Beaches and tideflats

sightings and discoveries in a sudden spring

Several sunny (!!) days in a row in mid April. I’ve now hacked most of the ice off my driveway and trimmed back the piles of snow on my terraces from two feet deep to a few inches. Mallards are thronging to my pond, which has ice only in the middle, with wide open channels around the edge. I hear juncos, ruby-crowned kinglets, varied thrushes, and nuthatches in my yard. Maybe it’s really spring!

All that sunny weather drew me out to soak up the sunshine. On Boy Scout beach, while a group of friends perched to have lunch, a beautiful, huge queen bumblebee checked us out—she particularly liked a certain blue/purple jacket, to the consternation of the human inside. Those bees just love that hue and come buzzing around, as if it were one huge flower. They usually figure things out fairly quickly and go away.

On another day, I visited Eagle Beach and found a partial skeleton near the high tide line—one forelimb and a body sans skull. The bones were quite well picked-over by scavengers. I was puzzled—they clearly didn’t’ come from a deer or a seal; otter and bear were quickly ruled out; so who was it? A little bony detective work on the internet later found a likely prospect—a small Steller sea lion. The clues were the short, stout bones of the forelimb, a curve at the back edge of the shoulder-blade, and the lack of well-developed flanges (neural spines) on the outer part of the vertebrae. That tentative ID was later confirmed by a photographer-friend who had seen the carcass. The forelimb was especially interesting—the upper arm bone (humerus) was very short (maybe five inches long); the two lower arm bones (ulna and radius) were not quite so short but quite thick. That morphology might be related to how they use their forelimbs on land, hoisting the heavy body over the ground.

A couple of days later, I walked the dike trail with a friend, and the place had really come alive. Ruby-crowned kinglets serenaded us all along the trail, helped by a song sparrow or two. Golden-crowned sparrows scratched around in the thickets for fallen seeds and occasional bugs. Four pipits explored a channel left dry by the low tide. Robins were scattered widely over the grassy tideflats, foraging, and scolding when disturbed. A male yellow-rumped warbler hawked for flying insects over a pond and a female flitted about in a semi-dry channel after bugs that apparently jumped around. Two shorebirds got away from me but a greater yellowlegs was poking around in some shallows. All that warm sun had made green shoots of several species begin to rise from the soil, and on the trees a few leaf and flower buds were ready to open.

The next day I walked Eagle Beach again. Things were very quiet until a northern harrier coursed over the flats, scattering a few small birds and provoking the geese into vociferous protests. Harriers often cruise the beaches at this time of year, no doubt hoping to nab migrating shorebirds. Although I’d missed (sadly) the migrating mountain bluebirds reported from several beach areas, I did score a minor coup—a Townsend’s solitaire was hanging out in the brush at the edge of the big meadow at Eagle Beach, making occasional forays into the open in pursuit of small flying insects. This species typically nests in the Interior, often in open forest habitats, placing its nests in cutbanks and steep rocky slopes; the nests are on the ground but usually have some overhanging rocks or stumps.

Townsend’s solitaire. Photo by Scott Ranger

A few more fine, sunny days, and there were blueberries in flower, skunk cabbages up and open for their female-phase flowers, a flock of snow geese on the wetlands, and reports of wood frogs chorusing in a pond over on Douglas. It’s happening!


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!

Little stories on the trail

a suspicious raven, a grumpy mother, and a stroll on the alluvial plain

Out on the wetlands in late September, I spotted a raven carrying a fish up into the conifers at the edge of the meadows. After eating part of the fish, the raven picked up the bedraggled remains and flew out to a mossy stump, where it cached its prey in a crevice. Then it hopped up to the top of the stump and looked carefully around in all directions for several minutes. It saw another raven, perched a hundred yards away, and me with my binoculars, and forthwith decided to move its catch far, far away. Sharing was not an option.

In mid October, the coho were getting ready to spawn in Steep Creek. One of the bear-watchers favorite bears, a cinnamon female called Nicky for the nick in her left ear, appeared with her chubby black cub. An expert fisher-bear, she caught a coho almost immediately and retired to the brush on the bank to eat it. Little cub wanted some too, and complained repeatedly, but mama was not about to share; she growled and moved the carcass away from every approach her offspring made. When she finally finished and the two bears wandered on upstream, a watching magpie came down to look for scraps.

Nicky with a cub. Photo by Jos Bakker

About thirty minute later, upstream near the little waterfall, Nicky caught a second fish and carried it about forty yards away to eat it, calmly avoiding a cluster of people on the trail. Cubbie apparently managed to grab a chunk and eat all of it at some distance from mama. Nicky finished her catch, leaving only the dorsal fin. Then the little family moved on up the hill, leaving some very please bear-watchers behind.

The next day, she came through again, caught at least two coho, and added some northern ground cone to the meal. This time, she shared a little of the fish with the cub.

A little exploratory walk along Eagle River yielded several small mysteries. Invertebrates had left a variety of tracks in the mud. Worms, snails, slugs??—hard to know. But one long, thread-thin track ended at a tiny white spot less than a millimeter wide. My companion whipped out a hand lens to inspect the spot more closely and—oh my—it had a head end and it squirmed! This little maggot had travelled more than a foot, headed for who knows where. We released it to continue its trek.

Bears had been digging in many places, but the digs were several weeks old, so the tops of the dug-up plants had rotted beyond recognition. The remains of some of the dug-up roots had made new green shoots in preparation for next year, but slugs had eaten out many of them, leaving dry, brown bud sheaths behind. We were interested to find that the bear digs had exposed some inch-thick rhizomes (underground stems) that we traced back to lupine plants. This was the first we knew that lupines could spread in this way.

Strawberry plants are not common out there. But one, living dangerously at the edge of the overflow zone, had made an impressive runner, with the starts of about seven new plantlets at intervals. If they all survive the floods, there will be quite a family here.

On the bank of a slough, we noticed a few old bones poking out of the moss and mud. Looking more carefully, we eventually found several vertebrae, some ribs, and three leg bones. But whose?? A little forensic work made it likely that the bones had belonged to a long-dead bear.

Some other cool stuff: A flicker on the edge of a beach flew up into the nearby spruces; this seldom-seen woodpecker was probably on its way south. Some sedges with small, black spheres on the seed-head; they collapsed into dust at a touch and were probably the sporing bodies of a fungus. A Russula mushroom, whose broken, hollow stem revealed three dark, slender millipedes; what were they doing in there?

Every time we go out to find something of interest, we find at least two or three things! What fun.


Mid January cold

bear bones, iris seeds, and frost flowers

Night-time temperatures at my house were subzero and not much better in the daytime, winds aloft were creating snow plumes on the peaks, and Lynn Canal was lashed to a frenzy of froth. But the SUN was shining gloriously and who could stay home on a day like that!

Bundled up to the eyebrows, I sallied forth on snowshoes with my favorite explorer friends. Although the snow was hard and crusty in general, there were soft spots, so we were glad to have big feet to spread out our weight.

Our plan was to revisit a small muskeg out the road, where years ago we had set an array of mist nets in order to sample the bird populations in the area. In that project, we opened the nets early in the morning and checked them every hour or so. One spring day, as we approached an opened net, we heard a loud ‘twang!!!’ and a brief thrashing of bushes. My field assistant said ‘That’s a bear!’ We dashed forward and, sure enough, there was a huge hole in the net where a bruin had popped the taut lines in its haste to remove itself from us. Not only that, there was a similar hole in the next net.

It was fun remembering that near-encounter but, alas, we didn’t quite make it to the designated muskeg. We had parked our vehicle in a safe area and tried to reach our destination via an untested route. This turned out to be a misery of jack-strawed wind-thrown trees. My twinkle-toed companions managed better than I did (no surprise there!), but eventually we all detoured down into some lower meadows where the going was easier.

In the meadows we found several things of interest to exploring naturalists. Otter tracks lead out of one tiny patch of still-open stream, across the ice, and then up into the snows. Coyotes seemed to have trekked hither and yon and spent time around some well-gnawed old bones. All that was left of a large animal was the pelvis and a section of spine. We spent some time dithering about the identity of the original owner of the bones and decided we needed to do a bit of research. Museum and internet resources finally led us to conclude that a black bear had died, perhaps not too far away, and its carcass had been scavenged.

Poking up above the snow were numerous stalks of the wild iris, long gone to seed. Close inspection showed that many of the seed pods still held seeds that scattered over the snow when the stalk was jostled. These seeds don’t have plumes or wings for dispersal on the wind, nor do they have sweet, tasty fruits around them for dispersal by hungry animals, nor do they have sticky hairs or hooks for latching onto a passing critter. Very curious! How do they get around and colonize new areas?

Back home again, after a hot shower and a restorative cup of tea, I noticed my cat gazing intently out a window. So I peeked out, and there was a young otter on the bank of my pond, rolling and grooming, cleaning and oiling its fur. Then it slid down under the ice through a small hole, roiled the bit of open water at the upper end of the pond, and reappeared at a new spot on the bank. There it chomped happily on whatever it had found, and dove back in. Later I noticed its tracks going across the snowy ice, presumably heading toward the next available hunting area. It must have repeated its visit, though, because later I saw another set of tracks on the same route. What a neat thing to have in one’s backyard!

Photo by Bob Armstrong

A few days later, the daytime temperatures had soared to about nine degrees. A little stroll on Mendenhall Lake gave us five mountain goats over on The Rock and some spectacular icebergs. The berg with the tall, sharp pinnacles had a thin flange in which the surrounding mountains and the sky were reflected at unusual angles, creating some fine abstract art (as noted by an admiring photographer). The most spectacular treats were the ‘ice-flowers’ that decorated the smooth ice of the inlet streams near where they joined the lake. Some of these delicate flowers were over five inches across. To a viewer with some imagination, some looked like flying birds, or dragonflies, or butterflies, or katydids. We could have spent the entire afternoon just looking at and photographing the fabulous array of forms.