Autumn arrives…

…gradually!

Fall is unofficially here, whatever the calendar says: fireweed has gone to seed, sending parachuted offspring into the breezes. Geese are numerous on the wetlands, with more arriving from time to time; more flocks are landing in the big meadow near the Boy Scout camp. Some male mallards are showing signs of developing their breeding plumage. Robins are flocking up and shorebirds have gone south. Cottonwood trees have a few golden leaves, which are released one by one to float gracefully to earth.

Most of the wildflowers (at sea level) have finished blooming. The tall stalks of cow parsnip stand sere and brown. Here and there I can find the very last flowers of lupine and beach pea, but yellow rattle and yarrow still have some fresh flowers, and yellow paintbrush looks good. Among the late bloomers are hemlock parsley and purple asters (not to be confused with the purple daisy, which usually blooms earlier at sea level). Marsh felwort is always late to appear.

The woods are showy with red berries: bunchberry, elderberry, baneberry, the native species of mountain ash, and devil’s club. It has been a good year for high-bush cranberry too; some of the flexible branches droop with the weight of fruit.

Here are a few observations from the last half of August:

–We spotted two small Columbia spotted frogs near lower Dredge Creek; they are known to breed in this area and at the community gardens.

–As I drove Out The Road one day, I noticed severe alder defoliation over long stretches of roadside. The woolly alder sawflies, assisted by the green alder sawflies, have been busy skeletonizing the leaves.

–I recently learned a new plant—a non-native perennial that appears in spots around here. I noticed it in a big clump at the beginning of the Horse Tram trail near the Eagle Valley Center. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a native, so I took a specimen to the Arboretum for the expert horticulturalist to identify. It’s comfrey (Symphytum officinale), known to gardeners as an exotic,noxious weed that spreads itself by thick underground stems(and presumably by seeds, but I found no information about seed dispersal). The pink flowers are pollinated by nectar-gathering bees, which are said to shake loose the pollen by vibrating their bodies when they are inside the flowers, but some bees can be nectar robbers and not pollinators. It is reported to be poisonous, but it also has medicinal uses.

–Along the dike trail, on the lower section before the gazebo, we noticed large stands of another invasive, exotic plant: hemp nettle, native to Eurasia. There are several species in the genus (Galeopsis). The small pink flowers are said to be bee-pollinated, but the species in our area may self-pollinate. This annual plant earns its nettlesome name by the fact that it is spiky all over (almost). The stem bears small sharp spines, the leaves are a bit bristly, and the narrow calyx that cups the base of the flower has major spines, several millimeters long. Woe betideany critter that bites or grabs this plant.

Hemp nettle

The seeds have no special device for dispersal and probably just fall to the ground, but they don’t remain viable for more than three years. A flower can make severaI seeds, which lie in the base of the cup formed by the calyx. Each plump seed is almostthree millimeters long. I was fascinated to learn that, in Europe, the seeds of an unnamed species of Galeopsis are harvested and cached by Willow Tits and used for winter food. I wonder how they do that (assuming that the birds harvest the seeds directly from the plant and not from the ground). For the species we have here (G. tetrahit), the narrow calyx cup is six or seven millimeters deep, rimmed with five sharp spines about four millimeters long. If the hemp nettle species harvested by willow tits is similar, wouldn’t the birds get stabbed in the face? And I also wonder if our chickadees will learn to do this!

–Another local naturalist observed some juvenile ravens at Eagle Beach. One of them carried a spruce cone, laid it down, and deftly extracted the seeds, one after another. Where did it get the idea—maybe from watching some other critter? Had it done this before? In any case, this seems like unusual and interesting behavior.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Thanks to Elizabeth Graham, FSL-USFS, for info on alder sawflies, Ginger Hudson at the Arboretum for identifying comfrey and showing me the hefty rhizomes, and Bob Armstrong for the raven observation.

Diverse musings

on oystercatchers, pinesap, and spittlebugs

At the mouth of Cowee Creek, sometime in mid-June, we’d found a vigilant pair of black oystercatchers, presumably with a nest nearby. A couple of weeks later, a small group of hikers stopped at the same spot and quickly noted that the adult oystercatchers were tending two tiny, downy chicks. The chicks had hatched quite recently; their legs and especially their bills were still very short (it would be impossible to fit an adult-size bill inside an egg). One adult guarded them closely while the other made short forays down the beach for food.

Oystercatcher chick. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Black oystercatchers are beach-nesters; both male and female construct the nest, which is usually made of rock and shell fragments. There may be one to three eggs per clutch, incubated for about four weeks by both parents. Eggs are reported to be tolerant of flooding by high tides. The chicks can walk and swim well three days after hatching; after about five days, they start to peck at possible food items. Very young chicks are fed mostly by the male, while the female broods or guards them. Later, when chicks can follow adults to feeding sites, the female takes a more active role in feeding them. Young ones may begin to forage for themselves at about ten days, but they are just learning, taking fewer and poorer items than the adults. They gain weight quickly, but elongation of legs and bills takes longer. Even at seven weeks, chicks get much of their food from the parents, mostly marine molluscs, the large ones cut up into conveniently small pieces. They can fly, then, but in general they are not fully skilled at foraging until they are about three years old. Human disturbance can lead to prolonged incubation and fledgling times.

The trail down to Cowee Meadow provided a nice surprise—a small, yellowish-pink, peculiar-looking plant with no green color at all. This plant is called pinesap, and we don’t see it very often. Without green pigments, it is not capable of photosynthesis and making its own nutrition. It is indirectly parasitic, tapping into the mutualistic mycorrhizal fungi that connect many green plants and carry nutrients from one to another. Connections to those nutrient-transporting fungi turn out to be essential for growth and flowering, and even seed germination of pinesap. The plant is subterranean except for the inflorescence, which pushes its way up above ground. The flowers contain nectar, and bumblebees are thought to be the main pollinators (although there may be some self-pollination too). At first, the flowers are pendant, but they tilt upward when the seed capsule is mature, thus facilitating seed dispersal.

Pinesap

By the end of June, the herbaceous vegetation in many meadows was decorated with the foam ‘houses’ of spittlebugs. Adult spittlebugs (a.k.a. froghoppers) can fly as well as hop, and they forage by sucking sap from the fluid-conducting tissues of plants. Stealing sap from plants can reduce the health and reproductive output of the plant, so gardeners and farmers don’t like spittlebugs. The bugs are also known to transmit certain diseases from plant to plant.

Spittlebug sign on fireweed

There are many species of spittlebug; the best-studied species lays eggs in plant tissues in late summer and fall; the overwintering eggs hatch in spring. The larvae (called nymphs) are sap-suckers too. They disperse from the hatching site, and once they get to a good feeding spot, they tend to stay put, molting several times as they grow inside that foam ‘house’. They produce the foam by mixing air and excess fluid from the gut with secretions (from the end of the abdomen) that stabilize the bubbles. The foam helps protect them from predators and parasites, perhaps various micro-organisms, temperature extremes, and desiccation. Sometimes several nymphs share a foam ‘house’.

Sap is not very nutritious, but spittlebugs (and many other sap-feeding insects) have help: inside certain abdominal cells are very specialized symbiotic bacteria that provide amino acids and vitamins that are used by the host insect for growth and maintenance. These helpful bacteria are apparently passed from mothers to offspring.

Mid-June

bird fun in a sunny spell

As June progressed, there was an assortment of interesting observations in my yard. Chickadees and red-breasted nuthatch juveniles, fully volant, pursued their parents energetically. The number of hummingbirds at my feeder increased dramatically, as the juveniles from (probably) two nests figured out there were goodies there. As they became more numerous, so did the conflicts among them; a male appeared more often than before, adding to the fuss. One brood of juncos had big, streak-breasted juveniles, while another one had fluffy new fledglings that didn’t yet have their juvenile stripes.

One brood of just two mallard ducklings had passed through my pond, never to be seen again. There were lots of empty days with no ducklings, and then a surprise! Just after Solstice, a late brood of eight small ducklings came by. But they, too, disappeared. In many other years, there have been several broods that spend lots of time on my pond, but this year is different.

Mallard brood. Photo by Helen Unruh

Hummingbird feeders sometimes attract opportunist foragers in addition to their intended guests. A feeder in Wisconsin occasionally draws orioles and house finches. Here, yellow warblers and orange-crowned warblers come occasionally, and one local observer even recorded a downy woodpecker that regularly hung on a feeder while sipping sugar water.

At Kingfisher Pond, the red-winged blackbirds had fledglings of different ages, from different nests. And, to my surprise, I found a male yellowthroat singing and foraging in the brush and sedges on the edge of the pond. This warbler is not common here: very few spring sightings are noted on e-bird for Juneau. I think I recall that my field crew and I found one nesting in a Valley meadow, many years ago.

Red-winged blackbird fledgling. Photo by Helen Unruh

Common yellowthroats breed all across much of North American, wintering in southern U.S. and Central America. They often nest in wetlands, but sometimes also use various other habitats offering thick vegetation near the ground, such as burned-over oak forest and shrub thickets in pine forest. Male yellowthroats are territorial. Social monogamy is the rule, but both sexes frequently look for extra-pair matings (as is common among songbirds). The female builds the nest and incubates a clutch of about four eggs; the male may bring her occasional snacks. Both parents feed the chicks, which can leave the nest when about eight days old, reaching complete independence in four or five weeks. They typically mature at when they are a year old.

Common yellowthroat. Photo by Helen Unruh

Yellowthroats here seem to be at the very fringe of their geographic range. So I hope the fellow at Kingfisher Pond found a mate and raises some chicks. 

Along the trails, chunky young varied thrushes, startled by our passing by, thrashed their way up from the bushes into the trees; they already looked a lot like adults but for the short tail. Two fledgling Pacific wrens, more curious than frightened, peered out of the bushes, ignoring the warning chip-notes of a nearby parent. The pair of greater yellowlegs in the lower Spaulding meadows vigorously and unrelentingly protested our presence, so it was clear that they still had chicks running around somewhere, but this time I didn’t see them. A hermit thrush perched next to the trail while giving an odd whining sort of callfor several minutes, so I suspect it had young ones nearby.

On the Lake Creek trail, a tall snag showed lots of signs of use by woodpeckers—over a dozen holes along its length. One of them was occupied this year, as evidenced by the scuff marks below the hole and shrill calls emanating from within. The chicks were still too small to stick their heads out, so the attentive adults were not met at the door. That would soon change, as the older nestlings begin to anticipate arrivals of the adults. 

Out at Eagle Beach on a sunny day not long after Solstice, a family for four ravens foraged together in a tide pool close to the upper beach. As I settled down on a log to watch them, another bunch of five ravens came out from the forest, making a big racket, and landed on the beach, still yelling. After standing around for a few minutes, one (which turned out to be an adult) ambled down to a patch of low intertidal vegetation to forage, eventually moving back up-beach to pick up and swallow invisibly tiny items from clumps of drying algae. Presently, two of the young, squawking ravens ventured down to a stand of sea milkwort and goose-tongue and desultorily pecked here and there for small things. A third one continued to yell as it followed the adult along the beach; the adult went on, setting a good example for the juvenile. This young one occasionally jabbed its bill at something but was clearly more interested in yelling than in feeding for itself. After a little while, the adult and these three juveniles all took off in a hurry and sailed way down the beach somewhere. That left one juvenile in the original landing spot, where it had hunkered down and apparently gone to sleep. But when the others took off, this one stood up and began to squawk—quite softly. And there it still was, many minutes later, all by itself. I didn’t stay to see if there was a reunion.

Red-winged blackbirds

bold and territorial wetland nesters

Red-wings are found all over North America, barring the very far north and some patches of unlivable habitat. They are here in Juneau, too; two easy places to see them are Kingfisher Pond in the Lemon Creek area and the Duck Creek Greenway near Nancy Street in the Valley. I’ve had fun this spring, hanging out near these little wetlands and watching their behavior. And they used to nest in the wet meadow area between Sunny Point and Fred’s, but I haven’t seen them there for years.

My ties to Red-wings go back decades, to the beginning of my career, which began in the marshes of eastern Washington, where I studied yellow-headed blackbirds that nested in the same marshes as red-wings. The two species are interspecifically territorial, defending territory borders against each other as well as against members of their own species. Both species are often polygynous; a male’s territory commonly included the sub-territories of several females.

Red-wing males are fiercely territorial, defending their space by singing and displaying their showy red epaulets, flying from perch to perch to cover all their borders. A really intense confrontation between two males involves perching next to each other, standing upright and very sleek, pointing their bills to the skies. Males after their first winter are often called first-year males; their plumage is not fully black but some of the back and chest feathers have brownish edges. In addition, their epaulets are not as intensively red as those of full adults. First-year males are capable of breeding and sometimes invade the territories of adults or attempt to set up territories of their own but they are usually subordinate to full adults. They mature fully by the second year and then can hold their own quite well. Incidentally, those ‘epaulets’ appear to be on the shoulder (hence the name)when the wing is folded, but they are not close to the shoulder joint–they are really closer to the wrist joint.

Females hold sub-territories within a male’s territory and defend their borders against other females. They choose where to settle using many kinds of clues, including especially habitat quality, but also characteristics of the males, and perhaps an assessment of space-available on a male’s territory. In some cases, a preference for unmated males occurs, but it is commonlyovercome by the other considerations. Although it is common for a male’s harem to have three or four females, the record number seems to be fifteen females on the territory of one male.As is true for many other songbirds, it is not uncommon for a nest to harbor chicks with two or even more fathers, the result of so-called extra-pair sexual activity.

Females build the nest, usually suspended from wetland vegetation, and do the incubating of eggs. Males help feed their chicks in some populations but not in others. So far, I haven’t seen the males at Kingfisher Pond attend to active nests at all.

Blackbird female and chick. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Red-wings generally prefer to nest in wetlands, although they sometimes use agricultural fields and other upland habitats.They eat various insects and even seeds in the breeding season. Their favorite foods include dragonflies and damselflies, which are particularly vulnerable to capture at a time of transition between aquatic living of larvae (called naiads) and aerial living of the adults. The aquatic naiads crawl up on the wetland vegetation, split open the exoskeleton, and emerge as adults; this usually takes several hours, at least. Furthermore, initially those new adults (called tenerals) are soft-bodied and their wings need some time to expand and harden so the adult can fly. And that’s when the blackbirds can nab them easily. 

Red-wings are feisty birds, ready to defend their holdings against intruders and potential predators. This they do by screaming, making diving attacks, chasing, and even physically attacking. They chase crows and ravens, hawks and even eagles (https://vimeo.com/564686399.

A blackbird chasing a northern harrier. Photo by Kerry Howard

One drizzly day, I wore a black rain jacket when I went to see what was happening at Kingfisher Pond. The male redwing whose territory includes the platform and adjacent sedges went crazy. He made the ‘check’ notes of annoyance and the whistle-like call of alarm for many minutes and swooped low just over my head several times. He’d never done this on earlier visits (sans black jacket), so I conclude, provisionally, that he really did NOT like my black jacket. Perhaps I reminded him of crows and ravens, potential predators who would be chased if they got that close.

Cowee Meadows observations

of blossoms and breeding oystercatchers

A splendid, sunny day at the end of May called for a visit to the flowery meadows on the Pt. Bridget trail. The day started off well—in the first muskeg near the trailhead, we saw flowers of eight species. As a bonus, “Quick, three beers!” sounded repeatedly from the edge of the muskeg—my first olive-sided flycatcher of the year.

Bracken fern was still unfolding along the trail into the forest and a few more flowers there were added to the list. A Pacific wren sang and a sapsucker called from a dead tree. Small white butterflies made courtship pursuits and a few tiny blue butterflies flitted by. The skunk cabbages were fading, but many of the sturdy inflorescences entertained a variety of small flies and beetles; the beetles are thought to be the main pollinators of skunk cabbages, but perhaps the flies can do the job too.

Emerging into the main lowland meadows, we were greeted by a wide expanse of bright yellow, chiefly buttercups in full bloom, with some tall blue lupines adding a bit of micro-topography. Below that cheerful canopy was an understory of pinky-purple shooting stars, and in certain places there was an under-understory of white strawberry flowers. It would be a while before the irises bloom; as expected, the buds were still small and safely enfolded in the vertical leaves. Wilson’s warblers sang along the edge of the meadows and savannah sparrows popped up out of the meadow greenery briefly, before diving back into cover.

Dawdling along, looking at flowers and bugs, we finally reached the estuary of Cowee Creek and settled onto a log at the very upper edge of the beach for a picnic. There we were greeted by strident calls and a black bird with a long red bill (and oddly pale legs) marched toward us while his mate lingered down by the water. I hadn’t been scolded by an oystercatcher for ages, so this was a welcome sound. This fellow walked up from the water-side, over a stretch of cobbles, until he was about thirty feet from our log. There he walked back and forth, parallel to the upper edge of the beach but below the highest tide line, as if patrolling a boundary. When we showed no signs of further encroachment, he settled down on a rock to watch for many minutes. He took time off to chase a raven upstream but came back to his guard duty. As we packed up to leave, he ambled down to his mate by the water. They will nest just above the high tide line, laying eggs in a shallow cup of sand.

Photo by Kerry Howard

Meanwhile, four female mergansers floated on the big creek, causing me to wonder if they were not nesting this year. A kingfisher hovered for a long time over a side channel, then dove and flew downstream out of sight, so its hunting success was unrecorded.

There are several large stands of sweetgale out in the meadows. This aromatic shrub has separate sexes, distinguishable by the flowering spikes: female spikes are smaller and bear a red tuft on the tip. As we’ve observed on previous trips out here, female individuals seem to be much rarer than males. But why??

By the time we got back to the car, we’d tallied over thirty species of flowers. Not bad for a partial tour of those big meadows. I was pleased to see small flies of several types visiting some of these flowers, along with a few small bees. Bumblebees were scarce, but a few zoomed around and one landed on a lupine. This activity was a big contrast to a recent walk up the Crow Hill trail, on an equally nice day, when not a single flower had an insect visit.

The main trail has been greatly improved by the trail crews, and it looks like they intend to deal with a few more spots. No-see’ums and mosquitos were all too active and will become more so…

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.