What is there to see?

the art of noticing among the familiar

The Boy Scout/Crow Point trail is one that some of us walk several times a year. We get to know every rise and turn pretty well. One might think that a trail so familiar could not offer much in the way of interest. Yet it does, regularly—at least to those of us who look for things to pique and tweak the curiosity. Every season brings different things to be noticed.

One day in late August, as we emerged from the forested part of the trail, a ruckus arose out over the river behind us, somewhere near the Eagle Beach State Park parking lot. A horde of noisy crows took to the air and circled over the river, along with numerous gulls, and then disappeared from sight. I’ve never seen so many crows in a flock; there were at least a thousand of them (no exaggeration!). What would draw so many crows to that particular spot, and what would send them all up and away in such a flurry?

A little way before the junction where the Boy Scout trail splits off from the Crow Point trail, we commonly see a little flower that blooms late in the summer. On this day, there were just buds, some of them ready to open and show off the light blue, star-shaped flower. This small annual plant is known as star gentian (in one field guide) or marsh felwort (in another). It seems to favor areas of sparse, low vegetation, and we see it close to the trail. I’ve not noticed it elsewhere around here, although maybe I’ve just not been in the right place at the right time of year. Unfortunately, I have not found any information about its pollination biology, but I’d love to see what insects visit the flowers.

Recent high tides had stranded dozens of chum salmon carcasses and a few body parts alongside the trail and sloughs, which still harbored lively spawners. Many carcasses seemed to have spawned before they were stranded. The carcasses were interesting because all but one of them had intact skulls. However, several bodies had been ripped open, eggs taken from unspawned females, and a good portion of the muscle eaten. If bears had been feeding here, I would have expected to see some skulls opened up so the bears could eat the brains, which are full of fat (every neuron is coated with it). That’s what we often see at Steep Creek, especially on male salmon, which—lacking succulent eggs—have the next best stuff in the braincase. So when a bear happens to catch a male salmon, if it doesn’t reject the fish outright, it often crunches the skull for the brains. But that didn’t happen to these chum salmon by the sloughs. Those with torn-up bodies were, I presume, ripped up by birds—eagles and ravens, probably; they and gulls also took the eyes, as usual.

As we wandered out into the big flat meadow, we noticed an unusually heavy infestation of ergot on the beach rye. This fungus sends up conspicuous blackish spikes from the seed heads in late summer. It’s hallucinogenic and is thought to have been responsible, historically, for such madnesses as witch hunts; rye grain was commonly used for bread, especially by poor folks. In some stands of beach rye, there were twelve to fifteen ergot spikes on a single seed head and ninety-nine percent of the seed heads had at least one, while other stands had little infestation.

On the approach to the south-facing beach, near the edge of one of the spruce groves, there were yellowish, small piles of seed fragments and the occasional dropped seed. They lay beside the empty seed pods of chocolate lily. I’m guessing that a red squirrel ventured out of its grove and made a small feast of these seeds.

Little mixed flocks of sparrows fossicked about for grass seeds in the meadows, while some migrating warblers flitted in the bordering trees. I always enjoy that stand of red alders festooned with beautiful draperies of old-man’s-beard lichens, especially when high-lighted by an errant shaft of sunlight. Bright red fruits of baneberry, elderberry, and highbush cranberry made spots of color at the forest edge.

tussock-moth-with-spots-2
Tussock moth caterpillar. Photo by Bob Armstrong

I harvested a few of those so-called cranberries (they are not even related to true cranberries), with the thought of making some of that savory ketchup. When I spread out my collection on the kitchen counter in order to pick out some little stems and leaves that had found their way into my stash, I found a tiny hairy caterpillar, the kind that most of us call ‘woolly bears’. And that reminds me to say that these caterpillars with broad black and orange bands are not true woolly bears. They belong to another genus entirely (Lophocampa), distinguished from true woolly bears (genus Pyrrharctica) by the long white plumes emerging from the black bands. Both are the larvae of tiger moths but they tend to eat different kinds of leaves. The proper common name of the black and orange caterpillar in our area is the spotted tussock moth. What? Our caterpillars don’t (usually) have spots! But reportedly, in some areas, this species sports a row of black spots on its all-yellow back. And even some of our local specimens show some black spots on the orange/yellow band. In fact, the color pattern is extraordinarily variable across North America, for reasons unknown. Another mystery, for someone to unravel…

Highbush cranberry

a worthy berry…and a mysterious fungus

Autumn in Juneau can be a bit difficult—shortening days, lots of rain (in my neighborhood, there has been much more than the official numbers!—flowers on my deck actually got moldy), migrating songbirds flocking up and leaving us for the south, the end of the flowering season. But there is always (at least) one outdoor thing I look forward to—the ripening of highbush cranberries. And this year there was a bumper crop.

One thing should be made clear here at the beginning: high bush cranberries are not cranberries and they are not even related to true, bog cranberries. Bog cranberries (and domestic cranberries) are related to blueberries; they thrive in muskegs, their frail little vine-like stems crawl over the moss, and the seeds are tiny. The so-called highbush cranberries grow on whippy shrubs up to ten or more feet tall, have big, flat seeds, and are related to honeysuckles and elderberry. What the two kinds of ‘cranberries’ have in common is a tart flavor and a brilliant red color when ripe.

Bog cranberries are good-tasting and useful for making a holiday drink or sauce for turkey, but it’s a lot of stoop-labor to harvest them. I like the highbush cranberries for several reasons: the shrubs are decorative much of the year, from the showy clusters of white flowers in early summer to the scarlet leaves and berries in fall. Harvesting them is much easier—no stooping. The berries are reported to have high levels of vitamin C and antioxidants. And, although they too can be made into holiday drinks and jelly, even better, to my taste, is the pungent, savory ketchup that some of us like to make (and especially eat!). The ketchup is good on fish and other meats, potatoes, cheese sandwiches, and no doubt other things still to be tried.

The university extension service website has a list of publications, and one of these features highbush cranberries. Look for the article by Dinstel and Johnson in 2011, labeled as FNH-00112. You’ll find some good recipes there.

We are not the only ones who like highbush cranberries. We see evidence on the trails that bears have eaten good numbers of them, but, oddly, many of the berries pass through their digestive tract whole. Birds can eat them, but smaller birds would spit out the big seed. Being eaten by a vertebrate is how the seeds are moved around the landscape; the lucky ones germinate and grow into new shrubs. In some areas of Alaska, the twigs are sometimes an important source of browse for moose, too.

One day last year I walked the Herbert River trail with a friend, and we noticed something new to us. Some of the highbush cranberry bushes along the trail had strange, rough-surfaced, dark, lumpy cankers on the stem. One of the Forest Service forest pathologists at the Juneau Forestry Sciences Lab very kindly followed up on this observation, sending the specimens to a genetics lab for identification. It turns out to be a rust fungus (Puccinia linkii) that is also reported from highbush cranberry shrubs in western Canada and elsewhere. This rust can overwinter in infected stems or on infected leaves that have dropped to the forest floor, sending out spores that start new infections on leaves, flowers, stems, and berries in spring. Spores are can be produced on any of these infected plant parts, facilitating further disease spread throughout the growing season; some leaves become conspicuously dotted with numerous spore-bearing bodies. Spores spread when blown about by the wind or rain-splash. Interestingly, the common stem infections in the Juneau area are apparently rare or undocumented elsewhere, as this fungus normally only or primarily affects the foliage .

viburnum-rust-old-canker-lvs
Photo by Robin Mulvey

Research in British Columbia has shown than this rust infection can affect the shrub in several ways. Berry production is reduced, and the berries that do develop contain less sugar than normal. Heavily infected leaves die off early, so the plant loses some ability to synthesize carbohydrates, and infected twigs are likely to die an early death too.

The FSL forest pathologist, Robin Mulvey, has so far mapped the occurrence of this fungus at several spots in the Juneau area from the Valley to Out the Road, but not south of the Valley. She is interested to learn of other sites with infected highbush cranberry shrubs. If you see signs of this rust fungus on highbush cranberries in Juneau or elsewhere in Southeast, please notify her at rlmulvey@fs.fed.us or 586-7971.