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.

Late summer flowers

pollinators, seed dispersal, and other end-of-season floral stories

One sunny day, I sat in a small meadow in the Kowee Creek drainage, just taking in the peacefulness and a snack. Some small, red-eyed flies found me and crawled over my arms, dapping at the skin with their nonbiting mouthparts—possibly tasting a bit of salt. Several of them had substantial amounts of yellow pollen on the thorax. All over the meadow, little white flowers showed their heads among the mosses and sedges. I knew these to be flowers of swamp gentian (Gentiana douglasiana). They were about a centimeter across, with odd little pleats in between the five white petals. Because they were the only flowers to be seen, I suspected that the flies are among the pollinators of those flowers—although I did not actually see them visiting the flowers.

What a contrast with the goldenrods that bloom along the road above Eaglecrest. There, on another nice summery day, the golden inflorescences were often thronged with visiting insects: flies of various sizes, a wasp or two, hoverflies, and bumblebees.

As I traipsed through another meadow, this time on the Spaulding trail, I saw tiny white flowers that were borne on branching stems that reminded me of wee candelabras. Looking more closely, I saw that each flower, only a few millimeters across, looked like miniature flowers of the swamp gentian flowers I’d seen earlier. Could this be the same species? The answer turned out to be Yes. By diligent searching, I found a few plants that bore single large flowers on one stem and acandelabra of tiny flowers on another. So I learned that this species produces flowers that vary two- or three-fold in flower size, apparently depending on how many flowers are borne on a stem. This suggests that there may be a trade-off between size and number of flowers per stem: more flowers, then small size; one flower, then large size—as if the plant had made some hormonal decision about how to allocate its resources.to floral displays.

In the muskeg ponds, buckbean flowers were finished and the seedpods were maturing. Some had opened, shedding their seeds onto the water surface. The seeds floated nicely, but the opportunity for dispersal by water was limited, because there was no surface-water connection among ponds. That would mean that all the buckbeans in one pond are closely related to each other—the seeds being genetically at least half like the mother plant. However, insects probably transfer pollen among plants in different ponds, increasing the genetic diversity within each pond while reducing the potential differentiation among ponds.

The big tall fireweed that is so common here is producing lots of fluffy seeds to blow on the breezes. That, however, doesn’t work when rain flattens those fluffy parachutes (into nets that are beautiful with captured raindrops). I wonder how many of those seeds get airborne. Landing in a suitable place is always a lottery, but getting into the lottery in the first place is a necessary step. Rain gets in the way of seed dispersal for these plants.

Some of the tall fireweeds still had some flowers and even buds at the top of the stem. Although most of the flowers are about the same size, on one plant I noticed flowers that were only about half of the normal size. Weird! I have read that drought conditions can lead to production of significantly smaller fireweed flowers, but that would not explain this single small-flowered plant. Then I happened to peer more closely within a normal flower (shame on me for not having done this sooner!) . First, I was reminded that fireweeds produce blue pollen; although blue pollen is known from a few other species elsewhere, it seems to be unusual here. That simple observation raises the immediate question: Why blue?

The flowers mature in sequence from the lower part of the inflorescence to the tip, where buds can still be found when the older, lower flowers have already produced mature pods. Within each flower, the pollen-producing anthers mature before the female-receptive surface (the stigma). The lengths of the male phase and female phase of each flower varies; the duration of the male phase is longer early in the season, when there are fewer female-phase flowers available to receive pollen and mating opportunities are few.

Fireweed is self-compatible, meaning that pollen from the same flower, or another flower on the same plant, can be effective in fertilizing seeds, although outcrossing, with pollen from different plants, also occurs. Perhaps because seeds can be produced either by selfing or outcrossing, fireweed flowers seem to produce pods very successfully. Furthermore, as a flower ages, the lobes of the (unpollinated) stigma bend back and down, bringing the receptive surface closer to the nectaries, where a visiting bee would be likely to forage, perhaps bringing in pollen and thus increasing the probability of fertilizing seeds.

The flowers have several means of increasing the probability of outcrossing. The difference in timing of male and female parts reduces the likelihood of pollen landing on the stigma of the same flower (but not between flowers on the same plant). The flowers start to close about four hours after pollination, well before any seeds are fertilized (it takes many hours for sperm from the pollen to reach the eggs in the ovary). The flowers close faster if outcross pollen is deposited than if self-pollen lands on the stigma (slower closing of selfed flowers leaves more time for outcross pollen to arrive), and faster if there is lots of pollen deposited than if few grains are deposited.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Footnote: in a recent essay I commented that I had found marsh felwort only in two places. No sooner than I had written that, I found lots of the little blue, starry flowers in Cowee Meadows, mostly over toward the creek. Although this plant is an annual, it’s probably been there all along; I simply was not there are the right season.

Here and there in summer

alpine sights, body-checked by a grouse, some thoughts on bear viewing, and wildlife on the home front

–In early August I went up Gold Ridge in hopes of finding the big, blue, broad-petalled gentian in bloom. Being a rather impatient sort, I’d tried earlier, in July, with no luck. But on this warm, sunny day, there were a few in bloom and more with buds. Higher up on the trail, I didn’t spot any, and they probably bloom slightly later up there. However, the mission was successful on this day, and a search later in the month should find lots more.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Even if there had been none of those beautiful gentians, the day was a good one. A mountain goat was silhouetted on the ridgeline; young marmots gamboled about, while a big adult lazed on a boulder. There were several bear scats along the trail and, of course, I could not resist inspecting at least the most recent one. It was full of salmonberry seeds, along with some vegetation fibers; because the salmonberries at this elevation were not yet ripe, I knew that this bear had been foraging down lower.

Bird life was not well-represented, however: a pair of curious ravens, a robin, and an invisible sparrow pip-pipping in the alder brush. It is always a little sad when the season of bird song is over for the year. Nary a grouse or ptarmigan to be seen, and I’d seen only one brood in July. Although apparently no official census has been conducted, they seem to be much scarcer on the ridge these days than they were a few years ago. Back in 2005, the area was opened to hunting, and it is very likely that hunting has reduced the grouse and ptarmigan populations. Many of those birds were habituated to people on the trails, and many of us thoroughly enjoyed seeing them and their chicks almost any time we ventured up the ridge. Shooting them would have been easy (and very unsporting). It seems that, for the sake of a few hunters, the pleasure of many observers was reduced.

–When the sockeye come in to Steep Creek, the bears can feast. This summer, the one we know as Nicky came down late, as usual, and she does not have cubs; she’s around eighteen years old and may be slowing down a little. The cubs of Bear 153 put on a good show one evening: swinging on the willows, tussling in the grass, getting startled by a big salmon thrashing upstream, tipping over the camera gear set (by permission) in the stream, cavorting in the shallows. I had dropped by, intending to stay just a few minutes, and ended up staying almost two hours.

The few times I have gone out there to bear-watch, the crowds have been quite well-behaved, not needing much guidance from the rangers about proper conduct in bear country. But with so many people visiting the area, someone (or someone’s dog) inevitably makes a wrong move that makes the mother bears nervous and concerned about their cubs’ safety. This is a time to be especially observant of bear body-language and to give the bears even more space than usual. These bears are quite used to people and normally behave extremely well; we can keep them that way, for all of us to enjoy, if we ourselves behave properly. A new guide to staying safe around bears, including some new information, is in the works; it will be available from ADFG.

–When we were in Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay, one day in June, we stumbled upon a female grouse that clearly had chicks somewhere nearby. Standing on big rock, she clucked and fussed, even when we stood back to see what might emerge from the tall, dense beach grasses. I circled slowly back around her rock, hoping to see the chicks as they crossed a narrow path. Well! Mama did not like that one bit, and as I inched forward, she gave a body slam to my shoulder as she flew ahead, sounding the alarm. As far as that female was concerned, I had invaded her space and she was not going to stand for it! Then we saw the eight or so chicks—they had already crossed the path and were not close to the mother’s rock at all. Nice big chicks! They all took flight away from the presumed danger (us), followed by mama.

The next day, we managed to upset a pair of greater yellowlegs as we walked out into some extensive beach meadows. Both adults yelled and swooped at us, so we knew that there were chicks in the area. We never did see those chicks, well hidden in the tall grass, and the tumult subsided as soon as we moved out onto the open beach.

–My home pond was a happening place this summer. Four different broods of mallards made it a regular stop on their rounds through the neighborhood. First, there was a brood of ten ducklings (known as the Tens), then a brood of five (the Big Fives), a brood of eight (the Eights), and a later brood of five (the Little Fives). Seldom was there more than one brood on the pond at a time; if two broods happened to be there, one dominated the area under the hanging seed feeder. There was a nice rain of seeds falling from that feeder, as the juncos scratched among the loose seeds and the jays tipped the whole feeder off balance. This was manna from heaven! And not to be shared. The Eights would advance upon the Little Fives, pushing them into a corner of the pond, and go back to gobble up falling seeds. On another day, the roles would be reversed, the Little Fives winning the prize. The Big Fives sometimes charged at The Eights, relegating them to the far upper end of the pond, and went back to snarf up the seed rain.

Several broods of juncos (and their parents) grew fat on the seed offerings, and I watched the young ones gradually acquire their adult plumage. Bears wandered through but did not bother with the inaccessible feeder. I watched two predators with evil intentions about ‘my’ ducks, but they departed, still hungry. A roaming dog threatened one brood, and the mother duck led that dog a merry chase in her version of a broken-wing act: back and forth went dog and duck, the duck always just two or three feet ahead of the dog. She could have just flown away, but she was intent upon keeping that dog away from her young ones. The dog did not respond to orders from the shore, so eventually, my quick-thinking neighbor jumped in and grabbed the dog, and peace was restored.


a productive meander on Gold Ridge

As I slowly meandered up the Gold Ridge trail above the tram, a grouse stepped out of the brush and strode calmly up the trail ahead of me. We walked together but apart for many yards. Next to the trail, a young marmot sat with its head out of its burrow, watching the approaching trail-walkers. As the grouse drew near, the youngster hurriedly pulled back underground. When the grouse passed by, the marmot crept out a little way and carefully watched the bird go on up the trail until it was out of sight. The marmot was quite unconcerned about the human standing next to the burrow—the big worry seemed to be the grouse! Maybe the young marmot had never before seen such a bird, while the humans were too common to warrant a second thought?

Fall is in the air, although it is only the middle of August. (Surely, it’s too soon??? I’m not ready for this!) Alder leaves are brown and crumpling; cottonwood leaves are bronzed. Robins are flocking on beaches and in blueberry patches, and warblers of several species keep company while searching for bugs in the shrubs. Fireweed has gone to seed, spectacularly. During our recent spell of sun, the fluff on the seeds was showing off, especially when backlit. I’ve noticed some visitors admiring the display of open seed pods; they didn’t know what it is, but they saw how pretty it can be. I like to look closely at the open pods (when they are dry) that still contain seeds; they and their fluff are arranged very artistically, arching across between the open sides of the pod. Of course, to the amusement of my hiking companion, I had to help the breeze blow some seeds away to their destiny.

It was a perfect fall day on the ridge. A few hawks migrated along the ridgetops and ravens cavorted in the breeze. The dwarf willows had gone to seed, making mats of seed-bearing white fluff against the dark green of the leaves. Most plants with wind-dispersed seeds bear them high above the ground, where the wide can reach them, but somehow the prostrate dwarf willows must manage to send their seeds aloft despite being so close to the ground. Many of the wildflowers were past blooming too, although we found some louseworts, blue harebells, yellow arnicas, lavender fleabanes, and lots of yellow groundsel. Most of the monkshood flowers were the usual intense purple, while others were purple veined with white.

The best show was stands of the sky-blue broad-petaled gentian. Under sunny skies the flowers opened, and we looked attentively for visiting bumblebees. No luck—the bees were visiting the groundsels, fleabanes, and arnicas. August had seen drenching downpours for days and days, so this was perhaps the first chance for these alpine gentians to open and be pollinated. Did they miss their chance this year?

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Juvenile marmots were out foraging in many places, intent on filling up before hibernation. One juvenile carried a mouthful of dry grass for a hibernation bed. The few adults we saw were lounging on rocks in the warm sun, letting the kids do the work.

Part of the Parks and Rec hiking group went on up Gastineau Peak, while the rest of us found a cushy spot for lunch at the end of Gold Ridge. The marmots could keep their rocks—we chose a springy cushion of mountain heather on which to sprawl and soak up the rays. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Well, perhaps some cookies….