Four wintery walks

sun and shadow and snowy tracks

The thermometer at my house read eleven degrees (F) after a clear, starry night; the sky looked clear, although the sun wasn’t really up yet. Juneau had recently enjoyed about six feet of lovely snow, but many of the trails had not yet been used much. In search of a well-packed trail, a friend and I headed for the Boy Scout beach trail.

All went smoothly until we reached the junction where the trail splits three ways, and none of the splits looked good. We chose to go right out onto the goose meadow and immediately found ourselves breaking trail and post-holing through deep, crusty wind-blown drifts. Even following in the footprints of my companion, I (weighing forty pounds more) plunged and lunged, knee-deep and more. However, a hundred yards or so farther on, walking became a pleasure again, because the low vegetation was almost clear of snow, thanks to some recent super-high tides that left a few scattered cakes of frozen foam and to the wind.

Post-holing again out to the beach by the iconic cottonwood tree, we decided not to face the stiff, cold north wind that was churning up waters out in Lynn Canal. So, instead of coming back on the big, exposed beach, we turned toward the camp buildings, found a log, and had a little picnic in the sun. As soon as we got out our thermoses and lunch bags, two importunate ravens landed on the beach right in front of us—they knew the drill! Of course, we obliged them, tossing out bits of sandwich that they promptly snapped up. But they eyed a fragment of a sugar-snap pea with great suspicion and avoided going close to it—no veggies for them! One of them chose to sit next to us on the log for a while.

On this day in mid-December, the morning sun barely cleared the horizon. On the upper beach, I noticed that every isolated pebble cast a shadow much longer than itself, making a grid of conspicuous black stripes that called attention to each pebble.

The Chilkats across the canal were spectacular: the low morning sun made sharp contrasts between the sun-bright south-facing slopes and the intensely blue-shadowed north slopes. Behind us, the trees on the hillsides were individually defined by the snow they carried and on the peaks the snow delineated the minor topographical features very nicely.

Few critters were visible on this walk. A seal cruised by, just offshore, and gulls fossicked about in the tidal wrack. A wren zipped rapidly from trailside to shelter under some roots; they are so tiny, I wonder how they stay warm on frigid winter days. No midges or spiders crept on the snow surface.  But there were tracks of mink along the river, red squirrels in the woods, ermine and vole at the edge of the meadow; one or two small birds (who?) had hopped and run in the beach rye lining the meadow trail. A low-flying raven (?) left the mark of one wing-tip in the loose surface snow.

The next day was mostly sunny and, again, very cold (seven degrees at my house in the morning). I opted for snowdrift-free walk on the dike trail. A few tracks of squirrels and maybe an ermine were the only natural history notes of the morning until I had almost finished the walk. And there in the stand of willows was a female pine grosbeak, busily nibbling buds. I frequently see these grosbeak in fall and winter, as they forage on high-bush cranberry, carefully extracting the seed and dropping the red fruit pulp—the opposite treatment from that of bohemian waxwings, who eat the fruit and excrete the seed.

A couple of days later, the cold remained (just six degrees here). I had an idea to try some of the lower meadows along the Eaglecrest Road, but roadside parking was hard to find and the thought of plowing through deep snow, even on snowshoes, was daunting. So, on up the road to the Lower Loop, nicely groomed and unoccupied. The sun couldn’t make it up over the peaks, but ‘shoeing was easy.

There was not a live critter in sight but there were plenty of signs of life. A porcupine was into long-distance travel, heading straight across the meadow, not stopping to forage. Ermine had cruised all over the meadows in circuitous routes, looking for a juicy morsel. Snowshoe hare tracks were abundant, mostly under sheltering conifer branches or going from one shelter to another. Grouse or ptarmigan had been active, inspecting salmonberry and blueberry bushes for tasty buds and sometimes staying long enough to trample the snow flat. Except for a few squirrel marks, the smaller folk had left no signs on the surfacebut were no doubt active below.

A day or two later, it was still very cold. A group of friends strolled the dike trail, enjoying the bright sunshine as the sun crept over the peaks. A dusting of fluffy snow lay atop a snow crust. Several voles (I think) had made sorties out into the grassy areas, circling back to the trees or to holes under grassy tussocks; we noted at least seven of these trackways, well separated from each other. Looking through the chain-link fence and across a ditch, we saw tracks on a big snow drift that looked like Two-toes—but how could a deer walk up that crusty snow on those thin legs, without punching through, when humans (on our side of the fence) generally ended up post-holing?

Bird song

corvids are songbirds… so why don’t they sing?

One day in early November, after a morning of plonking about on snowshoes for the first time this year, I sat myself on a snowbank and leaned against an old alder tree—time out for a snack. My companion perched at the base of another alder a few feet away. We’d spent the morning looking at animal tracks in a meadow. As soon as we opened our packs to dig out our lunches, we were visited by a raven, who called and attracted another one. But they ignored our (admittedly) small offerings and departed.

Thinking about the raven calls reminded me of some recent reading about the singing behavior of birds and a lingering question. First, some background: ravens, crows, and jays are classified as songbirds on the basis of both morphology and genetics. But their singing behavior differs from that of other songbirds in an interesting way.

Most songbirds sing during the nesting season, sometimes all day long, sometimes mostly in the morning. Males may use one song before dawn and another after sunrise, and there is usually a dawn chorus of many species all vocalizing at once. Morning bird songs are something that lots of folks, not just birders, look forward to in temperate-zone springtime and even sometimes in the tropics.

Bird song has many functions. Males advertise their territory ownership, telling others of that species to stay away. Sometimes, two males face each other aggressively at a territory border and have song duels, each one trying to out-shout the other. Males’ songs also attract females to their territories, the vigor of their songs indicating their state of health and motivation. Female songbirds may sing too—telling other females to stay away from that territory. Or, in some cases, a female might sing to tell her mate to bring her a snack.

The ‘voice box’ of birds is totally different from that of humans, other mammals, and reptiles. We have a cartilaginous larynx at the upper end of the trachea (windpipe). The larynx is thought to have evolved from a valve involved in swallowing (and when we swallow, the larynx moves). We sing or talk by moving air out of the trachea and through the larynx, causing vocal membranes to vibrate; muscles linked to the cartilages control the sound. The closest living relatives of birds are crocodiles and they too use a larynx for vocalization. However, although birds have a larynx, it’s not used for making sounds; they use another structure, called a syrinx. The avian syrinx is located at the lower end of the trachea where it branches into two passage-ways (bronchii) going to the lungs. The syrinx apparently evolved, not from a valve, but from structural supports for the branching airway, and very different muscles are involved in control of its vibrating membranes.

Because the syrinx is in two parts, at the beginnings of the two bronchii, songbirds can sing two distinct notes at the same time, something a larynx cannot do. This is not the same as Mongolian throat singing, in which singers learn to exploit the harmonics (overtones) of the fundamental note. The two distinct notes sung by a songbird are not harmonically related. Air is moved from the lungs into the trachea, as most song is produced by exhaling; but birds can also produce some song when they inhale. Loudness and pitch are changed by altering air pressure and by changing the tension of the muscles that control the elastic, vibrating membranes of the syrinx.

Jays, crows, and ravens have the avian syrinx, but they don’t use it in the same way as other songbirds. They can make a huge variety of sounds; the loud, raucous ones are most familiar to us. But they are perfectly capable of making musical sounds and do so, quietly, upon occasion. If you listen carefully, you might hear them! But these songbirds have no dawn choruses, no song-battles for territory, no lovely singing to attract mates. That begs the question: Why not?

Spring medley

progress of a favorite season

Spring is officially here: the vernal equinox has gone by and the days are rapidly lengthening. There are much livelier signs of spring as well. Sapsuckers have arrived in force, rat-atat-tating on rain gutters and stove pipes (and trees). Juncos trill at the forest edge and song sparrows are tuning up in the brush above the beaches. Pacific wrens sound off from invisible lookouts in the understory. Best of all, ruby-crowned kinglets can be heard, high in the conifers, calling ‘peter-peter-peter’ or singing their full, cheerful song. That’s when spring is really here, for me.

A walk on a favorite beach on Douglas Island was focused on finding mermaids’ purses—the egg cases of long-nosed skates. Every year, about this time, we find them washed up in the wrack at the high tide line—there must be a nursery just offshore. On this day, we found sixteen eggs cases, mostly black, dry, and in various stages of decrepitude. Just a few were still mostly whole and khaki-colored, and two had natural openings at one end, where perhaps the young skate had exited. All the egg cases had sizable holes punched into them. I would love to know if marine predators had nabbed the developing embryos or if the holes were made by a tardy, would-be predator just hoping that an embryo was still inside.

A good find in the rolled mats of rockweed at the high tide line was the body of a sea star, entirely eviscerated. All the gonads and digestive parts had been cleanly removed, neatly exposing the calcareous skeleton of the water-vascular system that runs from the center of the star out into each arm. In a living sea star, the canals of this hydraulic system are filled with fluid, mostly sea water. Numerous branches of the main canal lead to the tube feet (often visible in a live star, in rows under each arm) that function in locomotion and in opening clams. When the tube feet are extended, their ends stick to the rocks or the clam shell, and muscles in the feet contract, pulling the animal forward or pulling the clam shell open. We sometimes see a sea star humped up over a partly open clam while the star is having dinner.

A stroll on the Boy Scout/Crow Point trail led to the goose-flat covered with hundreds of crows fossicking in the dead, brown vegetation. Lots of searching and probing. Sometimes half a dozen crows would suddenly converge on another one, everybody poking at something. Apparently, successful hunts were not very common and the gang thought that sharing was appropriate.

Lots of Canada geese were scattered in small groups on the flats, in the river, and in the vegetation by the river. There were mostly head-down, intent on foraging—grubbing for roots and such, and of course talking to each other. Occasionally, two of them would take off and wing around in a wide circle before landing back where they started. One of these duos took off upstream—perhaps a mated pair about to look for a nest site in the forest.

As we often do, out there, we encountered a fellow we call the Raven Man, who carried a big bag of dog biscuits to feed the ravens. He does this from time to time, and the local ravens recognize him. As he passes through each raven territory, the residents come to greet him and cadge some biscuits. We watched some of these ravens carry five biscuits at a time, first stacking them up in a neat pile so they could be held in the bill. A dog, with some hikers, came along later and sniffed out places where ravens had cached their loot, covering it with grass or moss—surprising the hikers who were not expecting to see dog biscuits in the moss.

Most folks in Juneau are glad to see the snow disappear, at least at the lower elevations. But I loved the good snows we had in February, and here are a few flash-back memories.

–Weasels had been very active in the Peterson Creek meadows and Amalga meadows. They bounded over the clean snow, ranging widely. Every so often, the trail dove straight down under the snow and re-appeared a few feet beyond or disappeared under the overhanging edge of a frozen slough. I think they were hunting voles, whose tunnels run under the snow; did they dive down in response to the sound or fresh smell of vole or were the dives just exploratory? Another treat in one meadow were well-defined trails of mice, showing a good tail-drag.

–On the west side of Mendenhall Lake, one day I found a set of tracks running way out onto the snowy ice and right back again. It was clearly a member of the weasel family, probably a mink. What was it doing??

–A snowshoe trek up a creek out the road was a bonanza of tracks (and no recent human tracks). In the woods on the way up the hill, there were tracks of deer, mouse, weasel, squirrel, and maybe a marten. Big excitement of some large tracks that were surely those of a wolverine—the toes and the gait gave it away. The most fun was seeing a set of wolf tracks coursing over a frozen pond that sparkled with sun-struck hoarfrost.

Now the fun in the snow is finished for the year, and the fun of spring begins. Juneau folks typically love to note the progress of spring, as the season unfolds. Skunk cabbage emerging, pussy willows appearing, blueberry buds expanding, the gradual arrival of more kinds of birds, ravens carrying sticks for a nest—they all mark the progress of a favorite season.

Spring happens!

blossoms and pollination, wetland foragers, and sparrows in the grass

The end of April and early May brought signs that our reluctant spring was finally happening, at least at low elevations. The bright yellow display of skunk cabbage made a welcome contrast with the somber greens of conifers and the still-leafless deciduous trees. A close look at the spike-like inflorescence showed that the numerous individual flowers were all still in their female phase, with no signs yet of the pollen that eventually appears around each pointed stigma. The small brown beetles that are the chief pollinators had yet to show up; they prefer inflorescences with pollen. Deer had munched off the tops of many inflorescences, leaving just a stub with a few flowers.

We found several fern-leaf goldthread plants with their wispy, narrow-petalled flowers, which are pollinated by small flies. The early blueberries were in bloom, their pinkish-white flowers waiting for bumblebees to visit. On sun-warmed cliffs along the Perseverance trail, the first purple mountain saxifrage plants made a splendid show; they are pollinated by bumblebees and probably some other insects. And there are reports of yellow violets along some trails.

We enjoy those floral offerings, but they are a dramatic contrast with what happens in early spring in the forests of the Midwest. There, the forest floor is liberally decorated by the early flowers of many species, including bloodroot, spring beauty, dutchman’s breeches, dogtooth “violet”, among others, many of which have showy white petals. Most of these species require an insect pollinator for seed production, and that job is often done by various species of native, non-social, solitary bees and by the non-native honeybee. Here in Southeast, I am told that such solitary bees occur, but almost nothing is known about their ecology.

The avian world was promising, too: Hooters on the hillsides. Kinglets in full song, along with wrens, robins, varied thrushes, and juncos. Fox sparrows starting to tune up. Other sparrows and early warblers arriving but not yet very vocal. Chickadees with nest material and – in some places—eggs in their nests. Sapsuckers excavating nest cavities. The first hermit thrushes skulking in the understory. Hummers zipping to and fro. Flights of violet-green and tree swallows swooping after flying insects. It is always such fun to see and hear the forest awakening each spring.

A few weeks ago I wrote about our local moose population, noting that population growth might be slow, given that only a few moose were known to be in this area. Well, now there are fewer still. A bear reportedly killed one in Cowee Meadows, and I found the remains of one, killed by a human hunter, in another place.

A little walk on the beach along the Mendenhall Peninsula yielded lots of ducks: the usual mallards, plus widgeon, greenwing teal, and shovellers. I was surprised to see hundreds of scoters rafted up in the lower reaches of the river; they are usually out in the bay. Shorebirds were migrating through, with pipits foraging among them.

Ravens had been turned over a cluster of mussels and barnacles, exposing an enormous hairy hermit crab with its abdomen tucked (inadequately) into a moonsnail shell. They were actively foraging on barnacles, nipping and hacking at the shells; we also found several regurgitated deposits of broken barnacle shells, where the birds had jettisoned the undigestible bits. A couple of ravens near a torn-up patch of sand drew our attention. With their powerful bills, they had just excavated three holes, about five inches deep, and extracted the clams that had been buried there, cracking open the clam shells to extract the meaty morsels inside. As we stopped to watch, a raven was just finishing off the last clam.

On my home pond, a few pairs of mallards found peace and quiet, with lots of spilled bird seed on the fast-disappearing ice. But by early May, the ice was gone. The duck crowd had grown, sometimes to twelve or fifteen, now squabbling over the spilled seed. Most of the females probably had a clutch of eggs in progress, but males were largely still in prime breeding dress, no doubt in hopes of some delayed mating opportunities.

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Golden-crowned sparrow. Photo by Kerry Howard

A leisurely stroll around the Crow Point/Boy Scout beach area found a flock of golden-crowned sparrows in the woods along the river and a couple of groups of savanna sparrows along the grassy upper edge of the beach. A flock of dunlin (I think) swirled over the sand flats. In the big, broad meadow I call the ‘goose-flats’, several white-fronted geese mingled with the usual gang of Canada geese, all grubbing for tasty greens and roots, while, off to one side and separate, a flock of snow geese also foraging intently. I circled around all of them at a distance, and so disturbed them not at all.

Elderberry and wild currant bushes leafed out ahead of most other deciduous woody plants, but by the end of the first week of May, bits of green were showing also on willows and alders. In the beach meadows, green shoots were popping up everywhere. It’s “green-up” time!

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!

Mid-April

early flowers and musings about ducks

Skunk cabbages stand as tall yellow sentinels (if deer haven’t nipped them off) in the marshy places. They send out their sweet aroma (not at all ‘skunky’!) and provide a cheery splash of color in the mostly gray-and-green forest. Yellow violets gleam along the forest trails, as the forest floor begins to green-up. The white flowers of miners’ lettuce are showing, along with the delicate little flowers of fern-leaf goldthread. And the purple mountain saxifrage is going strong on rocky outcrops even in the shadier sites.

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Fern-leaf goldthread flowers emerging through the snow

Blueberry bushes at low elevations have already dropped many of their little pinkish bells. The deeper pink flowers of salmonberry are borne on canes that are just sending out new leaves. In addition to the early-blooming felt-leaf willow, other kinds of willows are producing their catkins.

In many places, alders have already dropped their male catkins, which have released their pollen for the wind to carry to the waiting female cones. I’ve found lots of catkins lying on the ground under male cottonwood trees too, but for some unknown reason, a substantial number of these have released only some of their pollen. However, the best part (for me) of cottonwood flowering is the light, clear, sweet aroma that fills the air near a stand of these trees. Look on the ground below a tree and find the yellow-brown bud scales and sniff ‘em!

I heard my first fox sparrow of the year in Sheep Creek valley recently, along with the varied thrushes, robins, Pacific wrens, and ruby-crowned kinglets, which have been singing for some time. Just a few days later, there were several singing fox sparrows in the valley. Although hermit thrushes are here, I’ve not yet heard them sing. I have two reports of chickadees cleaning out their nest cavities, and on one creek I have seen a male dipper on guard as his female incubates their clutch of eggs; with such an early start on the first brood, they should be able to rear a second one as well.

Here are some other sightings that were fun:

A pair of ravens harassed an eagle as it sat in the top of a tree, diving at it and yelling. Poor old eagle just hunched its head and took the abuse. Were those cranky ravens defending a nest? It didn’t seem so: after some minutes of continual persecution, both ravens took off and disappeared in the distance.

Out at the end of the Mendenhall Peninsula, under overhanging alders above the beach, I found a number of small piles of chewed-up, very clean barnacle shells. Some consumer had routinely used this place to off-load the shelly ballast after lunching on the prey. Who was the consumer? Maybe a raven or two, or perhaps some otters?

One day we found five pairs of buffleheads on Cashew Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec area. Each pair cruised sedately, male and female side by side, occasionally diving, each pair in a different part of the lake. Suddenly a big kerfuffle broke out—much flapping and splashing and squawking. One male had decided to approach another male’s female, and that was cause for battle. The intruder was chased off, but only temporarily. He was soon back again, and the uproar was repeated, several times. The female who was the object of interest seemed to float quietly at a little distance and let the males duke it out. I think the original status quo was restored, but who could be sure, without banded birds!

Buffleheads are the smallest diving duck in North America. They nest in the Interior, in boreal forest and aspen parklands, near small lakes and ponds, where they feed on aquatic insects. They nest in cavities made by large woodpeckers such as flickers, but readily use nest boxes too. If buffleheads try to use a cavity with an opening that is large, they may be outcompeted and even beaten up by goldeneyes that want the same cavity.

They are reported to pair up mainly in winter but also during northward spring migration. Courtship and sometimes even mating occur en route. Buffleheads often keep the same mate from year to year, according to researchers. The interactions we saw on Cashew Lake suggest that mate fidelity may be challenged at times. There’s more to be learned about all this!

January junkets

the force of ice, and a leisurely beach walk

The Fish Creek trail, going upstream from the Douglas Highway bridge, was –as expected—very icy in spots, with occasional little rivers flowing in it. Biologically, things were pretty quiet. The cool story was the ice along the creek. Impressive ice jams had built up in several places, piled on rocks or backed up behind stacks of logs. The cakes of ice were about eight inches thick, and they ranged is size from great plates ten or twenty feet across down to crumbs (relatively speaking). In some places they were layered on top of each other; in others they were stacked vertically against logs or streamside trees.

The creek flowed well within its customary banks. But it had obviously been more than three feet higher a day or two before our visit. Numerous cakes of ice had been carried into the small floodplain that’s just over the first ridge, as much as fifty feet from the creek banks. Chunks of ice littered the trail itself. It seemed odd that all those traveling ice cakes had not left scar marks on the mossy tree trunks, as the water carried them overland.

As we paused just where the trail starts the real uphill route toward the Eaglecrest road, one belated ice cake came floating by, twirling gracefully around partially submerged boulders. We noticed that, under the flowing water, the bottom of the creek appeared to be encased in another layer of ice. How do small fish and invertebrates survive under there? Even if they can tolerate freezing (as some stoneflies can), is there enough oxygen? How long can they go without feeding?

One mild, gray day, Parks and Rec hikers strolled out the Crow Point and the scout camp. Once past the icefalls and frozen puddles in the forest, the beach walk was easy. The north end of the beach showed distinct lines of shells left by several high tides. In particular, we noticed thousands of small, pink clam shells, many of which still held occupants, apparently.

The small, pink clams are called Macoma baltica. These clams move around the intertidal and subtidal zones, mostly at night. Typically, they live buried in the sands, using their siphons to suck up detritus from the water or from the surface of the sand. Flatfish graze on the siphons, and clams with shorter siphons have to live closer to the surface, in order to feed. Shallowly buried macomas often take in more food and grow faster than deeply buried ones, but at a cost: the shallowly buried ones are more susceptible to predation by birds. Macomas can regenerate their siphons, particularly if their food is abundant. But if there is little food for the clams, they are more likely to crawl on the surface, where the predation risk is high.

Did these windrows of macomas mean that they were torn up from the sands by recent storms and stranded at high tide? Or waves washed them up at night while they were engaged in their nightly movements? Or food was scarce, so they were on the surface more often?

Waves continue to eat into the sandy berms at the upper side of the beach. Great clumps of grass have caved in, exposing long-buried decaying logs in some places. Otters had gamboled up and down the beach, leaving their distinctive footprints. In a zone where black sand lies atop the ordinary sand, we found a set of otter tracks that I think may be the best I’ve ever seen.

Lunchtime, as we leaned back against an eroding sand bank, brought us two entertainments. As usual, a raven came in to scavenge crackers, bread crusts, and even bits of apple and orange. (No cheetos today!) All the while, another raven (?its mate?) called from the trees behind us. The bolder bird cached all its scavengings in different sites at the edge of the forest.

The second amusement was of human origin. One hiker discovered a plastic bottle with an enclosed message, assorted odd objects, and a dollar bill! The message was written by some kids at the camp in 2007, who provided their email addresses in hopes that the finder would notify them. We’ll see if they answer the notification, or if they have just outgrown their earlier game.

Bird stories

nest-builders, scat-shifters, and spring singers

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

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

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American dipper. Photo by Arnie Hanger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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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!

Little stories on the trail

a suspicious raven, a grumpy mother, and a stroll on the alluvial plain

Out on the wetlands in late September, I spotted a raven carrying a fish up into the conifers at the edge of the meadows. After eating part of the fish, the raven picked up the bedraggled remains and flew out to a mossy stump, where it cached its prey in a crevice. Then it hopped up to the top of the stump and looked carefully around in all directions for several minutes. It saw another raven, perched a hundred yards away, and me with my binoculars, and forthwith decided to move its catch far, far away. Sharing was not an option.

In mid October, the coho were getting ready to spawn in Steep Creek. One of the bear-watchers favorite bears, a cinnamon female called Nicky for the nick in her left ear, appeared with her chubby black cub. An expert fisher-bear, she caught a coho almost immediately and retired to the brush on the bank to eat it. Little cub wanted some too, and complained repeatedly, but mama was not about to share; she growled and moved the carcass away from every approach her offspring made. When she finally finished and the two bears wandered on upstream, a watching magpie came down to look for scraps.

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Nicky with a cub. Photo by Jos Bakker

About thirty minute later, upstream near the little waterfall, Nicky caught a second fish and carried it about forty yards away to eat it, calmly avoiding a cluster of people on the trail. Cubbie apparently managed to grab a chunk and eat all of it at some distance from mama. Nicky finished her catch, leaving only the dorsal fin. Then the little family moved on up the hill, leaving some very please bear-watchers behind.

The next day, she came through again, caught at least two coho, and added some northern ground cone to the meal. This time, she shared a little of the fish with the cub.

A little exploratory walk along Eagle River yielded several small mysteries. Invertebrates had left a variety of tracks in the mud. Worms, snails, slugs??—hard to know. But one long, thread-thin track ended at a tiny white spot less than a millimeter wide. My companion whipped out a hand lens to inspect the spot more closely and—oh my—it had a head end and it squirmed! This little maggot had travelled more than a foot, headed for who knows where. We released it to continue its trek.

Bears had been digging in many places, but the digs were several weeks old, so the tops of the dug-up plants had rotted beyond recognition. The remains of some of the dug-up roots had made new green shoots in preparation for next year, but slugs had eaten out many of them, leaving dry, brown bud sheaths behind. We were interested to find that the bear digs had exposed some inch-thick rhizomes (underground stems) that we traced back to lupine plants. This was the first we knew that lupines could spread in this way.

Strawberry plants are not common out there. But one, living dangerously at the edge of the overflow zone, had made an impressive runner, with the starts of about seven new plantlets at intervals. If they all survive the floods, there will be quite a family here.

On the bank of a slough, we noticed a few old bones poking out of the moss and mud. Looking more carefully, we eventually found several vertebrae, some ribs, and three leg bones. But whose?? A little forensic work made it likely that the bones had belonged to a long-dead bear.

Some other cool stuff: A flicker on the edge of a beach flew up into the nearby spruces; this seldom-seen woodpecker was probably on its way south. Some sedges with small, black spheres on the seed-head; they collapsed into dust at a touch and were probably the sporing bodies of a fungus. A Russula mushroom, whose broken, hollow stem revealed three dark, slender millipedes; what were they doing in there?

Every time we go out to find something of interest, we find at least two or three things! What fun.