Early July scrapbook

a friendly dipper, sparrow city, swallows, ducks, warblers, and a balancing bear

The holiday week in early July found me on several short excursions. A trip to Lurvey Falls near the end of the Perseverance Trail was particularly rewarding for an old dipper-watcher and companions. As we approached one of the wooden bridges in the upper basin, we noticed a young dipper perched on the edge of the planks. So we stopped and ‘froze.’ Pretty soon the juvenile was pecking at the surface of the boards, poking down in the cracks between the boards, and being quite successful at finding little edibles—and discarding a few inedibles. It foraged this way for some minutes.

Then it hopped up on the bridge railing, picking up tiny things as it moved along. Gradually, it got closer and closer to us, until it was right next to me, just below my hand—and it nabbed a bug off my jacket before leisurely hopping back along the railing. What fun!

We think we found its parents a little way upstream, carrying beakfuls of bugs in both directions, up and down the creek. They appeared to have fledglings scattered all along the creek, and our insouciant juvenile was probably one of them.

A walk on the wetland at the end of Industrial Boulevard brought me into ‘sparrow-city.’ Song sparrows lived in the very brushy zone of alders and willows. As the thickets became sparse and mixed with grasses and herbs, I found a few Lincoln’s sparrows. Out in the open meadows, there were dozens of savanna sparrows, some singing and others with beaks full of green caterpillars and long-legged crane flies for their chicks.

Nest boxes on stakes were occupied by tree swallows. As I walked on the trail past one box, an agitated adult swallow dove close to me head repeatedly, until I moved along a sufficient distance from its nest. Another box seemed to have produced some fledglings that did not venture very far away and were actively tended by busy adults.

treeswallow-at-nest-kh
Tree swallow on nest box. Photo by Katherine Hocker

Some of the old, upturned snags and stumps scattered around the meadow are pieces of sculpture, if you take time to look. Beautifully curved roots, almost muscular-looking, once held those trees in the ground. Now they support mosses and lichens, and lots of tiny red mites.

My home pond has hosted at least three broods of mallards, all of different ages. Only two juveniles were left in the oldest brood, now almost as big as mom, with bodies well-feathered but wings still too short for flight. Five downy, middle-sized ducklings were just getting real feathers. And a brood of seven tiny fluff-balls arrived with their very vigilant mother. On most days, only one family used the pond at a given time, and if there was a brief temporal overlap, the females kept the broods well apart.

As usual, visits to the glacier area provided entertainment. The terns had gone, but barn swallows were nesting in the pavilion and exercising mosquito control in long, graceful swoops. A brood of mergansers rested, with mom, on a rock. A downy Barrow’s goldeneye duckling foraged alone for days, no family in sight, but apparently doing well for itself. A myrtle warbler (a.k.a. yellow-rumped warbler, a.k.a. butter-butt) flitted along the roof edge of the pavilion, gleaning insects. One aerobatic warbler chased flying insects high above the pond made (but no longer occupied) by beavers; it flew so high that it was just an animated black spot, diving, circling, climbing, and looping.

An adult black bear had climbed to the very top of a cottonwood tree. There it chewed through several inches of wood, causing the tip of the tree’s trunk to fall. The bear caught the falling piece and promptly ate the seed pods. Then it moved down to a sizable side branch. Planting its rump firmly in the junction of branch and trunk, it started to chew off the branch. Deciding, apparently, that this part of the branch was too thick, it reached out another foot or so, and chewed again, but briefly. Again, not satisfactory. So, stretching out as slender as a big bear can get, and balancing well along the branch, it gnawed through the branch at a thinner place, brought it down, and again gobbled up the seed pods. The top of the tree was a wreck, and the bear slid down and wandered off into the woods. Watching the antics of bears in the trees can be as much fun as watching them in the creek later in the season when the fish arrive.

An early autumn

Leaves and flowers, fish, mammals, and birds in transition

Fall came to Juneau in mid August. Cottonwood trees began dropping yellow leaves and alder leaves browned and shriveled. The air felt different, and it smelled different, too. On fine, sunny days, clouds of fireweed seeds, floating on their white parachutes, filled the air and collected in windrows on the shores. Mushrooms appeared all over the forest, as if from nowhere.

The grasses and sedges in the coastal meadows slowly changed from green to yellow and gold. Although the splendid pink flowers of fireweed were gone, the stems, leaves, and pods still filled fields with pink and red.

At mid elevations, a few fireweed stalks still bore flowers and some had, in fact, just started to bloom. But the deer cabbage leaves already showed yellow and orange and russet. As the rains increased, the once-fluffy heads of cottongrass drooped dismally, like small mop-heads. But there seems to be a bumper crop of highbush cranberries, glowing brilliant, translucent red (slightly less ‘bumper’ now, after my visit…).

Flocks of robins scoured the roadsides for grubs and worms. In Sheep Creek valley, robins, varied thrushes, and whole families of fox sparrows foraged on elderberries. Near Steep Creek, dozens of warblers flitted from bush to bush. Most were yellow-rumped warblers in immature plumage, but the flocks included several ruby-crowned kinglets and occasional Townsend’s warblers and orange-crowned warblers. I was interested to observe the reactions of the crowds of visitors who waited, mostly impatiently, for a bear to appear. Almost none appeared to notice the many warblers that flew back and forth across the creek and gleaned bugs from the shrubs.

If the bears were occupied elsewhere, many folks enjoyed watching porcupines—studies in slow motion. There were several small ones (known as porcupettes), born last spring, that frequented the Steep Creek area. They were now largely independent of their mothers, foraging on their own and growing perceptibly from week to week. Sometimes one would spend several days in a single cottonwood, taking long naps in between sessions of shredding and skeletonized the leaves. We watched one chomping on willow leaves for a while and then wandering to the creekside, where it avidly consumed dwarf fireweed and then drank from the creek.

The sockeye run in Steep Creek dwindled dramatically during the last two weeks of August. The few remaining pairs of salmon were attended by lots of Dolly Varden, which eagerly line up behind a spawning pair. Dollies, young coho, and sculpin all love to gobble up loose salmon eggs.

Foraging bears left partly eaten salmon carcasses on the streambanks, and it wasn’t long before the flies found them. Soon some carcasses were squirming with hundreds, maybe thousands, of fly larvae (maggots). I was initially surprised to see a bear lick up a pile of maggots and then show one of her cubs the tasty little morsels remaining from her snack. On second thought, however, there should have been no surprise, because bears eat grubs and ants and bee larva when they can. But this was the first time I observed bears eating maggots instead of salmon.

A family of well-grown mallards, still accompanied by mama, foraged regularly in the creek. They scarfed up unburied salmon eggs, enjoyed a snack of maggots on old carcasses, and enthusiastically ate fresh salmon meat when a bear abandoned its catch.