Learning to See

Willingness, mindfulness, focus, and detective work


the question is not what you look at–but how you look and whether you see. (Thoreau 1851)

In my weekly essays I commonly report small natural history observations noted during a walk in the forest or meadows. Readers of these essays sometimes ask me how I manage to notice the little things I frequently write about—a trail of a small beast in the mud, an odd excrescence on a twig, hairs caught on tree bark, a bee sleeping among goldenrod flowers. Well, that is easily answered: I am interested! And that is the starting point.

So if you think you might be interested in learning How to see, or How to see better, or How to see more, while taking a walk on or off trail, keep reading. And, although I am putting this in terms of seeing, the same principles apply to our other senses.

I think the process of really seeing things can be broken into four stages:

Stage 1. Being willing to become engaged in the process of observation of natural history. It is not necessary to be a naturalist at the beginning; as experience grows and observations accumulate, you have more background to build on, and a beginning naturalist is hatched. But it is entirely necessary to be willing.

Stage 2. This could be called mindfulness or ‘being there’. Although we often think about many things while taking a walk—maybe health problems, or what to make for dinner, or books you’ve been reading—take some time to be aware of where you are and what is around you. Even while talking with a friend, use your peripheral vision and let one part of your mind catch something that’s unusual or different. Maybe it is a change in pattern—an unexpected flower color, a dark spot in a field of yellow, a lump on a pine branch. Let it spark your curiosity.

Stage 3. Focus. Look more closely at what caught your peripheral vision and ask questions. Is it a flower that you don’t recognize? What are all those flies or bees doing? Why did those gulls suddenly fly up in a big swirl and move down the beach? What made those leaves roll up into cylinders? What could have made that narrow, wiggly trail in the mud?

Stage 4. Detective work. Try to answer at least some of your questions. This may involve more observations, or looking things up in a book or on-line, or consulting a local expert. Or you can be satisfied just by noticing things and looking more closely.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Here is an example. You are walking on Perseverance Trail in summer. You are vaguely aware of a lot of white, flat-topped inflorescences on tall stems near the trail. You may or may not know the plant is called cow parsnip or Indian rhubarb. Most of the inflorescences might have a small fly or two crawling around—barely worth noticing, maybe—but one of them looks darker and has a dozen or so flies of various sizes, making it look different from the others. As you watch, you notice that the flies are probing into the tiny flowers that comprise the inflorescence, possibly eating nectar and pollinating the flowers as they move around. But one of the ‘flies’ looks a little different from the others; it has longer legs, a thinner abdomen. And as you watch, you see it probing flowers like the other insects but gradually sidling up to a feeding fly and pouncing on it! Wolf in sheep’s clothing! Not a real fly, but a predatory wasp.

That simple observation could lead on—to finding out the identification of the wasp and more of its life history, to reading about other sneaky predators, to figuring out the effect of the wasp on pollination, to looking for similar behavior on other types of flowers, and so on—depending on how much detective work you want to do. In short, you have discovered a STORY, one that could be expanded in several directions.

These activities are not the choice of everyone. But if you are willing, and have a little bump of curiosity, and take the time to pay attention, you will find many small stories—connections among things, contrasts or parallels among other things—and all of this enriches a walk.

It’s fun to do these story-searches by yourself. But it’s even more fun to do them with a friend. I have two dear friends that share this fun with me rather regularly (and whose thoughts contributed substantially to this essay).We complement each other, noticing different things, asking different questions, contemplating different answers. Try it!

The rare moment is not the moment when there is something worth looking at but the moment when we are capable of seeing. Joseph Wood Krutch 1951

Signs of spring

…in the air, on the trees, in the water…

The days get longer and longer, and folks in Juneau begin to wish that spring would hurry up and get here. The spring equinox occurred this week, so now Spring is officially here.

The real world was ever-so-slightly ahead of officialdom. In the days of March before the equinox, there were clear signs that spring might really happen, even though snow still covered the ground and hung in clumps on tree branches, and creeks were mostly ice-covered. Redpolls still thronged to our seed feeders, and the magpies were still in town too, not yet ready to head over the mountains to their nesting places.

But the plants knew that the times were changing. Cottonwood buds swelled with the developing leaves inside them. The catkins of feltleaf willow, always the earliest willow to flower, began to emerge from their bud covers but were not yet sexually mature. The still-immature male catkins of red alders along the roads began to blush with a rusty-red hue. Blueberry twigs took on a brighter red and their buds began to peep open. Young willow shoots shone with a yellow hue.

Near several streams, adult stoneflies began to emerge from the creeks, crawling over the snow. Some observers have suggested that female stoneflies stay closer to the streams than males do, because they lay their eggs in the water, where the larvae develop. That leads me to wonder why the males don’t hang out where the girls are, since their main goal is to find mates.

The early birds were singing: Juncos trilled from the tops of trees and shrubs. I heard a few song sparrows and had reports of varied thrushes and a wren in song—still rather sporadically. A few robins foraged for skimpy foods. At least some sapsuckers are back, drumming their rhythms on metal roofs and drainpipes. There is a report of black oystercatchers, early returnees to our rocky shores from points south. Groups of gulls were checking out their nesting areas near Mendenhall Lake one day, but apparently they decided that the visit was premature and it would be better to wait a while. Then, just before the equinox, they tried again; I heard their calls as they flew up the valley and over the lake toward the glacier.

Pairs of ravens canoodled on lamp posts, and a raven on Sandy Beach was diligently filling its bill with clumps of dog fur, a sign that a nest was being lined with those cozy materials. At least some of the Canada geese near the Boy Scout camp were consorting in pairs. A few days later, in the same broad meadow, hundreds of Canadas grazed, joined by a lone snow goose. Steller’s jays expanded their vocabulary: their spring repertoire includes a variety of more musical sounds than the familiar year-round squawk.

Photo by Jos Bakker

One of the beaches on Douglas Island is a place I like to check, about this time of year, because I often find ‘mermaids’ purses’ washed up at the high tide line. These are the egg cases of long-nose skates (relatives of rays and, more distantly, sharks). There is one egg, and thus one embryo, in each egg case of this species. Eggs are fertilized inside the female skates and the cases of protein fibers are constructed around the eggs. The cases are yellowish-brown before they dry out and turn black on the shore. Most of those that I found had been hacked open, perhaps by a raven or gull, but some appeared to be intact. Maybe the embryo had already emerged through the seam in the side of the case, ready to go as a fully formed young skate. Or maybe a predatory snail had drilled a very small hole (less than five millimeters or so) in the case and slurped up the young embryo. Or there is also a possibility that no embryo had been there—that the case was produced with no egg.

When someone says ‘spring is in the air’, it really is! As Parks and Rec hikers waded through flooded meadows to the beach just beyond the Cowee Meadow cabin, little zephyrs brought the welcome smell of spring to our noses. I don’t know what makes that aroma so distinct, but there is nothing quite like it.

Wordplay with beastly epithets

there’s very little natural history in animal-based slurs and slights!

We often use the names of beasts to label a person’s look or behavior. We take a real or imagined trait of some critter and transfer that description to a person. Most of these labels are derogatory, to both the person and the critter, and some are usually gender-specific. Even the adjective ‘beastly’ implies something negative, perhaps rough or cruel or otherwise unpleasant to us. Here are some examples.

We might call a dirty, messy person a ‘pig’. Pigs in pens are indeed messy, but the operative word is ‘pens’. Penned pigs have no choice but to void their body wastes underfoot. But pigs don’t have sweat glands, so in order to stay cool, they normally roll in mud. In a pen, that mud is fouled with wastes. Not the pig’s fault! And in any case, people are known to pay good money for a cosmetic mud bath.

Somewhat similarly, a young person might (rudely) call an older woman a ‘silly old cow’, implying that she is slow in thought and movement (and thus somehow interfering with the youth’s activity). Or we use the term ‘bovine’ (cow-like) to describe a person who appears to be somewhat dim-witted, standing around staring blankly, not responding (outwardly, at least) to surrounding activities. I don’t know much about real cows, except they are not usually fast runners; if they are slow of thought, it is probably because they have been domesticated for so long that their thought processes have been dulled.

A weasely person (usually male) is sneaky, sly, evasive, somewhat treacherous. Although real weasels are predators that are slim enough to run down vole tunnels, that does not make them sneaky and sly and so on. A shrewish person (usually female) is hypercritical, constantly directing complaints to another person.

But real shrews are just small predators with high metabolisms and are not known to nag each other.

Two persons (usually female) gossiping snidely about an acquaintance may be said to be ‘catty’, but cats are not known to be nasty gossips.

A mousey person (usually but not always female) is habitually weak and timid. But it pays a real mouse to be ultra-cautious in their world of many predators. Mousey may characterize a personality, but anyone can be a ‘chicken’ upon occasion. We chickens may not run squawking away from every perceived threat, but we may nonetheless avoid certain places or activities. However, it is not clear that real chickens are any more flighty than lots of other critters.

An old person may be called an old coot or a buzzard, with no relation to those real birds at all. An ‘old bat’ is typically a female, given that libelous label when she has irritated or frustrated a younger person. However, no true bat interacts in that way. A person that is seen as ‘owly’ may be somewhat grumpy, but quietly so. However, there is no indication that real owls are grumpy (except perhaps when mobbed by other birds). If one ‘rats’ on a friend, that is a betrayal at some level, so a ratty person may be very unreliable as a friend—or just a messy dresser. In either case, real rats are not known to be that way; we just don’t like them in our houses.

A foolish person is a goose; a devious cheat is a ‘snake in the grass’. We may ‘quail’ at the sight of something scary or be ‘gulled’ by a slick salesperson. A total loser is a ‘turkey’. None of those terms has much to do with the real animals. A human ‘skunk’ has no relation to the beautiful mustelids of that name.

Not all of these epithets are totally pejorative, though. Someone with an ‘eagle eye’ is good at spotting a tiny bird in a thicket or small errors in a text. A foxy lady is seen as sexually attractive (although how foxes got into that mix is not clear; the word fox has many meanings), and an ‘old fox’ is known to be a clever person. A roomful of small children may get ‘squirrely’, restless and fidgety and running around in circles, like a squirrel confined in a cage (with a running wheel). This I understand!—even if it is hard to deal with.

‘Slippery as a fish’ is fair enough (their protective mucus coating makes them so), and when a deal ‘smells fishy’, the dealer may be trying to slide something (perhaps smelly as a long-dead fish) past us.

Here’s an interesting and complex example. A female dog is called a bitch. Both men and women may ‘bitch’ (grouse (!), complain, grumble) about something, but only women are called ‘bitches’ by those who object to their complaints. I doubt very much, however, that female dogs do more whining than male dogs. In an odd twist in language, something (a concert, a trip, etc.) that was a wonderful experience may be referred to as really ‘bitchin’!

So the language becomes more colorful. But at the same time, the overwhelming frequency of derogatory uses of animal names reflects an unfair and arrogant attitude toward the beasts whose names we bandy about. Most of those pejoratives bear no relation to the real beasts.

The many uses of urine

courtship and defense, signposts and bragging rights… and a few human uses too

Reading about porcupine courtship made me think about how other animals use this metabolic waste product. Urine is an excellent vector for delivering scents and hormones that are signals involved with courtship (as in porcupines) and territorial defense. Many mammals, as well as some fishes and invertebrates, makes use of this convenient and readily available delivery system for olfactory communication.

We are all familiar with domestic dogs lifting a leg to urinate on a tree or fencepost. Such scent marks are sniffed by other dogs, who can learn the identity of the mark maker from the unique mix of scents, and often leave their own marks atop the original one. We sorry humans, with our relatively poor sense of smell, sometimes have a hard time imagining the scented world of dogs and many other animals, but these other beasts can identify individuals, as well as sexual and social status, from scent marks.

Both members of the dominant pair in a pack of wolves use urine to scent-mark the borders of their territory; newly formed pairs superimpose urine-borne scent marks on each other’s previous marks, probably as a part of courtship. Territorial borders marked with urine deposits are a regular feature of behavior in a variety of mammals, including coyotes and tigers. Beaver families make small, black piles of debris marked with urine and anal gland secretions to establish claims to particular waterways; other beavers are thus given notice that the place is occupied.

Males of many ungulates (such as moose, bison) either urinate over their own legs or wallow in urine-soaked dirt as a way of chemically signaling their status. Stallions urinate on established dung piles to advertise their dominant status. Male elephants and giraffes actually taste a few drops of female urine to detect hormones that signal readiness (or not) to mate. Female crayfish and swordfish send out a chemical signal via urine to attract willing males. Urine is used for certain forms of chemical communication among individuals of some species of primates (the taxonomic group to which humans belong).

Human campers sometimes urinate all around a camp site in hopes of deterring unwelcome four-footed visitors (although I don’t think the efficacy of this boundary marking has been fully determined), but human uses of urine go way beyond simple boundary marks. In the course of history, urine has been used in several inventive ways. Perhaps best known are the roles of urine in tanning hides and as a mordant to bind dyes to cloth. In sixteenth century England, whole casks of urine were shipped across the country for use in the dye industry.

The ammonia in urine can cut dirt and grease, and so it has been used as a cleaner. Even after soap became available, urine from chamber pots was used as a household stain-remover. In ancient Rome, urine collected from public urinals was hauled to laundries, diluted with water, and poured over dirty clothes in a tub; a person then stood in the tub and stomped on the wet pile to thoroughly mix the cleaner with the dirty clothes. Commercial persons who made a business of collecting and selling vats of urine were even subject to Roman taxes.

A traditional Scottish way to treat woven wool was to soak a length of the cloth in household urine to clean it and set the dye, and then pound it on a board. The process is called ‘waulking’ and still continues in the Hebrides (and in Nova Scotia by descendants of Scottish emigrants) as a cultural celebration.

Urine has been used as a tooth-whitener and for making gun-powder. Hormones extracted from pregnant mare’s urine are one way of treating fertility and menopausal problems. More recently, stem cells extracted from urine have been re-programmed to grow new nerves and other tissues. Many other medical applications are part of folklore, and indeed may be efficacious, but they could use verification by scientific study.

Very versatile stuff!

Three vignettes

a portrait of the naturalist in her own element

— Worming my way through the throngs of tourists, who were jabbering in at least four languages, I finally could peer over shoulders and outstretched arms with attached cameras. And there they were, the objects of all this attention: a female black bear with three tiny cubs of the year. Both tourists and bears were well-behaved. The bears lolled about between the platform and Steep Creek, occasionally nibbling on a leftover bit of sockeye.

After a while, Mom got up and sauntered a few feet away, where she munched on some greens. Her salad. A bit later, she walked slowly into the creek and, in one quick rush, caught a salmon. Crunch, crunch, crunch. She took it back to the cubs, and that was the main course.

Then they all ambled off through the brush, appearing a few minutes later under the next viewing platform. There they all snuffled around in the low vegetation, picking nagoon berries. Even the cubs know what to look for. Dessert!

— Between the north end of Fifth Street in Douglas and the gravelly part of the Crow Hill Road lies a short trail. Access into and out or a steep little ravine is assisted by knotted ropes, providing a new experience and a small thrill for the youngsters with us.

A small distance along is an old concrete dam on Bear Creek. Thanks to the works of Earl Redman and Bob DeArmond, I found a little information about the dam and the creek in the State Historical Library. Bear Creek was once known as Mission Creek, because of a nearby Quaker mission (the missionaries sometimes had a hard time with the miners…but that is another story). The first record of activity on the creek was an 1882 water claim for mining use. In 1888, a short-lived mining claim saw some sluicing and tunneling action at the very end of the Treadwell orebody.

The concrete dam was built in 1934, to supply water to the town of Douglas. It no long backs up water and the little creek flows unimpeded through the base, but I failed to find out when it ceased to impound water. Judging from the vegetation in the valley, it was many years ago. The trail goes right along the top of the dam, with concrete railings on both sides. I’m sure there are folks in town who remember the history of this little dam, and I’d love to know more about it.

— The top of Thunder Mountain on a warm, sunny day in mid August was a floral paradise: Splendid arrays of the intensely blue broad-petaled gentian, whose flowers open and wait for visiting bees only in the sun; patches of the low-growing, single-flowered harebell, with its up-turned blue cup; tall monkshood with deep purple flowers; pink subalpine daisies; tall groundsels presenting their crowns of yellow sunbursts.

The ground-hugging dwarf willows were sending white tufts into the breeze, dispersing their seeds to parts unknown. Bog blueberries grew in mats over the thin soil, and some patches of them were loaded with ripe fruit.

There are spectacular views down to the glacier, the Valley, and the islands, to the bridge and on southward, and up to Heinzleman Ridge (and a possible mountain goat). The only birds were two ravens overhead, in leisurely conversation, and a few savanna sparrows (probably), dodging around in the low vegetation.

An interesting find was a single plate from the back of a chiton. A little more searching revealed a total of seven plates, weathering out of a pellet cast by some bird, perhaps a raven. So that’s one way the remains of intertidal creatures can end up in the alpine.

Lunchtime on top of Thunder has a lot to offer! Well worth the steep climb up and the long trek down through a string of pretty meadows, a scattered stand of yellow cedars, and through the woods and mud along an old pipeline to the East Glacier trail.


an invertebrate extravaganza (with some vertebrates too)

When the tide goes out, it’s time for a natural history treasure hunt. This year, both May and June brought really low tides (more than minus-four feet) at more or less reasonable hours of the day. Of course, we had to go looking for weird and wonderful creatures that might be visible. We went to two likely spots, one in May and the other in June. At one of them, we were supervised closely by a pair of watchful black oystercatchers.

Here are a few of our ‘treasures’. All of them were viewed in place and sometimes photographed, or they were carefully replaced where they were found.

Numerous tiny sculpins scuttled for cover as soon as their pools were disturbed or even at the approach of the terrestrial monsters that cast long shadows. Hiding under small boulders were cockscomb pricklebacks, crescent gunnels, and a pale, thin fish called a gravel-diver. These little fishes are sometimes called eels, which they are not, or blennies, although they are not even very closely related to true blennies. They are reported to eat a variety of small invertebrates.

Sunflower sea stars, with their soft surfaces and multiple arms, were plentiful at one site; they came in all sizes from about four inches to perhaps twenty inches in diameter. They usually feed by swallowing their prey whole, and they eat almost anything, including sea urchins, clams, snails, other sea stars, and mussels. The common five-armed sea stars displayed an astounding array of colors: gray, olive, bright and dull orange, brilliant purple, turquoise, and tan. There were lots of little ones of this species, about half an inch across, and these didn’t seem to show such a wide variety of color. These sea stars can use their tube feet to pry molluscs open or lift them off the rocks. They typically feed by everting part of the stomach over the prey and digesting it in place. Despite their very crunchy nature, they are preyed upon by large gulls, big sunflower sea stars, and large crabs. A special treat was finding a few brittle stars, mottled in maroon and green. They are detritus feeders, preyed upon by some fishes and diving ducks.

There were at least five kinds of sea cucumbers, a big purple one, medium orange ones, small white ones, smaller translucent ones, and thousands of the very small black ‘tar spot’ cucumbers. Sea cucumbers typically breathe through their hind ends—pulling sea water through the anus into a set of branched respiratory tubules connected to the hind gut. They feed on organic detritus mopped up from the substrate or captured in the water column. I presume there is a mechanism for keeping digestive products out of the respiratory system! Their predators include several kinds of sea stars, some fishes, and sea otters.

Worms came in several guises. My favorite, one I’d never seen before, was an intertidal gillworm, buried in mud under a rock: bright red, with feeding tentacles at the front end and many thin filaments along the side that serve as gills for breathing. Of course, there also were other polychaete (meaning ‘many-bristled’) worms of several types, with their numerous body extensions containing various kinds of stiff bristles that may help in locomotion, and the extensions also assist in respiration. Many polychaetes feed by extending a tubular, muscular proboscis, usually armed with teeth, to grab their invertebrate prey. Polychaetes are the favored prey of ribbon worms, which can change their shape from elongate, skinny ribbons to stubby slug-like forms. Ribbon worms subdue their prey by stabbing with a sharp stylet and injecting a neurotoxin, then pulling it in to digest.

The common ‘black katy’ chitons came in all sizes, and so did the more colorful lined chiton. We found one hairy chiton, with its frill of ‘hairs’ all around the edge. Chitons are basically grazers, eating algae and little invertebrates that are stuck to the rocks (baby barnacles, sponges, and so on). Chitons are prey of sea urchins, some sea stars, black oystercatchers, harlequin ducks, and river otters, among others. I once found a pile of plates from a chiton on top of one of the mountain ridges, perhaps indicating that a raven had pilfered one from another predator.

Lined chiton. Photo by Pam Bergeson

There were hermit crabs of all sizes, hundreds of urchins, the usual big green and red anemones, and the smaller green burrowing anemones that somehow squeezed themselves into impossibly small crevices. Small periwinkle snails abounded in some places; they are grazers. And there were a few larger, carnivorous snails known as whelks, which can drill into other shelled creatures and slurp out the innards. Just imagine being a blue mussel and feeling that big snail rasping through your shell! Ah, but sometimes even those sedentary mussels can fight back, by ensnaring the attacking whelk in byssal threads, which are usually used to attach mussels to the rocks but can be diverted to repel invaders.

A nice find was an alga that turned out, upon investigation, to be two algae. A dark, filamentous alga bore odd, warty, oval bubbles or sacs on its fronds. Those sacs didn’t belong to that alga; they were another alga altogether, one that lives epiphytically, attached to other kinds of algae. It is called ‘studded sea balloons.’ A new one for me!

A treasure hunt, indeed. I’m basically a terrestrial ecologist, so a visit to the intertidal zone is always both fun and educational.

The ice tells

stories written on a frozen pond

MidApril, and my home pond is still mostly covered by ice, with a thin layer of snow on top. Nevertheless, there is quite a lot of activity out there. The snow records the passing of several visitors.

The pair of mallards that claim this pond are, at the moment of writing, resting quietly on the bank, under a snow-bowed alder. But they have been traipsing back and forth from the bit of open water at the outlet to the patch of open water at the inlet, leaving several trackways across the ice. Sometimes they visit the considerable accumulation of spilled bird seed that builds up under the feeders suspended over the pond. When the ice thaws and dumps the remaining seeds to the bottom, the ducks will dive for them.

The mallards aren’t the only ones to harvest seeds from the ice. The hordes of siskins and redpolls that dropped all those seeds from the feeders come back later and collect some of the fallen seeds. The red squirrel that lives below a neighboring spruce tree ventures out to gobble up those seeds too—now that the feeders on my deck are no longer operative. Juncos go out there too, but the males are singing now, and they are having other things on their minds. I haven’t seen a jay here for weeks; they may have begun nesting—and the little birds can now forage in peace.

A raven regularly patrols the pond. The ice is its lunch plate, because there I throw out any uneaten cat food, which the raven collects. It has left a complex network of tracks all over the ice. That bird will miss the ice-plate when it melts!

Other visitors include a porcupine, who has trundled several times across the ice. Most recently, an otter came by, passing over the ice just once in its exploration of open waters.

Out on Mendenhall Lake, there were recent tracks of skis, and in the very middle of April we watched a pair of skiers and a dog taking their chances on the weakening ice. With worrisome visions of calamity dancing in our heads, we knew we’d be in no position to help, if the ice failed (it didn’t). We were safely ensconced up on The Rock, the rock peninsula across the lake from the visitor center.

It has become an early spring ritual to hike up on The Rock, looking for the early-flowering purple mountain saxifrage and whatever else we can find. We had a lazy lunch, basking in the sun, listening to ruby-crowned kinglet songs and watching bumblebees zooming about. The bees didn’t visit the saxifrage flowers, although the flowers held nectar and pollen. Perhaps they favored the willows: the male willows were starting to present pollen, just the thing for bumblebee queen to feed her new brood of larvae.

We were overseen by several mountain goats, lying on ledges near the top of the ridge. The goats are still down at low elevations, both here and near Nugget Falls across the lake, so they have been seen and enjoyed by many folks. Right in our own backyard, so to speak. How cool.

To round out a week of fun, I walked in the sun on the beach and sand flats south of the visitor center. I ambled along, thinking of other things altogether, when my brain awoke to the many small trackways crisscrossing the snow. Two feet, very short steps, going from one stubby willow shrub to another—who could it be but a ptarmigan! Then, about forty feet ahead of me, there was a small patch of something whiter than the snow. Aha! The perpetrator of the tracks. The bird didn’t move, and I didn’t move. Have you even tried to hold absolutely still for a long time?—don’t scratch your nose, don’t shift weight from one foot to the other, don’t cough, just pretend to be a tree. It’s very hard to out-wait a bird that is holding still and thinking its camouflage makes it invisible! But I managed to do it, and eventually, after many, many minutes, the bird resumed feeding on willow buds. Presently, another ptarmigan crept ever so slowly out from under a spruce and joined the first bird and both of them fed on willow buds. They seemed to be very small, so could they possibly be…….., but alas, I was too far away to be sure of the diagnostic identification marks in the plumage (foolishly, I’d left binoculars at home). After watching for quite a while, I made a wide detour around them and continued down the shore.

On my way back, I came upon them again, this time only about ten feet away. Being this close was a lucky break. Now I could see their tails very clearly and there were no black feathers there. Whoopee! That confirmed the conjecture based on small size—these were indeed white-tailed ptarmigan! Both of them were still snapping up willow buds and they let me watch again. The summer molt was just starting, and they had occasional blackish feathers poking through the white winter coat.

I’d never seen white-tailed ptarmigan before, and now there were two of them, right in front of me. They nest in the high alpine zone, but winter sometimes brings them down, and I got lucky!

Visiting the wetlands

toad ponds, goose foods, and owl pellets

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

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

Photo by Katherine Hocker

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

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

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

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

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