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!

Spring happens!

blossoms and pollination, wetland foragers, and sparrows in the grass

The end of April and early May brought signs that our reluctant spring was finally happening, at least at low elevations. The bright yellow display of skunk cabbage made a welcome contrast with the somber greens of conifers and the still-leafless deciduous trees. A close look at the spike-like inflorescence showed that the numerous individual flowers were all still in their female phase, with no signs yet of the pollen that eventually appears around each pointed stigma. The small brown beetles that are the chief pollinators had yet to show up; they prefer inflorescences with pollen. Deer had munched off the tops of many inflorescences, leaving just a stub with a few flowers.

We found several fern-leaf goldthread plants with their wispy, narrow-petalled flowers, which are pollinated by small flies. The early blueberries were in bloom, their pinkish-white flowers waiting for bumblebees to visit. On sun-warmed cliffs along the Perseverance trail, the first purple mountain saxifrage plants made a splendid show; they are pollinated by bumblebees and probably some other insects. And there are reports of yellow violets along some trails.

We enjoy those floral offerings, but they are a dramatic contrast with what happens in early spring in the forests of the Midwest. There, the forest floor is liberally decorated by the early flowers of many species, including bloodroot, spring beauty, dutchman’s breeches, dogtooth “violet”, among others, many of which have showy white petals. Most of these species require an insect pollinator for seed production, and that job is often done by various species of native, non-social, solitary bees and by the non-native honeybee. Here in Southeast, I am told that such solitary bees occur, but almost nothing is known about their ecology.

The avian world was promising, too: Hooters on the hillsides. Kinglets in full song, along with wrens, robins, varied thrushes, and juncos. Fox sparrows starting to tune up. Other sparrows and early warblers arriving but not yet very vocal. Chickadees with nest material and – in some places—eggs in their nests. Sapsuckers excavating nest cavities. The first hermit thrushes skulking in the understory. Hummers zipping to and fro. Flights of violet-green and tree swallows swooping after flying insects. It is always such fun to see and hear the forest awakening each spring.

A few weeks ago I wrote about our local moose population, noting that population growth might be slow, given that only a few moose were known to be in this area. Well, now there are fewer still. A bear reportedly killed one in Cowee Meadows, and I found the remains of one, killed by a human hunter, in another place.

A little walk on the beach along the Mendenhall Peninsula yielded lots of ducks: the usual mallards, plus widgeon, greenwing teal, and shovellers. I was surprised to see hundreds of scoters rafted up in the lower reaches of the river; they are usually out in the bay. Shorebirds were migrating through, with pipits foraging among them.

Ravens had been turned over a cluster of mussels and barnacles, exposing an enormous hairy hermit crab with its abdomen tucked (inadequately) into a moonsnail shell. They were actively foraging on barnacles, nipping and hacking at the shells; we also found several regurgitated deposits of broken barnacle shells, where the birds had jettisoned the undigestible bits. A couple of ravens near a torn-up patch of sand drew our attention. With their powerful bills, they had just excavated three holes, about five inches deep, and extracted the clams that had been buried there, cracking open the clam shells to extract the meaty morsels inside. As we stopped to watch, a raven was just finishing off the last clam.

On my home pond, a few pairs of mallards found peace and quiet, with lots of spilled bird seed on the fast-disappearing ice. But by early May, the ice was gone. The duck crowd had grown, sometimes to twelve or fifteen, now squabbling over the spilled seed. Most of the females probably had a clutch of eggs in progress, but males were largely still in prime breeding dress, no doubt in hopes of some delayed mating opportunities.

Golden-crowned-sparrow-2-Kerry.jpg
Golden-crowned sparrow. Photo by Kerry Howard

A leisurely stroll around the Crow Point/Boy Scout beach area found a flock of golden-crowned sparrows in the woods along the river and a couple of groups of savanna sparrows along the grassy upper edge of the beach. A flock of dunlin (I think) swirled over the sand flats. In the big, broad meadow I call the ‘goose-flats’, several white-fronted geese mingled with the usual gang of Canada geese, all grubbing for tasty greens and roots, while, off to one side and separate, a flock of snow geese also foraging intently. I circled around all of them at a distance, and so disturbed them not at all.

Elderberry and wild currant bushes leafed out ahead of most other deciduous woody plants, but by the end of the first week of May, bits of green were showing also on willows and alders. In the beach meadows, green shoots were popping up everywhere. It’s “green-up” time!

Rambling in winter

owl wings, wolf tracks, otter sign, and ice formations

The short December days don’t allow for long explorations, but even short ones can be productive for a curious naturalist.

I took a little stroll on the wetlands on the north side of the Mendenhall River. At least four short-eared owls were coursing low over the grassy meadows, with their distinctive slow wingbeats. They were looking for voles, their favorite prey. Vole tunnels were evident under the thin and patchy snow, but I did not witness a capture, despite some serious watching. Short-eared owls often forage during the daylight hours, probably using visual clues to supplement acoustic ones. Like other owls, they have the ability of pinpoint a prey animal by using only their ears, but in daylight, their eyes are useful too.

short-eared-owl-by-Jack-Helle
Photo by Jack Helle

Plodding on snowshoes around some mid-elevation meadows, we noted lots of deer tracks, some not-recent porcupine trails, and several sets of hare and squirrel tracks. But the big excitement, in two widely separated sets of mid-elevation meadows on two different days, was finding clear, recent footprints of wolves; they wove in and out among the trees at the edges of the meadows. That was a high point of the rambles on those days!

A friend and I walked out toward Crow Point and the Boy Scout beach, but we soon forsook the trail for explorations right along the river. There was not a lot of bird activity—a little squad of Barrow’s goldeneyes and a few gulls, but on a little grassy rise above the sandy river-shore we did find something interesting. In the snow that covered some of the grass, we saw otter tracks leading up to the top of the rise. There we found three or four spots where the grass was torn up and heaped off to the side. What were the otters doing? Just playing? Scent marking (the grassy heaps smelled faintly sweet)?

Where the trail reaches the beach, recent heavy erosion had chopped off a good part of the dense stand of little spruces and carved a steep cliff in the sandy edge of the grassy bank. The most severe erosion was very localized. Just around the corner, where the beach extends southward, erosion was much less. We wondered if there had been a big northerly wind that coincided with a good high tide. Possibly the bank around the corner was somewhat protected from wind and wave by the broad, sandy flats that extend away from shore and are exposed at low tide.

We walked south on the beach, watching gulls at the water’s edge picking up and carrying black lumps that were probably little clumps of mussels. The gulls did not do much else with those lumps, at least while we were watching. Gulls tracks were everywhere. In the dry sand at the top of the beach were many tracks of another kind of bird—something small, smaller than a robin. But not a shorebird, because this bird had a well-developed hind toe, which shorebirds lack. The unusual thing about these small birds was the gait—lots of running, with intermittent hopping. Most of our small birds, such as sparrows, seldom run; they usually hop. So what bird could this be? I think the two most likely candidates are pipits and horned larks, but December is rather late for them to stay here.

Another stroll, just after a few days of freezing temperatures, yielded some of the most beautiful ice formations we’d ever seen. Dead twigs and fallen logs had absorbed water from fall rains; as the low temperatures froze the water, it expanded. The expanding ice was extruded from the wood in thin sheets of fine, almost silk-like strands. The most elegant sheets were up to five inches long, curving gracefully like a tousled head of wavy hair. Alas, no camera!