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.

rufous-hummingbird-by-bob-armstrong
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?

Advancing spring

returning migrants, early blossoms, and more

Ever so slowly, spring is creeping up on us. Although my terraced rock ‘gardens’ are still well-buried in snow (but less so, since I shoveled off a foot or two), the ice on my pond is perceptibly thinner. The seemingly endless sunny days (in Juneau?!?) are helping, but the night-time temperatures, at least at my house, are still freezing. The ice on Mendenhall Lake is quite thick—in the middle, but near the edge it is not reliable. There was much consternation on a recent Parks and Rec hike, when a new hiker ventured out on the ice and fell in. He swam through crumbling ice to shore, where he was quickly required to shed at least some of his soaked clothes and don borrowed raiment.

Some good things are happening. The hummingbirds are back, hovering around some folks’ feeders. There’s a dearth of flowers with nectar, so they must be eating mostly insects and spiders, plus the sugar syrup in the feeders. I’ve heard red-breasted sapsuckers squealing their nasal call, so they have returned. Robins are back again, too, in flocks on the beaches and, as singletons, clucking and fussing and starting to sing in treetops. Song sparrows are singing in the thickets near the shores. Just after Easter, I saw the first golden-crowned sparrow at my seed feeder, looking chubby but eating as fast as its bill could go.

Recent explorations around Eastertime turned up more signs of progress.

On the big rock peninsula across from the Visitor Center, we found the first purple mountain saxifrage in bloom, with lots more to come. Out near Nugget Falls, crevices in the cliffs held the first green fronds of the rusty cliff fern and parsley fern. Nearby, a single flower of purple mountain saxifrage peeked out of its leafy clump. Elsewhere, skunk cabbage is up, in places, and should soon be swarming with the little brown beetles that come there to mate, and incidentally pollinate the flowers.

The goats around the glacier are still foraging at low elevations, but they seem to be slowly working their way up to their summer grounds. Hooters are sounding off on the hillsides. We are starting to see queen bumblebees zooming around, gathering food for their first brood of larvae. Willow catkins are a good source of pollen for the bees.

A trip to the Boy Scout beach area yielded a broad expanse where geese had grubbed for roots and shoots. There were also some mysterious craters in one area, some of them at least a foot deep. Could they be evidence of early prowlings of a brown bear? That’s a question, because a keen local naturalist has suggested that brown bears may dig deeper holes than black bears, when they’re after roots.

Over on Douglas, the snow was still impressively deep. The Dan Moller cabin was still buried at Eastertime; a very narrow defile led down to the outhouse door. A little meander over some mid-elevation muskegs (on snowshoes) showed us that deer had been regularly moving from one tree well to another. Snow at the tree bases had melted had melted, exposing several feet of actual vegetation-covered ground (several feet down!). We guessed that the deer were foraging on dwarf dogwood and trailing raspberry leaves, and perhaps lichens as well, with snacks of blueberry twigs in between.

Wild crabapple trees grew at the edge of several small muskegs. They provided us with a nice puzzle. The bigger, older trunks had cracked, scaly bark, and almost every one had been visited by some creature that scaled off flakes of bark, exposing the lighter-colored wood or new bark beneath. And most of those light-colored patches were dotted with up to four tiny, conical pits. Our best guess was that a three-toed woodpecker had been foraging, whacking off the bark scales in search of whatever small invertebrates might be hiding there. Indeed, two days later, I saw one of those birds in the same general area, drumming on a dead spruce. But what are those little pits? Could they be marks where a woodpecker’s sharp bill had stabbed at a bug startled by the sudden removal of its bark shelter?

A walk out to Bridget Point involved lots of post-holing and some wading in the little canal that forms on the trail in the lowlands. A woodpecker was drumming, which led to a big discussion about how to tell the drumming patterns of different species apart. It clearly was not a sapsucker, but distinguishing several other species proved to be dicey, even with the aid of helpful programs on convenient hand-held electronics. There were rewards in seeing a northern shrike perched atop a spruce, hearing a pygmy owl calling, and glimpsing a few of the first ruby-crowned kinglets. I didn’t hear them sing, however, until the next day, when spring could then ‘officially’ begin.