Solstice in the sun

spotlighting a wild flower show

It had rained, just a little, during the night, so the wet grass soaked our britches as we waded through it. But for once, these Juneau-ites didn’t whine about the wet—it felt really good! The outdoor temperatures the day before had reached into the seventies and the little cabin in Cowee Meadows was a heat collector. There was no cross-ventilation in the cabin unless we admitted hordes of hungry mosquitoes through the unscreened windows—a choice we were unwilling to accept. For real Juneau folks, this was a heat wave! The Down-Southers may laugh, but it was enough to make us a bit wilted.

So we waded happily through the wet grass, in search of nothing in particular and anything in general, and we found lots of things of interest. We brought to bear a diversity of eyes and mind’s eyes, which made our explorations very productive and more fun; one person could never have seen quite so many things. Here is a sampling:

We stood surrounded by acres of purple and blue iris and lupine, with patches of yellow buttercups. A few tall white cow parsnips and tufts of lady fern added contrast and texture. But if we looked more closely, there were dozens of other flowering species in bloom: roses on the raised berms, shooting stars fading, yellow pond lilies, silverweed, and on and on; the list grew very long. Out along the beach were arrowgrass, beach greens, milkwort, and goosetongue. In fact, when we tallied up all the kinds of flowers we saw (excluding grasses and sedges) from the trailhead out to the rocky beach, we had found a grand total of seventy five species of flowers. That’s pretty remarkable, and it indicates just how very rich this area is.

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Wild iris. Photo by Katherine Hocker

Irises came in many shades, ranging from pale blue through royal purple to a gorgeous reddish purple. Beach peas also varied, some with more white, or a deeper pink, or more purple. A big surprise was chocolate lilies that weren’t the usual brownish color (or brown with a few yellow speckles) but rather were entirely yellow (or yellow with a few brown spots). I have to wonder if the color variations affect the behavior of the pollinating insects.

Some species were going to seed, and their ripe fruits or seed pods were diverse in structure and function. Shooting star capsules looked like little red and green easter eggs, sitting in cups. When the capsule dries and splits open, the tiny seeds will be dispersed by the wind. Lupines had been quite well pollinated, but their seed pods were not yet ready to pop open explosively, sending seeds in all directions. Marsh marigold seed heads were like crowns of attractive spikes, each with a little hook, as is common in the buttercup family. Apparently the hook does not contribute to seed dispersal; the seed drops out of the enclosing tissue and floats on the water. We decided that a field guide to fruits and seeds and means of seed dispersal for local plants would be both useful and fun.

Sweetgale shrubs are usually either male or female, although occasionally they are both. Next year’s ‘cones’ were already formed and very small. We noticed that twiglets bearing last year’s female cones were invariably dead, so there seems to be a cost to producing seeds.

The hot weather meant that the insect pollinators were busily visiting flowers. Bumblebees foraged on iris and lupine and beach pea, and their behavior would be worth some detailed attention. The broad, white inflorescences of cow parsnip were covered with foraging flies. Many insects scrobbled over the pollen-rich rose flowers.

It’s the flowers that make these meadows so rich and spectacular, but vertebrate life is also abundant. It was so hot (and rather late into the season for some species) that bird song was at a low level, but I heard a northern yellowthroat singing in the big marsh and warbling vireos in the forest edge. Three kinds of sparrow sang, each in its own habitat.

We visited the colony of beach marmots, who were all down in the cool earth for the day. From the beach berm, we watched a sea otter diving and feeding. A mama seal was accompanied by a small, dark, young one. Whales spouted in the distance, out in Lynn Canal.

Of bears, we saw none. But there was plenty of sign of their presence. Bear-sized trails ran through the thick meadow vegetation. Bear scat decorated the human trails. And one morning we found numerous fresh digs along the upper beach: turned-up moss and soil that hadn’t been there the previous afternoon. Most of the digs were at the bases of rocks, and all seemed to be focused on the roots of species in the carrot family (possibly sea coast angelica and hemlock parsley).

Gold Ridge alpine

flower sightings and unusual birds

Gold Ridge is one of my favorite places for wandering around, checking the progress of the seasons and just seeing what I can see. On a fine but crisp day in late June, a friend and I strolled slowly up the trail, stopping frequently to look more closely.

The salmonberry crop was coming along nicely, and the alpine blueberries were loaded with flowers, at least in some spots. So, if the bumblebees do their job, there should be a nice crop of blueberries later on. These are much tastier, to my tongue, than the tall-bush blueberries at lower elevations.

We always look for a few special flowers, and this day we found two of them. The inky or glaucous gentian was presenting its intensely blue-green flowers, still closed and waiting for a sunny day when bees would be granted access. The funny little frog orchid is quite inconspicuous, being short of stature and bearing green flowers, but we finally found some. The common name of this species must have come from someone with a vivid (or twisted) imagination—the resemblance to a frog is remote at best.

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Frog orchid. Photo by Bob Armstrong

The top of the ridge was a sea of narcissus anemones and buttercups, with patches of mountain-heather. We tucked into a small swale, out of the chill breeze, and settled in to watch for a while. Just sitting quietly is often a rewarding experience for a naturalist; one becomes part of the landscape, and creatures start to appear nearby.

And we had our small rewards. Some twitching stems of mountain-heather finally parted, to reveal a foraging gray-crowned rosy finch. This bird was thoroughly covering a small patch of ground, gobbling up small insects. Rosy finches nest in alpine tundra, on cliffs and barren slopes (and on recently deglaciated terrain, as found in upper Glacier Bay); they are known to nest on this ridge.

Another bird was walking on a nearby remnant snowbank, gathering a bill-full of bugs. A slender bird with a fairly long tail, the pipit’s characteristic gait is a walk, not a hop. This one filled its bill and winged off to a nest of chicks around the corner.

A sudden rustling in the low vegetation caught my attention. Some small animal scuttled very rapidly and nearly invisibly for several yards and dove into a burrow. I can only suppose that this was some kind of vole, probably a long-tailed vole. There is another species of vole (the heather vole) that occurs in alpine habitats, but it has seldom been recorded in Southeast.

Loafing around during lunch, we happened to spot two diminutive flowers that we surely would have missed while tramping up the trail. Both species were new to us. We later learned that one is called northern false asphodel, a pink-flowered relative of iris. The other was a dwarfed individual of purple sweet cicely, in the carrot family; it is normally a more sizable plant, but this mature individual was only about two inches tall.

On the way down, we heard a steady series of little barks or yips, which we did not recognize. Then we discovered a marmot perched on a boulder and looking uphill. We looked in the same direction and spotted an adult eagle sitting on a rocky outcrop. After a few minutes, the eagle spread its wings and sailed out over the rockslide where the calling marmot sat. Immediately, the marmot changed its call to the familiar alarm whistle and whistled until the eagle was out of sight. And thus we learned that marmots use different calls, for different levels of danger.

We spent several hours on the ridge, walking slowly and pausing frequently. In all that time, however, we saw no grouse or ptarmigan. No male ptarmigan showing off on rocky points, no females with broods of little chicks, none. We can only hope that this was just bad luck, not a sign that the populations up there have declined.

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”

Granite Basin denizens

visiting the world of marmots and spotted sandpipers

A long, lazy lunch, which we enjoyed while sprawled on a huge boulder in the noontime sun: we basked like lizards—or, more appropriately for our locale, like marmots.

Soon thereafter, we were whistled at—by a pair of baby marmots that had just recently begun to emerge from the den where they were born. These toddlers tried very hard to sound the alarm about the ‘monsters’ tramping along the creek, but their whistles sounded very raspy and feeble. That didn’t deter them, however, and they shrilled every few seconds until we were well past their rock.

It seems to take a while for youngsters to learn how often to ‘cry wolf’. Adult marmots would probably not have gotten quite so excited at the sight of two-footed monsters traipsing by. Interestingly, baby beavers behave much the same way, tail-slapping over and over again at something strange, often ignored by their parents, until they learn to tailor their alarms to the circumstances.

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A young hoary marmot

The scientific name of our hoary marmot is Marmota caligata. The second name refers to boots, because the marmots’ black feet reminded some taxonomist of that footgear. Farther south, hoary marmots typically inhabit high elevations, with other marmot species at lower altitudes, but in our area, these marmots range from sea level to the alpine zone.

These marmots have a very flexible mating system. Some mate in pairs, or social monogamy; a study in south-central Alaska suggested that this was the common arrangement there. Others are polygynous, two or more females socially bonded to a male. Sometimes an extra male resides on the periphery of a mated male’s territory. Regardless of the social arrangement, however, there is reportedly a lively scene of extracurricular activity. Males go gallivanting over the hillsides, looking for receptive females. And they find them: many litters have been shown to have multiple fathers. So perhaps the two we saw were just half sibs.

Gallivanting males are most common in big patches of suitable habitat, where several colonies of marmots are neighbors. Small habitat patches may only support one family group and opportunities for gallivanting are fewer. Males reportedly behave more parentally when gallivanting is not an option; they guard their offspring more assiduously and even play with them.

Hoary marmots typically mature disperse from their natal territory to find their own place in the world when two years old. Mature females, age 3 or more, can produce a litter every year if food is very abundant but often skip a year or two if food is scarce. Mating occurs in spring, soon after the adults emerge from hibernation. Gestation lasts about four weeks and the pups are weaned after roughly four more weeks. Litters usually consist of about three pups, but pup mortality can be high, especially during winter. Litter size and frequency of reproduction varies with the social mating arrangements: monogamously mated females produce larger litters more often than bigamously or trigamously mated females, which are more likely to skip a year—and whose males do more gallivanting in the females’ off-years!

I heard but failed to see a spotted sandpiper near the pool at the top of the falls at the basin entrance. Spotties are found there virtually every year. They usually nest on gravel bars and upper beach fringes, and the basin provides several gravel bars.

Spotted sandpiper females arrive first on the breeding ground and claim a territory. Males arrive later and set up their own territories inside those of females. Some females mate monogamously, and both parents may care for the eggs; this mating arrangement is more common among younger females. Older females are commonly polyandrous: a female often mates with two or even three males in succession. She lays a clutch of four eggs for Number 1 and leaves him to do all the incubation and chick-tending, while she goes on to Number 2. If there is no Number 3, a female may help Number 2 care for the brood.

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Photo by Bob Armstrong

Some polyandrous females bond with males within her original territory. Others search widely for a second mate. It turns out these females keep track of their neighbors and they know which territories previously have been successful in producing chicks. And to the males on those territories go the females to find a sire for their second broods. In this case, it seems to pay to be a nosy neighbor!

The plot thickens still further! Those second males may indeed perform all their parental duties and also may be helped by the female if it is her last brood of the season. But second males are not necessarily the fathers of the chicks. In some cases the female stores sperm of Number 1, which becomes the father of at least some chicks in the second brood. In effect, Number 2 has been cuckolded by the first male and ends up caring for another male’s chicks.