Recent sightings

…a collection of small discoveries from recent walks.

Along the road to the Eagle’s Nest and Pittman Ridge, there was a small stand of fireweed that stood out from the rest. The petals were white, while the narrow sepals showing between the petals were the usual vivid pink. A very showy display.

White-petal-fireweed-2-Kerry
Photo by Kerry Howard

At Point Louisa, on a moderately low tide, the rocky shores and pools held the usual assortment of sea stars, chitons, anemones, and urchins. I was entertained by a couple of urchins: in one pool, the urchin sat in a clam-shell bowl that was a perfect fit. And in the next pool, another urchin wore a sizable clam shell as a hat, which covered the urchin completely, to the very tips of its spines—another perfect fit. Urchins often bear stones or bits of shell on their spines, possibly for camouflage or, in some places, perhaps protection from UV light.

A stroll on Eagle Beach brought a surprise—two woolly-bear caterpillars (Lophocampa maculata). One marched steadily along the sand, struggling a bit over small divots of loose sand, but persevering. The other one trudged rapidly up toward the rye grass, made a ninety-degree turn and scurried along for several yards, and then made another right-angle turn back down toward the damp sand near the water’s edge. Both explorers visited milkwort and goose-tongue plants but did not seem to eat anything. According to various sources, these caterpillars customarily eat the leaves of poplar, willow, and alder, so it was a puzzle just why they were down on the beach. If they were looking for a place to pupate, this wasn’t it!

Along a short stretch of the Treadwell Ditch trail we found a series of piles of red bunchberries. Each berry had been opened, and the single fat seed extracted. Surely the work of a rodent—a squirrel or maybe a mouse. In contrast to that pattern of consumption, on Gold Ridge we found some patches of bunchberry in which the berries had been systematically pecked open, removing bits of fruit pulp but leaving the seeds intact. Birds, no doubt, but which? There are very few reports in the natural history literature of birds eating bunchberries.

Skunk cabbage fruiting stalks are starting to fall over and ‘melt’ into puddles of ooze containing lots of seeds. When I first arrived in Juneau, many years ago, I found some of these things that had just fallen over and started to take up water (before the oozy stage). At that earlier stage, each seed was surrounded by a jelly coat, and I (being new in the area and quite ignorant of local matters) took the aggregations of jelly-coated seeds to be frog eggs. But what were those ‘eggs’ doing in the middle of the forest??? Ah well, I learned! On a recent walk, I found the remnants of a skunk cabbage fruiting stalk, with the central pith intact, indentations showing where the seeds had been, and no seeds on the ground. The pithy center had been plucked clean by a seed-predator, such as a squirrel, or a jay, or a flock of chickadees, or…who knows?

Gold Ridge provided several additional observations of interest: A tangle of brush suddenly shook vigorously, drawing our attention. In the middle of the tangle, a red squirrel harvested a cluster of the devil’s club berries and made off with it. We often see devil’s club seeds dispersed by bear scats, but this was the first time (that I can recall) I’d seen a squirrel presumably intent on having the seeds for lunch. Farther up the trail, we surprised a well-grown ptarmigan chick, and stopped to watch. The chick was apparently not too sure what to do: it ran up the trail a little way, came back, turned around and ran up several yards, came back, and finally took off up the trail and into the brush. I was charmed by the fluttering of the white feather over its legs—like lacey pantalettes.

Time out for tea and crumpets at a rocky viewpoint, with marmots whistling on all sides (a couple of illegally off-leash dogs had just gone up the trail). Time, then, to examine our immediate surroundings more closely. Here’s a patch of trailing raspberry, in the subalpine zone, not its usual forest habitat. The pretty little rosettes of pussytoes leaves; the tiny, now-empty, artistic seed capsules of white mountain heather; a lonely purple flower of the miniscule moss gentian. The odd growth pattern of the alpine harebell, with the single flower borne on a stem that seems to emerge from underneath a low rosette of leaves.

A nearby stand of copperbush was covered with immature fruits of a curious shape, rather like small green pumpkins with curved handles on top. I was reminded of the stones used for the game of curling. A few laggard copperbush flowers attracted some bumblebees, who did not linger long.

Hmmm….pumpkins and curling stones, pantalettes, and who knows what else might we find!?

Around Cropley Lake

“Elysian fields” of Eaglecrest

Ambling up from Eaglecrest to Cropley Lake at the end of July, we passed from summer back into spring. Near the lodge, the tall blueberries were ripe, attracting batteries of pickers with buckets. Just a few hundred feet higher, the low-growing bog blueberries sported their tightly closed pink buds. By the lake, flowers were still blooming while at the lower elevations, the same species had set seed. The tiny white gentian, however, dotted the meadows almost everywhere.

We found several stands of the pretty shrub called copperbush. It’s related to blueberries, but you wouldn’t know it from appearances. The flowers look entirely different: they have spreading, coppery petals instead of the pendant, pinkish-white bells of the blueberries, and the fruit is a dry capsule, not a succulent berry.

I don’t know how long Cropley Lake has been there; a small pond may have occupied the bowl originally. One drainage was blocked by a dike, decades ago, judging by the size of the spruce trees on its crest. A dam was built across another drainage, and the overflow from the dam feeds a small pool, which drains down-valley to help create Fish Creek.

We sat on the boulders just below the dam, watching the miniature Dolly Varden foraging on surface insects. They ranged in size from four to eight inches or so. Many of them had colorful orange fins, and we guessed that these were males. They could be mature individuals, despite their diminutive size.

The resident Dolly Varden in Cropley lake were undoubtedly introduced by humans many years ago. Resident Dolly Varden, which live their whole lives in fresh water, mature at a small size. A tiny female may produce only a few dozen eggs. If some of their offspring get washed downstream to the sea, they may survive and adopt an anadromous life style: growing to a large body size and re-entering fresh water to spawn. But return to Cropley Lake can’t happen; there is at least one barrier falls.

The dollies we saw in the pond below the dam may be in for a hard time, come winter. The pond must often freeze right down to the bottom, or nearly so. In past springs, I’ve sometimes seen several dead dollies here, with no living individuals in sight.

On the other side of Cropley Lake, we found a stand of creamy-flowered plants growing near a seep. They looked rather like fireweed, except for the flowers. I think I once knew them, but–as with so many things—the knowledge had faded. However, our handy plant guide told us that they are indeed yellow fireweed, more of a habitat specialist than our common pink species.

I was pleased to find numerous butterwort plants, a.k.a. bog violet. The purple flower is vaguely violet-like, but the nectar spur at the back of the flower is much longer and the face of the flower is distinguishable upon close inspection. Butterworts are insectivorous plants; their flat yellowish leaves are sticky traps for insects, which are then digested by the plant. The insects are a good source of nitrogen for plants growing in boggy, nutrient-poor soils.

butterwort-by-bob-armstrong
Butterwort. Photo by Bob Armstrong

We also inspected the stems of the little iris relative with the ponderous name of sticky false asphodel. The flower stem is covered with sticky hairs that trap miniscule insects. Some years ago, we did experiments to see if this plant could be insectivorous, putting chemically labeled fruit flies on the sticky stem and then testing for presence of the label in the plant’s seeds and roots. No luck. There may be another function of the sticky hairs that remains to be discovered.

For those interested in the names of things: the true asphodel is an Old World lily (not an iris) and it was the flower of the Elysian Fields in Homer’s Odyssey. These fields were the meadows where dwelt the souls of the dead. (The name ‘asphodel’ was also strangely corrupted into ‘daffodil’, a totally different plant.) The famous Parisian avenue called Champs Élysées means Elysian Fields, presumably referring to the gardens that once flanked it and not to a collection of dead souls!