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Learning to See

Willingness, mindfulness, focus, and detective work

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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.

cow-parsnip-by-bob-armstrong
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

Feathers

it’s expensive being a bird

If you walk along a shore beside a channel where salmon run in late summer, you may find the trees full of shabby, tattered eagles and the ground below them littered with shed feathers. Or paddle up into Wachusett Inlet in Glacier Bay at that time of year and find the water surface covered with shed feathers of Canada geese. It’s the molting season for lots of birds, when many of our birds typically get rid of old, worn feathers and replace them with new ones.

Feathers were a marvelous invention; in the far distant past, some reptilian ancestors of the birds began to develop them (for reasons still debated). However they first arose, they have proved useful in many ways: insulation, rain-coat, sunburn protection, camouflage, sexual attraction, social display, and flight.

Feathers are made of keratin, a protein that provides light-weight strength, flexibility, colorfastness, and some durability. Feather keratins are very different from those that make our fingernails and hair, or those in cow horns and deer hooves. They are more similar to those of reptiles, reflecting the evolution of birds from dinosaurian stock.

All feathers develop in permanent follicles in the skin—a little dimple supplied with nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. The center of each follicle is living tissue around which the growing feather develops. Developing feathers are continually supplied with nutrients carried by the blood, so if you yank them out or cut them too close to the body, they will bleed. This is very different from mammalian hair, which comes from a different kind of follicle; it’s just pushed out from the living root as a strand of dead cells—that’s why hair doesn’t bleed or hurt when it’s cut. Once a feather is fully developed, the blood supply is cut off and the mature quill is hollow.

Every follicle has the capacity to produce a feather during the whole life of the bird. But feather development can be turned on or shut down according to the season. So, for example, some songbirds produce colorful plumage for the spring breeding season but shed those colors for camouflage when that season is over. Or the molt may be interrupted during migration and resumed on the wintering ground. A given follicle can produce different kinds or colors of feathers during the life of a bird: downy feathers for a nestling, then juvenile feathers for a fledgling, then adult feathers; or brilliantly colored adult feathers for the breeding season but camouflage patterns for the nonbreeding season. All of that is under the control of a set of special signaling genes that tell cells when and how to grow (these are known as ‘hedgehog genes’, because their malfunction makes a fly larva look like a bristly hedgehog. Hedgehog genes occur in virtually all animals, however).

Unlike mammalian hair and fur, every feather can be moved individually, fluffed up or flattened out according to need. Chilly temperatures? Fluff up the body feathers to increase insulation. Or raise a crest to assert social position. Or puff out the throat feathers to show off an attractive color. Or make minute adjustments to the plumage in flight to improve aerodynamic efficiency. Furthermore, a single broken feather can be replaced, when needed.

Birds carry a lot of feathers around. A small songbird might have two to four thousand feathers, while a big bird such as a tundra swan may have around twenty-five thousand feathers. Despite the light weight of each feather, altogether the plumage commonly weighs two to three times the weight of the bird’s bones.

Although feathers are very strong for their weight, they are subject to wear and tear. Reportedly, white feathers are especially delicate, lacking certain protective pigments. Feather edges fray, the quill may break (in a fight or while escaping from a predator, for instance), or feather-eating parasites may weaken whole patches of feathers. Contact with vegetation or simply lots of flying can cause abrasion. Worn feathers are not very good for insulation or flight or showing off or anything else, so they have to be replaced periodically—annually, at least, and in some cases more often.

However, shedding and replacing all those feathers is an expensive business. Some of the costs come from the loss of feathers; insulation is poor, for instance, so there is an increased metabolic (energy) cost for staying warm. Loss of flight feathers on the wing makes flying less efficient; in some cases, all the flight feathers are lost, leaving the bird flightless for a few days or weeks, during which it is more vulnerable to predators. Other costs are incurred by the synthesis of new feather structure; this requires protein and energy. Energy consumption during molt can be as much as fifty-eight percent higher than basal metabolism. Also, the synthesis of keratin protein requires certain sulfur-containing amino acids, which may necessitate selective foraging to obtain this special nutrition.

Some species of bird pay the costs of molting after paying all the sometimes-high expenses of the nesting season. But some birds molt and breed at the same time—doubly expensive! For example, birds that nest in the High Arctic generally molt at least some feathers while nesting, in order to get both things accomplished before it’s time to migrate south (another big expense).

It’s expensive, being a bird! Birds typically have higher basal metabolic rates than humans do and maintain a higher body temperature. Add in the costs of reproduction and molting and migration—and you clearly get a high cost of living!

Rocky intertidal fishes

some fish out of water do just fine.

A trip at low tide to one or our rocky intertidal sites always yields an array of pleasures and some treasures. Maybe I’ll see my favorite bright red hermit crab! Or find an Aristotle’s lantern—the feeding apparatus of sea urchins, which may be all that’s left of the innards of a hapless urchin demolished by a crow. Or maybe I’ll catch a whelk in the act of laying eggs. Always fun.

Lurking under rocks and rockweed, I’ll find small, slender fishes. Sometimes called eels, or blennies, they are neither: in our area, they are usually gunnels or pricklebacks, and I will focus here on some that reside in the upper portion of the intertidal zone. They spend their entire lives in the intertidal zone, which means that they are not submerged in sea water for a significant portion of each day. Of course, the higher up in the intertidal zone they are, the longer the non-submerged period, which happens twice a day. Most fish can’t handle that; we even have an expression “like a fish out of water” to describe someone completely out of his or her element.

Gunnels and pricklebacks, however, deal with low tides just fine. They (and many other species of fishes, of many different kinds) are able to breathe air. Air-breathing fishes around the world accomplish this feat in lots of different ways: for example, some use their swim bladders, or various parts of the digestive tract, or special chambers above the gills. Gunnels and pricklebacks can breathe air, using both gills and skin, as they do in water. Their respiration is reported to be just as effective in air as it is in water, although prolonged stress might alter that.

To begin this discussion, let me present some basics about respiration (in either air or water). Respiration is all about 1) getting oxygen into the body and then to the cells where mini-organs called mitochondria do the work of oxidizing carbohydrates and creating energy to run the whole body, and 2) getting rid of carbon dioxide, which is one of the byproducts of oxidizing those carbos, so that the interior of the cells and of the body don’t become too acidic (which interferes with lots of processes). Both gills and skin perform these functions, but the relative roles of those organs differ among species.

Gills of most fishes are long, thin, and delicate, so as to expose lots of surface area for uptake of oxygen and elimination of carbon dioxide. But such gills tend to collapse when out of water. Intertidal fishes make what is called a ‘trade-off: they have gills that are shorter and not quite so delicate, thus reducing their tendency to collapse, but they sacrifice some of the surface area for diffusion of respiratory gases. Shorter, stouter gills also reduce the risk of desiccation in air.

Both gills and skin need to be kept moist in order for oxygen to diffuse in and carbon dioxide to diffuse out. So when the tide is out, these intertidal residents may dip in and out of tiny pools or roll in wet places, for example.

a-high-cockscomb-by-bob-armstrong
High cockscomb prickleback. Photo by Bob Armstrong

A common prickleback in our upper intertidal zone is known as the high cockscomb prickleback—named for the prominent ridge on top of its head. That ridge tends to lie flat, however, when this dark fish is not submerged, making confident identification difficult for non-experts, in most field conditions. In this species, females tend to be larger than males (at equal ages), and males compete for mating privileges with females. Large females are especially worth competing for, because they lay more eggs than small females. Eggs are laid under rocks, where the female takes care of them for about a month: coiling around the ball of stuck-together eggs, fanning them to increase flow of oxygenated water, and guarding.

We also see crescent gunnels in the upper intertidal zone. These are sometimes readily identified by the light-colored marks along the sides, but I’m told that some individuals are dark, so discriminating them from other dark species may not be easy in the field. Crescent gunnels have apparently been studied less than high cockscomb pricklebacks, but both parents (but sometimes one or none) often tend the eggs, which are laid under rocks. Most of the other gunnels and pricklebacks in our region are either relatively rare or occupy lower parts of the intertidal zone, and in some of these species, parental care is by the males.

Another small fish is common in the upper parts of the intertidal zone: the tidepool sculpin. As the name tells us, it typically lives in tidepools left by the receding tide. It’s an air-breather too, using the gills, mouth lining, and skin. Sometimes conditions in its home tidepool become low in oxygen or too acidic; this could happen especially at night when all organisms continue to respire and produce carbon dioxide but there is no photosynthesis to use that carbon dioxide. Or sunlight might make the pool too warm. Then these little sculpins often choose to leave their pools, either partially—just exposing the head to air—or fully, resting on nearby weeds or rocks or, occasionally, crawling to another tidepool. They are said to be quite good at homing…returning to their home pond if they are displaced.

This fish is unusual in that males and females copulate and the males’ sperm are deposited inside the female, but the eggs are actually fertilized after they are laid. This is obviously a contrast with most other fishes, in which males and females spawn by releasing sperm and eggs into the water. There is no parental care.

crow-with-a-high-cockscomb-by-bob-armstrong
Crow with a prickleback. Photo by Bob Armstrong

These intertidal fishes face many risks in addition to desiccation and respiratory difficulties. Even though they have escaped the many predators in the open sea, there are opportunistic land-based predators that can find them. For example, ravens and crows fossick about in the rockweed and poke under rocks, sometimes coming up with a prize; mink delve into tidepools or turn over rocks. And we who love to explore the rocky intertidal inevitably do more damage than we would like.

Thanks to Dr. K. L. Martin, Pepperdine University, for helpful references and consultation.

What is there to see?

the art of noticing among the familiar

The Boy Scout/Crow Point trail is one that some of us walk several times a year. We get to know every rise and turn pretty well. One might think that a trail so familiar could not offer much in the way of interest. Yet it does, regularly—at least to those of us who look for things to pique and tweak the curiosity. Every season brings different things to be noticed.

One day in late August, as we emerged from the forested part of the trail, a ruckus arose out over the river behind us, somewhere near the Eagle Beach State Park parking lot. A horde of noisy crows took to the air and circled over the river, along with numerous gulls, and then disappeared from sight. I’ve never seen so many crows in a flock; there were at least a thousand of them (no exaggeration!). What would draw so many crows to that particular spot, and what would send them all up and away in such a flurry?

A little way before the junction where the Boy Scout trail splits off from the Crow Point trail, we commonly see a little flower that blooms late in the summer. On this day, there were just buds, some of them ready to open and show off the light blue, star-shaped flower. This small annual plant is known as star gentian (in one field guide) or marsh felwort (in another). It seems to favor areas of sparse, low vegetation, and we see it close to the trail. I’ve not noticed it elsewhere around here, although maybe I’ve just not been in the right place at the right time of year. Unfortunately, I have not found any information about its pollination biology, but I’d love to see what insects visit the flowers.

Recent high tides had stranded dozens of chum salmon carcasses and a few body parts alongside the trail and sloughs, which still harbored lively spawners. Many carcasses seemed to have spawned before they were stranded. The carcasses were interesting because all but one of them had intact skulls. However, several bodies had been ripped open, eggs taken from unspawned females, and a good portion of the muscle eaten. If bears had been feeding here, I would have expected to see some skulls opened up so the bears could eat the brains, which are full of fat (every neuron is coated with it). That’s what we often see at Steep Creek, especially on male salmon, which—lacking succulent eggs—have the next best stuff in the braincase. So when a bear happens to catch a male salmon, if it doesn’t reject the fish outright, it often crunches the skull for the brains. But that didn’t happen to these chum salmon by the sloughs. Those with torn-up bodies were, I presume, ripped up by birds—eagles and ravens, probably; they and gulls also took the eyes, as usual.

As we wandered out into the big flat meadow, we noticed an unusually heavy infestation of ergot on the beach rye. This fungus sends up conspicuous blackish spikes from the seed heads in late summer. It’s hallucinogenic and is thought to have been responsible, historically, for such madnesses as witch hunts; rye grain was commonly used for bread, especially by poor folks. In some stands of beach rye, there were twelve to fifteen ergot spikes on a single seed head and ninety-nine percent of the seed heads had at least one, while other stands had little infestation.

On the approach to the south-facing beach, near the edge of one of the spruce groves, there were yellowish, small piles of seed fragments and the occasional dropped seed. They lay beside the empty seed pods of chocolate lily. I’m guessing that a red squirrel ventured out of its grove and made a small feast of these seeds.

Little mixed flocks of sparrows fossicked about for grass seeds in the meadows, while some migrating warblers flitted in the bordering trees. I always enjoy that stand of red alders festooned with beautiful draperies of old-man’s-beard lichens, especially when high-lighted by an errant shaft of sunlight. Bright red fruits of baneberry, elderberry, and highbush cranberry made spots of color at the forest edge.

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Tussock moth caterpillar. Photo by Bob Armstrong

I harvested a few of those so-called cranberries (they are not even related to true cranberries), with the thought of making some of that savory ketchup. When I spread out my collection on the kitchen counter in order to pick out some little stems and leaves that had found their way into my stash, I found a tiny hairy caterpillar, the kind that most of us call ‘woolly bears’. And that reminds me to say that these caterpillars with broad black and orange bands are not true woolly bears. They belong to another genus entirely (Lophocampa), distinguished from true woolly bears (genus Pyrrharctica) by the long white plumes emerging from the black bands. Both are the larvae of tiger moths but they tend to eat different kinds of leaves. The proper common name of the black and orange caterpillar in our area is the spotted tussock moth. What? Our caterpillars don’t (usually) have spots! But reportedly, in some areas, this species sports a row of black spots on its all-yellow back. And even some of our local specimens show some black spots on the orange/yellow band. In fact, the color pattern is extraordinarily variable across North America, for reasons unknown. Another mystery, for someone to unravel…

Trailside observations and mysteries

bear scats, baby porcupines, adventitious roots, and more

–One day in mid-August, I wandered along the Eagle River trail, just to where the old Yankee Basin trail branches off up the hill. In that little walk—only about a mile, I found twenty-four things of special interest; twenty-three of them were relatively recent bear scats. Of course, I had to check them all out. I learned that, despite the numerous chum salmon carcasses and body parts scattered along the riverbank and the live salmon still thrashing about in the river, the bears had been having a varied diet. Vegetation fibers were a common ingredient, along with some blueberry, devil’s club, and salmonberry. Several scats also contained high-bush cranberries, both seeds and whole, ripe fruits (they are ripening early again this year). Gut passage of whole fruits may not be surprising, given the short length of bear guts, but high-bush cranberries seem to pass through whole more often than other fruits—begging the question “Why?”

The twenty-fourth observation was a brownish lump beside the trail, one that moved slightly. When I stopped, the lump became a very young porcupine, busily chowing down on a small plant called enchanter’s nightshade. After watching for a while, I crept by and went on. When I returned, the little fellow was still there, still eating. This time, as I approached, it shuffled off about a foot or two, but came back immediately to the same patch and went on stuffing leaves into its mouth. There were other patches of this common understory plant nearby, only a few feet away, but something made this patch particularly desirable. Was there some other small plant in the mix in that special spot, one that added to the allure?

–A stroll with a friend along a beach yielded, among other things, a king crab shell, covered with the characteristic large, robust spines. We wondered about the function of those spikes and guessed that they probably helped defend king crabs from predators. But which predators might be deterred and how do successful predators evade or tolerate the spikes? Apparently, little study has addressed such questions.

–A little walk on one of the North Douglas trails discovered some red alder trees with many odd pinkish/orange sprouts coming out of the lower three feet of trunk. These short sprouts were quite stiff, with rounded tips. One trunk had dozens of them. What could they be? Some digging into the scientific literature via the internet and some consultation with another scientist led to the conjecture that these are adventitious root sprouts, but not the conventional type that grow out into soil just above the normal roots of some kinds of trees, in response to flooding. Adventitious root and shoot sprouts (including those that make short leafy shoots on red alder trunks) both grow from meristem tissues (localized growth centers where new cells are formed) that are part of the normal development of the tree trunk but they often stay dormant and don’t break forth from the bark. Red alders have thin bark, which might increase the sensitivity of these growth centers to environmental stimuli, such as light (for leafy shoots) or water (for roots. Similar spiky root sprouts are reported to develop on certain willows too.

adventitious-roots-s-stanway
Photo by S. P. Stanway

A return visit to these same alder trees about two weeks later showed us that most of the pinkish shoots had disappeared. The few remaining ones looked shriveled, woody, and dark. None of them had grown larger than the original two or three inches, so none of them ever became rooted in the ground.

Many questions await answers! Could these odd root sprouts be aerial roots? When sodden soils reduce the amount of oxygen that can reach buried roots, these short shoots might help supply the real roots with oxygen, which is needed for cell respiration and metabolism; they may also help eliminate carbon dioxide, which is one by-product of cell respiration. Why did only a few red alders trees make them, while neighboring alders did not? Are these particular trees growing in a site that has too little oxygen available in the soil (for instance, from saturation with water)? Although the site was damp, it did not seem damper than adjacent places in which neighoboring alders grew without the adventitious roots. Do those particular trees have roots that are damaged in some way, so they have unusual requirements that can be filled by the strange shoots? Or are these particular trees just genetically disposed to be sensitive to certain environmental stimuli such as rain-water streaming down the trunk that might have stimulated the adventitious root sprouts, perhaps on particular, very sensitive, individual trees.

–Parks and Rec hikers went up to Cropley Lake one nice day. From the treetops around the open meadows came the clear songs of olive-sided flycatchers: Quick, three beers! Quick, three beers! I often hear them here in the spring, but why would they be singing in late summer when they are about to head south on migration?

–On one of the hottest days of the year, when temperatures reached eighty degrees or more, Parks and Rec headed up the Granite Basin trail. Along the trail we found a couple of small stands of the yellow-flowered fireweed, not a common wildflower around here and therefore an unusual pleasure.

A bigger treat was the discovery that a State Parks crew had completed renovations of one section of the trail, making the way smoother and safer. And there were signs that more work is intended—bags of gravel for the muddy areas and stacked boards to replace the worn-out ones. Because this is a favorite trail for many of us, we cheered the State Parks crews.

Thanks to Robin Mulvey (Forestry Sciences Lab) and Ginny Eckert (UAF) for helpful consultation.

Houses for mites?

an intriguing relationship

One July day I was moseying along a streambank, looking at the alders. Both red and Sitka alders grew there, but I was focused on the Sitka alders; I examined many leaves and put a few into a plastic bag to take home. A passer-by asked if I intended to eat them. Well, no, to my knowledge, humans don’t eat alder leaves—I planned to inspect the under-surfaces of the leaves with a dissecting microscope in my study.

Whatever for?? I suspect that most of my hiker friends already think I’m a bit nuts, with my interest in the composition of bear scats, the details of floral structures, the strange habits of slime molds, an unusual bird song, a skanky salmon carcass squirming with maggots, or other arcane natural history matters that often make me stop along a trail. A concern with the underside of alder leaves would probably clinch their opinions. Oh well….

I am interested in Sitka alder leaves because some of them have little tufts of hairs in the vein axils, where the side veins come off the midrib. On many other woody species in North America, including some maples, oaks, cherries, and grapes, tiny structures in vein axils (usually tufts of hair in North America but often pits or pockets elsewhere) serve as domiciles for mites. They are called domatia (singular = domatium), which means ‘houses’. And they serve the functions of a house: mites retreat to them for shelter from environmental extremes and predators, to lay eggs, to defecate, and to molt (leaving their exoskeletons there). Years ago, by surveying many leaves of many species in the eastern forests of North America, we found that at least twenty-five percent of domatia (and often fifty percent) in most species showed signs of mite occupancy. Similar occupancy rates were also found in foliar domatia in many other parts of the world.

Sitka-alder-Domatia 2 Carol Griswold

It is important to recognize that domatia are made naturally by the plant itself; they are often visible in the developing leaf bud. They are not galls, which are induced by the activities of insects or mites. So it is reasonable to ask if they serve a purpose and what that purpose might be.

Almost all of the mites we (and others) found in the domatia were potentially beneficial to the leaves and the plants that made them. Most of the mites were predatory–eating other mites or small insects–or fungus-eating–consuming molds and mildews and fungal filaments. Many studies have shown that the abundance of such beneficial mites is higher on leaves with domatia than on leaves without domatia. So the observations clearly suggest that this is a mutualistic relationship, in which both participants benefit: mites get housing in the domatia and plants get protection of their leaves.

The idea that the mite/domatia relationship is mutualistic dates back to 1887, when a Swedish scientist first looked at this. A few biologists accepted the idea without further investigation. But as is often the case with any new idea, the mainline scientists of The Establishment viewed the idea with scoffing, scorn, and rejection. Someone even went so far as to suggest that domatia occurred on leaves for the benefit of plant taxonomists, because they turned out to be useful in identifying species.

Such foolishness aside, a few experiments more than a hundred years later eventually showed that leaf damage is less when mites occupy the houses and forage over the leaf surfaces. Further study revealed that associations of mites with foliar domatia go back many millions of years, showing up in fossils. By now, leaf domatia are known from woody plants in most major taxonomic groups all around the world.

So—back to my Sitka alder leaves: I wanted to know if there were mites in those domatia too. I looked at ten mature domatia-bearing leaves from each of five locations in Juneau, counted the domatia and inspected them for evidence of mites. In over four hundred domatia, I found only four mites and one possible mite egg.

In the course of searching many alder leaves for domatia, I also found that leaves on many branches and trees had no domatia at all. In short, development of foliar domatia is sporadic in Sitka alders and mite occupancy is apparently very low. It takes a while for mite populations to develop on new leaves each year, so possibly a census of domatia in August would show a higher occupancy rate than in July, although that begs the question of what good it might do to protect leaves so close to the time when they turn brown and fall off. Maybe the summer season here is simply too short to allow time for a good population build-up of beneficial mites? Furthermore, considerations of mite population levels do not address the question of why domatia occur so sporadically on these leaves.

Perhaps evolution is in process of eliminating useless domatia from Sitka alders…or, contrarily, increasing their potentially useful occurrence on that species. Would on-going climate change affect the outcome? More questions than answers, once again!

Flowery fun in Gustavus

an orchid show, and other floral delights

Lady’s slipper orchids are sometimes called moccasin flowers, referring to the shoe-like shape of the flower. One of the petals is modified to form an oval pouch with an opening on top. The edges of the pouch are rolled inward. A small shield-like structure hangs down into the back of the pouch and behind the shield are the sex organs. The flower offers no nectar to visitors, but at least some species have an attractive aroma.

Bees that visit these flowers enter the pouch, but the rolled-in edges keep them from crawling out. So, once in the pouch, the bees are obliged to crawl up behind the shield, in order to get out again. In doing so, they pass very close to the pollen-receiving stigma, leaving pollen from previously visited flowers, and the pollen-bearing stamens, picking up pollen on their bodies to carry to another flower. A very elaborate system for creating the next generation of lady’s slippers.

After pollination, thousands of dust-like seeds are produced. They are so small that they contain no nutrition for a developing embryo (this is true of orchids in general). Lacking a source of nutrition, the seeds have to rely on forming an association with certain fungi (mycorrhizae), in order to germinate and grow. Lady’s slippers are slow growing and take several years to reach the flowering stage.

There are dozens of species of lady’s slippers in North American and Eurasia. They belong to the genus Cypripedium. This name is derived from some ancient Greek words. Cypris is an old name for Aphrodite (a.k.a. Venus in Latin), the goddess of love and beauty. The ‘ped’ part of the name refers to foot or footwear, sometimes rendered as ‘sandal’. So Cypris/Aphrodite/Venus has a rather large collection of sandals in her wardrobe!

Lady’s slippers were familiar to me, from years spent in the Midwest, but I have never seen them in Juneau. So one of my hopes for a recent Gustavus trip was seeing these in bloom. We’d seen their leaves occasionally in the past, but the plants were not then in flower. On this June trip, with the help of a knowledgeable naturalist there, we located clusters of three species of Cypripedium. There was a large-flowered white one (C. montanum, or mountain lady’s slipper). A small-flowered, round white one with some brownish spots is called C. passerinum (sparrrow’s egg or northern lady’s slipper). A yellow-flowered species has often been classified as a subspecies of C. calceolus, but more recently botanists seem to consider it to be a separate species, C. parviflorum, the small yellow lady’s slipper.

June 22 Cypripedium passerinum Sparrow Egg orchid 2 resize
Cypripedium passerinum, sparrow’s egg lady’s slipper. Photo by Kerry Howard

Lady’s slippers and many other showy orchids are often collected from the wild by willful gardeners. But this practice has led to the near-extinction of some species. The slow-growing habit, low levels of pollination and seed set, and the need for mycorrhizal fungi make recovery of exploited populations slow and difficult. So these plants should never be harvested from their native habitats.

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Cypripedium parviflorum, small yellow lady’s slipper. Photo by Kerry Howard

We found other orchids too. Tiny twayblades are much more common in Gustavus than in Juneau. They are pollinated by minute flies and wasps, as Darwin documented long ago. Coralroots and so-called rattlesnake plantain are common in Juneau as well as Gustavus.

Orchids were not the only flower show in town, however. Lupines created hills of blue on the beach dunes. Cow parsnips and buttercups brightened beachside meadows. Roses and irises added splashes of color. One meadow was thoroughly decorated with the small white inflorescences of Tofieldia, which is easier to say than the ponderous common name of sticky false asphodel. Sticky it is—the stem sometimes captures tiny insects. Apparently, some botanists thought the inflorescence resembled the European asphodel, which in Greek mythology grew in the meadows where the souls of the dead walked. Great stretches of forest understory were carpeted by the leaves of deerheart, which sent up its small white spires of flowers, and the nearly-luminous, wide, white flowers of bunchberry (one of my companions is alleged to have said that they lighted the way to the outhouse in the darker hours!).

Indian paintbrush provided the most stunning floral array. Here in Juneau we see some yellow-flowered ones and (especially at higher elevations, I think) a few red-flowered ones. But in Bartlett Cove we found a beach meadow simply covered with paintbrush flowers: yellow, red, orange, particolored, and every combination in between. Quite splendid.

Here and there in summer

alpine sights, body-checked by a grouse, some thoughts on bear viewing, and wildlife on the home front

–In early August I went up Gold Ridge in hopes of finding the big, blue, broad-petalled gentian in bloom. Being a rather impatient sort, I’d tried earlier, in July, with no luck. But on this warm, sunny day, there were a few in bloom and more with buds. Higher up on the trail, I didn’t spot any, and they probably bloom slightly later up there. However, the mission was successful on this day, and a search later in the month should find lots more.

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Photo by Bob Armstrong

Even if there had been none of those beautiful gentians, the day was a good one. A mountain goat was silhouetted on the ridgeline; young marmots gamboled about, while a big adult lazed on a boulder. There were several bear scats along the trail and, of course, I could not resist inspecting at least the most recent one. It was full of salmonberry seeds, along with some vegetation fibers; because the salmonberries at this elevation were not yet ripe, I knew that this bear had been foraging down lower.

Bird life was not well-represented, however: a pair of curious ravens, a robin, and an invisible sparrow pip-pipping in the alder brush. It is always a little sad when the season of bird song is over for the year. Nary a grouse or ptarmigan to be seen, and I’d seen only one brood in July. Although apparently no official census has been conducted, they seem to be much scarcer on the ridge these days than they were a few years ago. Back in 2005, the area was opened to hunting, and it is very likely that hunting has reduced the grouse and ptarmigan populations. Many of those birds were habituated to people on the trails, and many of us thoroughly enjoyed seeing them and their chicks almost any time we ventured up the ridge. Shooting them would have been easy (and very unsporting). It seems that, for the sake of a few hunters, the pleasure of many observers was reduced.

–When the sockeye come in to Steep Creek, the bears can feast. This summer, the one we know as Nicky came down late, as usual, and she does not have cubs; she’s around eighteen years old and may be slowing down a little. The cubs of Bear 153 put on a good show one evening: swinging on the willows, tussling in the grass, getting startled by a big salmon thrashing upstream, tipping over the camera gear set (by permission) in the stream, cavorting in the shallows. I had dropped by, intending to stay just a few minutes, and ended up staying almost two hours.

The few times I have gone out there to bear-watch, the crowds have been quite well-behaved, not needing much guidance from the rangers about proper conduct in bear country. But with so many people visiting the area, someone (or someone’s dog) inevitably makes a wrong move that makes the mother bears nervous and concerned about their cubs’ safety. This is a time to be especially observant of bear body-language and to give the bears even more space than usual. These bears are quite used to people and normally behave extremely well; we can keep them that way, for all of us to enjoy, if we ourselves behave properly. A new guide to staying safe around bears, including some new information, is in the works; it will be available from ADFG.

–When we were in Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay, one day in June, we stumbled upon a female grouse that clearly had chicks somewhere nearby. Standing on big rock, she clucked and fussed, even when we stood back to see what might emerge from the tall, dense beach grasses. I circled slowly back around her rock, hoping to see the chicks as they crossed a narrow path. Well! Mama did not like that one bit, and as I inched forward, she gave a body slam to my shoulder as she flew ahead, sounding the alarm. As far as that female was concerned, I had invaded her space and she was not going to stand for it! Then we saw the eight or so chicks—they had already crossed the path and were not close to the mother’s rock at all. Nice big chicks! They all took flight away from the presumed danger (us), followed by mama.

The next day, we managed to upset a pair of greater yellowlegs as we walked out into some extensive beach meadows. Both adults yelled and swooped at us, so we knew that there were chicks in the area. We never did see those chicks, well hidden in the tall grass, and the tumult subsided as soon as we moved out onto the open beach.

–My home pond was a happening place this summer. Four different broods of mallards made it a regular stop on their rounds through the neighborhood. First, there was a brood of ten ducklings (known as the Tens), then a brood of five (the Big Fives), a brood of eight (the Eights), and a later brood of five (the Little Fives). Seldom was there more than one brood on the pond at a time; if two broods happened to be there, one dominated the area under the hanging seed feeder. There was a nice rain of seeds falling from that feeder, as the juncos scratched among the loose seeds and the jays tipped the whole feeder off balance. This was manna from heaven! And not to be shared. The Eights would advance upon the Little Fives, pushing them into a corner of the pond, and go back to gobble up falling seeds. On another day, the roles would be reversed, the Little Fives winning the prize. The Big Fives sometimes charged at The Eights, relegating them to the far upper end of the pond, and went back to snarf up the seed rain.

Several broods of juncos (and their parents) grew fat on the seed offerings, and I watched the young ones gradually acquire their adult plumage. Bears wandered through but did not bother with the inaccessible feeder. I watched two predators with evil intentions about ‘my’ ducks, but they departed, still hungry. A roaming dog threatened one brood, and the mother duck led that dog a merry chase in her version of a broken-wing act: back and forth went dog and duck, the duck always just two or three feet ahead of the dog. She could have just flown away, but she was intent upon keeping that dog away from her young ones. The dog did not respond to orders from the shore, so eventually, my quick-thinking neighbor jumped in and grabbed the dog, and peace was restored.