July explorations

subalpine and sea-level explorations

Toward the end of July I hiked with some friends around Cropley Lake at Eaglecrest. It was the first full day of sunshine after something like three weeks of nearly continuous rain and cool temperatures. We reveled in the dazzling light and warmth. Some of us hoped we’d find yellow fireweed and sky-blue gentians blooming on the soggy back side of the lake, but apparently we were too early. Maybe the unseasonable weather slowed them down.

Swamp gentian. Photo by Bob Armstrong

But there were other things to be seen. Millions of swamp gentians starred the meadows, interspersed with the tiny pink dots of bog cranberry. As we approached the elevation of the lake, there were clear signs of late spring: the last of the spring violets and Jeffrey’s shooting star, and swathes of bog laurel. Late spring mingled with summer: little iris-like Tofieldia and leatherleaf saxifrage, with inflorescences of varied shades of red, were common; grass of Parnassus was about to bloom. Pink paintbrush prefers this habitat to the lower-elevation gravelly flats occupied by the yellow paintbrush species. The big treat was seeing dozens upon dozens of butterworts in bloom. Sometimes called ‘bog violets’ for a supposed resemblance to true violets, butterworts are not related to violets at all (although they both may have purple flowers). Butterworts are insectivorous, catching bugs on their flattened, sticky, yellowish leaves that are not a bit like violet leaves.

Paintbrush. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Earlier in the month, during all that rain, we made a special trip to Cowee Meadow. On a previous visit, we’d finally discovered what the female inflorescences of sweetgale looked like when they were in flower, and now the goal was seeing the mature form. By luck, our timing was good—the female inflorescences made slim, brown, cone-like structures, whose scales opened up to release seeds. By traipsing around for a while in the meadows, we also found more female plants than we’d found earlier, so females aren’t quite as rare as we thought (although still vastly outnumbered by male plants).

We happened to look at some fireweed flowers. I don’t know what attracted our attention, but when we looked attentively, we noticed that many of the flowers had no visible female parts. Fireweed flowers are both male and female, with a set of stamens with pollen-bearing anthers around a conspicuous, white, four-branched stigma for receipt of pollen. But some of these flowers seemed to be missing the big stigma.

After much closer attention, we found that the female structure was there, but small and drooping and apparently with the four branches both short and closed up tightly, as if they’d never fully matured. Fireweed inflorescences bloom from the bottom up, so older flowers are borne below younger ones, with unopened buds up at the top. But age of flower did not account for the development of female parts; both young and old flowers often lacked fully developed stigmas.

What is going on here? Is this just something I should have noticed long ago? Or could the long spell of un-summery weather have made the plants decide not to even try to receive pollen and make seeds?

Everywhere we wandered in the meadows, we found recent bear digs, usually for angelica roots. In some cases, the edible root-nodules of chocolate lily (rice-root) had been incidentally dug up too, but were left uneaten.

Back in the middle of July, on the Crow Point/Boy Scout trail, I watched a hummingbird visiting yellow paintbrush. It dipped in, then floated (or so it seemed) high into the air before coming back down to try another flower in the same patch. It tried a few flowers but soon zipped away, as if to seek better foraging elsewhere.

Red fruits of baneberry decorated the sides of the berm edging the goose flats. The felwort that we often see later in summer wasn’t blooming yet. But the wide meadow between the trail and the river was covered with white arctic daisies (Chrysanthemum arcticum), not to be confused with the weedy, alien white daisies on the roadsides.

A search for Salicornia in the big goose flat was futile for what seemed like a long time. But finally we struck the right microhabitat and found a lot of it—a tasty snack! This highly salt-tolerant annual plant is known as glasswort or saltwort or sea asparagus, among other common names.

End of summer

low water, autumn flowers, mountain fish, and alder eaters

It’s really fall, now—the autumnal equinox has passed, and we’ve all noted the rapidly shortening days. The fireweed leaves are mostly reddish and the seed pods have shed their offspring to the winds. A friend observed that the curly valves of the pods looked like the plants had been given perms—all by the same hairdresser.

Late summer, and the long drought reduced my home pond to little more than a mud puddle. Even so, two broods of mallards visit every day, no doubt drawn by the seed spilled from the feeder that hangs over the erstwhile pond. The young ones are well-feathered and nearly as big as their mothers. The hordes of pine siskins that monopolize the feeder are very messy and lots of seeds fall down where the ducks gobble them up. The two duck families don’t mix at all and typically push each other around.

There weren’t many fish in the pond earlier in the season—just a few juvenile salmon and some sticklebacks. They probably weren’t doing very well in the shallow, warm, and turbid water. I watched a mallard grab a young salmon from the shore and walk off with it before gulping it down. Fish-eating by mallards is not as odd as it might seem: when I worked at the hooligan run in Berners Bay, I often saw ducks eating dead or moribund hooligan.

Late summer, and at low elevations the fireweed is finished blooming. Purple asters are now on show in many places. In some of the meadows near Eagle River there have been nice displays of long-blooming grass-of-Parnassus and—a special treat—some lovely stands of felwort with its small, blue, star-shaped flowers, just starting to bloom. Felwort always seems to bloom late in the summer, when most other flowers are done. It’s something I look forward to.

felwort-two-flowers-David
Felwort. Photo by David Bergeson

All summer long, I’ve had a pot full of the little pansies called johnny jump-ups near my door. One day in July, I came out that door and said “I’ve been robbed!” The two deer that mutilated the fireweed in the front yard, nibbling the upper leaves down to ragged stumps, had come round and mowed down my little johnnies to a height of about three inches. No flowers left. Well, I nursed those plants back to something like their sprightly selves and they again flowered briskly. But the deer came back and this time they left only one-inch stubs. After some considerable time for recuperation, now the johnnies are trying again, but there are many few flowers this time.

One August day I watched a young buck demolishing more fireweed in front of the house. He slowly wandered along the edge of the drying pond where I have some poorly tended terraces. As I watched, he started chomping on the Canterbury bells. That was just too much. I eased my way slowly toward him and when he finally noticed me (he being much too busy eating!), he went the other way, with determined sedateness and his dignity intact, and so disappeared into the woods. But I reckon the deer are not done with my flowers!

Up at Cropley Lake the fish were rising. These are resident Dolly Varden that mature at a small size, much smaller than the sea-run dollies. There are also resident dollies in the creek that flows from the lake, but I’ve been told that the population in the lake is probably quite separate from the one in the creek, with little or no genetic mixing. The lake population is thought to have been there a long time.

In mid-August, on North Douglas, I happened to notice an alder shrub whose leaves had been reduced to skeletons. Some critter had eaten the blades and left just the veins. A closer look found some of the perpetrators—a cluster of fuzzy white caterpillars. These turned out to be woolly alder sawfly larvae. Later, driving out the road, I noticed other alder stands that were nearly leafless.

In consultation with the helpful FSL entomologist, Liz Graham, I learned that there are at least three kinds of sawflies working on alder leaves. The striped alder sawfly is a native species. The woolly alder sawfly and the green alder sawfly are not native here, although the woolly one seems to be naturalized and the green one has been in this area for several years. Heavy sawfly infestations are patchily distributed, nothing like the widespread swaths of browned hemlocks, whose previous-years’ needles are being decimated by the hemlock sawfly this summer.

Sawflies are not true flies; they are related to bees and wasps. They get the first part of their common name from the long, serrated tube through which females deposit their eggs. I’ve read that the three species deposit eggs in somewhat different parts of the leaf: woolly ones on the underside of the leaf and in the midrib, green ones on the upper leaf surface, and striped ones along the leaf petiole. The eggs take one or two weeks to hatch. The green alder sawfly burrows into bark and wood when it is ready to pupate, but the other two species pupate in the soil; the adults emerge the following year. It takes more than one year of defoliation to kill an alder, but defoliation by the insects means that there is less nitrogen from decaying leaves put into the soil. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in alder roots put lots of nitrogen into the plant, and this gets recycled back to the soil when the leaves decay. I wonder about possible ecological consequences of breaking that nitrogen-recycling pattern.

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!