Fun in Gustavus

Swarming toadlets and mayflies, fungi-eating gnats, and other wonders

In the first part of July, I went to Gustavus for a short visit, and there was much of interest to be found! A walk near a shallow lake was the highlight. Thousands of tiny toadlets had recently lost their tadpole tails and were dispersing into the countryside.They thronged the lake edges, the gravel road that circles the lake, and the thick herbaceous vegetation on the far side of the road. Fortunately, that road had been temporarily closed to traffic, giving the little adventurers a chance to pursue their lives as terrestrial animals. Now, instead of filtering bits of aquatic vegetation, they’ll eat insects and worms and such. My companion and I walked that road very carefully, watching every footfall.

Toadlet. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Above the hordes of venturesome toadlets, the air was full of gossamer-winged mayflies. Adults had recently emerged, leaving their old exoskeletons on the lakeside vegetation. They danced up and down, occasionally landing on our caps. The adults don’t live very long, only a day or two (hence their name of Ephemeroptera); after the mating dances, females lay hundreds of eggs on the water and die. 

Mayflies have an unusual life cycle, with two ‘adult’, winged stages (Why??). The aquatic nymphs go through many molts as they grow, obtaining oxygen from the water through the integument primarily and, in older nymphs, through gills on the sides of the abdomen. The last nymphs empty their guts, fill the mid-gut with air, let go of the substrate and float to the surface. There, the exoskeleton splits open and wings come out, and the subadult floats for a day or so, until it is ready to fly. Then it flies to nearby vegetation, where it molts again, becomes sexually mature, and lives its brief life as a full adult.

Mayflies. Photo by Kathy Hocker

Along other trails, many of the hemlocks had yellow needles mixed in with the normal green ones; they were afflicted by the hemlock needle rust, a relatively harmless fungus. The life cycle includes alternate hosts of blueberry (Vaccinium) species—spores from hemlock develop on the leaf litter of deciduous Vaccinium species but on the live leaves of evergreen species, and send the next generation of spores to hemlocks. When we looked closely at the undersides of some of those sick needles, we found tiny (about one mm.) critters, probably fungus gnat larvae, nibbling at the fungal pustules. They were transparent but the innards were reddish.

On the Nagoonberry Trail, we noticed clumps of sodden white fluff at the bases of several spruce trees. These turned out to be piles of cottonwood catkins with burst seed capsules; when not sodden with rain, the cottony fluff lets the seeds disperse on the wind. In the piles I inspected, there were almost no remaining seeds attached to the fluff. That suggested to me that red squirrels had collected the catkins when they fell to the ground and stashed them, eating most of the seeds and leaving the fluff in a small midden. In fact, one pile of fluff was on top of the customary spruce-cone midden. A bit farther on, we found catkins scattered singly all over the ground, as they had fallen. In some of them, the seeds were gone, as if a roaming squirrel had snacked en route, not collecting them. All of that was my squirrely notion, but my companion was skeptical.

A gigantic spruce had developed a monstrous crack up its trunk, letting the tree topple over to lean on a neighbor. It had been so thoroughly infected by dyers’ polypore fungus that the entire trunk was rotten, falling apart in chunks.

We snacked on wild strawberries as we strolled along and saw plenty of signs that bears and coyotes had done the same, leaving scats containing seeds and sometimes whole berries. On the subject of strawberries, but not related to their seed dispersal: I was surprised to see them growing along the roadsides in the company of grass-of-Parnassus, an unusual association.

Plants of alpine bistort (Polygonum viviparum) were common along the trail. Toward the top, the flowering spike bears small whitish flowers that are capable of setting seed but reportedly seldom do so. The lower part of the spike bears fat little bulbils that develop directly into young plants, sometimes producing green leaves even before the bulbil falls off the parent. That’s what gives this plant its specific name ‘viviparum’—producing ‘live’ young (as opposed to seeds)—as if seeds or the eggs of animals aren’t really alive until they sprout or hatch.

Extra tidbits: Chickadees were rearing a second brood in a nest box. Juvenile ravens were caught by a trail cam as they scavenged fallen cottonwood catkins and carried them away (would they eat them or just play with them?). Leaf-roller moth larvae had left their alder leaf-rolls full of digestive products (politely called frass) after the larvae had (presumably) dropped to the ground to pupate. And the so-called Indian paintbrush posed its usual puzzle about variation in flower color, ranging from yellow to orange.


A winter walk in Gustavus

feeder-watching, fresh snow, an owl sighting, and bone musings

The day began in quiet leisure—in a comfortable chair with a cup of hot tea, looking out a big window on a snowy field and waiting for birds to arrive at a seed-feeder. Soon, a crowd of juncos was having breakfast, milling about on a ground-level spread of seeds. The cat at my feet liked the juncos too, especially the ones just a few inches from the window.

An occasional chickadee flitted through, snatching a sunflower seed on the way. The sharp-shinned hawk that had tried for a feeding junco the previous day did not show up on this morning, so all was peaceful under the little arbor that kept snow off the feeder, except for minor altercations among the juncos themselves. Flared tail feathers and open beaks led to some jostling about. One junco with a gimpy leg held its own with the others.

The sun peeked through the trees, and it was time to go for a walk. Just outside the door, we found a perfect miniature snow-angel, where a junco had touched down and spread its wings for a quick flit to the feeder.

Walking through the woods on the way to the beach, the only ‘wildlife’ we saw was a spider dangling on a long silk thread and a ‘looper’-type of caterpillar, seemingly frozen solid but able to squirm when warmed in a hand.

A flight of pine siskins, over a hundred of them, swarmed by, overhead. Crossbills called in some of the spruces and left wings of spruce seeds on the snow. There are subtle distinctions among the red crossbills, based on calls and bill size. Usually, we have the hemlock (small bill) and spruce (medium bill) types, but recently the douglas-fir type (also a medium bill size but a different call) has been reported here, north of its usual range in the Pacific Northwest.

The grasses on the upper meadows made beautiful golden, frost-covered arches that caught the sunlight. A snipe was foraging in a nearby ditch. It was mostly concealed by the steep bank but occasionally it flew ahead to find a new spot in which to search. Although they typically nest in marshy places, in fall and winter we see them on forested streams. There were clusters of mallards at the edge of the river, foraging and sleeping. Small gangs of geese flew noisily overhead.

At the edge of the estuary, an otter had emerged and left a typical trail of footprints interrupted by a long, smooth slide. A raven had hopped up from the water’s edge and gone airborne, leaving the marks of jumping feet and just one wing. Perhaps it veered off to the side as it took off. A very small shorebird had left its prints in the mud. The snow on the high intertidal area was smooth and unmarked; no wolves or moose had passed by there recently.

Heading back toward the forest, the scattered, pioneering spruces gradually got denser and taller. From behind one small stand, a large bird went winging, almost overhead, into a bigger stand of taller spruces. Aha! A short-eared owl, a hoped-for sighting. These owls often frequent the meadows in winter, looking for voles and other small, vulnerable critters. They are fun to watch, with their distinctive style of flight.

Some crossbills landed on small spruces; they occasionally chose a vertical twig and perched right at the end of it. This led to the question of how they manage to perch there without getting stabbed by the sharp needles. Can they just somehow fit their toes among the erect needles? Or do they perhaps select twigs that have a large central, unopened bud to wrap their toes around?

Near one spruce grove, we stopped to look at something (now forgotten) and I heard an odd sound coming from the trees. It was hard to describe—I heard it as a soft, tonal ‘pop’, but my companion described it as a moan or wheeze. There were several of these ‘pops’, and my naturalist friend said they were made by a red squirrel. Really? Yup—they do it after each sharp, little bark, perhaps when inhaling. I couldn’t hear the barks, just the ‘pops’, but my friend saw the squirrel in the tree and was confident that it was the perpetrator. A new thing to listen for!

Back to the house to dig through a treasure box of animal bones and wonder about them. Both bats and birds fly, but birds have a big keel on the sternum (breastbone) and bats don’t. Why is the sternum of mice and squirrels so extremely narrow but that of deer is proportionately more substantial? The lower jaw of fox and skunk has a tiny, seemingly functionless last molar that does not occlude with teeth on the upper jaw.

The first cervical vertebra of mammals holds up the skull; it’s called the atlas, a name from Greek mythology. Atlas was on the losing side of a battle and was condemned to hold up the skies on his shoulders (although he was usually depicted as holding up the world). The atlases of bears and cats have wide, rounded lateral wing-like expansions, but those of moose and deer have narrower, straighter flanges. Many questions; I need a convenient functional morphologist for answers!

Rambles in Gustavus

blossoms and birds, tadpoles and otters and a leguminous puzzle

I recently spent a couple of days roaming the trails in Gustavus, along with three other curious naturalists. Gustavus lies on the outwash plain created when the melting glacier of Glacier Bay poured its silty, gravelly meltwaters through Cooper’s Notch. Post-glacial rising of the land made the sandy plain more expansive. Now Gustavus offers a different array of habitats than are found in the nearby spruce-hemlock forest at Bartlett Cove or in Juneau. I love to visit Gustavus to visit friends but also because I enjoy the variety that’s just a nice ferry ride away.

One of our excursions took us on the Nagoonberry Trail, which passes through meadows, shrublands, and young spruce groves. Just for fun, we counted the number of wildflowers that we found in bloom. There were at least forty-seven species, exclusive of grasses and sedges. For comparison, a similar recent count in the lower subalpine zone on Gold Ridge turned up over fifty species—and there would have been more if we’d gone to the top of the ridge. A few years ago, we found over seventy flowering wildflowers in Cowee Meadows. I think that’s quite impressive. We don’t have to go to the tropics to find good diversity.

For some reason, lady-slipper orchids of several species are found in Gustavus, although I’ve never seen one in Juneau. A favorite one is the sparrow’s-egg orchid, with its very small ‘slipper’; it is also reported to be common in the Yukon. This species self-pollinates, and we found a robust specimen in which every flower had produced a fat seed pod. Nearby, there were three other kinds of orchids in bloom. I don’t recall any place in Juneau where I’ve seen four kinds of orchids growing within a few feet of each other.

We were entertained by bird families wherever we went. Lots of little ‘chip’ notes or thin ‘seet’ notes drew our attention to fluttering wings in the vegetation, which turned out to be little groups of juveniles with their parents—ruby-crowned kinglets, juncos, savanna sparrows, and chickadees. Young barn swallows were on the wing too. Lincoln’s sparrows were singing frequently, perhaps thinking about second broods. Sadly, we found two dead, well-grown juvenile hermit thrushes, in two different locations and so presumably not of the same family. They were very thin, and we wondered if the recent dry conditions had made it hard for them to find their own food.

We made a now-traditional visit to the gravel pits to look for toad tadpoles (aka pollywogs). Thousands of them were tightly clustered in the shallows at the bottom of a pool. At this time, only a few had started to grow hind legs; most of them were still just tadpoles. Presumably most of the remainder (if they survive lurking predators) will metamorphose and disperse as tiny toadlets later in the summer. I was curious about the derivation of their names. An internet source claims that both names come from Middle English: the first means ‘toad-head’ and the second one means ‘head-wiggle’.

One morning we were gifted with a boat exploration of the lower part of Glacier Bay. Around the long, low moraine at Point Carolus there were humpbacks breaching and kittiwakes foraging. Little flocks of red-necked phalaropes flitted about. Phalaropes are unusual because in these species it is the males who do the parental care and the females who are more colorful and aggressive; sometimes a female has two males on her territory, rearing their chicks. On the way back into Bartlett Cove we paralleled a roving pod of transient killer whales. Even the tourists ashore in the cove could watch these whales, but they probably could not observe that a sea otter speedily departed in the opposite direction from that of the killer whales.

Everywhere we looked in the lower bay there were sea otters, foraging and loafing. Our boat captain reported that on trips up-Bay, sea otters were observed hauled out on icebergs and reefs, a behavior seldom reported (in my hearing or reading, at least). This observation reminded me of the historical accounts of the emergency camp of the St Peter’s crew on Bering Island during the winter of 1741-1742, when Captain Bering died and Georg Steller discovered the now-extinct sea cow. The stranded, sickly crew unwittingly wiped out an entire species of flightless cormorant, as well as uncounted numbers of foxes, ptarmigan, and other animals. They slaughtered many hundreds of sea otters, partly for the furs (to gamble with, while passing the time!) and partly to eat. Great numbers of sea otters were hauled out on beaches, where they had never experienced any predators, and were (at first) ignorant of predatory humans, making them easy to slaughter. It seems that sea otters are more inclined to use terrestrial (or icy) haulouts in times and places where they are not harassed or persecuted.

We interrupted the boat ride with a short beach walk on the west side of Glacier Bay. Here we found that others had walked the beach before us, leaving evidence of their passing. Big moose tracks, indistinct prints of canids (wolf or coyote), and very impressive tracks of a big brown bear (at least eight inches wide), along with some prints of a quite small bear. That made us extra-alert.

On many of our Gustavian rambles we saw the purple and pink flowers of beach pea. Or so I thought. A more knowledgeable naturalist said No, not all of those are beach pea. Some have smaller, paler flowers and tend to be less sprawling than ordinary beach pea. So then we began to look more closely and, indeed, there were two different kinds of pea (closely related, in the same genus). The vibrantly colored beach pea has angular stems with no flanges (or ‘wings’), while the paler, smaller-flowered one has stems with wings. That one is called ‘wild pea’ in one field guide but is not even mentioned in another. So now I must revisit some of the Juneau beaches to see if wild pea grows here too.

Altogether, a highly satisfactory Gustavian visit in the company of fine companions.

Toads, sticklebacks, and aphids…

…in Gustavus

A short visit to Gustavus in mid-July yielded a diversity of interesting observations. My friend had a report of toads near a gravel pit, so we went out to see. We found the place teeming with human kids and parents, actively (and loudly) enjoying a swim on a very hot day (over eighty degrees; that’s sweltering in Southeast!). So we dove into the woods instead, wandering here and there, and on our way back to the car, we noticed some very odd tracks in the dusty road: Toes of uneven length, the stride a sweeping motion through the dust. Can’t be a mammal or a bird—aha, it was a toad, walking (with toes dragging) instead of hopping for many yards in the roadway. Very cool—I’d not seen such clear toad tracks before this.

Late that evening, we returned to the pond, when the human crowd had gone home. Now we could see dozens of tiny toadlets hopping about in the brush that fringed the pond. In the shallow water there were tadpoles at various stages of transformation into toadlets: some fat-bodied tadpoles with no hind legs worth mentioning and a stout tail, some almost-transformed toadlets with little tail left and good swimming legs, and others in between.

Seeing all these stages of development prompted me to wonder about how a developing toad changes its diet. Tadpoles are considered to be herbivorous, in general (although some species are carnivores), grazing on small particles in the biofilm of algae, bacteria, and perhaps fungi that grows on the surface of rocks and weeds or filter-feeding on planktonic algae. Toadlets and adult toads forage on insects, capturing them with a long tongue and swallowing them whole. Changing from vegetarian to meat-eating necessitates major changes in the feeding apparatus and digestive tract. The small tadpole mouth disappears, replaced by a wide mouth, a jaw, and a tongue. The stomach gets bigger. The intestine becomes shorter and better supplied with absorptive surfaces. New enzymes are produced. During the principal time of change, the animal actually stops feeding until the changeover is complete. That might explain why just-emerged toadlets often look so thin. Then the newly equipped toadlets have to learn how to forage effectively for bugs. That seems like a big job!

Swimming with the tadpoles were lots of sticklebacks. There were schools of tiny hatchlings and plenty of fat, gravid females with a load of eggs inside. They will seek out a nest made by a male and lay their eggs inside, for him to tend. A male fans a nest with his pectoral fins to improve water and oxygen flow and defends it against potential enemies. Nests are small tunnels built of bits of debris and algae, and they are hard to find. However, Bob Armstrong has a nice video of a male guarding and fanning his nest (search for this at

The next day we took a walk through the grassy, sedge-y meadows that stretch from the forest to the beach. Near the start of the trail we saw several families of barn swallows, all lined up on a wire or packed into a shady corner, still being tended by busy parents. There were Lincoln’s sparrows at the edges of willow clumps and alder flycatchers singing in the thickets.

One of our goals was finding some sweetgrass (the common species that grows here apparently goes by two scientific names, depending on which book you consult: Hierochloe odorata or Anthoxanthum hirtum). Sweetgrass has been used by native cultures around the northern hemisphere for its aroma and for braiding into basketry. We found it easily, its quite distinctive inflorescence mixed in a community of other species. Of course, we gathered a little and made a couple of simple braids, just for fun; for practical use, the stems should be gathered earlier in the season when they are greener and more pliable.

Canada goldenrod was flowering splendidly, and a number of plants had infestations of aphids. Some of the aphids had wings. We were amused to see that when these wee insects were approached by a finger, they tended to rear up their hindquarters, often in a wave proceeding up the stem, a bit like The Wave performed by sports-fans in an arena. Other kinds of aphids do something similar. For the aphids, this could be some kind of defensive reaction, but against whom?

There was other good stuff to be seen and heard. At the edge of the forest, we looked at two empty chickadee nests, one in an old snag and one in a nest-box. To our surprise, both nests were simple thick mats of moss, without the expected cup in which eggs and chicks would nestle. We were entertained by juvenile nuthatches calling continuously from the conifers in hopes of parental attention. We visited the site where a winter-killed moose carcass had attracted scavengers, including coyote and marten (as recorded earlier on a trailcam). By now, nothing was left but scattered bones, hooves, and hair. This beast had been an old fellow, with badly worn teeth, although his stomach had had some food in it. Out on the bare sand flats, we saw some prodigious brown bear tracks, accompanied by those perhaps of a two-year old.

A good visit in excellent company!

Small pleasures add up…

…on a trip to Gustavus

On recent strolls in Gustavus and Bartlett Cove, several small observations gave interest and pleasure. Not to be sneered at, the small things added up (as they often do) to a pleasing heap of natural history items.

Goldenrod was in full bloom, making cheering trailside accents. There was not a lot of pollinator activity, but a few bumblebees were visiting the flowers. One bee slept peacefully, tucked down in among the flowers—bees often sleep in flowers! A large inflorescence hosted a bumblebee and a fancy moth, both foraging actively by probing flowers with long ‘tongues.’ As the bee moved around the inflorescence, it occasionally contacted the moth, who was annoyed, flicked a wing toward the bee, and then moved aside. In each encounter, the moth gave way to the searching bee. We later learned that this moth is called (in English) the plain silver Y, and its larva eats conifer needles. The adult moth would be well camouflaged on tree bark or dead leaves: both color pattern and irregular shape would hide it well.

My friends had found a nest of a ruby-crowned kinglet in the springtime, and I wanted to see it, even though any nesting activity would be long finished. So we splashed our way out over wet meadows to a large, isolated spruce tree. About four feet above ground, a nest was suspended just below a branch and surrounded by drooping twiglets—very well concealed but lower than kinglets usually choose for a nest site. The nest was small, in keeping with the size of the bird, and very thick-walled and well-insulated. Unlike the shallower cup-nests of most small birds, this one was as deep as it was wide (almost six centimeters each way, inside), which is typical of this species.

Photo by Katherine Hocker

The nesting biology of ruby-crowned kinglets has not been studied in great detail, because the nests are usually too high and well-concealed for good observation or access by researchers. However, studies of very closely related species in Europe have shown that incubating females do something remarkable. They lay large clutches of eight or ten eggs in the tiny nest, so many that they are placed in two layers in the nest cup. That means that the female’s warm, bare incubation patch cannot contact all the eggs at once (unlike most birds). Females solve the egg-warming problem by shunting extra blood into their legs and thrusting their warmed legs down through the clutch. Our species in Alaska also lays huge clutches, up to twelve eggs in some cases, and they probably incubate in much the same way.

A walk along the Salmon River brought us to lots of various shorebirds, swallows, and others. A flock of small sandpipers (known as ‘peeps’—I don’t fuss about specific IDs at this time of year, when there are juveniles and molting adults to confuse things) was foraging busily on the mudflats. From behind us, a dark merlin shot down over the flock, trying to nab one for lunch. The attack failed, but one rash and foolish peep was sufficiently annoyed that it chased the merlin into the distance.

A family of barn swallows perched on a cable in the harbor—four fledglings in a row. The parents would fly overhead, carrying insects, and the chicks flew up for aerial feedings. One youngster apparently didn’t like to perch alone, so after a feeding, it would land on the cable and sidle along until it could cuddle closely with a sib.

Other treats were very tasty: wild strawberries yielded to stoop-labor and found their way into strawberry jam—very good on Belgian waffles! Red huckleberries were easy picking and ended up in a fine, fresh huckleberry pie (with a few blueberries for extra color).

One day was spent on the day-boat that cruises up Glacier Bay. South Marble Island was the usual noisy hangout for lots of sea lions and marine birds. For me, the day’s highlight was sighting a female brown bear on a rocky beach with her three small cubs. She was relentlessly and easily rolling boulders, some bigger than her head, and snarfing up whatever crabs or fish or worms were thus exposed. The little cubs clambered around and poked into nooks and crannies, possibly finding a few prey there. But they were, of course, still dependent on mama for milk as their main food, so mama had a huge expense of making milk for three growing cubs (making milk is very costly of energy, as any nursing mother knows). I was told that previous sightings of this family had found the cubs undernourished and the mother quite thin, but on this day they looked better, and things will look up for them when the salmon come in.

The entire visit was bracketed by a comfortable ferry ride and whale shows. As we rounded Pleasant Island on the way in, a small pod of orcas and some humpbacks foraged and loafed, apparently without interfering with each other. On the way back to Juneau, out in Icy Strait, a humpback breached and breached—at least ten times, and then lob-tailed until it was out of our sighting range. Wahoo!

Notes from Gustavus

piddocks, creepers, and a phenomenal feat of swallowing

The good snow was long gone, leaving only some soggy snowplow berms along the roads, where moose and wolves had left their marks, days ago. Our usual occupation on winter walks is finding animal tracks and stories in the snow, but that was obviously not a possibility on this December visit to Gustavus. However, if you turn two curious naturalists loose on the landscape, some things of interest are bound to be discovered.

Here are some of the small things that captured our attention:

–A long series of humps atop the beams and pilings of the fuel dock turned out to be hunched-up great blue herons, pretending to be gargoyles. There were seventeen of them (!), not the record number for one sitting (the record is over twenty), but nevertheless a lot of gargoyles.

–A small flock of white-winged crossbills, calling to each other and flitting from one shore pine to another, sampling the cones. Each bird worked on a cone from above, reaching down over the base of the cone and concentrating on the cone scales close to the tip of the cone, prying open the scales with the crossed bill and extracting the seed. They didn’t spend much time on any one cone but moved quickly on, to sample another one. Were these cones not good providers of sound seeds?

–Beach rye had produced a good seed crop and many seeds had fallen to the sand from the full seed heads. Up north, snow buntings are reported to glean the fallen crop, but who eats them here? The next big tide is likely to wash them all away.

–Piddocks are clams with distinctively curved shells that bear an elongate, flat projection on the inner surface of the shell. That projection serves for the attachment of muscles that are used to torque the whole clam when it burrows into clay or rock. A burrowing piddock can disarticulate its two shells, anchor itself to the substrate with a sucker disc on its foot, and rotate while the two separated shells scrape their way along. Small teeth on the edge of the shells do the grinding (do they sometimes wear out?), possibly with some assistance from chemical secretions. Piddocks are said to live in their burrows their whole lives, enlarging the burrow as they grow. Gustavian beaches are littered with these shells, but I have not found them in Juneau. Why??

–Brown creepers typically forage by hitching up a tree trunk, probing crevices and lichens for small insects and spiders. We found one doing just that, then flying to the base of the next tree and starting upward on that tree. They typically nest behind loose flaps of bark on dead and dying trees, seldom using any other kind of nest site; the bark flap conceals the nest and protects it from severe weather. Once a pair of creepers finds a nest site, they build a little hammock of small twigs and fibers behind the loose bark, and then build a comfortable nest cup of fine materials on the hammock. My friend had found a nest last summer while the adults were feeding chicks, so our curiosity led us to haul out a ladder and climb up to peer behind the bark flap; but the soft materials making the nest cup had disintegrated, leaving just a pile of small bits. The rather specialized nest site makes me wonder how common those favored nest sites might be, and if the distribution of nesting brown creepers might be governed by the availability of good nest sites.

–On the Gustavus dock, several glaucous-winged gulls had harvested sea stars on a low tide, as they often do. We saw one fly up to the dock with a four or five inch sea star in its bill and wondered just how the gull could eat that stiff, prickly, thing with arms sticking out in all directions. So we watched. The gulls repeatedly dropped, then picked up, the star, then finally picked it up and just held it for a long time, with the star’s arms poking out from both sides of its bill. Now what? Well, after almost ten minutes, that sea star simply disappeared down the gull’s gullet. The star must have eventually relaxed, so that the arms folded a bit, allowing it to pass through the gull’s throat and make a big lump in its crop. Even a relaxed star must scratch uncomfortably on the way down. In any case, how much of a sea star is digestible…what makes them worth eating?

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Thanks to Dr. Aaron Baldwin, ADFG, for helpful consultation about piddocks.

Flowery fun in Gustavus

an orchid show, and other floral delights

Lady’s slipper orchids are sometimes called moccasin flowers, referring to the shoe-like shape of the flower. One of the petals is modified to form an oval pouch with an opening on top. The edges of the pouch are rolled inward. A small shield-like structure hangs down into the back of the pouch and behind the shield are the sex organs. The flower offers no nectar to visitors, but at least some species have an attractive aroma.

Bees that visit these flowers enter the pouch, but the rolled-in edges keep them from crawling out. So, once in the pouch, the bees are obliged to crawl up behind the shield, in order to get out again. In doing so, they pass very close to the pollen-receiving stigma, leaving pollen from previously visited flowers, and the pollen-bearing stamens, picking up pollen on their bodies to carry to another flower. A very elaborate system for creating the next generation of lady’s slippers.

After pollination, thousands of dust-like seeds are produced. They are so small that they contain no nutrition for a developing embryo (this is true of orchids in general). Lacking a source of nutrition, the seeds have to rely on forming an association with certain fungi (mycorrhizae), in order to germinate and grow. Lady’s slippers are slow growing and take several years to reach the flowering stage.

There are dozens of species of lady’s slippers in North American and Eurasia. They belong to the genus Cypripedium. This name is derived from some ancient Greek words. Cypris is an old name for Aphrodite (a.k.a. Venus in Latin), the goddess of love and beauty. The ‘ped’ part of the name refers to foot or footwear, sometimes rendered as ‘sandal’. So Cypris/Aphrodite/Venus has a rather large collection of sandals in her wardrobe!

Lady’s slippers were familiar to me, from years spent in the Midwest, but I have never seen them in Juneau. So one of my hopes for a recent Gustavus trip was seeing these in bloom. We’d seen their leaves occasionally in the past, but the plants were not then in flower. On this June trip, with the help of a knowledgeable naturalist there, we located clusters of three species of Cypripedium. There was a large-flowered white one (C. montanum, or mountain lady’s slipper). A small-flowered, round white one with some brownish spots is called C. passerinum (sparrrow’s egg or northern lady’s slipper). A yellow-flowered species has often been classified as a subspecies of C. calceolus, but more recently botanists seem to consider it to be a separate species, C. parviflorum, the small yellow lady’s slipper.

June 22 Cypripedium passerinum Sparrow Egg orchid 2 resize
Cypripedium passerinum, sparrow’s egg lady’s slipper. Photo by Kerry Howard

Lady’s slippers and many other showy orchids are often collected from the wild by willful gardeners. But this practice has led to the near-extinction of some species. The slow-growing habit, low levels of pollination and seed set, and the need for mycorrhizal fungi make recovery of exploited populations slow and difficult. So these plants should never be harvested from their native habitats.

June 22 Cypripedium Yellow Orchid 2 resize
Cypripedium parviflorum, small yellow lady’s slipper. Photo by Kerry Howard

We found other orchids too. Tiny twayblades are much more common in Gustavus than in Juneau. They are pollinated by minute flies and wasps, as Darwin documented long ago. Coralroots and so-called rattlesnake plantain are common in Juneau as well as Gustavus.

Orchids were not the only flower show in town, however. Lupines created hills of blue on the beach dunes. Cow parsnips and buttercups brightened beachside meadows. Roses and irises added splashes of color. One meadow was thoroughly decorated with the small white inflorescences of Tofieldia, which is easier to say than the ponderous common name of sticky false asphodel. Sticky it is—the stem sometimes captures tiny insects. Apparently, some botanists thought the inflorescence resembled the European asphodel, which in Greek mythology grew in the meadows where the souls of the dead walked. Great stretches of forest understory were carpeted by the leaves of deerheart, which sent up its small white spires of flowers, and the nearly-luminous, wide, white flowers of bunchberry (one of my companions is alleged to have said that they lighted the way to the outhouse in the darker hours!).

Indian paintbrush provided the most stunning floral array. Here in Juneau we see some yellow-flowered ones and (especially at higher elevations, I think) a few red-flowered ones. But in Bartlett Cove we found a beach meadow simply covered with paintbrush flowers: yellow, red, orange, particolored, and every combination in between. Quite splendid.

Gustavus meadows

orchids, moonworts, and a plant that gives “live birth”

I recently visited Gustavus for a few days, so I had a chance to do a little exploring on a landscape very different from that of Juneau. After watching, from the convenience of the front deck of the cabin, all the young cedar waxwings (four of ‘em!), song sparrows, tree swallows, robins, hummers, and even two very new, tiny spotted sandpipers in the garden, plus a nest full of barn swallows almost ready to fledge, we set out to poke around in some of the wet meadows that lie on the forelands.

These long, narrow meadows probably occupy old stream beds that crossed the glacial outwash plain before the glaciers retreated to the upper reaches of Glacier Bay. The meadows are now surrounded by young spruce forest, where the mossy forest floor supports thousands upon thousands of twayblade orchids.

The meadows held odd assortments of plants. Nagoonberry and strawberry plants grew abundantly, side by side, with columbine and baneberry and soapberry mixed in, here and there. The plant known as sticky false asphodel was more common than in any other place I’ve explored. Ladyslipper orchids had finished flowering but were developing ripe fruits, and ladies-tresses orchids were in prime bloom. We found a weird fern that is related to the moonworts, which were reputed to have a variety of supernatural powers; among other things, they could make you invisible and unlock doors! These kinds of ferns bear all the spores on one shoot, not on the fronds like typical ferns.

Moonwort. Photo by Pam Bergeson

The small plant known as alpine bistort is not restricted to alpine areas, apparently, but the specimens here were considerably large than those I’ve seen on Mt Roberts. This little plant is distinguished by being ‘viviparous’, meaning that it produces ‘living’ young, as opposed to seeds or eggs. The lower flowers on the stem produce bulblets, which are capable of sprouting while still on the mother plant. When they drop from the mother plant, the young plants will be just like the mother, genetically, unlike offspring coming from seeds. A very unusual habit, which makes me wonder why it does so.

As we wandered along, we were roundly scolded by a greater yellowlegs, perched on top of the shore pines; it probably had a nest or chicks nearby. Moose had browsed the highbush cranberry bushes and perhaps a porcupine had nibbled the dwarf fireweeds. Sticklebacks darted about in a rivulet. And we found an abandoned winter nest of a vole, nestled on top of the moss; of course it was blanketed in snow in the winter.

Perhaps the most captivating find was a good population of long-leaf sundews, which are far less common than the round-leaf species. The round-leafs can be found by the millions in many meadows and muskegs, but the long-leafs tend to be concentrated on relatively barren ground, often near a pond, and are much less widely distributed. The fascinating thing was that the long-leafs had captured lots of insect prey on their sticky leaves, and the leaves were folded over as the successful captors digested the prey. In contrast, most of the round-leafs held no insects. Now why would that be so?

Some other sightings of interest: in the young spruce forest near the meadows, there was one very large hemlock tree, which must have got started before the smaller spruces. Usually hemlocks come in after the spruces, which favor mineral soils for germination and establishment. A big old hemlock amid all the young spruces was unusual. In another place, way down toward the beach where alders and tiny spruces have moved in, we found a single birch tree, a bit lonely in a stand of alders. It seemed very out of place there. If only it could tell us its story!

Just inside the edge of the forest, we found a yellow slime mold, with a brown slug wedged into one side. I presumed that the slug was eating the slime mold, and not vice versa—but who could tell?

That’s just a sample of things we found on our little voyage of discovery. As always, there were many observations of interest to curious naturalists, and our little explorations are always rewarding.

Walking Gustavus beaches

predator leavings, big snails, and boring clams

A recent walk with two friends on some of the great sandy beaches of Gustavus provided several observations of interest. The four-footed friend probably had the advantage of us mere humans, because she could sniff many messages that were beyond our ken. Nevertheless, the curious-naturalist humans found much to see and discuss.

A line of wolf tracks followed the upper edge of the sand, steadily headed…somewhere. One huge wolf scat held remains of a murre, probably scavenged from a carcass, and another was made up mostly of clay, with a few feathers. Do wolves self-medicate with clay, as some birds do (to counter toxins in their food)?

There was evidence that predatory birds had feasted on murres, mallards, and a loon. Owls and eagles undoubtedly accounted for some of these avian remains. But also, perched on a log within distant binocular range was a slim, gray bird that we thought might be a peregrine falcon. Some owl pellets held the bones of voles, including skulls with teeth, which made identification of the prey relatively easy. A set of vole molars looks, on the grinding surface, like a row of tightly packed triangles; this is quite different from the cusped molars of deer mice, for example. Perhaps I needn’t have bothered to look closely, though: I was interested to learn, from a well-known naturalist in Gustavus, that deer mice are scarce over there, for reasons undetermined.

Scattered along the sand were several strongly ridged, giant snail shells, the biggest whelks I’ve ever seen. These specimens were four or five inches long, but they are said to reach a length of seven inches or so. They belong to the genus Neptunea, but the species name is still undetermined, thanks to some taxonomic confusions. They hang out in the sediments but emerge to travel, feed, and lay their eggs. Neptuneas make their living by drilling (with their file-like radulas) into the shells of other molluscs and slurping out the contents, eating polychaete worms, and by scavenging dead and dying critters. Females produce masses of egg capsules that are spread over rocks and in rocky crevices. Each capsule contains about two thousand eggs, but many of these are not fated to become juvenile snails, because they are eaten by their siblings. After developing inside the protective capsule for many months, well-fed young snails emerge.

Clam shells were everywhere, mostly horse clams. But on one beach we found deeply arched clam shells, each with a pronounced internal projection, for muscle attachment, near the hinge. This beast was entirely new to me, so my learning curve took a jump. These clams are called piddocks (Zirfaea pilsbryi). Piddocks and some other bivalve molluscs burrow into the substrate using their shell as augers; piddocks make their tunnels in clay, sand, or even rock (!). The sharp, jagged teeth on the front part of the shell slowly rasps away, back and forth, as the piddock rotates, eventually making a full circle, only to start over on the next round. Their tunnels can be over a foot long, so their siphons (or the so-called neck: the paired tubes, one of which is used for breathing and drawing in food particles, and the other for excreting wastes) are substantial. If the piddock is eating well and grows as it slowly burrows, the first part of the tunnel becomes too small for the clam to back out, and it can only go forward.

Piddock (Zirfaea pilsbryi). Photo by K. Hocker

I am not a marine biologist of any sort, but I love finding out more about this unfamiliar world.

A quick visit to Gustavus

…a change of place

When the ferries are running, it’s an easy ride to Gustavus: about four and a half hours, usually, with chance of seeing Dall’s porpoises and other marine critters. The ferry often has a Monday-Wednesday schedule, which makes a quick two-night visit quite possible. The great, wide sandy beaches over there are a big draw; they offer a very different habitat from anything here in Juneau and therefore the possibility of seeing different animals, and it’s easy walking, too.

I made a visit there in mid-January. My naturalist friend had set a trail camera at a place where moose habitually cross a wet ditch, carving deep, narrow trails in the banks. The camera captured plenty of moose images, including mamas with calves. One image showed a very odd thing down in one corner, and for a long time we couldn’t figure it out. Then my clever friend got it: ‘twas the rear end of a duck, dabbling in the ditch in the dark of the night. All we could see was an end-on view of the tail with crossed wingtips above. Very odd-looking, indeed.

Out on the grassy flats where spruces have begun to colonize, we found owl pellets, probably of a short-eared owl, containing tiny mammal bones and a shiny beetle. We noticed that clumps of young spruces often seemed to grow on low mounds, where drainage might be better than in the swales. But do they need to grow on these slightly elevated places? Apparently not, because we found a number of very small spruces getting started in the low spots. So maybe a clump of little trees makes its own mound when needles and twigs are shed, or the branches intercept wind-driven dust and silt??

On the sandy beach, we enjoyed following the tracks of a raven fossicking in the tidal wrack and digging up some treasure from the wet sand. There weren’t many mollusk shells left below the high tide line, but I did find one nice piddock shell; just one, though, a contrast with last summer when there were many. Piddocks are burrowing clams, with a jagged edge on the shell for scraping a way into wood or packed sand or even soft rock. Other shells were scarce too: a few whelks in good condition, and some cockles and ordinary clams.

We made a brief foray into one of those long meadows that eventually drain out onto the beaches. Moose tracks going every which way, of course; moose are really common over there. Wolves had gone single-file as they entered the meadow and then fanned out, leaving their big paw prints on the way to the beach.

A rivulet that meandered through the meadow had some open water, despite the recent low temperatures. Peering down into the openings of the ice, we could see amphipods, caddisfly larvae, a diving beetle, and a couple of very small juvenile salmonids that quickly dashed for cover. The water temperature couldn’t have been much above freezing, yet all these critters were active.

We returned to the car on a game trail through the woods. Many critters used this trail, at least in places: moose, wolf, coyote, and best of all, a wolverine that had gone from the trail to the meadow, leaving nice clear footprints. Later, we went back to set the trail camera in this area and hope for some good videos. Along the road, we chanced upon a flock of pine grosbeaks, busily foraging on seeds (more on this next week).

Photo by Cheryl Cook

Back at the house, looking out on a bend of the Salmon River, we were treated to a small parade of trumpeter swans: a pair of adults, then another pair with a handsome gray cygnet. They pulled out on a gravel bar a little way downstream and so gave us a good look at them. An uncommon sight here in winter, although much of the Alaska-nesting population winters along the coast in various places. The swans have the interesting habit of incubating their eggs on their enormous feet, rather than in a featherless incubation patch on the adult’s belly, and both male and female can incubate. Cygnets keep some of their gray juvenile plumage into their second year, becoming fully white-feathered by the next year. Although occasionally they may pair up and start nesting when they are two or three years old, this does not unusually happen until they are about four years old.