Mid-April

early flowers and musings about ducks

Skunk cabbages stand as tall yellow sentinels (if deer haven’t nipped them off) in the marshy places. They send out their sweet aroma (not at all ‘skunky’!) and provide a cheery splash of color in the mostly gray-and-green forest. Yellow violets gleam along the forest trails, as the forest floor begins to green-up. The white flowers of miners’ lettuce are showing, along with the delicate little flowers of fern-leaf goldthread. And the purple mountain saxifrage is going strong on rocky outcrops even in the shadier sites.

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Fern-leaf goldthread flowers emerging through the snow

Blueberry bushes at low elevations have already dropped many of their little pinkish bells. The deeper pink flowers of salmonberry are borne on canes that are just sending out new leaves. In addition to the early-blooming felt-leaf willow, other kinds of willows are producing their catkins.

In many places, alders have already dropped their male catkins, which have released their pollen for the wind to carry to the waiting female cones. I’ve found lots of catkins lying on the ground under male cottonwood trees too, but for some unknown reason, a substantial number of these have released only some of their pollen. However, the best part (for me) of cottonwood flowering is the light, clear, sweet aroma that fills the air near a stand of these trees. Look on the ground below a tree and find the yellow-brown bud scales and sniff ‘em!

I heard my first fox sparrow of the year in Sheep Creek valley recently, along with the varied thrushes, robins, Pacific wrens, and ruby-crowned kinglets, which have been singing for some time. Just a few days later, there were several singing fox sparrows in the valley. Although hermit thrushes are here, I’ve not yet heard them sing. I have two reports of chickadees cleaning out their nest cavities, and on one creek I have seen a male dipper on guard as his female incubates their clutch of eggs; with such an early start on the first brood, they should be able to rear a second one as well.

Here are some other sightings that were fun:

A pair of ravens harassed an eagle as it sat in the top of a tree, diving at it and yelling. Poor old eagle just hunched its head and took the abuse. Were those cranky ravens defending a nest? It didn’t seem so: after some minutes of continual persecution, both ravens took off and disappeared in the distance.

Out at the end of the Mendenhall Peninsula, under overhanging alders above the beach, I found a number of small piles of chewed-up, very clean barnacle shells. Some consumer had routinely used this place to off-load the shelly ballast after lunching on the prey. Who was the consumer? Maybe a raven or two, or perhaps some otters?

One day we found five pairs of buffleheads on Cashew Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec area. Each pair cruised sedately, male and female side by side, occasionally diving, each pair in a different part of the lake. Suddenly a big kerfuffle broke out—much flapping and splashing and squawking. One male had decided to approach another male’s female, and that was cause for battle. The intruder was chased off, but only temporarily. He was soon back again, and the uproar was repeated, several times. The female who was the object of interest seemed to float quietly at a little distance and let the males duke it out. I think the original status quo was restored, but who could be sure, without banded birds!

Buffleheads are the smallest diving duck in North America. They nest in the Interior, in boreal forest and aspen parklands, near small lakes and ponds, where they feed on aquatic insects. They nest in cavities made by large woodpeckers such as flickers, but readily use nest boxes too. If buffleheads try to use a cavity with an opening that is large, they may be outcompeted and even beaten up by goldeneyes that want the same cavity.

They are reported to pair up mainly in winter but also during northward spring migration. Courtship and sometimes even mating occur en route. Buffleheads often keep the same mate from year to year, according to researchers. The interactions we saw on Cashew Lake suggest that mate fidelity may be challenged at times. There’s more to be learned about all this!

On the trails in late May

springtime, from the subalpine to the shore

When I got up that morning and looked out the window, rain was cascading down. This is spring, so I really didn’t want fall weather. But I glumly packed up my gear, somewhat grumpily donned my rain pants, made sure my rain jacket was in the car, and went to pick up some Parks and Rec hiking friends. By the time we reached the Perseverance trailhead, the sky was blue, the sun had climbed over the ridges, and with smiling faces we headed up the trail (after greeting the large, furry, white dog that lives in the Gold Museum and likes to check out folks at the trailhead).

Spring is always quite exciting, because there will be something new to see or hear or smell almost every day. In the past two or three days, leaves had fairly leaped out of their buds, and cottonwood leaves glittered in their new-green hues. Salmonberry canes sported their first pink flowers, and clumps of shooting stars decorated the trailsides. My favorite yellow violet was in good flower, along with the small-flowered lavender one. The air was fresh with the delicate fragrance of cottonwood resin (on the bud covers) and the sweet perfume of skunk cabbage (nothing the least skunky about it!).

Robins carried food to their chicks, and parental varied thrushes clucked warnings to their newly fledged youngsters. Wilson’s warblers chattered on all sides and a few yellow warblers announced their recent arrival. Fox sparrows held shouting matches (in song) in the thickets. Ruby-crowned kinglets gave many variations of their rich, musical song. A few hermit thrushes fussed in the underbrush but did not sing. A pair of harlequin ducks loafed on a midstream rock, presumably with thoughts of eggs to be laid in a nest not far away.

Where Lurvey Creek joins Gold Creek, I gazed upstream for half an hour and was finally rewarded by a small gray bird that darted out of a crevice in the cliff and perched on the deep snowbank that lined one side of the creek. Dippers often nest here, except in years when snows still cover the entire creek. A snow-bridge below the dipper’s nest site collapsed bit by bit and sent snow-bergs downstream, as we enjoyed a leisurely lunch with homemade cookies.

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American Dipper. Photo by Arnie Hanger

If we had been there two days later, things would have been really exciting. Big slabs on the flank of the ridge loosed their moorings and slithered down into Gold Creek, just above the junction with Lurvey Creek. A deep mound of dirt and boulders now squats over the creek, which has carved its way through the debris. Gold Creek was turbid for several days, and this is likely to continue for a while, given the size of the dirt pile. The heavy sediment load is probably bad news for the dippers trying to nest downstream, because the water is too opaque for them to find their food.

 

A warm day or two later, I was on the West Glacier trail, finding the first baneberry flowers, lots of buttercups, more violets, and batteries of white butterflies looking for mates and visiting the violet flowers. On damp, rocky sites we found clumps of a flowering plant that was new to me until very recently. It goes by the utterly silly common name of Sitka mistmaiden (more formally known as Romanzoffia sitchensis), and it looks enough like a saxifrage (which it is not) to fool a botanist. This trip had the ultimate goal of checking for a dipper nest at a stream that plunges off Mt McGinnis into Mendenhall Lake. And indeed, the birds were there, although this year the nest was in a new site across the creek. I think that dippers started nesting by this stream as soon as the glacier left the site open.

The next Parks and Rec excursion was a stroll out to Blue Mussel cabin on the shore of Berners Bay. Overcast skies kept the temperatures relatively cool, and mist lay low over Lynn Canal. We gobbled up a homemade rhubarb dessert (yes, mom, even before ‘cleaning our plates’), as small squads of sea lions foraged enthusiastically and a humpback whale made unexpectedly tight turns in pursuit of the same small fishes.

Although our spring arrived late this year, the meadows were awash in pink-flowered shooting stars. Bright yellow buttercups dotted the fields of pink, yellow marsh marigolds adorned the wet ditches, and the yellow display of skunk cabbages attracted the usual crowds of small, brown, pollinating beetles. Lupine was just beginning to bloom, but these early blooms had already been visited by bumblebees, turning the upper petals from white to magenta.

I heard a snipe performing its great aerial display, but I think I was the only hiker who noticed this. Savannah sparrows sang and flitted low in the herbage, and I heard a distant burbling song of a Lincoln’s sparrow (but I had to think hard for a bit before I could pull that one out of my so-called memory!). And I have not mentioned the mosquitoes…

On the walk between the beach berm and the Blue Mussel cabin, we encountered several signs that the trail is also used by bears. There was a strange, barren patch of forest, in which there was no ground cover and all the smaller trees were quite dead. It looked as if a ground fire had passed through, but there were no signs of charring, leaving the cause an open question.

Considerable work has greatly improved the formerly squishy trail between the Cowee Meadow cabin and the beach berm, where sweetgale was just leafing out. However, parts of the trail through the meadows were ankle-deep in water, nicely contained between the logs that mark the trail edges. A few more loads of gravel between the logs in these sections would surely be appreciated!