Autumn Begins

bears digging, some unusual flowers, and a lovely purple mushroom

On yet another gray, wet day, some friends went up the Eaglecrest Road in early September, frequently stepping off the road to make way for big equipment. Some headed for the Nest, while I and some others searched for the rare white-petalled variety of dwarf fireweed (a.k.a. river beauty). Sadly, it was done flowering—as was almost everything else. There were a few laggard monkshoods, yellow rattle-box, and groundsels, and I saw some delayed salmonberries just ripening. Deer cabbage leaves shone with yellows and golds. It was really autumn at Eaglecrest.

White fireweed. Photo by Kerry Howard

I was interested to hear reports of a Clark’s nutcracker in the area, and there were several bird-watchers on the road, hoping to spot it for themselves. This bird is normally found in montane conifer forests from central BC southward, but I’m told it occasionally ranges north to the southern Yukon and is very rarely seen in our coastal conifers.

Marsh felwort. Photo by David Bergeson

Looking back to our so-called summer: a trip to Crow Point and the Boy Scout beach in mid-August found the little gentian called marsh felwort in its usual place near the trail on flat, gravelly soils. Five pointed petals make bluish or lavender stars that usually appear in August. This little annual plant occurs widely in the northern hemisphere. In the spruce groves there were fairy rings of white mushrooms and a clump of giant purple mushrooms known as purple (or violet) corts. Corts belong to a multi-species complex in the genus Cortinarius and form mycorrhizal associations with the roots of spruces and other trees. Also, around one big spruce tree, I saw a palatial squirrel midden with numerous entrances, one of the most impressive middens I’ve even seen. A lot of spruce cones were demolished to make a pile that size.

Photo by Jennifer Shapland

Both brown and black bears frequent these meadows, and I recently saw tracks of both species. We often see bear diggings here. Usually the bears have been digging roots of Angelica lucida (‘seawatch’), occasionally also eating the lower stems and leaf stalks. But this time, there was one area where bears had concentrated on digging up beach lovage; dozens of holes were marked by the discarded reddish leaf stalks. When the roots of these perennial plants are eaten, presumably the population of those species is reduced, thus reducing their future availability as bear food—unless the plants set enough seed before the roots were eaten, and the seeds germinate well, to establish a new generation of those species in the area. Also, a few side shoots and root fragments survived the digs and can regenerate full plants, but would this be enough to replace those eaten?

Another August hike took us—squelching all the way—to Cropley Lake in hopes of finding a blue gentian in flower and the yellow fireweed. Success! Also known as yellow willowherb, it usually grows along damp creek-sides and in montane meadows. It looks very different from the common pink-flowered fireweed, which is now classified in a different genus altogether. We also enjoyed some stands of the deep, rich purple monkshood flowers. There were hundreds of fringed grass of Parnassus flowers; in a previous essay, I related the history of how it may have got its name.

Yellow fireweed. Photo by Anne Sutton

At the very end of August, I went with a friend to the first meadow on the Spaulding trail. All across this meadow, we found many small diggings in the moss, leaving no evidence of who made them or what might have been taken. We found the seed heads of the strange little wetland plant called Scheuchzeria (sometimes called pod-grass). Widespread in the northern hemisphere, it has is currently classified in its own taxonomic family, and I have found very little information about its ecology and behavior.

A brief stop on a log for a snack provided a lucky sight of two chickadees: After conversing with each other in a nearby pine (no doubt about the odd lumps on the log), one by one they came down to a fruiting skunk cabbage. On each visit, the bird plucked one seed off the club-shaped infructescence, leaving a little empty pit, and flew off, but quickly returned. Jays and other critters sample these seeds too, sometimes leaving big bare patches, but it was good to see these little guys in action.


Birds in a snowy land

nest-building ravens, cocoon-tearing chickadees, and cockle-dropping crows

In the middle of March, I made a quick visit to Gustavus. It was snowing heavily, so the ferry ride was a ride in white-out most of the way. Good for taking naps (not to mention second breakfast and more than one cup of tea), making up for having to get up early and getting my gear on the luggage cart. A peaceful sort of trip.

Naturalists love to look for animal tracks in the snow and conjure up stories to go with them, but there was so much fresh snow falling that tracks were covered quickly. So animal-tracking was not very exciting, but bird-watching offered compensations.

A thick blanket of powdery snow lay on the ground, and snow continued to fall. But that didn’t deter a pair of ravens. They flew back and forth between a tree behind the house, where they had nested last year, and a flat area just across a small river. Coming back from over the river, they often carried big wads of moss; on other trips, bundles of long strips of plant fiber dangled from their bills.

My friends said that the long fibers came from dead cottonwood trees, so we went over to look. Beavers had felled cottonwoods and willows here, and moose had left the marks of their lower incisors on the fallen willows. On a cottonwood log, the loose outer bark had been pulled away and dropped in small pieces on the snow, and the fibrous inner bark had been peeled off, exposing the bare wood. This was where the ravens had been at work.

The ravens were clearly lining a twiggy nest basket with moss and bark, and lots of it—a cushy bed for the eggs still to come. An eagle cruised up the river and received a rough welcome from the ravens, which escorted it off into the distance. Maybe the ravens were just making sure that this eagle knew there was a no-fly zone here, ahead of the time when the nest would have occupants.

One day we saw a raven flopping about in the deep, fluffy snow—taking a snow-bath. It pushed its head forward into the snow, rubbing on both sides, then vigorously threw snow over its body with flapping wings. Moving to a new, still undisturbed, spot, it repeated the process. I wonder if snow works as well as water, for a bath.

Rolling in the snow. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The ravens aren’t the only ones who know that spring is coming. Oregon juncos are singing and the sapsuckers are back from winter quarters. Although magpies are still around and so are slate-colored juncos, these will soon head for the Interior, where they nest.

Other birds were out foraging in the snowy landscape. A little group of pine grosbeaks flitted through the shrubbery, chatting quietly with each other and nibbling willow buds. One of them dropped down to the snow and ate the seeds from a fuzzy seed-head that poked up from the snow at bird’s-eye level. Of course, we had to determine what kind of seeds they were, which led to some discussion and then back to the books. Ah, they were the seeds of big-leaf avens, a fairly common plant of open areas.

Just over our heads, a chestnut-backed chickadee perched on an alder, pecking and pulling furiously at something for several minutes. Finally, it began to extract and eat some bright green bits. After it flew off, our further inspection revealed that the chickadee had found a cocoon stuck to the alder twig. The cocoon was very tough—not easy for us to tear open even with forceps (we had to use scissors), but the persevering chickadee had won the prize inside and eaten all the juicy bits except for the very end of the pupa, leaving a fragment of pupal skin. That was one happy chickadee! We wondered how they learn to recognize insect cocoons as potential food sources.

When the tide went out, we strolled along a snow-free beach; what a relief from floundering in the knee-deep white stuff, too soft for those little snowshoes, typical of our area and never meant for powder snow, to do much good. Here the crows were plucking cockles from the silty sand, flying up a few feet, and dropping them. This is a common behavior by which crows crack open a shell to get at the edibles inside, but it depends on the shell landing on something hard enough to crack it. On this beach, there weren’t many rocks, and the chance of dropping a cockle and having it hit a rock was small. One crow tried two different locations and dropped its cockle sixteen times (!!) before it could eat its prey.

There was a stiff on-shore breeze that buffeted the foraging crows. So, instead of their usual walking gait, they often faced into the wind and side-stepped—just as I used to do when wading a fast-moving stream.

Birds at my feeders

musings on chickadees, ducks, and mallards

A gang of four Steller’s Jays regularly attends my seed-feeding stations. As soon as I go out on the deck to replenish the seed supply, they are there. One of them lets out a loud, raucous call, and then the rest come piling in, scarfing up the biggest and best seeds. After they’ve picked out the peanuts and sunflower seeds, they may take some of the little, round millet seeds, but these are usually left for the juncos.

The jays have even figured out how to raid the cylindrical feeders that I hang over my pond on a pulley system. They aren’t very graceful about it and they have to flutter their wings a lot just to stay in position, but they get enough sunflower seeds to make the level in the feeder go down rather quickly. The chickadees and nuthatches have to work around the big jays. Nevertheless, the little birds seem to do very well; there is a constant flurry of at least six chickadees whisking between the feeders and the nearby spruce trees. Whatever they reject, as they sort through the sizes and shapes of the seeds, drops down into the pond, where a gathering of mallards squabbles over each fallen seed.

Although the raucous blue rascals rather hog the show at times, they can be useful as well. One day they all worked together to harass a sharp-shinned hawk that was looking for lunch, with its eyes on all the birds congregated at the feeders. The jays swooped at it, squawking and shrieking, so all the birds knew it was there and were very wary. Eventually the still-hungry hawk gave up and left.

Jays aren’t always the ‘top dog’, however. At my feeders, when the resident squirrel approaches, on its regular rounds, the birds all move to another feeder temporarily.

Some squirrels have to work harder: A friend has observed another squirrel regularly checking seed feeders on the deck. It hasn’t quite figured out how to extract the seeds from most of them. Nevertheless, it energetically chases away the jays and other birds that come there to feed, spending a considerable amount of energy without gaining any food.

In addition to their other tricks, jays are accomplished vocal mimics, and they use this ability cleverly. They can mimic crows, red-tailed hawks, eagles, and goshawks, for example, and do it well enough to fool expert bird-watchers. A jay giving one of the predator calls generally causes other nearby birds to scatter. That potentially leaves the deceitful jay with sole possession of a food source, such as a seed feeder. A sneaky way to compete for food!

Jays also mimic marmots. Why in the world would they do that?? Marmots are not competitors for food, to be startled into fleeing. Could it be that jays simply entertain themselves, giving that active brain something more to do?

On the morning after the first hard frost, my pond had a sturdy film of ice. So the ducks were out of luck, in terms of a refuge from shooters on the wetlands. And I thought that they would all stay away from the frozen pond. But one persistent male mallard thought otherwise: he skittered and skated over the ice, snapping up spilled sunflower seeds. He had the place all to himself. A few days later, a light snow had coated the ice, and duck footprints were concentrated under the hanging feeders. Then I noticed that a female mallard had trudged up from the creek and over the ice to gobble up sunflower seeds. Relations between male and female seemed to be amicable, but occasionally the male selfishly chased the female away from the best clump of seeds.

A few days later, I glanced out my window at deck railings covered with snow and spruce branches weighted down by great clumps of snow. The pond was now frozen, so the heron that stalked the shallows a few days before was gone, and so were the opportunistic mallards. All the smaller birds were still here, including the rowdy jays.

It was very cold, so that was a nice time to remember some of those all-too-rare sunny days of summer. In the accompanying photo, two jays are enjoying a salubrious sunbath. I wonder if jays use any brain space in remembering such things when the weather turns icky!