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?

Transition to winter

…maybe?

In early November, I walked along a gravel road in the company of frost-decorated branches. A mat of old leaves lined the roadway, each leaf fringed with crystals, making a pretty mosaic in tones of russet, old-gold, and brown. In an open area, I found a collection of more old leaves, not matted down, each one with a distinctive cover of frost crystals. Quite aside from the interesting physics that presumably accounted for the variety of crystals, every leaf was a thing of beauty. As the poet (John Keats) said: A thing of beauty is a joy forever…

Photo by Mary Willson

The Lower Loop at Eaglecrest in early-mid-November was a fine place for a walk. A bit of fresh snow lay on the meadows, and above the white blanket the tops of old seed heads and Labrador tea plants poked up –as individuals rather than part of a mass of faded greenery. Tawny-gold grasses stood tall and colorful on that background. Dainty little grasses draped their dangling seeds artistically. Tufty pine branches bore small caps of snow.

Conditions for finding evidence of several local denizens were perfect. Porcupines had traipsed hither and yon, exploring endlessly, it seemed. Every few yards, one of their trackways crossed the path, sometimes running parallel to the path for a while. One of them left a long, orange-yellow dribble as a mark of its passage.

Squirrels had made their well-beaten routes from tree to tree and across the path. A small bird, probably a junco, had hopped out of brushy area into the open. Voles had scampered about; one made a nice tunnel under the snow, revealed only in spots where the snow-roof had collapsed. A shrew left a narrow groove on top of the snow and then dove into a tiny hole under a clump of grass. Another trackway suggested that a deer mouse had been active, making quite long leaps with its sizeable hind feet.

A few days after that Lower Loop stroll, in hopes that sea-level rains meant snow had fallen at Eaglecrest, I went back up there. But even the Lower Loop had lost much of that earlier snow. So I trudged up the road, circled the Hilda Dam cabin, and came back down the Trickster run, and had some fun there. There was a thin layer of fluffy snow on top of a very thin crust. Snow covered the moss mats, but groves of moss sporophytes stood up above the snow. As usual, porcupines had wandered about, and squirrels had dared to cross some open spaces. In a little dampdrainage, a shrew had scurried over the surface, supported by that thin crust. A deer had run downhill, covering dozens of yards before jumping a log and going back into the woods.

I found a trampled cluster of indecipherable smudgy tracks near a few seed heads that had been demolished, leaving scattered fragments on the snow. On the top of the smudges, I saw what looked like ermine footprints. But, despite some hints, the smudges were a puzzle. A few minutes later, however, I found a long trackway going from one weed patch to another and noted that Smudgy was bipedal and big enough to break through the thin crust, disturbing the snow layer and disguising any toe marks. Ha! The prime suspect was probably a grouse.

Some days after that, I went with a friend to Eagle Beach State Park, to have a look at the vegetated sand flats in the river. A thin film of soft snow covered the ground. On the way, we saw that squirrels had been busy, crossing the path in several places. Along the river shore, rather recent flood waters had piled up great stacks of fallen trees and combed the herbaceous vegetation into orderly lines. A mink had run on the edge of the riverbank, but there were no bird tracks to be seen out there. Looping back through the campground, we found the trackway of a vole, scuttling across an opening and under some grasses.Near the parking lot, a raven had strolled over the lawn, but no ravens came to mooch any part of our lunches as we sat on the bench near the river.

Some nice big white flakes were falling, but they soon changed to rain (of course). Then we waited to see if the forecast snowfall actually happened…and it did! By Thanksgiving time, there had been several good snowfalls, although the streams were not yet iced-over. One day on Douglas, I saw several tiny, delicate flies flitting about and resting on the snow. According to a local expert, they were probably snow midges, whose larvae like cold-water streams and typically emerge as adults in winter.They are quite tolerant of cold temperature and may survive for many days, as they search for mates.

Larcenous lichens

…and some short stories

A big tide-stranded log on the wetlands was studded with lots of little tufts of ‘moss’. It didn’t look a bit familiar to any of us, but I should have looked more closely… a couple of experts later let us know that those tufts are not moss at all. Rather, they are composed of one species of lichen growing on another species of lichen.

Juneau folks see lichens almost everywhere—they drape gracefully from tree branches, form crusts over bare soils, decorate tree bark, boulders, and cliffs with a variety of colors and designs. They can colonize roof shingles, long-abandoned clothing, foam insulation, and other un-natural substrates. And, we just learned, they can grow on each other, too!

Lichens are composite organisms, commonly consisting of a fungus with a green alga, but sometimes associated with a cyanobacterium, or even with both. A given species of algae or cyanobacteria may associate with different fungal partners.  A lichen develops its characteristic shape when the fungus associates with its partner; otherwise, the fungus exists just as a mass of filaments. Does it need the additional input of nutrients from the partners to develop that morphology and to produce spores? Occasionally, other organisms such as yeast (another type of fungus) and bacteria may join the association in some way.

These associations are generally thought to be mutualistic: the fungus provides housing as well as water and nutrients from the atmosphere and sometimes also the substrate, while the other partners provide carbohydrates (by photosynthesis) and cyanobacteria fix nitrogen from the air. In the nutrient exchange between partners, an alga or cyanobacterium is commonly destroyed, but the remaining ones reproduce fast enough to replace the destroyed ones.

Some lichens grow exclusively on other lichens; they are called ‘lichenicolous’ (meaning living on lichens). There are hundreds of species with this specialization, from a variety of evolutionary lineages. It is thought that most of these lichens are parasitic (the fungal partner is presumably the larcenous agent), but some may be pathogens or simply harmless co-habitants.

I had thought to write a whole essay about lichenicolous lichens and their fascinating way of life. I rapidly found out that the arcane taxonomy of unfamiliar names and terminology left me bewildered, so I must content myself with calling attention to an interesting phenomenon that was entirely new to me.

In the case of the tufts on the beach log, a species of Xanthoria was overgrowing a species of Physcia. (But in other regions, different species of Xanthoria may be colonized by a lichenicolous lichen, being the host instead of the invader).  Locally, some other lichen invades the spore-bearing structure of common leafy lichens called lettuce lung (Lobaria oregana) and lungwort (L. pulmonaria), making the structure black. Is the invader hijacking the spore-dispersal mechanism of the host?

Here are a few short stories:

–In a grove near the Boy Scout beach, a friend and I heard a strange, repeated sound. We finally located the source: a porcupine was slowly backing down a fairly tall spruce tree, mostly stepping on small dead branches but occasionally slithering a bit from step to step, moaning every few seconds. Finally it reached the ground, shook itself, and trundled off, still moaning.  Had it been sampling spruce needles near the top of the tree?

Northern Waterthrush. Photo by Bob Armstrong

–One sunshiny morning in mid-May, I happened to look out a window to my pond at just the right time, and there was a northern waterthrush, foraging along the edge. (Despite its common name, this little brown warbler is not a thrush.) I hadn’t seen one for years; later, I heard their loud song, over in the Dredge lake area. They are uncommon nesters here, usually making a cup-nest on the ground, in wooded areas near ponds, where they like to forage in the shallows.

–Later that day, on the lower part of the East Glacier trail, a little group of friends stopped to admire a fine display of small white flowers, several patches of it on a cliff. This species has the very silly common name of Sitka mist-maiden, but bears a more stately name of Romanzoffia sitchensis. It usually blooms a little later than the more famous purple mountain saxifrage, which was still blooming on some cliffs along the trail.

–At Eagle Beach, on one of those sunny days, we saw a nice variety of dabbling ducks, not many of each type, but all clustered in one area near the river. There were gadwalls, green-wing teal, blue-wing teal (not common here), American wigeon, mallards (of course), and a pair of northern shovelers. All these ducks feed on invertebrates and vegetation, often by tipping upside down to reach under the water. Shovelers, however, have an additional way of feeding with a very specialized, broad, flat bill. The relatively large bill is edged with a row of comb-like structures that the shoveler uses to catch small invertebrates and plankton as it sweeps its bill from side to side.

Thanks to Chiska Derr for consultation about larcenous lichens.

February scrapbook

warm and bright observations in an icy world

Winter finally arrived sometime in early February, with good snow on the ground and very cool temperatures. I’ve lived here for three decades, so I’m quite well acquainted with Juneau’s local microclimates—it’s often warmer, wetter, and windier downtown than it is in the upper Valley where I live. But I recently saw what seemed to be an extreme case: as I drove Out the Road one morning, I left my house at a temperature of minus six degrees (F), then the car thermometer registered plus thirteen, dropped quickly to minus two, and rose again to plus fourteen degrees. That’s a twenty-degree span in fewer than twenty minutes. Extraordinary.

Along the way, I passed a place where a thin blanket of white mist lay over an estuary and shallow inlet. We often see this phenomenon in cold weather and sometimes call it ‘sea smoke’ or ‘steam’. But it’s not steam…steam is hot water vapor, and it’s not really smoke, either…not full of organic particles and carbon dioxide. Whatever the right name is, the cause is well-known. Liquid fresh water cannot be colder than thirty-two degrees (or it would become ice). So the surface of the estuary was warmer than the frigid air and water was evaporating. When that rising water vapor encountered the cold air, which holds less water than warm air does, it condensed into small droplets that hung over the water surface in thin mist.

I met a friend at the Point Bridget trailhead and we set off to see what we could find. The best find was the trail of an otter, bounding and sliding over flat ground and out onto the frozen beaver pond. Even on the flat, this otter was sliding as much as eight feet before gathering itself for another bound and slide. Wouldn’t that be fun to do! Blowing snow had drifted into some other tracks, but we found those of porcupine, moose, and a deer or small moose; red squirrels had made new highways under some of the trees.

A stiff breeze was churning Lynn Canal into a froth and big waves were roaring onto the beach where we look out at Lion’s Head. By the time we got there, it was afternoon and the wind was increasing, as it often does then. So the beach log where we often perch for lunch was not very hospitable. Even behind the beach berm, the wind was making the emergent tall grasses lie almost flat on the snow. So we found a windbreak in a sunny spot for a comfortable lunch.

Home again, with temperatures a relatively balmy plus sixteen degrees. The birds were active on the feeders, among them ‘my’ pair of red-breasted nuthatches. They brought two youngsters to the feeders one day last summer but they have apparently stayed on their territory for the winter. Each pair is socially monogamous; there apparently have been no studies of extra-pair matings (which are common in many other birds). Nuthatches defend their territories from other nuthatches; the male is especially vigorous in defense when the pair is excavating a nest in a dead tree. They also defend the nest cavity from red squirrels, which are potential predators of eggs and chicks.

Nuthatches have the odd habit of putting sticky conifer resin around the opening of the nest cavity. It is thought that this helps deter predators. One study found that more resin was placed around the nest entrance right after a face-off with a squirrel. Rarely, however, this tactic backfires, and one parent gets inextricably stuck in the resin and dies.

After the nest is built, females incubate five to eight eggs and the male brings her food. Incubation takes about twelve days and chicks stay in the nest for almost three weeks. Sometimes the male joins the female in the nest during incubation and brooding very small chicks. After the chicks fledge, the parents feed them for another two weeks and then the youngsters sometimes stay with the parents for many weeks, or they may become independent and disperse. Most nuthatches probably live only a few years; the maximum known lifespan is just over seven years.

Nuthatches forage by walking up and down and around tree trunks and big branches, especially in winter, presumably because dormant arthropods lurk in the crevices. They can walk head-first down a tree trunk and even walk upside down underneath a branch. They have a very short tail, not usable for bracing again the wood as woodpeckers and creepers do. Having a relatively long hind toe helps them scamper down and sideways. Outside of the winter season, they also forage on twigs and leaves, even on the ground sometimes, and occasionally catch insects out of the air.

Photo by Gwen Baluss

Captured food is often cached in holes and crevices, sometimes covered with bits of lichen or bark. A big item is wedged into a crack and then hacked into smaller bits (unlike chickadees, which hold such items in their feet). In fact, their English name may have originally been nut-hacker. At a seed feeder, nuthatches can be very choosy, carefully selecting the largest and heaviest items.

Little appears to be known about how they manage in extremely cold weather. They do join mixed-species foraging flocks in winter, along with chickadees, kinglets, and other small birds. Presumably their insulation is quite good, but they don’t seem to roost communally or have elevated metabolic rates then (as some other birds do). More questions to be answered!

January bricolage

A stalking goshawk, some prime tracking, and a trip into a sub-nivean ice tunnel

Back in mid-January, during all that unseasonably warm and dreary weather, I looked out my front window one afternoon, to check on the twenty or so mallards that were congregating on the nearly ice-free pond. An adult male goshawk paraded along the bank, looking meaningfully at the ducks. The wary ducks had retreated to the center of the pond, where they waited to see what the predator would do. Perhaps they felt safer on the water than in the air. Darkness fell before I could observe the end of the stand-off.

In a recent essay I was moaning about that dismal weather that seemed to last forever, and I was looking for something cheerful to think about. But—wonder of wonders—a few days after I wrote that essay, a big moon appeared in the night sky and a bright yellow orb peeped over the mountains and the sky was blue instead of gray. Moreover, there was a nice blanket of new snow that added to the welcome brightness. Hurray!

Just before the sun really decided to reappear, we made a tour of the lower loop at Eaglecrest, finding the best assemblage of critter tracks we’d seen for a long time. A few hares had been out and about, and a weasel had bounded across the trail and into the brush in several places. Squirrels had made their usual highways out from the bases of trees. A mouse (probably) had ventured cross a small opening between two brushy shelters. Another set of obscured tracks were a puzzlement: I wanted them to belong to a marten. There were deer tracks in several places, including those of a very small one. The best finding was the wandering track way of a grouse (or ptarmigan), maybe searching for fallen seeds of for buds to nip and eventually disappearing into a thicket.

On a day of full sun (!!), we visited a meadow out the road, plonking about on snowshoes in search of whatever might be interesting. The snow was too crusty for shrews to leave their delicate traceries and voles were staying under the snow, but weasels had been exploring. A deer had come into the meadow and circled several small spruces, pausing here and there. It looked like lichens were on the menu, one kind in particular. Where the deer had been foraging, the spruces still held loads of Usnea longissima (old man’s beard) but little or no Alectoria (witch’s hair). But in parts of the meadow not recently visited by this deer, we could find draperies of Alectoria on the low branches. On other forays, I’ve seen neat browse lines along the edge of the woods, where all the Alectoria had been eaten. Now I have to wonder what makes that lichen a preferred food (at least at times).

One morning I headed out for a sunny walk on the west-side beach of Mendenhall Lake. Up at my mailbox I heard a ruckus in one of the trees overhead. There was a tight little ball of about four chickadees, fluttering and flapping and chattering, as they all tumbled from one branch to another. The fight continued down the slope and out of sight. One more thing to wonder about; this was more than a quick argument over a seed or two. Were they picking on an intruding stranger? Or had one of them seriously misbehaved in some socially unacceptable way? Or??

On another nice day, my foray took me to another meadow where the tussocks were separated by narrow channels that had been full of water; a layer of ice had formed on the surface. But the channels had dried up, leaving an air-space about a foot deep between the persistent ice and the bottoms of the channels. The snow cover made it hard to tell where the little channels were, so when a snowshoe found one and broke the ice, I dropped down catastrophically and pitched over in a heap. My ‘feet’ were twenty-five inches long and tangled unmercifully in the remaining ice layer as I tried to extricate myself, so it took a while for me to heave myself up on something solid. Eventually, I wearied of more falls and many near-misses and decided to bail out by walking under some big spruces, where there were no tussocks and empty channels to contend with. These lovely spruces were open-grown, so they had many long, low, sweeping branches for me to clamber over and under, making sure my big ‘feet’ didn’t get snagged. This was hard work too, but there was a little surprise: many of those long, low branches were decorated with a series of small mounds of cone scales, a few inches apart, as the squirrel had chosen a different spot on the branch for each spruce cone on which it snacked, rather than peeling off the scales into one big midden.  

Splash power

using raindrops for dispersal

Some weeks ago, I wrote about spore dispersal in bird’s nest fungi, in which the mature spores are held in a small cup and when a raindrop falls into the cup, the spores are splashed out. I decided to learn more about what other species use raindrops for dispersal. It turns out that raindrops have been put to work, so to speak, to disperse spores, seeds, little asexual propagules, and even sperm.

Splashcups are apparently the most common means of using raindrops. Seed dispersal from splashcups has been reported for many genera of plants, including some that grow in our area: Veronica (brooklime or speedwell), Sedum (stonecrop), Sagina (pearlwort), and Mitella (bishop’s cap). However, I’ve not been able to confirm that our particular species of these genera have this adaptation. Something to look for!

Splashcups for seed dispersal are typically small, just a few millimeters across, and more or less funnel-shaped, with the sides of the funnel not too steep and not too spread out. Small seeds are splashed out at various speeds, up to a meter or so away from the parent plant. Splashcup plants are generally small, herbaceous species; they grow in a variety of habitats.

Some mosses use splashcups too, for dispersal of sperm from male individuals. The raindrops give the sperm a head start on their way to receptive females, but once started, they have to swim to their final destination (thus needing a film of water to complete the journey). The juniper haircap moss (Polytrichum juniperinum) here in Southeast is one of these, and other local haircaps may also do things this way. Other moss genera in Southeast with this adaptation for sperm dispersal include Atricum, Plagiomnium, and Mnium, but again I’ve not succeeded in confirming that our local species do.

Another moss uses splash cups made of modified leaves to disperse ‘gemmae’, which are asexual clusters of cells that can germinate and form new individuals. This moss is called pellucid four-tooth moss (Tetraphis pellucida); it disperses its sexual spores by wind. Although it is found in south-central Alaska, Yukon, and B.C.—that is, all around our area, but there’s apparently only one record, so far, for Southeast (in Sitka).

The lung liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha) occurs all over Southeast and belongs to a genus known for gemmae dispersal by splashcups and raindrops. In addition, males bear their sex organs on little, stalked ‘saucers’ (not the technical term!) and sperm are released onto these saucers. When a raindrop hits the loaded saucer, the sperm can be dispersed as much as sixty centimeters away. Then they have to swim, in a film of water, to a female.

A familiar lichen genus is Cladonia, some of which are known as ‘pixie cups’. These make stalked cups that contain little asexual granules (technically called soredia) composed of bits of fungus and algae that are enough to start a new lichen individual. These tiny granules can be splashed up to a meter away by a raindrop, but they may also travel by wind.

Another type of raindrop-assisted dispersal is thought to occur in Tiarella (foam flower), which we often see here. The seed capsule is shaped like an old-fashioned sugar scoop, with a long lower lip. A rain drop hitting the lower lip could flip out the seeds. This spring-board mechanism is also seen in some club-mosses (Lycopodium, including our local L. selago), which disperse little vegetative, non-sexual propagules (called bulbils) this way.

Fungi have a couple of other unusual ways of using raindrops or at least water drops for dispersal. Some of the puffballs release spores when the tender top of the mushroom is struck by raindrops. Certain fungi (not specified in the available literature) release spores by a water-drop-driven catapult: There is one drop (apparently produced by the fungal spore) at the base of a spore and one (source not given) along the side of the spore. These two drops merge, creating a big enough drop with reduced surface tension so it breaks open, pushing the spore from its attachment and popping it loose.

See this video by Bob Armstrong for an example of fungal dispersal by raindrop.

Raindrops even get involved in pollination of flowering plants. In some buttercups (Ranunculus) and marsh marigolds (Caltha), rain splashes pollen from the anthers (where pollen is produced) to the receptive stigma of the same flower.

All those splashcups and springboards and catapults are evolved adaptations of the respective species. They function to the benefit of the plant or fungus by increasing reproductive success via successful dispersal.

However, raindrops may also have non-adaptive effects, such as transmission of foliar diseases. If a raindrop hits a leaf infected by bacteria, viruses, or fungus, it bounces, potentially carrying the infective agents with it in a water drop. The distance carried depends on many factors, including water-drop size, leaf shape and orientation and its motion when hit by the rain drop, and location of the original infection on the leaf. A complicated matter, indeed, but of some importance especially in agricultural monocultures. 

Bright spots

after a soggy summer

The autumn equinox is past, and the days are rapidly getting shorter. It was an exceptionally rainy summer and we can’t expect fall to be much different. Sigh. But there have been some bright spots along the trails in forest and meadow.

One happy sighting in a meadow on the Peterson Lake trail was a bird busily foraging in the mosses, but it was partly obscured by clumps of taller vegetation. All I could see was a brown back and bits of moss flying every which way. I watched for a few minutes, but the flurry of flying moss continued without revealing the forager. So I slowly crept in a circular path to get a different perspective and eventually won a quick side view of the bird’s head. Ah…a red mark on the face and maybe a dark spot on the chest. Then the bird took off, exposing a big white rump patch (but not the colored underwings). OK, of course! A northern flicker, a woodpecker known to forage often on the ground. They nest here occasionally, but I’ve only seen them in Southeast once before this.

A female flicker peers from her nest cavity on Douglas. Photo by Bob Armstrong
This male flicker has the red face mark of the western form and the red nape mark of the eastern form, so it may be an intergrade. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Another enjoyable sighting occurred near the Spaulding Meadows trailhead. A brown creeper zipped across the trail, landed on a tree trunk, and hopped its way up, using its tail as a brace in proper creeper fashion. It was soon followed by another one, which also landed on a tree trunk. But this one quickly moved onto the underside of a branch and hitched its way along, upside down, using just its sharp little claws. It seemed to be quite comfortable in that position and put on a nice little show of its expertise.

We don’t have to go to Vermont or Wisconsin to see good fall colors, even though we don’t have the great stands of oaks and maples. Our colors tend to come in smaller patches, but they offer their own visual treats. A band of cottonwoods on the far shore of Herbert River somehow managed to glow in yellow and gold above a swirl of river mist, despite a steady rain. Willows often turn yellow, but some bear vivid displays of orange and red (why??). The multi-colored leaves of highbush cranberry can be yellow, pink, bright red, crimson, or combinations of those. On the forest floor, bunchberry leaves make carpets in shades of yellow, orange, and red. I also enjoy the pale yellow tapestries of enchanter’s nightshade leaves that call attention to this tiny plant. Still smaller but eye-pleasing are the several kinds of red berries—devil’s club, bunchberry, red huckleberry, bog cranberry, and best of all, the translucent, almost-glowing highbush cranberry. These ‘little points of bright’ matter!

Not to be ignored are the woolly-bear caterpillars, the larvae of the spotted tussock moth. As they grew, they passed through several molts and changes of appearance, and the last instar has the familiar black bands on front and rear with a yellow or orange band in the middle, with some long white tufts. They eat leaves of deciduous trees, but in fall we see them crawling around, looking for a place to build a cocoon and spend the winter.

Fall rains also liven up the lichens and mosses, which are looking quite happy. Fall-fruiting fungi appear—including some showy white ones with a vase-like cap (since I’m a ‘fungignoramus’, I won’t attempt to provide a name).  

The Herbert River trail has always seemed rather dull (until you get close to the glacier area)—lots of the same thing for a long way. But that is unfair! There are actually zones of changing vegetation as one goes up the trail, quite noticeable when I pay attention.  And recently I found several colonies of what turns out to be a common species called the stiff clubmoss, bearing its cones on the tips of the twigs—and thus easily distinguishable from the running clubmoss, with cones on long stalks. How I managed miss the stiff clubmoss all these years, I don’t know, but now that I’ve learned it, I have discovered it in other places too.

For a curious naturalist, sometimes a bright spot (of a sort) comes in the form of a mystery. Along the lower part of Eagle River, a little above its junction with the Herbert, I noticed an odd collection of animal scat. There were maybe fifteen deposits, all within about two meters of each other. They had a variety of sizes and shapes, from cylindrical to lumpy, and all were black. Bears would seem to be the most likely perpetrators. But why so many scats in one place? Bears just defecate where they happen to be and don’t—as far as is known to several wildlife biologists—make communal latrines. One suggestion is that a family of bears had a secure resting place somewhere nearby and used that place for an extended time. But does that account for the very localized deposits? The mystery remains.

Twice-told Tales

Juneau-style

I have borrowed this title from nineteenth-century writer Nathanial Hawthorne, because (like his book) this essay is mostly a collection of previously-reported short stories, bringing together a few of the special ones from our little expeditions over the years.

— Perseverance Trail: We were coming down the trail, just below the Horn (where two benches provide a view of Snowslide Gulch). Some distance ahead of us there appeared a large black lump, followed by two smaller black lumps, moving slowly up the trail. Ooooops! What now?! Steep cliff up on our right, steep cliff down on our left, and nowhere to go but back. So we quietly backed up a hundred yards or so to the Horn and waited. And there they came, mom and two cubs.

First we tried going up on the little rubble slope on the inside of the curve, to allow the bears plenty of room between us and the railing. But mom took one look at us on the rocks and turned around, heading back down the trail. Then she hesitated and looked back, as if she really wanted to continue upward. So we all scuttled into a corner of the fence behind the benches. Ah! Much better! The family came back uphill and sauntered past us—Mom completely calm and owning the trail, the kids a bit skittish. Everybody was well-behaved.

–Gustavus: We stopped to braid some stems of sweetgrass, just to see how it worked, with no ambitions to construct a basket. As we bent over our task, we heard thundering hoofbeats, getting rapidly closer. Turning around, we saw a galloping female moose, with a gangly little calf that managed to keep up with her. They were so intent on getting away from whatever startled them that they ignored us and passed by, barely thirty feet away, and off they went, full tilt.

–Granite Basin trail: We watched two bear cubs sliding down a snowy avalanche chute, tumbling head first and tail first. Then they climbed back up to do it again…and again. After watching her offspring, mom joined in the fun, and made several (somewhat more decorous) slides too.

–On a beach somewhere near Sitka: It’s always fun to find hermit crabs, sometimes a tiny one that can hide in the tip of a big whelk shell, or one wearing a wee periwinkle shell (seemingly uselessly) on the end of its abdomen. In the shallow water by this beach, we found dozens of hermit crabs scrabbling to and fro. They came in all sizes and there weren’t enough empty shells to go around. So there were battles going on everywhere, with one crab trying to pull another out of its shell. As soon as one extracted an owner and moved in, it was subject to attempted evictions. It didn’t seem to matter if the shell was the right size for the attacking crab…maybe any shell was better than none.

–North Douglas boat ramp: Crows had been foraging on mussels and other shellfish. We often see them do this, dropping their prey onto the beach in hopes of breaking the shell and exposing the fleshy interior. Very often, the substrate is too soft to be effective. But at the paved boat ramp, although it sometimes required two or three drops, the strategy worked very well—except when some of the crows chose to sit on the sidelines and wait for their hard-working companions to do the foraging and shell-dropping, then raced out to snitch the meat without doing the work.

–Cowee Meadows: As two of us strolled quietly on a bank above some lower ground, we suddenly heard some loud snorting and thrashing of brush from a thicket below us. Oh-oh! Our eyebrows and the hair on the backs of our necks went up. We couldn’t see the source of the ruckus, so we didn’t learn if the perpetrator was guarding a carcass or just feeling cranky, but we didn’t stay around to meet this annoyed beast and very carefully and discretely retreated down the trail.

–Berners Bay: A sizable troop of young sea lions approached our group of kayakers. They seemed to be very curious, eye-balling us with their heads raised up and talking loudly among themselves. They made several approaches, sometimes coming within twenty feet or so of a kayak. Another time, a humpback whale eased up to the surface right next to my kayak, close enough that I could have touched it. I’m sure the great beast knew I was there and was just visiting.

Another time there, right in front of the cabin, a humpback whale rose straight up with its mouth wide open, engulfing a dinner of herring. Escaping fish cascaded down from both sides of the mouth, a glittering stream (like liquid mercury, said one observer) in the sunshine.

–Glacier Bay: We were parked on a beach, sunning ourselves after a trip up the East Arm. The rising tide pushed some oystercatchers up the beach toward us…parents and two chicks. They stopped just a few feet in front of us and ignored us, giving us a great look at them, until we (unfortunately) had to move on.

–Gustavus: A friend and I had looked in several places here in Juneau for a particular kind of fern, a weird one called moonwort. We had failed and needed help. So we took the ferry, the good old LeConte, to Gustavus. We had to take the same ferry back to Juneau, so there was a short turn-around time. A naturalist friend met us and led us down the beach a few dozen yards, and said ‘There it is’. Finally we saw this elusive plant, and since then we have seen it and a related species in the Gustavus area and found it near the glacier visitor center. The ferry ride was good too!

–Eaglecrest: Plodding up from Hilda Meadows on snowshoes, we followed the trail of an otter all the way from Hilda Creek, up the hill along a Hilda tributary to the divide, thence to one of the sources of Fish Creek. That critter knew where it was going.

–Spaulding trail in late winter: A raven flew overhead and dropped something—thud—onto the snow next to us. It was a wad of moss and tiny twigs, but why would that make a thud? It was an old robin’s nest, mud-walled inside the moss-and-twig mix, and frozen solid. Now the question became—was that raven bombing us, as message, or just playing games?  

Cowee Meadows

a May expedition finds flowers and toadlets

2020-05-30-deana-barajas
Photo by Deana Barajas

Several things combined, recently, to bring me a strong wave of nostalgia for the Midwest. I love the oak trees—their varied forms and leaf shapes and acorns. On top of that, my brother in Wisconsin regales me with tales and pictures of the birds that throng his feeders—orioles, goldfinches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, catbirds, and more—species that I’ve not seen for a long time. Then one of my old post-docs, in Chicago, wrote to me about all the spring flowers that grace the woodland floors—Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, spring beauty… Aaahh, I do miss all that!

However, on the last weekend in May, a bunch of regular Saturday hikers went out to Cowee Meadows. On the way down the trail, we enjoyed the many bog laurels and bog rosemary flowers in the muskeg, and we stopped to inspect the young bracken ferns for nectaries. Cowee Meadows is a place I like to visit several times as spring becomes summer, to see the seasonal development of the flower show. A couple of weeks ago, there were a few shooting stars, some buttercups and marsh marigolds, but little else. But now, the meadows were awash in color: lots of yellow buttercups, shooting stars in all shades of pink, joined now by tall blue lupines. Hidden under the taller plants were violets, starflowers, and the coming chocolate lilies. Even without the famous irises and the banks of roses, which will bloom in a week or two, this is a spectacular sight—hard to beat! Carpets of strawberry flowers out near the river weren’t bad, either, even though I never get there in time to harvest any of the fruits. Nostalgic feelings were successfully subdued.

cowee-mdw-edge-late-may-Louise-ketcheson
Photo by Louise Ketcheson

One of the most common plants in these meadows is the shrub called sweetgale (Myrica gale). It is very aromatic, and the nodules on the roots fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable by vegetation. The books say that sweetgale is typically dioecious—male and female on separate shrubs, but occasionally hermaphroditic—both sexes on one plant. Yet the shrubs all looked the same to me; where is the other sex? Then I read that, for unknown reasons, sweetgale males commonly outnumber the females by a big margin. So the many shrubs we see bearing small cone-like structures are presumably males. But if so, what do the females look like? Two field guides and a few official floras were no help at all; if they illustrated any flowering parts, it was the typical cones, and the verbal descriptions were unhelpful. Finally I discovered a website (thank you, Minnesota) that illustrated both male and female inflorescences.

It turns out that the rare female inflorescences look like small, red tufts along a twig. Knowing a characteristic that is useful in the field, we have now found two stands of female sweetgale shrubs and a few mixed-sex individuals in a population that is overwhelmingly male. Good to have that sorted out!

Another satisfying observation on this hike was seeing tiny toadlets making their way through thick tangles of herbage. I don’t know in which pond or slough they spent their time as tadpoles, but with patience, they can travel quite a distance once they have legs. One of these toadlets was crawling about on the upper beach, which is hardly a suitable place for a growing toad. Although it is tempting to catch them, we must remember that if we have insect repellent on our hands, it can poison them through their skin. And, in any case, it is illegal to hold, transport, and release them. Better to just observe and protect them!

When I got home, there was fun at my bird feeders. When the pushy jay and the big hairy woodpecker aren’t there, chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos use the peanut butter feeders daily. I started watching more closely as the three smaller birds pecked at the peanut butter lumps on the feeder. Peck and gobble, peck-peck and gobble. But the last peck gets a little gobbet that doesn’t disappear into the inside of the bill. A small wad of peanut butter is carried off into the woods, and I’m betting that it goes to a chick.

Fun at Home

looking out the windows

I love to walk our trails, just to see what I can see. But sometimes there’s a lot to see in my front yard and pond. Then I wear a path from window to window (with side trips to the fridge and tea kettle). This spring has provided some home-based fun.

The shenanigans of the mallards are an annual happening. The ducks start to visit the pond soon after ice-out. Pairs sort themselves out and by late May mama ducks start to bring their tiny ducklings for an occasional visit. This year there were several brood of eight or nine and one brood of just one duckling.

The littlest ones have a hard time jumping up to join mama on the bank for a rest. They zip back and forth in front of her and make lots of futile little leaps. The female often tries several spots before finding one they can all master. Sometimes only part of a brood makes the jump and the rest have to find access at some distance and make a small overland trek. When ducklings are small, the mother broods them, making herself as broad as possible to cover them all, although even then a few heads and tails poke out from under her.

The unpaired males that have already fathered these broods are hanging about, all revved up and looking for more action. They harass any late-forming pairs and even mothers with babies, causing lots of fuss and flapping. The female with one offspring was persistently pursued, driving her to protest continually and even leave the pond several times. If I opened the windows, I could hear the little one peeping in apparent distress.

A flotilla of visiting ducklings is probably what brought an eagle down to march along the bank, eyeing one brood with malevolent intent. (Yes, I know, eagles have to eat too.) A swoop or two over the water failed, as the brood scooted for cover, and the eagle left, still hungry.

Juvenile juncos had been chip-chipping in the woods along various trails since mid-May. Here at home, there were well-fledged juveniles, of two separate families, by the first week of June, quite able to pick up seeds for themselves but often waiting for dad to deliver. It was the male juncos that stuffed the juveniles with peanut butter and seeds, leading me to suspect that the females were back on eggs again, for second broods. (They can do three or four a year.) The juveniles tried the peanut butter feeder occasionally but looked like they needed some practice, and they preferred to wait for dad.

A male hairy woodpecker made occasional visits to peanut butter and suet, but by mid-June his visits were quite frequent. He hacked out big chunks of suet and carried them off, leaving crumbs for the little birds to pick up. He would swallow several bits of peanut butter but carry away one last load in his bill. So I knew he had a family. And finally, a big, well-feathered fledgling joined his father on the deck railing and begged for peanut butter. I wondered if the mother was tending another young one somewhere.

The chickadees were feeding big kids too. And a great treat was seeing the whole family of nuthatches crowding together on a small block of suet. Two sleek fledglings chipped off bits of suet for themselves, but were also happy to have chunks delivered by the parents.

A bear came to eat horsetail in my front yard. They do this every year. Often they lie down flat and just scoop in the green stuff. This guy got up and wandered up toward the house, sniffing and sniffing, then stood under the edge of the deck to sniff some more. No doubt the aroma of peanut butter was in the air. Before I could say oh-oh, the bear shot up a nearby tree like lightning, just a black blur. It went up above the roof level, out of sight. Now, I’m not too enthusiastic about a bear on my roof (or deck). I raced outside to check the roof, but by then it was already down and gone. The tree was just a bit too far away from roof and deck. But just in case, I have moved the alluring feeder to the other end of the deck; the birds are getting used to the new arrangement.

One more bear story: A medium-size cinnamon bear came and foraged on horsetail. That gave me time to see that she looked like she’d worn a collar for a long time because her fur was very worn in a circle around the neck, but she had no visible ear tags. Eventually, she started to wander out of sight. Immediately, an alder tree across the pond gave a violent shudder, and a massive glossy-black bear suddenly appeared in the yard. He chomped a couple of horsetails but was much more interested in her, and he followed her off into the neighbors’ yard. It’s that time of year for bears!