Transplants in Southeast Alaska

and the consequences of forced emigration

Since the 1920s, mammals of fourteen species have been transplanted from one location (mostly but not always in Alaska) to another location in Southeast. Many of the official transplants were done with the hope of establishing viable populations of game species in new places, with the goal of providing more prey for humans. The processes of capturing and transporting the unwilling immigrants commonly resulted in high mortality, even before the animals were deposited in their new sites.

Many of the transplantations failed. An attempt to establish a moose population near the Chickamin River in the 1960s failed altogether; all the transplanted young moose died. At that time, officials declared it was too expensive to do a preliminary habitat assessment and thought it more practical to just dump the moose there and see what happened. A number of other transplant attempts over several decades are said to have failed: deer to the Taiya Valley, goats to Chichagof, mink to Strait Island, muskrats and marmot to Prince of Wales, wolf to Coronation Island, snowshoe hare to Admiralty and other islands. Ill-advised attempts in the 40s and 50s to establish populations of non-native raccoons failed.

Some transplants were successful, apparently without any serious preliminary assessments: the mountain goats now living on Baranof are descendants of the transplants in the 1920s, and marten were moved to Prince of Wales, Baranof, and Chichagof in the 1940s and 1950s. After a habitat assessment in Berners Bay, a number of young moose were deposited there in 1958 and 1960; they established themselves successfully and that local population has grown. It may be emigrants from that area that we observe near Cowee Creek, Herbert River, and the Mendenhall Glacier. The possible effects of moose browsing on the structure of the vegetation in Berners Bay are apparently not known; given the notable cropping of willows and other shrubs in Gustavus, one might wonder about the effects on nesting habitats for birds—especially in the light of research elsewhere documenting that over-browsing can drastically reduce bird habitat.

Elk (a non-native species) were brought to four islands in Southeast in the mid to late 1900s. The elk, from Oregon and Washington, were exchanged for mountain goats from Alaska. Only the 1987 introduction of elk to Etolin Island was successful, and elk eventually dispersed from there to nearby Zarembo and other islands. Some preliminary habitat assessments were made, but post-facto concern about possible competition with existing deer populations arose, so continued monitoring and perhaps management are necessary.

After marten were transplanted to the three big islands, red squirrels were often introduced as prey for marten. It later became clear that marten really prefer voles and it is unlikely that the squirrel transplants had much effect on the introduced marten populations. However, it is very likely that the squirrels are having a negative impact on nesting birds on those islands, because they prey on eggs and nestlings.

Collectively, these attempts to establish new populations of mammals are a very mixed bag. There was a high cost in mortality of animals (not to mention dollar costs of capture and transport), many transplant efforts failed, and there was little attention paid to possible consequences. The impetus for game translocations in Southeast may have abated somewhat, and as our ecological understanding has grown over the years, it seems likely that any further transplants would be done with greater concern not only for the animals themselves but also for proper preliminary assessments and the ecological consequences.

Several additional transplants were done in attempts to augment existing populations or to re-establish a previously resident population. However, the effect of adding new animals to an existing population (deer to Kupreanof in 1979, for example) is usually not known. A transplant effort in 1989 attempted to restore a much-reduced population of mountain goats on Mt Juneau, with the stated intent of improved wildlife viewing (!). All the transported goats initially moved away, but by the early 2000s, goats were again seen on the ridge, although no one seems to know if these animals are related to the transplants or from a natural population on nearby ridges.

Sea otters have been re-introduced to many places in Southeast at various times, to restore the natural population that was extirpated by human activity. These transplants are apparently successful and the population of sea otters in Southeast is growing. The consequences of sea otter presence are currently being studied by faculty and students of UAF.

The historical information in this essay derived from Tom Paul’s 2009 ‘Game Transplants in Alaska”, ADFG Technical Bulletin #4. In addition to the official transplantations, there have been an unknown number of unofficial and mostly unrecorded ones, done by private citizens.

Moose in northern Southeast Alaska

latecomers to the coastal forest

In the past several years, the annual probability of sighting moose or their leavings has increased from something close to zero to a hundred percent. Moose have been reported from the shore of Mendenhall Lake and the airport area to Cowee Meadows and Echo Cove. Many, but not all, of these sightings were of bulls; I saw a cow followed by a young bull in Cowee Meadows a few years ago. I have also seen moose tracks in the Herbert River floodplain forest. It remains to be seen if moose will establish a resident population here; there are pockets of good moose habitat in several places, and I recently learned that moose can do quite well within conifer forests.

Moose arrived in Alaska just before the Bering Land Bridge flooded (14,000 to11,000 years ago). Eventually, by the early 1900s, they made their way down the Taku and Stikine river systems, and down the Alsek to the Yakutat coast a few years later. They arrived in the Chilkat Valley in the 1920s and the population was well established by the early 1930s, peaking in the mid 1960s.

Moose were introduced to Berners Bay almost six decades ago. In 1958 and 1960, twenty-two calves were released (but one died immediately) in the bay area. That local population increased steadily until it reached a point of relative stability in about twelve to fifteen years. Because female moose can reproduce when they are just two years old (occasionally even younger), a female can produce a calf every year, and twin calves are quite common, a rapid rate of population increase can be achieved, in good habitat. Through the 1970s and for the next thirty or more years, the population fluctuated roughly between 100 and 140 animals. Then the population declined sharply, after a couple of hard, snowy winters, but it rapidly re-stabilized at about the previous level.

The rapid rate of population increase in Berners Bay was similar to that following the introduction of moose to the Copper River delta. Mostly in the 1950s, twenty -four young moose were released there; in the following years, the population grew rapidly.

Over in Gustavus, moose were first noted in the 1960s. They are thought to have arrived by emigration from Haines, possibly moving through the Endicott Gap into Glacier Bay and thence to the Gustavus forelands. At first, the numbers were very low, presumably dependent upon occasional additional emigrants arriving in the area. It took several decades for the numbers to increase dramatically, despite the ability of moose to reproduce rapidly and despite what proved to be excellent moose habitat. The slow start in Gustavus, compared to the rapid increase in Berners Bay and the Copper River delta, might have been a result of the very small initial numbers in Gustavus. However, by the early 2000s, the population was extraordinarily high (several hundred moose per 100 square km), so high that a culling program was instituted, cutting the numbers down to about half the peak level (although the population density there is still relatively high, compared to the Interior).

moose-with-twins.jpg
GPS-collared moose with twin calves

It will be interesting to see what happens here in Juneau. The number of moose appears to be very low at the present time (2018), and population growth may be slow, at least at first, as it was in Gustavus.

But where did our moose come from? It’s not clear. Genetic studies would be needed to compare our local moose with those of other places. Previous genetic work has suggested that the established moose populations in Southeast are genetically distinct from each other. The emigrant individuals that founded each now-established population probably did not carry the entire array of genes from the source population but rather just a sample from that gene pool. Furthermore, our mountains and fjords restrict movement between populations, limiting gene flow. In any case, the genetic distinctiveness of established Southeast moose populations may allow future work to identify the source of our local animals.

Moose are herbivores that eat a variety of plant material. In summer, they consume many kinds of greens and twigs; in winter, when green things are scarce, they browse twigs. Their digestive system is very effective in extracting nutrition from plants, because bacteria in the stomach break down cellulose into digestible fragments. The stomach has four chambers: billions of symbiotic bacteria live in the first chamber (the rumen), which also starts to mix the food. The second chamber allows the animal to regurgitate a wad of partially digested food, to chew it again (chewing the cud), further breaking down the plant particles. Saliva from all the chewing helps to bind tannins, which are common defensive compounds of many plants but which can be toxic in high concentrations. The third chamber churns and mixes the processed material and passes it on to the fourth compartment, where the bacteria themselves are digested, releasing useful minerals and other items that moose need. Then all that material goes to the intestine, where nutrients are absorbed. There is not a lot of material left to be eliminated in the feces.

Dense populations of moose can have important effects on their ecosystem. Heavy browsing on willows reduces the number of catkins, an important source of food for bumblebees that pollinate many flowers, including blueberries. Intense browsing of shrubs and saplings might reduce the suitability of habitat for nesting birds by changing vegetation structure, reducing the amount of protective cover and reducing the abundance of insects that normally feed on vegetation. Leaf litter might be reduced, altering the nutrient quality of the soils—the consequences of such effects perhaps depending on the initial condition of the soils. At the present time, moose population density in Juneau seems likely to remain low, but we can be on the look-out for localized effects of browsing. Much more remains to be learned, as always.

Thanks to Kevin White, ADF&G, for helpful consultation and references.

Reluctant spring

…in Cowee Meadows

Early April and, despite some earlier signs of spring, we seemed to be stuck in the middle of a long cold spell—freezing at night and daytime temperatures in the thirties or low forties. All the trails were icy, and it seemed as if I would never get all the ice chipped off my driveway.

A friend who had missed a Parks and Rec hike to Cowee Meadows during a warm spell in March wanted to check out that area. Where P&R hikers had waded ankle-deep in meltwater on the trail, in early April it was all frozen solid. We walked securely over the beaver sloughs and ponds—easy going! The only down-side was a very stiff and cold north wind, with gusts strong enough to send me off-balance occasionally. So we didn’t go out on the beach at all, but just wandered around the meadows to see what we could see. We hid from the wind behind some dense spruces for a comfortable lunch in the sun.

There was plenty of evidence that the horses from the ranch across Cowee Creek had paid their usual visits. They too had taken shelter in the lee of spruce thickets, leaving digested evidence of their sheltered stay.

Bird life was scarce. A woodpecker drummed, but it eluded our sighting. A couple of chickadees flitted by, at the forest edge. A group of nervous mallards fled down the creek well ahead of us. Two ravens performed their classic rolls as they flew overhead.

A solitary, hapless robin poked along the fringe of a frozen pool, where the sun had loosened the ice along the edges. There was little there to feed on; maybe it was getting a drink. In fact, there’s not much for robins to eat when the weather is like this—some invertebrates on the beaches, perhaps, and a few frozen berries in the woods; I wonder how they manage to survive.

Two little sparrows, buffeted by the winds, dove into the shelter of bent-over dead grasses. From their pale brown backs, I guessed that they were savanna sparrows, which frequent these meadows. They stayed under cover for some time—smart birds!

Later in the morning, and a little farther on, we came upon a bunch of six crows, all gathered around the edge of a shallow, sun-warmed pool with some remaining ice. They looked like they were drinking: they’d dip the bill into the water, then raise it up and tip it back—which is how many birds drink fluids. But what was so special about this pool, when the creek and some other pools were nearby?

A few green shoots emerged from one small open-water slough. But all the skunk cabbage shoots that had emerged above the surface of the frozen meadow had been blasted by the cold temperatures. It’s not unusual to see frost damage on the tips of skunk cabbage shoots, but out in these meadows, the cold had killed and blackened several inches of new shoots. Not a good start of the season for them.

There were deposits of moose pellets on the snow in several places, clear evidence that moose had been visiting the meadows this winter. Moose have been recorded from Cowee Meadows for several years, as well as a few other places in Juneau, where moose are usually a rarity.

Sweet gale, a wetland shrub, is widespread in these meadows. The volatile oils of this aromatic plant are reported to repel midges and mosquitoes, but moth caterpillars are said to love eating the leaves. Insect damage induces the plant to increase its chemical defenses, reducing further attacks. The volatile oils can also reduce some fungal and bacterial infections. Vertebrate herbivores include beavers and moose; the European mountain hare eats it too, leading me to wonder if our snowshoe hares might do so also. We noted that some of the sweetgale shrubs in the meadow had been browsed, possibly by the visiting moose, but we could not exclude the possibility that ranch horses might have done so.

Sweetgale is an interesting plant in other ways too. It harbors symbiotic bacteria in root nodules; the bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen, making it accessible to plants. Although some accounts say that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, in reality, some individual plants have both male and female flowers and, to further confuse the matter of gender identity, sometimes both male and female sex organs are found in the same flower. However, I have not found any information about the factors that might control sex expression in sweetgale. In any case, propagation is said to be primarily by vegetative means, via underground stems called rhizomes, rather than by sexual means and seed production.

Although this excursion to the meadows was very wintery, I just had a cheering report from a friend that ruby-crowned kinglets have arrived! Now spring can get serious.

Willows, midges, and moose

connections between tiny insects and big herbivores

The many species of willow are subject to chewing, nibbling, gnawing, and poking by a huge variety of consumers. Here are just of few of the complex interactions.

Most of us here have seen the ‘willow roses’ or rosettes that develop on the twigs or shoots of certain species of willows. The rosettes are galls, induced when a certain tiny fly called a midge lays eggs on the tip of the shoot. The normal elongation of the shoot is suppressed but leaves continue to develop and become crowded together, forming the rosette. The midge’s larva develops inside the rosette, feeding on the bases of the innermost leaves. The larva pupates inside the rosette gall, and the adult emerges the following spring, in time to lay eggs before leaves develop.

The rosette is formed of more leaves than would occur on normal shoots, perhaps forming a wall of defense against enemies of the midge larva (such as parasitoid wasps that would lay eggs on the larva). The inner portions of the rosette also have less photosynthetic capacity and more defensive compounds than the outer portions, which may deter parasitoids and pathogens. The midge larva is presumably is physiologically capable of dealing with the defensive compounds. However, I’ve not found out how well these deterrents work against such enemies. I’ve read that European titmice know how to open the rosettes to gobble up the larva; so of course I now wonder if our chickadees can do the same.

willow-gall-green-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

Female midges are quite choosy about where to lay their eggs. Only some species of willow are susceptible to attack by this gall-forming midge; Barclay and Sitka willow are among them here. Experiments in other regions have shown that individual plants of the same species differ genetically in their susceptibility to these gall midges. And I have observed that rosette galls seem to be more common on shoots that are not shaded.

The rosette-bearing, stunted shoots cannot produce catkins, so the reproductive capacity of the willow plant is reduced in proportion to the number of rosettes. Eventually, the rosette kills the shoot, without apparently affecting neighboring twigs. The rosette, however, offers winter protection for spiders and beetles that shelter among the crowded leaves.

Willows are often heavily browsed by snowshoe hares, moose, and reindeer, and this activity can affect the abundance of various kinds of galling insects on the plant. Several studies have shown that some galls can be more abundant on heavily browsed stems. Unfortunately, I have found no such information for the rosette-forming midge specifically.

However, there is evidence for the reciprocal interaction: moose browsing is affected by the presence of rosette galls. Experiments with captive moose in British Columbia showed that moose clearly preferred to eat willow shoots that bore no rosettes. Although they sometimes bit a shoot with a gall, they soon spit out the rosette.

In the absence of rosette galls, browsing by mammalian herbivores, such as moose and hares, can have significant effects on willow growth and reproduction (by removing stems that would bear catkins). Some studies have shown that severe browsing, which leaves little more than a stump, leads to the production of so-called juvenile shoots and leaves. These often have a somewhat different shape from normal leaves and commonly have more defensive compounds, which reduce palatability and nutritional value; this protects the new shoot from further browsing, at least for a year or two. Moose and hares tend to avoid browsing twigs with lots of those defensive compounds.

However, moderate browsing may have very different effects: One study showed that winter browsing by hares on feltleaf willow twigs led to bigger, more nutritious leaves the following spring. In other cases, moderate browsing has elicited compensatory growth of the willow, but this is not feasible in habitats with low nutrient availability and poor growing conditions. The bottom line here is that the interaction between herbivorous mammals and willows varies a lot, depending on severity of browsing, growing conditions, the species of willow, and no doubt many other factors.

It is clear, at least, that herbivores selectively forage on different species of willow; even within a single species of willow, some plants are more palatable than others. Some such differences are genetic, while others have to do with growing conditions, such as the amount of shade. In either case, selective removal of favored kinds of leaves and twigs makes them unavailable for decomposers below the plants. Heavy browsing obviously reduces the amount of litter fall and can change the availability of soil nutrients that result from decomposition. So moose browsing can affect the soils, leading to changes in plant species composition and, potentially, the course of early plant succession below the browsed shrubs.

Gambling on Berners Bay

playing the annual wildlife lottery

Going to Berners Bay in spring is always a bit of a lottery—you never know what you might see there. Maybe nothing much, except some scenery. But if you hit it just right, things can get pretty interesting.

When the eulachon (a.k.a. hooligan) are in the bay, staging for their spawning migration up the rivers, there might be dozens upon dozens of sea lions, foraging cooperatively and rafting up to rest from their exertions. Harbor seals would be there too, in quantity, and humpback whales would be likely to cruise through. Orcas may arrive, in search of unwary sea lions or seals.

Once the hooligan are in the rivers, the action in the bay dies down. Tens of thousands of gulls and ten hundred eagles gather to gorge on these oil-rich, slow-swimming fish, which run a fearsome gauntlet of predators in the lower reaches of the rivers.

Springtime also brings shoals of herring, which often spawn in the bay. That draws lots of eagles, which line the shore and swoop down to snag a distracted spawner. Gulls feast on the eggs that coat the rockweed in the intertidal zone, and humpback whales come to fill their maws with fish.

One year, our annual kayak junket to Berners Bay happened when both hooligan and herring were bringing in hordes of predators, and the bay was a crazy place. We hardly knew where to cast our watchful gaze!

This year, 2011, was different again. The eulachon were up the rivers, attracting clouds of gulls, and only a few sea lions and seals remained in the bay. The herring had spawned recently, and their eggs glistened on the rockweed when the tide went out. The gulls were all busy with the hooligan in the rivers and ignored the herring eggs, and the mobs of eagles were notably absent.

Instead, we saw acres and acres of surf scoters—there must have been ten or twenty thousand of them. What a racket! They spent a lot of time apparently loafing and talking. Every so often, a group of them would head to the shore and nibble on herring eggs, sometimes pulling off chunks of seaweed too. I suspect they were also diving for mussels. Or they would suddenly all dash across the water with great splashing, for no apparent reason. When thousands of ducks do this all at once, it creates quite a ruckus.

Bonaparte’s gulls were diving after pink salmon fry that thronged the shallows and maybe also juvenile herring in the deeper water. Barrow’s goldeneyes in small squadrons swam along the rocky shore, gobbling up herring eggs. A kingfisher dove repeatedly and seemed to catch a salmon fry on almost every try. Three solitary black bears foraged on separate beaches.

A little walk in the woods produced three very dead and dried herring, perhaps dropped by some inept or unlucky eagle or gull. Another possibility, however, is that ravens had grabbed a fish as it tried to spawn in shallow water, or had stolen it from another bird, and stashed it in the trees. Years ago, when I was studying predators at the eulachon run, we noticed ‘rains’ of dead eulachon falling from the trees when the wind blew; they’d been stored up there by a gang of scavenging ravens.

Another stroll in the woods found us in a soggy little opening where lots of skunk cabbage grew. But instead of a cheery array of bright yellow, there were only stubs barely showing above the muck. Something had messily chawed them all off, right down to the mud line. The culprit left evidence of its passing: huge cloven hoof prints and occasional clusters of digested pellets about the size of the end of my thumb. Moose were introduced to the Berners Bay area some decades ago and they have found a nice smorgasbord there—we also noted well-browsed alder shrubs along the upper beach.

So, although we missed the show at the hooligan staging in the bay and the show at the spawning herring, we found plenty to see!

Herbivores and their plants

complex interactions between the eaters and the eaten

When herbivores consume their food plants, sometimes they just nibble a bit and there is little impact on the plant or on the consumer. Aside from that trivial outcome, there are two possibilities. One: the herbivore consumes so much plant material that the remaining plants are very badly damaged (think of overgrazed pastures, for instance) or are stimulated to produce defensive chemicals that deter further consumption. For example, browsing by snowshoe hares induces the production of chemical defenses in feltleaf willows, and the hares then eat less of plants with increased defenses. In both cases, the food supply for consumers is markedly reduced.

The second possible outcome is that consumption by the herbivore increases the future supply of the food resource. This sounds crazy—how could damage to the plants increase the resource and ultimately benefit later consumers? It is not entirely crazy; in certain circumstances, it has been documented to happen.

The classic example comes from studies of the grazing herds of the Serengeti in Africa. As the herds move across the plains, they crop the grasses. This stimulates the grasses to grow (in order to produce seeds eventually), helped along by fertilization from the animals’ waste products. So when the next bunch of grazers passes by, the supply of grasses has recovered and even improved. A similar effect is achieved when humans mow their lawns. Ecologists call this an increase of primary productivity, because the basic producers of energy and nutrients for the food web (namely, the plants) have increased. This kind of response to grazing can happen when the system is rich enough to support the continued growth of the plants; it doesn’t work in nutrient-poor or water-limited systems.

A neat example of herbivore-induced increase of resources comes from an Arizona study of the effects of a stem-galling sawfly that parasitizes arroyo willows; the gall is produced by the plant in response to the irritation by the sawfly. Female sawflies insert their eggs into young shoots and the larva feeds on the resulting gall tissue. When there is little egg-laying by sawflies, the willow branches naturally become more resistant to galling as they age. However, when galling is heavy, something else happens. Heavy galling kills the end of the shoot, and this allows sprouting of dormant buds near the base of the shoot. These buds make new, young shoots that are susceptible to the galling action of the sawflies. In effect, severe galling activity can thus renew and increase the food supply for later sawfly larvae (and anyone else that likes young willow shoots).

Closer to home, the browsing of ptarmigan (and moose) on feltleaf willows in northern Alaska affects the growth patterns of the willows: removal of the terminal buds and shoots kills the twig and allows the buds and shoots lower on the branch to sprout. The new shoots are more numerous and have more buds on browsed branches than unbrowsed shoots. Repeated browsing produces a ‘broom’ architecture and eventually reduces the height of the willow shrub. Thus, not only are there more shoots with more buds for ptarmigan to eat, but also the buds on shorter shrubs are just at a height where ptarmigan like to forage. So the bud supply for ptarmigan in the future is increased. However, the effect on the willows is negative—production of flowers and seeds is much reduced.

The take-home lesson is that the interactions between the eater and the eaten are not necessarily simple! The plants are not merely inert victims of munching animals. A close look is needed to understand what is going on and then explore the ramifying consequences.

Visiting Gustavus

observations on geese, raptors, otters, and the effects of moose browse

One of the first things I noticed was a roadside muskeg in which the shore pines were in sorry shape, with many brown needles. Upon inquiry, I was told that these pines are infected by a fungus that causes needle blight. The fungus kills off mostly the older needles, so an affected pine has only small tufts of newer needles near the branch ends. A serious level of infection can kill the tree. Cool, wet weather favors the production of spores, which are spread by wind or rain-splash, and the spread of this disease. And that’s the sort of weather that has prevailed this spring, it seems.

A flock of several hundred white-fronted geese loafed peacefully in someone’s back yard, while an off-shoot group foraged nervously in a nearby field. These birds were on their way to the nesting ground on the tundra up north. They were enjoying an important way-station on their journey, where they can feed and rest.

A pair of Canada geese seemed to own a piece of pasture, apparently unruffled by grazing horses. But they reacted sharply when a little flock of other geese came in to graze. The small group of new arrivals was a mixed lot—mostly white-fronts, a couple of Canadas, and a sole snow goose. The residents paced back and forth, talking at the unwelcome visitors, who went right on grazing but did not venture much farther into the pasture.

The great outwash plain created by melting glaciers supports numerous stands of willows, most of which have been severely browsed by moose, such that they seldom exceed three or four feet in height. ADF&G has a long-term study of moose ecology and the effects of moose browsing, focused on a set of exclosures that prevent moose access. The willows inside the exclosures look markedly different from those outside: the inside willows are much taller and produce more catkins. The paucity of catkins on the heavily browsed willows may have extended effects, well beyond the diminished reproductive capacity of the willows themselves. Willow catkins are an important source of food (pollen, nectar) for queen bumblebees, which mate in the fall and overwinter in small burrows. In spring, they need to feed so they can produce broods of workers. Bumblebees are important pollinators of blueberries, beach pea, lupine, and many other flowers. So the obvious question is: Does moose browsing significantly reduce the spring food of queen bees, thus reducing their ability to produce healthy broods, and thus impairing the pollination success of various flowers?

bull-moose-young-browsing-on-willows
Photo by Bob Armstrong

There may be other ripple effects of moose browsing. For example: Browsed willows produce fewer leaves and therefore less leaf litter below the shrubs. So we can ask if the reduced leaf litter affects the mosses, lichens, grasses, and herbs that constitute the ground cover. A lower number of leaves on the browsed shrubs should reduce their growth rates, because fewer leaves mean a reduced capacity to synthesize carbohydrates that provide energy. And one has to wonder if the cropped-off willows offer fewer nest sites and foraging surfaces for birds, leading to a lower density of birds than would occur in unbrowsed stands.

A male harrier coursed up and down the deeply incised channel of a tidally-influenced river that runs across the outwash plain; he was probably hoping to snag a shorebird or two. I heard snipe, high in the air, doing their flight display: as they swoop around, the rush of air over the spread-out tail feathers is modulated by the beating of the wings, producing a characteristic sound known as ‘winnowing’. Snipe winnow both on migration and on the nesting grounds, and most of these were probably still in migratory mode. I also think I heard a pygmy owl, tu-tu-tu-ing in the trees. A male robin carried a beakful of worms to his chicks, proving that the robins thought it was spring despite the raw, cold weather.

Another treat was the opportunity to watch three river otters exploring one of the inland ponds near Bartlett Cove. I suspect this was a family of a female with two of last year’s offspring, although there was not much difference in size. Otter families often stay together over a winter and into the next spring. These otters were well aware of our presence and kept bobbing up to peer at us. I was told that river otters are often seen as they travel considerable overland distances in Gustavus, visiting inland ponds (are there fish to be caught??) and returning to the ocean shores.

A quick visit to Gustavus

…a change of place

When the ferries are running, it’s an easy ride to Gustavus: about four and a half hours, usually, with chance of seeing Dall’s porpoises and other marine critters. The ferry often has a Monday-Wednesday schedule, which makes a quick two-night visit quite possible. The great, wide sandy beaches over there are a big draw; they offer a very different habitat from anything here in Juneau and therefore the possibility of seeing different animals, and it’s easy walking, too.

I made a visit there in mid-January. My naturalist friend had set a trail camera at a place where moose habitually cross a wet ditch, carving deep, narrow trails in the banks. The camera captured plenty of moose images, including mamas with calves. One image showed a very odd thing down in one corner, and for a long time we couldn’t figure it out. Then my clever friend got it: ‘twas the rear end of a duck, dabbling in the ditch in the dark of the night. All we could see was an end-on view of the tail with crossed wingtips above. Very odd-looking, indeed.

Out on the grassy flats where spruces have begun to colonize, we found owl pellets, probably of a short-eared owl, containing tiny mammal bones and a shiny beetle. We noticed that clumps of young spruces often seemed to grow on low mounds, where drainage might be better than in the swales. But do they need to grow on these slightly elevated places? Apparently not, because we found a number of very small spruces getting started in the low spots. So maybe a clump of little trees makes its own mound when needles and twigs are shed, or the branches intercept wind-driven dust and silt??

On the sandy beach, we enjoyed following the tracks of a raven fossicking in the tidal wrack and digging up some treasure from the wet sand. There weren’t many mollusk shells left below the high tide line, but I did find one nice piddock shell; just one, though, a contrast with last summer when there were many. Piddocks are burrowing clams, with a jagged edge on the shell for scraping a way into wood or packed sand or even soft rock. Other shells were scarce too: a few whelks in good condition, and some cockles and ordinary clams.

We made a brief foray into one of those long meadows that eventually drain out onto the beaches. Moose tracks going every which way, of course; moose are really common over there. Wolves had gone single-file as they entered the meadow and then fanned out, leaving their big paw prints on the way to the beach.

A rivulet that meandered through the meadow had some open water, despite the recent low temperatures. Peering down into the openings of the ice, we could see amphipods, caddisfly larvae, a diving beetle, and a couple of very small juvenile salmonids that quickly dashed for cover. The water temperature couldn’t have been much above freezing, yet all these critters were active.

We returned to the car on a game trail through the woods. Many critters used this trail, at least in places: moose, wolf, coyote, and best of all, a wolverine that had gone from the trail to the meadow, leaving nice clear footprints. Later, we went back to set the trail camera in this area and hope for some good videos. Along the road, we chanced upon a flock of pine grosbeaks, busily foraging on seeds (more on this next week).

swans-and-cygnets-hocker
Photo by Cheryl Cook

Back at the house, looking out on a bend of the Salmon River, we were treated to a small parade of trumpeter swans: a pair of adults, then another pair with a handsome gray cygnet. They pulled out on a gravel bar a little way downstream and so gave us a good look at them. An uncommon sight here in winter, although much of the Alaska-nesting population winters along the coast in various places. The swans have the interesting habit of incubating their eggs on their enormous feet, rather than in a featherless incubation patch on the adult’s belly, and both male and female can incubate. Cygnets keep some of their gray juvenile plumage into their second year, becoming fully white-feathered by the next year. Although occasionally they may pair up and start nesting when they are two or three years old, this does not unusually happen until they are about four years old.