January bricolage

A stalking goshawk, some prime tracking, and a trip into a sub-nivean ice tunnel

Back in mid-January, during all that unseasonably warm and dreary weather, I looked out my front window one afternoon, to check on the twenty or so mallards that were congregating on the nearly ice-free pond. An adult male goshawk paraded along the bank, looking meaningfully at the ducks. The wary ducks had retreated to the center of the pond, where they waited to see what the predator would do. Perhaps they felt safer on the water than in the air. Darkness fell before I could observe the end of the stand-off.

In a recent essay I was moaning about that dismal weather that seemed to last forever, and I was looking for something cheerful to think about. But—wonder of wonders—a few days after I wrote that essay, a big moon appeared in the night sky and a bright yellow orb peeped over the mountains and the sky was blue instead of gray. Moreover, there was a nice blanket of new snow that added to the welcome brightness. Hurray!

Just before the sun really decided to reappear, we made a tour of the lower loop at Eaglecrest, finding the best assemblage of critter tracks we’d seen for a long time. A few hares had been out and about, and a weasel had bounded across the trail and into the brush in several places. Squirrels had made their usual highways out from the bases of trees. A mouse (probably) had ventured cross a small opening between two brushy shelters. Another set of obscured tracks were a puzzlement: I wanted them to belong to a marten. There were deer tracks in several places, including those of a very small one. The best finding was the wandering track way of a grouse (or ptarmigan), maybe searching for fallen seeds of for buds to nip and eventually disappearing into a thicket.

On a day of full sun (!!), we visited a meadow out the road, plonking about on snowshoes in search of whatever might be interesting. The snow was too crusty for shrews to leave their delicate traceries and voles were staying under the snow, but weasels had been exploring. A deer had come into the meadow and circled several small spruces, pausing here and there. It looked like lichens were on the menu, one kind in particular. Where the deer had been foraging, the spruces still held loads of Usnea longissima (old man’s beard) but little or no Alectoria (witch’s hair). But in parts of the meadow not recently visited by this deer, we could find draperies of Alectoria on the low branches. On other forays, I’ve seen neat browse lines along the edge of the woods, where all the Alectoria had been eaten. Now I have to wonder what makes that lichen a preferred food (at least at times).

One morning I headed out for a sunny walk on the west-side beach of Mendenhall Lake. Up at my mailbox I heard a ruckus in one of the trees overhead. There was a tight little ball of about four chickadees, fluttering and flapping and chattering, as they all tumbled from one branch to another. The fight continued down the slope and out of sight. One more thing to wonder about; this was more than a quick argument over a seed or two. Were they picking on an intruding stranger? Or had one of them seriously misbehaved in some socially unacceptable way? Or??

On another nice day, my foray took me to another meadow where the tussocks were separated by narrow channels that had been full of water; a layer of ice had formed on the surface. But the channels had dried up, leaving an air-space about a foot deep between the persistent ice and the bottoms of the channels. The snow cover made it hard to tell where the little channels were, so when a snowshoe found one and broke the ice, I dropped down catastrophically and pitched over in a heap. My ‘feet’ were twenty-five inches long and tangled unmercifully in the remaining ice layer as I tried to extricate myself, so it took a while for me to heave myself up on something solid. Eventually, I wearied of more falls and many near-misses and decided to bail out by walking under some big spruces, where there were no tussocks and empty channels to contend with. These lovely spruces were open-grown, so they had many long, low, sweeping branches for me to clamber over and under, making sure my big ‘feet’ didn’t get snagged. This was hard work too, but there was a little surprise: many of those long, low branches were decorated with a series of small mounds of cone scales, a few inches apart, as the squirrel had chosen a different spot on the branch for each spruce cone on which it snacked, rather than peeling off the scales into one big midden.  

Two trails

…and some bird stories

A group of friends went up the Granite Basin trail in mid-August. Lots of work has improved the trail mightily, and big boards stashed alongside indicate that more work may be planned. Snow still covered the trail at the place where spring avalanches always dump their icy loads. That was perhaps a measure of how unseasonably cold this ‘summer’ has been.

Salmonberries were ripening at trailside, but in one place skimpy, pale leaves made it clear that the canes had only recently come out from under snow cover. Purple fleabanes (or daisies) and grass-of-Parnassus flowered. White mountain-heather and partridgefoot were in full bloom. We found odd red structures on one mountain-heather and did not have the least idea what they are; we found out that they are a result of a fungus infection that makes the plant turn leaves into false flowers, with nectar(!), to attract insects that then spread the fungus.

Mountain-heather “false flowers”. Photo by Kerry Howard

Clouds hung low that day, obscuring any long vistas. They lifted, just slightly, about midday; not enough to even say there was watery sunshine. But that was enough for the marmots to come out and ‘sun’ themselves on the rocks. Folks watched a dipper foraging in the pool above the falls, where we often see them. Those who ventured farther into the basin saw ptarmigan, including chicks.

Ptarmigan chick. Photo by David Bergeson

The previous week I went to check out the Horse Tram trail. From the Boy Scout trail, the route goes up the hill a bit and then there’s a junction (with a yellow marker).  The original tram route went down over the saddle into Amalga Meadow, but the newer route heads up the hill to a little meadow and then down to a cove and toward the Eagle Valley Center in Amalga Meadow. Some work had been done on the stretch going up the hill but then there was a long, muddy, squishy reach to the small meadow (but work was in progress). From the meadow on down toward the EVC, the trail is now in great shape.

Parks and Rec hikers used to do a loop, from the Boy Scout trail up the (then-unimproved) Horse Tram trail to the little meadow, down to Amalga Meadow, and back up over the saddle where the bent and twisted tram tracks are still visible in places to the junction and on down to the Boy Scout trail. The old tram-track trail over the saddle is now badly eroded and overgrown, and it’s hard to pick up that trail from Amalga (even when you know, in general, to aim for the saddle). If a hiker wants to do the loop, it’s easier to do it in the other direction: over the saddle from the junction down into Amalga, where it is possible to pick your way by several damp routes over to the trail up to the small meadow and back down the hill.

As we hiked down on the good trail from the little meadow recently, a family of chickadees flitted around our heads, quite fearlessly. So we wondered if they sometimes got treats from people at the EVC. Sapsuckers had made a double row of sap wells up the side of a damaged spruce –not a usual place for their wells. In the wet meadow, a bear had dug up one skunk cabbage out of thousands that grow there; so we had to ask Why that one in particular?

Here are some bird stories: A friend sent me a video of a raven following a marmot, pecking at its tail; the marmot continues to browse, the raven continues to pester its tail. Pure mischief!! Not at all like ravens and crows pecking at an eagle’s tail to distract it from a captured salmon. Ravens also destroy the padding on car-top canoe carriers; is that just for fun and something to do when bored? A friend tells of watching a raven carefully selecting a spot to cache something held in its bill. The raven could see the observer well, but it completed the cache and flew off. My friend went to the cache and found—a small, smooth quartz pebble. Trickster, indeed!

Finally, one day in August, I came up the steps into my living room and, as always, glanced out the front windows. There was a fair-sized, brownish lump on the railing, looking a bit disheveled. Huh?? Oh. That heap of stuff is a juvenile goshawk! It was glaring at a cat crouched a few feet away in the living room. The bird was ‘mantling’—displaying by hunching over, raising the feathers on its upper back (its mantle), and spreading its wings. Typically used as a display to protect a captured prey from challengers, it can also be a defensive display, it seems (it held no prey). So it was a stand-off—neither cat nor bird liked the other one. I later saw the goshawk perched in a nearby tree. What drew it here in the first place? Maybe a duck or two on the pond (I once saw a goshawk take a duck there), but perhaps more likely the hairy woodpeckers that frequent my peanut-butter feeders. Goshawks commonly forage by dashing through tree canopies, snatching squirrels and woodpeckers from branches and tree trunks; at least in some places, woodpeckers are a common prey.

Switzer headwaters

ice formations, a smattering of tracks, a goshawk encounter, and a secretive snipe

At the eastern reach of the Switzer Loop Trail, there is an old logging road that goes straight up the hill to end near a long-abandoned beaver pond. On a recent exploratory prowl there, I was accompanied by a two-footed friend and a four-footed friend—although it might be more accurate to say that I accompanied these two quicker and more agile hikers.

The first observation of interest (for the two-footed hikers, at least) was a set of raven tracks in soft snow, zigzagging from one side of the trail to the other. At each point of the zigzag, the raven had probed into the snow with its bill, leaving a smudge of blood. What could be the story behind this record in the snow? Our speculations lasted until we reached the end of the road, where a set of mousy tracks wandered about and a weasel had meandered in and out of burrows and stumps.

The road runs through an old clearcut, several decades old (probably cut in the 1950s). Sometimes known as the Dismal Woods, this second-growth stand is indeed rather dismal. The dense canopy of young trees cuts out so much sunlight that few plants (except mosses and lichens) can grow in the understory. The forest floor is littered with rejected branches and abandoned logs. Remarkably, red squirrels traveled here often enough to leave a few well-used little trails and a porcupine had passed through.

The old beaver pond is filled with grasses and sedges. The ice-free little rivulets entering and leaving the pond were flowing well (at a time when most other streams in Juneau were frozen over), so the pond ice was feeble and offered treacherous footing. We never knew when we’d punch through the flimsy ice or humps of bent grass; after a few stumbles and lurches, we elected to go around the pond. It was reminiscent of hiking on the wet tundra Up North—which I hope never to do again.

A fine grove of red alders grows between the pond and the hill-slope behind. Where a tree had been uprooted by the wind, we saw an astounding array of needle-ice; many of the thin strands were perhaps twenty inches long. I think this formation occurs when water is forced up out of the freezing soil, and it is pretty common around here, but I’d never seen such long strands. A few big alders showed signs of long-ago bear claws. And here we found an enormous stump whose top made the entrance to the burrow of a red squirrel.

Just beyond the needle-ice, we inadvertently flushed a goshawk, which took off at high speed from behind a log pile. Closer inspection of the site revealed no signs of a goshawk lunch – no feathers or fur or blood, so perhaps it had missed its prey or was just resting.

Working our way along the upper edge of the Dismal Woods, we crossed and re-crossed the rivulets that feed the old beaver pond. At least one of them pops right out of the hillside with no sign of the origin of the water, so we guessed that the water flows down the side-slope under the soil until it reaches the little gully that holds the stream.

The clear little streams were floored with layers of dead alder leaves, which undoubtedly harbor some interesting invertebrates. A foraging snipe certainly hoped so–it was probing in the leaf packs and mud with its long bill. This one had left many lines of footprints with three forward toes and no back toe (like many shorebirds but very unlike most of our forest birds) as it walked in and out the stream, around log jams, and down to where the stream entered the old pond. It’s always a surprise to me to find a wintering snipe in the forest, because I think of them as living in marshes and wet meadows, where they often nest.

Snipes commonly eat many kinds of invertebrates: insects, worms, snails; their digestive tracts also contain seeds and vegetation, but it is reportedly not certain how much nutrition they obtain from plant material. Snipes forage by probing with their long bill; sometimes they put their entire head underwater. They can swallow small items while the bill is still in the mud, probably by using the tongue to push them back along the backward-oriented serrations inside the bill. The bill is very flexible, and snipes can open the tip without moving the base. There are sensory pits near the tip of the bill that help them find buried prey.

On the ice in one corner of the pond, we found tracks of a hopping bird (with four toes). Judging from the size of the foot and a tail mark, we guessed that a Steller’s jay had searched the edge of the pond.

After bush-whacking over to what looks like another abandoned beaver pond, my companions pranced (and I bumbled) over the piles of discarded branches through the Dismal Woods back to the road and the car. A very successful prowl!

Wandering

beaver lodges and an outstanding goshawk encounter

Someone once asked me if I go out on hikes and walks looking for something in particular. Many times, I just go wandering with my eyes and ears open, and maybe nothing special is observed, or maybe I get lucky. Sometimes, however, I do have a particular objective, and chance to observe something that is not related to my initial objective at all.

On a recent November stroll near the glacier, I was engaged in a survey of active beaver lodges. Beavers often build caches of branches near their lodges in fall. They pile up branches in a heap that often sticks up above the surface of the water and winter ice. This is the winter food supply; they can just cut off a chunk and carry it to the lodge for lunch. Beavers seldom come out on top of the ice; they are very vulnerable to predators when they cannot dive into deep water. According to the books, adult beavers eat less of the winter cache than young beavers do. The young ones are still growing and need lots of food, but adults can live mostly on body fat that is stored mainly in the tail.

The presence of a cache is a good sign that a beaver family is in residence. However, some lakes with lots of beaver sign don’t have a cache in front of the lodge. I see fresh cuttings and a dam in good repair, but no cache. So the beavers are there, for sure. Then I have to wonder if there’s no cache because there are no young, growing beavers in that lodge; I would love to know!

As I was cruising around, I got a lucky break. As I plodded along, a great flurry of wings beat through the brush. Startled, I spun around, and there was a goshawk in immature, brown and white striped, plumage just rising up into a young cottonwood.

Then I looked at the spot it had come from, and there was the limp body of a young snowshoe hare, still intact. The hawk must have just nabbed it. I quickly went on down the trail, so the hawk could eat in peace. Foot traffic on the trail was scant, so I hoped the predator would remain undisturbed.

About an hour later, I was homeward bound on the same trail, and again the goshawk flushed up into a tree. At the site where I originally saw it, there was only a scattering of fur. The hawk had moved its prey about fifteen feet through the brush. Now all that remained were the guts and hind legs. No doubt the hawk would have eaten more if it hadn’t been disturbed a second time.

I looked around for the hare’s head, and found only the lower jaws, separated and picked clean, and a small assemblage of tiny bone fragments. So I couldn’t add the skull to my collection. But this made me think about the fact that heads provide good nutrition for predators, not only in the musculature but also in the fat around all the nerve cells in the brain and behind the eyes.

Just a couple of minutes later and down the trail a short distance, I saw the hawk flying rapidly off into some spruces. Below its line of flight was a raven in a tree, with a large gobbet of fresh red meat and bone in its bill. The raven had quite a time, organizing its scavenged goodies into a tractable package. Then it, too, flew away.

The deceased hare had acquired part of its winter coat of white fur, so it was a patchwork of brown and white. White fur against a background of dead, brown leaves is very conspicuous, which may have increased the risks for this young hare.

Molting into winter colors in hares (and weasels and ptarmigan) is not keyed to the presence of snow on the ground—although that is when it would be useful as camouflage. The fall molt into winter white is probably triggered by shortening daylength, which does not always accord with the presence of snow. So there are times when hares are just the wrong color for safety.