Strolling on the snow

Snow and more snow!

The deep snows this winter are too much for these little snowshoes we usually use here—one just postholes, and the enlarged feet have a hard time pulling up out of the hole. The old North Woods style of ‘shoe would be more suitable. But the little ‘shoes are what we have, so we tend to stick to the groomed trails, walking on the side of the trail as much as possible and avoiding disturbance of the classic tracks set by the groomer.

One day in late December, a friend and I strolled up Montana Creek, looking for signs of wildlife activity. But nary a track could be seen. Strange. Some distance up the trail, a bit of open water appeared, just a very narrow, intermittent channel. Friend wished for a dipper—and just on cue, one came around a curve, flitting downstream. It stopped briefly in each small opening in the ice but didn’t seem to find much to eat and eventually went farther downstream. But there wouldn’t be any open water there until it reached the Mendenhall River, so its explorations would have to continue. When streams are frozen, dippers often forage in intertidal zones.

The next week, we rambled around the Lower Loop at Eaglecrest, where critter-tracking is often rewarding. This day was no exception: there were weasel and porcupine trackways ranging widely; voles and shrews had scampered in and out of sheltered spots. Snowshoe hares had explored many places, usually under brush or low-hanging conifer branches, where the snow was not so deep.

There was not much sign of squirrel activity, just a few tramplings near some trees. I wonder if they were using tunnel systems under the deep snow—the squirrel that lives near my house seems to have long, well-used tunnels, which it often uses instead of traveling on the surface, popping up near what used to be a garden. I know that voles and shrews often scurry about below the snow, but they had appeared on the surface fairly commonly. So why not the squirrels– perhaps they weresnacking on things in their snow-buried middens??

Ptarmigan or grouse left their bipedal trackways, often in and around brushy thickets; they may have nibbled blueberry buds as they walked. One of these birds came up to a steep little bank on the edge of the trail and slid on its bum down the loose snow, to find its feet again at the bottom of the short slope.

I spent quite a lot of time in a spot where tracks were overlapping and complicated to sort out. Some were from hares, some from ptarmigan/grouse, but there were others also. Only a few of these others were clear enough to allow possible ID: maybe about an inch and a half wide, with five toes, one of them set back a little from the others.  Hmmm, quite possibly a marten! There was, however, no evidence of predation, so I can’t finish the story.

One critter that commonly leaves tracks near the Loop was missing from the records in the snow on this day: Deer tracks were conspicuous for their absence.

I was interested to see that the lower-most extension of the Loop, near the opening of the Treadwell Ditch trail, showed almost no sign of wildlife activity (just one vole track). I’d noticed this lack on other excursions up there. I have to wonder why so little activity is recorded there—the habitat is the same (to human eyes), so why is this part of the Loop apparently so un-used?

In early January, we walked up the Dan Moller trail, using the convenient snow-machine route, which was packed enough to walk without ‘shoes. Up through the meadows, looking for critter signs, but with little luck. The deep snow transformed the once-familiar landscape into unrecognizable terrain. A little imagination added to the fun; the heavy snows had laden the trees and stumps into wonderful shapes. One that caught my eye immediately was clearly an old woman, draped in her shawl, stooped over while mourning a dead companion at her feet.  Another was a small spruce whose top bore such a load of well-packed snow that it was bent into a full-curl ram’s horn. 

There’s no end to what you might find, if you go stravaiging around on our trails!

Four wintery walks

sun and shadow and snowy tracks

The thermometer at my house read eleven degrees (F) after a clear, starry night; the sky looked clear, although the sun wasn’t really up yet. Juneau had recently enjoyed about six feet of lovely snow, but many of the trails had not yet been used much. In search of a well-packed trail, a friend and I headed for the Boy Scout beach trail.

All went smoothly until we reached the junction where the trail splits three ways, and none of the splits looked good. We chose to go right out onto the goose meadow and immediately found ourselves breaking trail and post-holing through deep, crusty wind-blown drifts. Even following in the footprints of my companion, I (weighing forty pounds more) plunged and lunged, knee-deep and more. However, a hundred yards or so farther on, walking became a pleasure again, because the low vegetation was almost clear of snow, thanks to some recent super-high tides that left a few scattered cakes of frozen foam and to the wind.

Post-holing again out to the beach by the iconic cottonwood tree, we decided not to face the stiff, cold north wind that was churning up waters out in Lynn Canal. So, instead of coming back on the big, exposed beach, we turned toward the camp buildings, found a log, and had a little picnic in the sun. As soon as we got out our thermoses and lunch bags, two importunate ravens landed on the beach right in front of us—they knew the drill! Of course, we obliged them, tossing out bits of sandwich that they promptly snapped up. But they eyed a fragment of a sugar-snap pea with great suspicion and avoided going close to it—no veggies for them! One of them chose to sit next to us on the log for a while.

On this day in mid-December, the morning sun barely cleared the horizon. On the upper beach, I noticed that every isolated pebble cast a shadow much longer than itself, making a grid of conspicuous black stripes that called attention to each pebble.

The Chilkats across the canal were spectacular: the low morning sun made sharp contrasts between the sun-bright south-facing slopes and the intensely blue-shadowed north slopes. Behind us, the trees on the hillsides were individually defined by the snow they carried and on the peaks the snow delineated the minor topographical features very nicely.

Few critters were visible on this walk. A seal cruised by, just offshore, and gulls fossicked about in the tidal wrack. A wren zipped rapidly from trailside to shelter under some roots; they are so tiny, I wonder how they stay warm on frigid winter days. No midges or spiders crept on the snow surface.  But there were tracks of mink along the river, red squirrels in the woods, ermine and vole at the edge of the meadow; one or two small birds (who?) had hopped and run in the beach rye lining the meadow trail. A low-flying raven (?) left the mark of one wing-tip in the loose surface snow.

The next day was mostly sunny and, again, very cold (seven degrees at my house in the morning). I opted for snowdrift-free walk on the dike trail. A few tracks of squirrels and maybe an ermine were the only natural history notes of the morning until I had almost finished the walk. And there in the stand of willows was a female pine grosbeak, busily nibbling buds. I frequently see these grosbeak in fall and winter, as they forage on high-bush cranberry, carefully extracting the seed and dropping the red fruit pulp—the opposite treatment from that of bohemian waxwings, who eat the fruit and excrete the seed.

A couple of days later, the cold remained (just six degrees here). I had an idea to try some of the lower meadows along the Eaglecrest Road, but roadside parking was hard to find and the thought of plowing through deep snow, even on snowshoes, was daunting. So, on up the road to the Lower Loop, nicely groomed and unoccupied. The sun couldn’t make it up over the peaks, but ‘shoeing was easy.

There was not a live critter in sight but there were plenty of signs of life. A porcupine was into long-distance travel, heading straight across the meadow, not stopping to forage. Ermine had cruised all over the meadows in circuitous routes, looking for a juicy morsel. Snowshoe hare tracks were abundant, mostly under sheltering conifer branches or going from one shelter to another. Grouse or ptarmigan had been active, inspecting salmonberry and blueberry bushes for tasty buds and sometimes staying long enough to trample the snow flat. Except for a few squirrel marks, the smaller folk had left no signs on the surfacebut were no doubt active below.

A day or two later, it was still very cold. A group of friends strolled the dike trail, enjoying the bright sunshine as the sun crept over the peaks. A dusting of fluffy snow lay atop a snow crust. Several voles (I think) had made sorties out into the grassy areas, circling back to the trees or to holes under grassy tussocks; we noted at least seven of these trackways, well separated from each other. Looking through the chain-link fence and across a ditch, we saw tracks on a big snow drift that looked like Two-toes—but how could a deer walk up that crusty snow on those thin legs, without punching through, when humans (on our side of the fence) generally ended up post-holing?

Transition to winter

…maybe?

In early November, I walked along a gravel road in the company of frost-decorated branches. A mat of old leaves lined the roadway, each leaf fringed with crystals, making a pretty mosaic in tones of russet, old-gold, and brown. In an open area, I found a collection of more old leaves, not matted down, each one with a distinctive cover of frost crystals. Quite aside from the interesting physics that presumably accounted for the variety of crystals, every leaf was a thing of beauty. As the poet (John Keats) said: A thing of beauty is a joy forever…

Photo by Mary Willson

The Lower Loop at Eaglecrest in early-mid-November was a fine place for a walk. A bit of fresh snow lay on the meadows, and above the white blanket the tops of old seed heads and Labrador tea plants poked up –as individuals rather than part of a mass of faded greenery. Tawny-gold grasses stood tall and colorful on that background. Dainty little grasses draped their dangling seeds artistically. Tufty pine branches bore small caps of snow.

Conditions for finding evidence of several local denizens were perfect. Porcupines had traipsed hither and yon, exploring endlessly, it seemed. Every few yards, one of their trackways crossed the path, sometimes running parallel to the path for a while. One of them left a long, orange-yellow dribble as a mark of its passage.

Squirrels had made their well-beaten routes from tree to tree and across the path. A small bird, probably a junco, had hopped out of brushy area into the open. Voles had scampered about; one made a nice tunnel under the snow, revealed only in spots where the snow-roof had collapsed. A shrew left a narrow groove on top of the snow and then dove into a tiny hole under a clump of grass. Another trackway suggested that a deer mouse had been active, making quite long leaps with its sizeable hind feet.

A few days after that Lower Loop stroll, in hopes that sea-level rains meant snow had fallen at Eaglecrest, I went back up there. But even the Lower Loop had lost much of that earlier snow. So I trudged up the road, circled the Hilda Dam cabin, and came back down the Trickster run, and had some fun there. There was a thin layer of fluffy snow on top of a very thin crust. Snow covered the moss mats, but groves of moss sporophytes stood up above the snow. As usual, porcupines had wandered about, and squirrels had dared to cross some open spaces. In a little dampdrainage, a shrew had scurried over the surface, supported by that thin crust. A deer had run downhill, covering dozens of yards before jumping a log and going back into the woods.

I found a trampled cluster of indecipherable smudgy tracks near a few seed heads that had been demolished, leaving scattered fragments on the snow. On the top of the smudges, I saw what looked like ermine footprints. But, despite some hints, the smudges were a puzzle. A few minutes later, however, I found a long trackway going from one weed patch to another and noted that Smudgy was bipedal and big enough to break through the thin crust, disturbing the snow layer and disguising any toe marks. Ha! The prime suspect was probably a grouse.

Some days after that, I went with a friend to Eagle Beach State Park, to have a look at the vegetated sand flats in the river. A thin film of soft snow covered the ground. On the way, we saw that squirrels had been busy, crossing the path in several places. Along the river shore, rather recent flood waters had piled up great stacks of fallen trees and combed the herbaceous vegetation into orderly lines. A mink had run on the edge of the riverbank, but there were no bird tracks to be seen out there. Looping back through the campground, we found the trackway of a vole, scuttling across an opening and under some grasses.Near the parking lot, a raven had strolled over the lawn, but no ravens came to mooch any part of our lunches as we sat on the bench near the river.

Some nice big white flakes were falling, but they soon changed to rain (of course). Then we waited to see if the forecast snowfall actually happened…and it did! By Thanksgiving time, there had been several good snowfalls, although the streams were not yet iced-over. One day on Douglas, I saw several tiny, delicate flies flitting about and resting on the snow. According to a local expert, they were probably snow midges, whose larvae like cold-water streams and typically emerge as adults in winter.They are quite tolerant of cold temperature and may survive for many days, as they search for mates.

Tracks and king eiders

winter sightings and mysteries

Early March brought us a lot of gray skies, but there was one spectacularly sunny day when there was deep, fresh snow at Eaglecrest. The parking lot was jammed, the slopes were thronged with down-hillers, but the nicely groomed lower Nordic loop was little used by humans, at least the morning I was there.

So a friend and I ambled around the loop on snowshoes, looking for tracks and hoping (in vain) to hear an early junco singing. There were a few deer and hare tracks, and a probable mouse. A raven had landed, punching deep in the snow and bracing a bit with one wing tip; then it walked a few feet and took off again—I wondered why it chose that particular spot. Here’s where an ermine dashed out from under a bush, bounded over the snow, and dove under the deep snow blanket. Oh look! Lots of bipedal three-toed tracks circling one blueberry bush after another… clearly a grouse or ptarmigan had come for lunch, nipping dozens of tiny buds off the blueberry twigs.

Just as we were about to move on from the bud-feeding area, we saw a small shrub at the side of the trail, poking up out of soft snow: a single stem with just a few twigs on top. Suddenly it quivered very noticeably, and then did it again. That movement was not caused by wind or a falling clump of snow or anything else detectable on the surface. So I suspect that some small critter under the snow was jostling the base of the stem. A lot goes on down there that we don’t see.

The next day was gray again. I made a quick trip to Point Louisa with another friend. I wasn’t expecting to see very much, because the tide was way out. But when we got out on the point, a gaggle of bird watchers had gathered, drawn by reports that some king eiders were seen there. The watchers were what I call ‘real birders’, who keep up on recent sightings and often carry telescopes as well as binoculars and don’t need to consult the field guides to know what birds they are seeing.

Just off-shore was a big crowd of scoters that even I could identify, along with a few harlequin ducks and goldeneyes. The birders assured me that mixed in with that lot were two female king eiders and even graciously loaned me the use of a telescope. After lots of finger-pointing and information on just where in that big flock I should look, I think I finally saw them—two brownish ducks with smaller bills than those of the scoters. A first, for me!

Photo by Kerry Howard

King eiders nest on the coastal tundra way up north, with the males then in their colorful breeding dress. There they feed on invertebrates in the freshwater ponds. Most of the birds that nest up there spend the winter in the Bering Sea, where they dive for benthic invertebrates.

However, some of them wander down our way at times. In addition to some records from Gustavus, there are records, over several years, of sightings from Sandy Beach to Eagle Beach—that stretch of coast is, of course, where most of the local birders are active; it seems likely that the eiders occur sporadically up and down the coast. Most of the sightings have been in winter and early spring. I have to wonder what brings them to our area…

The birds in the big flock were bobbing about peaceably (https://vimeo.com/520231569). The scoters were diving and coming up with prey, usually a mussel. When a scoter surfaced with prey in its bill, it shook its head with the prey securely clamped in the bill, perhaps to jettison some indigestible bits and extra water. Meanwhile, the eiders were cruising around among the scoters, occasionally dipping down to grab things not far below the surface. I suspect that all those paddling feet and diving birds stirred up small invertebrates, making them more accessible to the eiders. Perhaps the eiders also occasionally snatched up edible fragments that were accidentally discarded by the scoters.

Thanks to Doug Woodby and Mary Hausler for the loan of their telescope and guidance on where to look, and to Gus van Vliet for helpful consultations. Thanks also to Kerry Howard for the photo and to Bob Armstrong for the video.

February scrapbook

warm and bright observations in an icy world

Winter finally arrived sometime in early February, with good snow on the ground and very cool temperatures. I’ve lived here for three decades, so I’m quite well acquainted with Juneau’s local microclimates—it’s often warmer, wetter, and windier downtown than it is in the upper Valley where I live. But I recently saw what seemed to be an extreme case: as I drove Out the Road one morning, I left my house at a temperature of minus six degrees (F), then the car thermometer registered plus thirteen, dropped quickly to minus two, and rose again to plus fourteen degrees. That’s a twenty-degree span in fewer than twenty minutes. Extraordinary.

Along the way, I passed a place where a thin blanket of white mist lay over an estuary and shallow inlet. We often see this phenomenon in cold weather and sometimes call it ‘sea smoke’ or ‘steam’. But it’s not steam…steam is hot water vapor, and it’s not really smoke, either…not full of organic particles and carbon dioxide. Whatever the right name is, the cause is well-known. Liquid fresh water cannot be colder than thirty-two degrees (or it would become ice). So the surface of the estuary was warmer than the frigid air and water was evaporating. When that rising water vapor encountered the cold air, which holds less water than warm air does, it condensed into small droplets that hung over the water surface in thin mist.

I met a friend at the Point Bridget trailhead and we set off to see what we could find. The best find was the trail of an otter, bounding and sliding over flat ground and out onto the frozen beaver pond. Even on the flat, this otter was sliding as much as eight feet before gathering itself for another bound and slide. Wouldn’t that be fun to do! Blowing snow had drifted into some other tracks, but we found those of porcupine, moose, and a deer or small moose; red squirrels had made new highways under some of the trees.

A stiff breeze was churning Lynn Canal into a froth and big waves were roaring onto the beach where we look out at Lion’s Head. By the time we got there, it was afternoon and the wind was increasing, as it often does then. So the beach log where we often perch for lunch was not very hospitable. Even behind the beach berm, the wind was making the emergent tall grasses lie almost flat on the snow. So we found a windbreak in a sunny spot for a comfortable lunch.

Home again, with temperatures a relatively balmy plus sixteen degrees. The birds were active on the feeders, among them ‘my’ pair of red-breasted nuthatches. They brought two youngsters to the feeders one day last summer but they have apparently stayed on their territory for the winter. Each pair is socially monogamous; there apparently have been no studies of extra-pair matings (which are common in many other birds). Nuthatches defend their territories from other nuthatches; the male is especially vigorous in defense when the pair is excavating a nest in a dead tree. They also defend the nest cavity from red squirrels, which are potential predators of eggs and chicks.

Nuthatches have the odd habit of putting sticky conifer resin around the opening of the nest cavity. It is thought that this helps deter predators. One study found that more resin was placed around the nest entrance right after a face-off with a squirrel. Rarely, however, this tactic backfires, and one parent gets inextricably stuck in the resin and dies.

After the nest is built, females incubate five to eight eggs and the male brings her food. Incubation takes about twelve days and chicks stay in the nest for almost three weeks. Sometimes the male joins the female in the nest during incubation and brooding very small chicks. After the chicks fledge, the parents feed them for another two weeks and then the youngsters sometimes stay with the parents for many weeks, or they may become independent and disperse. Most nuthatches probably live only a few years; the maximum known lifespan is just over seven years.

Nuthatches forage by walking up and down and around tree trunks and big branches, especially in winter, presumably because dormant arthropods lurk in the crevices. They can walk head-first down a tree trunk and even walk upside down underneath a branch. They have a very short tail, not usable for bracing again the wood as woodpeckers and creepers do. Having a relatively long hind toe helps them scamper down and sideways. Outside of the winter season, they also forage on twigs and leaves, even on the ground sometimes, and occasionally catch insects out of the air.

Photo by Gwen Baluss

Captured food is often cached in holes and crevices, sometimes covered with bits of lichen or bark. A big item is wedged into a crack and then hacked into smaller bits (unlike chickadees, which hold such items in their feet). In fact, their English name may have originally been nut-hacker. At a seed feeder, nuthatches can be very choosy, carefully selecting the largest and heaviest items.

Little appears to be known about how they manage in extremely cold weather. They do join mixed-species foraging flocks in winter, along with chickadees, kinglets, and other small birds. Presumably their insulation is quite good, but they don’t seem to roost communally or have elevated metabolic rates then (as some other birds do). More questions to be answered!

January bricolage

A stalking goshawk, some prime tracking, and a trip into a sub-nivean ice tunnel

Back in mid-January, during all that unseasonably warm and dreary weather, I looked out my front window one afternoon, to check on the twenty or so mallards that were congregating on the nearly ice-free pond. An adult male goshawk paraded along the bank, looking meaningfully at the ducks. The wary ducks had retreated to the center of the pond, where they waited to see what the predator would do. Perhaps they felt safer on the water than in the air. Darkness fell before I could observe the end of the stand-off.

In a recent essay I was moaning about that dismal weather that seemed to last forever, and I was looking for something cheerful to think about. But—wonder of wonders—a few days after I wrote that essay, a big moon appeared in the night sky and a bright yellow orb peeped over the mountains and the sky was blue instead of gray. Moreover, there was a nice blanket of new snow that added to the welcome brightness. Hurray!

Just before the sun really decided to reappear, we made a tour of the lower loop at Eaglecrest, finding the best assemblage of critter tracks we’d seen for a long time. A few hares had been out and about, and a weasel had bounded across the trail and into the brush in several places. Squirrels had made their usual highways out from the bases of trees. A mouse (probably) had ventured cross a small opening between two brushy shelters. Another set of obscured tracks were a puzzlement: I wanted them to belong to a marten. There were deer tracks in several places, including those of a very small one. The best finding was the wandering track way of a grouse (or ptarmigan), maybe searching for fallen seeds of for buds to nip and eventually disappearing into a thicket.

On a day of full sun (!!), we visited a meadow out the road, plonking about on snowshoes in search of whatever might be interesting. The snow was too crusty for shrews to leave their delicate traceries and voles were staying under the snow, but weasels had been exploring. A deer had come into the meadow and circled several small spruces, pausing here and there. It looked like lichens were on the menu, one kind in particular. Where the deer had been foraging, the spruces still held loads of Usnea longissima (old man’s beard) but little or no Alectoria (witch’s hair). But in parts of the meadow not recently visited by this deer, we could find draperies of Alectoria on the low branches. On other forays, I’ve seen neat browse lines along the edge of the woods, where all the Alectoria had been eaten. Now I have to wonder what makes that lichen a preferred food (at least at times).

One morning I headed out for a sunny walk on the west-side beach of Mendenhall Lake. Up at my mailbox I heard a ruckus in one of the trees overhead. There was a tight little ball of about four chickadees, fluttering and flapping and chattering, as they all tumbled from one branch to another. The fight continued down the slope and out of sight. One more thing to wonder about; this was more than a quick argument over a seed or two. Were they picking on an intruding stranger? Or had one of them seriously misbehaved in some socially unacceptable way? Or??

On another nice day, my foray took me to another meadow where the tussocks were separated by narrow channels that had been full of water; a layer of ice had formed on the surface. But the channels had dried up, leaving an air-space about a foot deep between the persistent ice and the bottoms of the channels. The snow cover made it hard to tell where the little channels were, so when a snowshoe found one and broke the ice, I dropped down catastrophically and pitched over in a heap. My ‘feet’ were twenty-five inches long and tangled unmercifully in the remaining ice layer as I tried to extricate myself, so it took a while for me to heave myself up on something solid. Eventually, I wearied of more falls and many near-misses and decided to bail out by walking under some big spruces, where there were no tussocks and empty channels to contend with. These lovely spruces were open-grown, so they had many long, low, sweeping branches for me to clamber over and under, making sure my big ‘feet’ didn’t get snagged. This was hard work too, but there was a little surprise: many of those long, low branches were decorated with a series of small mounds of cone scales, a few inches apart, as the squirrel had chosen a different spot on the branch for each spruce cone on which it snacked, rather than peeling off the scales into one big midden.  

Early winter walks

confluence tracks, a caddisfly on ice, and an orphaned bear

A visit to the lower reaches of the Herbert and Eagle rivers usually turns up something of interest. A recent warm spell meant that looking for critter tracks in snow would be a vain endeavor. However, the sands were well-decorated by several animals.

Deer tracks old and new went every-which-way. One trackway went right to the last bit of sand and disappeared, so that deer probably swam the river. Maybe it took advantage of the current to arrive at some point well downstream. There were mink track and a good print of a small otter. Beavers had trekked back and forth over the sand bar, one of them recently toting a twiggy branch that left a well-defined pattern. Local beavers had a big cache of small branches for feeding little, growing beaver-lets through the winter.

Perching on a convenient log and pulling a snack from a backpack had the often-predictable result of attracting a black-feathered opportunist. This raven was obviously an experienced moocher and stood expectantly less than fifteen feet away. So the snack was shared. As experienced as that bird was, it approached tidbits tossed only three feet away with the characteristic sideways hops, ready for a quick dash to safety if needed. Just as the supply of snacks ran out, another raven came in and missed the fun.

The west side of Mendenhall Lake caught the brunt of some very strong winds in early December, piling up big plates of broken ice. I went back out there a week later, when a light snowfall had brightened everything. The ice plates were still there, but this time one of them featured the only wildlife seen on that walk: a caddisfly. One of the big chunks of ice was tilted up, and the critter was walking down the steep edge. As it did, a small bit of ice broke off below its feet—I like to think that the insect kicked it off. Someone said it looks like the critter is climbing down its own Denali.

A winter caddisfly, sometimes called a snow sedge, walks down an icy ridge on the shore of Mendenhall Lake. Photo by Kerry Howard

This caddisfly has a name (probably Psychoglypha subborealis) and a nickname (snow sedge). It is winter-active: both males and females have been found at times of very cold temperatures—as low as minus twenty or thirty degrees Centigrade, having emerged from their freshwater larval stage in the fall. When they emerge, they are adult in form but sexually immature. They mature gradually during winter, using up stored body fat in the process and females developing their eggs. They mate and lay eggs (in open fresh water) in early spring, and then apparently die, after a life span of roughly six months.

This caddisfly is not unique among insects in having a life history involving winter activity, but there are not many spend an entire phase of their life history in winter. I wonder about the ecological pressures that led to the evolution of such an unusual habit. Certain kinds of stoneflies customarily emerge, as adults, from fresh water streams in late winter, as soon as the streams aren’t completely covered with ice. Temperatures are often below freezing, but these winter stoneflies have ways to cope with the cold. They are interested in mating at that time, maybe getting a head start for their larvae in the streams?

On a group hike to Crow Point and Boy Scout beach in mid-December, when there was nice, fresh snow on the ground, I found some mouse tracks, a vole highway between grass clumps and some wanderings, and a set of squirrel tracks. Weasel tracks were all over the place—maybe hunting was not-so-good and lots of searching was needed? Or are there lots of weasels out there? We watched a small black bear cub in the tall grass, where it was digging persistently for some time, apparently finding edible roots. There have been reports of an orphaned cub in this area (and elsewhere), and this one was all alone. However, it seemed to be fending for itself reasonably well, and although it was not very chubby, we hoped it could eventually hibernate successfully.

An orphaned bear cub forages in the meadow near the boyscout camp. Photo by Denise Carroll

Winter may be here

edging into a colder season

The days grow shorter and darker, until we turn a corner at the winter solstice and the sun slowly starts to come back. At this time of year, my little excursions tend to be short too. Even so, some things of interest always appear.

Around Thanksgiving time, the West Glacier Trail offered a spectacular collection of hair-frost displays. A cold snap froze many rain-soaked sticks, forcing out thin strands of ice. Some displays featured long stretches of two-inch long curved strands; other displays had multiple sets of shorter strands, each one curling in a different direction, like an enviably wavy hairdo.

Dippers were sometimes foraging and singing in Steep Creek. Two otters, possibly a female with a juvenile, were fossicking about in a nearby pond, observable from the viewing platform. Eventually they went over a small ridge toward the pavilion—and as I went up the ramp in the same direction, I could look down into another pond, where I saw the otters again. The bigger one caught a nice coho and both otters went up the bank to feast. Later, I learned that this was a fish that had been radio-tagged by the Forest Service in the Holding Pond—a fish that apparently backed out and went farther up-river to try Steep Creek instead. The remains of this fish were found by a Forest Service fish biologist.

At the lower end of Steep Creek, a beaver dam slows the main stream just before it reaches the lake and creates a good pond for the beavers’ lodge. Unfortunately, in late November and early December, some very unhelpful person(s) were destroying part of this dam, which thus drastically lowered the water level in the pond. This vandalism served no useful purpose whatsoever. The pond protects the entrances of the beaver lodge; this is the lodge featured in the educational ‘beaver cam’ in the visitor center, allowing visitors to see beavers at home. The pond is also habitat for over-wintering juvenile salmon, as well as feeding sites for dippers and ducks. There were no more coho coming in, and in any case, they commonly enter this pond over a small dam off to the side. Fortunately, a spell of warm weather melted the ice and allowed the beavers to repair the breach in the dam to some degree—there were several new beaver trails going up the banks, for collecting more repair material.

I like to walk along the lake shores when the water level comes down. It’s often a good place to look for animal tracks and sometimes an unusual bird. In late November, I found a nice group of swans in the Old River Channel—three adults and a juvenile—in a spot that seems to be popular with swans on migration.

Then, at the very end of November, there was some snow at Eaglecrest, so it was fun to see what animals had been out and about. Two little explorations with friends noted the usual perpetrators– hare, porcupine, weasel, red squirrel, shrew, a possible coyote, and numerous tracks of deer of all sizes. By the end of the first week of December, there was a lovely thick blanket of snow, traveled by the same array of critters and, by us, on snowshoes. In addition, a small bird, probably a junco, had hopped over a still-open rivulet and spent a lot of time jumping up to reach some seed heads that poked up out of the snow.

In early December, the snow in one of the lower meadows on Douglas was too crusty for the tracks of small things. But again there were lot of deer tracks. A tiny shore pine, no more than three feet tall but possibly quite old, did not seem to be doing very well. It had only eleven tufts of needles on the few living branches. But it bore dozens of old cones—perhaps this was its last attempt to reproduce.

Over on the Outer Point Trail on north Douglas, a friend and I remarked with great pleasure that the recently revised and improved trail passes just below the long beaver dam, leaving the dam undisturbed. Major kudos to CBJ and Trail Mix for using ecological sense!

In the first muskeg after that beaver dam, I noticed something that I should have seen on one of the many times I’ve passed that way: Most of the small pines (less than about three feet tall) were thriving, but virtually all of the mid-size ones (six to ten feet tall or so) were dead. This pattern is not repeated in other muskegs that I have visited recently. So the question is What kind of event(s) might have wiped out a whole size-class of shore pines in this place?

On our way down to the beach, we spotted a few varied thrushes and a red-breasted sapsucker that should have been on its way south by now. We startled a small porcupine, who scuttled off a few feet and waited for us to pass. At the uppermost edge of the beach, a sprawling little herbaceous plant had green leaves and out-of-season buds. Two alders had crossed their branches very closely, rubbing hard against each other until each one had flattened scars where the rubbing occurred. We joked that now they are just ‘rubbing along together’ more or less comfortably.

A stroll with another friend in the Dredge Lake area was not very eventful until we were almost finished. On the trail ahead of us, we spotted two birds. It was so dark that almost no color could be discerned, so it took us a minute to decide what they were. Juncos? No, too big and they were walking not hopping. Blackbirds? No, tail is too short and bill is too stout. Then one of them hopped up into a nearby shrub and a white wing bar could be imagined. But what really gave them away was their characteristic behavior: they were snatching the fruits of high-bush cranberry, stripping and dropping bits of pulp, and gulping down the seed. Bingo! Pine grosbeaks doing their namesake behavior: their scientific name is Pinicola enucleator, meaning pine dweller that extracts ‘nuts’ or seeds.

Tracks in December

tracings of life in an unusually warm winter

A warm, very wet spell in early December made the lichens and mosses all perky and colorful. Beavers left their distinctive foot marks in a thin dusting of snow and swam out around their winter caches of twigs, tail-slapping when we passed by. In a ‘real’ winter, they would be tucked up into their lodges, snoozing a lot, talking quietly with their offspring, and occasionally nibbling a twig from the cache. The kits of the year, however, would be chewing twigs all winter long, as they continue to grow. Bears were out and about too, mom and cub leaving their tracks near Dredge Lake, instead of entering into serious hibernation. That entails a profound reduction of metabolic rate, shutting down digestive processes, and very little activity inside the den, quite a contrast with beavers.

Then, in mid-December came a lovely and welcome snowfall, just a few inches at sea level. It wouldn’t last, of course, in this time of warming climate, so I dug up my snowshoes and headed to Eaglecrest. There the snow was maybe a foot or so deep and just right for poking around on a day when the lifts weren’t running. Snow was falling thick and fast, quickly covering any little tracks of mouse or shrew. But under the trees were prints of snowshoe hares. A small-footed canine creature had run across a wide open area, leaving a long, straight line of well-spaced prints. There was no evidence of any human anywhere nearby, so I guessed that a coyote had raced along. But very few critters made themselves visible—a porcupine that seemed to think that if it could not see me, then I could not see it; and one flying insect, probably a stonefly. Nary a bird to be heard or seen not even a hopeful, attendant raven.

A couple of days later, a nice little cold snap meant that even at sea level, there remained a few inches of snow cover. I went out the road to some meadows, where I plonked along on snowshoes—a convenient way to deal with snowy humps of frozen grass. Oddly, there were no shrew tunnels to be seen, nor any squirrel tracks, and again not a bird could be found.

But otters had been quite busy. They had fossicked along a tiny rivulet, trampling some spots quite flat; there were more than one of them, apparently, so perhaps a family of mom and well-grown pups. I lost their trail when it went under the trees where there was no snow. However, a few minutes later, I encountered their characteristic slide marks where they had crossed a snowy, open area, pushing off strongly with the hind legs and gliding smoothly even over flat ground. This is probably more fun than stomping around on snowshoes! A bit farther on, otters had come up out of a tiny stream and snuffled all around the nearly buried ends of several low, trailing spruce branches. What was going on there, I wonder.

Some days later, I looked for tracks in another meadow out the road, but there had been little recent activity. A couple of squirrels had explored the meadow edges, out of the trees and back again, diving under humps of bent-over grasses. Before the last little snowfall, porcupines had trundled over the meadow in several places, on their usual meanderings. They seem to travel quite extensively, perhaps in search of just the right twig to nibble (?). Along a small creek, some critter had burrowed into the bank in several spots—possibly an otter.

Surprisingly, there were no little shrew-size grooves on the surface of the snow, no tiny holes where a shrew dove under the white blanket. Yet this was a meadow that, in previous years, had been laced with trackways of shrews. One shrew had even taken a dive off a vertical mudbank and gone skittering over a gravel bar in a creek. But where are all those shrews now?

A fluttering on the creek-bank caught my eye and eventually turned into a dipper. This bird was foraging along the water’s edge but apparently found little of interest, because it soon took off, upstream. That was the only living animal to be seen, except for one red squirrel crossing the creek on a broken-branch bridge.

Later that day, on another stream, I checked a long-occupied beaver lodge. There were no signs of recent beaver activity here, although the lodge may be currently occupied. However, other woodland folks were interested in the place: porcupines and mink had visited on more than one occasion in recent days. Was this perhaps a multi-species condo? It wouldn’t be the first time that happened.

The slanting light of midwinter that stabs one blindingly in the eye at certain times of day on Egan Drive, did some beautiful things out by the meadows. Some conifer-clad hilltops were brilliantly lit, contrasting with darker slopes below. Light mists collected in the valleys caught the light rays and turned golden. Overhead, some dark clouds gathered amid some white fluffy ones, but bright rays came through the many unclouded areas, where blue sky was a cheery sight.

April Scrapbook

a sea lion necropsy, grazing geese, and other fascinations

In mid-April, I had the privilege of observing a necropsy of a subadult male sea lion that had recently died. The carcass lay near the end of a rocky point. I was fascinated not only to see the big beast close-up but also to watch the well-organized NOAA necropsy team in action (lead veterinarian Kate Savage). The animal had no perceptible wounds, but it was very thin and its stomach held nothing more than a stone, a small clam, and a cluster of round worms. Was it unable to feed, for some reason, or could it not find enough food? The lab reports might identify some ailment but we may never know why the big fellow came to lie on the rocks.

Several days later, I went back out to see if the remains were still there. The carcass had washed up on a high tide nearly to the trees. The bones had been picked quite clean, except for the flippers, which were still covered with skin. Two immature eagles tugged at stringy tissues but could nip off only tiny morsels—hardly worth fighting for. Despite the poor rewards to be had, the trees held several other eagles that were keeping a close eye on the bones. As often happens at carcasses, the intestines had not been eaten, even though the bones were picked bare. What makes that body part undesirable?

The next day, I went to Eagle Beach. Circling a bunch of grazing geese in the meadow (so as not to disturb them) and arriving at the berm near the mouth of the river, I saw a group of fourteen snow geese, resting on a sand bar and wondered if the solo bird that had been around in previous weeks had finally found some friends of its own kind. Walking the beach past the day-use area, I noted that some irresponsible person had dumped an eight-cylinder engine from the highway lookout down onto the upper beach. What are the prospects of getting that big piece of junk out of there?!

As I returned to my car, I saw a very dark bird perched at the top of a small spruce. A merlin! Merlins of the Pacific race are charcoal-black on wings and back, and the chest streaks are thick and dark. This bird looked very burly and husky. Checking a bird guide, I found out that merlins are a bit bigger than kestrels in linear dimensions but considerably heavier. Merlins typically prey on small birds, which seemed rather scarce that day. This sighting was my good prize for the day (my other ‘prize’ was a five-gallon bucket full of trash from the beach).

The following day, I went out on the Boy Scout/Crow Point trail with two friends. Good weather, this time, in contrast to a few days before, when stiff, cold winds had us hiding the trees and sent the ducks and geese into shelter well up the river. On this day, however, the waterfowl were spread out over the sand bars near the mouth of the river. Eagles stood at the edges of the sand bars exposed by the dropping tide. One of them was attended by two or three quick and daring crows that darted in to snatch bits from the big bird’s prey. Six snow geese, heads down, grubbed up food from the meadow soils while several Canada geese stood watch. Later, more snow geese flew in, gliding elegantly on black-tipped wings, bringing the total back to fourteen.

Some sea lions, large and small, cruised along the southern end of the beach, tightly packed together. They were soon joined by another group. The whole gang dithered back and forth but did not appear to be foraging. We wondered if the second group had brought word of a pod of transient killer whales somewhere not far away.

The sands were full of animal track: shorebirds of two sizes (although we saw none of the makers), geese, gulls, ravens, a mystery critter. The wrack line from the last high tide was a very thin line of small debris. We could see that a crow had marched along the line for some distance, no doubt looking for things edible.

The goose-flat meadow was empty of geese, so we strolled across it, looking for signs of emerging green shoots. A sharp whistle brought us bolt-upright and looking toward some trees, where three marmots stood on a small rise. There is presumably a colony of beach marmots nearby, perhaps under tree roots in a sand bank.

Songs of ruby-crowned kinglets and robins entertained out ears, filling out a good early-spring walk.