Some observations

…from a so-called “summer”

During this so-called summer, our rambles yielded a number of nice little observations, along with a few of another kind. Here is a sample:

Near the glacier, a family of five raucous young ravens yelled constantly for food. They were as big as their parents but clearly intended to go on being fed as long as possible. This is probably the family that was raised on the hillside above the visitor center and fed partly on tern and gull chicks. One young raven sat atop the pavilion, where it was mobbed by barn swallows protecting the last broods in nests under the roof.

In July, for a time, the air was filled with flying, fluff-borne offspring of the cottonwoods. They collected in damp wads in roadside ditches and wafted into my garage in bundles. On the East Glacier Trail, we found a place where the ground was covered with mature female cottonwood catkins. The ripe, round pods of the catkin had not opened of their own accord, sending out their flying seeds. Instead, hundreds of pods had been opened and seeds carefully extracted from amid the white fluff. We soon saw the perpetrator: a red squirrel, which was in the very act of nibbling seeds from more pods.


Later, at home, I saw my local red squirrel had a doorway matted with discarded white fluff, left over from its seed harvest. Under that mat was the usual litter of spruce cone cores, ejected from the burrow.

Trips up Gold Ridge were plagued by rain and wind, almost every time we went there. We did see a marmot collecting hay; its mouth bristled with the leaves of grasses and herbs. It was already getting ready for its long hibernation (commonly about eight months).

On another day up there, we were watching marmots when we were surprised to see one being chased by a black dog. The marmot barely escaped, partly because we yelled at the dog. The surly owner of the dog declared that he did not care about the posted rule that dogs on that trail must be on leash, and besides, there were other marmots up there. As he and his marmot-chasing dog went on up the trail, a chorus of marmot warning whistles rang out across the entire hillside, and we didn’t see another marmot for four hours.

Dogs are not a marmot’s best friend. Photo by Jos Bakker

Even in the rain and wind, we enjoyed the flower show on the ridge, as always. One patch of narcissus anemones flowers had been assaulted by some herbivore, one that just took a bite out of each petal and managed to drop a few. We guessed that a family of grouse had been having lunch there. On the ridge top, we found a young ptarmigan, with no family members in sight. So we wondered if the rest of the family had come to grief. This young one was good at hiding: as we carefully looped around it, it circled around a sharp rock to keep the rock between itself and us.

In the summer of mostly yukky weather, I have not seen many bumblebees. Near the glacier and in some other spots, the many lupines, which are normally bee-pollinated, are setting no fruit, suggesting poor pollination. One nice (!) day in Gustavus, when bees should have been active, we took a walk through a field with acres of blooming lupines, but we saw no bees. This made us wonder if perhaps our record-setting wet summer might have drowned them in their ground nests, leaving few to pollinate the flowers.

Since all those words were drafted, we entered a spell of wonderful real-summer weather. What a treat! Another trip up Gold Ridge yielded a willow ptarmigan attending a single large chick, and they came right up to us, for a good look (by both parties). On a long hike over Mount Troy, we found a bench covered in deer cabbage. In the midst of the lush green foliage were several large beds, where something had rested for a long time. Some of the deer cabbage leaves had been mowed off in swathes, leaving a tall stubble. Then, aha, I noted some of the largest bear scats I have ever seen. Lunch at the top of Troy was celebrated with lots of chocolate, including birthday cake, while overhead, a few hawks soared, starting their fall migration.

Another huge treat was the opportunity to watch a group of Dall’s porpoises cavorting around our whale-watching vessel. What a show! I can’t say how many there were, because they were coming in from all directions to play in front of the boat. The bow of the boat was not very high, so we could see them well, as they zipped back and forth, changing direction with a tail flick. An amazingly quick breath snatched at the surface is enough to keep one zooming around for several passes in front of the bow. Suddenly, they were all gone. How do they coordinate their departure, and where do they go?


Early July scrapbook

a friendly dipper, sparrow city, swallows, ducks, warblers, and a balancing bear

The holiday week in early July found me on several short excursions. A trip to Lurvey Falls near the end of the Perseverance Trail was particularly rewarding for an old dipper-watcher and companions. As we approached one of the wooden bridges in the upper basin, we noticed a young dipper perched on the edge of the planks. So we stopped and ‘froze.’ Pretty soon the juvenile was pecking at the surface of the boards, poking down in the cracks between the boards, and being quite successful at finding little edibles—and discarding a few inedibles. It foraged this way for some minutes.

Then it hopped up on the bridge railing, picking up tiny things as it moved along. Gradually, it got closer and closer to us, until it was right next to me, just below my hand—and it nabbed a bug off my jacket before leisurely hopping back along the railing. What fun!

We think we found its parents a little way upstream, carrying beakfuls of bugs in both directions, up and down the creek. They appeared to have fledglings scattered all along the creek, and our insouciant juvenile was probably one of them.

A walk on the wetland at the end of Industrial Boulevard brought me into ‘sparrow-city.’ Song sparrows lived in the very brushy zone of alders and willows. As the thickets became sparse and mixed with grasses and herbs, I found a few Lincoln’s sparrows. Out in the open meadows, there were dozens of savanna sparrows, some singing and others with beaks full of green caterpillars and long-legged crane flies for their chicks.

Nest boxes on stakes were occupied by tree swallows. As I walked on the trail past one box, an agitated adult swallow dove close to me head repeatedly, until I moved along a sufficient distance from its nest. Another box seemed to have produced some fledglings that did not venture very far away and were actively tended by busy adults.

Tree swallow on nest box. Photo by Katherine Hocker

Some of the old, upturned snags and stumps scattered around the meadow are pieces of sculpture, if you take time to look. Beautifully curved roots, almost muscular-looking, once held those trees in the ground. Now they support mosses and lichens, and lots of tiny red mites.

My home pond has hosted at least three broods of mallards, all of different ages. Only two juveniles were left in the oldest brood, now almost as big as mom, with bodies well-feathered but wings still too short for flight. Five downy, middle-sized ducklings were just getting real feathers. And a brood of seven tiny fluff-balls arrived with their very vigilant mother. On most days, only one family used the pond at a given time, and if there was a brief temporal overlap, the females kept the broods well apart.

As usual, visits to the glacier area provided entertainment. The terns had gone, but barn swallows were nesting in the pavilion and exercising mosquito control in long, graceful swoops. A brood of mergansers rested, with mom, on a rock. A downy Barrow’s goldeneye duckling foraged alone for days, no family in sight, but apparently doing well for itself. A myrtle warbler (a.k.a. yellow-rumped warbler, a.k.a. butter-butt) flitted along the roof edge of the pavilion, gleaning insects. One aerobatic warbler chased flying insects high above the pond made (but no longer occupied) by beavers; it flew so high that it was just an animated black spot, diving, circling, climbing, and looping.

An adult black bear had climbed to the very top of a cottonwood tree. There it chewed through several inches of wood, causing the tip of the tree’s trunk to fall. The bear caught the falling piece and promptly ate the seed pods. Then it moved down to a sizable side branch. Planting its rump firmly in the junction of branch and trunk, it started to chew off the branch. Deciding, apparently, that this part of the branch was too thick, it reached out another foot or so, and chewed again, but briefly. Again, not satisfactory. So, stretching out as slender as a big bear can get, and balancing well along the branch, it gnawed through the branch at a thinner place, brought it down, and again gobbled up the seed pods. The top of the tree was a wreck, and the bear slid down and wandered off into the woods. Watching the antics of bears in the trees can be as much fun as watching them in the creek later in the season when the fish arrive.

Bear watching in spring

…a stellar day of stories!

By early June, the cottonwood seed pods are fat with maturing seeds, and that’s when local bears (and porcupines) love to eat them. In some places in Juneau, many of the cottonwoods have broken-off tops and lots of missing branches on otherwise vigorous trees. That’s the result of harvesting by eager bears that commonly break off branches in order to reach the apparently delectable seed pods.

One day in very early June, I enjoyed two hours of primo bear-watching. A glossy female black bear perched high in a female cottonwood; her two tiny cubs scrambled around, beside and above her. The cubs were already very adept at climbing; they reached out to pull in small branches that held the dangling chains of seed pods, deftly stripping off the pods.

Photo by Janice Gorle

One cub clung to a slightly wobbly vertical branch at the very top of the tree. Rockabye, baby! Suddenly, mama’s big jaws chomped through the branch about two feet below the cub; with a crack and a swish, down came the tree top, cubbie and all. Cub and treetop fell ten or fifteen feet and landed safely, cushioned on a hammock of dense spruce branches well above the ground. The cub was not perturbed by the fall and immediately started to munch the seed pods from the broken-off tree top; it was later joined by its sibling.

Sometime later, the little family slid down the tree and ambled off along the hillside. A bit unsettled by some rowdy dogs that raced into the area, mama sent her cubs up another cottonwood and followed them up. Luckily, it was another female tree, so this refuge provided snacks as well.

Snacks were followed by naps: cubbies up in the tree and mama on a mossy bed among some boulders. After fifteen or twenty minutes, mama called the young ‘uns down. They gamboled up to her, in her mossy nest, and nursed for a few minutes, humming softly. Then they all departed up the hill.