Bits and pieces in early April

encounters and observations

The first week of April brought us a little snowfall on several days. My home pond is still ice-covered, firm enough to support several transits by a big, galloping dog. The new berms are shrinking at last, and the one under my deck shows the old tunnels made by a neighboring squirrel in search of spilled seeds. One of my (indoor) cats is a regular window-shopper for squirrels, but one day his ears were unusually perked and he was very intently focused on something not far away. So of course I looked out that window—and saw a shrew exploring the old squirrel tunnels. The cat may not have seen one of those before, so his curiosity was roused.

Out on my deck, I’ve spread some bird seed on the railing, a temporary offering until I can restore the feeder than hangs over the pond. The winter gang of juncos is reduced to just a few (mostly males) and flocks are still seen in some places, although some can be heard singing and getting ready to mate; it seems like the juncos collectively aren’t quite ready for spring. The chickadees are fewer too, presumably setting territories somewhere. A pair of nuthatches seems to be resident and I hope they will raise another brood this year. Sometime in March, I began to see a pine siskin—just one. (How often does one ever see just one of them??). For two or three weeks, there was just one, and then suddenly there were two; an occasional third one was quickly chased off. Could they be nesting nearby?

A walk on the dike trail at low tide revealed a sizable flock of juncos; these were not yet setting up territories and advertising for mates. A loose flock of robins moved about in the grass, not settling long in any spot. On the river, eight or ten buffleheads, both males and females, kept together, occasionally diving but never straying far from the others. Dozens of mallards loafed on a sandbar, a few swimming desultorily just offshore. Not far from them was a very different duck, diving regularly. The bright russet head and upper neck suggested perhaps a Redhead; I did not see a pale crown stripe that would name it a European widgeon. Several trail-walkers notice a large, white bird, floating all alone, in a lagoon way across the river. We couldn’t tell which species of swan it was. Although tundra swans go to the far north for nesting, trumpeters don’t go so far and sometimes nest near the north end of Lynn Canal.

Photo by Kerry Howard

Along the Outer Point/Rainforest trails, wrens and varied thrushes were singing. A red-breasted sapsucker energetically tapped on a dead tree, sending out notices of his presence and readiness for the season. Not far away, I noticed a fallen hemlock trunk with old sapsucker wells all in a tidy vertical row. I’ve previously seen arrays of sapsucker wells that occupied patches of ten or twenty square inches on some trees. But those trees were willows and alders, which have smoother bark than hemlocks. So maybe the vertical row of wells was opportunistically exploiting a channel between thick bark ridges where the bark was thinner.

Sapsucker wells. Photo by Mary Willson

On the way down to the beach, a loud rattle was soon accompanied by a second one, not far away. It soon became apparent that two kingfishers were having a serious discourse, just above the tree canopy. They did not visit the rocks at the waters’ edge but went somewhere else, out of sight. Out on the beach, no mermaid’s purses (embryo cases of skates) had yet appeared in the washed-up piles of seaweed, although in other years they sometimes have shown up about this time. Just off-shore, a seal floated by on its back, sculling slowly along with just its nose and chin above water. Oddly, that seal was the only visible vertebrate critter in the bay; usually that place is more active.

Mendenhall Lake is still frozen and a few risk-taking skiers have been seen out there. The gulls are already circling and calling above the lake, contemplating a return to their nesting places on the west-side rocks, and then flying back out to sea–for now.

On a rainy day, the Boy Scout trail was a very quiet place. In grassy meadows, red berries of an herb sometimes called (very inappropriately) false lily of the valley or mayflower lay on the ground, awaiting the arrival of migrant thrushes that would gobble them down and disperse the seeds. Beach rye showed greenish shoots a few inches tall. Geese arrived in pairs, but there was one loner; eventually they all grazed together peaceably. I suspect these geese are our resident ones, already paired up. Gulls loafed on sand bars or frolicked in the water nearby. A scattering of big, empty horse clam shells dotted the lower beach. A flock of fairly small, apparently black birds with white wing patches whizzed by and may have been pigeon guillemots, although this seems a bit early for them. Two immature eagles were wading in the shallows while adults perched high in the trees. Not a single raven invited itself to a picnic lunch on the beach.

To end the week on a cheering note: the temperatures at my house crept up over fifty degrees for the first time this year.


Field notes

and the games we play with animal names

Most of my recent trail walks have produced little sign of wildlife activity. But on a stroll in the Dredge Lake area, I saw a river otter in a bit of open water near the inlet of the Holding Pond. It soon dove under the ice and came up near the outlet, where the creek flows out to the river. I’ve seen otters here in other winters too and suspect they come up from the river to see if there are any fish to be had, not staying long. And at Point Louisa, there are sometimes scoters, goldeneyes, buffleheads, harlequins.

Over on north Douglas, a tight little bunch of sea lions surged past the boat ramp. A friend and I cruised the Outer Point/Rainforest loops while falling snow quickly covered lots of squirrel tracks. There were a few fresh tracks of a small bird, perhaps a junco, in the snow at the edge of the meadow. A big vole or a mouse had bounded across a gap between clumps of grass on the upper beach, making a leap of about seven inches. Goldeneyes nibbled along the rocks at the edge of the water and, a bit offshore, a little bunch of harlequins dove. Back in the woods, a wren darted out from under a foot bridge into a brushy tangle and then under a big log, not to be seen again.

That little wren is known as the Pacific wren, but it used to be called the winter wren, part of a species that nests widely across North America (and in Eurasia too). But taxonomists got busy and decided that these were really three different species, so they split the old classification and assigned new names. Now there’s the Eurasian wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), the Pacific wren (T. pacificus) that nests along the Pacific coast and in the Pacific Northwest, and the winter wren (T. hiemalis) that nests in the northern part of the eastern U.S. and adjacent Canada—but with a long westward extension of the breeding range out to northern British Columbia, where it overlaps with the Pacific wren.

Pacific wren. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Most of us could not tell these North American species apart by sight, although the Pacific wren is somewhat darker. But the vocalizations are known to be different. Where the ranges overlap in B. C., males of different song types held territories next to each other. Furthermore, singers of the different songs have different genetics, different enough to justify splitting them into separate species. Now we need information on what the females are doing…selecting males that match their own type?

And the taxonomists may have fun with another bird, known to us as Steller’s jay. Bird-watchers have noted the existence of plumage variation in various parts of the species’ range: Coastal jays have short black crests, blue forehead streaks, no eyebrow mark. Interior jays are similar but have a white eyebrow mark. Rocky Mountain jays have a long black crest and white marks on forehead and eyebrow. (In addition, jays in Guatemala and southern Mexico have blue, not black, crests.)

Coastal Steller’s jay. Photo by Kerry Howard

Geneticists got to work on comparing the Rocky Mountain jays with the Coastal/Interior jays and found significant genetic differences. That pair of populations is at least as different genetically as other pairs that are now accepted as different species: for instance, alder and Traill’s flycatchers, red-breasted and red-naped sapsuckers, white-crowned and white-throated sparrows. Furthermore, the Rocky Mountain jays occupy areas with different vegetation, a different climatic regime, and probably had a different history during glacial times.

So the researchers suggested some new names, perhaps officially becoming names of separate species. The Rocky Mountain forms might be called the long-crested jay (or perhaps the long-crested Steller’s jay), while the coastal/interior forms might be called the blue-fronted jay (or the blue-fronted Steller’s jay). More distinctions probably lurk down the taxonomic road!

Why bother with such distinctions?

From a scholarly perspective: sometimes, when we compare two very similar things (in this case, species), we discover that some tiny, subtle difference is actually not subtle at all but has significant ramifications for ecology and behavior. These discoveries expand our understanding. Furthermore, if two populations are sufficiently different to rank as separate species, they are capable of evolving in different, independent, directions, acquiring new, distinctive traits. Discovering those new directions increases our understanding of the ecological system.

In directly practical matters, distinguishing related but separate species is a useful tool for conservation: population trends can be monitored separately, not obscured by whatever is happening in the whole taxonomic complex. In this era of massive declines in many populations, it is useful to know how each population is faring.


observations in snow, mist, rain, and sun

A good snowfall in early November drew us out to enjoy the brightened landscape and see what we could see. Before we got very far, we crossed the trail of a very small porcupine that had travelled for many yards as if it had a known destination despite its presumed lack of experience.

Our route of choice for this first wintry walk was the beach on the west side of Mendenhall Lake., which is walkable when the water level is low. Snow clung decoratively to alder twigs and cones (and built up huge cakes under my cleats). At the upper edge of the beach, we found two big ice-boulders, presumably rounded remnants of ice bergs cast up by the jokulhlaup a couple of weeks ago.

The creeks that come down to the west side of the lake were still open and flowing, although crossing them was easy. At one creek edge, a little plaza of ice had made a dining table for mink: There were scuffle marks, a few blood stains, and lots of mink tracks. Some small fish had made that mink happy.

Then the weather changed, temperatures rose, and the rains came, destroying the lovely snow. Fog settled down over the valleys and the channel, turning the visual world into shades of gray. From the east side of Mendenhall Lake, we could see lots of recent icebergs parked partway down the lake. The blue reflections from the denser ice were the only bright spots of color visible on the landscape. An eagle hunched down, just resting, on a high cliff not far from Nugget Falls. A great blue heron stood motionless in the shallows at the edge of the lake, presumably hoping a little fish would wander by. A gray bird on a gray lakeshore with a gray and white backdrop.

Photo by Katherine Hocker

On my home pond, the ice cover thinned but still supported several mallards that gobble up seeds that fall from the overhead feeder. They often rest in open water just below the dam—maybe watching that feeder for signs that the little birds are shaking out some seeds. Then they slide over the dam and hustle out to the place where seeds fall. When that is cleaned up, they march up and down the pond, to the open water at the inlet and back to the fallen-seed place. As the inflow of the stream slowly melts a channel through the ice, the ducks swim along the edges of the channel, nibbling at the edge of the ice (perhaps some edible bits are there??).

Beavers in the Dredge Lake area had been quiet, but their activity resumed with the warmer weather. A Beaver Patrol trail-cam captured an adult beaver hauling branches out to its winter cache, taking time to nibble a twig, while an observant youngster watched closely. A half-culvert that had been ignored for many weeks was suddenly packed full of brush and weeds. Almost as soon as the Beaver Patrol removed all that stuff, by the next day the beavers had crammed the culvert full again. Usually, by mid-November, beaver activity has shut down for the winter, but not this year.

The Beaver Patrol team had a treat at the Holding Pond one day; a dipper was foraging by the outflow and did not want to leave; eventually it moved across the pond to a small inflow area and foraged in the shallows. I had not seen a dipper here for a long time, although in some previous winters I could find them here fairly frequently, when the water was at least partly ice-free.

A few days later, the skies were blue, and all that sunshine required a walk that took advantage of it, so we went to Eagle Beach State Rec Area. The brilliant sun was so low in the sky that shadows were extra-long—a small hill across the broad river cast a long shadow over the wide river and across the big meadow near the parking lot. The river had done more serious erosion of the bank by the big meadow. All the gulls were parked out on the farthest edges of the sand flats, at the water’s edge. No importunate ravens came to our picnic lunch on the beach, but the frost patterns were gorgeous. And a touch of sun-warming was welcome on a frosty day.

Walking out on the tide flats, we found lots of goose tracks and eventually saw a dozen geese resting on a distant sand bar. A big muddy channel was littered with thousands of horse clam shells; there are probably some live ones buried in that mud somewhere. In a very small muddy channel, mixed with some goose prints, there were recent tiny tracks of a shorebird (with three front toes and no hind toe), but the track-maker was not to be seen.

Bricolage for October

bear tracks, fish eggs, and mountain ash

A walk down the Boy Scout Camp trail was notable for the near-absence of birds—no geese out in the big meadow, no gulls on or over the sandbars in the broad estuary, no eagles perched on stumps or trees, no ducks fiddling about in the shallow or resting on the sands. Very odd! On the way back to the car, we saw two or three gulls flying around and one eagle on a snag. Where is everybody??

The most interesting observations were the tracks in the sandy slough of a mama bear and a cub, who had wandered along there before heading over to the forest. Around the edges of the meadow, in several places, we found groups of dug-up lovage plants, leaving reddish stems behind–Bear-digs, for sure, maybe done by the track-makers. Strangely, we found no scat piles in any of these places.

We paused for a snack on the beach and, of course, the opportunistic ravens were there almost immediately. One was clearly dominant over the other, racing in to grab proffered bits and leaving the other one to complain in the background. Only rarely could the one in the background scoot around to grab a morsel.

Back at my home pond, a pair of female-plumaged mallards had been consorting all through September, occasionally joined by a third. (I assumed they were the same ones—they got very used to my daily disturbances at the bird feeders nearby). I was becoming convinced that they really were females, because I’d seen many males elsewhere in good breeding dress. But in early October, I began to notice subtle differences between the two regulars. Oooops! One of those girls is a guy! He’s just now starting to show a touch of green on the head and a shading of rusty color on his chest. This fellow is far behind many other males; maybe he is much younger? And will the other one eventually turn into a male also? A hint maybe came a few days later, when there were four males on the pond, all just beginning to show breeding plumage.

A break in the clouds and in the tourist traffic encouraged me to check out Steep Creek. The coho were in, and from the footbridge I watched a tattered female hover persistently over a stretch of gravel, probably guarding a nest. Off to one side, in a quiet pool, there were ten or so big fish, all lined up very close together and facing downstream. A couple of Dolly Vardens huddled with the coho for well over an hour. My companions suggested that they might be having a committee meeting, deciding what to do. That huddle was a puzzle—the eagle perched on the bridge railing was long gone, and so was a dog that splashed into the water on the other side of the creek. What was that huddle about?

Dippers were foraging on the lower creek and near the footbridge, swimming where necessary and wading in the shallows, poking occasionally at some potential prey. I was hoping to see them pick up some drifting salmon eggs, but no luck. They often snatch up loose eggs, such tasty bite-sized morsels. They aren’t the only ones to feast on them…Dollies hang out by spawning females and gobble up the eggs, and eagles eat them in gobs from captured female salmon.

Photo by Matt Knutson

A friend reported seeing varied thrushes and robins foraging on mountain ash berries, observing that the birds had stuffed themselves but then became uncommonly still. If the berries are now fermented, perhaps the birds were a bit drunk and not steady enough to fly. That often happens late in a warm season. Some decades ago, in late summer back in Illinois, people would bring robins and waxwings to my lab, thinking they were sick. So I’d put the invalids in big cages, give them ordinary food and water, and leave them in peace. By the next day, they had recovered from their alcoholic binge and were ready to head out the window for more. Bird-doctoring was easy in such cases.

That foraging observation triggered other thoughts too. The mountain ash berry crops are huge this year; the trees just droop with the weight of the ripe fruits. But several folks have commented to me that they don’t see the usual gangs of fruit-eating birds taking advantage of the bounty this year. And others have remarked that they just don’t see many small birds at all, in contrast to previous autumns. The fall weather has been unseasonably warm; perhaps there will be an influx of fruit-eaters later? There is a huge, worrisome decline in avian abundance in North America and elsewhere that’s been taking place over the years, and more and more species are at risk of extinction. Is the paucity of local autumn observations part of that general decline or some more idiosyncratic, regional trend?

Photo by Kerry Howard

Cottonwood trees near the lower part of the Perseverance Trail were nearly leafless, their branches beautifully emphasized by fog. Farther up the valley, smaller cottonwoods graced the hillsides with shining golden leaves. As the fog lifted, it left drops of water on leaves and twigs, and the coming sunshine picked them out as points of silver.

Notes from early June

observations of the season and its activities

One day in early June, I looked out my front window and there was a large, black animal chowing down horsetail. This guy was very big, well-upholstered, glossy and handsome. After a long lunch, he got up and ambled off into the woods. The mating season was on, and I reckon he was out cruising for ready females. No sensible, seasonally-ready lady bear would turn down this fellow!

The crowd of mallards that used my home pond in spring was gone; just one male hung around every day, loafing and sampling seeds that fell from the overhanging bird feeder. That male is still in his snazzy breeding plumage, unlike other males (which are molting) that visit the pond occasionally. One female started returning to the pond, but without a train of ducklings. She (I assume it was the same one) came back every day, spending time next to the male, feeding on fallen seeds and whatever else, and resting with the male under an overhanging tree. I’m guessing that she lost her first clutch of eggs; could she be thinking of a replacement clutch—but it’s rather late. And I hope the other females that were here earlier bring their broods to the pond, as usually happens.

Juvenile birds of several species were appearing in the first week of June. New broods of mallards appeared on Dredge Creek and Kingfisher Pond. I also saw well-grown juveniles of robins and juncos, managing quite competently by themselves; maybe their parents were starting second broods. Best of all, the chickadees that nested in a box near my driveway are now feeding fledglings, carrying gobbets of peanut butter to at least two young ones that are now on the far side of the pond.

A little hike up toward the first meadow on the Spaulding trail was greeted by loud alarm calls of a greater yellowlegs who owned a small chain of muskeg-meadows. The alarms continued until I sat down on a log and became part of the landscape, and presently, I heard it calling from a nearby large muskeg. I was glad to see this bird, which I used to see in various other muskegs where bird habitat has now been wrecked by ATV traffic. Yellowlegs nest on the ground, often at the base of a small tree or mossy hummock, so I watched my feet carefully. The nest is a small cup in the moss, typically lined with little dead leaves, lichens, and sedges. The foraging habits of this ‘shorebird’ are best known from intertidal zones, where they capture invertebrates and small fish, but they also forage in muskeg and other fresh-water ponds, taking immature dragonflies and aquatic bugs and beetles.

Greater yellowlegs. Photo by Bob Armstrong

A few days later, I went back up the trail. The small plant whose silly English name is sticky false asphodel (Tofieldia glutinosato me, but now in the genus Triantha) had begun to bloom. As I walked slowly up into the large muskeg, the yellowlegs quickly sounded the alarm and was joined by a second adult. What a racket! By luck, I happened to spot a discarded eggshell not far from the trail—brownish, with lots of blotches and spots, especially toward the wide end, and a few centimeters long. Just right for a yellowlegs. I got off the trail to wander between the pools and that really agitated both birds, who yelled even more fiercely and swooped down close to my head. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed some motion and finally located the perpetrator, now perched on top of a small pine. ‘Twas a very fuzzy young yellowlegs, just a few days old! The typical clutch size for this bird is three or four eggs, so this youngster may have had siblings somewhere not far away. The adults certainly carried on as if I was a big danger no matter where I roamed in the muskeg and didn’t calm down until I left.

Cloudberry flower. Photo by Kerry Howard

The first hike gave me the opportunity to check on something I should have done long ago: look closely at cloudberry flowers, which all look alike at first glance. Sure enough, once I looked, I could see what the field guide (and many scientific papers) describe—cloudberry plants are either male or female. In someflowers, the stamens are spindly and the anthers are small while the ovaries are substantial, and in others the stamens are relatively sturdy, with anthers full of pollen, and ovaries are reduced to near-invisibility—so these flowers don’t intend to make fruit. When I went up there a few days later, the cloudberries were almost done blooming, and it was hard to find open flowers. But I found a few, and they warned me not to be too quick in assigning gender to these plants. I found one flower with spindly stamens and no signs of ovaries (apparently sterile) and another flower with sturdy stamens and substantial ovaries (hermaphrodite)—and indeed, it turns out that rarehermaphroditic individuals are known to occur.

Four wintery walks

sun and shadow and snowy tracks

The thermometer at my house read eleven degrees (F) after a clear, starry night; the sky looked clear, although the sun wasn’t really up yet. Juneau had recently enjoyed about six feet of lovely snow, but many of the trails had not yet been used much. In search of a well-packed trail, a friend and I headed for the Boy Scout beach trail.

All went smoothly until we reached the junction where the trail splits three ways, and none of the splits looked good. We chose to go right out onto the goose meadow and immediately found ourselves breaking trail and post-holing through deep, crusty wind-blown drifts. Even following in the footprints of my companion, I (weighing forty pounds more) plunged and lunged, knee-deep and more. However, a hundred yards or so farther on, walking became a pleasure again, because the low vegetation was almost clear of snow, thanks to some recent super-high tides that left a few scattered cakes of frozen foam and to the wind.

Post-holing again out to the beach by the iconic cottonwood tree, we decided not to face the stiff, cold north wind that was churning up waters out in Lynn Canal. So, instead of coming back on the big, exposed beach, we turned toward the camp buildings, found a log, and had a little picnic in the sun. As soon as we got out our thermoses and lunch bags, two importunate ravens landed on the beach right in front of us—they knew the drill! Of course, we obliged them, tossing out bits of sandwich that they promptly snapped up. But they eyed a fragment of a sugar-snap pea with great suspicion and avoided going close to it—no veggies for them! One of them chose to sit next to us on the log for a while.

On this day in mid-December, the morning sun barely cleared the horizon. On the upper beach, I noticed that every isolated pebble cast a shadow much longer than itself, making a grid of conspicuous black stripes that called attention to each pebble.

The Chilkats across the canal were spectacular: the low morning sun made sharp contrasts between the sun-bright south-facing slopes and the intensely blue-shadowed north slopes. Behind us, the trees on the hillsides were individually defined by the snow they carried and on the peaks the snow delineated the minor topographical features very nicely.

Few critters were visible on this walk. A seal cruised by, just offshore, and gulls fossicked about in the tidal wrack. A wren zipped rapidly from trailside to shelter under some roots; they are so tiny, I wonder how they stay warm on frigid winter days. No midges or spiders crept on the snow surface.  But there were tracks of mink along the river, red squirrels in the woods, ermine and vole at the edge of the meadow; one or two small birds (who?) had hopped and run in the beach rye lining the meadow trail. A low-flying raven (?) left the mark of one wing-tip in the loose surface snow.

The next day was mostly sunny and, again, very cold (seven degrees at my house in the morning). I opted for snowdrift-free walk on the dike trail. A few tracks of squirrels and maybe an ermine were the only natural history notes of the morning until I had almost finished the walk. And there in the stand of willows was a female pine grosbeak, busily nibbling buds. I frequently see these grosbeak in fall and winter, as they forage on high-bush cranberry, carefully extracting the seed and dropping the red fruit pulp—the opposite treatment from that of bohemian waxwings, who eat the fruit and excrete the seed.

A couple of days later, the cold remained (just six degrees here). I had an idea to try some of the lower meadows along the Eaglecrest Road, but roadside parking was hard to find and the thought of plowing through deep snow, even on snowshoes, was daunting. So, on up the road to the Lower Loop, nicely groomed and unoccupied. The sun couldn’t make it up over the peaks, but ‘shoeing was easy.

There was not a live critter in sight but there were plenty of signs of life. A porcupine was into long-distance travel, heading straight across the meadow, not stopping to forage. Ermine had cruised all over the meadows in circuitous routes, looking for a juicy morsel. Snowshoe hare tracks were abundant, mostly under sheltering conifer branches or going from one shelter to another. Grouse or ptarmigan had been active, inspecting salmonberry and blueberry bushes for tasty buds and sometimes staying long enough to trample the snow flat. Except for a few squirrel marks, the smaller folk had left no signs on the surfacebut were no doubt active below.

A day or two later, it was still very cold. A group of friends strolled the dike trail, enjoying the bright sunshine as the sun crept over the peaks. A dusting of fluffy snow lay atop a snow crust. Several voles (I think) had made sorties out into the grassy areas, circling back to the trees or to holes under grassy tussocks; we noted at least seven of these trackways, well separated from each other. Looking through the chain-link fence and across a ditch, we saw tracks on a big snow drift that looked like Two-toes—but how could a deer walk up that crusty snow on those thin legs, without punching through, when humans (on our side of the fence) generally ended up post-holing?

Here and there in August

meadows high and low, a snacking porcupine, and odd bear scat

Early in the month, a female mallard arrived on my pond with her late brood of three good-sized young ones, still wearing lots of down. A week later, they were well-feathered except for a distinguishing fuzzy patch of down on the rumps of the ‘kids’. At the end of the month, the kids were no longer fuzzy at all, but they still hung out with mom.

A trip with friends up to Cropley Lake in mid-August was a muddy one. But the meadows were studded with the flowers of swamp gentian and asters. Fish were rising in the lake; Dolly Varden are recorded to be resident in the lake, although a few might wash out downstream at high water. On the far side of the lake, we looked for the sky-blue broad-petaled gentian and found them on a gentle slope. The relatively rare yellow fireweed crowded a small drainage gully, a habitat it seems to like.

Broad-petaled gentian. Photo by David Bergeson

The next day, I cruised around Amalga Meadows near the Eagle Valley Center. The parking area was crammed with cars, but all the people from those cars were either up on the horse tram trail or at the new cabin. So I had the meadow to myself. The grasses were so tall that walking was not easy, except where a bear(?) had stomped through. Nagoon berries were ripe, hidden down in the tall grass, but bog cranberries were still green. The seeds of cotton grass were dispersing in long streamers from the seed-heads. Sweetgrass was seeding well. In part of the meadow, I had to watch my feet closely, so as not to step on the many tiny toadlets that scuttled to safety as they dispersed from their natal ponds.

Porcupine’s lunch. Photo by David Bergeson

Not long after that, I perched on a hillside on the way to Hilda meadows at Eaglecrest. There I watched a tiny red mite, not even a millimeter long, wander up and down over the petals of a swamp gentian, exploring the depths of the flower. From the perspective of such a wee beastie, even those small flowers have depth! Eventually it settled briefly in the deepest part of the flower, perhaps finding something usable there (?).

A walk up the Salmon Creek road with friends found that the some of the many self-heal plants, seen in bloom on a previous walk, were setting seed. By the side of the road, we found several quite handsome, large beetles with reddish-brown carapaces (I think I used to know a name for them). On the way up, we all simultaneously spotted a porcupine trundling along the side of the road ahead of us, and we stopped to watch it. Moving away from us at first, it turned around and began snacking on some roadside greenery. We tried to slither by, but it scuttled into the brush, just a little way, where it sat watching us and shaking its wet fur. We went on, and it came right back to its green lunch. As we came back down the road later, it was still there and made a repeat performance. That must have been a particularly nice meal, not to be abandoned. Near the water tower, we spotted two deer, looking smooth and sleek; one of them stayed to watch us pass by, ears up like flags.

The next day, I went with a friend to the junction of Eagle and Herbert rivers, a spot that has been fun to visit in other years. This time, however, the sketchy little trail was greatly overgrown—only suitable for those less than three feet high at the shoulder, and sometimes it disappeared entirely. On a spruce tree ahead of us, the trunk looked like it had lots of dark spots the size of a fifty-cent piece (remember those?); close-up, those spots turned out to be places where busy woodpeckers had flaked off bits of the scaly bark. Out at the point, otters had romped in the sand. Two ravens spotted us immediately but were too shy to come in for the (obviously expected) offerings we tossed out onto a sandy ledge. On the way back, we found several bear scats full of blueberry remnants and three strange, yellowish deposits composed of short chunks of plant stem and a few devils club seeds. These had presumably been deposited with a lot of fluid, because they were spread thinly and flat on the ground. I’d sure like to know what plant had been eaten and what occasioned those deposits.

Summer flowers

lesser lights shine just as bright

Most of us have favorites among the very showy flowers, such as the fireweeds, or white bog orchids, or columbine, or wild iris, or we look for uncommon species, such as frog orchids. These may be the stars of the show, but we may neglect some ‘lesser lights’ that are interesting in their own right. I’ve picked out just few of these here, simply because I’ve seen them recently on July walks.

In one of the meadows on the way up to Spaulding Meadow, the density of sundews is remarkable—there’s almost a carpet of round-leaf sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) over the mosses, and long-leaf sundew (a.k.a. great sundew, D. anglica) grows mostly on the muddy edges of pools. Sundews are insectivorous, supplementing what they can draw from their nutrient-poor habitat by digesting insects captured on the leaves (and they may have ways to avoid capturing potential pollinating insects). I noticed that very few of the sundews had produced flower buds at this time. Because flower (and eventually seed) production costs energy and nutrients, I wondered if these sundews were not capturing many insects to help fuel flower production. Was there a seasonal low in insect availability or maybe just not enough bugs to feed so many sundews or possibly (as found in one study) too much competition from spiders that want bugs too?  Or something else….??

Self-heal showing fringed lip and hood. Photo by Mary Willson

Along the road to the Salmon Creek powerhouse, the hiking group found common harebells and lots of a small, purple-flowered perennial plant called self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). It’s native across the northern hemisphere and introduced everywhere else. There are multiple flowers in each inflorescence. The flower has a fringed lower lip and an upper hood over the stamens and pistil, but in some cases the pistil extends out in front. Flowers with the pistil inside the hood tend to have bigger and fewer flowers, less pollen, less nectar, and lower visitation rates—and apparently less male function. Although the flowers may self-fertilize if few pollinators are available, they are primarily bee-pollinated.  I watched a bumblebee unsystematically visit nearly every flower on one inflorescence, poking its head deeply into some of them to get the nectar and passing quickly over others (perhaps the nectar had already been taken). 

Self-heal with bumblebee. Photo by Deana Barajas

Studies of self-heal in Japan have shown that the size of the flower in different ecological settings varies with average tongue length of the bumblebees in those settings: bigger flowers in areas with long-tongues bees. In other words, there are local adaptations of flower size to the abilities of the available bees. Other factors, such as altitude or robustness of the plant, did not account for the observed correlation. The size-match of tongue length and flower size affects both male (pollen removal) and female reproductive success (pollen receipt and seed set).

I’ve noticed a small goldenrod on the East Glacier trail near the cliff that sports purple mountain saxifrage in spring and offers a lookout toward what’s left of the glacier. Called northern goldenrod (Solidago multiradiata), it tends to favor rather dry areas in meadows, on rocky ridges, or gravel bars. The yellow flower heads occur in more or less flattened clusters. This plant is much shorter than the Canada goldenrod, which likes disturbed areas and bears its many flowers in large, tapered inflorescences. The small flowers of goldenrods are visited by butterflies, bees, and many other insects, but which ones are the good pollinators and which are just thieves?

Near that same cliff, I saw several common harebells (a.k.a. bluebells of Scotland; Campanula rotundifolia). Found in open areas, rocky or grassy, this perennial is seen in many places around Juneau. The flowers are purple-to-blue, borne singly on each branch, but some plants have several branches on their wiry stems and may have several flowers.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Common harebell has a broad geographic range over Europe, where it originated, and North America. It survived the advances of the glaciers, which temporarily isolated populations in different areas. Harebells in many of these populations became polyploid, having two or more complete set of chromosomes, which is likely to affect many floral traits, perhaps in different ways in different populations (as found for other species), but this question has not been investigated for this species (as far as I have found). Despite its species’ name (rotundifolia), the round basal leaves disappear early, often before flowering, and the stem leaves are not round.

Harebells are pollinated mainly by bees. The flower is protandrous, meaning that when the flowers first open, they are male, with pollen ready to disperse. Later, when the receptive stigma is mature, the flowers are mostly female. The flowers are self-compatible (as found in experiments), at least in some populations, but self-pollination results in fewer seeds than cross-pollination; in the wild, protandry prevents most self-pollination. Bees collect only pollen from male-phase flowers, but they collect both pollen and nectar from female-phase flowers. Flower size can vary from place to place, and so would the size of the main pollinating insects.

Common harebells (and probably other harebells too) form mycorrhizal associations with several species of fungi. One study found that this association had no effect on seed size or number but led (unexpectedly) to decreased growth and flower production. However, the seedlings of mycorrhizal harebells grew better than those from parents that were experimentally prevented from having that association. So the advantage of the fungal connection appeared in the next generation. Interesting!

Perceptive readers may well generate lots of follow-up questions from these brief notes!


…and some excitement!

After hearing about the flocks of migrating songbirds out on the wetlands, I ambled out there and found longspurs and buntings, but I missed seeing the gray-crowned rosy-finches. So the next day, I went out there to look again. After a long lonely stroll, I finally spotted my birds—a flock of small dark birds accompanied by a couple of buntings swirled overhead and swept down into the grasses. Yes! Although they were barely visible as they scuttled about in the bent-down grasses, they were surely rosy-finches.

I don’t see them very often—they usually nest in rock alpine tundra, scree slopes, and cliffs above timberline. The breeding range extends from Montana northward through much of Alaska to the Aleutians and Bering Sea islands. There are subtle differences in plumage among birds that nest in the Interior, coastal areas, or the islands—differing amounts of gray on the head and darkness of body plumage. The Bering Sea nesters are bigger and darker than the others, with more extensive gray on the head, and they can nest at sea level on those barren islands. Years ago, an invasion of gyrfalcons nearly wiped out the rosy-finch population on the Pribilofs, but the population gradually recovered. The island populations have an earlier starting time and a longer breeding season than the birds in the mainland mountains, and they often nest on buildings there.

Rosy-finches are socially monogamous and (unlike longspurs) the males are very attentive to their mates. Males don’t hold big, multipurpose territories but defend their mates and nests. The female builds the nest, accompanied by her mate as she gathers material, and the male sometimes brings nesting material to her. He guards her well from other males during the egg-laying period when she is fertile. Females incubate clutches of three to five eggs for about two weeks and their mates bring food to them while they do so. Both parents feed the chicks for two or three weeks. The chicks can fly when they leave the nest but are tended for a while by their parents.

Rosy-finches (and other finches too) can carry food in a pair of buccal pouches, located under the tongue and extending back to the upper throat area. Both seeds and insects can be carried this way, to be delivered to mates and chicks. Like many other finches, including crossbills, rosy-finches are attracted to snow or soil on which some animal has urinated; they’ll also sometimes come to wave-washed beach logs. They are after salts and perhaps other minerals that are in short supply in many seeds. These birds aren’t the only ones: butterflies also gather on urinated soil for the same reason; we call that behavior ‘puddling’.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch: I looked out my windows one evening and saw an adult northern goshawk hopping along the bank of the pond, intent upon a female mallard that swam in a narrow channel between melting ice and the bank. All the other ducks were gone, leaving her to her fate. The goshawk jumped that mallard from the bank, then from the ice, then the bank again, or the ice, at least twenty times. Each time, she dove with a great flurry of wings and splashing water, leaving the hawk with wet feet and feathers. Back and forth she swam, quacking, in that narrow channel, always staying in the same ten-foot stretch. When I looked more closely, I could see why—she had (sensibly!) chosen a stretch that was semi-protected by branches that prevented aerial attacks and limited the hawk to pouncing from the sides of the channel. Eventually the hawk left, still hungry, but the duck continued to vocalize for some time as she gradually settled down and then departed. Whew!

Summer comes

in praise of the season

It’s official now. Never mind what the calendar says; the fireweed flower buds are emerging from tall, leafy stems, and that’s the seasonal clock that matters!

A trip up the tram in mid-June encountered lots of snow across the trail, becoming too much for me just a little way above the cross. Even so, on the lower part of the trail, narcissus anemones, yellow violets, and Cooley’s buttercups were showing off, along with an alp lily, a few pixie eyes, one deep purple Alaska violet, and a few others scattered about. Fox sparrows, juncos, robins, and Wilson’s warblers sang.

Just ten days later, the trail was almost clear of snow as far up as I could see, although I found one old ptarmigan burrow with the usual fecal deposits, beside the trail. Going just a few levels beyond the hang-gliders’ wind-sock, I noted about thirty kinds of flowers. Now the Alaska violets were in full swing; buttercups and anemones still flourished and were joined by northern geranium, spotted saxifrage, roseroot, moss campion, fine displays of villous (woolly) cinquefoil, and many others. A friend reported that the glaucous gentians were blooming nicely, higher on the ridge. What a difference those ten days made!

Alaska violet. Photo by Deana Barajas

At the very end of June, on a low tide, a friend and I wandered out to some of the dredge islands in the wetlands off the dike trail. Sculpins scuttled away in the nearly-dry channels. A few hot, sunny days had made the lichen carpets on the islands dry and crispy, but they still offered a tapestry of varied color and texture. Savanna sparrows sang from the grassy areas and shrubs along the edges, song sparrows from the thickets, hermit thrushes from the spruces. Beach rye was shedding pollen, cow parsnip’s big, white inflorescences were platforms for nectar-sipping flies, and an angelica inflorescence was totally covered by tiny flies doing the same. Willow seeds freed from their capsules were floating about, sometimes getting caught on branches, making fluffy clumps. Mayflower and dwarf dogwood plants had established in some places, but they were small, pale, and without flowers, quite unlike the ones growing in forest. The little plant called sheep sorrel (an introduced species gone feral) had opened some of its tiny reddish buds, and yellow rattle (or rattlebox) was flowering too.

There was, of course, the usual accumulation of trash—spent shotgun shells, plastic jugs, beer cans, and what not. We had a big yellow litter bag, so there is less of that now. As we picked up half of a damaged plastic jug, we panicked a colony of ants that had built their tunnels under that convenient roof; we did what we could to give them a new roof of natural materials. Ants arrive out there when a winged queen with fertilized eggs wafts over the channels and sets up shop wherever she can find a place. Ants seem to be so uncommon here, that I get a bit excited when I find some.

A few days later, three friends wandered out the Fish Creek trail and perched for lunch on a beached log. We were amused by a pan-handling squirrel that came up behind us, clearly expecting some snacks. It got some, of course. Out on the exposed tide flats, an eagle stood quietly, no food in-hand, doing nothing in particular, but a mischievous crow dove at it repeatedly, even striking it occasionally, for no apparent reason except devilment.

We walked around to the end of the ‘island’ and looked out over the tide flats. Suddenly, a gang of fifty or more crows rose up and flew toward the trees behind us, making a tremendous racket, sounding very angry. The crows converged on one spot at the edge of the trees, clearly focused on something down under elderberry bushes and sweeping spruce branches, hollering and swooping down at whatever it was. Fifty crows can make a terrific amount of noise!

So, of course, we had to watch. The sharpest observer among us finally spotted a bird (or, rather, part of one), barely visible under all the brush. At first, all I could see was a small patch of gray feathers, surrounded by green elderberry leaves. But on the other side of those green leaves, close to the ground, I finally could make out a bird head—a glaring eye and a red-stained beak. That bird didn’t move while the crows were furiously mobbing it—yelling bloody murder and crashing into the vegetation around it. After many minutes, though, the hidden bird moved a few feet and stood up; now we could see the front of it—a belly marked with some dark, horizontal bars.

Putting the visible pieces of the harassed bird together, we determined that it was a peregrine falcon, a deadly predator of other birds, although we couldn’t see if this one held any prey in its feet. But mysteries remained: How did the gang of crows out on the tide flats know it was there? Did they see it come in or did a lookout in the trees notify them? Had the falcon captured a small bird or even a young crow, which would set off all the crows’ alarm systems?

Eventually, the hubbub subsided, although the crows still kept watch from perches in the trees. The falcon remained almost invisible in the thick foliage. We didn’t stay to see what might happen when the falcon tried to leave its leafy cover.