Mid-April

early flowers and musings about ducks

Skunk cabbages stand as tall yellow sentinels (if deer haven’t nipped them off) in the marshy places. They send out their sweet aroma (not at all ‘skunky’!) and provide a cheery splash of color in the mostly gray-and-green forest. Yellow violets gleam along the forest trails, as the forest floor begins to green-up. The white flowers of miners’ lettuce are showing, along with the delicate little flowers of fern-leaf goldthread. And the purple mountain saxifrage is going strong on rocky outcrops even in the shadier sites.

fern-leaf-goldthread-early-development-through-the-snow-6-good-altered
Fern-leaf goldthread flowers emerging through the snow

Blueberry bushes at low elevations have already dropped many of their little pinkish bells. The deeper pink flowers of salmonberry are borne on canes that are just sending out new leaves. In addition to the early-blooming felt-leaf willow, other kinds of willows are producing their catkins.

In many places, alders have already dropped their male catkins, which have released their pollen for the wind to carry to the waiting female cones. I’ve found lots of catkins lying on the ground under male cottonwood trees too, but for some unknown reason, a substantial number of these have released only some of their pollen. However, the best part (for me) of cottonwood flowering is the light, clear, sweet aroma that fills the air near a stand of these trees. Look on the ground below a tree and find the yellow-brown bud scales and sniff ‘em!

I heard my first fox sparrow of the year in Sheep Creek valley recently, along with the varied thrushes, robins, Pacific wrens, and ruby-crowned kinglets, which have been singing for some time. Just a few days later, there were several singing fox sparrows in the valley. Although hermit thrushes are here, I’ve not yet heard them sing. I have two reports of chickadees cleaning out their nest cavities, and on one creek I have seen a male dipper on guard as his female incubates their clutch of eggs; with such an early start on the first brood, they should be able to rear a second one as well.

Here are some other sightings that were fun:

A pair of ravens harassed an eagle as it sat in the top of a tree, diving at it and yelling. Poor old eagle just hunched its head and took the abuse. Were those cranky ravens defending a nest? It didn’t seem so: after some minutes of continual persecution, both ravens took off and disappeared in the distance.

Out at the end of the Mendenhall Peninsula, under overhanging alders above the beach, I found a number of small piles of chewed-up, very clean barnacle shells. Some consumer had routinely used this place to off-load the shelly ballast after lunching on the prey. Who was the consumer? Maybe a raven or two, or perhaps some otters?

One day we found five pairs of buffleheads on Cashew Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec area. Each pair cruised sedately, male and female side by side, occasionally diving, each pair in a different part of the lake. Suddenly a big kerfuffle broke out—much flapping and splashing and squawking. One male had decided to approach another male’s female, and that was cause for battle. The intruder was chased off, but only temporarily. He was soon back again, and the uproar was repeated, several times. The female who was the object of interest seemed to float quietly at a little distance and let the males duke it out. I think the original status quo was restored, but who could be sure, without banded birds!

Buffleheads are the smallest diving duck in North America. They nest in the Interior, in boreal forest and aspen parklands, near small lakes and ponds, where they feed on aquatic insects. They nest in cavities made by large woodpeckers such as flickers, but readily use nest boxes too. If buffleheads try to use a cavity with an opening that is large, they may be outcompeted and even beaten up by goldeneyes that want the same cavity.

They are reported to pair up mainly in winter but also during northward spring migration. Courtship and sometimes even mating occur en route. Buffleheads often keep the same mate from year to year, according to researchers. The interactions we saw on Cashew Lake suggest that mate fidelity may be challenged at times. There’s more to be learned about all this!

Middens

…humans aren’t the only ones who make trash piles

This interesting and useful word comes ultimately from an old Scandinavian term for a dunghill. The sense has been broadened to include heaps of all kinds of refuse and junk.

Archaeologists love human middens (except perhaps those that can sometimes accumulate in the bedrooms of certain young, or the backyards of not so young, persons…). These scientists mine around in ancient piles of shells and bones and debris, often finding such treasures as ceramic shards, broken and discarded tools, cordage and nets, lost ornaments of hard materials, charcoal, even plant and insect remains. It all gives them a good source of information for interpreting by-gone ways of life for humans. Sometimes it also yields information on changes in animal and plant communities over hundreds and thousands of years and, in coastal areas, information on locations of ancient shorelines. (Juneau has its very own large and ever-growing midden in the Lemon Creek area.)

Shell middens, up to several thousand years old, have been found in the Aleutians, on the north slope, and all over coastal Southeast, except where long sandy beaches are common. On Prince of Wales, middens composed mostly of barnacle and mussel shells have been estimated to be as much as five thousand five hundred years old. Many others are more recent.

Other animals regularly create middens too. Muskrats harvest cattails and other aquatic vegetation, typically eating only part of the plant. The leftovers pile up, as the muskrat returns again and again to the same lunch spot. The heap of vegetation then offers a dry place for future meals (but I don’t know if the muskrat cares about that).

Here in Southeast, bushy-tailed woodrats live on some of the nunataks in the coastal range of mountains. Woodrats are also known as packrats, for their habit of collecting and piling up all sorts of miscellaneous junk. Excavation of packrat middens in the deserts down south has provided important information about past climates and environments, as long ago as forty thousand years. However, I don’t think anyone has studied the woodrats in our regional populations.

Red squirrels are the well-known midden-makers. They have favorite spots for peeling the scales off cones to extract the edible seeds. The rejected scales and cone cores pile up, sometimes a foot or more deep. In some cases, a midden is spread out over a sizable area. I once found one near Atlin that was over eighteen yards in diameter; this one had been used a long time!

The accumulation of cone debris often blankets the squirrels’ burrows, probably providing some protection from cold and wet. Squirrels often cache their harvested cones in the burrows or between the roots of trees, to keep them from drying out and opening prematurely, letting the seeds fall out and get lost. And they sometimes dine near the entrances to the burrow, building up a midden. When a squirrel midden covers a cache of food, some sources conflate the terms, making cache and midden mean the same thing. But it is helpful to keep those words distinct: one for the rejects on the surface, the other for the still-useful cones in storage. The accompanying photograph shows a midden of cone debris with a pile of still-closed spruce cones on top. The squirrel that owns this pile will, presumably, move those cone below-ground to a cache, where the dampness will keep the cones from opening and shedding the seeds prematurely.

Here in Southeast, red squirrels commonly seem to live and nest in those burrows, but in the Interior I think they typically nest in collected bundles of leaves and other vegetation placed up in trees. (Also, next to my house, behind a pile of lumber, there is a beautiful round nest, which I am loath to disturb.) Those ball-shaped bundles are called ‘dreys’.

octopus-den-and-midden-Annette-Smith
Octopus midden. Photo by Annette Smith

Who else makes middens? Octopuses often pile up stones and shells in front of their dens. Marine biologists use the accumulation to locate the dens and analyze the shells to determine the diet of the den-dwellers. One kind of octopus favors snails for dinner, discarding the shells out in front of the den as usual. But in this case the shell pile often doesn’t grow, because hermit crabs appropriate the snail shells for their own use.

Middens

heaps of junk are a naturalist’s treasure

This interesting and useful word comes ultimately from an old Scandinavian term for a dunghill. The sense has been broadened to include heaps of all kinds of refuse and junk.

Archaeologists love human middens (except perhaps those that can sometimes accumulate in the bedrooms of certain young, or the backyards of not so young, persons…). These scientists mine around in ancient piles of shells and bones and debris, often finding such treasures as ceramic shards, broken and discarded tools, cordage and nets, lost ornaments of hard materials, charcoal, even plant and insect remains. It all gives them a good source of information for interpreting by-gone ways of life for humans. Sometimes it also yields information on changes in animal and plant communities over hundreds and thousands of years and, in coastal areas, information on locations of ancient shorelines. (Juneau has its very own large and ever-growing midden in the Lemon Creek area.)

Shell middens, up to several thousand years old, have been found in the Aleutians, on the north slope, and all over coastal Southeast, except where long sandy beaches are common. On Prince of Wales, middens composed mostly of barnacle and mussel shells have been estimated to be as much as five thousand five hundred years old. Many others are more recent.

Other animals regularly create middens too. Muskrats harvest cattails and other aquatic vegetation, typically eating only part of the plant. The leftovers pile up, as the muskrat returns again and again to the same lunch spot. The heap of vegetation then offers a dry place for future meals (but I don’t know if the muskrat cares about that).

Here in Southeast, bushy-tailed woodrats live on some of the nunataks in the coastal range of mountains. Woodrats are also known as packrats, for their habit of collecting and piling up all sorts of miscellaneous junk. Excavation of packrat middens in the deserts down south has provided important information about past climates and environments, as long ago as forty thousand years. However, I don’t think anyone has studied the woodrats in our regional populations.

Red squirrels are the well-known midden-makers. They have favorite spots for peeling the scales off cones to extract the edible seeds. The rejected scales and cone cores pile up, sometimes a foot or more deep. In some cases, a midden is spread out over a sizable area. I once found one near Atlin that was over eighteen yards in diameter; this one had been used a long time!

The accumulation of cone debris often blankets the squirrels’ burrows, probably providing some protection from cold and wet. Squirrels often cache their harvested cones in the burrows or between the roots of trees, to keep them from drying out and opening prematurely, letting the seeds fall out and get lost. And they sometimes dine near the entrances to the burrow, building up a midden. When a squirrel midden covers a cache of food, some sources conflate the terms, making cache and midden mean the same thing. But it is helpful to keep those words distinct: one for the rejects on the surface, the other for the still-useful cones in storage. The accompanying photograph shows a midden of cone debris with a pile of still-closed spruce cones on top. The squirrel that owns this pile will, presumably, move those cone below-ground to a cache, where the dampness will keep the cones from opening and shedding the seeds prematurely.

Here in Southeast, red squirrels commonly seem to live and nest in those burrows, but in the Interior I think they typically nest in collected bundles of leaves and other vegetation placed up in trees. (Also, next to my house, behind a pile of lumber, there is a beautiful round nest, which I am loath to disturb.) Those ball-shaped bundles are called ‘dreys’.

octopus-den-and-midden-annette-smith
Octopus den and midden. Photo by Annette Smith

Who else makes middens? Octopuses often pile up stones and shells in front of their dens. Marine biologists use the accumulation to locate the dens and analyze the shells to determine the diet of the den-dwellers. One kind of octopus favors snails for dinner, discarding the shells out in front of the den as usual. But in this case the shell pile often doesn’t grow, because hermit crabs appropriate the snail shells for their own use.