Gold Ridge alpine

flower sightings and unusual birds

Gold Ridge is one of my favorite places for wandering around, checking the progress of the seasons and just seeing what I can see. On a fine but crisp day in late June, a friend and I strolled slowly up the trail, stopping frequently to look more closely.

The salmonberry crop was coming along nicely, and the alpine blueberries were loaded with flowers, at least in some spots. So, if the bumblebees do their job, there should be a nice crop of blueberries later on. These are much tastier, to my tongue, than the tall-bush blueberries at lower elevations.

We always look for a few special flowers, and this day we found two of them. The inky or glaucous gentian was presenting its intensely blue-green flowers, still closed and waiting for a sunny day when bees would be granted access. The funny little frog orchid is quite inconspicuous, being short of stature and bearing green flowers, but we finally found some. The common name of this species must have come from someone with a vivid (or twisted) imagination—the resemblance to a frog is remote at best.

Frog orchid. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The top of the ridge was a sea of narcissus anemones and buttercups, with patches of mountain-heather. We tucked into a small swale, out of the chill breeze, and settled in to watch for a while. Just sitting quietly is often a rewarding experience for a naturalist; one becomes part of the landscape, and creatures start to appear nearby.

And we had our small rewards. Some twitching stems of mountain-heather finally parted, to reveal a foraging gray-crowned rosy finch. This bird was thoroughly covering a small patch of ground, gobbling up small insects. Rosy finches nest in alpine tundra, on cliffs and barren slopes (and on recently deglaciated terrain, as found in upper Glacier Bay); they are known to nest on this ridge.

Another bird was walking on a nearby remnant snowbank, gathering a bill-full of bugs. A slender bird with a fairly long tail, the pipit’s characteristic gait is a walk, not a hop. This one filled its bill and winged off to a nest of chicks around the corner.

A sudden rustling in the low vegetation caught my attention. Some small animal scuttled very rapidly and nearly invisibly for several yards and dove into a burrow. I can only suppose that this was some kind of vole, probably a long-tailed vole. There is another species of vole (the heather vole) that occurs in alpine habitats, but it has seldom been recorded in Southeast.

Loafing around during lunch, we happened to spot two diminutive flowers that we surely would have missed while tramping up the trail. Both species were new to us. We later learned that one is called northern false asphodel, a pink-flowered relative of iris. The other was a dwarfed individual of purple sweet cicely, in the carrot family; it is normally a more sizable plant, but this mature individual was only about two inches tall.

On the way down, we heard a steady series of little barks or yips, which we did not recognize. Then we discovered a marmot perched on a boulder and looking uphill. We looked in the same direction and spotted an adult eagle sitting on a rocky outcrop. After a few minutes, the eagle spread its wings and sailed out over the rockslide where the calling marmot sat. Immediately, the marmot changed its call to the familiar alarm whistle and whistled until the eagle was out of sight. And thus we learned that marmots use different calls, for different levels of danger.

We spent several hours on the ridge, walking slowly and pausing frequently. In all that time, however, we saw no grouse or ptarmigan. No male ptarmigan showing off on rocky points, no females with broods of little chicks, none. We can only hope that this was just bad luck, not a sign that the populations up there have declined.


Gold Ridge

…in seasonal transition

On a hot sunny day in mid June, we set out on the trail above the tram, in search of whatever happened to catch our fancy. Several residual snow drifts offered no difficulties, just a pleasant coolness.

The snow drifts held several bowl-like depressions that were the remains of ptarmigan winter roosts under the snow, each with a pile of scat in the bottom. One such bowl had melted out so much that it was close to four feet wide—so we had fun imagining a giant ptarmigan roosting there–perhaps left over from the Pleistocene?

The big flower show came from thousands of narcissus anemones, whose fields of white were dotted with blue lupines. Yellow northern cinquefoil and reddish roseroot adorned the rocky outcrops. Down near the ground were big purple violets, yellow violets, pink wedge-leaf primroses (a.k.a. pixie eyes), and tiny white alp lilies and starflowers. The heathers, both white and yellow, were coming into bloom.

It was so hot that birds were not singing a lot, but we heard ruby-crowned kinglets and varied thrushes in the conifer forest, fox sparrows, robins, and Wilson’s warblers in the brush, and best of all, at least two golden-crowned sparrows up near timberline. Their plaintive three notes (“Oh, dear me!”) gave us a treat. A little bunch of ravens had figured out what the snow was good for: snow baths! A raven would lay its head on the snow and then shove forward until its whole body followed its bill along the snow (much as a dog might do). Then it would roll a little, perhaps working the soft snow into its feathers. I bet it felt good! I was a tad envious.

Marmots were out foraging in several places. One big snowdrift covered a den with a good blanket, but the marmots had dug their way out and their trails led in several directions over the snow. Down at sea level, this year’s crop of baby marmots is already emerging their dens, so these at higher elevations should be coming out before long. Farther south, hoary marmots are found just at high elevations (and not on beaches as they sometimes are, here) and they are typically quite polygamous. I wondered if our marmots have a similar mating arrangement. We watched our marmots for quite a while—until an unleashed (illegal) dog started snooping around, when all the marmots promptly took cover.

We like to sit quietly in various spots, just to see and hear whatever is in the neighborhood. At one such stop, I perched on a flat rock and inspected the mat of low-growing vegetation at my feet. There were blueberry stems with occasional pendant pink flowers, and prostrate willows sending up erect catkins. And there was another plant, too, that mystified us all. It had tiny, yellow, bell-shaped flowers, rather like a faded, wizened blueberry flower, and firm leaves with marked reticulate venation. None of us had even noticed it before, although in this site there was quite a bit of it.

I took a small specimen of the mystery plant to a botanist, we consulted various plant books, and the mystery was resolved. The plant is alpine bearberry, a species apparently not recorded quite this far south, although it is reported from Glacier Bay and upper Lynn Canal. In autumn, the leaves will turn a spectacular red and the flowers will have made black berries, beautifully set off by the red leaves. It’s a good bet that there are more patches of this species on the ridges, if we’d look carefully.

At the top of the ridge, our famous photographer observed a female rock ptarmigan foraging on the petals of Cooley’s buttercup (now reclassified as a ‘false buttercup’ and placed in a different genus). True buttercups are generally poisonous (even the flowers) if eaten and often cause skin irritation if rubbed, so I wonder if this is the case for Cooley’s buttercup too. If so, then ptarmigan may have physiological means of dealing with the poison, or perhaps can tolerate small quantities of it. Many animals eat poisonous plants, sometimes counter-acting the poison with another food item. Here is another little local mystery to be solved.

Bird stories

nest-builders, scat-shifters, and spring singers

One day in late April, two friends and I scrambled up a steep stream-side slope to a perch on a cliff below a waterfall. We hoped to locate a nest of American dippers, which have nested in this spot for many years. Although a dipper sat near the pool below the falls, it eventually just flew up over the falls, and we were no wiser about a possible nest location.

However, as we surveyed the pool and falls, another bird was busy, attending to a clump of moss on a spruce branch above us. A male Pacific wren (formerly known as the winter wren) zipped back and forth, carrying twiglets to that mossy clump, which was obviously intended to become a nest. Male wrens commonly build more than one nest, which are inspected by females during the courtship process. When a female selects one of these male-built nests, she adds a little threshold to the entrance, claiming that nest as her own. If a male builds several good nests, he may attract two or even three females who will raise his chicks.

American dipper. Photo by Arnie Hanger

This nest- building male became disturbed at our presence, fidgeting about while peering at us and then finding an elevated perch from which he sang loudly, as if to make sure we knew we were not welcome (songs are how songbirds advertise ownership of their territories). Birds really do not like to be observed when nest-building—egg- and chick-predators such as Steller’s jays are always on the watch for tasty morsels, and the busy activity of a bird carrying nesting material gives away a prospective nest for the jay or other predator to raid.

We go the male’s message and backed away a little. Although he was still nervous, he resumed carrying small twigs and fibers to the growing nest in the ball of moss. Suddenly, the entire bottom of the nest ball fell out! Apparently, the scrawny twigs of the spruce branch weren’t sufficiently substantial to support the structure or all the in-and-out visits of the builder. The wren vanished into the forest.

A couple of weeks later, I returned to this site. Now the tattered remains of the wren’s nest were tipped catty-wompus, barely clinging to the frail spruce twigs. The wren had clearly abandoned this effort and decided to build elsewhere. I could hear him singing, a little deeper into the woods.

On this visit, however, I did see the dippers in action. They were not building in their traditional site in the cliff beside the falls, but under a mid-stream log, instead. These dippers were a bit late in getting started; dippers on some other streams were already incubating clutches of eggs, the incubating females sometimes fed by the male.

In the middle of May, Gold Ridge still had lots of snow, attracting brave or foolhardy skiers up the trail. Ravens were soaring and cavorting, as usual, over the end of the ridge, sometimes peeling away from the group to roll and tumble acrobatically or to chase a passing eagle.

Two ravens perched on a rock outcrop. Both birds picked up something lumpy and white and moved behind another outcrop just uphill. They came back to the first outcrop without the white lumps and picked up two more. They flew downhill a little way, and there they deposited these objects, carefully placing them in nooks and crevices of the rock. Then they flew away.

This time I could see where the white lumps were placed, so of course I went to look. The lumps were the old scats of a wolf and perhaps a bear, all dry and winter-whitened. What in the world did these ravens want with these old scats? Were they playing some kind of game?

Robins and fox sparrows were singing all over the shrubby slopes above the tram. Above the cross, snow still covered much of the ground, and ptarmigan had left the digested remains of their dinners in the places where they had burrowed under the snow in winter. A flock of pipits flew in and began to forage for insects and perhaps a few seeds in the snow-free patches. Pipits look more slender than sparrows and they typically walk and run instead of hop. They sometimes nest high in the alpine tundra on the ridges.

On my home pond, the mallard battles are over. As many as four males hang out amicably, eating seeds that drop from the hanging feeder and sleeping next to each other. No need to fight now; all the females are incubating clutches of fertilized eggs. This is a big contrast to early-season relationships, when each male fiercely defended his female from the attentions of other males. That doesn’t always work, by the way—the interlopers are sometimes successful. Meanwhile, up on Gold Creek, a pair of harlequin ducks was consorting and foraging. She will nest up there somewhere, and when the clutch of eggs is complete, she will incubate them and he will go back out to sea to lollygag with his chums on some rocky point. That’s the way of it, with ducks!

Spring on Gold Ridge

a fly explosion, snow algae, and a flower show

In June, we witnessed an explosion of tiny flies that swarmed in dense clouds. These mating swarms of March flies were so common that the Empire carried a story about them (22 June, 2012). The flies are short-lived, and their bodies accumulated on the surface of muskeg ponds and along the shores of Mendenhall Lake, where birds gobbled them up. Some of the March flies arrived, by choice or by wind, on the slowly dwindling snowbanks on Gold Ridge, above the tram. The surface of the snow was dotted with their tiny bodies and even with a few still living. Some were lively enough, however, to make their way to early flowers blooming in the snow-free areas.

A robin gathers March flies. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Many of the remaining snowbanks had reddish streaks and patches. Going by the informal name of watermelon snow, both for the color and a faint aroma, it is actually an alga that lives on snow. It is common worldwide in alpine areas and polar regions.

Technically, the snow alga is a single-celled green alga, with chlorophyll that captures sunlight to fuel the process of photosynthesis, by which green plants build carbohydrates, releasing water and oxygen. However green it may be underneath, it ultimately turns red, from molecules that protect the green, photosynthetic pigment from intense UV radiation. In winter, the alga is dormant in the soil and contains antifreeze to protect it from freezing, but come spring, the dormant cells release several smaller, green cells that have two whip-like hairs called flagella. Using the flagella, the little green cells recolonize the spring snow by swimming upward through the snow to the surface layers. At some point, they acquire the red color. At the surface, they may form thick-walled resting cells capable of enduring desiccation and summer temperatures and waiting for the next snow season. Or they may fuse in pairs to form zygotes–the product of sexual union, and then become dormant, later dividing into the swimming cells to recolonize a new layer of snow.

Snow algae build their carbohydrates for energy, but needed minerals are derived from wind-blown dust and bits of organic debris; they get needed water from slight melting of the snow. They are eaten by a variety of micro-herbivores, including protozoans, rotifers, nematode worms, ice worms, and springtails. These grazers are, in turn, eaten by mites, spiders, and insects, which often end up in the stomachs of alpine songbirds. The pipits, rosy finches, and occasional robins and sparrows also gorge on insects that are blown up the sides of mountains, eventually becoming immobilized by the cool temperatures at higher elevation. A condign fate for all those March flies too!

Gold Ridge had other things to offer that day too. There were long-abandoned ptarmigan beds, where the birds had spent the night in a snow-burrow that was now exposed by snow-melt. We found a strange pellet about two inches long, just lying on the snow. Close inspection revealed lots of little pebbles stuck together and—aha!—pieces of shell, including a recognizable fragment of barnacle shell. So the perpetrator was probably a raven that had been foraging along the shoreline and had unloaded this clump of indigestible bits.

A few flowers were blooming, such as the tiny primrose called pixie eyes, a mat-forming plant known as alpine azalea, some adventurous lupines and valerian, Cooley’s buttercup, hairy cinquefoil, and caltha-leaved avens.

Our peaceful sojourn in the alpine was terminated by the temptations of dinner-time and rising winds that presaged a change from our brief spell of post-solstice sunshine.


Some June sightings

a panoply of early-summer observations

The Sheep Creek trail in spring and early summer is almost always good for hearing bird songs, but this day was hot (in Juneau, that means over 70 degrees F) and we were there late in the morning, well after the usual dawn chorus. So I was a bit surprised that the listening was still quite good. I heard several Swainson’s thrushes, which arrive from their wintering area well after the other songbirds. Fox sparrows and robins were singing, presumably starting second broods. A few kinds of warblers were sounding off here and there, and even ruby-crowned kinglets, who start their lively concerts in late March, still sang a little (albeit a trifle feebly).

We found two treats from the plant world. One was a healthy specimen of three-toothed saxifrage (Saxifraga tricuspidata) on a rock near the trail. This species is not common here, being mostly a species of the Interior. It has spotted petals, as does the related spotted saxifrage, which has small, rounded leaves (no teeth).

The other good find was a happy little stand of a parasitic plant called (among other names) pinesap. The taxonomy of this plant has changed, reflecting great confusion about its relationships. It might be called Monotropa hypopitys or Hypopitys monotropa; related to the wintergreens, it is now categorized in the blueberry family (Ericaceae). In any case, the plant is less confused than the taxonomists: it has no green tissue and is entirely dependent on its hosts for nutrition. Mycorrhizal fungi connect the parasite to conifer trees and transfer nutrients to the parasite. The flowers of pinesap are pendant until pollinated (self-pollinated or perhaps by bees?) but become erect when mature and ready to disperse seeds. These plants are reported to be yellowish if they flower in spring or summer, but reddish if they flower in fall. I have not seen this plant very often around here, but we did see another one this year, over on west Douglas.

Photo by Kerry Howard

A small excitement was stirred by a wasp nest adjacent to the trail, on the ground. We could see the paper wall of the nest through the torn vegetation. Something had already disturbed the colony, which was swarming over the trail as we went into the valley, and the swarm of unhappy wasps was still there two hours later, when we left. No casualties to passing humans, but that nest may not survive.

Gold Ridge never disappoints us: if we tire of looking for marmots or watching eagles catch the thermals to soar up the face of the ridge, there are some nice plants to inspect. I found a pair of frog orchids along the trail in mid-June, but by late June they were gone—simply finished or maybe trampled. More could be found by a good observer somewhat higher on the ridge. Butterworts, which catch insects on the sticky leaves, had flowered in the early part of June and by late June some of them were setting seed. The inky or glaucous gentian, with its unusual blue-green flowers was ready to bloom in late June.

Earlier in the season, we had thirty seconds of intense excitement: from over our shoulders came a prolonged, piercing scream and a dark falcon in hot pursuit of a songbird. The songbird dove into a thicket below us. The merlin circled ‘round and back up the ridge, hoping for better luck.

Near the glacier in late June, the dippers had raised one early brood of chicks, but sadly, showed no signs of raising a second brood, even though the pairs that nest at this site often do so, and there was plenty of time this year. Porcupines were busily shredding cottonwood leaves. The sockeye were not yet in and the bears were making themselves quite scarce. A few years ago, during several spring seasons, bears were commonly seen up in the cottonwood trees, feeding on the catkins and leaving lots of broken branches, but we have not seen much of that activity in recent springs. Quite puzzling!

We had fun keeping track of the robin that chose to nest under the raised walkway. How she tolerated the thousands of tramping feet overhead is a mystery. But she incubated four eggs; one hatched a day after the others, indicating that incubation had begun with the third egg. The female sat on her eggs for around twelve days. When they hatched, the male appeared, and both parents tended the chicks. In early July, the nestlings survived the rising waters of the jökulhlaup by a few inches and fledged after about two weeks in the nest.

August Notes

ballistic seeds, a floral show, and a salmon throng

As we wended our way up Gold ridge, en route to Gastineau Peak, we noted some quivering leaves near the ground. Pretty soon, we could discern a slender, furry body moving deliberately from plant to plant. Then a small head with a white eye-ring poked up near a stem of northern geranium, nipped off the fruit, and munched up the seeds. This red squirrel was a long way from any trees, but it was systematically depleting the geranium seed crop, just as if it had come there for that purpose.

The fruit of northern geranium is so distinctive that the plant is sometimes known as ‘cranesbill.’ It consists of a relatively tall spike (roughly an inch tall), at the base of which there are up to five attached knobs, each containing a seed. When the fruit matures and dries, a hinge at the top of the spike loosens abruptly. The spike then splits into several longitudinal sections that flip upward very rapidly. This action elevates the knobs almost explosively, flinging the seeds outward (like an underhand, backhand throw). I know from experience with another species of geranium that the force of the throw is enough to fling the seeds at least twenty-five feet, if unimpeded.

This mode of seed dispersal is called ‘ballistic dispersal. It is found locally in lupine, whose pods twist open forcefully, violets, and impatiens, which is sometimes called ‘touch-me-not” for the way in which the seed capsules pop open. The champion of the ballistics mode, however, is probably a tropical tree called Hura crepitans. The tree makes rock-hard fruits a couple of inches in diameter; the fruit splits into sections (like an orange) when it is thoroughly dry. With a mighty pop, the seeds fly in all directions at high velocity, rattling against the surrounding vegetation. The trick is to bring a few fruits home, put them on the kitchen table to dry, and wait. Then, when no one is mentally prepared, they will go off, startling the daylights out of every creature within earshot, and ricocheting all around the room.

That was a long digression from Gastineau Peak, but I couldn’t resist recalling the fun that Hura’s fruits provided. That was many years ago—these days they might just give me a heart attack.

The route up Gold Ridge provided a good floral show at the higher elevations, including gentians, monkshood, and some still-flowering geraniums. In some dense salmonberry thickets we heard muttering and clucking and peeping, so we knew there had to be a family of grouse lurking under the leaves. Only after we passed by did the hen and big chicks flutter up and over the trail into the brush on the other side.

From Gastineau Peak we looked down into Icy Gulch, where three mountain goats reclined on a green knoll. There was a stiff, chilly breeze that sent us into the lee of a small side ridge for lunch, but the ravens were enjoying it thoroughly, showing off their aerobatic maneuvers.

On another day, a friend and I came down the Fish Creek trail, just because we hadn’t walked it for a long time. Aside from a prodigious mudhole filled with a deep, sloppy, viscous mess (which we reduced somewhat by using some primitive engineering), the most notable observation was the horde of pink salmon thronging the stream up the barrier falls. The banks were littered with long-dead chum salmon, largely intact except for missing eyeballs. The ravens had been foraging selectively for the choice bits of fat that pad the eyes. Dozens of ravens were still there, including what sounded like over-grown but lazy juveniles clamoring for food delivery from their parents. But no eagles.

Strangely, there was no bear sign along the trail, despite the dense crowds of pinks, until we reached the highway bridge. There we found one bear scat—full of blueberry remnants. This begs the question: Why were bears seemingly ignoring the stream full of salmon?

Autumn on Gastineau Peak

a walk in the clouds

Early September, and fall has been here for a couple of weeks already. Cottonwood leaves are turning gold, and alder leaves are drifting down into dull, brown heaps. Fireweed has gone to seed, except for a few stragglers that bloomed late. The air feels like fall is here.

Warblers are on the move. Mixed-species flocks of little birds flit through the alders and willows. Townsend’s warblers in fall plumage hobnob with chickadees, orange-crowned warblers, and two species of kinglets, along the banks of Montana Creek. Near Steep Creek, orange-crowns forage with chickadees, kinglets, and myrtle warblers. The birds move rapidly among the branches, feeding on tiny insects. The warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets are headed south for the winter, but golden-crowned kinglets and chickadees stay, toughing it out. Two cedar waxwings pass quickly through, not part of a flock.

One cloudy day, Parks and Rec hikers headed for Gastineau Peak. As usual, some started at the Basin Road trailhead and came up through the mud, while others just took the tram, joining forces at the upper tram terminal. As we went up toward Gold Ridge, the clouds settled in around us, restricting visibility to a narrow strip along the trail.

Wildlife viewing was therefore very limited. We saw one marmot just below the trail, looking up at our ghostly forms with apparent puzzlement. I saw the tails of three robins disappear into the mists, and an unidentified sparrow dove into a conifer thicket. And that was it, for wildlife.

Deer cabbage, avens, and blueberry leaves were coming into their fall hues. Most of the flowers were finished, although there were a few valerian, monkshood, and moss campion to be seen, and some broad-petaled gentians, which almost glowed in the mist. Partridgefoot and the hardy little harebells were still doing well.

Our goal was Gastineau Peak, and we wound up the rocky trail in the clouds. No vistas rewarded us, of course, and the wind was rising rapidly. So, after reaching the peak, we back-tracked to the junction with Gold Ridge and huddled in the lee of a bank by a dried-up pond to gobble a quick lunch. A small, gray and white, very tired butterfly wobbled across the stones at our feet and took temporary refuge on a wet pant-leg.

Back on the trail, we were slammed with a sudden, driving, sleety rain, and gusting winds stiff enough to make balance sometimes dicey. Nothing for it, just put your head down (and your hood up), put one foot in front of the other, and make rueful jokes as the rain found its way inside your raingear. We wondered if the tram would still be operating.

This lasted all too long. When we got down near the windsock, the curtains parted, and we had a good view of Bear Valley, in all shades of green, with the little creek calmly flowing through it. Downtown appeared. No more worries about whether or not the tram was running. From there on, it was ‘cake’.

As we left the lower tram terminal in our sodden, wind-blown state, a tourist remarked that he wished he were where we had been! He persisted, even after I told him what it had been like. Poor guy, he must have been very bored. Hmmm, maybe it was OK, after all! We were, in fact, glad we went, but hot showers and hot tea were sounding really good!