Small pleasures add up…

…on a trip to Gustavus

On recent strolls in Gustavus and Bartlett Cove, several small observations gave interest and pleasure. Not to be sneered at, the small things added up (as they often do) to a pleasing heap of natural history items.

Goldenrod was in full bloom, making cheering trailside accents. There was not a lot of pollinator activity, but a few bumblebees were visiting the flowers. One bee slept peacefully, tucked down in among the flowers—bees often sleep in flowers! A large inflorescence hosted a bumblebee and a fancy moth, both foraging actively by probing flowers with long ‘tongues.’ As the bee moved around the inflorescence, it occasionally contacted the moth, who was annoyed, flicked a wing toward the bee, and then moved aside. In each encounter, the moth gave way to the searching bee. We later learned that this moth is called (in English) the plain silver Y, and its larva eats conifer needles. The adult moth would be well camouflaged on tree bark or dead leaves: both color pattern and irregular shape would hide it well.

My friends had found a nest of a ruby-crowned kinglet in the springtime, and I wanted to see it, even though any nesting activity would be long finished. So we splashed our way out over wet meadows to a large, isolated spruce tree. About four feet above ground, a nest was suspended just below a branch and surrounded by drooping twiglets—very well concealed but lower than kinglets usually choose for a nest site. The nest was small, in keeping with the size of the bird, and very thick-walled and well-insulated. Unlike the shallower cup-nests of most small birds, this one was as deep as it was wide (almost six centimeters each way, inside), which is typical of this species.

Photo by Katherine Hocker

The nesting biology of ruby-crowned kinglets has not been studied in great detail, because the nests are usually too high and well-concealed for good observation or access by researchers. However, studies of very closely related species in Europe have shown that incubating females do something remarkable. They lay large clutches of eight or ten eggs in the tiny nest, so many that they are placed in two layers in the nest cup. That means that the female’s warm, bare incubation patch cannot contact all the eggs at once (unlike most birds). Females solve the egg-warming problem by shunting extra blood into their legs and thrusting their warmed legs down through the clutch. Our species in Alaska also lays huge clutches, up to twelve eggs in some cases, and they probably incubate in much the same way.

A walk along the Salmon River brought us to lots of various shorebirds, swallows, and others. A flock of small sandpipers (known as ‘peeps’—I don’t fuss about specific IDs at this time of year, when there are juveniles and molting adults to confuse things) was foraging busily on the mudflats. From behind us, a dark merlin shot down over the flock, trying to nab one for lunch. The attack failed, but one rash and foolish peep was sufficiently annoyed that it chased the merlin into the distance.

A family of barn swallows perched on a cable in the harbor—four fledglings in a row. The parents would fly overhead, carrying insects, and the chicks flew up for aerial feedings. One youngster apparently didn’t like to perch alone, so after a feeding, it would land on the cable and sidle along until it could cuddle closely with a sib.

Other treats were very tasty: wild strawberries yielded to stoop-labor and found their way into strawberry jam—very good on Belgian waffles! Red huckleberries were easy picking and ended up in a fine, fresh huckleberry pie (with a few blueberries for extra color).

One day was spent on the day-boat that cruises up Glacier Bay. South Marble Island was the usual noisy hangout for lots of sea lions and marine birds. For me, the day’s highlight was sighting a female brown bear on a rocky beach with her three small cubs. She was relentlessly and easily rolling boulders, some bigger than her head, and snarfing up whatever crabs or fish or worms were thus exposed. The little cubs clambered around and poked into nooks and crannies, possibly finding a few prey there. But they were, of course, still dependent on mama for milk as their main food, so mama had a huge expense of making milk for three growing cubs (making milk is very costly of energy, as any nursing mother knows). I was told that previous sightings of this family had found the cubs undernourished and the mother quite thin, but on this day they looked better, and things will look up for them when the salmon come in.

The entire visit was bracketed by a comfortable ferry ride and whale shows. As we rounded Pleasant Island on the way in, a small pod of orcas and some humpbacks foraged and loafed, apparently without interfering with each other. On the way back to Juneau, out in Icy Strait, a humpback breached and breached—at least ten times, and then lob-tailed until it was out of our sighting range. Wahoo!