Spring

always more questions….

Just before Memorial Day, Parks and Rec went up to Cropley Lake to give the skiers among us a nice taste of spring skiing. The rest of the group walked up, with or without snowshoes. Temperatures were in the fifties, so post-holing was a concern for those of us without platforms on our feet, but we had no such problems.

We noted numerous spiders on the surface of the snow and a couple of kinds of beetles. That was IT, for wildlife, although I heard ruby-crowned kinglets, varied thrushes, and a fox sparrow singing. A fairly fresh trackway crossed on open area and doubled back; judging from the prints themselves and the spacing, I guessed that a pine marten had been hunting.

A leisurely lunch in quasi-sunshine included some special desserts in which chocolate was a major feature. Then the skiers went off to play some more and we plodders headed down to the cars.

But we weren’t quite finished with our day. Three of us decided to look for a certain flower that indicates, to some folks, that spring really may be here. Oh yes, the skunk cabbage has been gorgeous and its sweet aroma so pleasant, and the purple mountain saxifrage has been making beautiful shows here and there. But out on the sea stacks and the sea cliffs there’s another sign that spring is getting serious. The two-toned yellow flowers of northern cinquefoil are displayed on a backdrop of three-parted, hairy leaves. And the whole plant nestles in small rocky clefts and crevices along the shores. Each petal is deep yellow or gold at the base and bright, clear yellow elsewhere. I would not be surprised if parts of the petal reflected ultraviolet rays. Does the difference in color-tone serve as an attractant to insect pollinators?

The week before the Cropley hike produced a few nice observations. Out near the glacier I watched pipits foraging along the beaches; the earliest pipits in the area had hunted for insects out on the melting ice. Pipits are easy to tell from our sparrows, because pipits walk and sparrows typically hop.

I also watched a red squirrel, perched on a twig, eating male cottonwood flowers. That makes at least three mammals that eat these flowers; porcupines do, and black bears have done this so much that near the visitors center many cottonwood have broken tops, where the bears have reached out to grab the branches and get the flowers that dangle near the branch ends. (The bears do the same to the female cottonwoods, when they harvest the seed pods.)

Out on the wetlands on the west side of the river, a row of nest boxes had attracted tree swallows, and almost every box had a pair of swallows. Nest building was in progress and the birds were collecting wisps of dry grass to line the boxes. A flock of thirteen pectoral sandpipers made shallow probes in a mud flat; they must have been finding something good, because there were busily at it and not to be distracted by a mere human nearby. I heard a husky ‘chek’, ‘chek’ note and knew without looking that an old friend, a red-winged blackbird, was there. Indeed, he was perched on a rootwad, with his bright red epaulets covered. So he was not defending a territory but was perhaps exploring in hopes of finding a place to settle. There are not many places within our urban confines that are suitable for redwings.

There’s always something nice to be seen or heard, and always more questions to be asked!

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.

Bird stories

nest-builders, scat-shifters, and spring singers

One day in late April, two friends and I scrambled up a steep stream-side slope to a perch on a cliff below a waterfall. We hoped to locate a nest of American dippers, which have nested in this spot for many years. Although a dipper sat near the pool below the falls, it eventually just flew up over the falls, and we were no wiser about a possible nest location.

However, as we surveyed the pool and falls, another bird was busy, attending to a clump of moss on a spruce branch above us. A male Pacific wren (formerly known as the winter wren) zipped back and forth, carrying twiglets to that mossy clump, which was obviously intended to become a nest. Male wrens commonly build more than one nest, which are inspected by females during the courtship process. When a female selects one of these male-built nests, she adds a little threshold to the entrance, claiming that nest as her own. If a male builds several good nests, he may attract two or even three females who will raise his chicks.

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American dipper. Photo by Arnie Hanger

This nest- building male became disturbed at our presence, fidgeting about while peering at us and then finding an elevated perch from which he sang loudly, as if to make sure we knew we were not welcome (songs are how songbirds advertise ownership of their territories). Birds really do not like to be observed when nest-building—egg- and chick-predators such as Steller’s jays are always on the watch for tasty morsels, and the busy activity of a bird carrying nesting material gives away a prospective nest for the jay or other predator to raid.

We go the male’s message and backed away a little. Although he was still nervous, he resumed carrying small twigs and fibers to the growing nest in the ball of moss. Suddenly, the entire bottom of the nest ball fell out! Apparently, the scrawny twigs of the spruce branch weren’t sufficiently substantial to support the structure or all the in-and-out visits of the builder. The wren vanished into the forest.

A couple of weeks later, I returned to this site. Now the tattered remains of the wren’s nest were tipped catty-wompus, barely clinging to the frail spruce twigs. The wren had clearly abandoned this effort and decided to build elsewhere. I could hear him singing, a little deeper into the woods.

On this visit, however, I did see the dippers in action. They were not building in their traditional site in the cliff beside the falls, but under a mid-stream log, instead. These dippers were a bit late in getting started; dippers on some other streams were already incubating clutches of eggs, the incubating females sometimes fed by the male.

In the middle of May, Gold Ridge still had lots of snow, attracting brave or foolhardy skiers up the trail. Ravens were soaring and cavorting, as usual, over the end of the ridge, sometimes peeling away from the group to roll and tumble acrobatically or to chase a passing eagle.

Two ravens perched on a rock outcrop. Both birds picked up something lumpy and white and moved behind another outcrop just uphill. They came back to the first outcrop without the white lumps and picked up two more. They flew downhill a little way, and there they deposited these objects, carefully placing them in nooks and crevices of the rock. Then they flew away.

This time I could see where the white lumps were placed, so of course I went to look. The lumps were the old scats of a wolf and perhaps a bear, all dry and winter-whitened. What in the world did these ravens want with these old scats? Were they playing some kind of game?

Robins and fox sparrows were singing all over the shrubby slopes above the tram. Above the cross, snow still covered much of the ground, and ptarmigan had left the digested remains of their dinners in the places where they had burrowed under the snow in winter. A flock of pipits flew in and began to forage for insects and perhaps a few seeds in the snow-free patches. Pipits look more slender than sparrows and they typically walk and run instead of hop. They sometimes nest high in the alpine tundra on the ridges.

On my home pond, the mallard battles are over. As many as four males hang out amicably, eating seeds that drop from the hanging feeder and sleeping next to each other. No need to fight now; all the females are incubating clutches of fertilized eggs. This is a big contrast to early-season relationships, when each male fiercely defended his female from the attentions of other males. That doesn’t always work, by the way—the interlopers are sometimes successful. Meanwhile, up on Gold Creek, a pair of harlequin ducks was consorting and foraging. She will nest up there somewhere, and when the clutch of eggs is complete, she will incubate them and he will go back out to sea to lollygag with his chums on some rocky point. That’s the way of it, with ducks!