Ducks, sundews, yellowlegs, and…

dragonflies, gentians, leaf beetles, and a yellowlegs encounter too

On a hot, sunny day, I sat with some friends on a big log, looking across Berners Bay toward Lion’s Head. The tide was out, exposing some big rocks off to one side. A female merganser with four half-grown ducklings cruised around, eventually disappearing behind one of those rocks. Suddenly two of the young ones came hurriedly splashing around to the near side of the rock. Hmmm, something was clearly awry! They then went behind the rock again but soon reappeared, with at least one of their siblings, on one end of the rock. There they all settled down into what a friend once called “a little pile of cuteness”. What caused the commotion and the retreat to the top of the rock? We blamed a seal, whose head surfaced next to the rock, looking intently where the duck family had been.

What about the female merganser? As she drifted between her resting brood and the shore, an eagle swooped down on her from behind. A narrow miss for the eagle, as the duck quickly dove down. An exciting day for the duck family.

We were staying in the Cowee Meadow cabin and found entertainment on our doorstep. A red-breasted sapsucker regularly visited the logs of the cabin walls, peering around at us on the deck, almost as if it were hoping for handouts. Later, a sapsucker went down to the ground by the fire-pit and picked up several woodchips, filling its bill and taking off with them. Why would a woodpecker scavenge chips when it could make its own, and what did it want with them, anyhow?

The front of the cabin was patrolled by a large dragonfly that flew back and forth between the creek on one side and the nearby trees on the other. A sudden flash of blue emerged from the trees and made a grab for the dragon, but I think the jay missed its mark; soon thereafter a large dragon was again patrolling the front of the cabin.

A few days later, still in the hot sun, Parks and Rec went to up to Cropley Lake. Great expanses of meadow were spangled with thousands of small white stars: swamp gentians. This annual plant is probably pollinated by flies (rather than bees), but there has been very little study.

Swamp gentian. Photo by Bob Armstrong

A little lower down in the meadow vegetation, we found many tiny, white, five-petalled flowers of the round-leaf sundew. These small insectivorous plants were so common in some areas that they almost made a carpet, although not all were flowering. Experimental studies, comparing sundew plants with lots of captured insects to those with few captures, revealed that well-fed sundews grow better and make more flowers. The flowers have no nectaries, so they have little reward for pollinators; they are capable of self-pollination. However, insects, mostly flies, do visit the flowers at times. So flies can be pollinators but they are also prey for this plant. That seems self-defeating! However, they are likely to be different kinds of flies, as shown for the closely related long-leaf sundew.

On a walk out toward Nugget Falls one morning, I noticed that the cottonwood leaves had been severely damaged. So of course I looked more closely, and I found lots of small black larvae of leaf beetles. They had munched up the surface layers of both top and underside of the leaves, leaving nothing but a delicate network of leaf veins. Adults of these leaf beetles overwinter in the leaf litter and lay bunches of eggs in spring. The larvae pass through several molts as they munch and grow; the early stages (called instars) are often colonial, feeding in gangs; later instars are more independent. Some trees had been much harder hit by these beetles than others, but is that because some trees are just more susceptible, less well protected, or because of chance events when female beetles were laying their eggs?

A friend and I walked up to a meadow on the Spaulding trail to see if the long-leaf sundews were flowering yet. No, but we had an exciting time nevertheless. There were fair-sized shorebird footprints in the mud of the drying ponds and a shorebird was calling persistently from the top of a dead pine. As we turned to go, we got dive-bombed from behind—a close pass ruffled my hair. Then a second attack, accompanied, as before, by loud cries. (OK, OK, we are leaving anyhow…). Those greater yellowlegs were clearly defending something important, and at last we saw it (there might have been more, somewhere)—a big, tall chick, still fuzzy and flightless, sneaking through the sedges. So we went quietly on our way, leaving them in peace.

A group of five mallards in female plumage come to my home pond that same day. They foraged all around the edge, nibbling here and there. Then they went over to the bank on the far side and I expected them to climb up and settle down for a nap, which is what usually happens. But this time, the naps were delayed and the birds were almost hidden in the brush. The blueberry bushes started twitching and jumping, and I could see that the birds were reaching up to !!pick blueberries!! They cleaned out the berries on those bushes and finally settled in for a nap. I wonder how they learned that blueberries make fine snacks—so different from their usual fare.


This and That

sundews, pines, spider and bees

In early June, I went with a few friends to check out some muskegs at Eaglecrest. In addition to the common round-leaf sundew, we found some long-leaf sundews already making flower buds. Both of these diminutive species supplement their income by capturing hapless small insects on sticky hairs on their leaves and digesting their victim’s juices. There seem to be minor differences in their preferred habitats: longleafs are more likely to grow on soils less densely covered by mosses and other plants. For some reason, perhaps habitat availability in part, longleafs seem to be much less common than the other sundew.

Sundews are not our only insectivorous plants. Butterworts grow in the meadows on Douglas, for example, and in the subalpine meadows on Gold Ridge. Their leaves are sticky traps for insects. Bladderwort is a delicate, fragile aquatic plant sometimes found in muskeg ponds; it captures tiny aquatic creatures in ingenious little bladders with a narrow opening. The opening of each bladder is guarded by trigger hairs; when disturbed by a passing crustacean or insect, the triggers signal the bladder to open. The walls of the bladder are held inward under tension, but when triggered, the walls expand, and the lowered pressure inside the bladder sucks in the victim. Nifty!

While we were exploring the Eaglecrest muskegs, we also noticed that some of the shore pines bore tiny red rosettes near their growing tips, usually on the upper branches. What???? Not some other organism that has taken up residence there. I was sure I’d seen these bright rosettes before, but any knowledge of them seemed to have fallen through the ever-widening cracks in what used to be my memory. However, after a bit of discussion, we settled on the right answer—these are brand new seed cones! Other shore pines bore clusters of pollen-producing male cones, just at the right time to pollinate the new cones.

Photo by Kerry Howard

Reproduction in pines is a complex business that includes many seemingly strange delays. The new seed cones were initiated the previous fall but don’t emerge as rosettes until spring. Only the upper scales of the red rosettes bear fertile ovules. When the scales of the rosette open up, a drop of fluid appears near the ovule; this is called a pollination drop. It lasts two to four days, and then it is withdrawn, pulling in any pollen brought in by the wind. The rosette scales then enlarge and close; the receptive period is over. However, the pollen does not germinate immediately, and fertilization of ovules occurs about a year after pollination. Then the embryos develop over the following year, and the seed is filled with food for the seedling. However, pollen from another individual tree is more likely to result in viable, filled seeds than pollen from the same individual. Then the seed cone scales enlarge, and after two full years, the seed cone is mature and ready to shed its seeds.

So, if (and that’s a big ‘if’) a twig makes a cone or two every year, observers might see the red rosette at the tip, then a small cone or two where last year’s shoot tip was, and below that, a mature cone ready to shed seeds in fall. Older cones that have long since shed their seeds may still cling to the twig farther down.

Shore pine cones take two years to mature, but there are other kinds of pines in which cone development takes even longer, as much as six years! But why?? For comparison, seed cones in spruce and hemlock mature in the year they are pollinated. What ecological factors account for the great differences in the ‘strategies’ of cone maturation among all these related conifers?

A few days later, a beautiful brown spider, with gold stripes on its long abdomen, clung to the top of a beach-rye seed head. As I watched, it crept out into the space on the eight-inch journey to another seed head, seeming to walk on air. I could see that two of its legs were prodigiously long, far longer than the other six. Then it fussed about on the second seed head for a short while, moved down an inch or two, and slowly came back to the first seed head. Of course there must have been some silk strands in place, but I could not see them from any angle of view, they were so fine. The diligent spider then seemed to lay down some vertical strands across the existing horizontal ones, working on an invisible web. I would like to know how the first horizontal threads were laid down across that sizable gap. I don’t know her name, so I can’t look up anything about this lovely beastie.

The next week, I perched on a log in the sun, with a clump of beach pea on one side and a stand of lupine on the other. Several small worker bumblebees visited the lupines, erratically checking out a flower here or there on different inflorescences, zooming off a little way and then returning. Occasionally, one would open a flower, pressing down on the lower lip, but never stayed more than about one second. Was that time enough to sip some nectar or was this a sign that no reward was available? If nectar rewards were present, why were the visits so erratic?


What a contrast with the behavior of a big, fat queen bee, who was all business. She went straight to the beach peas and systematically visited every open or nearly open flower in the clump. Her behavior suggested to me that she was regularly rewarded for her visits—otherwise, why stay

Gustavus meadows

orchids, moonworts, and a plant that gives “live birth”

I recently visited Gustavus for a few days, so I had a chance to do a little exploring on a landscape very different from that of Juneau. After watching, from the convenience of the front deck of the cabin, all the young cedar waxwings (four of ‘em!), song sparrows, tree swallows, robins, hummers, and even two very new, tiny spotted sandpipers in the garden, plus a nest full of barn swallows almost ready to fledge, we set out to poke around in some of the wet meadows that lie on the forelands.

These long, narrow meadows probably occupy old stream beds that crossed the glacial outwash plain before the glaciers retreated to the upper reaches of Glacier Bay. The meadows are now surrounded by young spruce forest, where the mossy forest floor supports thousands upon thousands of twayblade orchids.

The meadows held odd assortments of plants. Nagoonberry and strawberry plants grew abundantly, side by side, with columbine and baneberry and soapberry mixed in, here and there. The plant known as sticky false asphodel was more common than in any other place I’ve explored. Ladyslipper orchids had finished flowering but were developing ripe fruits, and ladies-tresses orchids were in prime bloom. We found a weird fern that is related to the moonworts, which were reputed to have a variety of supernatural powers; among other things, they could make you invisible and unlock doors! These kinds of ferns bear all the spores on one shoot, not on the fronds like typical ferns.

Moonwort. Photo by Pam Bergeson

The small plant known as alpine bistort is not restricted to alpine areas, apparently, but the specimens here were considerably large than those I’ve seen on Mt Roberts. This little plant is distinguished by being ‘viviparous’, meaning that it produces ‘living’ young, as opposed to seeds or eggs. The lower flowers on the stem produce bulblets, which are capable of sprouting while still on the mother plant. When they drop from the mother plant, the young plants will be just like the mother, genetically, unlike offspring coming from seeds. A very unusual habit, which makes me wonder why it does so.

As we wandered along, we were roundly scolded by a greater yellowlegs, perched on top of the shore pines; it probably had a nest or chicks nearby. Moose had browsed the highbush cranberry bushes and perhaps a porcupine had nibbled the dwarf fireweeds. Sticklebacks darted about in a rivulet. And we found an abandoned winter nest of a vole, nestled on top of the moss; of course it was blanketed in snow in the winter.

Perhaps the most captivating find was a good population of long-leaf sundews, which are far less common than the round-leaf species. The round-leafs can be found by the millions in many meadows and muskegs, but the long-leafs tend to be concentrated on relatively barren ground, often near a pond, and are much less widely distributed. The fascinating thing was that the long-leafs had captured lots of insect prey on their sticky leaves, and the leaves were folded over as the successful captors digested the prey. In contrast, most of the round-leafs held no insects. Now why would that be so?

Some other sightings of interest: in the young spruce forest near the meadows, there was one very large hemlock tree, which must have got started before the smaller spruces. Usually hemlocks come in after the spruces, which favor mineral soils for germination and establishment. A big old hemlock amid all the young spruces was unusual. In another place, way down toward the beach where alders and tiny spruces have moved in, we found a single birch tree, a bit lonely in a stand of alders. It seemed very out of place there. If only it could tell us its story!

Just inside the edge of the forest, we found a yellow slime mold, with a brown slug wedged into one side. I presumed that the slug was eating the slime mold, and not vice versa—but who could tell?

That’s just a sample of things we found on our little voyage of discovery. As always, there were many observations of interest to curious naturalists, and our little explorations are always rewarding.