Bright spots

after a soggy summer

The autumn equinox is past, and the days are rapidly getting shorter. It was an exceptionally rainy summer and we can’t expect fall to be much different. Sigh. But there have been some bright spots along the trails in forest and meadow.

One happy sighting in a meadow on the Peterson Lake trail was a bird busily foraging in the mosses, but it was partly obscured by clumps of taller vegetation. All I could see was a brown back and bits of moss flying every which way. I watched for a few minutes, but the flurry of flying moss continued without revealing the forager. So I slowly crept in a circular path to get a different perspective and eventually won a quick side view of the bird’s head. Ah…a red mark on the face and maybe a dark spot on the chest. Then the bird took off, exposing a big white rump patch (but not the colored underwings). OK, of course! A northern flicker, a woodpecker known to forage often on the ground. They nest here occasionally, but I’ve only seen them in Southeast once before this.

A female flicker peers from her nest cavity on Douglas. Photo by Bob Armstrong
This male flicker has the red face mark of the western form and the red nape mark of the eastern form, so it may be an intergrade. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Another enjoyable sighting occurred near the Spaulding Meadows trailhead. A brown creeper zipped across the trail, landed on a tree trunk, and hopped its way up, using its tail as a brace in proper creeper fashion. It was soon followed by another one, which also landed on a tree trunk. But this one quickly moved onto the underside of a branch and hitched its way along, upside down, using just its sharp little claws. It seemed to be quite comfortable in that position and put on a nice little show of its expertise.

We don’t have to go to Vermont or Wisconsin to see good fall colors, even though we don’t have the great stands of oaks and maples. Our colors tend to come in smaller patches, but they offer their own visual treats. A band of cottonwoods on the far shore of Herbert River somehow managed to glow in yellow and gold above a swirl of river mist, despite a steady rain. Willows often turn yellow, but some bear vivid displays of orange and red (why??). The multi-colored leaves of highbush cranberry can be yellow, pink, bright red, crimson, or combinations of those. On the forest floor, bunchberry leaves make carpets in shades of yellow, orange, and red. I also enjoy the pale yellow tapestries of enchanter’s nightshade leaves that call attention to this tiny plant. Still smaller but eye-pleasing are the several kinds of red berries—devil’s club, bunchberry, red huckleberry, bog cranberry, and best of all, the translucent, almost-glowing highbush cranberry. These ‘little points of bright’ matter!

Not to be ignored are the woolly-bear caterpillars, the larvae of the spotted tussock moth. As they grew, they passed through several molts and changes of appearance, and the last instar has the familiar black bands on front and rear with a yellow or orange band in the middle, with some long white tufts. They eat leaves of deciduous trees, but in fall we see them crawling around, looking for a place to build a cocoon and spend the winter.

Fall rains also liven up the lichens and mosses, which are looking quite happy. Fall-fruiting fungi appear—including some showy white ones with a vase-like cap (since I’m a ‘fungignoramus’, I won’t attempt to provide a name).  

The Herbert River trail has always seemed rather dull (until you get close to the glacier area)—lots of the same thing for a long way. But that is unfair! There are actually zones of changing vegetation as one goes up the trail, quite noticeable when I pay attention.  And recently I found several colonies of what turns out to be a common species called the stiff clubmoss, bearing its cones on the tips of the twigs—and thus easily distinguishable from the running clubmoss, with cones on long stalks. How I managed miss the stiff clubmoss all these years, I don’t know, but now that I’ve learned it, I have discovered it in other places too.

For a curious naturalist, sometimes a bright spot (of a sort) comes in the form of a mystery. Along the lower part of Eagle River, a little above its junction with the Herbert, I noticed an odd collection of animal scat. There were maybe fifteen deposits, all within about two meters of each other. They had a variety of sizes and shapes, from cylindrical to lumpy, and all were black. Bears would seem to be the most likely perpetrators. But why so many scats in one place? Bears just defecate where they happen to be and don’t—as far as is known to several wildlife biologists—make communal latrines. One suggestion is that a family of bears had a secure resting place somewhere nearby and used that place for an extended time. But does that account for the very localized deposits? The mystery remains.

Notes from Gustavus

piddocks, creepers, and a phenomenal feat of swallowing

The good snow was long gone, leaving only some soggy snowplow berms along the roads, where moose and wolves had left their marks, days ago. Our usual occupation on winter walks is finding animal tracks and stories in the snow, but that was obviously not a possibility on this December visit to Gustavus. However, if you turn two curious naturalists loose on the landscape, some things of interest are bound to be discovered.

Here are some of the small things that captured our attention:

–A long series of humps atop the beams and pilings of the fuel dock turned out to be hunched-up great blue herons, pretending to be gargoyles. There were seventeen of them (!), not the record number for one sitting (the record is over twenty), but nevertheless a lot of gargoyles.

–A small flock of white-winged crossbills, calling to each other and flitting from one shore pine to another, sampling the cones. Each bird worked on a cone from above, reaching down over the base of the cone and concentrating on the cone scales close to the tip of the cone, prying open the scales with the crossed bill and extracting the seed. They didn’t spend much time on any one cone but moved quickly on, to sample another one. Were these cones not good providers of sound seeds?

–Beach rye had produced a good seed crop and many seeds had fallen to the sand from the full seed heads. Up north, snow buntings are reported to glean the fallen crop, but who eats them here? The next big tide is likely to wash them all away.

–Piddocks are clams with distinctively curved shells that bear an elongate, flat projection on the inner surface of the shell. That projection serves for the attachment of muscles that are used to torque the whole clam when it burrows into clay or rock. A burrowing piddock can disarticulate its two shells, anchor itself to the substrate with a sucker disc on its foot, and rotate while the two separated shells scrape their way along. Small teeth on the edge of the shells do the grinding (do they sometimes wear out?), possibly with some assistance from chemical secretions. Piddocks are said to live in their burrows their whole lives, enlarging the burrow as they grow. Gustavian beaches are littered with these shells, but I have not found them in Juneau. Why??

–Brown creepers typically forage by hitching up a tree trunk, probing crevices and lichens for small insects and spiders. We found one doing just that, then flying to the base of the next tree and starting upward on that tree. They typically nest behind loose flaps of bark on dead and dying trees, seldom using any other kind of nest site; the bark flap conceals the nest and protects it from severe weather. Once a pair of creepers finds a nest site, they build a little hammock of small twigs and fibers behind the loose bark, and then build a comfortable nest cup of fine materials on the hammock. My friend had found a nest last summer while the adults were feeding chicks, so our curiosity led us to haul out a ladder and climb up to peer behind the bark flap; but the soft materials making the nest cup had disintegrated, leaving just a pile of small bits. The rather specialized nest site makes me wonder how common those favored nest sites might be, and if the distribution of nesting brown creepers might be governed by the availability of good nest sites.

–On the Gustavus dock, several glaucous-winged gulls had harvested sea stars on a low tide, as they often do. We saw one fly up to the dock with a four or five inch sea star in its bill and wondered just how the gull could eat that stiff, prickly, thing with arms sticking out in all directions. So we watched. The gulls repeatedly dropped, then picked up, the star, then finally picked it up and just held it for a long time, with the star’s arms poking out from both sides of its bill. Now what? Well, after almost ten minutes, that sea star simply disappeared down the gull’s gullet. The star must have eventually relaxed, so that the arms folded a bit, allowing it to pass through the gull’s throat and make a big lump in its crop. Even a relaxed star must scratch uncomfortably on the way down. In any case, how much of a sea star is digestible…what makes them worth eating?

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Thanks to Dr. Aaron Baldwin, ADFG, for helpful consultation about piddocks.

Early May on North Douglas

a spring meander and some rare sightings

With two treasured companions, I set off on an easy stroll on the Rainforest Trail on North Douglas. As usual, we went in search of nothing in particular and whatever things of interest we could find. Not having a specific, predetermined goal is often a good way to stumble upon the unexpected or just touch base with the familiar.

At the trail head, we meet a couple of Fish and Game biologists who were monitoring bat movements. They shared their discovery of a marked bat that was apparently roosting in the cliffs next to the beach. This little brown bat, a female, had been tagged at Fish Creek. The biologists reported that other marked bats were also moving around to different places in Juneau.

On down the trail, we encountered a small flock of ruby-crowned kinglets that included a brown creeper. The creeper hitched its way up a big dead tree and spent at least a minute checking out the space behind a loose flap of bark—just the kind of place creepers like to put their nests.

Brown creeper. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Down on the beach, we found deep windrows of rockweed piled up way into the beach-rye zone, clear evidence of recent high tides and high winds. Now the tide was low, and we ambled along the water’s edge, peering into rocky crevices and turning over rocks (and turning them back, too!). Some rocks were obviously favored habitat, housing quite a community of miniature critters: dainty six-armed sea stars only half an inch across, tiny limpets and chitons just two or three millimeters in size, sea cucumbers an inch long or less, and an occasional miniscule sea urchin. Toothpick-size towers stuck up from the mudflats; excavation revealed skinny tubes of sand grains, presumably inhabited by some kind of worm.

I was fascinated by the burrowing anemones, buried up to their tentacles in muck. They came in many colors, including green, tan, yellow-orange, and brownish, all with white bands on the tentacles. They may come in many other colors as well, including red, blue, and black, depending on location. Many of them had bits of shell stuck around their bodies, so when they retracted, all one saw was a ring of broken shell about the size of a silver dollar. They are reported to feed on fish eggs and small, floating invertebrates.

We perched on Shaman Island for a while, just to watch what might be going on in the coves on either side of the tombolo (a.k.a. the spit) that connects the island to mainland when the tide is out. A group of twenty or thirty black-bellied plovers prospected over the sand flats (and I got a quick reminder-lesson on how to tell them from other plovers that have black fronts). Crows were foraging in the mussel beds, sometimes walking around with straggling bits dangling from their bills and seeming to cache their prizes among the cobbles. Groups of harlequin ducks and common goldeneyes floated peacefully around the edges of the covers.

A sizable flock of scoters suddenly erupted in panicked flight and fled out around the point. Just the sort of thing they would do if an eagle swooped down over the flock. But the eagles were quietly perched in spruce trees on shore. The perpetrator of the panic was a male harrier that coursed low over the flock, briefly followed the birds around the point, and then turned to follow the beach, perhaps looking for something of a more convenient size. Could a harrier actually take a scoter that weighs twice as much as itself?

On the way back up to the parking lot we noticed quite a few flowering fern-leafed goldthread; close inspection showed that all of these were male. Maybe those that also have female parts (that is, they are hermaphrodites) flower a little later?


Finally, as we left the parking lot, we spotted a snowshoe hare scampering up the bank. Not white, not brown, but in between, and not well camouflaged in any habitat. Although I’ve seen thousands of hare tracks, one dead leveret (baby hare) in the jaws of a cat, and one dead adult hare in the clutches of a goshawk, I can’t remember seeing a living adult hare around here. So this was a minor coup.

During our short perambulations on the beach, we also filled a yellow litter bag to the very brim, with cast-off food and drink containers, oil rags, broken plastic parts of unknown objects, and a thick, sodden seat cushion. The bag containing all that mess we deposited near the trash container at the trailhead. However, on the shore of Shaman Island there was a wheel, with tire, that was too much for us to carry out; we hope some kind soul with a boat might go and remove it to a more suitable location.

Stories in the snow

a snowy ramble reveals winter action

I love to go a-wandering along a snowy trail, looking for signs left by others who’ve been out on their business of living. A recent prolonged cold spell had kept the snow soft, preserving evidence of a very busy wildlife community along a local creek.

Mink tracks rambled along the creek-side, dipping down to the stream and curving up into the forest. The footprints were bigger than those of a second mink that traveled part of the same route, so my naturalist friend and I guessed that the first mink was a male. His trackway led a long way upstream on one side of the creek and seemed to circle back down on the other side—at least the footprints were the same size there. This might have been a male patrolling his territory.

Everywhere, we found the delicate, stitchery trackways of small rodents. According to the books at hand, mice are likely to drag their long tails, flipping them to the side as a counter-balance during sharp turns, but voles don’t usually show tail-drag marks. If that’s right, we had both mice and voles, especially on one side of the creek. The tiny trackways of shrews were less numerous.

Snowshoe hares had been busy, especially on the other side of the creek. Trackways led up to the streambank, then away, then back to creekside, then away. It was as if the hares wanted to cross the fragile ice but, lacking the nerve to do so, just dithered along the bank.

A bird had hopped about extensively in and out of some brushy areas. The tracks seemed too small to be those of a junco. Then we found wing-prints where the bird had flitted a short distance to a new site, and the length of the wing was clearly too long to belong to a junco. My guess was possibly a varied thrush, some of which overwinter here.

The only actual bird we saw was a brown creeper, hitching its way up a tree trunk and flying down to go up the next tree—their typical foraging pattern as they search for tiny bugs in the bark. According to the literature, creepers commonly concentrate their efforts on trees with ridged bark, the deeper the ridges the better; this kind of bark harbors more insects than smoother bark.

A few deer tracks, both large and small, appeared as we walked along. But there was much less deer traffic here than, say, in Gastineau Meadows, where peripatetic deer had cruised all over the place.

My friend called to me: Come look at this! I saw a shallow groove in the snow on the streambank and, without thinking, said: Oh, a shrew trail. Look again, said my friend. Ah—there’s a faint yellow stain at the bottom of the groove. And here, where I had casually supposed my ’shrew’ had dived under the snow, was—not a burrow at all, but just a deep dimple. My friend, who is smarter than I am, said: I think a bird, maybe a kingfisher, perched on that branch near the edge of the stream and projectile-defecated a jet of hot poop, melting the groove in the snow. So we said: Well, if that’s so, then in the dimple at the end of groove there should be a little wad of solid waste. And yes, indeed there was! Good detective work, friend!

A final little treasure on this walk was a dead red alder that sported a beautiful array of conks (or shelf-fungi). The living conks all had a slightly soft pile of white stuff at their lower edges. This stuff had occasionally smeared sideways over the bark, showing that it had been soft when the temperatures were above freezing. What is this stuff?

Phellinus conks. Photo by Katherine Hocker

I took a sample to a local forest pathologist, who put it under his microscope. He said that the white material was certainly fungal mycelium (the technical word for the mass of filaments that grow through the wood before producing the spore-bearing conk). However, without DNA work, there’s no way to know if it belongs to a parasitic fungus growing on the conk or to the conk species itself, because this kind of conk (of the genus Phellinus) often grows some of its own filaments right down through the conk itself. So we ended our walk with one more mystery.