What is there to see?

the art of noticing among the familiar

The Boy Scout/Crow Point trail is one that some of us walk several times a year. We get to know every rise and turn pretty well. One might think that a trail so familiar could not offer much in the way of interest. Yet it does, regularly—at least to those of us who look for things to pique and tweak the curiosity. Every season brings different things to be noticed.

One day in late August, as we emerged from the forested part of the trail, a ruckus arose out over the river behind us, somewhere near the Eagle Beach State Park parking lot. A horde of noisy crows took to the air and circled over the river, along with numerous gulls, and then disappeared from sight. I’ve never seen so many crows in a flock; there were at least a thousand of them (no exaggeration!). What would draw so many crows to that particular spot, and what would send them all up and away in such a flurry?

A little way before the junction where the Boy Scout trail splits off from the Crow Point trail, we commonly see a little flower that blooms late in the summer. On this day, there were just buds, some of them ready to open and show off the light blue, star-shaped flower. This small annual plant is known as star gentian (in one field guide) or marsh felwort (in another). It seems to favor areas of sparse, low vegetation, and we see it close to the trail. I’ve not noticed it elsewhere around here, although maybe I’ve just not been in the right place at the right time of year. Unfortunately, I have not found any information about its pollination biology, but I’d love to see what insects visit the flowers.

Recent high tides had stranded dozens of chum salmon carcasses and a few body parts alongside the trail and sloughs, which still harbored lively spawners. Many carcasses seemed to have spawned before they were stranded. The carcasses were interesting because all but one of them had intact skulls. However, several bodies had been ripped open, eggs taken from unspawned females, and a good portion of the muscle eaten. If bears had been feeding here, I would have expected to see some skulls opened up so the bears could eat the brains, which are full of fat (every neuron is coated with it). That’s what we often see at Steep Creek, especially on male salmon, which—lacking succulent eggs—have the next best stuff in the braincase. So when a bear happens to catch a male salmon, if it doesn’t reject the fish outright, it often crunches the skull for the brains. But that didn’t happen to these chum salmon by the sloughs. Those with torn-up bodies were, I presume, ripped up by birds—eagles and ravens, probably; they and gulls also took the eyes, as usual.

As we wandered out into the big flat meadow, we noticed an unusually heavy infestation of ergot on the beach rye. This fungus sends up conspicuous blackish spikes from the seed heads in late summer. It’s hallucinogenic and is thought to have been responsible, historically, for such madnesses as witch hunts; rye grain was commonly used for bread, especially by poor folks. In some stands of beach rye, there were twelve to fifteen ergot spikes on a single seed head and ninety-nine percent of the seed heads had at least one, while other stands had little infestation.

On the approach to the south-facing beach, near the edge of one of the spruce groves, there were yellowish, small piles of seed fragments and the occasional dropped seed. They lay beside the empty seed pods of chocolate lily. I’m guessing that a red squirrel ventured out of its grove and made a small feast of these seeds.

Little mixed flocks of sparrows fossicked about for grass seeds in the meadows, while some migrating warblers flitted in the bordering trees. I always enjoy that stand of red alders festooned with beautiful draperies of old-man’s-beard lichens, especially when high-lighted by an errant shaft of sunlight. Bright red fruits of baneberry, elderberry, and highbush cranberry made spots of color at the forest edge.

tussock-moth-with-spots-2
Tussock moth caterpillar. Photo by Bob Armstrong

I harvested a few of those so-called cranberries (they are not even related to true cranberries), with the thought of making some of that savory ketchup. When I spread out my collection on the kitchen counter in order to pick out some little stems and leaves that had found their way into my stash, I found a tiny hairy caterpillar, the kind that most of us call ‘woolly bears’. And that reminds me to say that these caterpillars with broad black and orange bands are not true woolly bears. They belong to another genus entirely (Lophocampa), distinguished from true woolly bears (genus Pyrrharctica) by the long white plumes emerging from the black bands. Both are the larvae of tiger moths but they tend to eat different kinds of leaves. The proper common name of the black and orange caterpillar in our area is the spotted tussock moth. What? Our caterpillars don’t (usually) have spots! But reportedly, in some areas, this species sports a row of black spots on its all-yellow back. And even some of our local specimens show some black spots on the orange/yellow band. In fact, the color pattern is extraordinarily variable across North America, for reasons unknown. Another mystery, for someone to unravel…

There’s always something

finding little treasures on and off the trails

One day, as we walked along, a friend remarked: “You know, on every hike there’s always something spectacular or interesting or beautiful—some good memory to take home, in addition to enjoying some exercise and sociability.”

Although of course not everyone agrees on what is worth noting and remembering, on three hikes in late October and early November, I think there was consensus regarding the “take-homes.” All of these were flat, easy hikes, but all yielded some good thoughts.

Cowee Creek bridge to Echo Cove: Through the woods and meadow and along the beach, we noted little of special biological interest: not much sign of bears, no recent fish carcasses, very few birds. But it was spectacular—the sun was shining (!), and there was a fierce north wind screaming down Lynn Canal, stirring up huge waves and whipping veils of spray off the wave crests. In the background, the Chilkats gleamed with fresh snow.

Crow Point trail along Eagle River: We found lots of small things of interest. Many critters had left signs of their passing. There were scats of goose, bear, probable coyote and marten, and tracks of otter in the sand. A big crowd of crows was hanging out at a distant edge of the tide flats, occasionally flying up and dropping small items (?mussels?). We guessed that there must be a few rocks out there, if the crows were thinking to crack open some shells. Bears had been digging roots of wild parsnip and riceroot. Chum salmon skeletons had been spread around by high tides; they already had a coating of green algae.

There were small mysteries too. The B-B-size seed capsules of starflower were covered with a white ‘bloom’ and the contents looked like dirt. Could they be afflicted by a fungus? We saw squirrels extracting seeds from spruce cones and a flock of crossbills checking out the cones that remained on the trees. But all the cones we inspected had almost no seeds left. The red squirrel may be able to detect full cones by smell or heft, but how do crossbills know if a cone is well loaded with seeds? Trial and error?

The sun peeked out briefly, in time for our little picnic lunch. We were attended by a raven, who wouldn’t come down for treats, perhaps because we had a (well-behaved) dog with us. After we left, and turned back along the beach, the raven circled us with one of the treats in its bill, almost as if it was saying ‘Look, I got it!’ I don’t really imagine it was saying thank you. It’s more likely it was hoping for another ! Naturally, I provided.

Dredge Lake area: this was a mild day with very hazy sun and a few inches of fresh, wet snow on the ground. Our several attempts at some off-trail bushwhacking were thwarted by high water levels. But the soft snow recorded tracks of squirrels, hares, beavers, mink, an eagle, and perhaps an otter. As we ambled up the beach of Mendenhall Lake, the mists that hid the mountains gradually parted and, one by one, McGinnis, then Bullard, then Thunder showed themselves. The vista toward the glacier was indeed a beauty—if, as a friend commented, one has learned to love shades of gray and silver!

Even cruising down Egan Drive had some good moments, such as a flock of swans winging south. There was a family of swans near the Vanderbilt junction: two adults and three big, gray cygnets. A rare treat for me!

The next time we get one of those dismal, gloomy stretches, with slatting rain during the few hours of what passes for daylight, I’ll remember the good days and all the little treasures thereof.