July Fun

a ridgetop celebration, an orchid search, and a visit from a black bear

Two Parks and Rec hiking friends share a landmark birthday this year and decided to celebrate with a summertime party on Juneau Ridge. Some of the hikers have better legs than others, and they walked up the steep trail, while those with legs that have seen better days took the easy way up, thanks to Temsco and Coastal helicopters. On a beautiful day in July, the party gathered at the top of the trail and celebrated with lots of cookies, cake, smoked salmon, fruit, and chocolate.

We milled around, chatting and eating and enjoying the brilliant sunshine and long-distance views up and down the channel. The area at the top of the trail gets a lot of traffic because it provides several suitable spots for helicopter landings, as well as a resting place for up-coming hikers. So the end of the ridge is heavily trampled. Nevertheless, in between the rocks and rubble and tramplings, my casual survey found thirteen kinds of wildflowers in bloom. Admittedly, they were not tall or lush on this storm-ravaged and sun-parched ridge-top; they were small–but sturdy and tenacious. I particularly remember one little monkshood plant standing all of four inches tall, bearing a single perfect flower of intense purple.

Looking down from the ridge, we could see several lovely, clear ponds on the sides of the hill. I don’t know what invertebrates might live in those ponds, but two shorebirds that came to visit did not stay long…

Party over, some hikers trekked along the ridge to Granite Basin, thence to the Perseverance trail, some went down the steep side of the mountain to the trailhead, and still others floated down in the friendly helicopters.

The next day, I ventured partway up Ben Stewart on a miserable trail that is nothing but mud, rocks, and roots. Parks and Rec hikers were headed for the top, but my goal was just the beautiful valley to the north of the peaks. There was lots of cotton ‘grass’ (really a sedge), some butterworts (one of our insectivorous plants), and leatherleaf saxifrage in the meadow, bordered by stands of copperbush and small conifers. A little creek meanders across the valley floor. On other visits in previous years, the creek had attracted dippers and hermit thrushes. This time, two shorebirds sailed in, poked around a bit, and took off—rising higher and higher until disappearing over the treetops. A fuzzy photo enabled one of our local ace birders to say that these were solitary sandpipers.

A couple of days before the big party, a little group of friends strolled up Gold Ridge from the tram. Among other things, we were looking for frog orchids, which had been easily found the previous week. But this time, we found only one in bloom. Some taxonomist presumably thought that the flower looked a bit like a frog, although that takes considerable imagination. I would love to know who pollinates these small green flowers (it’s not frogs!).

On the way down from the crest of the ridge, we spotted a ptarmigan family with chicks, so we all stopped to watch. The whole family—papa, mama, and about eight chicks—puttered along down the trail nipping at bugs(?) on the vegetation. After a few minutes, the male and some of the chicks scuttled off to one side and down a bit, and we heard him ‘growl’ a few times. Meanwhile, mama and the rest of the brood leisurely took the next switchback for several yards before finally stepping off and down, presumably to bring the family back together again.

These were willow ptarmigan, the only grouse-like bird in North America in which fathers get involved with parental care. I have to wonder how it happened that only this one species evolved this behavior! This male had molted out of his reddish upper-body plumage and only traces of red remained; otherwise he was in good camouflage plumage.

Earlier in July, I walked with a friend along the bluff trail on the west side of Douglas. We spotted a young red-breasted sapsucker just over the edge of the bluff, tapping on a tree. Creeping closer to get a better look, we could see it was making sap wells in the bark of an alder. Not a very orderly array of wells, but perhaps that happens with more practice. (That’s how this woodpecker got its name, of course; it makes holes in the bark and the sap oozes out, so the sapsucker can lick it up with its brushy tongue.) I also spotted a brown creeper, hitching its way up a tree trunk, but it flitted to another tree and totally disappeared—something that brown creepers do very well..

Back at home, I had a little excitement too. I chanced to look out a downstairs window and saw a large black back trotting along under the deck. A juvenile black bear, probably recently kicked out by its mother, was prowling the neighborhood. This one stood up to sniff the bird feeders that are hung well out of reach and, tried twice to climb the corner of the house to reach the deck (a noisy process). Then it came to the window in front of my computer and left messy paw prints all over the glass as it peered in at me.

From there, it went down to the pond and scared the brood of mallards that was foraging there, crossed the creek below the pond, and headed for the campground. What fun!

In the Beardslees

… part 2 of 2

Across a narrow channel from our camp, a black bear spent two days grazing on beach vegetation. We were curious about its choices of greenery, so when we thought the bear had moved on, we crossed the channel to investigate. There were clear signs of grazing, but they reflected old munching, not the recent activity. As we meandered over the short vegetation, we were greeted by a loud Whuff, Whuff, Whuff from the dense brush above the beach area. Ooooops! Sorry, Bruin, we thought you’d gone! And we discreetly retreated to our own turf. As it happened, we were less respectful of its turf than it was (as far as we know, at least) of ours.

A little paddling junket to the north end of the archipelago produced good wildlife sightings. A sizable raft of sea otters rested in a kelp bed. A black bear ambled along a beach; when it stopped to look at us while we paddled by, a tiny cub peered out over mama’s haunches. A few yards farther on, a bull moose stared out of the brush, then silently sauntered off. A coyote then popped out of the same thicket and trotted calmly along the shore, inspecting us all the while.

There were lots of other cool things for curious naturalists to find, investigate, explain (sometimes), or guess at. Near our camp we found five probable wolf scats, all composed of densely felted, very fine, brown fur. But whose fur? Hare? Marmot? It would take several of such small beasts to fill five large wolf scats.

On a little rise, above an abandoned river otter den, we found an accumulation of large pellets, presumably the regurgitated, undigested remains of eagle dinners, all packed with white feathers. Elsewhere, a large pellet yielded not only feathers, but also the outer part of a tiny hoof (?moose calf, ?mountain goat kid).

Our beach gave us a great perch for watching black oystercatcher altercations. A group of seemingly peaceful birds would suddenly erupt with loud screams, piercing shrieks, and agitated flights, sometimes in response to another oystercatcher passing by and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. At least one of these birds seemed to have a band on one leg.

In many places, moose had left evidence of their passing: deep hoofprints in the moss, dung piles, and willows cropped of all their small branches or stripped of their bark. Even alders had been browsed in some places.

A huge shelf-fungus on a fallen log was covered with fine, brown powder, as was the surrounding moss. This seemed very odd, because the underside of the shelf was not releasing spores. So what were we seeing? Later consultation with a retired plant pathologist suggested that this fungus had already released this year’s spores, which had settled on its upper surface and nearby vegetation, where a later breeze might waft them away.

A sexton beetle flew in to our picnic spot one day. Sexton beetles collect dead mice or birds or bits of fish and bury them as food for their larvae. Did our lunch smell like carrion? Or did we?? In any case, it didn’t stay long.

And there were other things: Bears had left deep claw marks going up big spruces. An adult semipalmated plover guarded a fuzzy chick at the water’s edge. A golden-yellow slime mold had formed a reproductive structure, created when scattered single cells somehow ‘decide’ to come together. Of course, there were bones, also: Two sea otter skulls and a scapula; two sizable bird pelvises; various leg and wing bones of long-deceased birds; a raven skeleton. The young primary forest had almost no shrubby understory, just moss and thousands of tiny twayblade orchids.

At the end of a good trip with good company, we were certainly ready for hot showers. But the public shower at the lodge had no hot water on the evening that we came in from the islands. Just as two of us were discussing this with the attendant in charge, we were rescued by a Fairy Godmother, who offered the use of the shower in the room she and her husband had rented. We accepted with such alacrity that our companions, who had to make do with cold water or ‘spit baths’, didn’t know where we’d gone. We emerged, clean and purring, and rejoined our less fortunate friends. Our Good Samaritans from New York would not even allow us to buy them dessert by way of thanks!

Lazy day at Crow Point

porcupine shelter, bear sign, and winter berries

The tide was just starting to go out, leaving elegant wave marks in the sand. Otter and mink tracks were barely discernible amid the evidence of the passage of booted humans and their happy dogs. At the mouth of the river, a little cluster of gulls flitted up and own over the heads of two seals; there was obviously something edible there. A few buffleheads and a solitary Barrow’s goldeneye cruised the lower reaches of the river. Canada geese honked their way up the river, two by two; could they already be thinking about nest sites?

We found an old stump under which a porcupine had sheltered. A sizable pile of scat pellets filled a depression under the arching roots, and back in a corner, a cubbyhole offered protection from wind and rain. These pellets were more rounded, less oval, than usual for wintertime scat of porcupines, but we couldn’t think of any other creatures that would leave a latrine like this.

Possibly the most interesting observation was evidence of bear activity. In late February, this is a bit unexpected. But in this goofy pseudo-winter we are having, some bears in town have continued to be active and apparently never denned up to hibernate. So maybe all the signs of digging and eating out here fit right in with our mild weather.

In some places, the vegetation had been roto-tilled with shallow scoops that overturned mosses and roots. It wasn’t always clear what the foraging bear was seeking, but in several spots we found the exposed roots of chocolate lily (a.k.a. rice root). However, in each case, only some of the root material had been removed, leaving much seemingly edible stuff behind. That’s a little mystery that we’ve seen on several occasions—why dig it up if you’re not going to eat it?

A couple of bear scats contained only vegetation fibers. One also held partly digested highbush cranberry fruits. Because bears have short digestive tracts, food often passes through fairly quickly, and whole berries commonly come through. Another scat contained plump, juicy, bright red (undigested) berries of the plant called false lily of the valley (a terrible name! this plant does not resemble the real thing at all.)

The grassy berms behind the beach at Crow Point provide excellent habitat for false lily of the valley, and there was an abundant berry crop on view. Last year’s dead, heart-shaped leaves were gray, with black veins, and they set off the glowing red berries. These berries don’t get their fully ripe, bright red color until they’ve been well chilled. So berries produced last summer are conspicuous after a cold season and are then available for spring-arriving birds. It is interesting that this bear had not focused on the many berries that bejeweled the ground, but instead had spent its time digging.

Over a hundred Canada geese grazed in the broad tidal meadow. By walking close to the trees, we managed not to disturb their foraging. A few alert heads popped up to check us out but soon went back down to the business of eating. Earlier, an eagle had caused much consternation in this flock, but our passage left them calm.

While we were ambling down the beach, a stormlet blew in from the south, the sharp wind stirring up growing whitecaps. We were glad to put the wind at our backs when we left the beach to circle the grazing geese. Parka hoods up, shoulders hunched, we put on our ice cleats to trudge the icy trail back to the car.

Bearings on bears

the advantages and disadvantages of being a big bruin

In the world of North American bears, there are considerable advantages to being big. The biggest males generally mate with more females than medium size or small males do. For example, one study found that three large male black bears encountered more than twice the number of females in the breeding season as several smaller males did, and a much higher proportion of these encounters were with receptive females. As a result, the three big males fathered ninety-one percent of the cubs. Being big led to winning more face-offs and fights with other males and perhaps also to being favored by females. Big males are also able to dominate smaller bears and gain almost exclusive access to important food resources in many situations.

Being big also has pay-offs for females. They too are more likely to win threatening encounters with other bears (when they can’t be avoided). Moreover, big females are likely to produce more cubs than smaller females. Research has shown that fat females produce more surviving cubs than less-fat females, because they have more energy for producing milk to feed their new cubs, born during hibernation. Although both small and large females can be fat, large females have better access to food resources, because they can dominate smaller bears, and they can carry more fat on their large frames.

brown-bear-with-fish-haines-jos
Photo by Jos Bakker

Here in Southeast, researchers suggest that access to spawning runs of salmon in late summer and fall allows bears to become both bigger and fatter than bears that don’t have access to salmon. Eating meat, especially salmon, seems to allow bears to grow extremely big. However, some bears in Southeast don’t come to the salmon runs, staying instead in the alpine zone. Apparently they give a higher priority to avoiding the risks of encountering dominant bears that rule the salmon streams, and they probably have lower reproductive success. Spawning runs of other fishes offer foraging advantages to hungry bears too: It would be interesting to learn if the grizzly bears feeding on the spawning runs of broad whitefish in the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories get bigger and fatter than those without access to the runs.

Being big has its advantages, certainly, but there is also a ‘down side’ to large size. Big bears can’t run as fast as smaller ones, and researchers suggest that they are more likely to hunt by ambushing prey rather than pursuing it. Big bears can climb trees but they are much less agile in doing so than smaller bears. Trees offer refuge, especially to smaller bears, from other, larger bears. Tree climbing also gives agile bears access to food in some cases. For example, in spring black bears forage on cottonwood flowering catkins and young seed pods; near the Visitor Center they sometimes strip the trees of most of their branches in order to reach the catkins and pods. A really big black bear would have trouble clambering up many of the middle-sized cottonwoods up by the Visitor Center to gather the edible catkins, but the smaller bears do so with apparent ease. Later, in the summer, both black and brown bears in Southeast climb wild crabapple trees to get the fruit; outside of Southeast, bears climb (or did so before they were exterminated in many states) many kinds of trees to reach the fruit.

Big body size also makes it difficult to gain weight in preparation for hibernation by eating vegetation alone. Putting on fat is necessary for survival during the long months of hibernation and for females to produce milk to feed their cubs. Although our bears commonly eat a lot of green plant food, they can’t digest plant fibers. So apparently big bears just can’t get enough nutritious plant material to put on the necessary weight. Very big bears probably also have difficulty gaining weight on a diet of berries, except perhaps in really good ‘berry years.’ It could be argued that the bigger the bear, the more meat it needs to eat; and conversely, meat eating is necessary to achieve large size in the first place.

Being big has another major disadvantage: Hunters often take pride in killing large animals, be they sheep or goats or bears. So trophy hunting imposes a risk on large body size. The consequences of removing large, dominant individuals from a population are well understood (but commonly ignored): loss of the large individuals upsets to social organization and probably increases the risk of infanticide by previously subordinate male bears (killing cubs tends to bring the female back into breeding readiness). More mating by smaller bears eventually results in a population of smaller bears, because the genes for large size become less common in the population.