Fun at Home

looking out the windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

End of summer

low water, autumn flowers, mountain fish, and alder eaters

It’s really fall, now—the autumnal equinox has passed, and we’ve all noted the rapidly shortening days. The fireweed leaves are mostly reddish and the seed pods have shed their offspring to the winds. A friend observed that the curly valves of the pods looked like the plants had been given perms—all by the same hairdresser.

Late summer, and the long drought reduced my home pond to little more than a mud puddle. Even so, two broods of mallards visit every day, no doubt drawn by the seed spilled from the feeder that hangs over the erstwhile pond. The young ones are well-feathered and nearly as big as their mothers. The hordes of pine siskins that monopolize the feeder are very messy and lots of seeds fall down where the ducks gobble them up. The two duck families don’t mix at all and typically push each other around.

There weren’t many fish in the pond earlier in the season—just a few juvenile salmon and some sticklebacks. They probably weren’t doing very well in the shallow, warm, and turbid water. I watched a mallard grab a young salmon from the shore and walk off with it before gulping it down. Fish-eating by mallards is not as odd as it might seem: when I worked at the hooligan run in Berners Bay, I often saw ducks eating dead or moribund hooligan.

Late summer, and at low elevations the fireweed is finished blooming. Purple asters are now on show in many places. In some of the meadows near Eagle River there have been nice displays of long-blooming grass-of-Parnassus and—a special treat—some lovely stands of felwort with its small, blue, star-shaped flowers, just starting to bloom. Felwort always seems to bloom late in the summer, when most other flowers are done. It’s something I look forward to.

felwort-two-flowers-David
Felwort. Photo by David Bergeson

All summer long, I’ve had a pot full of the little pansies called johnny jump-ups near my door. One day in July, I came out that door and said “I’ve been robbed!” The two deer that mutilated the fireweed in the front yard, nibbling the upper leaves down to ragged stumps, had come round and mowed down my little johnnies to a height of about three inches. No flowers left. Well, I nursed those plants back to something like their sprightly selves and they again flowered briskly. But the deer came back and this time they left only one-inch stubs. After some considerable time for recuperation, now the johnnies are trying again, but there are many few flowers this time.

One August day I watched a young buck demolishing more fireweed in front of the house. He slowly wandered along the edge of the drying pond where I have some poorly tended terraces. As I watched, he started chomping on the Canterbury bells. That was just too much. I eased my way slowly toward him and when he finally noticed me (he being much too busy eating!), he went the other way, with determined sedateness and his dignity intact, and so disappeared into the woods. But I reckon the deer are not done with my flowers!

Up at Cropley Lake the fish were rising. These are resident Dolly Varden that mature at a small size, much smaller than the sea-run dollies. There are also resident dollies in the creek that flows from the lake, but I’ve been told that the population in the lake is probably quite separate from the one in the creek, with little or no genetic mixing. The lake population is thought to have been there a long time.

In mid-August, on North Douglas, I happened to notice an alder shrub whose leaves had been reduced to skeletons. Some critter had eaten the blades and left just the veins. A closer look found some of the perpetrators—a cluster of fuzzy white caterpillars. These turned out to be woolly alder sawfly larvae. Later, driving out the road, I noticed other alder stands that were nearly leafless.

In consultation with the helpful FSL entomologist, Liz Graham, I learned that there are at least three kinds of sawflies working on alder leaves. The striped alder sawfly is a native species. The woolly alder sawfly and the green alder sawfly are not native here, although the woolly one seems to be naturalized and the green one has been in this area for several years. Heavy sawfly infestations are patchily distributed, nothing like the widespread swaths of browned hemlocks, whose previous-years’ needles are being decimated by the hemlock sawfly this summer.

Sawflies are not true flies; they are related to bees and wasps. They get the first part of their common name from the long, serrated tube through which females deposit their eggs. I’ve read that the three species deposit eggs in somewhat different parts of the leaf: woolly ones on the underside of the leaf and in the midrib, green ones on the upper leaf surface, and striped ones along the leaf petiole. The eggs take one or two weeks to hatch. The green alder sawfly burrows into bark and wood when it is ready to pupate, but the other two species pupate in the soil; the adults emerge the following year. It takes more than one year of defoliation to kill an alder, but defoliation by the insects means that there is less nitrogen from decaying leaves put into the soil. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in alder roots put lots of nitrogen into the plant, and this gets recycled back to the soil when the leaves decay. I wonder about possible ecological consequences of breaking that nitrogen-recycling pattern.

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.

bog-gentian-by-bob-armstrong
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.

The ice tells

stories written on a frozen pond

MidApril, and my home pond is still mostly covered by ice, with a thin layer of snow on top. Nevertheless, there is quite a lot of activity out there. The snow records the passing of several visitors.

The pair of mallards that claim this pond are, at the moment of writing, resting quietly on the bank, under a snow-bowed alder. But they have been traipsing back and forth from the bit of open water at the outlet to the patch of open water at the inlet, leaving several trackways across the ice. Sometimes they visit the considerable accumulation of spilled bird seed that builds up under the feeders suspended over the pond. When the ice thaws and dumps the remaining seeds to the bottom, the ducks will dive for them.

The mallards aren’t the only ones to harvest seeds from the ice. The hordes of siskins and redpolls that dropped all those seeds from the feeders come back later and collect some of the fallen seeds. The red squirrel that lives below a neighboring spruce tree ventures out to gobble up those seeds too—now that the feeders on my deck are no longer operative. Juncos go out there too, but the males are singing now, and they are having other things on their minds. I haven’t seen a jay here for weeks; they may have begun nesting—and the little birds can now forage in peace.

A raven regularly patrols the pond. The ice is its lunch plate, because there I throw out any uneaten cat food, which the raven collects. It has left a complex network of tracks all over the ice. That bird will miss the ice-plate when it melts!

Other visitors include a porcupine, who has trundled several times across the ice. Most recently, an otter came by, passing over the ice just once in its exploration of open waters.

Out on Mendenhall Lake, there were recent tracks of skis, and in the very middle of April we watched a pair of skiers and a dog taking their chances on the weakening ice. With worrisome visions of calamity dancing in our heads, we knew we’d be in no position to help, if the ice failed (it didn’t). We were safely ensconced up on The Rock, the rock peninsula across the lake from the visitor center.

It has become an early spring ritual to hike up on The Rock, looking for the early-flowering purple mountain saxifrage and whatever else we can find. We had a lazy lunch, basking in the sun, listening to ruby-crowned kinglet songs and watching bumblebees zooming about. The bees didn’t visit the saxifrage flowers, although the flowers held nectar and pollen. Perhaps they favored the willows: the male willows were starting to present pollen, just the thing for bumblebee queen to feed her new brood of larvae.

We were overseen by several mountain goats, lying on ledges near the top of the ridge. The goats are still down at low elevations, both here and near Nugget Falls across the lake, so they have been seen and enjoyed by many folks. Right in our own backyard, so to speak. How cool.

To round out a week of fun, I walked in the sun on the beach and sand flats south of the visitor center. I ambled along, thinking of other things altogether, when my brain awoke to the many small trackways crisscrossing the snow. Two feet, very short steps, going from one stubby willow shrub to another—who could it be but a ptarmigan! Then, about forty feet ahead of me, there was a small patch of something whiter than the snow. Aha! The perpetrator of the tracks. The bird didn’t move, and I didn’t move. Have you even tried to hold absolutely still for a long time?—don’t scratch your nose, don’t shift weight from one foot to the other, don’t cough, just pretend to be a tree. It’s very hard to out-wait a bird that is holding still and thinking its camouflage makes it invisible! But I managed to do it, and eventually, after many, many minutes, the bird resumed feeding on willow buds. Presently, another ptarmigan crept ever so slowly out from under a spruce and joined the first bird and both of them fed on willow buds. They seemed to be very small, so could they possibly be…….., but alas, I was too far away to be sure of the diagnostic identification marks in the plumage (foolishly, I’d left binoculars at home). After watching for quite a while, I made a wide detour around them and continued down the shore.

On my way back, I came upon them again, this time only about ten feet away. Being this close was a lucky break. Now I could see their tails very clearly and there were no black feathers there. Whoopee! That confirmed the conjecture based on small size—these were indeed white-tailed ptarmigan! Both of them were still snapping up willow buds and they let me watch again. The summer molt was just starting, and they had occasional blackish feathers poking through the white winter coat.

I’d never seen white-tailed ptarmigan before, and now there were two of them, right in front of me. They nest in the high alpine zone, but winter sometimes brings them down, and I got lucky!

Here and there in summer

alpine sights, body-checked by a grouse, some thoughts on bear viewing, and wildlife on the home front

–In early August I went up Gold Ridge in hopes of finding the big, blue, broad-petalled gentian in bloom. Being a rather impatient sort, I’d tried earlier, in July, with no luck. But on this warm, sunny day, there were a few in bloom and more with buds. Higher up on the trail, I didn’t spot any, and they probably bloom slightly later up there. However, the mission was successful on this day, and a search later in the month should find lots more.

broad-petaled-gentian-by-bob-1
Photo by Bob Armstrong

Even if there had been none of those beautiful gentians, the day was a good one. A mountain goat was silhouetted on the ridgeline; young marmots gamboled about, while a big adult lazed on a boulder. There were several bear scats along the trail and, of course, I could not resist inspecting at least the most recent one. It was full of salmonberry seeds, along with some vegetation fibers; because the salmonberries at this elevation were not yet ripe, I knew that this bear had been foraging down lower.

Bird life was not well-represented, however: a pair of curious ravens, a robin, and an invisible sparrow pip-pipping in the alder brush. It is always a little sad when the season of bird song is over for the year. Nary a grouse or ptarmigan to be seen, and I’d seen only one brood in July. Although apparently no official census has been conducted, they seem to be much scarcer on the ridge these days than they were a few years ago. Back in 2005, the area was opened to hunting, and it is very likely that hunting has reduced the grouse and ptarmigan populations. Many of those birds were habituated to people on the trails, and many of us thoroughly enjoyed seeing them and their chicks almost any time we ventured up the ridge. Shooting them would have been easy (and very unsporting). It seems that, for the sake of a few hunters, the pleasure of many observers was reduced.

–When the sockeye come in to Steep Creek, the bears can feast. This summer, the one we know as Nicky came down late, as usual, and she does not have cubs; she’s around eighteen years old and may be slowing down a little. The cubs of Bear 153 put on a good show one evening: swinging on the willows, tussling in the grass, getting startled by a big salmon thrashing upstream, tipping over the camera gear set (by permission) in the stream, cavorting in the shallows. I had dropped by, intending to stay just a few minutes, and ended up staying almost two hours.

The few times I have gone out there to bear-watch, the crowds have been quite well-behaved, not needing much guidance from the rangers about proper conduct in bear country. But with so many people visiting the area, someone (or someone’s dog) inevitably makes a wrong move that makes the mother bears nervous and concerned about their cubs’ safety. This is a time to be especially observant of bear body-language and to give the bears even more space than usual. These bears are quite used to people and normally behave extremely well; we can keep them that way, for all of us to enjoy, if we ourselves behave properly. A new guide to staying safe around bears, including some new information, is in the works; it will be available from ADFG.

–When we were in Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay, one day in June, we stumbled upon a female grouse that clearly had chicks somewhere nearby. Standing on big rock, she clucked and fussed, even when we stood back to see what might emerge from the tall, dense beach grasses. I circled slowly back around her rock, hoping to see the chicks as they crossed a narrow path. Well! Mama did not like that one bit, and as I inched forward, she gave a body slam to my shoulder as she flew ahead, sounding the alarm. As far as that female was concerned, I had invaded her space and she was not going to stand for it! Then we saw the eight or so chicks—they had already crossed the path and were not close to the mother’s rock at all. Nice big chicks! They all took flight away from the presumed danger (us), followed by mama.

The next day, we managed to upset a pair of greater yellowlegs as we walked out into some extensive beach meadows. Both adults yelled and swooped at us, so we knew that there were chicks in the area. We never did see those chicks, well hidden in the tall grass, and the tumult subsided as soon as we moved out onto the open beach.

–My home pond was a happening place this summer. Four different broods of mallards made it a regular stop on their rounds through the neighborhood. First, there was a brood of ten ducklings (known as the Tens), then a brood of five (the Big Fives), a brood of eight (the Eights), and a later brood of five (the Little Fives). Seldom was there more than one brood on the pond at a time; if two broods happened to be there, one dominated the area under the hanging seed feeder. There was a nice rain of seeds falling from that feeder, as the juncos scratched among the loose seeds and the jays tipped the whole feeder off balance. This was manna from heaven! And not to be shared. The Eights would advance upon the Little Fives, pushing them into a corner of the pond, and go back to gobble up falling seeds. On another day, the roles would be reversed, the Little Fives winning the prize. The Big Fives sometimes charged at The Eights, relegating them to the far upper end of the pond, and went back to snarf up the seed rain.

Several broods of juncos (and their parents) grew fat on the seed offerings, and I watched the young ones gradually acquire their adult plumage. Bears wandered through but did not bother with the inaccessible feeder. I watched two predators with evil intentions about ‘my’ ducks, but they departed, still hungry. A roaming dog threatened one brood, and the mother duck led that dog a merry chase in her version of a broken-wing act: back and forth went dog and duck, the duck always just two or three feet ahead of the dog. She could have just flown away, but she was intent upon keeping that dog away from her young ones. The dog did not respond to orders from the shore, so eventually, my quick-thinking neighbor jumped in and grabbed the dog, and peace was restored.

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.

The last throes of summer

in the ecotone between seasons

Early September—and Gold Ridge earned its name in a botanical (rather than a mineral) way; the open slopes were covered with the golden leaves of deer cabbage. Color accents came from the scarlet berries and crimson leaves of dwarf dogwood. There were even a few scattered flowers of about ten species still in bloom, with little hope of pollination, but swathes of partridgefoot, still flowering, clothed a few protected pockets.

Black crowberries and two kinds of low-bush blueberries offered snacks to foraging birds and hikers. The very last salmon berries hid under drooping foliage.

A female grouse and a big chick tried to be invisible at the edge of an alder thicket; their patience outlasted ours, and we eventually went on up the trail. A very small marmot hustled into its burrow with a big mouthful of dry grass for a winter bed, while an adult marmot posed regally on a rock right next to the trail. The marmots will disappear for the winter very soon now.

Swarms of minute insects danced in the open spaces between the canes of salmonberry. I have no idea what they were, but surely they were in reproductive mode, trying to beat the onset of low temperatures.

On another day in early September, a stroll through the lower muskegs at Eaglecrest found some good patches of still-unripe bog cranberries and some low-bush blueberries. We saw that a few of the dwarf dogwood berries had been sampled by some small animal, leaving a hole but without removing the seed—very different from the more usual rodent foraging, which focuses on the seed, leaving a hollow fruit behind. I have to wonder who might eat the dogwood berries; I’ve seldom found the seeds in the hundreds of bird or bear scats that I’ve inspected.

A few swamp gentians were still tightly furled in bud and were probably too late for pollination, as were the one or two bog kalmias that were still open. We searched for sundews and found only three decrepit specimens where earlier there had been thousands, so we concluded that they had gone to bed for the season.

Dragonflies—the big, blue darners, mostly—still cruised the ponds and waterways in search of occasional prey. One enterprising couple flew by in copula: the male clasped the female behind her head with the grasping appendages at the end of his body, and the female looped up her abdomen under the male’s thorax where his sperm are stored. He carried her around while his sperm were being transferred to her ovaries (and perhaps he also displaced or removed sperm from a previous mating!). She would probably lay her eggs in dead wood or vegetation, where they would overwinter.

Meanwhile, the sockeye run in Steep Creek ended, and we await the arrival of the coho. The mallard ducks that visit my home pond are all in brown, eclipse plumage. A few, however, are starting to show rusty chests and darker heads that will turn green as the males don their courtship feathers. Mallards begin their courtship and mate-choice in winter—it seems to be a gradual process.

Cottonwood and devil’s club leaves are turning golden, willows sprinkle their crowns with yellow leaves, and the maples glow with yellows, orange, and several shades of red. Highbush cranberry leaves turn to pink and red, and the wild crabapple leaves get a characteristic shade of rather grubby, rusty red. Even some of the blueberries, especially in the alpine zone, are colorful. The alders get left out of this color show; their leaves turn dull brown and crinkled. Why are they so different?

Amid hundreds of ripening rose hips, I saw a single, lonely pink blossom.

“Tis the last rose of summer

Left blooming alone.

All her lovely companions

Are faded and gone”

Spring?

… it may be creeping up on us!

The days grow longer and we all start wishing that spring would be here NOW! Indeed, spring is slowly, slowly springing. Perhaps it got a bit confused by the lack of a real winter? Or perhaps we are just a tad over-eager.

There are, in fact, a few signs that the new season is upon us. The flocks of varied thrushes that fossicked about on the beach fringes have dispersed, and we now hear the familiar song from many points in the forest, as they set up their breeding territories. Song sparrows are singing, too, a trifle rustily, but soon to be in good voice. Steller’s jays are now seen commonly in pairs, and their calls are more varied than in winter, or so it seems. Hooters (sooty grouse) are heard again on the hillsides. The robins are back, but I have yet to hear their song.

The red-breasted sapsuckers are here, checking out snags and light posts, tapping on trees and houses. Canada geese are busily grubbing up sedges from the wetlands, picking off the sharp, protective tips of the new shoots and biting off the nutritious new growth. Various reports come in: I heard a ruby-crowned kinglet, saw an early hummer, heard a junco sing.

As the ice melts on my home pond, mallards again arrive, drifting in the bit of open water at the outlet, marching across the ice, scavenging spilled bird seed. Even though the millions (apparently) of pine siskins seem to prefer feeding on the massive spruce seed crop and the alder seeds, some of them visit the feeder hanging over the pond and messily select certain sunflower seeds, dropping hundreds onto the pond. Squirrels and mice, as well as the mallards, make good use of the rejects. And, I happily see ‘my’ nuthatches again, after a long seasonal absence.

The most exciting sighting in the bird way was a small flock of rusty blackbirds in the Dredge Lake area. As usual in my limited experience with them, they were poking about in a shallow, brushy pond. But I didn’t get to watch them for long; they soon moved deeper into the thickets. I don’t see them very often as they migrate through here to the north country. Unfortunately, their population has declined dramatically in recent decades, for unknown reasons, so they are getting harder and harder to see.

Rusty-Blackbird,-female,-by-Bob-Armstrong
Female rusty blackbird. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The plant world, too, is showing feeble signs of spring. Elderberry buds grow fat and shoots of cow parsnip peek up above the leaf litter. In some places, felt-leaf willow has borne fuzzy catkins for a week or two already. Blueberry shoots are ready to go, just waiting for the right moment. The first shoots of skunk cabbage to emerge from the muck were eagerly cropped by deer.

Mountain goats are back on the ledges near Nugget Falls. Beavers never really quit working this ‘winter’ but got busy every time the temperatures rose and the ice weakened. Bears, probably especially juveniles or males, have begun to emerge from winter dens: moms with cubs presumably wait somewhat longer, so the new cubs are strong enough to follow mom around the forest.

I can’t claim that spring has sprung, but it may be creeping up on us, all the same!