The ice tells

stories written on a frozen pond

MidApril, and my home pond is still mostly covered by ice, with a thin layer of snow on top. Nevertheless, there is quite a lot of activity out there. The snow records the passing of several visitors.

The pair of mallards that claim this pond are, at the moment of writing, resting quietly on the bank, under a snow-bowed alder. But they have been traipsing back and forth from the bit of open water at the outlet to the patch of open water at the inlet, leaving several trackways across the ice. Sometimes they visit the considerable accumulation of spilled bird seed that builds up under the feeders suspended over the pond. When the ice thaws and dumps the remaining seeds to the bottom, the ducks will dive for them.

The mallards aren’t the only ones to harvest seeds from the ice. The hordes of siskins and redpolls that dropped all those seeds from the feeders come back later and collect some of the fallen seeds. The red squirrel that lives below a neighboring spruce tree ventures out to gobble up those seeds too—now that the feeders on my deck are no longer operative. Juncos go out there too, but the males are singing now, and they are having other things on their minds. I haven’t seen a jay here for weeks; they may have begun nesting—and the little birds can now forage in peace.

A raven regularly patrols the pond. The ice is its lunch plate, because there I throw out any uneaten cat food, which the raven collects. It has left a complex network of tracks all over the ice. That bird will miss the ice-plate when it melts!

Other visitors include a porcupine, who has trundled several times across the ice. Most recently, an otter came by, passing over the ice just once in its exploration of open waters.

Out on Mendenhall Lake, there were recent tracks of skis, and in the very middle of April we watched a pair of skiers and a dog taking their chances on the weakening ice. With worrisome visions of calamity dancing in our heads, we knew we’d be in no position to help, if the ice failed (it didn’t). We were safely ensconced up on The Rock, the rock peninsula across the lake from the visitor center.

It has become an early spring ritual to hike up on The Rock, looking for the early-flowering purple mountain saxifrage and whatever else we can find. We had a lazy lunch, basking in the sun, listening to ruby-crowned kinglet songs and watching bumblebees zooming about. The bees didn’t visit the saxifrage flowers, although the flowers held nectar and pollen. Perhaps they favored the willows: the male willows were starting to present pollen, just the thing for bumblebee queen to feed her new brood of larvae.

We were overseen by several mountain goats, lying on ledges near the top of the ridge. The goats are still down at low elevations, both here and near Nugget Falls across the lake, so they have been seen and enjoyed by many folks. Right in our own backyard, so to speak. How cool.

To round out a week of fun, I walked in the sun on the beach and sand flats south of the visitor center. I ambled along, thinking of other things altogether, when my brain awoke to the many small trackways crisscrossing the snow. Two feet, very short steps, going from one stubby willow shrub to another—who could it be but a ptarmigan! Then, about forty feet ahead of me, there was a small patch of something whiter than the snow. Aha! The perpetrator of the tracks. The bird didn’t move, and I didn’t move. Have you even tried to hold absolutely still for a long time?—don’t scratch your nose, don’t shift weight from one foot to the other, don’t cough, just pretend to be a tree. It’s very hard to out-wait a bird that is holding still and thinking its camouflage makes it invisible! But I managed to do it, and eventually, after many, many minutes, the bird resumed feeding on willow buds. Presently, another ptarmigan crept ever so slowly out from under a spruce and joined the first bird and both of them fed on willow buds. They seemed to be very small, so could they possibly be…….., but alas, I was too far away to be sure of the diagnostic identification marks in the plumage (foolishly, I’d left binoculars at home). After watching for quite a while, I made a wide detour around them and continued down the shore.

On my way back, I came upon them again, this time only about ten feet away. Being this close was a lucky break. Now I could see their tails very clearly and there were no black feathers there. Whoopee! That confirmed the conjecture based on small size—these were indeed white-tailed ptarmigan! Both of them were still snapping up willow buds and they let me watch again. The summer molt was just starting, and they had occasional blackish feathers poking through the white winter coat.

I’d never seen white-tailed ptarmigan before, and now there were two of them, right in front of me. They nest in the high alpine zone, but winter sometimes brings them down, and I got lucky!

Purple mountain saxifrage

a hardy flower and a spring delight

One of the earliest flowers to appear in spring is purple mountain saxifrage. In April some of us make a point of regularly checking certain places where we know it lives, just for the pleasure of watching for the first open flower and then the appearance of more and more blossoms, until there are multiple patches of the pinkish-purple flowers on some of the local rocky outcrops.

purple-mountain-saxifrage-on-April-10-2013-at-Nugget-Falls
Photo by Bob Armstrong

This low-growing plant occurs in Arctic regions around the world, and in alpine areas of central Asia, Europe, and North America. It’s a tough little plant, quite resistant to drought and water-stress. It forms associations with mycorrhizal fungi that provide nutrients and water, in exchange for carbohydrates produced by the saxifrage leaves. As with several other early-season bloomers, the flower buds are actually formed the year before the flower opens, but eggs (in the ovary) and sperm (in pollen) don’t develop until spring.

Female parts of the flower mature before the male parts do, which reduces the chance of self-pollination (pollen fertilizing future seeds in the same flower). Most seeds are produced by out-crossing (pollen fertilizing future seeds on a different plant).

The flowers are pollinated by insects of various sorts, including bees and flies. Early in May, we watched a female margined-white butterfly visiting one flower after another, so presumably there are minute amounts of nectar therein. These insects don’t see the longer (reddish) wavelengths, so they see the flowers as bluish. However, studies have shown that seed production is often limited by low levels of pollinator activity, perhaps in part because bad spring weather sometimes reduces insect activity. In addition, one study showed that as soon as other flowers started to bloom, insect visitation to the saxifrage decreased, as the insects found preferred sources of food.

This is an ecologically variable species, with different types adapted to different conditions of soil, snow-melt, length of growing season, and so on. For example, one study showed that the plants growing in cold, wet soils with late snow-melt had higher metabolic rates and faster production of shoots than those in warmer, drier sites, but they did less well at storing carbohydrates or water for hard times. In some areas, there are two growth forms that grow side by side but differ in structure (prostrate vs cushion-like) and in reproduction: one does better at seed production but the other excels at propagating by shoot fragmentation.

On the Old World Arctic tundra, purple mountain saxifrage flowers and old seed heads are eaten by barnacle geese when they arrive on the nesting grounds, and reindeer eat it too. I have not found information on animals that consume this plant in North America.

A word of caution: If you see this pretty plant in the wild, please do not remove it! That deprives lots of other folks of the pleasure of finding and seeing it in its natural setting.

On the Rock

…some early fall observations

Mid-April, taxes are filed, the government didn’t close down, and the sun is shining. A good day to head up the West Glacier Trail in search of purple mountain saxifrage, whose pink flowers are among the first to appear in spring (pussy-willows are the very first). Much of the snow was gone, so we walked along the lakeshore for a mile or so and then cut uphill to the trail.

At the bench, the group decided in favor of dropping down to lake level again, rounding the bay with the big beaver lodge, and going up on the first ridge beside the beaver pond. And there, just above the pond, we found the first blooming purple mountain saxifrage. Soon we were seeing dozens of them on the barren rocky outcrops, with more to come into bloom in the next few weeks.

A bumblebee zoomed by but didn’t visit the saxifrage flowers. Perhaps she wanted to visit the multi-flowered catkins of the earliest-blooming willows.

At the beaver pond, there is a route up the cliff to the top of the ridge, but our group chose our old way. Past that pond, we scrambled up the alder-covered ramp to the next level. The rock terrace here is pocked with small ponds. A pair of mallards had secluded themselves in one of the ponds, well sheltered by shrubbery, but our coming spooked them and off they flew. Here we found more saxifrage, as well as lovely ‘gardens’ of moss and lichens.

At the end of the rock terrace is a crack in the cliffs that gives easy access to the top of the ridge, not far from the end. Here we sprawled in the sun for a leisurely refueling, in preparation for what we knew would be a bushwhack back along the ridge.

And indeed it was bushwhacking at its best, thrashing through the alders that filled the dips between rocky outcrops. So errant twigs snatched my glasses from my face, or knocked off my cap, or snagged on my pack, to the accompaniment of muttered imprecations. However, we rejoiced in the absence of leaves, which were still tightly furled in their buds, so we could more or less see where we were going. Here we found a robin, a plump squirrel, porcupine scat, and some old bear scat full of chewed up ground cone.

On the outcrops were numerous deposits of small scat pellets, not quite as round as hare scat and not in good hare habitat, se we deduced they’d been left by mountain goats. On one outcrop, we found a pile of tiny pellets right next to a pile of bigger ones, suggesting that a nanny with a kid had rested there. Our deductions were reinforced a little later, when we looked back toward the end of the rock peninsula and saw five ambulatory white spots. Three of them scampered agilely up and over the crest of the ridge and disappeared.

Looking down toward the toe of the glacier, we could see the edge of the rather new colony of gulls. Gulls still nest on the southern face of the rock peninsula, but as the vegetation gets taller and denser there, the gulls get fewer. A few years ago, they began a new nesting colony on bare rock closer to the ice.

We regained the West Glacier Trail via the ‘social trail’ that slants up the hillside through the alders. Here, however, the alders are my friends, providing convenient hand-holds.

This trail crosses a steep rock that even the mountain goats go around, judging from white hairs caught in the brush below the rock. Now, however, some thoughtful folks have installed a climbing rope that greatly facilitates passage over this spot.

April

winter or spring?

The ice is just starting to melt on my home pond, so there is a little open water at both the inlet and the outlet. As soon as there were a few square yards of open water, a pair of mallards moved in. They rested on the edge of the ice, dabbled in the shallows, and gobbled up sunflower seeds spilled from the feeders that hang over the pond.

Then one day I noticed quite a kerfuffle out there. The female was hard to see, posed rather flat on the water. The male was very excited, vigorously bobbing his green head up and down, and splashily diving near the female several times. Quite a showy preamble! Then he was on her back, nipping the back of her neck, and they were doing the mating thing.

She will probably lay seven to ten eggs and incubate them for about four weeks. So, if she and her eggs are lucky enough to avoid predation, I may see ducklings on my pond in due course.

A stroll to Nugget Falls yielded the first purple mountain saxifrage of the season, blooming considerably in advance of others in the area. The flowers of this species are usually female, with receptive surfaces for pollen, before they become functionally male, with ripe pollen. So this plant had perhaps lost its chances for seed production, because the flowers clearly presented mature pollen. If a bee now happens to find it and remove pollen, it would be difficult to find another plant ready to receive that pollen—unless some other plants open their flowers very soon. Maybe a bee can fly to the west side of the lake, where this plant blooms on the rock peninsula. Maybe it doesn’t pay to be TOO eager! Research has shown that seed production in the species is commonly limited by insufficient pollen deposition.

purple-mountain-saxifrage-on-April-10-2013-at-Nugget-Falls

In the same area, where mountain goats have been foraging and resting for months, I finally saw a nanny with a kid, moving up the ridge into the brush. The kid was pressed close to mama’s side, so what I really saw was a white blur with eight legs (well, seven legs, actually, but you get the idea…).

Another stroll, on the wetlands, treated me to my first ruby-crowned kinglet song, one of my favorites. They’ve been here for a little while, but I hadn’t heard them for myself. Six swans on the river took off when they saw me move, even though I was still pretty far away and partly concealed. Canada geese were also quite nervous and left the meadows for the far side of the river. Even the ducks were uneasy and sailed slowly away downriver (mallards, goldeneyes, ringnecks, buffleheads, green-winged teal). Sadly, I missed the mountain bluebirds that had stopped there on their way north.

A more strenuous outing took us, on snowshoes, up one of the forested slopes at Eaglecrest. We gained a fair amount of elevation and looked down on the upper cross-country ski loop and Cropley Lake. We watched a ptarmigan snatch buds from blueberry twigs, marching calmly from one bush to another. The first clue to its presence was a line of very fresh tracks in the fluffy snow that lay atop the hard crust.

The greatest fun concerned a raven. First, we heard a lovely little melody coming from high in the hemlocks. It was repeated several times. The song was unlike that of any other songbird that I know. So we couldn’t identify it—until one little trill was followed by a brief squawk. Then a raven flew in, carrying a stick, disappeared briefly, and then flew back the way it came. Back and forth it went, with a rush of air in the wing feathers, each time bringing a stick. All the sticks were about the same size, maybe a foot long or so. After the bird had made several trips, I finally spotted where the sticks were going: high in a hemlock, in a snug spot next to the trunk, was a dark lump. The next two times the busy raven arrived, we could watch it work the sticks into the existing structure. This raven was still building the nest exterior, a bit behind the others that I’ve watched, which have been gathering and carrying dry grasses for nest lining.

Ravens are technically songbirds, along with sparrows and warblers and thrushes, although that comes as a surprise to many folks. On this day, ‘our’ raven earned its technical classification, with it short, sweet, melodic song.

Then, on a fine, blue-sky day, Parks and Rec sashayed, in shirt-sleeves, up to Spaulding Meadows. We didn’t even need snowshoes until we reached the upper meadow, because the trail was well packed. This trail is far easier to negotiate in winter than in summer, because the myriad mudholes are frozen and snow-covered. The upper meadows looked like the skiing would be wonderful, and the two skiers that started out with the rest of us plodders soon disappeared and were not seen again that day. Just before the top, we found some tracks that I think were made by a pine marten. We perched on a snowbank for lunch, shielded from a little breeze by a stand of trees, and thoroughly enjoyed a view of the sunlit peaks around the glacier.

Advancing spring

returning migrants, early blossoms, and more

Ever so slowly, spring is creeping up on us. Although my terraced rock ‘gardens’ are still well-buried in snow (but less so, since I shoveled off a foot or two), the ice on my pond is perceptibly thinner. The seemingly endless sunny days (in Juneau?!?) are helping, but the night-time temperatures, at least at my house, are still freezing. The ice on Mendenhall Lake is quite thick—in the middle, but near the edge it is not reliable. There was much consternation on a recent Parks and Rec hike, when a new hiker ventured out on the ice and fell in. He swam through crumbling ice to shore, where he was quickly required to shed at least some of his soaked clothes and don borrowed raiment.

Some good things are happening. The hummingbirds are back, hovering around some folks’ feeders. There’s a dearth of flowers with nectar, so they must be eating mostly insects and spiders, plus the sugar syrup in the feeders. I’ve heard red-breasted sapsuckers squealing their nasal call, so they have returned. Robins are back again, too, in flocks on the beaches and, as singletons, clucking and fussing and starting to sing in treetops. Song sparrows are singing in the thickets near the shores. Just after Easter, I saw the first golden-crowned sparrow at my seed feeder, looking chubby but eating as fast as its bill could go.

Recent explorations around Eastertime turned up more signs of progress.

On the big rock peninsula across from the Visitor Center, we found the first purple mountain saxifrage in bloom, with lots more to come. Out near Nugget Falls, crevices in the cliffs held the first green fronds of the rusty cliff fern and parsley fern. Nearby, a single flower of purple mountain saxifrage peeked out of its leafy clump. Elsewhere, skunk cabbage is up, in places, and should soon be swarming with the little brown beetles that come there to mate, and incidentally pollinate the flowers.

The goats around the glacier are still foraging at low elevations, but they seem to be slowly working their way up to their summer grounds. Hooters are sounding off on the hillsides. We are starting to see queen bumblebees zooming around, gathering food for their first brood of larvae. Willow catkins are a good source of pollen for the bees.

A trip to the Boy Scout beach area yielded a broad expanse where geese had grubbed for roots and shoots. There were also some mysterious craters in one area, some of them at least a foot deep. Could they be evidence of early prowlings of a brown bear? That’s a question, because a keen local naturalist has suggested that brown bears may dig deeper holes than black bears, when they’re after roots.

Over on Douglas, the snow was still impressively deep. The Dan Moller cabin was still buried at Eastertime; a very narrow defile led down to the outhouse door. A little meander over some mid-elevation muskegs (on snowshoes) showed us that deer had been regularly moving from one tree well to another. Snow at the tree bases had melted had melted, exposing several feet of actual vegetation-covered ground (several feet down!). We guessed that the deer were foraging on dwarf dogwood and trailing raspberry leaves, and perhaps lichens as well, with snacks of blueberry twigs in between.

Wild crabapple trees grew at the edge of several small muskegs. They provided us with a nice puzzle. The bigger, older trunks had cracked, scaly bark, and almost every one had been visited by some creature that scaled off flakes of bark, exposing the lighter-colored wood or new bark beneath. And most of those light-colored patches were dotted with up to four tiny, conical pits. Our best guess was that a three-toed woodpecker had been foraging, whacking off the bark scales in search of whatever small invertebrates might be hiding there. Indeed, two days later, I saw one of those birds in the same general area, drumming on a dead spruce. But what are those little pits? Could they be marks where a woodpecker’s sharp bill had stabbed at a bug startled by the sudden removal of its bark shelter?

A walk out to Bridget Point involved lots of post-holing and some wading in the little canal that forms on the trail in the lowlands. A woodpecker was drumming, which led to a big discussion about how to tell the drumming patterns of different species apart. It clearly was not a sapsucker, but distinguishing several other species proved to be dicey, even with the aid of helpful programs on convenient hand-held electronics. There were rewards in seeing a northern shrike perched atop a spruce, hearing a pygmy owl calling, and glimpsing a few of the first ruby-crowned kinglets. I didn’t hear them sing, however, until the next day, when spring could then ‘officially’ begin.

Early April jaunts

through forest and seashore

Decent weather in early April encouraged several low-elevation jaunts. Parks and Rec hikers went to the rock peninsula on the west side of Mendenhall Lake, stopping for lunch amid a fine display of purple mountain saxifrage. Some clumps were in full bloom, and others were just starting, so the little purple flowers will be there to entertain visiting bumble bees and wasps for a while. Saxifrage flowers on the east side of the lake don’t get as much sun, so they lag behind by a week or more, but they should appear soon. After lunch, some hikers went on to the face of the ice, checking out the interstadial forest on the way, while others settled for a pleasant walk back to the cars.

A stroll with a friend on the Outer Point and Rainforest trails on north Douglas was enlivened by the songs of ruby-crowned kinglets and Pacific wrens—such big voices from such little birds! Several bumblebees circled our heads, even though we don’t look much like blueberry flowers, which were blooming in profusion, just waiting for a bee.

We detoured briefly out to Shaman Island, where the crows were starting to nest; lots of dilapidated old nests were easily visible in the conifers. Going along the tombola (or berm) we gently turned over a few rocks, cautiously replacing them after we looked at the critters hiding underneath. One rock sheltered six small tidepool sculpins, as well as several tiny urchins and sea stars. We found a mossy chiton, a ribbon worm, some pricklebacks that quickly slithered under the next available rock, a scale worm, and a very small, bright green polychaete worm. One tiny sea star, less than half an inch across, was huddled over a pile of yellow eggs, as if brooding (?or eating?) them. All of this was such fun that we barely made it back to the mainland with dry feet—the tide really came up fast!

Out at the mouth of Eagle River, the usual golden-eye ducks and Canada geese cruised around, moving up stream as the tide came in. A pair of swans sailed in stately splendor among the clutter of lesser fowls. At Windfall Lake, there were at least eight swans, conversing with each other and foraging on the far side of the partly ice-free lake, as hikers basked in the sun by the cabin.

skunk-cabbage-early-male-2
Photo by Mary Willson

The bright yellow hoods of skunk cabbage gleam in the understory in many places, but are sometimes nibbled off by deer or seriously frostbitten and black. But those are not the only complications. The inflorescence sheltered by the yellow hood is composed of many tightly packed flowers, each of which is first female, with receptive stigmas, later becoming male, with mature pollen. In early April, every inflorescence we inspected bore only female-phase flowers. No males! This poses a conundrum: These early-appearing, beetle-pollinated flowers may not set seed, because there is no source of pollen (and no beetles yet). It is possible, however, that the first pollen maturing at the bottom of the inflorescence might pollinate some lingering female-phase flowers at the top, if pollen from the same individual is effective. Indeed, one study has reported that this is possible, because the plant is self-compatible. But there might be another, wilder, possibility: Maybe these plants that first emerge from the ground have sacrificed at least some of their female function and, eventually becoming male, will pass on their genes chiefly by fathering many seeds on other, later emerging, plants that are still acting as females.

At Steep Creek, the American dippers have been trying to set up a territory, as usual. Unfortunately, they may not be using their traditional nesting site near the waterfall. This site has been used for many years (at least fifteen in my experience), and there are no other satisfactory nest sites on this stream. But this year the disturbance of the nest site area by humans has been serious. The little waterfall attracts too many people to the gravel bar that is very near the nest site, preventing the birds from courtship and nest-building there. This spring, we have seen groups of people spending twenty or thirty minutes or more on that gravel bar, photographing, throwing rocks, piling up rocks, and playing, oblivious of the needs of the birds even when informed of the disturbing effects of human activity, and even when they then see a dipper fly in, touching down briefly, and fleeing upstream. That kind of behavior is disrespectful of the birds and of the many other people who enjoy watching them. One can hope that humans can eventually learn to avoid disturbing birds at their nest sites.