Berner’s Bay

day 2 of 2


The day dawned gray and cool, with a sharp breeze coming down from the north and big swells rolling in from the south. The combination of swells with the chop from the opposite directions would make for interesting paddling.

On the previous day, we’d notice clouds of white birds over on the Berners River, so we knew that the eulachon must be headed upstream. The herring shoal that entertained us last night had moved on, and we intended to check out the action at the eulachon run. The plan was to paddle across to the west side of the bay and hike up along the Berners River.

The tide was starting to go out, which meant that finding a good place to park our kayaks near the mouth of the Berners River would be difficult. Vast amounts of silt come down the rivers into the bay, creating a broad apron of shallows all across the north end of the bay. If we left our boats anywhere along the shore at low tide, they could be stranded far from water deep enough to float even a kayak (unless we waited for hours, until the tide rose again). Parking on the inviting sandy beach would mean that we’d have to carry our boats hundreds of yards over the tideflats to reach navigable water. So we hauled them up on some miserable, slippery, slimy rocks on a steeper shore, where the distance to water would be less.

Snowbanks still lined the fringe of trees above the high tide line, but spring was indicated by a few nearby wildflowers in bud and bloom. The cold north wind spattered our glasses and binoculars with rain as we trudged up the edge of the tideflats, but the white clouds of gulls drew us on, up the river.

The sandy flats, exposed by the outgoing tide, held a record of other recent visitors. A pair of moose had just passed by, leaving one set of very large footprints and another set of somewhat smaller ones (?perhaps from last year’s calf?). In the fringing willows we also noted many broken branches where wintering moose had pulled down twigs to eat. A beautiful trail of an otter was so clearly defined that we knew this animal had been there that morning. There were slightly fuzzier prints of mink and a possible wolf, from an earlier time.

Most interesting, maybe, were the large prints (about seven inches wide) of Brother Bruin, ambling up and down the gravelly shore. The shape of the foot pads suggested ‘brown bear’. A large and very fresh pile of fist-sized droppings hinted at the possibility that we might be under observation ourselves.

With all the interesting things along the way, our progress was slow. Eventually, however, we got far enough upstream to watch the gulls snatching fish and trying to steal fish from each other. Dozens of eagles stood around on the sand bars or perched in the trees, just watching; since ‘taking turns’ is not likely to be part of eagle etiquette, perhaps they were sated. In some of the slightly deeper channels, we could make out long columns of dark forms slowly swimming upstream, running the gauntlet of predators.

On the way back to our boats, we noticed wads of what looked like tiny eggs, washed up on the sands. Our best guess was that these were eulachon eggs that had stuck to each other rather than to sand grains. Eulachon eggs have a double membrane around them. The outer one breaks open and folds back to make a little pedestal that normally attaches to a grain of sand. The egg then incubates in cold, fresh water until it hatches and the tiny larva washes out to sea. But these clumps of eggs (if that’s what they were) were doomed, all stuck together and getting washed into salt water way too soon.

After lugging our boats about a hundred yards back to floatable water, we headed back to the cabin. The water was smoother now, and the going was easy. A squadron of about forty sea lions reared up, giving us the eye and a continuous roar as we went by—a trifle unsettling, even when you know it’s all talk.

So the weekend was a huge success. We’d won the lottery and got to the bay when things were happening, with a bonus of many other attractions, including good company. Our cups were running over, leaving lots of good memories.

April is the cruelest month

the poet was right

The poet had it right! Although April has often been a benign month here, with lots of sun and rapid warming, this year’s April has (so far) offered us lots of rain and temperatures parked in the forties. Not living up to expectations! Nevertheless, Mother Nature has not forgotten Spring, and things are happening.

The yellow hoods of skunk cabbage are now conspicuous in many damp places, with both male-phase and female-phase flowers available. A little experiment in Washington indicated that the sweet fragrance of the flowering display initially stimulates insect pollinators to search for the flowers, where pollen on male-phase flowers is the chief reward. A more local experiment found that the searching insects land preferentially on displays with the bright yellow hood, rather than those that are still green. The little brown beetles that are the principal pollinators are still scarce (in mid April). But eventually they will appear and come first to male-phase flowers, to feed on pollen and use the inflorescence as a mating rendezvous, and then carrying pollen to female-phase flowers. I have observed that, at any one time, there are usually many more beetles on male-phase than female-phase inflorescences, but on some occasions, there are crowds of beetles on the females too. That pattern suggests that perhaps the females are only fully attractive at certain times, possibly drawing in the beetles by air-borne chemical signals.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

The rufous hummers arrived a few weeks ago, one of the earliest arrivals on record. There are rumors that Anna’s hummers, usually just vagrant visitors later in summer, may have overwintered here. If they start to nest here commonly, it will be interesting to see if there is evidence of competition between the two species.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are now cheering human listeners with their rollicking song, even in the rain. I watched a female white-winged crossbill poking about on the ground, selectively choosing certain wisps of grass for a nest lining. In mid April, I heard my first fox sparrow, singing from an alder thicket.

Salmonberry canes with new pink flowers decorated a south-facing upper beach at Auke Rec, and my favorite yellow streamside violets shone against the still-drab forest floor.

Several observations in the Eagle River/Eagle Beach area piqued the interest of a couple of curious naturalists:

–Crows foraged on a mudflat at low tide, finding very small items and gobbling them down. Later, we saw crows exploring the wrack left by a very high tide, extracting mussels and maybe amphipods, and trying vainly to crack the mussels by flying up and dropping them on the too-soft sand.

–An immature herring gull was foraging at the edge of a sand flat, rapidly paddling its feet up and down on the wet sand. This technique was successful in stirring up small organisms, and the gull nabbed one after another. At what age do they learn this mode of foraging?

–There was goose scat that contained seeds of (I think) Canada mayflower, reminding me that geese up on the tundra (and, as I saw, in Tierra del Fuego) commonly eat fruit and disperse the seeds. Geese are generally known as grazers, so this is an added ecological role, shared with bears, thrushes, and some other songbirds.

–A burrow under some tree roots in the sediment bank at the edge of the river had been occupied for some time by a porcupine, which deposited some long white hairs and the usual oval winter pellets (reflecting a diet of bark and needles), as well as more recent, small, dark, round spring pellets (reflecting a shift to soft, fresh, green vegetation). It seems unlikely that the porcupine made this burrow, but it provided a very nice retreat.

–Deer of all sizes had danced on the river sandbars exposed by low-water conditions. We wondered why they spent so much time in that habitat, which offers nothing to eat.

–A little promontory in the river was liberally strewn with the marks of ownership by an otter. There were dozens of small piles of debris, each one topped by a dark, slimy mass. We failed to find a den in this area, although the nearby forest held a number of old, now-unoccupied burrow systems under tree roots.

–As we basked at the river’s edge in some momentary rays, we saw lots of small insects fluttering about. A few landed where we could inspect them, and so we could see that they were stoneflies. Some of them regularly dipped down to touch the water surface, no doubt laying eggs. We wondered how they choose the sites for placing their eggs—what are the cues that indicate a potentially good place?

Glaucous-winged gulls

musings on an often-overlooked species

These are one of our most common gulls around here, and they are easy to watch, so I thought perhaps it was time that I write something about them. These gulls are bigger than the medium-sized Mew Gulls and the small Bonaparte’s Gull, but about the same size as Herring Gulls, which are also quite common, and Thayer’s Gulls, which come through on spring migration. At least as adults, however, they are easy to distinguish from Herring Gulls and Thayer’s Gulls, because they lack the black wing-tips of those two species. The adjective ‘glaucous’ means ‘gray’.

Young Herring and Glaucous-winged Gulls are much harder to tell apart, but it can be done. These big gulls take three years to reach adult plumage and sexual maturity. So they spend two years in immature plumages, which feature various shades of brownish gray but no black (check a good field guide!).

Thousands of Glaucous-winged Gulls attend the eulachon spawning run in Berners Bay in spring. They swoop and dip down to nab the weak-swimming fish, but they sometimes miss, leaving a fish with puncture wounds. They also scavenge eulachon stranded by an out-going tide or dropped by other predators. In our study, adults were more successful at catching fish than immature gulls. Young birds gathered in small gangs on sand bars and chased more successful foragers in attempts to steal a fish. However, their attempts at pirating fish from other birds were not very successful, even when the victim was a smaller kind of gull. Indeed, the immatures were notably poor at pirating fish from other birds, and would have garnered more fish if they had caught fish from the river for themselves.

Other species of gull are there too, all gobbling up the fat-rich eulachon. Adults of all species were about fifty to sixty percent successful at diving for their prey. The big gulls could swallow the fish quickly, reducing the risk of another bird stealing the prey. But the little Bonaparte’s Gulls often had trouble swallowing a fish, especially the larger male fish. The longer handling time meant that these gulls were more likely than the bigger gulls to lose their fish to a pirate.

All kinds of gulls gather at salmon runs in summer and fall, but they tend to forage in different ways. For example, at pink salmon runs in Juneau, adult glaucous-wings foraged more often on carcasses than did immatures, and immatures were more often seen feeding on loose and drifting eggs. These eggs were doomed in any case, because they were not buried in the gravels to incubate. Adult glaucous-wings occasionally pulled live salmon from the stream, poking initially at the eyes or at the vent area to force extrusion of eggs. Neither age class foraged much on intertidal invertebrates.

In contrast to the adult glaucous-wings, the medium-sized Mew Gulls fed mostly on invertebrates in the intertidal rockweed and to a lesser extent on salmon eggs. The small Bonaparte’s Gulls foraged mostly on eggs, and less frequently on intertidal invertebrates.

In winter, there are often quite a few Glaucous-winged Gulls in Auke Bay and the downtown harbors. There they forage on whatever they can catch, including larval fish (?capelin), shellfish, and sea stars. A sea star seems to be mostly bony plates and very little soft tissue, so I wonder just how much nutrition a gull can extract from eating one. I also wonder if some of the sea stars that are missing one or two arms might have been assaulted by a big gull. Sometimes, however, these gulls are reported to swallow whole sea stars; this process apparently takes a considerable time.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Opportunistic foragers, the big gulls can also be found picking bits of meat off discarded deer carcasses on the beach and scavenging whatever looks edible at the dump. Sometimes they pirate mussels from scoters, and swallow them shell and all. They hang around our grocery store parking lots with the ravens, hoping for a handout or some goodies in the back of a pickup truck.

An ordinary walk at Crow Point

…ordinary is in the mind of the beholder

The walk around Crow Point near the Boy Scout camp and the Eagle River estuary is easy. Sometimes there is lots of wildlife activity, but on this day, things were very quiet. A stiff north wind was whipping up whitecaps on Lynn Canal and, with an eighteen-foot high tide, the surf was pounding the shore. It was easy to see how those big beach logs get moved around and the sand gets chewed away from the raised, grassy bench. Off to the west, the snow-clad Chilkats gleamed in the sun.

We plodded along the upper edge of the sand beach, detouring up into the grass where the surf came in too close. With a little work, we could discern otter tracks amid a plethora of dog footprints. Our jacket hoods were up and our backs were hunched against the sharp, cold wind. Not until we rounded the corner to the south-facing beach did we find comfortable conditions and, at last, a little wildlife.

Here, out of the wind, dozens of gulls (glaucous-winged, mew, and a few herring gulls) fossicked around at the water’s edge or loafed, in between quick jabs at something edible. As we approached, they all shifted away along the beach, but when we perched quietly on a log, they moseyed cautiously back, until they were almost directly in front of us, maybe twenty feet away. Whatever they were finding was still too small for us to discern.

We three bumps on a log were inspected, at a distance, by two Pacific loons, a horned grebe in winter plumage, and a wandering sea lion from the Benjamin Island haulout. Overhead, a raven checked us out but didn’t come in for handouts. A raven visit to a beach picnic used to be a regular entertainment here but has become less frequent, making us wonder if some people have made them unwelcome.

Making our way back around the perimeter of the big, flat meadow, we discovered several rototilled areas where bears had foraged, probably for angelica. We find these digs here every year, it seems, begging the question of how there can be any angelica plants left.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

We found two small wild rose bushes, leafless but bearing tiny crops of fruit. In the slanting sunlight of mid November, even three or six rose ‘hips’ made a conspicuous display of gleaming red globes. Who eats these fruits? Humans sometimes use them, after suitable preparation, as ingredients in tea, jam, and syrups, and as a source of vitamin C, but do bears or birds eat them??? Every rose hip I’ve opened up is filled with stiff bristles around the seeds, and these might be rather prickly in the mouth.

Several buffleheads paddled quietly in the slough beside the river, nicely sheltered from the wind by the tall grasses. Even when our walk-by made them nervous, they didn’t leave the lee of the upwind side of the slough.

On the bank beside the trail between the beach and the parking lot, we noted a large mat of a green and apparently very happy liverwort with strap-like ‘leaves.’ Liverworts can be a big frustration for field naturalists, because many of them are nearly indistinguishable (in the field) from mosses. But this one was not so, and we could be sure of its general identity. Even better, we could later track down its probable species. It is reported by a local botanist to be common around here, even though our favorite plant field guide doesn’t show that it lives here.

A rather ordinary walk, nothing really surprising or wildly exciting. But perhaps that depends on one’s concept of ‘ordinary.’ I think that Juneau ‘raises the bar’ for defining the word ordinary! The gleaming Chilkats are ordinary?? Do we take so for-granted a flight of geese seen against a blue sky?? Or the fact that we can see evidence of otters and bears (and often other beasts as well) as one strolls along? There are lots of places where one can’t do anything of the sort. ‘Ordinary’ is all in the eyes and minds of the beholders.