Wanderings in early November

a lucky porcupine, a seed pod investigation, earthworks, and some notes from the field

Before I even left the house, I saw that a porcupine had trundled over the ice on my pond. Back and forth couple of times, and then—oops!—the ice near shore apparently gave way. Lots of scrabbling marks around the edges of the collapsed ice indicated that the critter had saved itself and wandered on.

A little expedition to collect seed pods for a class project showed that seed pods of wild iris and chocolate lily were abundant and full of seeds. Pollination had been very successful, no doubt thanks mostly to the fine summer just past.

We collected a few blue-gray seed capsules of starflower, in order to make a closer inspection. A look at the exterior of each capsule revealed a very pretty pattern of roughly hexagonal shapes, each one enclosing a finely reticulated surface. Each capsule is about the shape and size of a BB, so dissection required a steady hand and good light. When we (that’s the editorial ‘we’; my friend did the work) opened the capsules, we could see that the seeds lining the capsule bore the reticulations that showed through to the exterior, and the center of the capsule was composed of a jelly-like material. We were left with questions, of course, about how the capsule normally opens and how the seeds are dispersed.

Several hiking friends noticed that shrubs such as willow, blueberry, and salmonberry bore leaf buds. Of course they do, in preparation for spring. But the surprising –and possibly worrisome—thing was that some of the buds had become fairly large and plump, as if they might open prematurely. A few nice, warm days (and we did have some) in late fall might send a mistimed signal to the plants. We can hope that these buds didn’t develop so far that the ensuing low temperatures would wreck them.

Shallow digs by bears had left big clumps of uneaten chocolate lily root nodules on the surface of the ground in the meadows. As always, we had to wonder why bears seem to leave these edible parts behind. A bear, or something else of good size, had dug deep between the roots of a big spruce tree. This exposed part of a red squirrel’s cache of cones. But what other animal would want the squirrel’s cones? Or could the digger have been after the squirrel itself (probably in vain)?

Other sightings:

–Somewhere out the road, we found a carnivore (coyote?) scat full of soft, silky fur, perhaps of a hare.

–Relatively recent tracks of a small bear pressed into the mud on the west side of Mendenhall Lake. This was rather late in the season, but one was seen about that time near the Back Loop. Other tracks had been left by an eagle, a heron, and a magpie.

— The grasses on the wetlands on the west side of the Mendenhall River hid numerous vole tunnels punctuated by special latrine chambers. These little animals seem to be very tidy.

— Out on the wetlands, we also saw a young northern shrike and a rusty blackbird, both uncommon around here, but seen occasionally in winter. The shrike was perched, in typical fashion, on the tip-top of a small alder, possibly hoping to spot a careless vole.

–Going up the snowy Dan Moller trail, with the snow still falling, I noted a cranefly resting in mid-trail, and moved it aside. There were many tiny insects (probably stoneflies) crawling about and making short flights, presumably in search of mates. An interesting time of year for that activity.

Eagle River beaches

rare tracks, bear diggings, and nifty fungi

The day started well—the sun was shining (!) and the mountain peaks were well frosted with new snow. The first good find was a set of tracks in the sand that were probably made by a wandering wolverine. Certainly not made by an otter and –upon consideration and consultation of field guides—not made by a small black bear: the stride was short and the foot pads did not fit the bear pattern.

The sand flats offered little but bunches of gulls and a few shorebirds, so we forsook the sands and roamed around on the grassy berms above the tide line and through some small groves of spruces. This choice proved profitable.

As we strolled through the grass, we found it easy walking where some large creature had preceded us. We then encountered numerous shallow pits, where bears had dug up roots. The plant of choice, consistently, was seawatch angelica (Angelica lucida), a member of the carrot family. It has a stout taproot, like a parsnip or carrot, and this is what the bears were after. They gnawed off the root, leaving the wilting plant to wither beside the pit. We found dozens of these pits, each one where a seawatch plant had grown. Of course, we had to wonder what made this particular plant so desirable, and whether or not it could regenerate from the leftover scraps.

Angelica root. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Naturally, what goes in must come out, and so we also found many sizable bear scats, all filled with whitish vegetation fibers (and an occasional intact highbush cranberry). Now the plot thickens: in the open areas, these fiber-filled scats were attended by lots of small brown slugs. One scat was entertaining over thirty slugs, and more were slowly creeping toward the bonanza. Similar scats under the trees, however, attracted no slugs, suggesting that perhaps the slugs favor the variety of leafy plant foods in the open areas. Even so, these bear scats were clearly saving some living plants from the rasping ‘tongues’ of the slugs.

Although the understory of the wooded areas had only scattered plants, there were some nifty fungi. Pinkish-purple coral fungi sent up narrow, fleshy fingers, often in dense crowds. A lovely white jelly fungus grew under the spruces, apparently on the roots.

Emerging from the trees, we settled on the beach again, for a picnic lunch. Although ravens called in the distance, none came to the offerings of bread crusts and bits of meat. That was disappointing, because picnics at this spot are usually attended by ravens, which we love to watch as they cautiously hop toward odd food items. Instead, a friendly dog gobbled up our raven bait as it passed by. The ravens had also missed a dead capelin (with a parasite on the gills) stranded on the sand.

The humpback whales have headed to Hawaii, but we watched a river otter swim by. Its swimming motion seemed peculiar, and when it came up on the beach we saw it had a wound on its head and perhaps other injuries. But it walked long way down the beach and seemed to have little trouble walking.

This beach is a place where we commonly see otter tracks running up into the grass and back down to the water.

Beach rye near the high tide line was heavily infested with ergot, the famous fungus that featured in many a witch hunt of yore (more on this crazy fungus later).

Early October

gray, rainy days, some expected seasonal changes, and a few little surprises

The mallards on my home pond gradually molted into their breeding plumage, so I could now distinguish males from females, in most cases. Some males were already in good feather for breeding, while others lagged behind, sometimes way behind. So some of those brown ducks were just getting a few green feathers on top of their heads, and it would be a while before they caught up with the rest of the males.

Most of the cottonwoods were nearly leafless (and I would soon have to clean my rain gutters), although the alders were still leafy. A little stroll through Eaglecrest meadows gave us not only some tasty alpine blueberries but a few floral surprises: we found a single blooming bunchberry flower amid thousands of others bearing ripe fruits. One late-blooming pink bog laurel flower stood out against a background of mostly green. There was even a lonely shooting star, which commonly blooms in spring. These solitary flowers had gotten their hormonal signals crossed and had no hope of pollination at that late date.

Fall is mushroom season, and they were in full exhibit out around the Eagle Beach area. Big moss clumps growing way up on the side of a cottonwood tree sported great tufts of white ‘toadstools’ (but no toads, up there). Alder stumps were covered with crowds of brown mushrooms (I fear I’m sadly ignorant about mushroom ID). Tough little bright orange fungi poked through the packed gravel on the trail. Purple coral fungi (I do know that one) were common in the forest, growing in groups of slender, pale purple ‘fingers’.

Amanitas. Photo by David Bergeson

Beautiful, but poisonous, fly amanitas (or fly agarics) spanned all age classes from bumps newly emerging from the ground to decrepit and no-longer-beautiful old age. The cap comes in various colors: often red, but sometimes orange or yellowish. The ‘fly’ part of the name may come from an Old World custom of putting pieces of this widely distributed mushroom in a dish of milk; this apparently attracts and traps flies. Despite their well-known toxicity, many of the mature amanitas had nibble marks around the edges, where squirrels or mice had snacked. Amanitas are important components of the plant community, because they form mutualistic associations with many trees, providing nutrients to their partners and sometimes serving as links for transport of nutrients and defensive compounds between trees.

There was plenty of bear sign: tracks in the mud, a few scats with undigested high-bush cranberries mixed with vegetation fibers, and numerous shallow digs. Some of these digs had turned up clumps of the white nodules of rice root (a.k.a. chocolate lily), but these remained uneaten. Instead, the bears may have been after angelica roots, but that’s a guess, because there were few identifiable remains. Small brown slugs festooned themselves over the digs, enjoying the decaying leftovers.

We found two of the small brown slugs engaged in some sort of sexual activity. They circled each other, with penises erect, for many minutes. We went off to look at something else briefly, and when we returned, they had each gone their own way. So we don’t know if they were just thinking about mating, or if they were engaged in some post-mating display, or what. Slugs are hermaphroditic, meaning both male and female (Hermes was the Greek god of travelers and the handsome messenger of Zeus; Aphrodite was the goddess of fertility and love), and mating is generally reciprocal. After mating, slugs of some species chew off their mate’s penis, but there are many kinds of slugs, and I don’t know if that curious habit applies to these. One might well speculate about how this habit came about!

As the temperatures dropped below freezing around the high mountain peaks, the water levels of our glacial rivers dropped markedly, leaving sloughs and sandbars and exposing interstadial wood from forests that grew in the valleys before the Little Ice Age glaciers demolished them. We surprised a dense gang of gulls and six or eight ravens gorging themselves on stranded salmon carcasses in a slough beside the main river. Farther upstream, a broad sand bar had hosted a wolf party that apparently involved some dancing. One of the cavorting group had left enormous tracks in the sand, some of the largest we’d ever seen. What fun!

An ordinary walk at Crow Point

…ordinary is in the mind of the beholder

The walk around Crow Point near the Boy Scout camp and the Eagle River estuary is easy. Sometimes there is lots of wildlife activity, but on this day, things were very quiet. A stiff north wind was whipping up whitecaps on Lynn Canal and, with an eighteen-foot high tide, the surf was pounding the shore. It was easy to see how those big beach logs get moved around and the sand gets chewed away from the raised, grassy bench. Off to the west, the snow-clad Chilkats gleamed in the sun.

We plodded along the upper edge of the sand beach, detouring up into the grass where the surf came in too close. With a little work, we could discern otter tracks amid a plethora of dog footprints. Our jacket hoods were up and our backs were hunched against the sharp, cold wind. Not until we rounded the corner to the south-facing beach did we find comfortable conditions and, at last, a little wildlife.

Here, out of the wind, dozens of gulls (glaucous-winged, mew, and a few herring gulls) fossicked around at the water’s edge or loafed, in between quick jabs at something edible. As we approached, they all shifted away along the beach, but when we perched quietly on a log, they moseyed cautiously back, until they were almost directly in front of us, maybe twenty feet away. Whatever they were finding was still too small for us to discern.

We three bumps on a log were inspected, at a distance, by two Pacific loons, a horned grebe in winter plumage, and a wandering sea lion from the Benjamin Island haulout. Overhead, a raven checked us out but didn’t come in for handouts. A raven visit to a beach picnic used to be a regular entertainment here but has become less frequent, making us wonder if some people have made them unwelcome.

Making our way back around the perimeter of the big, flat meadow, we discovered several rototilled areas where bears had foraged, probably for angelica. We find these digs here every year, it seems, begging the question of how there can be any angelica plants left.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

We found two small wild rose bushes, leafless but bearing tiny crops of fruit. In the slanting sunlight of mid November, even three or six rose ‘hips’ made a conspicuous display of gleaming red globes. Who eats these fruits? Humans sometimes use them, after suitable preparation, as ingredients in tea, jam, and syrups, and as a source of vitamin C, but do bears or birds eat them??? Every rose hip I’ve opened up is filled with stiff bristles around the seeds, and these might be rather prickly in the mouth.

Several buffleheads paddled quietly in the slough beside the river, nicely sheltered from the wind by the tall grasses. Even when our walk-by made them nervous, they didn’t leave the lee of the upwind side of the slough.

On the bank beside the trail between the beach and the parking lot, we noted a large mat of a green and apparently very happy liverwort with strap-like ‘leaves.’ Liverworts can be a big frustration for field naturalists, because many of them are nearly indistinguishable (in the field) from mosses. But this one was not so, and we could be sure of its general identity. Even better, we could later track down its probable species. It is reported by a local botanist to be common around here, even though our favorite plant field guide doesn’t show that it lives here.

A rather ordinary walk, nothing really surprising or wildly exciting. But perhaps that depends on one’s concept of ‘ordinary.’ I think that Juneau ‘raises the bar’ for defining the word ordinary! The gleaming Chilkats are ordinary?? Do we take so for-granted a flight of geese seen against a blue sky?? Or the fact that we can see evidence of otters and bears (and often other beasts as well) as one strolls along? There are lots of places where one can’t do anything of the sort. ‘Ordinary’ is all in the eyes and minds of the beholders.