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.

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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.

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!

The crossover

above the snow and under the sky

The day was overcast and gray when we started up the Spaulding Meadows trail, but by the time we passed the junction where the Auke Nu trail splits off, the sky was clear and a welcome sun appeared. The trail was in fine shape: nice, hard-packed snow, with only a few spots where deep post-holes made for uneven walking. We put on snowshoes and skis in Second Meadow.

Spaulding Meadows were splendid, as always. A clear view for three hundred and sixty degrees revealed shining peaks and gleaming waters, set off by dark conifers. Sad to say, some snowmobile tracks marred the surface in places, providing evidence that there always seem to be a few riders who don’t respect the boundary that is supposed to leave half of the great meadow for folks who let their legs do the work.

Wind had crusted the snow a bit in some places, but there was a thin layer of loose snow on top of the crust. This was perfect for good tracking. Animal tracks registered clearly, at least on parts of their little trails, so we could identify most of them. Mice had left tiny, paired prints in lines emerging from under bent-over conifers. A marten had looped its way across open spaces, mostly breaking through the thin crust but, luckily, occasionally leaving clear five-toed prints on the surface. A weasel (probably) had left small prints and long body marks as it leaped through some softer snow. Ptarmigan had been very active in one area, leaving footprints in a two-footed walking pattern and occasional wing marks at take-off points. A red squirrel had ventured out for a short scamper and a raven touched down briefly, leaving long wing tracings. And some small songbird had hopped along by some blueberry bushes.

After floundering around for a little while, and fortifying ourselves with shared chocolate, we found the start of the crossover to the John Muir cabin. I hadn’t done this route for a while, but parts of it began to look familiar. Lunch at the cabin, sitting in the sun, sharing more chocolate—does it get better than this??

Presently, two friendly acquaintances came along, with two Cairn terriers (still energetic after that long uphill walk on those short legs) and a black lab, all of whom had their own lunches. But when my attention was focused elsewhere, that black lab very neatly and quickly filched one of my petit écolier cookies that I’d stashed alongside me. Her person told me she gets half an oreo cookie every day, so I guess she thought she’d have a little dessert at lunch too. And goodness knows, I didn’t really need it!

Just before reaching the cabin, two of us stopped to watch some crossbills. One female sat in the top of a scraggy mountain hemlock, looking golden in the slanted sunlight. Two others clambered around in a dead hemlock, gleaning small items from the seemingly barren branches. We’d heard crossbills, both white-winged and red, all day, but these were the first we saw. We thought ourselves lucky, because it is not often one gets to see these birds at such close range.

Snow at last!

peripatetic mammals and birds, and a fungus attack

After a very dreary, dismal January, February produced some nice snow. Not enough, of course, and it didn’t last. But for a few days, snow made the daylight hours brighter and provided splendid opportunities for reading critter tracks. Here are some samples, along with ancillary observations.

A morning snowshoe walk at SAGA meadows, with fresh snow and partial sunshine was very productive. A river otter left its distinctive five-toed prints and sliding track all along the base of the ridge on the eastern side of the valley; it came from the Amalga area, heading to the saddle where the old horse tram crossed over to the Eagle-Herbert drainage. It’s a lot shorter to go by land than by sea (out around the Boy Scout beach to the mouth of the river), but we wondered why this individual chose to go by land. Maybe it likes sliding better than swimming? Long overland journeys are not unheard-of: we once tracked an otter from the Hilda Creek canyons up and over to the Fish Creek drainage near the start of the upper cross-country ski loop.

Red squirrels had been very active, making highways between brush piles and trees, and often diving under the snow, popping up several feet farther on. Under the snow there were a few little caverns whose floors were littered with the remnants of alder cones, where a squirrel had a picnic.

Snowshoe hares left their tracks especially under the drooping conifer branches. It was clear that hares had been munching twigs of highbush cranberry—small twigs of many bushes had been recently clipped and hare tracks nearby left no doubt about the clippers. Small well-trampled areas indicated a place, perhaps a latrine (?), where a hare had spent some time, but only a few of these had scattered pellets. We speculated that the hares might have re-ingested fresh pellets to extract more nutrients (a habit they share with many rodents).

A small bird—probably a junco—had hopped around under a low-hanging spruce branch and then flitted off, leaving short wing traces in the snow. A mouse or vole had travelled from one thicket to another, and some small rodent had nibbled the bark of tiny shore pines. A porcupine had wandered about before the last of the snow fell, leaving now-blurred but unmistakable traces of its passage. Near a small frozen slough, a mink or marten had walked over toward a tree; the prints were not clear enough for us to discern the subtle clues that might tell us which kind of beast it was and the trail was lost in a snowless patch under dense spruces.

A flock of red crossbills enlivened the morning, calling and flying from spruce-top to spruce-top, occasionally prying open a cone to extract the seeds. Did their messy feeding activities contribute to the fall of seeds we saw scattered on the snow or did the wind bring them all down?

We found good examples of the rough-bark fungus infection on alders, which featured in a recent essay. Some of the infected sites had been heavily used by sapsuckers, but these birds had been active in many places, leaving broad patches of their sap wells in the bark. Very young alders, still with their reddish bark, also showed signs of the fungus attack.

That was a good day, and so was the next one, when we snowshoed the upper loop at Eaglecrest. It was still snowing a bit up there, while the rain fell at lower elevations. Here, in addition to lots of squirrel tracks and those of a mouse, ptarmigan had been very busy, sometimes running across a wide open space, sometimes walking sedately from bush to bush. In one place we saw a pair of traces where ptarmigan had glided down onto the snow, wallowed forward for a few feet, and taken flight once more, leaving tell-tale depressions (from the jumping take-off) flanked by wing marks.

Three little stories

Otters on the ice, fish at an upwelling, and an unusual feeder visitor

Here are three small stories, two from the field and one from home, two that were simply fun and one that leaves some questions.

One day in early February, I put on snowshoes with the intention of poking around in some meadows out the road. There was not a lot of snow, but the ‘shoes sometimes make it easier to walk over snow-covered grassy humps and bumps. And off I went, seeing a few tracks of mink, shrew, mouse, and weasel. A porcupine had wandered from the meadow down to the ice-covered creek and up the other side. Its trail intersected another trail, made by a river otter that had come upstream on the ice. In fact, there were two and possibly three otters, weaving in and out over the ice and finally coming up the bank. They went over a short stretch of meadow, under some trees, and down to a tiny, frozen slough. I decided to follow this trail as it went along the slough. The frozen channel got gradually wider, but I found one place where the ice was broken, perhaps by the otters. The edge of the opening was packed flat by otter feet, so it was clear that they had spent some time by this hole in the ice. What could they have found there? The trail continued down the icy slough, eventually joining the main creek again where there was some open water and a good chance of finding small fish. The total journey from creek-leaving to creek-joining was maybe half a mile. I think that these hunters knew where they were going and were just checking out another part of their home range.

I was having so much fun that I didn’t pay attention to my feet. When I finally happened to look down at my feet, I was surprised to see that I’d thrown a ‘shoe. So I back-tracked to retrieve that lost one, almost all the way back to where I’d picked up the otters’ trail. Having fun seems to be distracting!

One day in the middle of February, I wandered out into the Dredge lakes area, following a tip from a friend. After threading my way through a noisy passel of school kids, I went straight to one corner of Moose Lake. This is where we often see migrating trumpeter swans in fall, but this time I was looking for some patches of open water. I found them, under some snow-laden alder branches. The surface of the water was roiling periodically, so I knew something was going on in there. Peering closely into the dark water, I saw them: several big Dolly Varden moving slowly about in the shallows. I could pick out the white borders of their pectoral and pelvic fins, which are a good field mark. There was another big fish in the same bit of open water, a fish with no white on the fins and black speckles all over the body…probably a cutthroat trout. Dollies and cutthroats are known to overwinter in Mendenhall Lake and some of the accessible ponds in this area, where they hang out but feed little in the cold water. Why would they be in this spot? This area also sometimes hosts spawning coho in fall, so there is something special about it—and that’s the upwellings, where ground water burbles up through the sediments, bringing oxygen with it. Those fish are probably there to take advantage of the oxygenated water, which can be in short supply in some of these small ponds. As I watched, a dipper zipped out from just under the snowy bank and disappeared under the arching branches.

Dolly-Varden-by-bob-armstrong
Dolly Varden. Photo by Bob Armstrong

On the way back to the trailhead, I started to duck under some low-hanging alder branches and saw something flit to the side. So I quickly looked up and saw a redpoll, perched not eighteen inches from my face. On the branch I had ducked under was a cluster of alder cones, a favorite food of redpolls. This bird scolded me roundly, so I apologized and moved on, while the bird went straight back to ‘his’ cones. I only saw one redpoll just then, but shortly later and not far away, I saw a whole flock of them at the seed feeders on my deck, cleaning up the millet seeds. Redpolls seem to show up around here sometime in February, most every year, making me wonder what they were doing in the earlier part of winter.

common-redpoll-at-alder-cones-by-bob-armstrong
Common redpoll on alder cones. Photo by Bob Armstrong

My suet feeder at home normally attracts chickadees and juncos. But sometime in January I noticed other visitors. There were two very small birds that spent several minutes clinging to the wire-mesh suet holder and pecking at the suet. I was astonished to see that these were golden-crowned kinglets, birds that customarily feed on dormant bugs and spider eggs among the conifer needles. This was not a ‘one-off’ visit; they returned several times over the next few weeks (maybe more often than I noticed, given that I don’t spend the whole day watching from my windows).

golden-crowned-kinglet-mark-schwann
Photo by Mark Schwann

This observation seems so unusual to me that I asked one of Juneau’s ace birders about it. I was told that, indeed, golden-crowned kinglets had occasionally visited their suet feeder too. Further inquiry via the internet revealed that this feeding behavior by golden-crowned kinglets has been reported, but very rarely, in Michigan and Tennessee, for instance.

Golden-crowned kinglets are so small (about six grams) that they lose heat rapidly (having a high surface-to-volume ratio), but they can’t store much fat. So they have to eat a lot each day, moving continuously through the foliage in search of tiny, sparse prey. They may save some energy at night by lowering their metabolism a bit and by huddling up together in sheltered spots, but the risk of going hungry and perhaps starving is significant. Given the high demand for energy, why don’t they visit suet feeders more often? And what got these few birds started on suet-feeding in the first place?

Snowy tracks

stories written on the winter landscape

Snowshoes crunched over deep snow. The sky was cerulean blue and the sun gradually crept around the mountain peaks. These were fine days to be out, seeing what we could see. We were especially interested in the tracks left by the wild critters as they went about their daily lives.

–A shrew left a long line of tiny marks by the side of a beaver pond. Short digressions led to tufts of grass or a buried stick, where spiders and bugs, slowed by the cold temperatures, might be found. Shrews only weigh a few grams and have a very high metabolic rate, so they have to eat almost continually. We often see their trails running over the snow and plunging into miniscule holes that lead under the snow blanket where prey might be found.

–Mouse trails are much less common. But one day we found a line of hopping prints that went out of the forest and across the upper intertidal zone to the most recent wrack line. The piles of tumbled rockweed might harbor small crustaceans, wayward seeds, or lost insects—all suitable for a snack. Another line of tracks went straight back into the shelter of the forest.

–Snowshoe hares had been busy in some areas. They too were looking for food, maybe willow or blueberry buds. But occasionally there were heavily trampled spots, very localized, as if there had been a dance or other social encounter. Popular routes became hare highways, packed flat along a small ridge or between two dense spruce stands.

–An otter had cruised for hundreds of yards along a frozen slough, making side excursions to visit (briefly) several beaver lodges. The deep trough left by its passage seldom came out in the open but usually stayed under the fringing conifers. Reaching the shore of a well-frozen lake, the otter abruptly turned around and went back the way it had come. The only open water on its route was a very small runnel below a beaver dam—a place not likely to hold good otter food.

–Across some thin pond ice, a great blue heron had gingerly minced its way from one patch of open water, at the inlet, to another, at the outlet. Taking very short strides on its long thin toes, it seemed to have been treading carefully. Little sticklebacks and juvenile coho, beware.

–In several places, we spotted narrow grooves on the snow surface, where a slim body had propelled itself on small feet. These wandering trails led to grassy tussocks, dove under logs, circled a pile of branches, disappeared under the snow and came out again. A mighty hunter was at work: a short-tailed weasel or ermine, whose coat turns white in winter, except for the tip of the tail. The short-legged, long body of a weasel is well-adapted for diving down vole tunnels and other tight places. However, that body form means that a weasel can’t afford to put on heavy layers of fat; the belly would drag when the weasel tried to run—not good for a hunter that has to keep moving for much of the day in search of prey. In addition to their small size, the body shape of weasels gives them a lot of surface area (where heat is lost) compared to the body volume (muscles and organs that generate heat), so they have a high metabolic rate to keep themselves warm. And that means they have to eat a lot. They eat mice and voles and small birds, and carrion when it’s available.

–Porcupines seem to wander widely, and we’ve found their trails in many places, often still distinguishable under a layer of new snow. One day we found a very fresh trail of footprints and even some quill-drag; we followed it along a little dirt bank until it disappeared over the edge. Looking down, we saw that a small log, sticking out parallel to the bank, had been wiped clean of new snow by the animal’s passage; the trail ended near the end of the log. Of course, we went around to an easier place to climb down the bank and investigated the trail’s end. There we found a deep burrow, with hairs and a few dried-up fecal pellets and a good barn-y smell, that ran into the bank for over two yards: a snug, dry den that had been used repeatedly for some time. Upon close inspection, that little access log had thousands of scratches, evidence of many balancing acts as the porcupine had ventured out and back.

Harbor birds and snowy tracks

loons, shrews, and a peripatetic dipper

Sometimes, perhaps especially during the holiday season, it’s hard to fit a long, exploratory walk in among all the other activities. Then a quick trip to the harbors may produce some interesting observations.

On a recent harbor visit, we enjoyed watching Pacific Loons. They dove frequently, but we never say a loon with a fish in its bill, so we guessed that they were foraging on very small fish or even invertebrates—small enough to be swallowed immediately. The loons sported a variety of plumages: one was in good adult plumage, one seemed to be an unusually young juvenile without the typical juvenile plumage, and most were in well-marked juvenile plumage (check a good bird book!).

Pacific-Loons,-adult-with-three-juveniles,-bob-armstrong
3 juveniles, and 1 adult, Pacific loon. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Pacific Loons winter all along the northern Pacific coast but nest on deep lakes in the Interior and across the Arctic tundra. Like other loons, they are typically monogamous and both parents incubate and rear the chicks. Loon legs are placed far back on the body, which is good for swimming and diving (when the legs are almost like propellers) but very bad for walking. So loons place their nests right next to the water’s edge. This makes them vulnerable to motorboat wakes that swamp the nest and to droughts that lower the water levels and make the nest too far from water.

The harbor visit also produced a couple of seals, several Marbled Murrelets in winter plumage, some Long-tailed Ducks, Red-necked Grebes, Barrow’s Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, one or two Great Blue Herons, and a Song Sparrow. We wondered if Song Sparrows (in springtime) might sometimes nest under the decking of the floats or if they merely forage there and nest, as usual, in shoreline shrubbery.

There were some large ‘jellyfish’ slowly pulsating in the cold water. Perhaps a foot or so in diameter, one was translucent white and the other was a murky orange with thick wads of tentacles. In our land-based ignorance, we didn’t have names for them.

On another day, after a recent snowfall, a tracking expedition was profitable. Snowshoe hares had seemingly conducted small riots under the spruces; their feet had created a maze of interlocking pathways and localized spots of concentrated activity. We saw no scats, perhaps suggesting that the hares had re-ingested them. Hares and rabbits (as well as many rodents) produce two kinds of feces: the ordinary kind, which is not re-ingested, and a softer kinds, produced by a digestive organ called a caecum, which is consumed—recycled, so to speak, to extract more nutrients from their food.

No small mammal trails were evident. Shrews, voles, and mice were presumably active but stayed under the soft snow. A porcupine lefts its customary trough where it had waded, up to its ears, in fluffy snow.

We followed the trail of an otter that seemed to know just where it was going. Several long leaps were followed by a smooth slide, then more leaps and another slide mark. Nobody else makes a trail like that! The otter had crossed a sizable pond, cut over a hill to another pond where it checked out a beaver lodge (from the outside), and gone down a small frozen stream to a deep channel where fish could be found.

The best find was along a shallow slough in which there were still small stretches of open water. A narrow furrow led out of one little pool straight over to the next one. ?A water shrew? But no, there seemed to be alternating footprints lightly covered with new-fallen snow. So, some critter that walked on two feet, from one bit of open water to the next, and then the next one, and so on for fifty yards or so. Finally we found some clearer footprints and a spot where something had landed and started to walk. Definitely a bird! But not a shorebird, because the hind toe was well-developed. So—a songbird, not very big, but not tiny, either. Well, who would be foraging in shallow water, going from pool to pool? Most likely an American Dipper, looking for aquatic insect larvae or maybe sticklebacks. Dippers often wander far from their nesting streams in winter. The real mystery is why it walked through the snow instead of flying.

Winter explorations

little snow stories, a fungophile squirrel, and long-leg aggregations

Wonderful snow! Brightening our short December days; under that full moon, it was spectular.

All that glorious snow drew me out, day after day, looking for little stories writ there. There were all the usual perpetrators: deep, winding furrows made by wide-bodied, peripatetic porcupines, lots of snowshoe hares (especially near the visitor center), a mink bounding over a frozen rivulet, red squirrels tramping back and forth between trees, a deer or two—or lots in some places, an ermine, some good otter slides, a few voles and shrews (and a couple of mysteries that I shall gloss over).

There were also a few real highlights. Out near Peterson Creek, after watching a hungry dipper searching for some open water, my friend glanced up and spotted something odd-looking about ten feet up a spruce, right next to the trunk. This looked like a mushroom, stuck in a tuft of twigs. Really? So my friend climbed up, to look more closely. Indeed, not just one but five or six mushrooms were wedged in a tight stack, in among the twigs. Ha!—a squirrel cache. Red squirrels are known to store mushrooms in dry places, such as the tops of well-drained stumps or logs (but cones are usually stored in damp places, so they don’t open and drop the seeds). This squirrel clearly thought that the twiggy tuft was good enough to warrant stashing several valuable food items there.

The sloping base of a huge spruce in Amalga Meadows had been an active site. Small prints of a critter that could bound six or eight inches decorated the trunk up about three feet, as well as all the surrounding snowy ground. Hmm, not a vole, which usually scuttles along, nor a jumping mouse, which hibernates, but probably a deer mouse.

We looked out over the wind-swept open area of the meadow, where the snow had been draped over tussocks and small conifers. We saw immediately that these looked like sea lions lunging up from the water. There was a big, thick-necked bull, and a whole squadron of juveniles, not far behind. No great imagination needed to provide some sound effects as well!

Some friends like to explore old mines in the Juneau area and recently explored one near the base of Thunder Mountain. The adit was barricaded by stout icicles, but a few were persuaded to break, allowing human entrance. Not too far back in the tunnel, observers spotted a number of harvestmen (a.k.a. daddy longlegs) on the wall. Near the end of the eighty-foot adit, many of these were clustered into a close group, with their long legs sticking out in all directions.

Harvestmen are related to spiders, but not very closely. In contrast to spiders, they are not predatory; they feed chiefly on bits of plant and animal debris. They are also not venomous and cannot bite you with their weak jaws. They are often gregarious, gathering in bunches, but why? One suggestion is that they are behaving like what is known as a ‘selfish herd’. Each animal tries to put as many others as possible between itself and the edge of the group, where the risk of predation is highest. For these harvestmen, the most likely predators are spiders, or possibly mice.