Spring happens!

blossoms and pollination, wetland foragers, and sparrows in the grass

The end of April and early May brought signs that our reluctant spring was finally happening, at least at low elevations. The bright yellow display of skunk cabbage made a welcome contrast with the somber greens of conifers and the still-leafless deciduous trees. A close look at the spike-like inflorescence showed that the numerous individual flowers were all still in their female phase, with no signs yet of the pollen that eventually appears around each pointed stigma. The small brown beetles that are the chief pollinators had yet to show up; they prefer inflorescences with pollen. Deer had munched off the tops of many inflorescences, leaving just a stub with a few flowers.

We found several fern-leaf goldthread plants with their wispy, narrow-petalled flowers, which are pollinated by small flies. The early blueberries were in bloom, their pinkish-white flowers waiting for bumblebees to visit. On sun-warmed cliffs along the Perseverance trail, the first purple mountain saxifrage plants made a splendid show; they are pollinated by bumblebees and probably some other insects. And there are reports of yellow violets along some trails.

We enjoy those floral offerings, but they are a dramatic contrast with what happens in early spring in the forests of the Midwest. There, the forest floor is liberally decorated by the early flowers of many species, including bloodroot, spring beauty, dutchman’s breeches, dogtooth “violet”, among others, many of which have showy white petals. Most of these species require an insect pollinator for seed production, and that job is often done by various species of native, non-social, solitary bees and by the non-native honeybee. Here in Southeast, I am told that such solitary bees occur, but almost nothing is known about their ecology.

The avian world was promising, too: Hooters on the hillsides. Kinglets in full song, along with wrens, robins, varied thrushes, and juncos. Fox sparrows starting to tune up. Other sparrows and early warblers arriving but not yet very vocal. Chickadees with nest material and – in some places—eggs in their nests. Sapsuckers excavating nest cavities. The first hermit thrushes skulking in the understory. Hummers zipping to and fro. Flights of violet-green and tree swallows swooping after flying insects. It is always such fun to see and hear the forest awakening each spring.

A few weeks ago I wrote about our local moose population, noting that population growth might be slow, given that only a few moose were known to be in this area. Well, now there are fewer still. A bear reportedly killed one in Cowee Meadows, and I found the remains of one, killed by a human hunter, in another place.

A little walk on the beach along the Mendenhall Peninsula yielded lots of ducks: the usual mallards, plus widgeon, greenwing teal, and shovellers. I was surprised to see hundreds of scoters rafted up in the lower reaches of the river; they are usually out in the bay. Shorebirds were migrating through, with pipits foraging among them.

Ravens had been turned over a cluster of mussels and barnacles, exposing an enormous hairy hermit crab with its abdomen tucked (inadequately) into a moonsnail shell. They were actively foraging on barnacles, nipping and hacking at the shells; we also found several regurgitated deposits of broken barnacle shells, where the birds had jettisoned the undigestible bits. A couple of ravens near a torn-up patch of sand drew our attention. With their powerful bills, they had just excavated three holes, about five inches deep, and extracted the clams that had been buried there, cracking open the clam shells to extract the meaty morsels inside. As we stopped to watch, a raven was just finishing off the last clam.

On my home pond, a few pairs of mallards found peace and quiet, with lots of spilled bird seed on the fast-disappearing ice. But by early May, the ice was gone. The duck crowd had grown, sometimes to twelve or fifteen, now squabbling over the spilled seed. Most of the females probably had a clutch of eggs in progress, but males were largely still in prime breeding dress, no doubt in hopes of some delayed mating opportunities.

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Golden-crowned sparrow. Photo by Kerry Howard

A leisurely stroll around the Crow Point/Boy Scout beach area found a flock of golden-crowned sparrows in the woods along the river and a couple of groups of savanna sparrows along the grassy upper edge of the beach. A flock of dunlin (I think) swirled over the sand flats. In the big, broad meadow I call the ‘goose-flats’, several white-fronted geese mingled with the usual gang of Canada geese, all grubbing for tasty greens and roots, while, off to one side and separate, a flock of snow geese also foraging intently. I circled around all of them at a distance, and so disturbed them not at all.

Elderberry and wild currant bushes leafed out ahead of most other deciduous woody plants, but by the end of the first week of May, bits of green were showing also on willows and alders. In the beach meadows, green shoots were popping up everywhere. It’s “green-up” time!

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.

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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.