Watching young animals

a bear family, ducks at war, a porcupine child, and flocks of young birds

The first part of July gave me some very nice opportunities to observe young critters just learning to make their way in the world.

Above the tram in Bear Valley, we watched a bear family foraging on green herbage. Mama was all business, but the cubs were more interested in playing. The two larger ones wrestled and rolled, boxed and bumped, flattening the vegetation after mama had forged ahead. Cub number three was a little smaller than its siblings but eventually trotted out of the thickets to follow the rest.

The forest at the top of the tram gave us a close-up look at a mixed-species flock of birds. First we saw a nuthatch, then a chickadee and a couple of siskins, and then the trees were full of a family of golden-crowned kinglets, including numerous fledglings. Accompanying this gang were two brown creepers, hitching up the tree trunks and acrobatically working along on the underside of branches. The entire flock foraged in plain sight for at least five minutes. Mixed-species flocks are thought to be advantageous to the participants, especially in keeping multiple eyes on the lookout for predators, but all the fluttering activity may also stir up insect prey.

On my home pond, we’ve had the duck wars. Three female mallards have brought broods of ducklings to forage along the pond margins and rest in the weeds on shore. Three broods, all of different ages, and the female with the oldest ducklings tended to rule the waters. She often chased all the others, sometimes very aggressively. Her ducklings were quite well feathered in mid July, and those of the next oldest brood were just beginning to show real feathers amidst the down. Then calamity struck—I heard a female quacking loudly and persistently, and I looked out to see that her brood had just been reduced from four to three. With the remaining ducklings closely huddled around her, she fussed continually for at least two hours, and I finally went out—to discover a sorry little pile of down under the trees on the far bank. I suspect a goshawk had found its lunch. The female went on fussing for another hour or more before accepting the new reality.

A friend and I were scrambling along the bank of one of the tributaries of Fish Creek one day. As the valley narrowed down to a canyon, we practically stumbled over a female porcupine with her offspring. Mama quickly hid her head under a log, leaving her spiny back bristling in our direction. Baby, on the other hand, fiddled around a few minutes, then clambered over a stick and slowly made its way between two tree roots. There if finally did the right thing (for a porcupine) and wedged its head into the fork between the roots and erected its defensive spines over the only exposed part of its little body. This little guy was a tad slow off the mark: baby porcupines can execute the typical defensive maneuvers almost immediately after birth. And this one had had weeks to practice. We left them in peace, of course.

Another friend and I led a guided hike up Gold Ridge on a nice but rather foggy day. There were some spectacular flower shows, and an assortment of marmots, including a young one just poking its head above the flowers. We also had a treat, in the form of a juvenile golden-crowned sparrow. The juvenile looked nothing like its nearby parent except in general shape; it had no strong black and gold crown stripes, but it did have conspicuous almost-golden spangles all over its back. This observation was special, because we’d never before seen a juvenile so close-up, even though this bird nests up there regularly.

We saw one female sooty grouse, with some wee chicks hidden in the low vegetation, and one rock ptarmigan, which might have been guarding an invisible brood. But both grouse and ptarmigan seem to be much less common on the ridge than they were just a few years ago.

gray-crowned-rosy-finch-feeding-Bob
Gray-crowned rosy finch adult. Photo by Bob Armstrong

On top of Gold Ridge, we hoped to find gray-crowned rosy finches that nest in the cliffs up there. And, in between swirls of fog, there they were. Adults were feeding fledglings at the edge of a remnant snow bank. The fog made it difficult to see plumage colors, and all the birds just looked black, but eventually we could discern some pattern and distinguish parent from chick. The juveniles were plump, active, and fully capable of doing their own foraging, but –in the way of all young songbirds—they wanted their parents to deliver.

Trailside observations

In sun and snow and sleet and hail…

Here’s an assortment of winter observations that gave pleasure to some trail-walkers.

–Late November, Eaglecrest. Parks and Rec hikers on snowshoes went up the road, but the majority decided to go home for lunch. Two of us went on, over toward Hilda meadows, and perched on a log for a snack. Too busy feeding our faces for a few minutes, we eventually began to notice what was around us. Right behind our comfortable log was a big spruce tree with two lumps at the very top. The upper lump was pretending to be a moss wad, while the lower one was eating spruce needles. Both young porcupines were very wet, but the lower one suddenly roused up and rapidly shook itself dry—moving faster than I’d ever seen a porcupine move. The upper one slept on.

–Late November, Mendenhall Lake beach. A small stream flowed over the beach, creating a little opening in the ice. Three eagles were bickering over the remnants of a salmon carcass, which was probably fairly fresh (judging from the bright red blood stains on the ice). We often see late-spawning coho in the streams that feed the upper Mendenhall (years ago, in December, I counted over a hundred eagles on the stretch of Dredge Creek below Thunder Mountain; they were there because the creek was full of coho). One of the eagles snatched up the tail piece and flew off, hotly pursued by a pirate that eventually won the tasty morsel.

–Mid December, Eaglecrest. Lovely soft snow covered the ground, so animal-tracking was really good. Shrews had been very busy, running over the snow from one bush to another. Lots of other mammals had been active, too: deer, weasel, hare, porcupine, red squirrel, and mouse. Sadly, we found no ptarmigan tracks at all.

–Mid December, Dredge Lakes area. After a deep freeze, a warm spell had melted ice cover and opened up some of the ponds, and beavers had become active. There were new cuttings in the woods, new twigs in the winter caches, and some of the perpetrators were repairing their dams. The Beaver Patrol was called out of its own winter torpor to make notches in a few dams, lowering water levels in certain ponds so that nearby trails were dry , permitting passage of any late-spawning coho, and allowing juvenile salmon to move up and down stream if they chose to do so.

beaver-in-winter-3-Kerry
Photo by Kerry Howard

–Late December, Mendenhall wetlands. ‘Twas a very uneventful walk in a blustery wind. But suddenly two small birds blew (not flew!) in and tumbled into the grass. Righting themselves, they revealed themselves as a pair of gray-crowned rosyfinches, a species I’ve seen in upper Glacier Bay and on Mt Roberts, but not out here. That turned the day into a ‘plus’.

–Late December, Dredge Lakes area. Very low temperatures had refrozen almost all the ponds and streams. However, the ditch from Moraine Lake to Crystal Lake had a couple of very small ice-free patches. And there we saw a dipper, bobbing in and out of those dark pools, no doubt very hungry.

Any sensible dipper would go downstream, perhaps to an estuary, where bugs and fish would be more available!

–Early January, Herbert River trail. A mink had coursed along the elevated riverbank, in and out of the brush, occasionally down to the water’s edge. A set of extremely large moose tracks crossed the trail. That long-striding giant was really moving—the foot prints were often five feet apart. The trackway led through brush and over the arching branches of a fallen tree—almost four feet above the ground. Those long legs! I would have loved to watch that beast (from a respectful distance)!

–Early January, Perseverance trail. Recent heavy rains had brought down some small landslides, not unexpectedly. Unlike the trails near the glacier, this one was nearly clear of ice, and walking was easy. There was fresh snow on the ground, up past Ebner Falls, showing up a few porcupine tracks and some very recent red squirrel trackways. A mouse had crossed the trail with big jumps, several times its body length, leaving clear footprints as it hustled into cover across the open trail. I like seeing mouse tracks, in part because I don’t see them very often.

–Mid January, Switzer Creek area. Before the predicted rains and rising temperatures wrecked the lovely fresh snow, we found tracks of deer, porcupine, possible coyote, and a few mysteries. A shrew had scuttled across the soft snow, making a narrow groove marked by its tiny feet. A good find was a trackway of a grouse, striding through the snow and under low-hanging bushes in the woods. This took a few minutes of searching to determine the track-maker, because the new snow was so soft that it often fell down into the tracks, obscuring the prints. But finally we found good marks of three avian toes.

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-rha
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.