Here and there in August

meadows high and low, a snacking porcupine, and odd bear scat

Early in the month, a female mallard arrived on my pond with her late brood of three good-sized young ones, still wearing lots of down. A week later, they were well-feathered except for a distinguishing fuzzy patch of down on the rumps of the ‘kids’. At the end of the month, the kids were no longer fuzzy at all, but they still hung out with mom.

A trip with friends up to Cropley Lake in mid-August was a muddy one. But the meadows were studded with the flowers of swamp gentian and asters. Fish were rising in the lake; Dolly Varden are recorded to be resident in the lake, although a few might wash out downstream at high water. On the far side of the lake, we looked for the sky-blue broad-petaled gentian and found them on a gentle slope. The relatively rare yellow fireweed crowded a small drainage gully, a habitat it seems to like.

Broad-petaled gentian. Photo by David Bergeson

The next day, I cruised around Amalga Meadows near the Eagle Valley Center. The parking area was crammed with cars, but all the people from those cars were either up on the horse tram trail or at the new cabin. So I had the meadow to myself. The grasses were so tall that walking was not easy, except where a bear(?) had stomped through. Nagoon berries were ripe, hidden down in the tall grass, but bog cranberries were still green. The seeds of cotton grass were dispersing in long streamers from the seed-heads. Sweetgrass was seeding well. In part of the meadow, I had to watch my feet closely, so as not to step on the many tiny toadlets that scuttled to safety as they dispersed from their natal ponds.

Porcupine’s lunch. Photo by David Bergeson

Not long after that, I perched on a hillside on the way to Hilda meadows at Eaglecrest. There I watched a tiny red mite, not even a millimeter long, wander up and down over the petals of a swamp gentian, exploring the depths of the flower. From the perspective of such a wee beastie, even those small flowers have depth! Eventually it settled briefly in the deepest part of the flower, perhaps finding something usable there (?).

A walk up the Salmon Creek road with friends found that the some of the many self-heal plants, seen in bloom on a previous walk, were setting seed. By the side of the road, we found several quite handsome, large beetles with reddish-brown carapaces (I think I used to know a name for them). On the way up, we all simultaneously spotted a porcupine trundling along the side of the road ahead of us, and we stopped to watch it. Moving away from us at first, it turned around and began snacking on some roadside greenery. We tried to slither by, but it scuttled into the brush, just a little way, where it sat watching us and shaking its wet fur. We went on, and it came right back to its green lunch. As we came back down the road later, it was still there and made a repeat performance. That must have been a particularly nice meal, not to be abandoned. Near the water tower, we spotted two deer, looking smooth and sleek; one of them stayed to watch us pass by, ears up like flags.

The next day, I went with a friend to the junction of Eagle and Herbert rivers, a spot that has been fun to visit in other years. This time, however, the sketchy little trail was greatly overgrown—only suitable for those less than three feet high at the shoulder, and sometimes it disappeared entirely. On a spruce tree ahead of us, the trunk looked like it had lots of dark spots the size of a fifty-cent piece (remember those?); close-up, those spots turned out to be places where busy woodpeckers had flaked off bits of the scaly bark. Out at the point, otters had romped in the sand. Two ravens spotted us immediately but were too shy to come in for the (obviously expected) offerings we tossed out onto a sandy ledge. On the way back, we found several bear scats full of blueberry remnants and three strange, yellowish deposits composed of short chunks of plant stem and a few devils club seeds. These had presumably been deposited with a lot of fluid, because they were spread thinly and flat on the ground. I’d sure like to know what plant had been eaten and what occasioned those deposits.

Advertisement

Watching young animals

a bear family, ducks at war, a porcupine child, and flocks of young birds

The first part of July gave me some very nice opportunities to observe young critters just learning to make their way in the world.

Above the tram in Bear Valley, we watched a bear family foraging on green herbage. Mama was all business, but the cubs were more interested in playing. The two larger ones wrestled and rolled, boxed and bumped, flattening the vegetation after mama had forged ahead. Cub number three was a little smaller than its siblings but eventually trotted out of the thickets to follow the rest.

The forest at the top of the tram gave us a close-up look at a mixed-species flock of birds. First we saw a nuthatch, then a chickadee and a couple of siskins, and then the trees were full of a family of golden-crowned kinglets, including numerous fledglings. Accompanying this gang were two brown creepers, hitching up the tree trunks and acrobatically working along on the underside of branches. The entire flock foraged in plain sight for at least five minutes. Mixed-species flocks are thought to be advantageous to the participants, especially in keeping multiple eyes on the lookout for predators, but all the fluttering activity may also stir up insect prey.

On my home pond, we’ve had the duck wars. Three female mallards have brought broods of ducklings to forage along the pond margins and rest in the weeds on shore. Three broods, all of different ages, and the female with the oldest ducklings tended to rule the waters. She often chased all the others, sometimes very aggressively. Her ducklings were quite well feathered in mid July, and those of the next oldest brood were just beginning to show real feathers amidst the down. Then calamity struck—I heard a female quacking loudly and persistently, and I looked out to see that her brood had just been reduced from four to three. With the remaining ducklings closely huddled around her, she fussed continually for at least two hours, and I finally went out—to discover a sorry little pile of down under the trees on the far bank. I suspect a goshawk had found its lunch. The female went on fussing for another hour or more before accepting the new reality.

A friend and I were scrambling along the bank of one of the tributaries of Fish Creek one day. As the valley narrowed down to a canyon, we practically stumbled over a female porcupine with her offspring. Mama quickly hid her head under a log, leaving her spiny back bristling in our direction. Baby, on the other hand, fiddled around a few minutes, then clambered over a stick and slowly made its way between two tree roots. There if finally did the right thing (for a porcupine) and wedged its head into the fork between the roots and erected its defensive spines over the only exposed part of its little body. This little guy was a tad slow off the mark: baby porcupines can execute the typical defensive maneuvers almost immediately after birth. And this one had had weeks to practice. We left them in peace, of course.

Another friend and I led a guided hike up Gold Ridge on a nice but rather foggy day. There were some spectacular flower shows, and an assortment of marmots, including a young one just poking its head above the flowers. We also had a treat, in the form of a juvenile golden-crowned sparrow. The juvenile looked nothing like its nearby parent except in general shape; it had no strong black and gold crown stripes, but it did have conspicuous almost-golden spangles all over its back. This observation was special, because we’d never before seen a juvenile so close-up, even though this bird nests up there regularly.

We saw one female sooty grouse, with some wee chicks hidden in the low vegetation, and one rock ptarmigan, which might have been guarding an invisible brood. But both grouse and ptarmigan seem to be much less common on the ridge than they were just a few years ago.

gray-crowned-rosy-finch-feeding-Bob
Gray-crowned rosy finch adult. Photo by Bob Armstrong

On top of Gold Ridge, we hoped to find gray-crowned rosy finches that nest in the cliffs up there. And, in between swirls of fog, there they were. Adults were feeding fledglings at the edge of a remnant snow bank. The fog made it difficult to see plumage colors, and all the birds just looked black, but eventually we could discern some pattern and distinguish parent from chick. The juveniles were plump, active, and fully capable of doing their own foraging, but –in the way of all young songbirds—they wanted their parents to deliver.

Wanderings in early November

a lucky porcupine, a seed pod investigation, earthworks, and some notes from the field

Before I even left the house, I saw that a porcupine had trundled over the ice on my pond. Back and forth couple of times, and then—oops!—the ice near shore apparently gave way. Lots of scrabbling marks around the edges of the collapsed ice indicated that the critter had saved itself and wandered on.

A little expedition to collect seed pods for a class project showed that seed pods of wild iris and chocolate lily were abundant and full of seeds. Pollination had been very successful, no doubt thanks mostly to the fine summer just past.

We collected a few blue-gray seed capsules of starflower, in order to make a closer inspection. A look at the exterior of each capsule revealed a very pretty pattern of roughly hexagonal shapes, each one enclosing a finely reticulated surface. Each capsule is about the shape and size of a BB, so dissection required a steady hand and good light. When we (that’s the editorial ‘we’; my friend did the work) opened the capsules, we could see that the seeds lining the capsule bore the reticulations that showed through to the exterior, and the center of the capsule was composed of a jelly-like material. We were left with questions, of course, about how the capsule normally opens and how the seeds are dispersed.

Several hiking friends noticed that shrubs such as willow, blueberry, and salmonberry bore leaf buds. Of course they do, in preparation for spring. But the surprising –and possibly worrisome—thing was that some of the buds had become fairly large and plump, as if they might open prematurely. A few nice, warm days (and we did have some) in late fall might send a mistimed signal to the plants. We can hope that these buds didn’t develop so far that the ensuing low temperatures would wreck them.

Shallow digs by bears had left big clumps of uneaten chocolate lily root nodules on the surface of the ground in the meadows. As always, we had to wonder why bears seem to leave these edible parts behind. A bear, or something else of good size, had dug deep between the roots of a big spruce tree. This exposed part of a red squirrel’s cache of cones. But what other animal would want the squirrel’s cones? Or could the digger have been after the squirrel itself (probably in vain)?

Other sightings:

–Somewhere out the road, we found a carnivore (coyote?) scat full of soft, silky fur, perhaps of a hare.

–Relatively recent tracks of a small bear pressed into the mud on the west side of Mendenhall Lake. This was rather late in the season, but one was seen about that time near the Back Loop. Other tracks had been left by an eagle, a heron, and a magpie.

— The grasses on the wetlands on the west side of the Mendenhall River hid numerous vole tunnels punctuated by special latrine chambers. These little animals seem to be very tidy.

— Out on the wetlands, we also saw a young northern shrike and a rusty blackbird, both uncommon around here, but seen occasionally in winter. The shrike was perched, in typical fashion, on the tip-top of a small alder, possibly hoping to spot a careless vole.

–Going up the snowy Dan Moller trail, with the snow still falling, I noted a cranefly resting in mid-trail, and moved it aside. There were many tiny insects (probably stoneflies) crawling about and making short flights, presumably in search of mates. An interesting time of year for that activity.

The end of August

a cheery end to a dismal month

A rather dismal August finally dripped to a finish. The sodden ground could hold no more water, so the streams were raging torrents and trails were squishy. The lovely long days of summer were just a memory, as day-lengths shortened rapidly. The fall season in Juneau can be pretty gloomy, but instead of pouting and whining (well, mostly instead), I found some cheering things to see.

Out near the glacier, a very late brood of barn swallows lined the edge of their nest with five widely gaping beaks every time a parent bird arrived. Each time, one lucky nestling would get a bug or two from a busy adult; feeding five big chicks took a lot of work. But all five chicks fledged a day later and were lined up on a fence railing, awaiting food deliveries.

On my home pond, there was another late brood, this one of mallards. A female appeared, trailed by two large offspring that were getting their real feathers. All that was left of the babyish down was a small poof on the rump. These two, about half the size of the female, were the remainder of a brood of five or six ducklings, but both of them, with mama, appeared for many days and finally looked just like her in both size and plumage.

The star of the show near the Visitor Center was a young porcupine, recently abandoned by its mother. That’s normal for this time in the porcupine year. Junior could be seen by numerous enchanted visitors, as it steadily gobbled alder leaves right next to the trail. For variety, it nibbled on some cottonwood leaves or climbed up a willow to demolish more leaves. Its right front leg seemed to be sore and was seldom used, but that didn’t deter the little guy from climbing trees and roaming around the area in search of green delicacies.

A whale-watching tour near Shelter Island found several humpbacks, and soon we were surrounded by them. The adults were placidly diving and coasting along, while a calf was showing off. It breached many time, it lunged repeatedly, and it rolled again and again. Its youthful exuberance entertained us well.

Mixed flocks of migrant songbirds flitted through the shrubbery in several places. Yellow-rumped warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, Wilson’s warblers, and probably others searched for insects in the foliage. A friend watched an orange-crowned warbler probing both ends of a rolled-up cottonwood leaf in hopes of extracting the caterpillar within. Those masters of fast, erratic flight, the dragonflies, were no match for the wily olive-sided flycatchers, which perched in dead treetops and nabbed the big ‘darner’ dragonflies as they hunted small insects over a creek.

Those of us who hang out near Steep Creek and the glacier were pleased to see an old ‘friend’ appear, strolling on the beach (or what beach there was, given the high waters). This was Na Tláa, the Clan Mother, a.k.a. the grandma bear, who is about twenty-three years old and has not had cubs for several years. She was not very plump and, long after other local bears had their new coats, she was still molting; her back was covered with long, bleached-out, reddish fur, while the rest of her showed shiny black new fur. This old bear foraged on this and that in the vegetation, caught a fish and ate it, looked at more fish in the ex-beaver pond, and eventually wandered on down the lakeshore.

High on the list of fun stuff was an encounter on the Perseverance Trail on the very last day of August. Two friends and I were coming down the trail, just below the Horn (where two benches provide a view of Snowslide Gulch). Some distance ahead of us there appeared a large black lump, followed by two smaller black lumps, moving slowly up the trail. Ooooops! What now?! Steep cliff up on our right, steep cliff down on our left, and nowhere to go but back. So we quietly backed up a hundred yards or so to the Horn, intercepted two other down-hikers, and waited. And there they came, mom and two cubs.

I suggested that we all go up on the little rubble slope on the inside of the curve, to allow the bruins plenty of room between us and the railing. Bad idea! Mom took one look at us and turned around, heading back down the trail. But she hesitated and looked back, as if she really wanted to continue upward. So we all scuttled into a corner of the fence behind the benches. Ah! Much better! The family turned back uphill and sauntered past us—Mom completely calm and owning the trail, the kids a bit skittish. So on they marched, right up the trail. There had been clear signs that some bears had used the trail above, bears that had been eating loads of stink currants. Nevertheless, we hoped they’d find a good place to leave the trail, so as not to be bothered by other hikers.

She was presumably a Town Bear, because she had an ear tag. This female bear was very well-behaved, from our perspective. And we had respected her space. A good encounter!

Three little stories

Otters on the ice, fish at an upwelling, and an unusual feeder visitor

Here are three small stories, two from the field and one from home, two that were simply fun and one that leaves some questions.

One day in early February, I put on snowshoes with the intention of poking around in some meadows out the road. There was not a lot of snow, but the ‘shoes sometimes make it easier to walk over snow-covered grassy humps and bumps. And off I went, seeing a few tracks of mink, shrew, mouse, and weasel. A porcupine had wandered from the meadow down to the ice-covered creek and up the other side. Its trail intersected another trail, made by a river otter that had come upstream on the ice. In fact, there were two and possibly three otters, weaving in and out over the ice and finally coming up the bank. They went over a short stretch of meadow, under some trees, and down to a tiny, frozen slough. I decided to follow this trail as it went along the slough. The frozen channel got gradually wider, but I found one place where the ice was broken, perhaps by the otters. The edge of the opening was packed flat by otter feet, so it was clear that they had spent some time by this hole in the ice. What could they have found there? The trail continued down the icy slough, eventually joining the main creek again where there was some open water and a good chance of finding small fish. The total journey from creek-leaving to creek-joining was maybe half a mile. I think that these hunters knew where they were going and were just checking out another part of their home range.

I was having so much fun that I didn’t pay attention to my feet. When I finally happened to look down at my feet, I was surprised to see that I’d thrown a ‘shoe. So I back-tracked to retrieve that lost one, almost all the way back to where I’d picked up the otters’ trail. Having fun seems to be distracting!

One day in the middle of February, I wandered out into the Dredge lakes area, following a tip from a friend. After threading my way through a noisy passel of school kids, I went straight to one corner of Moose Lake. This is where we often see migrating trumpeter swans in fall, but this time I was looking for some patches of open water. I found them, under some snow-laden alder branches. The surface of the water was roiling periodically, so I knew something was going on in there. Peering closely into the dark water, I saw them: several big Dolly Varden moving slowly about in the shallows. I could pick out the white borders of their pectoral and pelvic fins, which are a good field mark. There was another big fish in the same bit of open water, a fish with no white on the fins and black speckles all over the body…probably a cutthroat trout. Dollies and cutthroats are known to overwinter in Mendenhall Lake and some of the accessible ponds in this area, where they hang out but feed little in the cold water. Why would they be in this spot? This area also sometimes hosts spawning coho in fall, so there is something special about it—and that’s the upwellings, where ground water burbles up through the sediments, bringing oxygen with it. Those fish are probably there to take advantage of the oxygenated water, which can be in short supply in some of these small ponds. As I watched, a dipper zipped out from just under the snowy bank and disappeared under the arching branches.

Dolly-Varden-by-bob-armstrong
Dolly Varden. Photo by Bob Armstrong

On the way back to the trailhead, I started to duck under some low-hanging alder branches and saw something flit to the side. So I quickly looked up and saw a redpoll, perched not eighteen inches from my face. On the branch I had ducked under was a cluster of alder cones, a favorite food of redpolls. This bird scolded me roundly, so I apologized and moved on, while the bird went straight back to ‘his’ cones. I only saw one redpoll just then, but shortly later and not far away, I saw a whole flock of them at the seed feeders on my deck, cleaning up the millet seeds. Redpolls seem to show up around here sometime in February, most every year, making me wonder what they were doing in the earlier part of winter.

common-redpoll-at-alder-cones-by-bob-armstrong
Common redpoll on alder cones. Photo by Bob Armstrong

My suet feeder at home normally attracts chickadees and juncos. But sometime in January I noticed other visitors. There were two very small birds that spent several minutes clinging to the wire-mesh suet holder and pecking at the suet. I was astonished to see that these were golden-crowned kinglets, birds that customarily feed on dormant bugs and spider eggs among the conifer needles. This was not a ‘one-off’ visit; they returned several times over the next few weeks (maybe more often than I noticed, given that I don’t spend the whole day watching from my windows).

golden-crowned-kinglet-mark-schwann
Photo by Mark Schwann

This observation seems so unusual to me that I asked one of Juneau’s ace birders about it. I was told that, indeed, golden-crowned kinglets had occasionally visited their suet feeder too. Further inquiry via the internet revealed that this feeding behavior by golden-crowned kinglets has been reported, but very rarely, in Michigan and Tennessee, for instance.

Golden-crowned kinglets are so small (about six grams) that they lose heat rapidly (having a high surface-to-volume ratio), but they can’t store much fat. So they have to eat a lot each day, moving continuously through the foliage in search of tiny, sparse prey. They may save some energy at night by lowering their metabolism a bit and by huddling up together in sheltered spots, but the risk of going hungry and perhaps starving is significant. Given the high demand for energy, why don’t they visit suet feeders more often? And what got these few birds started on suet-feeding in the first place?

Trailside observations

In sun and snow and sleet and hail…

Here’s an assortment of winter observations that gave pleasure to some trail-walkers.

–Late November, Eaglecrest. Parks and Rec hikers on snowshoes went up the road, but the majority decided to go home for lunch. Two of us went on, over toward Hilda meadows, and perched on a log for a snack. Too busy feeding our faces for a few minutes, we eventually began to notice what was around us. Right behind our comfortable log was a big spruce tree with two lumps at the very top. The upper lump was pretending to be a moss wad, while the lower one was eating spruce needles. Both young porcupines were very wet, but the lower one suddenly roused up and rapidly shook itself dry—moving faster than I’d ever seen a porcupine move. The upper one slept on.

–Late November, Mendenhall Lake beach. A small stream flowed over the beach, creating a little opening in the ice. Three eagles were bickering over the remnants of a salmon carcass, which was probably fairly fresh (judging from the bright red blood stains on the ice). We often see late-spawning coho in the streams that feed the upper Mendenhall (years ago, in December, I counted over a hundred eagles on the stretch of Dredge Creek below Thunder Mountain; they were there because the creek was full of coho). One of the eagles snatched up the tail piece and flew off, hotly pursued by a pirate that eventually won the tasty morsel.

–Mid December, Eaglecrest. Lovely soft snow covered the ground, so animal-tracking was really good. Shrews had been very busy, running over the snow from one bush to another. Lots of other mammals had been active, too: deer, weasel, hare, porcupine, red squirrel, and mouse. Sadly, we found no ptarmigan tracks at all.

–Mid December, Dredge Lakes area. After a deep freeze, a warm spell had melted ice cover and opened up some of the ponds, and beavers had become active. There were new cuttings in the woods, new twigs in the winter caches, and some of the perpetrators were repairing their dams. The Beaver Patrol was called out of its own winter torpor to make notches in a few dams, lowering water levels in certain ponds so that nearby trails were dry , permitting passage of any late-spawning coho, and allowing juvenile salmon to move up and down stream if they chose to do so.

beaver-in-winter-3-Kerry
Photo by Kerry Howard

–Late December, Mendenhall wetlands. ‘Twas a very uneventful walk in a blustery wind. But suddenly two small birds blew (not flew!) in and tumbled into the grass. Righting themselves, they revealed themselves as a pair of gray-crowned rosyfinches, a species I’ve seen in upper Glacier Bay and on Mt Roberts, but not out here. That turned the day into a ‘plus’.

–Late December, Dredge Lakes area. Very low temperatures had refrozen almost all the ponds and streams. However, the ditch from Moraine Lake to Crystal Lake had a couple of very small ice-free patches. And there we saw a dipper, bobbing in and out of those dark pools, no doubt very hungry.

Any sensible dipper would go downstream, perhaps to an estuary, where bugs and fish would be more available!

–Early January, Herbert River trail. A mink had coursed along the elevated riverbank, in and out of the brush, occasionally down to the water’s edge. A set of extremely large moose tracks crossed the trail. That long-striding giant was really moving—the foot prints were often five feet apart. The trackway led through brush and over the arching branches of a fallen tree—almost four feet above the ground. Those long legs! I would have loved to watch that beast (from a respectful distance)!

–Early January, Perseverance trail. Recent heavy rains had brought down some small landslides, not unexpectedly. Unlike the trails near the glacier, this one was nearly clear of ice, and walking was easy. There was fresh snow on the ground, up past Ebner Falls, showing up a few porcupine tracks and some very recent red squirrel trackways. A mouse had crossed the trail with big jumps, several times its body length, leaving clear footprints as it hustled into cover across the open trail. I like seeing mouse tracks, in part because I don’t see them very often.

–Mid January, Switzer Creek area. Before the predicted rains and rising temperatures wrecked the lovely fresh snow, we found tracks of deer, porcupine, possible coyote, and a few mysteries. A shrew had scuttled across the soft snow, making a narrow groove marked by its tiny feet. A good find was a trackway of a grouse, striding through the snow and under low-hanging bushes in the woods. This took a few minutes of searching to determine the track-maker, because the new snow was so soft that it often fell down into the tracks, obscuring the prints. But finally we found good marks of three avian toes.

Recent finds along the trail

eggs and erosion, flowers and porcupine nibbles

A stroll across Bridget Cove tide flats in early July brought us to a stand of eelgrass. To our surprise, the eelgrass was dotted with many thousands of fish eggs. We thought this was too late in the season for herring, but a forage-fish expert told me that herring have been known to spawn there in early July. The eggs would need to incubate for about two weeks (at a temperature of eight degrees centigrade) and the embryos of these eggs appeared to be in early stages of development. If we went back a week or so later, they probably would have hatched.

After the recent jökulhlaup, I went to inspect the ‘gooseneck’ area on the lower Mendenhall River, where a sweeping loop in the river has created a narrow peninsula just upstream from Vintage Park. I imagined that the big water coming down would have breached the really narrow part of the peninsula, flowing over the top and eroding at least an overflow channel. But no! There is indeed some new erosion of the bank on the upstream side. On top, trees now lean downstream, their roots tipping up and making large cracks in the soil; they will probably fall rather soon, reducing the top of the peninsula to just a couple of feet in width. Something to keep our eyes on!

Just on the other side of Cropley Lake, in a wet area, is a stand of pale yellow flowers. This is a species of fireweed called yellow fireweed or sometimes called yellow willowherb (Epilobium luteum). The familiar pink flowers of the usual fireweed (formerly a species of Epilobium but now reclassified in a separate genus, Chamaenerion) are evident all over town, but the yellow one is much rarer. We’ve seen small numbers of this in only a few places around here. It can propagate vegetatively, so once a plant gets established from seed, it can spread locally if the habitat is suitable. And by the way, why is the pollen of the pink fireweed sometimes blue-green?

Another familiar local plant is known as goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus). This species is dioecious, bearing male and female flowers on different individuals. On a recent stroll up Perseverance Trail, we looked more closely at the narrow flowering tassels. Indeed, just as expected, males and females were distinguishable. However, we were interested to see that in a very few male plants, a small number of seed pods were developing on some of the tassels. I recall that some other reportedly dioecious plant species have similar transgender issues at least upon occasion. Because the female plants were well past flowering and had well-developed seed pods, we could not tell if any of them had once sported male parts.

On Gold Creek, a female harlequin duck was foraging, dipping and diving among the rocks. We enjoyed watching her skillful maneuvers, swimming upstream underwater, skittering rapidly on the surface of a broad, flat rapid, doing balanced skids on wet rocks, and ferrying across the fast chutes just like a kayaker or a canoeist would do. Humans may have learned this technique, long ago, from the ducks.

A friend reported a dipper nest in the spillway on Gold Creek, so I went to look. Sure enough, in a big crack in the concrete was a pile of moss with an opening through which I could see movement. Mama dipper was either incubating eggs or brooding chicks, while Papa was on guard on a boulder nearby. Later, I looked again, and now the adults were both outside, feeding three or four small, piping nestlings. Big loads of caddisfly larvae and other goodies went down the begging mouths. Very satisfying to observers, as well!

One day we walked on the sand flats of Eagle River along the Boy Scout Trail. There were small footprints in the sand, looking a bit like a baby’s foot but with five claw marks well ahead of the pad. Hmmmm, probably a porcupine. And presently we saw the perpetrator, busily nipping of the ends of beach greens (a.k.a. seabeach sandwort; Honkenya peploides) shoots. After some minutes, the critter bustled off toward the woods, and we went to look at the nibbled shoots. It had ignored the shoots with seed pods and seemed to have concentrated on the shoots with flowers.

This area of sand flats has many clumps of beach greens, whose shoots sprawl out in all directions. In one portion of this plant colony, most of the clumps had been rolled up from one side…the long shoots on that side were flopped over the ones on the other side, consistently in the same direction. We know from reports of other observers that porcupines sometimes roll up outdoor carpets and lick what is underneath. Could these plants reflect similar behavior? If so, what are the animals getting?

Thanks to Darcie Neff for information and references.

Lawson meadows

wet-snow tracks and tiny treasures

The meadows near Lawson Creek are a favorite destination for a Parks and Rec hike or just for exploring. You can now get there from the snowmobilers’ parking lot on Blueberry Hill, up to the Treadwell Ditch, then south on the Ditch Trail and over the new bridge at Lawson Creek. The upstream loop of the old Ditch Trail is now cut off by the new bridge, but you can go partway up the valley on the old Ditch Trail after crossing the bridge or hop right up into a chain of meadows that stretches up the valley.

Or you can start on Crow Hill, go up the CBJ trail to the Ditch and then, instead of going left on the Ditch Trail to Gastineau Meadows, go right. Rather than using the Ditch Trail here, I prefer to go up the little slope into the first big meadow. From there, you just continue around the slope and head up Lawson Valley through the chain of meadows.

Eventually, you run out of meadows and the forest takes over. Parks and Rec usually turns around at that point, has lunch, and heads back down. On a recent excursion, our lunchtime ‘café’ was sheltered from the rain by some tall, dense conifers, and we looked out our ‘window’ at the last meadow.

The snow was heavy and wet, and the skiers in the group found it fast going, making it back to the cars in record time. The snowshoers took a good bit longer. On this wet day, the muskegs on the CBJ trail were overflowing the trail in some places, creating deep slush but no problems for our passage. (Right now, as I write, it is hard to even think about rain and wet, what with low temperatures and howling winds that lift the snow into swirling clouds hundreds of feet tall. The mountain peaks are invisible.)

There were deer tracks in the lower meadows. The deer were sinking in pretty deeply and probably found it hard to move from one relatively snow-free, forested area to another. In winter, deer find their food under the trees, where the snow pack is less than in the open. There were also several sets of snowshoe hare tracks, partially covered by a little recent snow. Best of all was a set of porcupine tracks, small and close together, showing where a young one, now independent of its mother, had wandered around snacking on shrubs.

Two other wintry walks yielded a couple of tiny treasures that I’ll share:

Before the rains, during an earlier the deep-freeze, I found lots of silken threads dangling from branches. The silks were probably left by juvenile spiders, which use these threads to become airborne on a passing breeze. That’s how they disperse away from their mothers to begin their independent lives. On that day, each silk was covered with layers of tiny crystals of hoarfrost, which sparkled like holiday tinsel—only better!

The second little treasure, at the edge of the Mendenhall wetlands, was short-lived. I heard an unusual bird song nearby and soon spotted a magpie under some alders. The bird was fossicking about, occasionally pecking at the ground, and singing a very soft, sweet, delightful little song, all to itself. It sang for several minutes, and gradually went out of sight and hearing in the alder thicket. The bird seemed happy; I certainly was!

Trailside observations and mysteries

bear scats, baby porcupines, adventitious roots, and more

–One day in mid-August, I wandered along the Eagle River trail, just to where the old Yankee Basin trail branches off up the hill. In that little walk—only about a mile, I found twenty-four things of special interest; twenty-three of them were relatively recent bear scats. Of course, I had to check them all out. I learned that, despite the numerous chum salmon carcasses and body parts scattered along the riverbank and the live salmon still thrashing about in the river, the bears had been having a varied diet. Vegetation fibers were a common ingredient, along with some blueberry, devil’s club, and salmonberry. Several scats also contained high-bush cranberries, both seeds and whole, ripe fruits (they are ripening early again this year). Gut passage of whole fruits may not be surprising, given the short length of bear guts, but high-bush cranberries seem to pass through whole more often than other fruits—begging the question “Why?”

The twenty-fourth observation was a brownish lump beside the trail, one that moved slightly. When I stopped, the lump became a very young porcupine, busily chowing down on a small plant called enchanter’s nightshade. After watching for a while, I crept by and went on. When I returned, the little fellow was still there, still eating. This time, as I approached, it shuffled off about a foot or two, but came back immediately to the same patch and went on stuffing leaves into its mouth. There were other patches of this common understory plant nearby, only a few feet away, but something made this patch particularly desirable. Was there some other small plant in the mix in that special spot, one that added to the allure?

–A stroll with a friend along a beach yielded, among other things, a king crab shell, covered with the characteristic large, robust spines. We wondered about the function of those spikes and guessed that they probably helped defend king crabs from predators. But which predators might be deterred and how do successful predators evade or tolerate the spikes? Apparently, little study has addressed such questions.

–A little walk on one of the North Douglas trails discovered some red alder trees with many odd pinkish/orange sprouts coming out of the lower three feet of trunk. These short sprouts were quite stiff, with rounded tips. One trunk had dozens of them. What could they be? Some digging into the scientific literature via the internet and some consultation with another scientist led to the conjecture that these are adventitious root sprouts, but not the conventional type that grow out into soil just above the normal roots of some kinds of trees, in response to flooding. Adventitious root and shoot sprouts (including those that make short leafy shoots on red alder trunks) both grow from meristem tissues (localized growth centers where new cells are formed) that are part of the normal development of the tree trunk but they often stay dormant and don’t break forth from the bark. Red alders have thin bark, which might increase the sensitivity of these growth centers to environmental stimuli, such as light (for leafy shoots) or water (for roots. Similar spiky root sprouts are reported to develop on certain willows too.

adventitious-roots-s-stanway
Photo by S. P. Stanway

A return visit to these same alder trees about two weeks later showed us that most of the pinkish shoots had disappeared. The few remaining ones looked shriveled, woody, and dark. None of them had grown larger than the original two or three inches, so none of them ever became rooted in the ground.

Many questions await answers! Could these odd root sprouts be aerial roots? When sodden soils reduce the amount of oxygen that can reach buried roots, these short shoots might help supply the real roots with oxygen, which is needed for cell respiration and metabolism; they may also help eliminate carbon dioxide, which is one by-product of cell respiration. Why did only a few red alders trees make them, while neighboring alders did not? Are these particular trees growing in a site that has too little oxygen available in the soil (for instance, from saturation with water)? Although the site was damp, it did not seem damper than adjacent places in which neighoboring alders grew without the adventitious roots. Do those particular trees have roots that are damaged in some way, so they have unusual requirements that can be filled by the strange shoots? Or are these particular trees just genetically disposed to be sensitive to certain environmental stimuli such as rain-water streaming down the trunk that might have stimulated the adventitious root sprouts, perhaps on particular, very sensitive, individual trees.

–Parks and Rec hikers went up to Cropley Lake one nice day. From the treetops around the open meadows came the clear songs of olive-sided flycatchers: Quick, three beers! Quick, three beers! I often hear them here in the spring, but why would they be singing in late summer when they are about to head south on migration?

–On one of the hottest days of the year, when temperatures reached eighty degrees or more, Parks and Rec headed up the Granite Basin trail. Along the trail we found a couple of small stands of the yellow-flowered fireweed, not a common wildflower around here and therefore an unusual pleasure.

A bigger treat was the discovery that a State Parks crew had completed renovations of one section of the trail, making the way smoother and safer. And there were signs that more work is intended—bags of gravel for the muddy areas and stacked boards to replace the worn-out ones. Because this is a favorite trail for many of us, we cheered the State Parks crews.

Thanks to Robin Mulvey (Forestry Sciences Lab) and Ginny Eckert (UAF) for helpful consultation.

Hard snow

allows curious naturalists to extend their range

Hard snow in late January and early February made it easy to cruise around the forest on or off the regular trails. One could walk up the Thunder Mountain trail from DOT over the top of the nasty mudholes or prance without skis or snowshoes from Spaulding Meadow to the John Muir cabin. The low temperatures turned the snow to the hardness of concrete, in most places, so we could amble at will on our little explorations.

Well, in most places, yes. Except for the spot where the snow gave way completely and nearly pitched me into the adjacent river. One leg suddenly dropped into a hole, over knee deep, putting me right off balance. I was saved by a convenient, friendly alder that reached out a small branch in the nick of time.

We were walking along the lower part of the Herbert River, near its junction with Eagle River. The floodplain here is eroding badly and soon the Herbert will be shorter, joining the Eagle some distance upstream from the present confluence. Large trees have recently toppled into the water and lie waiting for spring floods to carry them toward the sea.

The fallen trees left steep cut-banks where the root masses had parted company with the floodplain. This exposed several horizontal layers of sediments of differing colors and textures: thin rust-colored layers of slightly coarser material were interspersed with wider, gray layers of very fine silt. These tell a story of variations in the flow of the river as the flood plain was built up. Roots had grown down through the layers, and the rust-color seemed to have followed along the course of the roots, perhaps leached by rain percolating downward and seeking the path of least resistance. Farther upstream, one can still see old river channels, now forested, where the river meandered before cutting its present channel. A lot of history is written in this landscape, for those who can read it.

Our wanderings frequently crossed those of peripatetic porcupines that had left their tracks when the snow was soft. There was evidence everywhere of porcupine lunches—spruce trunks with great gaps in the bark and porc-size tooth marks on the wood, neatly clipped spruce twigs dropped from the trees with the needles reduced to short stubs, even elderberry shrubs with gnawed-off shoots (despite their rank smell; apparently porcupines don’t care!).

Mink had scampered back and forth from forest edge to river, leaving numerous trackways now preserved in the crusty snow. Otter scat at the edge of the water showed the remains of a fish dinner. Of course, red squirrels had left their customary little piles of scales from alder cones and spruce cones as they extracted the seeds.

Another exploratory foray took us to a well-frozen wetland. As we meandered here and there, we noticed occasional beaver cuttings. Low-growing hemlock branches and small hemlock trees had been gnawed off and removed. Beaver teeth had scraped sizable patches of bark from standing hemlocks. A few shore pines and alders had been harvested, but hemlock was the clear favorite even though alders were quite abundant. This was interesting, because conifers are usually low-ranking choices for beavers. Alders are not a top choice either but are used in some regions. Their favorite trees are typically aspens, cottonwoods and willows, but these were not available here.

hemlock-midden-beaver-ck-KMH-Feb-2014
A hemlock midden. Photo by Katherine Hocker

We know that our local beavers sometimes cut hemlocks for use in construction, because we often see a branch or two incorporated in a dam. But the consistent use of hemlock for food seems unusual. There may be times of year when hemlock is more nutritious and palatable than at other seasons; such seasonal variation has been reported for pines and, accordingly, beavers in certain regions use pine seasonally. But why prefer hemlock to alder? As usual, we end up with questions!

The beaver lodge in this wetland did not have a winter cache of twigs and branches in front of it. But we found a midden a short distance away, where uneaten hemlock twigs had been removed from branches and stacked up in a pile, mixed with the de-barked branches. It is unusual, in our experience, to find accumulated remains of beaver lunches in middens like this one.