Some observations

…from a so-called “summer”

During this so-called summer, our rambles yielded a number of nice little observations, along with a few of another kind. Here is a sample:

Near the glacier, a family of five raucous young ravens yelled constantly for food. They were as big as their parents but clearly intended to go on being fed as long as possible. This is probably the family that was raised on the hillside above the visitor center and fed partly on tern and gull chicks. One young raven sat atop the pavilion, where it was mobbed by barn swallows protecting the last broods in nests under the roof.

In July, for a time, the air was filled with flying, fluff-borne offspring of the cottonwoods. They collected in damp wads in roadside ditches and wafted into my garage in bundles. On the East Glacier Trail, we found a place where the ground was covered with mature female cottonwood catkins. The ripe, round pods of the catkin had not opened of their own accord, sending out their flying seeds. Instead, hundreds of pods had been opened and seeds carefully extracted from amid the white fluff. We soon saw the perpetrator: a red squirrel, which was in the very act of nibbling seeds from more pods.

 

Later, at home, I saw my local red squirrel had a doorway matted with discarded white fluff, left over from its seed harvest. Under that mat was the usual litter of spruce cone cores, ejected from the burrow.

Trips up Gold Ridge were plagued by rain and wind, almost every time we went there. We did see a marmot collecting hay; its mouth bristled with the leaves of grasses and herbs. It was already getting ready for its long hibernation (commonly about eight months).

On another day up there, we were watching marmots when we were surprised to see one being chased by a black dog. The marmot barely escaped, partly because we yelled at the dog. The surly owner of the dog declared that he did not care about the posted rule that dogs on that trail must be on leash, and besides, there were other marmots up there. As he and his marmot-chasing dog went on up the trail, a chorus of marmot warning whistles rang out across the entire hillside, and we didn’t see another marmot for four hours.

marmot-kits-jos
Dogs are not a marmot’s best friend. Photo by Jos Bakker

Even in the rain and wind, we enjoyed the flower show on the ridge, as always. One patch of narcissus anemones flowers had been assaulted by some herbivore, one that just took a bite out of each petal and managed to drop a few. We guessed that a family of grouse had been having lunch there. On the ridge top, we found a young ptarmigan, with no family members in sight. So we wondered if the rest of the family had come to grief. This young one was good at hiding: as we carefully looped around it, it circled around a sharp rock to keep the rock between itself and us.

In the summer of mostly yukky weather, I have not seen many bumblebees. Near the glacier and in some other spots, the many lupines, which are normally bee-pollinated, are setting no fruit, suggesting poor pollination. One nice (!) day in Gustavus, when bees should have been active, we took a walk through a field with acres of blooming lupines, but we saw no bees. This made us wonder if perhaps our record-setting wet summer might have drowned them in their ground nests, leaving few to pollinate the flowers.

Since all those words were drafted, we entered a spell of wonderful real-summer weather. What a treat! Another trip up Gold Ridge yielded a willow ptarmigan attending a single large chick, and they came right up to us, for a good look (by both parties). On a long hike over Mount Troy, we found a bench covered in deer cabbage. In the midst of the lush green foliage were several large beds, where something had rested for a long time. Some of the deer cabbage leaves had been mowed off in swathes, leaving a tall stubble. Then, aha, I noted some of the largest bear scats I have ever seen. Lunch at the top of Troy was celebrated with lots of chocolate, including birthday cake, while overhead, a few hawks soared, starting their fall migration.

Another huge treat was the opportunity to watch a group of Dall’s porpoises cavorting around our whale-watching vessel. What a show! I can’t say how many there were, because they were coming in from all directions to play in front of the boat. The bow of the boat was not very high, so we could see them well, as they zipped back and forth, changing direction with a tail flick. An amazingly quick breath snatched at the surface is enough to keep one zooming around for several passes in front of the bow. Suddenly, they were all gone. How do they coordinate their departure, and where do they go?

Gold Ridge

…in seasonal transition

On a hot sunny day in mid June, we set out on the trail above the tram, in search of whatever happened to catch our fancy. Several residual snow drifts offered no difficulties, just a pleasant coolness.

The snow drifts held several bowl-like depressions that were the remains of ptarmigan winter roosts under the snow, each with a pile of scat in the bottom. One such bowl had melted out so much that it was close to four feet wide—so we had fun imagining a giant ptarmigan roosting there–perhaps left over from the Pleistocene?

The big flower show came from thousands of narcissus anemones, whose fields of white were dotted with blue lupines. Yellow northern cinquefoil and reddish roseroot adorned the rocky outcrops. Down near the ground were big purple violets, yellow violets, pink wedge-leaf primroses (a.k.a. pixie eyes), and tiny white alp lilies and starflowers. The heathers, both white and yellow, were coming into bloom.

It was so hot that birds were not singing a lot, but we heard ruby-crowned kinglets and varied thrushes in the conifer forest, fox sparrows, robins, and Wilson’s warblers in the brush, and best of all, at least two golden-crowned sparrows up near timberline. Their plaintive three notes (“Oh, dear me!”) gave us a treat. A little bunch of ravens had figured out what the snow was good for: snow baths! A raven would lay its head on the snow and then shove forward until its whole body followed its bill along the snow (much as a dog might do). Then it would roll a little, perhaps working the soft snow into its feathers. I bet it felt good! I was a tad envious.

Marmots were out foraging in several places. One big snowdrift covered a den with a good blanket, but the marmots had dug their way out and their trails led in several directions over the snow. Down at sea level, this year’s crop of baby marmots is already emerging their dens, so these at higher elevations should be coming out before long. Farther south, hoary marmots are found just at high elevations (and not on beaches as they sometimes are, here) and they are typically quite polygamous. I wondered if our marmots have a similar mating arrangement. We watched our marmots for quite a while—until an unleashed (illegal) dog started snooping around, when all the marmots promptly took cover.

We like to sit quietly in various spots, just to see and hear whatever is in the neighborhood. At one such stop, I perched on a flat rock and inspected the mat of low-growing vegetation at my feet. There were blueberry stems with occasional pendant pink flowers, and prostrate willows sending up erect catkins. And there was another plant, too, that mystified us all. It had tiny, yellow, bell-shaped flowers, rather like a faded, wizened blueberry flower, and firm leaves with marked reticulate venation. None of us had even noticed it before, although in this site there was quite a bit of it.

I took a small specimen of the mystery plant to a botanist, we consulted various plant books, and the mystery was resolved. The plant is alpine bearberry, a species apparently not recorded quite this far south, although it is reported from Glacier Bay and upper Lynn Canal. In autumn, the leaves will turn a spectacular red and the flowers will have made black berries, beautifully set off by the red leaves. It’s a good bet that there are more patches of this species on the ridges, if we’d look carefully.

At the top of the ridge, our famous photographer observed a female rock ptarmigan foraging on the petals of Cooley’s buttercup (now reclassified as a ‘false buttercup’ and placed in a different genus). True buttercups are generally poisonous (even the flowers) if eaten and often cause skin irritation if rubbed, so I wonder if this is the case for Cooley’s buttercup too. If so, then ptarmigan may have physiological means of dealing with the poison, or perhaps can tolerate small quantities of it. Many animals eat poisonous plants, sometimes counter-acting the poison with another food item. Here is another little local mystery to be solved.

Marmots

from skyline to shoreline in Southeast Alaska

Marmots belong to the large group of squirrel-like rodents that occur around the world (except Australia and Antarctica). There are over a dozen species of marmot, all in the northern hemisphere, and Alaska has three of them. The woodchuck is found only in the central Interior of Alaska, the westernmost extension of its wide North American range. The Brooks Range (and northwestern Alaska) has its own marmot species, known as Brower’s marmot, which occurs nowhere else in the world. The third species is the hoary marmot (closely related to Brower’s); it lives across southern Alaska, including Southeast, and on southward through the mountains to Montana and Idaho.

Over much of their range, hoary marmots are residents of rocky alpine areas. Hoary marmots have been studied intensively in Washington, where they are the marmot species found at the highest elevations, above the habitats of other marmots. Here we see them on Gold Ridge and the ridges on Douglas Island, for example. In Juneau and probably elsewhere in Southeast, however, marmots are not limited to alpine areas but can be found at sea level, living just above the high tide line, where they like their favorite rock piles too, but sometimes they create burrows in moraines and sandbanks underneath large trees.

Marmots spend a lot of time in their burrows, so we only see them for a limited part of the year. They hibernate for many months during the winter, going to sleep in fall and staying in their burrows until spring. They retreat to their burrows in hot summer weather too, avoiding hot weather and diving underground to avoid predators. Most hikers are familiar with their whistled alarm call, given in response to perceived threats, be they human or canine or eagle; it’s a signal saying ‘Look out! Be ready to dive for cover!”

Hoary marmots favor habitats such as rocky talus slopes, where they can create burrows that are protected from most predators and from the extremes of weather. They dig several kinds of burrows: some are used as hibernation places, some serve as residences for females with young, some are used as living quarters by juveniles or males, and other, smaller, ones serve as refuges in which to hide from sudden danger. Meadows full of tasty greens are always nearby. Burrowing sites and food availability are two important factors that determine where hoary marmots can live. Suitable habitat is limited and patchily distributed.

Burrows are also very important for winter survival. Deep burrows are sheltered from winter cold, and a thick snow cover also helps marmots survive over the winter while they hibernate. Overwinter survival of pups is also related to nutritional status: those that are born late in spring/summer have a shorter period of time in which to feed, so they enter hibernation with less fat than those born early in the season, and are less likely to survive than pups that fed all summer long.

Hoary marmots mature when they are three years old. Females generally start breeding when they reach maturity, usually bearing offspring in alternate years. Young marmots stay with their mother until they are two years old; then they may disperse to other areas. Females with pups or yearlings have residence burrows that are not shared with other individuals.

Mature males generally hold territories in suitable habitat, sharing that space with females, juveniles, and pups. After maturation, however, some males may spend a year or more as vagrants or as subordinate satellites within an established territory of a dominant male. Satellites may move up to become a territory owner when the previous owner dies.

If the territory of a mature male contains rich foraging grounds and good burrow locations for more than one female and her offspring, two (rarely three) females may settle there. Not content to have one or two females, territorial males sometimes go gallivanting to other territories, looking for casual liaisons (note that this implies the existence of willing females!). Gallivanting appears to be relatively rare, however, so presumably most of the offspring born on a territory are fathered by the resident male.

Are bigamy and monogamy equally successful in leaving offspring for the next generations? One would think that bigamous males (with two females) would father more offspring than monogamous males, in general. However, studies in the Pacific Northwest indicate that monogamous males may last longer as territory owners than bigamous males. Furthermore, females mated to a bigamous male are more likely to skip an extra year between litters. So the lifetime legacies (measured in number of descendants) of bigamous and monogamous males may not differ greatly. For females, however, the lower frequency of reproduction in a bigamous relationship probably means that they have a lower lifetime output of young than females in monogamous relationships, on average.

I would love to see a good study of marmots in Southeast. Do marmots in Southeast fit the examples revealed by studies in the Pacific Northwest? Do alpine and beach marmots differ in their social arrangements, such as the frequency of bigamy, and the effects of mating arrangements on survival and production of young? Does survival of pups or adults differ with elevation? The potential length of the summer feeding period is surely greater at low elevation….unless beach marmots have to spend more burrow time in summer, to escape hot weather (if any). Research funds are sadly scarce these days, so such questions may not be answered in the near future.

Vocalization and predation

begging chicks, whispering whales, and clicking moths

Four baby juncos, in a nest tucked under a dropping clump of grass, lie low and are very quiet. Only when their parents come with food do they raise their heads and beg. When the parents leave, the chicks again are still. There’s a good reason for this: a nestful of lively, loud chicks would probably attract predators, who are always on the watch for succulent little morsels. Even the repeated back-and-forth trips of attentive parents are often enough to alert watchful predators to the location of a nest.

The nestlings of many other songbirds (robins, sparrows, warblers, etc.) behave in the same way, for the same reasons. They nest in open-cup nests, which are vulnerable to all comers. Cavity-nesters, such as woodpeckers, can be a little more brash in their protective holes. Predators may come, but only some of them can enter or reach into a deep cavity, and if they do, they may face a barrage of sharp beaks. Predations rates on cavity-nesters are much lower than on open-cup nesters. As the chicks get bigger, they sometimes perch right next to their front door, poking their heads out and yelling for food (that’s how I easily found the nest of a black-backed woodpecker, some years ago).

Ducks and shorebirds do it differently. Wherever they nest, the chicks leave the nest soon after hatching, typically following a parent around but feeding themselves. When incubation is done, there are no back-and-forth parental feeding trips to lure a predator to a particular place. The family is now a moving target, not a stationary one.

Among mammals that are subject to predation, we find a similar dichotomy. The young of some species follow their mothers, but in other species the babies cuddle in a nest. Humpback whale calves stay close to their mothers, and recent research shows that they talk to them in ‘whispers’—soft vocalizations that cannot be heard at any distance. This may reduce the risk of killer whale attacks. The young of deer, moose, zebras, elephants and other large herbivores are also able to accompany their mothers soon after birth; I wonder if they whisper too!

Young marmots stay near the den, which offers a quick retreat when danger threatens, and young beavers gain some protection from the pond outside the lodge, a haven, when the alarm sounds. Smaller mammals have a variety of arrangements, mostly depending on being cryptic and hard to find.

But some small rodents add another feature that improves safety: They can produce ultrasound: too high-pitched for human ears (hence, “ultra”), these sounds have a very short wavelength along with the very high frequency. Such sounds attenuate rapidly with distance, so they do not carry very far; they are more directional than low-frequency sounds, but they get scattered by reflecting off twigs and leaves. Young lemmings, mice, and rats emit ultrasounds to call their mothers, if they have become separated too long; the calls prompt the mother to retrieve the wandering pups. Although many predators of small rodents cannot hear ultrasound, some can (e.g., dogs and cats and their relatives), and a short-range call of distress might reduce the risk of predation from such carnivores.

Adult small rodents also use ultrasound as a form of social communication within a group, quiet talk among companions. Certain ground squirrels emit ultrasounds that alert others to the presence of a distant threat, the rapid attenuation ensuring that the sound does not carry as far as the potential threat.

On the other hand, some predators have evolved the ability to use ultrasound in hunting—as an aid to predation (rather than a way to avoid it). The toothed whales use echolocation (sonar), much of it in the ultrasonic range, to navigate in turbid waters and to detect their prey. Our resident killer whales, for instance, use ultrasound to locate and capture their fish; the transient killer whales, however, seldom use it while hunting their prey of marine mammals. Not only are the prey mammals much larger and easier to see than the prey fish, typically, they are also more likely to be able to hear the sonar calls of the hunting killer whales. So the transients usually hunt silently.

Bats are perhaps the best-studied predators that hunt using ultrasound. The short wavelengths permit the sounds to bounce off small prey, such as insects, and bats emit very high intensity (‘loud’) ultrasounds as they close in on a hapless bug. Not all insects are hapless, however! Some toxic tiger moths make ultrasonic clicks to warn off approaching bats, which then often abort their attack. Other, nontoxic, tiger moths use their ultrasound to jam the sonar of an attacking bat, making the attack less likely to be successful.

Echolocating calls sometimes also allow the bats to communicate with each other, as they are looking for roosts or food. Because the calls can be individually recognizable, young bats can communicate with their mothers, and friends can talk to each other (although others may eavesdrop). There remains much to be learned about the social uses of sound in bats.

Animals at play

a widespread pleasure

Any observant dog owners can recognize the invitation-to-play posture of their dogs, sometimes addressed to persons, and sometimes to other dogs. Surely none of us doubts that dogs love to play, with balls or sticks or each other. And cat owners watch their feline friends toss and chase toy mice, frolic with rumpled scatter rugs, and push pingpong balls under the couch only to fish them back out again. A favorite trick of some cats is ‘ambush’…running ahead of a person or another cat, hiding behind a door, and pouncing out as the victim passes by. Some cats and dogs even know how to make jokes, sometimes deliberately and mischievously misleading their humans or each other in frivolous ways. Of course, dogs and cats are domestic critters, which often have lots of time for frolicking, because they usually don’t have the need to find food or escape from enemies or find mates; the same is true for animals in captivity, which often need sources of amusement.

What about animals in the wild? Do they play too? Sure; especially younger ones, but adults too. Wolves and coyotes tussle and chase. They use the same play-invitation postures among themselves as dogs do; our late-lamented black wolf, Romeo, used to invite passing dogs to play. On-line sources offer plenty of examples: young elephants mud-sliding and mud-wrestling or macaques repeatedly leaping from a tower into a pool of water or….you name it.

Play behavior often has some utilitarian physiological functions, such as muscle toning or sharpening reflexes or improving coordination. It can also have useful social functions, such as learning the rules of interaction among members of a group (e.g., don’t play too roughly!) or establishing a dominance order. But play behavior would not be so common among critters if it weren’t simply FUN.

It took a long time for humans to recognize that animals, both domestic and wild ones, like to have fun. Having fun requires a degree of intelligence that humans have been slow to admit is found in animals—irrationally and wrongly preferring to think ourselves superior to everybody else.

Here are a few examples of animals that play, mostly from animals that we often see around here.

Young marmots box and wrestle on the threshold of their den. Bear cubs tumble and tussle with each other, sometimes engaging mama as well; so do beaver kits and young ones of many other species. Mountain goat kids sometimes bounce from ledge to ledge, apparently just because they can and it is fun.

Young humpback whales sometimes cavort, fluke slapping, pectoral slapping, and breaching, as if saying Hey mom, look at me! A local photographer watched one breach seventeen times in quick succession!

Humpback-Whale-Breach-for-Talk-Doug-Jones
Photo by Doug Jones

We can see ravens having fun. They might fly up with a feather or some other object, and then drop it, only to swoop down and catch it again; or maybe a friend would dart in to snatch it away. Sometimes there is a game of keep-away: I’ve got a toy, you try to get it from me. We’ve watched ravens roll down a snowy slope, or slide like a toboggan, only to trot back up to the top and do it over again.

Crows play, too. There is an on-line video of a European crow sliding down a snowy roof while standing on a plastic lid; then it picked up the lid, went back to the top of the roof, and slid down again. What a hoot! (I couldn’t leave that one out, even though it is not local). Our northwestern crows sometimes dangle upside down from a branch, not reaching for anything nor avoiding something, just showing off. The biggest showoffs dangle on one foot: see what I can do! Then they may swing back upright with a wing-flap or two, or let go and try it again on a different branch.

Otters slide down muddy or snowy slopes. Some slide tracks are many yards long, and the otter then continued onward to wherever it was going. This is an energy-efficient mode of transportation—just push off and let gravity do the rest. But sometimes they are not really going anywhere, just down a small slope and back up again, to do it all over once more. Sometimes a whole slope will be covered with their slide marks. It must be fun!

Dall’s porpoises sometimes come to ride the bow wave of a fast-moving boat. A little group of them seems to appear from nowhere and together they ride that wave, sometimes for a considerable distance. Then they are gone, as suddenly as they came.

One day at Eaglecrest I found a place where ptarmigan had pranced around, leaving lots of footprints. These were interspersed with a number of slide marks, about three feet long, going down a little slope. We know that ptarmigan often glide to a stop when they come in for a snow-landing, leaving a short slide mark, but the marks I saw did not look like landing marks. They made me think of the otter slides, so I wondered if ptarmigan can play too. I turned up only one report, which says that flocks or family groups of willow ptarmigan frolic together, crouching low with head extended, jumping around, and flapping one or both wings. I would love to see that!

Eating poison

toxins as medicine and food

I have reports, from two good observers, of marmots on Gold Ridge eating monkshood, a plant that is known to be highly toxic. In fact, extracts of this plant (genus Aconitum) have been used, historically, by hunters that coated their arrow points, spears, or harpoons with such material, not to mention its use by human murderers. The toxins are very quick-acting, and symptoms begin to appear almost immediately. Although the root is most commonly cited as the principal source, all parts of the plant are said to contain the poisons, and the poisons reportedly can even be absorbed through the skin (although individual sensitivity may vary). That being the case, why in the world would those marmots be eating this stuff? There are a number of possible explanations, none with documentation for this particular case:

Both marmots were observed to be foraging selectively on monkshood, bypassing other plants, and also selecting chiefly the flowers (and incidentally a few of the uppermost leaves). Perhaps the toxins are less concentrated there. Or perhaps marmots have some physiological means of detoxifying the poisons. Or maybe the marmots then eat something that is an antidote (for example, tropical parrots eat toxic seeds and then gather at clay banks to eat the clay that counters the toxins). Possibly the concentrations of the toxin very during the day or at different stages of growth (as is known for some other species). Perhaps there is some medicinal value in small doses of the toxins (as is true for digitalis, for example, used to treat heart problems in humans, but high doses kill). The effects of small doses are variable: small doses might prepare the body’s physiology to deal with subsequent larger doses (‘hormesis’) but small doses of certain compounds may accumulate to lethal levels. Asian medicine features a number of medicinal uses of monkshood, and in some human cultures, the root is even used as food (after boiling in several waters).

Virtually every wild plant, and domestic ones as well, produce (or accumulate substances from the soil) chemical compounds that are poisonous to at least one kind of animal, and often to many species. Many, probably most, of these compounds have evolved as deterrents to would-be consumers. Consumers, in turn, generally evolve counter-measures that render the plant defenses less harmful. In effect, there is a continual co-evolutionary battle between consumer and consumee. Some insects have gone one step farther and sequester the plant’s defensive compounds for their own defense versus predators; in certain cases, these insects have become totally dependent of the kinds of plants that produce particular re-usable compounds. Perhaps the best-known example is the monarch butterfly, whose larvae eat milkweeds and sequester the plants’ cardiac glycosides, which cause digestive upsets in birds that try to eat the larvae or the adults and thus deters predators. (More on this topic of recycled weapons in a future essay.)

Of course, our local flora is full of plants that contain toxic substances, in varying amounts. All members of the buttercup family (such as monkshood) are suspect, wild irises ‘disagree’ with some herbivores, pine needles have been reported to make livestock sick. Consumption of false hellebore (aka corn lily) has nasty results for many kinds of animals. The list goes on!

Mushrooms are known for many hallucinogenic or pathological effects upon consumers. Among the most famous are the Amanitas. Our species is fairly common and quite attractive: the cap is red or yellow, with warty growths that might suggest dots of streusel topping on coffee cake. It is reportedly less toxic than some other species of the genus, but it can produce very nasty effects in humans. Nevertheless, rodents are known to nibble on the mushroom cap: we often see signs of their teeth there. I have not found any reports of the effects of amanita on rodents.

red-squirrel-amanita-bob-armstrong
Red squirrel with amanita. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Another local species of some toxicological interest is baneberry (Actaea rubra). It is reported to be highly poisonous– perhaps especially the attractive red (or sometimes white) berries. At least one moth species can eat the seeds, and I recall that, in the Midwest, grouse eat the berries. I once fed berries to several small mammals without obvious deleterious consequences. Nevertheless, for humans, discretion is the better part of valor.

Although there are many studies of the effects of various plant toxins on livestock, it is hard to find reports of plant poisoning in wild, free-ranging animals. The reproductive success of California quail was reduced in years when their preferred forage plants were scarce and the birds ate more plants that contained protective chemicals. Voles in Japan also had lower reproductive success in habitats that contained more plants with certain protective chemicals.

Most cases of poison deaths in free-ranging wildlife seem to be associated with situations where foraging opportunities are limited and the animals don’t have full access to their preferred foods (to which they are adapted). In short, wild animals are usually able to avoid poisoning themselves, unless they have little or nothing else to eat.

That generalization leaves open the question of fruit-eating birds, such as waxwings, that eat fermented fruit and get so drunk that they cannot fly or even perch successfully. They then become very vulnerable to predators and disturbances that might send them crashing into something. Do they eat fermented fruits only when other ripe fruits are hard to find?

Marmots

a productive meander on Gold Ridge

As I slowly meandered up the Gold Ridge trail above the tram, a grouse stepped out of the brush and strode calmly up the trail ahead of me. We walked together but apart for many yards. Next to the trail, a young marmot sat with its head out of its burrow, watching the approaching trail-walkers. As the grouse drew near, the youngster hurriedly pulled back underground. When the grouse passed by, the marmot crept out a little way and carefully watched the bird go on up the trail until it was out of sight. The marmot was quite unconcerned about the human standing next to the burrow—the big worry seemed to be the grouse! Maybe the young marmot had never before seen such a bird, while the humans were too common to warrant a second thought?

Fall is in the air, although it is only the middle of August. (Surely, it’s too soon??? I’m not ready for this!) Alder leaves are brown and crumpling; cottonwood leaves are bronzed. Robins are flocking on beaches and in blueberry patches, and warblers of several species keep company while searching for bugs in the shrubs. Fireweed has gone to seed, spectacularly. During our recent spell of sun, the fluff on the seeds was showing off, especially when backlit. I’ve noticed some visitors admiring the display of open seed pods; they didn’t know what it is, but they saw how pretty it can be. I like to look closely at the open pods (when they are dry) that still contain seeds; they and their fluff are arranged very artistically, arching across between the open sides of the pod. Of course, to the amusement of my hiking companion, I had to help the breeze blow some seeds away to their destiny.

It was a perfect fall day on the ridge. A few hawks migrated along the ridgetops and ravens cavorted in the breeze. The dwarf willows had gone to seed, making mats of seed-bearing white fluff against the dark green of the leaves. Most plants with wind-dispersed seeds bear them high above the ground, where the wide can reach them, but somehow the prostrate dwarf willows must manage to send their seeds aloft despite being so close to the ground. Many of the wildflowers were past blooming too, although we found some louseworts, blue harebells, yellow arnicas, lavender fleabanes, and lots of yellow groundsel. Most of the monkshood flowers were the usual intense purple, while others were purple veined with white.

The best show was stands of the sky-blue broad-petaled gentian. Under sunny skies the flowers opened, and we looked attentively for visiting bumblebees. No luck—the bees were visiting the groundsels, fleabanes, and arnicas. August had seen drenching downpours for days and days, so this was perhaps the first chance for these alpine gentians to open and be pollinated. Did they miss their chance this year?

marmot-with-hay-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

Juvenile marmots were out foraging in many places, intent on filling up before hibernation. One juvenile carried a mouthful of dry grass for a hibernation bed. The few adults we saw were lounging on rocks in the warm sun, letting the kids do the work.

Part of the Parks and Rec hiking group went on up Gastineau Peak, while the rest of us found a cushy spot for lunch at the end of Gold Ridge. The marmots could keep their rocks—we chose a springy cushion of mountain heather on which to sprawl and soak up the rays. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Well, perhaps some cookies….