Mallard mayhem

and other observations

All is quiet on the home pond. Three male mallards are lined up, next to each other, on the edge of the last bit of ice; they preen their feathers and seem to be entirely amicable. Occasionally they swim over to the bank and nibble something there or forage on the sunflower seeds floating under the hanging feeders where the siskins feed so messily. Sometimes they all go up to the head of the pond and perch on branches that droop just under the water surface.

These males must all have females that are now incubating their clutches of eggs. Each male guarded his mate assiduously over the days when she was laying eggs, in order to be as sure as possible that he would be the father of the hatchlings. That task being over, the males are free to loaf around and hobnob together.

Ah, but let one of those females arrive on the pond, as she takes a feeding break from incubating her eggs. Instant mayhem! One of those three males is surely her mate, but the others (whose females are elsewhere at the moment) leap into frenzied activity, chasing and biting each other and trying to copulate forcibly with the harried female. Sometimes the hungry female escapes but occasionally these ungentle assaults seem to succeed. Her own mate may then copulate with her also, a technique that could displace the sperm of the interloper. But the interlopers may occasionally manage to sire some extra ducklings by this means; that is, not only those of his regular (temporary) mate but also a few with someone else’s mate. This seems to be a common practice among mallards.

When the fracas is over and the harassed female leaves, the ruffled males are calm again, lazily floating around together or moseying down the creek in tandem.

A day or two ago, I whacked out some brush on the far side of the pond and removed the washed-out plank that had served as a little footbridge over the creek. Shortly thereafter, I saw a male mallard creeping cautiously up along the stream toward the pond. This was very different from the usual approach of the local mallards, which bomb in at high speed and splash down. This male moved slowly among the skunk cabbages and broken willows, looking all around. I believe he perceived the changes in the habitat (missing plank, etc) and so became very wary. Emerging from the thickets, he perched on the bank of the pond, quacking and looking, looking, looking. Finally, more or less assured, he ventured out onto the pond, calling continuously; a female then arrived and began feeding. He was right to be wary: I had found more than one duck skeleton in the woods on the far bank.

mallards-mating
Mallards mating

On a quieter note: On the Dan Moller trail recently, we noted a low-hanging hemlock branch that sported a nearly complete covering of a certain lichen. There were a few clumps of this species higher in the tree, but none on any neighboring trees. This observation immediately raised questions in my head: why is this lichen so concentrated just here and nowhere else nearby? Did it all start with one that got established and then spread? Or were there multiple colonizations by spores or fragments that blew in over a number of years, and this branch just happened to be in a good place to intercept lots of them? Did the branch somehow provide a particularly salubrious habitat for this particular kind of lichen?

I see these kinds of concentrations in many places around here; it happens with many other species of lichen, as well as with mosses. I’d love to know what determines these distributions—I think there might be a good graduate thesis in this.

Along the trail from the snowmobilers’ parking lot to the Treadwell Ditch and thence to an up-bound section of the Dan Moller trail, we picked up six spark plugs, one plastic oil can, about ten beer cans, one mud guard, and various other objects. The upper part of the Dan Moller trail and the bowl behind the cabin are likely to need considerable work as well! It is a shame that some humans just pitch their trash along the trails.

New Year’s Day 2012

mustelids and lichens in the muskeg lands

Snow was falling, snow on snow, but—unlike the song—this midwinter day was not bleak at all. With two friends, one two-footed and one four-footed, I set out to explore the forest and small muskegs near the Auke Bay school. This was not our original destination, but we got part way out the road, watched a truck slither and spin out over both lanes in the unplowed slush, and decided we’d find a place closer to town. I’d never been in the area behind the school before, so everything was new to me.

No birds seemed to be active there, but we soon found the trail of a short-tailed weasel, also known as ermine, particularly in winter when the fur is white. It had popped out of a hole roughly the size of a fifty-cent piece, looped over the snow for a few feet, and then dived into the snow again. Both of these snow-holes led to open spaces under shrubs bent under the weight of snow, where mice or voles or shrews might provide a snack. The long, narrow bodies of the weasels allow them to follow their prey into small tunnels.

On the surface of the snow, we could easily see their footprints, with the rear feet landing where the front feet had been, as it took off in the next leap. Each leap covered about a foot of distance. They have such short legs that the fastest way to get around is bending the long, sinuous body to extend the stride.

Short-tailed weasels are ferocious predators, dining on mice and other small mammals by preference, but sometimes eating birds, insects, worms, and even young snowshoe hares. Males weigh up to about seven ounces, but females are considerably smaller. They have high metabolic rates and have to eat a lot every day; females with litters may kill four mice a day.

A bit farther on, we found the trail of a bigger relative of the weasel. This path led hither and yon through shrub thickets, briefly into a tiny rivulet, along a log, under some low-hanging hemlock branches, and into still more thickets. Although we occasionally lost the trail for a little way, we eventually followed it for several hundred yards. We decided the trail-maker was probably a pine marten, partly because the footprints seemed a bit too big and furry for a mink, and partly because no sensible, hungry mink should be so far from the delicacies along the shore.

Trudging through the brush can be easier in winter than in summer. Snow presses down many of the blueberry and menziesia branches, and the two humans on snowshoes could stomp over the bent branches. Our canine companion was less fortunate; her snowshoe-less feet sometimes plunged through the brush piles, to the full length of all four legs, leaving her to wallow her way out.

Even though our broad feet helped us through and over the bushes, we still emerged with our knit caps full of lichens and twigs. And every so often a snow-laden arch of branches would give way, depositing us unceremoniously into a hole. We think this is fun, apparently, because we keep doing it.

Along the way, we noticed an area with a spectacular display of beard lichen festooned on almost every branch. Some of the strands were easily over six feet long. We wondered how it is that there are localized ‘hot spots’ for this lichen. Environmental conditions for good growth, including light and lack of aerial pollutants, must be part of the explanation. But it seems likely that dispersal patterns also contribute to the patchiness of strong lichen colonies: Spores and fragments of lichens are carried on the wind, so the direction, speed, and timing of winds would probably deposit them in semi-predictable patterns. Here’s a complex research problem awaiting a clever young scientist.