Rambles in Gustavus

blossoms and birds, tadpoles and otters and a leguminous puzzle

I recently spent a couple of days roaming the trails in Gustavus, along with three other curious naturalists. Gustavus lies on the outwash plain created when the melting glacier of Glacier Bay poured its silty, gravelly meltwaters through Cooper’s Notch. Post-glacial rising of the land made the sandy plain more expansive. Now Gustavus offers a different array of habitats than are found in the nearby spruce-hemlock forest at Bartlett Cove or in Juneau. I love to visit Gustavus to visit friends but also because I enjoy the variety that’s just a nice ferry ride away.

One of our excursions took us on the Nagoonberry Trail, which passes through meadows, shrublands, and young spruce groves. Just for fun, we counted the number of wildflowers that we found in bloom. There were at least forty-seven species, exclusive of grasses and sedges. For comparison, a similar recent count in the lower subalpine zone on Gold Ridge turned up over fifty species—and there would have been more if we’d gone to the top of the ridge. A few years ago, we found over seventy flowering wildflowers in Cowee Meadows. I think that’s quite impressive. We don’t have to go to the tropics to find good diversity.

For some reason, lady-slipper orchids of several species are found in Gustavus, although I’ve never seen one in Juneau. A favorite one is the sparrow’s-egg orchid, with its very small ‘slipper’; it is also reported to be common in the Yukon. This species self-pollinates, and we found a robust specimen in which every flower had produced a fat seed pod. Nearby, there were three other kinds of orchids in bloom. I don’t recall any place in Juneau where I’ve seen four kinds of orchids growing within a few feet of each other.

We were entertained by bird families wherever we went. Lots of little ‘chip’ notes or thin ‘seet’ notes drew our attention to fluttering wings in the vegetation, which turned out to be little groups of juveniles with their parents—ruby-crowned kinglets, juncos, savanna sparrows, and chickadees. Young barn swallows were on the wing too. Lincoln’s sparrows were singing frequently, perhaps thinking about second broods. Sadly, we found two dead, well-grown juvenile hermit thrushes, in two different locations and so presumably not of the same family. They were very thin, and we wondered if the recent dry conditions had made it hard for them to find their own food.

We made a now-traditional visit to the gravel pits to look for toad tadpoles (aka pollywogs). Thousands of them were tightly clustered in the shallows at the bottom of a pool. At this time, only a few had started to grow hind legs; most of them were still just tadpoles. Presumably most of the remainder (if they survive lurking predators) will metamorphose and disperse as tiny toadlets later in the summer. I was curious about the derivation of their names. An internet source claims that both names come from Middle English: the first means ‘toad-head’ and the second one means ‘head-wiggle’.

One morning we were gifted with a boat exploration of the lower part of Glacier Bay. Around the long, low moraine at Point Carolus there were humpbacks breaching and kittiwakes foraging. Little flocks of red-necked phalaropes flitted about. Phalaropes are unusual because in these species it is the males who do the parental care and the females who are more colorful and aggressive; sometimes a female has two males on her territory, rearing their chicks. On the way back into Bartlett Cove we paralleled a roving pod of transient killer whales. Even the tourists ashore in the cove could watch these whales, but they probably could not observe that a sea otter speedily departed in the opposite direction from that of the killer whales.

Everywhere we looked in the lower bay there were sea otters, foraging and loafing. Our boat captain reported that on trips up-Bay, sea otters were observed hauled out on icebergs and reefs, a behavior seldom reported (in my hearing or reading, at least). This observation reminded me of the historical accounts of the emergency camp of the St Peter’s crew on Bering Island during the winter of 1741-1742, when Captain Bering died and Georg Steller discovered the now-extinct sea cow. The stranded, sickly crew unwittingly wiped out an entire species of flightless cormorant, as well as uncounted numbers of foxes, ptarmigan, and other animals. They slaughtered many hundreds of sea otters, partly for the furs (to gamble with, while passing the time!) and partly to eat. Great numbers of sea otters were hauled out on beaches, where they had never experienced any predators, and were (at first) ignorant of predatory humans, making them easy to slaughter. It seems that sea otters are more inclined to use terrestrial (or icy) haulouts in times and places where they are not harassed or persecuted.

We interrupted the boat ride with a short beach walk on the west side of Glacier Bay. Here we found that others had walked the beach before us, leaving evidence of their passing. Big moose tracks, indistinct prints of canids (wolf or coyote), and very impressive tracks of a big brown bear (at least eight inches wide), along with some prints of a quite small bear. That made us extra-alert.

On many of our Gustavian rambles we saw the purple and pink flowers of beach pea. Or so I thought. A more knowledgeable naturalist said No, not all of those are beach pea. Some have smaller, paler flowers and tend to be less sprawling than ordinary beach pea. So then we began to look more closely and, indeed, there were two different kinds of pea (closely related, in the same genus). The vibrantly colored beach pea has angular stems with no flanges (or ‘wings’), while the paler, smaller-flowered one has stems with wings. That one is called ‘wild pea’ in one field guide but is not even mentioned in another. So now I must revisit some of the Juneau beaches to see if wild pea grows here too.

Altogether, a highly satisfactory Gustavian visit in the company of fine companions.