Some observations

…from a so-called “summer”

During this so-called summer, our rambles yielded a number of nice little observations, along with a few of another kind. Here is a sample:

Near the glacier, a family of five raucous young ravens yelled constantly for food. They were as big as their parents but clearly intended to go on being fed as long as possible. This is probably the family that was raised on the hillside above the visitor center and fed partly on tern and gull chicks. One young raven sat atop the pavilion, where it was mobbed by barn swallows protecting the last broods in nests under the roof.

In July, for a time, the air was filled with flying, fluff-borne offspring of the cottonwoods. They collected in damp wads in roadside ditches and wafted into my garage in bundles. On the East Glacier Trail, we found a place where the ground was covered with mature female cottonwood catkins. The ripe, round pods of the catkin had not opened of their own accord, sending out their flying seeds. Instead, hundreds of pods had been opened and seeds carefully extracted from amid the white fluff. We soon saw the perpetrator: a red squirrel, which was in the very act of nibbling seeds from more pods.


Later, at home, I saw my local red squirrel had a doorway matted with discarded white fluff, left over from its seed harvest. Under that mat was the usual litter of spruce cone cores, ejected from the burrow.

Trips up Gold Ridge were plagued by rain and wind, almost every time we went there. We did see a marmot collecting hay; its mouth bristled with the leaves of grasses and herbs. It was already getting ready for its long hibernation (commonly about eight months).

On another day up there, we were watching marmots when we were surprised to see one being chased by a black dog. The marmot barely escaped, partly because we yelled at the dog. The surly owner of the dog declared that he did not care about the posted rule that dogs on that trail must be on leash, and besides, there were other marmots up there. As he and his marmot-chasing dog went on up the trail, a chorus of marmot warning whistles rang out across the entire hillside, and we didn’t see another marmot for four hours.

Dogs are not a marmot’s best friend. Photo by Jos Bakker

Even in the rain and wind, we enjoyed the flower show on the ridge, as always. One patch of narcissus anemones flowers had been assaulted by some herbivore, one that just took a bite out of each petal and managed to drop a few. We guessed that a family of grouse had been having lunch there. On the ridge top, we found a young ptarmigan, with no family members in sight. So we wondered if the rest of the family had come to grief. This young one was good at hiding: as we carefully looped around it, it circled around a sharp rock to keep the rock between itself and us.

In the summer of mostly yukky weather, I have not seen many bumblebees. Near the glacier and in some other spots, the many lupines, which are normally bee-pollinated, are setting no fruit, suggesting poor pollination. One nice (!) day in Gustavus, when bees should have been active, we took a walk through a field with acres of blooming lupines, but we saw no bees. This made us wonder if perhaps our record-setting wet summer might have drowned them in their ground nests, leaving few to pollinate the flowers.

Since all those words were drafted, we entered a spell of wonderful real-summer weather. What a treat! Another trip up Gold Ridge yielded a willow ptarmigan attending a single large chick, and they came right up to us, for a good look (by both parties). On a long hike over Mount Troy, we found a bench covered in deer cabbage. In the midst of the lush green foliage were several large beds, where something had rested for a long time. Some of the deer cabbage leaves had been mowed off in swathes, leaving a tall stubble. Then, aha, I noted some of the largest bear scats I have ever seen. Lunch at the top of Troy was celebrated with lots of chocolate, including birthday cake, while overhead, a few hawks soared, starting their fall migration.

Another huge treat was the opportunity to watch a group of Dall’s porpoises cavorting around our whale-watching vessel. What a show! I can’t say how many there were, because they were coming in from all directions to play in front of the boat. The bow of the boat was not very high, so we could see them well, as they zipped back and forth, changing direction with a tail flick. An amazingly quick breath snatched at the surface is enough to keep one zooming around for several passes in front of the bow. Suddenly, they were all gone. How do they coordinate their departure, and where do they go?

Gold Ridge

…in seasonal transition

On a hot sunny day in mid June, we set out on the trail above the tram, in search of whatever happened to catch our fancy. Several residual snow drifts offered no difficulties, just a pleasant coolness.

The snow drifts held several bowl-like depressions that were the remains of ptarmigan winter roosts under the snow, each with a pile of scat in the bottom. One such bowl had melted out so much that it was close to four feet wide—so we had fun imagining a giant ptarmigan roosting there–perhaps left over from the Pleistocene?

The big flower show came from thousands of narcissus anemones, whose fields of white were dotted with blue lupines. Yellow northern cinquefoil and reddish roseroot adorned the rocky outcrops. Down near the ground were big purple violets, yellow violets, pink wedge-leaf primroses (a.k.a. pixie eyes), and tiny white alp lilies and starflowers. The heathers, both white and yellow, were coming into bloom.

It was so hot that birds were not singing a lot, but we heard ruby-crowned kinglets and varied thrushes in the conifer forest, fox sparrows, robins, and Wilson’s warblers in the brush, and best of all, at least two golden-crowned sparrows up near timberline. Their plaintive three notes (“Oh, dear me!”) gave us a treat. A little bunch of ravens had figured out what the snow was good for: snow baths! A raven would lay its head on the snow and then shove forward until its whole body followed its bill along the snow (much as a dog might do). Then it would roll a little, perhaps working the soft snow into its feathers. I bet it felt good! I was a tad envious.

Marmots were out foraging in several places. One big snowdrift covered a den with a good blanket, but the marmots had dug their way out and their trails led in several directions over the snow. Down at sea level, this year’s crop of baby marmots is already emerging their dens, so these at higher elevations should be coming out before long. Farther south, hoary marmots are found just at high elevations (and not on beaches as they sometimes are, here) and they are typically quite polygamous. I wondered if our marmots have a similar mating arrangement. We watched our marmots for quite a while—until an unleashed (illegal) dog started snooping around, when all the marmots promptly took cover.

We like to sit quietly in various spots, just to see and hear whatever is in the neighborhood. At one such stop, I perched on a flat rock and inspected the mat of low-growing vegetation at my feet. There were blueberry stems with occasional pendant pink flowers, and prostrate willows sending up erect catkins. And there was another plant, too, that mystified us all. It had tiny, yellow, bell-shaped flowers, rather like a faded, wizened blueberry flower, and firm leaves with marked reticulate venation. None of us had even noticed it before, although in this site there was quite a bit of it.

I took a small specimen of the mystery plant to a botanist, we consulted various plant books, and the mystery was resolved. The plant is alpine bearberry, a species apparently not recorded quite this far south, although it is reported from Glacier Bay and upper Lynn Canal. In autumn, the leaves will turn a spectacular red and the flowers will have made black berries, beautifully set off by the red leaves. It’s a good bet that there are more patches of this species on the ridges, if we’d look carefully.

At the top of the ridge, our famous photographer observed a female rock ptarmigan foraging on the petals of Cooley’s buttercup (now reclassified as a ‘false buttercup’ and placed in a different genus). True buttercups are generally poisonous (even the flowers) if eaten and often cause skin irritation if rubbed, so I wonder if this is the case for Cooley’s buttercup too. If so, then ptarmigan may have physiological means of dealing with the poison, or perhaps can tolerate small quantities of it. Many animals eat poisonous plants, sometimes counter-acting the poison with another food item. Here is another little local mystery to be solved.

Here and there in summer

alpine sights, body-checked by a grouse, some thoughts on bear viewing, and wildlife on the home front

–In early August I went up Gold Ridge in hopes of finding the big, blue, broad-petalled gentian in bloom. Being a rather impatient sort, I’d tried earlier, in July, with no luck. But on this warm, sunny day, there were a few in bloom and more with buds. Higher up on the trail, I didn’t spot any, and they probably bloom slightly later up there. However, the mission was successful on this day, and a search later in the month should find lots more.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Even if there had been none of those beautiful gentians, the day was a good one. A mountain goat was silhouetted on the ridgeline; young marmots gamboled about, while a big adult lazed on a boulder. There were several bear scats along the trail and, of course, I could not resist inspecting at least the most recent one. It was full of salmonberry seeds, along with some vegetation fibers; because the salmonberries at this elevation were not yet ripe, I knew that this bear had been foraging down lower.

Bird life was not well-represented, however: a pair of curious ravens, a robin, and an invisible sparrow pip-pipping in the alder brush. It is always a little sad when the season of bird song is over for the year. Nary a grouse or ptarmigan to be seen, and I’d seen only one brood in July. Although apparently no official census has been conducted, they seem to be much scarcer on the ridge these days than they were a few years ago. Back in 2005, the area was opened to hunting, and it is very likely that hunting has reduced the grouse and ptarmigan populations. Many of those birds were habituated to people on the trails, and many of us thoroughly enjoyed seeing them and their chicks almost any time we ventured up the ridge. Shooting them would have been easy (and very unsporting). It seems that, for the sake of a few hunters, the pleasure of many observers was reduced.

–When the sockeye come in to Steep Creek, the bears can feast. This summer, the one we know as Nicky came down late, as usual, and she does not have cubs; she’s around eighteen years old and may be slowing down a little. The cubs of Bear 153 put on a good show one evening: swinging on the willows, tussling in the grass, getting startled by a big salmon thrashing upstream, tipping over the camera gear set (by permission) in the stream, cavorting in the shallows. I had dropped by, intending to stay just a few minutes, and ended up staying almost two hours.

The few times I have gone out there to bear-watch, the crowds have been quite well-behaved, not needing much guidance from the rangers about proper conduct in bear country. But with so many people visiting the area, someone (or someone’s dog) inevitably makes a wrong move that makes the mother bears nervous and concerned about their cubs’ safety. This is a time to be especially observant of bear body-language and to give the bears even more space than usual. These bears are quite used to people and normally behave extremely well; we can keep them that way, for all of us to enjoy, if we ourselves behave properly. A new guide to staying safe around bears, including some new information, is in the works; it will be available from ADFG.

–When we were in Bartlett Cove, Glacier Bay, one day in June, we stumbled upon a female grouse that clearly had chicks somewhere nearby. Standing on big rock, she clucked and fussed, even when we stood back to see what might emerge from the tall, dense beach grasses. I circled slowly back around her rock, hoping to see the chicks as they crossed a narrow path. Well! Mama did not like that one bit, and as I inched forward, she gave a body slam to my shoulder as she flew ahead, sounding the alarm. As far as that female was concerned, I had invaded her space and she was not going to stand for it! Then we saw the eight or so chicks—they had already crossed the path and were not close to the mother’s rock at all. Nice big chicks! They all took flight away from the presumed danger (us), followed by mama.

The next day, we managed to upset a pair of greater yellowlegs as we walked out into some extensive beach meadows. Both adults yelled and swooped at us, so we knew that there were chicks in the area. We never did see those chicks, well hidden in the tall grass, and the tumult subsided as soon as we moved out onto the open beach.

–My home pond was a happening place this summer. Four different broods of mallards made it a regular stop on their rounds through the neighborhood. First, there was a brood of ten ducklings (known as the Tens), then a brood of five (the Big Fives), a brood of eight (the Eights), and a later brood of five (the Little Fives). Seldom was there more than one brood on the pond at a time; if two broods happened to be there, one dominated the area under the hanging seed feeder. There was a nice rain of seeds falling from that feeder, as the juncos scratched among the loose seeds and the jays tipped the whole feeder off balance. This was manna from heaven! And not to be shared. The Eights would advance upon the Little Fives, pushing them into a corner of the pond, and go back to gobble up falling seeds. On another day, the roles would be reversed, the Little Fives winning the prize. The Big Fives sometimes charged at The Eights, relegating them to the far upper end of the pond, and went back to snarf up the seed rain.

Several broods of juncos (and their parents) grew fat on the seed offerings, and I watched the young ones gradually acquire their adult plumage. Bears wandered through but did not bother with the inaccessible feeder. I watched two predators with evil intentions about ‘my’ ducks, but they departed, still hungry. A roaming dog threatened one brood, and the mother duck led that dog a merry chase in her version of a broken-wing act: back and forth went dog and duck, the duck always just two or three feet ahead of the dog. She could have just flown away, but she was intent upon keeping that dog away from her young ones. The dog did not respond to orders from the shore, so eventually, my quick-thinking neighbor jumped in and grabbed the dog, and peace was restored.

Animals at play

a widespread pleasure

Any observant dog owners can recognize the invitation-to-play posture of their dogs, sometimes addressed to persons, and sometimes to other dogs. Surely none of us doubts that dogs love to play, with balls or sticks or each other. And cat owners watch their feline friends toss and chase toy mice, frolic with rumpled scatter rugs, and push pingpong balls under the couch only to fish them back out again. A favorite trick of some cats is ‘ambush’…running ahead of a person or another cat, hiding behind a door, and pouncing out as the victim passes by. Some cats and dogs even know how to make jokes, sometimes deliberately and mischievously misleading their humans or each other in frivolous ways. Of course, dogs and cats are domestic critters, which often have lots of time for frolicking, because they usually don’t have the need to find food or escape from enemies or find mates; the same is true for animals in captivity, which often need sources of amusement.

What about animals in the wild? Do they play too? Sure; especially younger ones, but adults too. Wolves and coyotes tussle and chase. They use the same play-invitation postures among themselves as dogs do; our late-lamented black wolf, Romeo, used to invite passing dogs to play. On-line sources offer plenty of examples: young elephants mud-sliding and mud-wrestling or macaques repeatedly leaping from a tower into a pool of water or….you name it.

Play behavior often has some utilitarian physiological functions, such as muscle toning or sharpening reflexes or improving coordination. It can also have useful social functions, such as learning the rules of interaction among members of a group (e.g., don’t play too roughly!) or establishing a dominance order. But play behavior would not be so common among critters if it weren’t simply FUN.

It took a long time for humans to recognize that animals, both domestic and wild ones, like to have fun. Having fun requires a degree of intelligence that humans have been slow to admit is found in animals—irrationally and wrongly preferring to think ourselves superior to everybody else.

Here are a few examples of animals that play, mostly from animals that we often see around here.

Young marmots box and wrestle on the threshold of their den. Bear cubs tumble and tussle with each other, sometimes engaging mama as well; so do beaver kits and young ones of many other species. Mountain goat kids sometimes bounce from ledge to ledge, apparently just because they can and it is fun.

Young humpback whales sometimes cavort, fluke slapping, pectoral slapping, and breaching, as if saying Hey mom, look at me! A local photographer watched one breach seventeen times in quick succession!

Photo by Doug Jones

We can see ravens having fun. They might fly up with a feather or some other object, and then drop it, only to swoop down and catch it again; or maybe a friend would dart in to snatch it away. Sometimes there is a game of keep-away: I’ve got a toy, you try to get it from me. We’ve watched ravens roll down a snowy slope, or slide like a toboggan, only to trot back up to the top and do it over again.

Crows play, too. There is an on-line video of a European crow sliding down a snowy roof while standing on a plastic lid; then it picked up the lid, went back to the top of the roof, and slid down again. What a hoot! (I couldn’t leave that one out, even though it is not local). Our northwestern crows sometimes dangle upside down from a branch, not reaching for anything nor avoiding something, just showing off. The biggest showoffs dangle on one foot: see what I can do! Then they may swing back upright with a wing-flap or two, or let go and try it again on a different branch.

Otters slide down muddy or snowy slopes. Some slide tracks are many yards long, and the otter then continued onward to wherever it was going. This is an energy-efficient mode of transportation—just push off and let gravity do the rest. But sometimes they are not really going anywhere, just down a small slope and back up again, to do it all over once more. Sometimes a whole slope will be covered with their slide marks. It must be fun!

Dall’s porpoises sometimes come to ride the bow wave of a fast-moving boat. A little group of them seems to appear from nowhere and together they ride that wave, sometimes for a considerable distance. Then they are gone, as suddenly as they came.

One day at Eaglecrest I found a place where ptarmigan had pranced around, leaving lots of footprints. These were interspersed with a number of slide marks, about three feet long, going down a little slope. We know that ptarmigan often glide to a stop when they come in for a snow-landing, leaving a short slide mark, but the marks I saw did not look like landing marks. They made me think of the otter slides, so I wondered if ptarmigan can play too. I turned up only one report, which says that flocks or family groups of willow ptarmigan frolic together, crouching low with head extended, jumping around, and flapping one or both wings. I would love to see that!

Winter wanderings

ptarmigan tracks, porcupine trails, a busy hare and a winter-kill

There aren’t many activities I enjoy more than simply prowling around the forest and meadows, looking for signs of animal action. Sometimes I go solo; when I’m lucky, I have a companion or two. All this recent sunshine has enticed me out several times; it’s a shame to waste a day of sun in Juneau by staying indoors! So here are some observations (and questions) from some little explorations in the last few weeks.

–Cropley Lake: a ptarmigan had landed, sinking down a few inches in the soft snow. But for some reason, it took flight immediately, leaving a few running foot prints and two sets of wing prints, the second one very faint.

–Mendenhall Lake: ptarmigan often come down from the alpine zone in winter and forage in the shrubby flats near the lake. Sometimes I’m lucky and actually see the birds, but this time I only found a trackway where the ptarmigan had run, with long strides, from one thicket to another. There it had nibbled on willow buds, leaving barren stems.

–Crow Point near the Boy Scout camp: a porcupine had trekked all the way across the wide meadow where the geese commonly graze, from the hillside out to the spruce groves above the beach. In one of the groves we noted a cluster of young spruces with dead tops. Closer inspection revealed that the tops of the trunks and some of the upper branches had been de-barked. But this had not happened all at once: some gnawings were recent and the twigs were not long dead, but others were gray from long exposure. Thus, it seemed that porcupines had foraged here repeatedly, and I have to wonder what made that particular cluster of trees so attractive.

The beach itself was covered with bird tracks: gulls, crows, and something smaller, whose tracks were very indistinct. I was interested to note that a vole or mouse had ventured well out onto the sand; what was it after?

–Low elevation muskegs off the Dan Moller Trail: This little exploration was quite productive. We found a place where a hare had run back and forth, stopping long enough to eliminate (colorful!) waste products and nibble the buds from the tip of a spruce branchlet that had been cut from a low-hanging branch several feet away. A perambulating deer had cropped the very tips of some blueberry bushes, taking just the tenderest bits and buds.

That red isn’t blood… it’s hare urine! Photo by Katherine Hocker

The snow was so deep that most small mammals could just burrow around under the white blanket, safe from aerial predators at least. The only small mammal tracks we saw were in the bottom of a tiny gully where the snow was thin. The mouse had run across the ice in one direction, but then walked back.

A surprising find was a dead Steller’s jay, lying toes-up under a tree. It was emaciated, with no fat deposits, so the keel on the breastbone was very prominent. Later examination revealed a digestive tract empty of all but little stones. With all the bird feeders in most human neighborhoods, it seemed strange that this bird would starve.

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.