possibly beginning in 2021.

Other projects on the CBJ list still require funding, so (I’m guessing) perhaps by the time full funding becomes available, still other projects will be on the list. But for now, work is planned for the Switzer Creek trail system, the Lena Point trail, and the Rain Forest Trail on North Douglas.

Thanks to George Schaaf, Director of CBJ Parks and Rec for information on planned work.

Roots and places

reaching back to the Midwest

When I moved to Juneau three decades ago, I quickly began to put down roots, which have grown stronger over the years. But I still have one good root that goes back to part of southern Wisconsin where I grew up, and every year I make a short trip back to visit, usually in fall. These are ‘my’ places! Every special place has a song it sings to those who care to listen. A respected Wisconsin naturalist called it a Song of Place.

If I use my imagination, I could say that there were signs that my move to Juneau was fore-ordained. My home town lies at the very edge of the driftless area, left uncovered by Pleistocene glaciers. So there are moraines, outwash areas, and erratic boulders in many places. The river that runs through my hometown lies in a valley that was once occupied by a branch of Glacial Lake Wisconsin. The ice dam that made the glacial lake collapsed suddenly, producing an outburst flood that changed the landscape.

Another imaginary sign might be seen in the location of my summer house in the hills not far away (an escape from the corn and soybean desert of central Illinois, where my job was). The house was in Juneau County, named for Solomon Juneau (French-Canadian fur trader, business man, politician, co-founder of Milwaukee), an older cousin of Joe Juneau, for whom our city is named. Glaciers and Juneau were apparently to be part of my life.

This year I made my annual junket in late October. I was in time for good fall colors in the deciduous forest that covers many of the hills. The maples were a little past the peak of their colors, but still made outstanding splashes of scarlet. Big-tooth aspens added their crowns of golden leaves. Bright red leaves of sumac adorned the roadsides and there were even a few goldenrods still flowering. All of that lay against a backdrop of oak foliage in subtle and varied shades of bronze and russet, with occasional touches of crimson. Hard to beat!

There are lots of trails meandering about in that area and, of course, I had to sample them this year. I was surprised to see butterflies on the wing—a couple of orange and black monarchs and a smaller lemon-yellow one. (I wonder what happened to them when two inches of snow fell one night). A big dragonfly zoomed by overhead and a smaller, bright red one landed on a sign post. A couple of small garter snakes had come out to sun themselves at the trailside, but hastily slithered off as I came by. Another little garter snake had, sadly, not been hasty enough and had been killed by a passing bike. Even sadder was the carcass of a very cute, tiny red-bellied snake, not much bigger than an ordinary pencil, that had suffered a similar fate. I had to rummage hard through the rusty, dusty mental files to come up with its scientific name.

A witch-hazel bush was flowering. Late October seems like a strange time to flower, but that is normal for this species. Each flower has four slender, crinkled, yellow petals, so each little cluster of flowers looks like it’s sporting a medusa-like hairdo. The flowers produce nectar and a faint fragrance; they are pollinated by insects—probably late-flying moths and possibly some flies and bees (the reports vary). After pollination, the seeds (two in each capsule) don’t develop until the next summer. Then at maturity, the seed capsules open explosively, forcibly ejecting and dispersing the seeds—to distances as much as thirty feet away. By the way, this plant has nothing to do with witches, good or bad; the name probably comes from an old English word meaning ‘bendable’.

sandhill cranes in corn Steve.jpg
Photo by Steve Willson

It’s always fun to go looking for sandhill cranes, which migrate through there in the fall. They were there, sometimes in groups of four or five but more often in dozens. They hang out in the harvested fields, especially in the corn stubble, avoiding the barren soybean fields. Another treat is a visit to the local apple orchard, to sample this year’s offerings and enjoy their perfect caramel apples and some cider donuts.

The river running through my hometown was once a hard-working river with numerous mill dams restraining its flow. As the mills became obsolete and un-used, they were gradually removed, and by the early 2000s, all were gone. The river was free-flowing once again! Fish populations responded; now even sturgeon and paddlefish can come up the river, seasonally, to spawn.

I like being there and I like being here, but I do not like the tedious and uncomfortable travel in between. On this trip I whiled away some of the time by reading a book by an anthropologist who lived with the pygmies of the Ituri forest in the 1950s. He recounted a pygmy story about ‘The Bird with the Most Beautiful Song’ that I think is a parable for our time: a little boy heard such a beautiful song in the forest that he searched and searched until he found the singing bird. He caught the bird and took it to his father to be fed (and released). This happened again, but now the father was getting annoyed. The third time, the now-angry father took the bird and killed it. With the bird he also killed the Song. With the killing of the Song, he too was killed, and he dropped dead, completely dead, dead forever. (The pygmies considered that there are three levels of deadness).

There is, I think, a lesson for modern times in that story, a lesson that we do not learn well at all!

Mushrooms at Crow Point

fairy rings and soldier parades

A walk on the Boy Scout beach/Crow Point trail is almost always rewarding. There’s a variety of habitats, each of which changes with the seasons in its own way.

In late September, there were no geese to be seen in the big tidal meadow or in the river’s estuary. A northern harrier in brown plumage (female or juvenile) coursed low over the river and meadows, spooking at least one crow. A bit above the highest part of the beach, the last flowers of wild strawberry shone on a background of dark green. Several flocks of pine siskins flitted over the seed heads of meadow plants or zoomed between stands of conifers.

On the way from the parking lot to the beach, in the first riverside meadow, the trail had previously been re-routed to accommodate bank erosion. But this time, another large chunk of the bank had fallen into the river, leading to another trail diversion.

Rather than walk the long beach, I chose to weave my way in and out of the spruce groves that line the berm along the shore. These groves sometimes produce interesting finds, such as a bear skeleton or a flourishing stand of orchids.

This time, it was a mushroom show. I know next to nothing about mushrooms, unfortunately. But I was attracted to three in particular. A medium-sized brown one typically grew in long, curved chains. Troops of very small white ones clustered between spruce roots. (I called these ‘armies’, and a friend saw them as pilgrims on a mission, but ‘troops’ is an accepted informal term, I’ve read). My favorites were tiny yellow ones with orange centers on the cap. These usually grew in troops on the berm, especially in some of the groves.

Tricholoma-fairy-ring-Pam
Trichloma fairy ring. Photo by Pam Bergeson

To give me some guidance, I enlisted the help of a friend who does know a lot about mushrooms, and we went out there again a few days later. We made only slow progress as we walked along, because there were so many different mushrooms to look at and discuss. There were lots of Amanita muscaria (common name: fly agaric), both red and yellow varieties. They had the customary whitish ‘warts’ on the cap—except when they’d been washed off by heavy rain. (I call the white bits scattered on the cap ‘streusel’, like the crumbly mixture often scattered on muffins or coffee cake). We found huge boletes, now aged and no longer desirable for eating by humans but other critters had been feasting. There were more kinds of brown-capped mushrooms than my old brain could begin to assimilate.

I learned that the curved chains of brown-capped mushrooms belonged to the genus Tricholoma (I decided, early on, that getting the name of the genus was enough for now; species names could wait). Tricholoma fungi form mycorrhizal associations with tree roots, providing soil nutrients to the trees and obtaining carbohydrates made by the trees’ green leaves. The long sweeping arcs sometimes exceeded fifteen feet in length. Shorter arcs made nearly complete rings. So-called ‘fairy rings’ of mushrooms are well-known in both mythology and mycology (the study of fungi), but I have not found a coherent explanation of why they form these arcs in some cases but not in others.

The numerous troops of small whitish mushrooms turned out to be of several species, mostly in the genus Mycena, but a few in the genus Collybia. They are not mycorrhizal but rather decompose fallen plant parts such as old leaves and flowers.

Those tiny, bright yellow mushrooms belong to the genus Mycena, sometimes called fairy bonnets. I would love to know why troops of these were very common in some groves but not in others.

As usual, I am left with many questions. For instance, how does a fungus decide when to produce sporing bodies? The main part of a mushroom-producing fungus is an underground network (mycelium) of thread-like hyphae; the network may be very extensive. When the time is right, the fungus puts up sporing bodies that we call mushrooms. The mushroom cap releases ripe spores that disperse, potentially starting new individual fungi. (Although they are not the same as the seeds of plants, they have the same function). But what makes one time ‘right’ and others not? This year was said to be one of great bolete production—but what were the conditions that made it so?

And why are some mushrooms purple—what is the function of that pigment? Ditto for red, or yellow, or browns. Some mushrooms have massive thick stalks, almost as wide as the cap, while other perch their caps on feeble, spindly stalks. How come? There is so much to be learned!

Thanks to Jenifer Shapland for a primer on local mushrooms.

Crab spiders

voracious little predators

Crab spiders typically are sit-and-wait hunters that ambush insects passing close by, grabbing a victim with two sets of long claws. Small prey can be captured with just the claws, but larger prey is subdued by injection of potent venom that quickly immobilizes the prey. Most of these injection bites are placed between head and thorax or between thorax and abdomen of the victim. Placing its mouthparts in a wound made by the claws, the spider sucks out a little body fluid, mixes it with its own stomach fluid, and reinjects the mix. The mixed fluids go back and forth, with more and more stomach fluids going into the prey. Those fluids turn the soft internal tissues of the prey into liquid, which is then sucked up by the spider. In many cases, feeding begins with the head of the prey, and if the spider is already well fed, only the head contents are consumed; the spider then discards the carcass. Such selective food consumption leaves the question “Why?”. Perhaps the eyes and brain of the prey insect offer special, critical nutrients, or maybe just the most calories. (We see something similar when bears eat just the brain or the eggs from a captured salmon.)

Although some crab spiders hunt in the leaf litter or on tree trunks, the kind we have here (Misumena vatia) habitually hunts on flowers, waiting to nab the visiting insects. Dandelions sometimes make a nice hunting platform, even though they close at night or in the rain. Sometimes the spiders lurk in clusters of flowers, such as the inflorescences of lupines. Misumena vatia can change color from yellow to white and back again, depending on the background color of the flower it sits on, although it may take more than two days to effect the change. So if you see a yellow crab spider on a white thimbleberry flower, you know it hasn’t been there very long.

Finding a patch of flowers to use as a hunting base is probably mostly a matter of luck. A newly hatched spiderling can ‘balloon’ on a breeze that catches its silk thread. If it lands in a good flower patch, that’s a good start. But older, bigger spiders don’t move very far—adult females move only a few meters at most, to find good hunting sites. A variety of flowers within a short distance of each other is required, because the tiny spiderlings have to catch tiny prey, which would probably be most common on small flowers (such as goldenrod), but full-grown spiders need bigger prey and can use bigger flowers. So, to establish themselves successfully, our crab spiders need a patch that provides both small and large flowers, with a flowering season long enough to provide that variety.

In Juneau, where do they find the patches with a long-blooming array of flowers? On some roadsides (until they are mowed) and meadows such as those along Cowee Creek, and maybe in some backyard gardens.

Because adult females are heavy, especially if full of eggs, they can’t move around much, so they have to deal with whatever insects come to the flower they are resting on or another flower very nearby. A detailed study in Maine showed that bumblebees are an important prey, although they are much bigger than the spiders and difficult to capture. In fact, capture success seldom exceeded three percent of attempted attacks. So a lot of bees would have to come by, for the spider to do well. Sizable moths are also good prey, typically available at night, but many flowers close at night and draw no moths. A good foraging patch is one that attracts lots of bees or moths, offering many chances to capture a good prey.

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Crab spider capturing a bumblebee. Photo by Bob Armstrong

A hungry spider also attacks smaller prey, such as hover flies or dance flies, but adult females lose weight on a diet of small insects. Furthermore, the females need to be very well fed in order to produce their eggs; they can lay bigger egg clusters if they are very well fed. In the Maine study, few females captured enough food to produce the maximum possible number of eggs. Juveniles, being small, do well on small prey.

What about the males? They have to feed too, and go about it like the females do. But they are much smaller than females (females are more than ten times bigger) and do not depend so heavily on catching big prey. They don’t have the high costs of egg production and they spend their energies chiefly on running about, looking for females to mate with. When a male finds a recently molted, virgin female, he hops onto her abdomen and inserts sperm into her two genital openings using his pedipalps (appendages next to the ‘jaws’ on the head). Males regularly mate more than once, although it takes the better part of a day to recharge their pedipalps. (Females do so much less often). An older female is generally not as receptive and may be aggressive. In any case, the first male to mate with a female is likely to be the father of the brood, so there is less pay-off to the males from such a mating. An aggressive female may sometimes eat an attentive male, but that is not common in this spider: the males are agile enough to escape quite readily and too small to be a rewarding lunch.

Females lay their eggs inside a folded leaf, suspended in a network of silk, and guard the nest by sitting on the outside. Sitting on the outside, rather than guarding inside the nest as many other spiders do, helps keep away parasitoid wasps, a potentially major source of mortality for spider eggs. A female wasp tries to lay a single egg in the spider’s egg mass; one wasp larva can consume all the spider’s eggs, except in the largest egg masses. A defending crab spider often knocks the wasps off her nest. There is usually one brood per season, at least in Maine and probably here as well, but there could be more, farther south. Egg production typically happens in midsummer, and the eggs hatch almost a month later. The tiny juveniles need small prey that come to small flowers, because they need to feed before hibernating in the leaf litter. Juveniles that are well fed and bigger survive the winter better than small ones. The following summer, they grow some more and molt again, and spend the next winter hibernating. The next spring or early summer, they molt to the adult stage, and probably do not live through the next winter. This basic pattern may, however, vary with conditions.

Crab spiders are not common in Juneau, perhaps in part because there aren’t many good patches of habitat. So if you would like to see a crab spider in action, check out the videos on the following website:

https://www.naturebob.com/those-amazing-crab-spiders.

Thanks to Bob Armstrong for photo and videos, to Doug Jones for the loan of a book by D. H. Morse that details much about these crab spiders in Maine.

Yellowjackets and paper wasps

On a recent walk on Gustavus’ nagoonberry trail, the larger forms of wildlife were absent or in hiding. But my naturalist friend and I spotted a wasp clinging to one of the last goldenrod inflorescences, not moving at all, just resting. That observation led to a brief discussion of “wasp” versus “hornet” versus “yellowjacket”—what’s the difference? So later that day, we did a little online research.

The term “hornet” is officially applied to certain European wasps, one of which is found as an alien in eastern North America. However, we tend to be quite casual in how we apply common names for organisms, and sometimes we just call all wasps ‘hornets’, even though that is not quite correct.

“Wasp” is a good general term for a variety of Hymenoptera that are clearly related to bees but different enough to fall into several taxonomic families. Back in the Midwest, I sometimes saw the huge, beautiful wasps known as cicada-killers as they searched among the flowers for prey. That one doesn’t occur here, but we do have other kinds of wasps, including two that make nests where we can see them.

Up under house eaves, in wood sheds, under car ports, we sometimes see the nests of paper wasps (genus Polistes). These nests are made of chewed-up wood fibers, i.e., paper. Each one consists of a more or less horizontal cluster of brood cells, suspended on a cord. Brood cells house the growing larvae, fed first by the queen and later by siblings that are workers from the first batch of larvae. The queen retires from feeding her offspring then, and just lays more eggs. Adult paper wasps feed on nectar, but the larvae are fed chewed-up insects such as caterpillars.

Another kind of wasp includes several species called yellowjackets. These wasps also chew up wood fiber to make their paper nests, but there are usually two or more clusters of brood cells, one suspended below another, and the whole works is enclosed in an oval, papery covering. (There is more paper involved with these nests than with those of the so-named paper wasps, making one wonder about the naming process). Yellowjacket nests may be suspended from branches or rafters or be constructed underground.

Years ago, on some long-forgotten project in the Midwest, I stumbled over a subterranean yellowjacket nest (a kind known locally as bald-faced hornets…). This angered the whole colony and they took it out on me. Somehow they knew that I was the guilty disturber and not my nearby research companion.

Yellowjacket nests commonly have more brood cells than do paper wasp nests, so there are usually more workers. Neither kind of wasp stores honey in the cells, unlike bees. The wasps feed their larvae on chewed-up insects, while the adults eat both insects and nectar. Some species feed only on live prey, while others also visit carcasses, picnic tables, and succulent garbage. Certain species usurp the nests of other yellowjacket species and the host workers raise the usurper’s brood—they are brood parasites, the cuckoos of the wasp world.

Yellow-Jacket-(queen)-Vespula-vulgaris-on-willow-catkin
Yellowjacket queen on willow catkin. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The seasonal cycles of yellowjackets and paper wasps are similar. Toward the end of the summer season, a new queen emerges from her brood cell. Males are also produced at this time, and the queen finds a mate. All the males and workers die before winter, but the new queen and her fertilized eggs hibernate in the soil. She emerges in spring, builds a new nest, and installs that first batch of eggs in their brood cells, starting the cycle again.

A good walk often takes me into unexpected thought directions. It starts with a simple observation (in this case, a wasp on a flower), but one thing leads to another, and it’s fun to see what directions the thoughts take.

End of summer

low water, autumn flowers, mountain fish, and alder eaters

It’s really fall, now—the autumnal equinox has passed, and we’ve all noted the rapidly shortening days. The fireweed leaves are mostly reddish and the seed pods have shed their offspring to the winds. A friend observed that the curly valves of the pods looked like the plants had been given perms—all by the same hairdresser.

Late summer, and the long drought reduced my home pond to little more than a mud puddle. Even so, two broods of mallards visit every day, no doubt drawn by the seed spilled from the feeder that hangs over the erstwhile pond. The young ones are well-feathered and nearly as big as their mothers. The hordes of pine siskins that monopolize the feeder are very messy and lots of seeds fall down where the ducks gobble them up. The two duck families don’t mix at all and typically push each other around.

There weren’t many fish in the pond earlier in the season—just a few juvenile salmon and some sticklebacks. They probably weren’t doing very well in the shallow, warm, and turbid water. I watched a mallard grab a young salmon from the shore and walk off with it before gulping it down. Fish-eating by mallards is not as odd as it might seem: when I worked at the hooligan run in Berners Bay, I often saw ducks eating dead or moribund hooligan.

Late summer, and at low elevations the fireweed is finished blooming. Purple asters are now on show in many places. In some of the meadows near Eagle River there have been nice displays of long-blooming grass-of-Parnassus and—a special treat—some lovely stands of felwort with its small, blue, star-shaped flowers, just starting to bloom. Felwort always seems to bloom late in the summer, when most other flowers are done. It’s something I look forward to.

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Felwort. Photo by David Bergeson

All summer long, I’ve had a pot full of the little pansies called johnny jump-ups near my door. One day in July, I came out that door and said “I’ve been robbed!” The two deer that mutilated the fireweed in the front yard, nibbling the upper leaves down to ragged stumps, had come round and mowed down my little johnnies to a height of about three inches. No flowers left. Well, I nursed those plants back to something like their sprightly selves and they again flowered briskly. But the deer came back and this time they left only one-inch stubs. After some considerable time for recuperation, now the johnnies are trying again, but there are many few flowers this time.

One August day I watched a young buck demolishing more fireweed in front of the house. He slowly wandered along the edge of the drying pond where I have some poorly tended terraces. As I watched, he started chomping on the Canterbury bells. That was just too much. I eased my way slowly toward him and when he finally noticed me (he being much too busy eating!), he went the other way, with determined sedateness and his dignity intact, and so disappeared into the woods. But I reckon the deer are not done with my flowers!

Up at Cropley Lake the fish were rising. These are resident Dolly Varden that mature at a small size, much smaller than the sea-run dollies. There are also resident dollies in the creek that flows from the lake, but I’ve been told that the population in the lake is probably quite separate from the one in the creek, with little or no genetic mixing. The lake population is thought to have been there a long time.

In mid-August, on North Douglas, I happened to notice an alder shrub whose leaves had been reduced to skeletons. Some critter had eaten the blades and left just the veins. A closer look found some of the perpetrators—a cluster of fuzzy white caterpillars. These turned out to be woolly alder sawfly larvae. Later, driving out the road, I noticed other alder stands that were nearly leafless.

In consultation with the helpful FSL entomologist, Liz Graham, I learned that there are at least three kinds of sawflies working on alder leaves. The striped alder sawfly is a native species. The woolly alder sawfly and the green alder sawfly are not native here, although the woolly one seems to be naturalized and the green one has been in this area for several years. Heavy sawfly infestations are patchily distributed, nothing like the widespread swaths of browned hemlocks, whose previous-years’ needles are being decimated by the hemlock sawfly this summer.

Sawflies are not true flies; they are related to bees and wasps. They get the first part of their common name from the long, serrated tube through which females deposit their eggs. I’ve read that the three species deposit eggs in somewhat different parts of the leaf: woolly ones on the underside of the leaf and in the midrib, green ones on the upper leaf surface, and striped ones along the leaf petiole. The eggs take one or two weeks to hatch. The green alder sawfly burrows into bark and wood when it is ready to pupate, but the other two species pupate in the soil; the adults emerge the following year. It takes more than one year of defoliation to kill an alder, but defoliation by the insects means that there is less nitrogen from decaying leaves put into the soil. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in alder roots put lots of nitrogen into the plant, and this gets recycled back to the soil when the leaves decay. I wonder about possible ecological consequences of breaking that nitrogen-recycling pattern.