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.

Going to Granite Basin

drab warblers and jousting butterflies

This is one of my favorite Juneau hikes. In mid May, we went from almost full summer (at the head of Perseverance trail) to very early spring in the basin, just in time for lunch. There was still a fair amount of snow in the basin and the bushes were mostly pressed flat. All along the trail the birds were singing—hermit thrushes and varied thrushes and ruby-crowned kinglets in the trees, Wilson’s warblers, fox sparrows, and orange-crowned warblers in the brush. Robins were well along in their nesting cycle but nevertheless we heard them almost everywhere. Up in the basin, I was pleased to hear the plaintive song of golden-crowned sparrows, a bird that graces some of our subalpine areas.

I’m going to give the orange-crowned warbler special mention here, because they are so often overlooked entirely. It’s a drab little ground-nester. Its chief distinguishing feature is that it has no distinguishing features. The orange crown is concealed. The grayish streaks on the breast are hard to discern. Just a yellowish-olive little thing, with an equally undistinguished song that could equally well come from some insect. They love to forage on caterpillars that munch leaves.

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Orange-crowned warbler. Photo by Katherine Hocker

A hefty black bear grazed on a slope across Gold Creek. Marmots sounded their warning whistles as we wound our way up toward the basin. High on Juneau ridge, we spotted a group of mountain goats and were quite sure that some of them had new kids. Margined-white butterflies fluttered here and there, vising a few flowers; they certainly like violets. Male butterflies contested vigorously with each other for desirable females, and we found one couple that had reached an agreement. The female will lay her eggs on the leaves of plants in the mustard family.

Violets bloomed, and salmonberry, and subalpine (Cooley’s) buttercup, and the first coltsfoot of the season. Because we’d just had a ‘pollen storm’ for several days, there were layers of spruce pollen on leaves and rocks, not entirely washed off by little rains.

Much as I enjoy going up this trail, I think it should be reported that the trail has some bad spots. The avalanche that has lain over a bend in the trail for several years is still there, but it’s not hard to cross (with care). More worrisome were a couple of snow patches where one misstep could have sent a person on a very long slide straight down to the creek. The snow patches will, of course, disappear before long.

But there are more persistent and, in some cases, potentially dangerous places where erosion has worn the path to half of its normal width, with a steep drop-off to one side, and the board walk is quite rotten in many places. At the first level place after the Granite Basin trail leaves the Perseverance trail, the already-large mudhole is continually expanded as hikers try to avoid the mud. It is to be hoped that the agency in charge of this very popular trail will repair at least the most dangerous spots soon!

The pool at the top of the falls that marks the basin entrance didn’t seem to have its usual spotted sandpiper, although I’d heard this species calling at lower-elevation gravel bars. As we rounded the corner above the falls, a little gray bird shot downstream over the falls and disappeared. So we couldn’t watch a dipper bobbing along the shore of the pool this time. But I could hope they were nesting a short distance below the falls. For the past several years, a late snow bridge has covered the stream where dippers had previously nested for many years, so there was no nesting there recently. But this year, the snow bridge was gone and the nesting cliffs were largely exposed, so—just maybe—a pair of dippers could raise a family there.

Hiking to Granite Basin

hot goats, salmonberry abundance, yellow fireweed, and fuzzy ducklings

There are two principal ways to get to Granite Basin, and on a wonderfully warm and sunny day in early August, the Parks and Rec hikers used both of them. Nine strong hikers aimed for Mt Juneau and the Juneau Ridge; they spent ten hours on the loop from the top of the mountain, along the ridge, and down through Granite Basin. They reported seeing goats and lots of flowers, especially noting a spectacular spread of pink-flowered fireweed in the upper basin. Beyond the Chilkats, the mighty, snow-clad peaks of the St Elias range were visible in the far distance, an unusual treat on an unusually clear day.

The rest of the hikers, slightly more numerous, chose a more leisurely hike, going up the Granite Creek trail to the basin. That old avalanche that had rested over the trail for several years was finally gone completely, no doubt as a result of our warm weather punctuated by periods of heavy rains. We noted that the trail had been roughly brushed, getting the nettles out of reach of any bare legs and making it possible for hikers to see where they put their feet. Some tread repair had been done on the lower section of the trail, but serious mudholes are getting ever larger as hikers try to walk around them. There are still many rotten or missing boards on the boardwalk and some places on a side-hill stretch that are eroded so badly that a miss-step would have unpleasant consequences. There is still time this summer for some fixing on this route…

‘Twas a great day for a hike, especially if one carried lots of water. We were a bit surprised to see two mountain goats on the side of Juneau Ridge, in the hot sun; we had expected them to be on the shadier side of the ridge. Few marmots were evident; they were presumably sensibly sleeping in their cool burrows, but I found several other items of interest along the way.

The salmon berries were ripe, and both human and ursine pickers had been busy. In the middle of the trail was the most beautiful bear scat I’ve ever encountered (and I have inspected thousands of them, to the amusement of my friends). It was a very shapely heap so full of digested red salmonberries that it positively glowed in the sunlight, the red set off by smudges of blueberry and yellow salmonberry, and dotted with numerous pale yellow salmonberry seeds. Very artistic!

Another find—spotted by a friend—was a clump of the yellow-flowered fireweed. This seems to be uncommon around here; we know of a large stand on the seeping slope behind Cropley Lake, but we seldom see it elsewhere.

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Yellow-flowered fireweed. Photo by Kerry Howard

The pool at the entrance to the basin itself often offers us a look at an American dipper or a spotted sandpiper, but this time we watched two fuzzy young ducklings, probably Barrow’s goldeneyes. They loafed on a rock in the sun, then went diving in the pool, and finally disappeared as they ran (yes, ran) up the riffle at the head of the pool. Still too young to fly, they must have been born near here. Females of this species typically nest in cavities, often in trees but sometimes in rock crevices, and there is even a report of a nest in a marmot burrow. Parental care in goldeneyes may be short and skimpy after the eggs hatch, and the ducklings are often left to fend largely for themselves.

At lunchtime, someone brought up the fact that there is a small city named Juneau in Wisconsin. I was born and raised not far from there, so I decided to track down a little history. The Wisconsin city was named for a relative of Joe Juneau of local fame. Reported to be Joe’s cousin, Solomon Juneau was a French-Canadian fur trader, who settled in the Milwaukee area, helping found the new city and its newspaper, and briefly serving as mayor, among other things. Eventually he and his family moved about fifty miles to the northwest, founding a village near a large post-glacial marsh, and one of his sons founded the town of Juneau, not far away. Juneau County in Wisconsin is named for Solomon Juneau too. As it happens, my husband and I once owned a house in the rolling hills there. So, in a sense, I moved from Juneau to Juneau.

Late August in Granite Basin

marmots, warblers, flowers and fruits… and a bear encounter

The day began under gray skies, but by midmorning the sun was lightening everyone’s mood. A sizable group of Parks and Rec hikers, including several visitors, headed up Perseverance Trail with plans to turn toward Granite Basin, a favorite destination of many locals.

Despite a few heavy rains in the past weeks, the trail was mostly clear of mud. A month before, the thick remnants of an old avalanche had extended over a piece of the trail and the creek. The snow pack did not melt away in the past two summers, so in July, we clambered over a heap of accumulated snow. But by late August, that old snow was gone, except for a small ledge.

The wrecks of alders and other shrubs littered the slope above the trail where the snow had lain, but many mutilated trees had produced a few late leaves. If they can get an earlier start next summer, before too long the slope may again support a cover of brush to make homes for warblers and sparrows.

Two marmots cuddled together on top of a big boulder, basking in the sun. Several clusters of mountain goats dotted Juneau Ridge. A few warblers flitted through the alders, stoking up their reserves for the coming migration. Copperbush still had a few flowers, but most of the flowers had made fruits that looked like tiny pumpkins with a handle (the remaining female part of the flower).

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Copperbush. Photo by Kerry Howard

There were quite a few ripe salmon berries—rather surprising in view of the many people who use this trail. Both red and yellow-orange fruits were fairly common. For the record, although there’s a myth that the red ones taste better than the yellow-orange ones, in fact the sugar content is equal. Blind taste tests with fully ripe berries showed that humans could not distinguish between the two colors by taste. We did a little berry-foraging for ourselves. So had a grouse or ptarmigan, because we found a scat in the trail was filled with salmonberry and blueberry seeds.

Wild flowers of several sorts still bloomed along the trail, and the native species of mountain ash bore its bright red fruits. A dipper searched along the edges of the pool at the entrance to basin and swam in the shallows after aquatic insects. The dippers’ customary nest site below the big waterfall had been under snow for the last two springs and was therefore unusable, but they may have nested in another site up on the back side of the basin.

Bears had wandered along the trail, leaving scats with seeds of devil’s club and vegetation fibers. Beside the trail was a wide swath of matted, broken stalks of false hellebore (a.k.a. corn lily), where bears had apparently gone after the basal parts of the plants. According to a hiker with extensive experience as a hunter, bears really do eat this plant. Although it is known to be very poisonous to humans, it’s not the only noxious (to us) plant that bears eat.

On the return trip down Perseverance Trail, several of us had a surprise. A female black bear with two cubs appeared in the trail. We stopped, and they ducked into the brush on one side of the trail. Unfortunately, that side was very close to the creek, with a steep drop-off, so there was no ready way for the bear family to distance themselves. Because we were in a group, we carefully passed by, speaking very politely as we did so. Mama sent the cubs currying up a tree and let us know her displeasure by rattling the bushes. That gave us a little adrenalin spike, for sure, but in reality, this bear was not being aggressive at all. She was just telling us in bear language to get lost, so she and her cubs could go on their placid way. So we did, and they did!

Granite Basin denizens

visiting the world of marmots and spotted sandpipers

A long, lazy lunch, which we enjoyed while sprawled on a huge boulder in the noontime sun: we basked like lizards—or, more appropriately for our locale, like marmots.

Soon thereafter, we were whistled at—by a pair of baby marmots that had just recently begun to emerge from the den where they were born. These toddlers tried very hard to sound the alarm about the ‘monsters’ tramping along the creek, but their whistles sounded very raspy and feeble. That didn’t deter them, however, and they shrilled every few seconds until we were well past their rock.

It seems to take a while for youngsters to learn how often to ‘cry wolf’. Adult marmots would probably not have gotten quite so excited at the sight of two-footed monsters traipsing by. Interestingly, baby beavers behave much the same way, tail-slapping over and over again at something strange, often ignored by their parents, until they learn to tailor their alarms to the circumstances.

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A young hoary marmot

The scientific name of our hoary marmot is Marmota caligata. The second name refers to boots, because the marmots’ black feet reminded some taxonomist of that footgear. Farther south, hoary marmots typically inhabit high elevations, with other marmot species at lower altitudes, but in our area, these marmots range from sea level to the alpine zone.

These marmots have a very flexible mating system. Some mate in pairs, or social monogamy; a study in south-central Alaska suggested that this was the common arrangement there. Others are polygynous, two or more females socially bonded to a male. Sometimes an extra male resides on the periphery of a mated male’s territory. Regardless of the social arrangement, however, there is reportedly a lively scene of extracurricular activity. Males go gallivanting over the hillsides, looking for receptive females. And they find them: many litters have been shown to have multiple fathers. So perhaps the two we saw were just half sibs.

Gallivanting males are most common in big patches of suitable habitat, where several colonies of marmots are neighbors. Small habitat patches may only support one family group and opportunities for gallivanting are fewer. Males reportedly behave more parentally when gallivanting is not an option; they guard their offspring more assiduously and even play with them.

Hoary marmots typically mature disperse from their natal territory to find their own place in the world when two years old. Mature females, age 3 or more, can produce a litter every year if food is very abundant but often skip a year or two if food is scarce. Mating occurs in spring, soon after the adults emerge from hibernation. Gestation lasts about four weeks and the pups are weaned after roughly four more weeks. Litters usually consist of about three pups, but pup mortality can be high, especially during winter. Litter size and frequency of reproduction varies with the social mating arrangements: monogamously mated females produce larger litters more often than bigamously or trigamously mated females, which are more likely to skip a year—and whose males do more gallivanting in the females’ off-years!

I heard but failed to see a spotted sandpiper near the pool at the top of the falls at the basin entrance. Spotties are found there virtually every year. They usually nest on gravel bars and upper beach fringes, and the basin provides several gravel bars.

Spotted sandpiper females arrive first on the breeding ground and claim a territory. Males arrive later and set up their own territories inside those of females. Some females mate monogamously, and both parents may care for the eggs; this mating arrangement is more common among younger females. Older females are commonly polyandrous: a female often mates with two or even three males in succession. She lays a clutch of four eggs for Number 1 and leaves him to do all the incubation and chick-tending, while she goes on to Number 2. If there is no Number 3, a female may help Number 2 care for the brood.

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Photo by Bob Armstrong

Some polyandrous females bond with males within her original territory. Others search widely for a second mate. It turns out these females keep track of their neighbors and they know which territories previously have been successful in producing chicks. And to the males on those territories go the females to find a sire for their second broods. In this case, it seems to pay to be a nosy neighbor!

The plot thickens still further! Those second males may indeed perform all their parental duties and also may be helped by the female if it is her last brood of the season. But second males are not necessarily the fathers of the chicks. In some cases the female stores sperm of Number 1, which becomes the father of at least some chicks in the second brood. In effect, Number 2 has been cuckolded by the first male and ends up caring for another male’s chicks.