Bog plants and bird feeder

there are things to wonder about everywhere!

Just after mid-May, the alders and cottonwoods were suddenly (so it seemed) in full leaf, the fresh, bright green a pleasant contrast with the dark conifers. Even the blueberries and other understory shrubs made a new layer of green above the mosses. Hermit thrushes added their welcome voices to the canopy and fox sparrows tuned up in the thickets.

Early in the fourth week of May, I poked around in some low-elevation bogs (muskegs). Several species were beginning to flower—bog blueberry with deep pink buds and young flowers, bog laurel with broad, pink petals, and bog rosemary with small, pink flowers. The white flowers of trailing raspberry (or five-leaf bramble) starred the mosses under the scattered trees. The distinctive few-flowered sedge was surprisingly colorful, with vibrant green leaves and a yellowish inflorescence. An unidentified sedge with pale green leaves was common but only a few were yet in flower. Labrador tea, lupines, and buckbean were budding. Round-leaf sundews were still just tiny rosettes, their sticky, insect-catching leaves glittering in the sun.

I found a single specimen of a weird little herb (Geocaulon lividum) sometimes called bastard toadflax , but also known as pumpkinberry or timberberry or other common names. Seldom common, it is nevertheless widely distributed across northern North America. It’s a hemiparasite—getting some of its nutrition from its green leaves and some by parasitizing the roots of other plants. It’s not fussy about its host plants; it parasitizes anything and everything from pine trees and blueberry bushes to asters and horsetails to sedges and grasses and even others of its own species.

Photo by David Bergeson

This plant makes only a few small inflorescences; each inflorescence typically has three flowers, usually one female flower in the middle, flanked by two male flowers that drop off eventually. The open flowers are dull yellowish-green with purple marks and I’m guessing they are pollinated by flies or beetles. The orange-red fruits are few, each one with a single seed. Very little seems to be known about seed germination and dispersal. But the seeds are sometimes harvested and cached by Arctic ground squirrels up north and presumably eaten, perhaps sometimes dispersed, by other rodents. It seems likely that birds would take the colorful, fleshy fruit and potentially disperse the seeds.

The fruit has plenty of sugar in it, especially when fully ripe at the end of the season (usually late summer). Estimates of sugar content found that each fruit has about thirty milligrams of sugar, which is more than blueberries or most other fruits in Southeast. Despite the sugar content, the fruit is reported to be just barely edible or tasteless to humans.

Here at home, there’s lots of action on the pond. As many as five male mallards gather, all good pals now that their lady friends are incubating eggs. That changes, though, when one late-nesting (or re-nesting) couple shows up, and the male of that pair harasses the peaceful gang, keeping them well away from his mate.

The bird feeders are busy places. Siskins, juncos, chickadees, and nuthatches visit the seed feeder that hangs over the pond. A jay slams into the side of that feeder, knocking cascades of seeds down for the ducks.

The peanut-butter feeders are the most fun. They’re just little blocks of wood with pits drilled into them, to hold a small gob of peanut butter. Chickadees and nuthatches went crazy over them, but now the juncos almost monopolize them. Juncos are not nearly as agile as the smaller birds, but they cling and stretch (and often fall off) to get a nice bite. Sometimes they perch on the deck railing and fly up to stab and grab out a bill-full.

The jay does the stab-and-grab method too, but he’s a bit rougher, hitting one of the smaller peanut-butter feeders hard enough to knock it off its hanger, so it fell to the deck and broke into four pieces. But that’s not the end of the jay’s mischief. It has started to come to the deck railing to scarf up leftover bits of cat food that I commonly leave out for a raven. One day that jay made off with a whole set of chicken ribs, a load that it could barely carry to a nearby tree. The raven was out of luck again.

Columbia Spotted Frogs

a glimpse of some little-known local amphibians

A friend told me about a place where frogs were breeding, so I went to look. Not a frog in sight, except for a pair of legs disappearing under an algal mat. But I went back a few hours later, when the day had warmed up, and there they were—at least a dozen of them. The males were singing, if one can call it that: the ‘song’ is a series of grunts, and different males sang on slightly different pitches. Occasionally an eager male approached another frog and tried to grab it from behind, which is the usual position for fertilizing eggs as they emerge from a female. Males have sturdy forearms and strong thumbs for the purpose of holding a female in an embrace called amplexus. But as I watched, the male was kicked off by the presumed female; either she wasn’t ready to mate or ‘she’ was really another ‘he’.

Those singing frogs are probably Columbia spotted frogs, which are native to Southeast Alaska, occurring chiefly in the transboundary river valleys. How they got to Juneau is not known—possibly with help from humans. However, in recent years, they have been seen in several places in the Mendenhall Valley and, a few years ago, specimens were sent to an expert for genetic analysis, which determined the species identity.

Columbia-spotted-frog-Kerry-howard
Photo by Kerry Howard

Columbia spotted frogs hibernate in ponds, springs, beaver dams, and under stream cut-banks where it doesn’t freeze and moisture has adequate dissolved oxygen for them to breathe (through the skin). However, they are not dormant in winter; they can move around, sometimes several meters underwater to a new wintering spot. Come spring, males emerge first; they (unusual for amphibians) then choose an egg-laying site in warm, shallow water. Later-emerging females (up to 100mm long) find the males’ chosen sites. They are larger than males (up to about 70mm) and can lay hundreds of eggs in a globular mass.

Each fertilized egg is surrounded by two jelly layers and takes up to three weeks to hatch; the time is shorter when the water is warm. The tadpoles are about eight millimeters long when they hatch. They can grow up to ninety millimeters (total length) by the time they lose their tails, grow legs, and look like little frogs, but some transform at smaller sizes. If conditions are right, they may transform in their first summer, but otherwise they can hibernate until the next year. The froglets grow but don’t become sexually mature for two to six years, depending on conditions. Males mature at an earlier age than females but have shorter lives, on average. Adults can live for several years: in some regions up to about twelve years for females and ten years for males, but elsewhere just seven years for females and three for males.

The frogs feed primarily on a variety of small insects but also eat snails, worms, and (rarely) a tadpole. Tadpoles are typically herbivorous: they scrape vegetation and filter the fragments; they also filter detritus and occasionally scrape a dying tadpole.

Spotted frogs show a fair degree of site fidelity for breeding and hibernation. They can travel quite long distances overland, from a hibernation site to a breeding site. Then they may move to a summer feeding site and eventually back to a hibernation site. Travels up to about six hundred meters long have been recorded.

This species, along with other amphibians in North America, is at risk from a lethal fungus infection that has decimated other amphibian populations. Spotted frogs (and our western toads, wood frogs, and other native amphibians) are legally protected: one is not allowed to “hold, transport, or release” them without a permit from ADFG.

Strange winter

a bricolage of encounters and observations

December was so warm that beavers stayed active, collecting branches for their winter caches and dam repairs, leaving trails in a thin snow cover. The snow recorded the passage of an otter, sliding over a sand bar in Eagle River. That thin layer of snow also collected a tremendous number of male spruce cones, raising the question of why the trees retained those cones so long after the pollen was shed.

January was more wintery, with a good snowfall and nice cold temperatures. Ptarmigan had come down to the Treadwell Ditch, wandering widely and seldom stopping, apparently not finding much to eat.

On the lower ski loop at Eaglecrest, wildlife had been very active. Porcupines, large and small, had wandered far and wide, leaving their broad furrows and baby-size footprints. As we perched on a log for lunch, a flock of chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets conversed and foraged in a nearby hemlock.

There were lots of deer tracks, of different sizes. The deer trails often followed the edge of the woods, and the lower branches there held only fragments of the dangling lichen Alectoria, suggesting that the deer had been eating one of their good winter foods. Bunchberry plants had been grazed from the bases of trees, leaving stem stubs where deer noses had cleared the snow.

Shrews had left their tiny furrows on top of the snow, leading from one dime-sized hole to another, where a shrew had come to the surface and gone back down under the white blanket. Why do they come out in the open, sometimes travelling many yards before diving back down? That’s a long way to go for the occasional spider crawling slowly on the surface…

Driving out the road, we noticed many small groups of varied thrushes picking small items from the roadside. What are they getting? Grit? Blown seeds? Salt? A subsequent stroll on the Boy Scout beach discovered numerous tiny pinkish shrimp washed up (why?) by a moderately high tide. Ravens attracted by our lunch group lined up on a log came in to scrounge our offerings and then nibbled some of the shrimp.

The long, deep cold in January kept the snow beautifully, brightening the landscape. At my house the temperatures didn’t rise above freezing for many days, dropping to single digits at night. Mrs Nuthatch came to the peanut butter feeder long before there was decent daylight. Mink had been active in several places. One explored the shores of Norton Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec Area, not stopping and clearly going Someplace. Another mink, at Eagle Beach, had made tunnels in deep snow, periodically popping up to the surface but diving right back down. ?Searching?

The prolonged deep freeze let me hope that the ice on the ponds in the MGRA would be sound enough to walk on (with snowshoes, to distribute the weight). However, the ice on Glacier Lake was chancey: there were a few spots of open water and some mushy places. So we crept around the edges to see what we could see. An otter had better travelling over the ice, leaving its trail of prints and a slide between spots where it had dug down through the slushy snow. Was it thinking about getting through the ice to look for fish?

Then warmer weather came back, with rains that ruined the lovely snow. At my house, a raven has come to expect occasional tidbits on my deck railing. One morning I put out some pieces of pie crust. In it came, as if it had been waiting, and grabbed the larger chunks. Then, with the bill crammed, it tried to collect the smaller bits. No luck. So it figured out that it had to drop the big ones, eat the small ones, and then pick up the big ones to carry away.

Down on the surface of my pond, I noticed a female mallard, grubbing for spilled seed in the slush under the suspended feeder. She dug and dug, sometimes burying her whole head, for more than ten minutes. Then she walked to open water downstream, leaving her wide trail in the slush. Late in the afternoon, she came back and did it all over again. I bet this duck is one that hung out here in the summer and remembered this food source.

Winter may be here

edging into a colder season

The days grow shorter and darker, until we turn a corner at the winter solstice and the sun slowly starts to come back. At this time of year, my little excursions tend to be short too. Even so, some things of interest always appear.

Around Thanksgiving time, the West Glacier Trail offered a spectacular collection of hair-frost displays. A cold snap froze many rain-soaked sticks, forcing out thin strands of ice. Some displays featured long stretches of two-inch long curved strands; other displays had multiple sets of shorter strands, each one curling in a different direction, like an enviably wavy hairdo.

Dippers were sometimes foraging and singing in Steep Creek. Two otters, possibly a female with a juvenile, were fossicking about in a nearby pond, observable from the viewing platform. Eventually they went over a small ridge toward the pavilion—and as I went up the ramp in the same direction, I could look down into another pond, where I saw the otters again. The bigger one caught a nice coho and both otters went up the bank to feast. Later, I learned that this was a fish that had been radio-tagged by the Forest Service in the Holding Pond—a fish that apparently backed out and went farther up-river to try Steep Creek instead. The remains of this fish were found by a Forest Service fish biologist.

At the lower end of Steep Creek, a beaver dam slows the main stream just before it reaches the lake and creates a good pond for the beavers’ lodge. Unfortunately, in late November and early December, some very unhelpful person(s) were destroying part of this dam, which thus drastically lowered the water level in the pond. This vandalism served no useful purpose whatsoever. The pond protects the entrances of the beaver lodge; this is the lodge featured in the educational ‘beaver cam’ in the visitor center, allowing visitors to see beavers at home. The pond is also habitat for over-wintering juvenile salmon, as well as feeding sites for dippers and ducks. There were no more coho coming in, and in any case, they commonly enter this pond over a small dam off to the side. Fortunately, a spell of warm weather melted the ice and allowed the beavers to repair the breach in the dam to some degree—there were several new beaver trails going up the banks, for collecting more repair material.

I like to walk along the lake shores when the water level comes down. It’s often a good place to look for animal tracks and sometimes an unusual bird. In late November, I found a nice group of swans in the Old River Channel—three adults and a juvenile—in a spot that seems to be popular with swans on migration.

Then, at the very end of November, there was some snow at Eaglecrest, so it was fun to see what animals had been out and about. Two little explorations with friends noted the usual perpetrators– hare, porcupine, weasel, red squirrel, shrew, a possible coyote, and numerous tracks of deer of all sizes. By the end of the first week of December, there was a lovely thick blanket of snow, traveled by the same array of critters and, by us, on snowshoes. In addition, a small bird, probably a junco, had hopped over a still-open rivulet and spent a lot of time jumping up to reach some seed heads that poked up out of the snow.

In early December, the snow in one of the lower meadows on Douglas was too crusty for the tracks of small things. But again there were lot of deer tracks. A tiny shore pine, no more than three feet tall but possibly quite old, did not seem to be doing very well. It had only eleven tufts of needles on the few living branches. But it bore dozens of old cones—perhaps this was its last attempt to reproduce.

Over on the Outer Point Trail on north Douglas, a friend and I remarked with great pleasure that the recently revised and improved trail passes just below the long beaver dam, leaving the dam undisturbed. Major kudos to CBJ and Trail Mix for using ecological sense!

In the first muskeg after that beaver dam, I noticed something that I should have seen on one of the many times I’ve passed that way: Most of the small pines (less than about three feet tall) were thriving, but virtually all of the mid-size ones (six to ten feet tall or so) were dead. This pattern is not repeated in other muskegs that I have visited recently. So the question is What kind of event(s) might have wiped out a whole size-class of shore pines in this place?

On our way down to the beach, we spotted a few varied thrushes and a red-breasted sapsucker that should have been on its way south by now. We startled a small porcupine, who scuttled off a few feet and waited for us to pass. At the uppermost edge of the beach, a sprawling little herbaceous plant had green leaves and out-of-season buds. Two alders had crossed their branches very closely, rubbing hard against each other until each one had flattened scars where the rubbing occurred. We joked that now they are just ‘rubbing along together’ more or less comfortably.

A stroll with another friend in the Dredge Lake area was not very eventful until we were almost finished. On the trail ahead of us, we spotted two birds. It was so dark that almost no color could be discerned, so it took us a minute to decide what they were. Juncos? No, too big and they were walking not hopping. Blackbirds? No, tail is too short and bill is too stout. Then one of them hopped up into a nearby shrub and a white wing bar could be imagined. But what really gave them away was their characteristic behavior: they were snatching the fruits of high-bush cranberry, stripping and dropping bits of pulp, and gulping down the seed. Bingo! Pine grosbeaks doing their namesake behavior: their scientific name is Pinicola enucleator, meaning pine dweller that extracts ‘nuts’ or seeds.

Horse Tram Trail

new developments along an old trail

In the early 1900s, exploring gold miners discovered good prospects near Eagle Glacier, ultimately establishing the Eagle River Mine and the settlement of Amalga. To service the settlement and the mine, a horse tram ran between there and a salt-water cove with a good landing beach for boats. The horse tram route went from the landing beach, over into the west side of the big meadow near the Eagle Valley Center, northward over the low pass toward Herbert River, over that river and up the flood plain, eventually crossing Eagle River and reaching Amalga. The mine and settlement lasted less than three decades but left a residue of scrap metal and other junk behind. The steel rails of the horse tram are still to be seen, in places, and the dike that raised the rails above the wet meadow is still there (now sporting a row of small trees).

CBJ decided to make a trail connection between the Eagle River Landing beach and the Boy Scout Camp/Crow Point trail that goes along the lower Herbert River. This connecting route avoids the big meadow, which is home to interesting wildlife and plants. Instead, it goes from the landing beach on an existing informal trail up a hill and through a small muskeg, rejoining (approximately) the old horse tram route on the north side of the low pass. Total length is about a mile and three-tenths.

Most of the new route is presently a morass of mud roiled up by hikers’ feet, but this year Trail Mix has begun some serious trail improvement. Just after the first bridge on the Boy Scout Camp trail, a wide, packed-gravel trail starts up the hill. It soon parallels part of the old horse tram route for several hundred yards; the tram route itself has become an eroded drainage ditch that channels water down the hill. Broken branches, rocks, and other debris line the new trail, waiting to be covered by mosses and lichens. Not far from the end of this year’s work, there is a junction, where the old tram route goes over the low pass to the big meadow and the new route heads up the hill.

Coming up the other side of the hill, from the landing beach, the trail crosses a small creek and turns up a route that was partly graveled some time ago. As it approaches the top of the hill, however, cribs made of logs await loads of gravel to fill the mud-holes that the cribs now guard. The first layer will be gravel from the beach; that will be topped by the same kind of gravel that surfaces the rest of the trail. I’m told that it takes a Corps of Engineers permit to put gravel down on a trail—does all of Juneau qualify as a ‘wetland’?

CBJ hopes to connect the two ends of this trail next year (2020). In the meantime, a new spur trail has been cut and graveled to a new clear-cut above a rocky beach not far from the landing beach. CBJ intends to build a cabin there: supported on concrete posts, the cabin will be built from an Icy Straits kit, delivered to this beach by landing craft. It will resemble the cabins at Eagle Beach State park but have a larger deck; the view will be very pleasing. The cut timber will be used to build an outhouse. CBJ hopes to have the cabin available for rental (from Parks &Rec) by next summer.

Two other CBJ trail projects have been funded and are planned for next year. The Amalga Meadows Trail (a short six-tenths of a mile) from the Eagle Valley Center to the Eagle River Landing beach will get a new bridge over the slough, probably next year. The Brotherhood Bridge (Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei) will get a new section that reroutes the beginning of the trail at some distance from the Mendenhall River, avoiding the rapidly eroding bank. The new trailhead is at the north end of the parking lot; the new section goes right across the meadow and joins the existing trail where the forest begins. It should be paved next spring. The entire trail will be repaved and the eroding bridge over Montana Creek replaced, possibly beginning in 2021.

Other projects on the CBJ list still require funding, so (I’m guessing) perhaps by the time full funding becomes available, still other projects will be on the list. But for now, work is planned for the Switzer Creek trail system, the Lena Point trail, and the Rain Forest Trail on North Douglas.

Thanks to George Schaaf, Director of CBJ Parks and Rec for information on planned work.

Mushrooms at Crow Point

fairy rings and soldier parades

A walk on the Boy Scout beach/Crow Point trail is almost always rewarding. There’s a variety of habitats, each of which changes with the seasons in its own way.

In late September, there were no geese to be seen in the big tidal meadow or in the river’s estuary. A northern harrier in brown plumage (female or juvenile) coursed low over the river and meadows, spooking at least one crow. A bit above the highest part of the beach, the last flowers of wild strawberry shone on a background of dark green. Several flocks of pine siskins flitted over the seed heads of meadow plants or zoomed between stands of conifers.

On the way from the parking lot to the beach, in the first riverside meadow, the trail had previously been re-routed to accommodate bank erosion. But this time, another large chunk of the bank had fallen into the river, leading to another trail diversion.

Rather than walk the long beach, I chose to weave my way in and out of the spruce groves that line the berm along the shore. These groves sometimes produce interesting finds, such as a bear skeleton or a flourishing stand of orchids.

This time, it was a mushroom show. I know next to nothing about mushrooms, unfortunately. But I was attracted to three in particular. A medium-sized brown one typically grew in long, curved chains. Troops of very small white ones clustered between spruce roots. (I called these ‘armies’, and a friend saw them as pilgrims on a mission, but ‘troops’ is an accepted informal term, I’ve read). My favorites were tiny yellow ones with orange centers on the cap. These usually grew in troops on the berm, especially in some of the groves.

Tricholoma-fairy-ring-Pam
Trichloma fairy ring. Photo by Pam Bergeson

To give me some guidance, I enlisted the help of a friend who does know a lot about mushrooms, and we went out there again a few days later. We made only slow progress as we walked along, because there were so many different mushrooms to look at and discuss. There were lots of Amanita muscaria (common name: fly agaric), both red and yellow varieties. They had the customary whitish ‘warts’ on the cap—except when they’d been washed off by heavy rain. (I call the white bits scattered on the cap ‘streusel’, like the crumbly mixture often scattered on muffins or coffee cake). We found huge boletes, now aged and no longer desirable for eating by humans but other critters had been feasting. There were more kinds of brown-capped mushrooms than my old brain could begin to assimilate.

I learned that the curved chains of brown-capped mushrooms belonged to the genus Tricholoma (I decided, early on, that getting the name of the genus was enough for now; species names could wait). Tricholoma fungi form mycorrhizal associations with tree roots, providing soil nutrients to the trees and obtaining carbohydrates made by the trees’ green leaves. The long sweeping arcs sometimes exceeded fifteen feet in length. Shorter arcs made nearly complete rings. So-called ‘fairy rings’ of mushrooms are well-known in both mythology and mycology (the study of fungi), but I have not found a coherent explanation of why they form these arcs in some cases but not in others.

The numerous troops of small whitish mushrooms turned out to be of several species, mostly in the genus Mycena, but a few in the genus Collybia. They are not mycorrhizal but rather decompose fallen plant parts such as old leaves and flowers.

Those tiny, bright yellow mushrooms belong to the genus Mycena, sometimes called fairy bonnets. I would love to know why troops of these were very common in some groves but not in others.

As usual, I am left with many questions. For instance, how does a fungus decide when to produce sporing bodies? The main part of a mushroom-producing fungus is an underground network (mycelium) of thread-like hyphae; the network may be very extensive. When the time is right, the fungus puts up sporing bodies that we call mushrooms. The mushroom cap releases ripe spores that disperse, potentially starting new individual fungi. (Although they are not the same as the seeds of plants, they have the same function). But what makes one time ‘right’ and others not? This year was said to be one of great bolete production—but what were the conditions that made it so?

And why are some mushrooms purple—what is the function of that pigment? Ditto for red, or yellow, or browns. Some mushrooms have massive thick stalks, almost as wide as the cap, while other perch their caps on feeble, spindly stalks. How come? There is so much to be learned!

Thanks to Jenifer Shapland for a primer on local mushrooms.

Stories under the bark

a bristly millipede and a selfless spider

A well-known local photographer and naturalist lifted a flap of hemlock bark and found some interesting small creatures. There were several tiny millipedes, only two or three millimeters long. Unlike most millipedes, which are plated with hard covers on each segment, this kind was covered with bristles (of undetermined function). According to experts, this is a species of Polyxenus, probably Polyxenus lagurus, a widespread species. At the rear end of the body are two tufts of detachable, hooked spines—a sort of grappling hook–that form a defense against predatory ants and spiders. When attacked, the millipede swings its rear end toward the predator; the spines detach upon contact and cling to the attacker; when an ant tries to groom off the hooks, it just makes matters worse, as it gets entangled and incapacitated in a snarl of spines. Of course, there is somebody somewhere who beats the system: a large tropical ant subdues a polyxenus by stinging it before it can use its hooks.

Bristly-Millipede-(2)-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

Many millipedes live in moist places (some get to be a foot long!), feeding mostly on plant debris. However, the little bristly ones feed on lichen and algae on bark and rock surfaces, where they are often exposed to the risk of desiccation, and their foods also get very dry, providing little dietary water. But they have a thrifty way of conserving water: by absorbing water vapor though the walls of the rectum (the last part of the intestine). Moisture in the feces produces water vapor and high humidity in the rectum; because there is more water vapor there than on the other side of the rectal walls, it passes (by osmosis) through the walls to parts of the kidney that lie tight against the rectal wall. A shriveled, well-dried polyxenus can rehydrate in just a few hours, if it happens to find a bit of moisture. Rectal water conservation has evolved independently in a few species of several unrelated kinds of small invertebrates, including some beetles, fleas, cockroaches, mites, and isopods.

The other interesting creature under that flap of bark was a handsome spider, identified as a species of Callobius, a genus that occurs mostly in North America. They live under bark and stones or in the leaf litter. The common name is hacklemesh weaver or lace-weaver spider, named presumably for the loosely-woven, fuzzy-textured mesh with which they make a somewhat disorganized funnel web. The males overwinter as immatures, molting to adult form in spring; after mating, they die. Females, however, are found all year round, and may live two or more years. They lay eggs, often in their webs, with several dozen eggs in each cocoon. What happens when those eggs hatch is not yet known, but close cousins of these spiders (in the genus Amaurobius) do something unusual, so maybe Callobius does too.

Hacklemash-Weaver-spider-armstrong.jpg
Photo by Bob Armstrong

An Amaurobius female lays one clutch of eggs and guards them until they hatch. She is induced by her first batch of offspring to lay another clutch of eggs, which are usually infertile. These are called trophic eggs, and they are eaten by the first offspring. Then the female vibrates her web, which stimulates those offspring to eat their mother! This is called matriphagy, an extreme form of parental care. Motherhood may have a high cost, but there is a payoff: Offspring that are fed on trophic eggs and on the mother get bigger and probably survive better than those that are not. They stay together for a while, hunting cooperatively to subdue prey. Females that provide trophic eggs and subject themselves to consumption by their offspring have higher reproductive success than those that don’t.

The habit of producing trophic eggs has evolved independently in certain species of unrelated animals, including tree frogs, ants, crickets, stingless bees, and snails. In some species, trophic eggs are the only food the newly hatched offspring get. Young mackerel sharks develop within the uterus of the mother, who produces numerous eggs. Early-hatching offspring commonly eat undeveloped eggs while still inside the mother; in some cases, this habit progresses to cannibalism on late-hatching embryos.

Similarly, matriphagy, usually with lethal consequences for the mother, has evolved independently in certain insects, nematodes (round worms), scorpions, as well as spiders. There is said to be one vertebrate in which the young eat part of the mother, without lethal consequences; in a species of small amphibian known as caecilians the young eat only the skin, which the mother can regenerate.

Who would have guessed that such strange and fascinating stories would be lurking under a flap of tree bark!

A plant called pipsissewa

the intriguing story of a small flower

The rapidly lengthening days of March are an annual pleasure for us all, I think. They also make some of us fidgety—eager for spring and summer to arrive. As I write this, however, the early morning temperatures at my house are around five degree Fahrenheit, which suggests that I might be a be over-eager with my fidgeting.

Nevertheless, my thoughts turned to a small shrubby plant in the forest understory, one that blooms in summer. So I decided to write about it, even though it is not exactly seasonally appropriate.

This little plant is called pipsissewa (or sometimes prince’s pine, though it has nothing to do with either princes or pines); its scientific name is Chimaphila umbellata. A friend called to my attention a small patch of it one summer day, as we prowled along a forest trail on the lower slopes of the west side of Mendenhall Lake. I think I have since seen nonflowering specimens in several other spots. However, the field guides and books on the flora of Alaska present somewhat conflicting information on how to tell this species from leatherleaf saxifrage when no flowers are present, so I can’t be sure.

Pipsissewa-Chimaphila-umbellata-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

Then it dawned on me that I knew absolutely nothing about this plant except that it belongs to the wintergreen family and, like its relatives, pipsissewa has shiny evergreen leaves. So I dug up some information. This species grows in the mountain west and across the boreal forests of North America and Eurasia, and research information comes from eastern North America and northern Europe.

When summer finally rolls around again, pipsissewa produces a few pinkish-white flowers, more or less saucer-shaped. The flowers are said to have a faint aroma, and they produce nectar. Pipsissewa flowers later in the summer, after many other species have finished flowering. It is pollinated primarily by nectar-collecting bumblebees. Many of the pollinating bees are males, which are produced late in the season. Although they are less efficient pollinators than the (female) worker bees, they gain a source of energy for flying around looking for females with which to mate (those queens will produce next year’s broods of workers). The flowers are self-compatible, meaning that pollen originating on a given individual can fertilize ovules and produce seeds on the same plant. But it usually takes a bee to accomplish the pollen transfer from the anthers, where pollen is produced, to the female-receptive parts of the flower. Pollen grains are produced in clumps of many grains stuck together, so many of the seeds that develop from each pollination event are likely to be full-siblings with the same father.

Pipsissewa produces large amounts of very tiny seeds that hold little nutrition for a developing seedling (as is true for other wintergreens and for orchids). The seeds are buoyant and disperse on vagrant puffs of air in the understory, but most seeds probably don’t go very far. One study found that germination was better if seeds landed near an established adult plant and in more acid soils.

The miniscule size of the dust-like seeds means that some other source of seedling nutrition is needed, since so little is stored in the seed itself. Pipsissewa and other plants with dust-like seeds are ‘fed’ via fungal connections to other plants that are well-established, already photosynthesizing carbohydrates, which the fungi transport to pipsissewa and other plants; these fungi also supply nitrogen and other nutrients to the growing seedling. As the young pipsissewa grows to adulthood, it apparently becomes less dependent on the fungal connections for carbohydrates but still obtains other nutrients that way.

The fungal connections are called mycorrhizae (fungus-root), which have featured in my essays many times. Most plants, including ferns and mosses, in our forests have these connections, moving nutrition from plant to plant. Some plants are entirely dependent on their mycorrhizae for growth and maintenance, others are only partly or temporarily dependent, while still others are much less dependent and may serve chiefly as suppliers. I suspect that we would not recognize our familiar forests if they lacked these fungal connections; altogether, one could say that fungi make our forest what they are!

Spring medley

progress of a favorite season

Spring is officially here: the vernal equinox has gone by and the days are rapidly lengthening. There are much livelier signs of spring as well. Sapsuckers have arrived in force, rat-atat-tating on rain gutters and stove pipes (and trees). Juncos trill at the forest edge and song sparrows are tuning up in the brush above the beaches. Pacific wrens sound off from invisible lookouts in the understory. Best of all, ruby-crowned kinglets can be heard, high in the conifers, calling ‘peter-peter-peter’ or singing their full, cheerful song. That’s when spring is really here, for me.

A walk on a favorite beach on Douglas Island was focused on finding mermaids’ purses—the egg cases of long-nosed skates. Every year, about this time, we find them washed up in the wrack at the high tide line—there must be a nursery just offshore. On this day, we found sixteen eggs cases, mostly black, dry, and in various stages of decrepitude. Just a few were still mostly whole and khaki-colored, and two had natural openings at one end, where perhaps the young skate had exited. All the egg cases had sizable holes punched into them. I would love to know if marine predators had nabbed the developing embryos or if the holes were made by a tardy, would-be predator just hoping that an embryo was still inside.

A good find in the rolled mats of rockweed at the high tide line was the body of a sea star, entirely eviscerated. All the gonads and digestive parts had been cleanly removed, neatly exposing the calcareous skeleton of the water-vascular system that runs from the center of the star out into each arm. In a living sea star, the canals of this hydraulic system are filled with fluid, mostly sea water. Numerous branches of the main canal lead to the tube feet (often visible in a live star, in rows under each arm) that function in locomotion and in opening clams. When the tube feet are extended, their ends stick to the rocks or the clam shell, and muscles in the feet contract, pulling the animal forward or pulling the clam shell open. We sometimes see a sea star humped up over a partly open clam while the star is having dinner.

A stroll on the Boy Scout/Crow Point trail led to the goose-flat covered with hundreds of crows fossicking in the dead, brown vegetation. Lots of searching and probing. Sometimes half a dozen crows would suddenly converge on another one, everybody poking at something. Apparently, successful hunts were not very common and the gang thought that sharing was appropriate.

Lots of Canada geese were scattered in small groups on the flats, in the river, and in the vegetation by the river. There were mostly head-down, intent on foraging—grubbing for roots and such, and of course talking to each other. Occasionally, two of them would take off and wing around in a wide circle before landing back where they started. One of these duos took off upstream—perhaps a mated pair about to look for a nest site in the forest.

As we often do, out there, we encountered a fellow we call the Raven Man, who carried a big bag of dog biscuits to feed the ravens. He does this from time to time, and the local ravens recognize him. As he passes through each raven territory, the residents come to greet him and cadge some biscuits. We watched some of these ravens carry five biscuits at a time, first stacking them up in a neat pile so they could be held in the bill. A dog, with some hikers, came along later and sniffed out places where ravens had cached their loot, covering it with grass or moss—surprising the hikers who were not expecting to see dog biscuits in the moss.

Most folks in Juneau are glad to see the snow disappear, at least at the lower elevations. But I loved the good snows we had in February, and here are a few flash-back memories.

–Weasels had been very active in the Peterson Creek meadows and Amalga meadows. They bounded over the clean snow, ranging widely. Every so often, the trail dove straight down under the snow and re-appeared a few feet beyond or disappeared under the overhanging edge of a frozen slough. I think they were hunting voles, whose tunnels run under the snow; did they dive down in response to the sound or fresh smell of vole or were the dives just exploratory? Another treat in one meadow were well-defined trails of mice, showing a good tail-drag.

–On the west side of Mendenhall Lake, one day I found a set of tracks running way out onto the snowy ice and right back again. It was clearly a member of the weasel family, probably a mink. What was it doing??

–A snowshoe trek up a creek out the road was a bonanza of tracks (and no recent human tracks). In the woods on the way up the hill, there were tracks of deer, mouse, weasel, squirrel, and maybe a marten. Big excitement of some large tracks that were surely those of a wolverine—the toes and the gait gave it away. The most fun was seeing a set of wolf tracks coursing over a frozen pond that sparkled with sun-struck hoarfrost.

Now the fun in the snow is finished for the year, and the fun of spring begins. Juneau folks typically love to note the progress of spring, as the season unfolds. Skunk cabbage emerging, pussy willows appearing, blueberry buds expanding, the gradual arrival of more kinds of birds, ravens carrying sticks for a nest—they all mark the progress of a favorite season.

Spring colors

glimpses of red, yellow and purple herald the season

There often comes a time in early spring when the seasonal progress seems to stall—there are still freezing temperatures at night, many ponds are still ice-covered, the iris shoots in the meadows aren’t getting perceptibly bigger, meadow grasses and sedges lie flat and dead, the lady ferns stay humped under their old dark fronds—and we get impatient for more signs of spring.

That is a good time to notice little spots of color in the forests and meadows. Folks who live in Southeast had better like green and gray, because those colors are the common background on the landscape—green conifers and frequent gray clouds. One can add ‘brown’ for all the dead grasses and sedges lying in the meadows. But the little bright spots of other colors are a visual treat, adding interest to a walk.

Touches of red pop up in several ways:

–Ruby red berries of so-called false lily of the valley lie nestled like glowing jewels in the moss. These are last year’s fruits that typically don’t ripen until they have overwintered. They will feed the early-arriving robins and then the hermit thrushes.

–Red twigs of the early-blueberry shrubs gleam, adding a pleasing contrast in the still-leafless understory. That observation brings up a question: why do these twigs turn red but not (or so I am told by those who know more than I do) those of the later-blooming Alaska blueberry?

–A few translucent red berries of high-bush cranberry hang at the ends of thin branches, uneaten by bears or pine grosbeaks or anybody else last fall or winter.

–A flash of red on the side of a tree trunk helps to advertise the presence of a red-breasted sapsucker as it hitches its way upward, tapping the bark.

–Along the roadsides, the male catkins of red alder make a swathe of a duller red that is nevertheless very noticeable against the conifers’ green. As the catkins mature, they droop and gradually open to release pollen, and the redness fades.

In residential areas, gardens of multicolored crocuses attract queen bumblebees, busily searching for nectar deep in the flower and grooming pollen off their heads. Some of them probably collect pollen too. Away from settled areas, however, those queens have only male pussy-willows as a source of nectar or pollen, until the early blueberries bloom (adding pinkish-white to the color-scape).

A favorite of many folks is the bright yellow of skunk cabbage. First appearing as a yellow spear emerging from wet places, the hood (or spathe) around the cylindrical inflorescence expands. It helps attract pollinating insects and also happens to provide shelter for the little beetles that come to the small flowers of the inflorescences to feed—and also to court and mate, and incidentally pollinate the flowers. Skunk cabbage provides a ‘progressive party’ of color, because different stands mature at different times as their specific locations warm up. Even one skunk cabbage is delightful; a whole pond full of them is spectacular.

Many of us look for purple mountain saxifrage in early spring. It likes to grow on cliffs and other rocky places, so it is very localized. We always feel rewarded when we find the first blooming ones each spring.

At somewhat higher elevations, Cooley’s false buttercups make splashes of yellow. And don’t forget to look for the violets!

Of course, impatience doesn’t suffice to hurry spring along. But it will come—flocks of robins now skitter along beaches, mallards congregate in the ice-free part of Riverside Park pond, the early songsters are heard more often. Ruby-crowned kinglets now serenade my house daily!

I never tire of watching the prolonged arrival of spring. The basic patterns are generally consistent, but always with some little variations and even surprises. This year, the big difference is what is missing: there is very little snow on the mountains. The rocky mountainsides are showing all too clearly and the usual cornice on Thunder Mountain hardly developed at all. The lack of snow ‘upstairs’ will surely have serious consequences, reducing our sources of water and hydropower and the water supply for the creeks where salmon usually spawn.