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.

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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.

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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).

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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!).

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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.

Short winter junkets

shoreline bird sightings, frost sculptures, and a startled grouse

One day after a nice little snowfall, I ambled out to Point Louisa in Auke Bay. The usual squads of harlequin ducks sallied out from the rocks or poked along the boulders. A few common and Barrow’s goldeneyes sailed by, some of the males half-heartedly beginning a courtship routine. A stray sea lion and a harbor porpoise swam by, looking for something tasty.

The best of the avian sightings was a little flock of black turnstones, calling as they flitted from one patch of rockweed to another. They only come to us in winter; they nest in western Alaska and winter all along the Pacific coast. These were not flipping little rocks—the behavior that gives them their name—but rather were merely pecking and poking for small invertebrates among the fronds of the rockweed. All of them were in winter plumage. But, unlike the photograph, most of them showed snazzy black crescents along the flank below the wing. These are created by small feathers that cover the bases of the inner flight feathers, and sometimes they hang down over the flanks. I have not been able to find out if the crescents show only in certain circumstances, and they are only illustrated in a few bird guides.

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Black turnstone. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The snow on the upper beach told stories. Shrews had made their narrow grooves as they ‘swam’ over the snow. A vole, heavier than a shrew, had waded through the snow from log to log, leaving a wider groove and a few footprints. An older set of tracks showed that a weasel had snooped into grassy tussocks and under logs, covering a good bit of ground in its search for dinner; it had missed both this shrew and the vole.

Up in the forest edge, a varied thrush prospected for anything edible and small, junco-size tracks hopped around under the brush.

A few days later, we entered a prolonged deep freeze. Everywhere I went, hoar frost decorated all the weeds and branches that were not under the forest canopy and spangled the ice wherever the snow had blown off. I strolled with friends around the rainforest loop near Eagle Beach State Park and ambled around in the Dredge Lakes area. The best bird we saw in the Dredge area was a rusty blackbird at the edge of the ice that fringed some open water; it was hunting for bugs in the water and found some. That’s exactly what dippers do in winter, and this bird fooled me for a minute.

I found it fascinating to observe the tremendous variety of forms the frost could take. I don’t know exactly what determines each variant and I probably don’t really want to know—much too complicated for me! But I can appreciate the wonderful forms anyhow. On a metal bridge we found flat, visually simple blades of frost, very different from the visually complex blades on many twigs. The more complex ones were as individually distinct as snowflakes are, and were composed of crystals oriented in many different ways. Some were flat and blade-like, but in some cases, the crystals took the form of tiny trees, with branches in all directions. Down on the bare ice, the spangles took the forms of flowers, or birds, or butterflies, each one originating from some little irregularity in the ice. A few days later, a light snowfall piled up on the ice-spangles, creating lumpy little muffins.

In the middle of December, after high winds had snapped off three snow-laden trees near my house and most of the wreckage had been cleared away, I plodded my way in to Tolch Rock and made the loop around by the gravel pit to the road. The trail was not obvious all along this route, but some long-legged, large-footed chap had plowed through the overhanging brush before the last snow fell, making it easy to find the trail once it was ‘misplaced.’ The only exciting thing was flushing a grouse, who took off with thunderous wings, and gave me a good jolt (question:.why don’t grouse turn white in winter, as ptarmigan do?) The snow was perfect for tracking critters, but very few small ones had been out. In contrast, the snowshoe hares had had a party! A mink had visited a tiny trickle that feeds into the smelly ditch near the entrance to the campground, and a mallard drake cruised by in that fetid ditch. Sometimes I even see dippers foraging in that sorry stream.

There’s always something

finding little treasures on and off the trails

One day, as we walked along, a friend remarked: “You know, on every hike there’s always something spectacular or interesting or beautiful—some good memory to take home, in addition to enjoying some exercise and sociability.”

Although of course not everyone agrees on what is worth noting and remembering, on three hikes in late October and early November, I think there was consensus regarding the “take-homes.” All of these were flat, easy hikes, but all yielded some good thoughts.

Cowee Creek bridge to Echo Cove: Through the woods and meadow and along the beach, we noted little of special biological interest: not much sign of bears, no recent fish carcasses, very few birds. But it was spectacular—the sun was shining (!), and there was a fierce north wind screaming down Lynn Canal, stirring up huge waves and whipping veils of spray off the wave crests. In the background, the Chilkats gleamed with fresh snow.

Crow Point trail along Eagle River: We found lots of small things of interest. Many critters had left signs of their passing. There were scats of goose, bear, probable coyote and marten, and tracks of otter in the sand. A big crowd of crows was hanging out at a distant edge of the tide flats, occasionally flying up and dropping small items (?mussels?). We guessed that there must be a few rocks out there, if the crows were thinking to crack open some shells. Bears had been digging roots of wild parsnip and riceroot. Chum salmon skeletons had been spread around by high tides; they already had a coating of green algae.

There were small mysteries too. The B-B-size seed capsules of starflower were covered with a white ‘bloom’ and the contents looked like dirt. Could they be afflicted by a fungus? We saw squirrels extracting seeds from spruce cones and a flock of crossbills checking out the cones that remained on the trees. But all the cones we inspected had almost no seeds left. The red squirrel may be able to detect full cones by smell or heft, but how do crossbills know if a cone is well loaded with seeds? Trial and error?

The sun peeked out briefly, in time for our little picnic lunch. We were attended by a raven, who wouldn’t come down for treats, perhaps because we had a (well-behaved) dog with us. After we left, and turned back along the beach, the raven circled us with one of the treats in its bill, almost as if it was saying ‘Look, I got it!’ I don’t really imagine it was saying thank you. It’s more likely it was hoping for another ! Naturally, I provided.

Dredge Lake area: this was a mild day with very hazy sun and a few inches of fresh, wet snow on the ground. Our several attempts at some off-trail bushwhacking were thwarted by high water levels. But the soft snow recorded tracks of squirrels, hares, beavers, mink, an eagle, and perhaps an otter. As we ambled up the beach of Mendenhall Lake, the mists that hid the mountains gradually parted and, one by one, McGinnis, then Bullard, then Thunder showed themselves. The vista toward the glacier was indeed a beauty—if, as a friend commented, one has learned to love shades of gray and silver!

Even cruising down Egan Drive had some good moments, such as a flock of swans winging south. There was a family of swans near the Vanderbilt junction: two adults and three big, gray cygnets. A rare treat for me!

The next time we get one of those dismal, gloomy stretches, with slatting rain during the few hours of what passes for daylight, I’ll remember the good days and all the little treasures thereof.

Hilda Meadows

musings on winged seeds

Typical Juneau weather! We get a nice snowfall, for good skiing and snowshoeing, then it thaws and rains and makes the snow soggy. Then we get a hard freeze, so the footprints and postholes created by walkers during the thaw are frozen solid. After that happens, walking there is a misery of lurches and ankle-turnings. The popular Dredge Lake trails are a good example. Then the cycle starts over again—lovely snow, then rain…

Before the last rains, however, Parks and Rec hikers did manage to fit in one excellent junket to Hilda Meadows above Eaglecrest, on the one perfect day with good snow underfoot and more coming down all day. Some of us were on skis, others on snowshoes. There was enough firm snow that it was easy to find places to cross Hilda Creek on our way to the chain of meadows.

Critters had been active overnight, so here and there we saw tracks of hare, squirrel, and weasel, rapidly being covered with new snow. Trundling porcupines left numerous furrows as they wallowed in the fresh snow from tree to log to tree. One hiker inadvertently flushed a feeding ptarmigan, which flew complainingly off into the conifers. We all inspected its tracks; it had circled several small blueberry bushes, nibbling on buds.

The surface of the snow was dotted with wind-blown spruce or hemlock seeds. I wasn’t sure which kind they were, so I checked the forestry literature to see how to distinguish them. Western hemlock seeds are smaller, on average, than Sitka spruce seeds, but mountain hemlock seeds are larger. Foresters don’t usually measure individual seed weights; instead, they count the number of seeds per unit weight. So they estimate that there are 570 western hemlock seeds per gram, 400 Sitka spruce seeds per gram, and 250 mountain hemlock seeds per gram. (There are 28.35 grams per ounce, if you want to convert those numbers to the English system of weights and measures.)

spruce-and-hemlock-seeds-by-Hocker
Spruce (left) and hemlock (right). Photo by Katherine Hocker

I also collected some spruce and western hemlock cones and extracted the seeds. In general, spruce seeds look fatter and the wing seems a bit wider, but there is a lot of overlap in apparent size of the wing.

When seeds are released from cones, most of them land fairly close to the maternal tree. Many of the seeds that land near their mother or each other usually die, because seed predators focus on high densities of seeds. Or, if those seeds germinate, the crowded seedlings compete with each other, stunting growth and eventually causing mortality. Therefore, it is important to the tree’s reproductive success that some seeds disperse to greater distances. This can happen in a big wind or, as we saw on our way to Hilda, when fallen seeds are blown over the surface of the snow in a breeze.

The convenient name for the distribution of seeds around a parent tree is ‘seed shadow.’ The seed shadows of trees are difficult to measure, especially for far-traveling seeds, and most studies have ignored the ‘tail’ of tree seed shadows. With that limitation, a review of published studies of tree seed shadows suggests that Sitka spruce seeds may tend to fall closer to their parents than do western hemlock seeds.

It might be interesting to do a little experiment with our wind-dispersed trees (spruce, western or mountain hemlock, Sitka or red alder), all of which have winged seeds. Take seeds from ripe cones, an equal number of each species. One by one, drop the seeds from a standard height, letting them land on a clean surface. Mark the landing site of each seed. Then compare the average and maximum distances achieved by each species. Try it all again, in a breeze.

Are some wings better than others for carrying seeds away from a source? Does the ‘wing-loading’ of each kind of seed differ, and is that related to dispersal distance? (Wing-loading is the ratio of seed weight to area of wing.) Is the total weight of the seed-plus-wing important? How does the height of release or breeziness affect the outcome?

!Prospective Science Fair students take note!