a stranded coho, foraging dippers and a gang of orcas

There’s little I like better than rambling around the woods, meadows, and beaches, just seeing what’s to be seen. Sharing these little explorations with a like-minded friend is the best, but solo jaunts are good too. There is always something of some interest. Although November is one of the hardest times of year for curiosity-driven rambling, here are a few observations.

We walked the west-side beach of Mendenhall Lake toward the glacier, planning to return on the West Glacier Trail. The water level is low in the lake in winter, so the beach is broad and offers easy strolling. A few bits of interstadial wood poke up out of the silt and sand, probably washed down from the area next to the glacier terminus where the stumps of this old forest still stand. Windrows of dead alder leaves lie a remarkable ten to fifteen feet into the brush above the upper limit of the beach, suggesting that there must have been a tumultuous day on the water not very long ago.

Four ravens were focused intently on something in one of the shallow streams that course over the beach to the lake. As we approached, the ravens backed away, revealing a female coho lying on her side in about an inch of water. She appeared to be a relatively recent arrival, with no fungal patches at all. But she was missing the eye on the upper side and her gills on that side had been torn up—we thought she was dead. But not quite—she could still move a bit, although her eggs were beginning leak out. Her minutes were clearly numbered, but we gently moved her into deeper water so those last minutes might be slightly more comfortable. Of course, the ravens came back as soon as we moved on and finished their meals. The big question for us was how she got into this sorry situation. There were no wounds indicating that a bear or eagle had tried to grab her but abandoned her there. Was she just a late arrival, trying to get up this little creek to spawn and finding the water too shallow?

There were a few bear tracks on the beach, not very recent ones. However, the bruins (probably) were still around, because a few days later I found two fresh-looking lower jaws of coho lying in the middle of the trail (and they had not been there on our earlier walk). Of course in the water there was no sign of the poor, mauled female we’d seen earlier.

An informal trail cuts up from the end of the beach to the West Glacier Trail and crosses a tiny stream. There we spotted a pair of very shy coho consorting, and we quickly departed, leaving them in peace.

On the way back on the main trail, we accidently spooked three ravens on a very small creek on the hillside. They were squabbling over something, which on closer inspection turned out to be the picked-over remains of another coho.

Other members of the feathered tribe included a flock of juncos in the beach-fringe alders (and they were still there a few days later), maybe collecting alder seeds, and a kingfisher who was annoyed by our passing near its hunting perch. At the little pond partway up the side of the rock peninsula, a dipper foraged along the edge, diving and swimming, for several minutes before departing downstream.

On another day, well up the Perseverance Trail, a dipper was foraging in fast water, dodging in and out among boulders. It then spent several minutes on a single large, flat rock with shallow water sheeting over it. The bird worked over the surface of that rock assiduously, picking up numerous miniscule prey items—so tiny that they could apparently be swallowed immediately, without mandibulation. Possibly blackfly larvae??

On yet another day, after enjoying some swans floating about on the far side of Windfall Lake, we had some fun with a make-believe critter on the trail. We couldn’t put a name to it, so we just called it Mossy. A Rip Van Winkle sort of critter, sleeping for a long time? An escapee from the Ark? An antediluvian creature revisiting the earth? As I said, November can be a rather slow time for little explorations, so imaginations went a tad wild.

The real excitement was in Auke Bay (and I wasn’t there): a friend recorded a gang of orcas attacking a couple of sea lions—circling, circling, head butting, body slamming from above and side, flipping out of the water, tail bashing. Then quiet, cruising back and forth, presumably grabbing the pieces, and the gulls came to get the scraps. Maybe I should be spending more time near the big water!

Today, my verbal rambling may match the real rambling!


Roadside natural history

buzzing bumblebees and rototilling ravens

Cruise around Juneau on most any day, and chances are good that you’ll see something interesting or beautiful or both—things you can enjoy without driving into the ditch!). For instance, as pleasant relief from our customary shades of green and gray, there are the blue lupines and forget-me-nots and the creamy elderberry flowers.

At the end of May this year (a late, late spring), the shooting stars were finally coming into gorgeous bloom in the meadows between Freddie’s and the Lemon Creek junction. Look for swathes of pink flowers amid all the burgeoning greenery. And perhaps consider that these flowers, with their reflexed petals and all the reproductive parts hanging out in front, are pollinated by bumblebees. The bees land on the flower and buzz, so the pollen is shaken out onto the bees. Although the bees take some of the pollen home to feed their offspring, some of the pollen is transferred to the next shooting stars that the bees visit, and those flowers can then set seed.

You might see a gang of ravens rototilling a patch of mown grass. They dig up the old grass and the soil surface, leaving tufts of dry grass all around. There must be some kind of grub or worm that attracts all this attention. I’ve seen similar activity in other places, sometimes by crows. Robins too will rototill patches of moss. I’d love to know what they’re searching for!

Photo by David Bergeson

We often see deer and porcupines grazing along our roads, and sometimes flocks of siskins or crossbills come down to get grit or salt. But it’s bears that generate the most excitement from folks that are passing by. We can see roadside bears in several places, but possibly the most common area for bear-spotting is the ‘new’ Auke Bay by-pass.

Bears often come to forage on greens, such as dandelions, that grow alongside the roads, and they are fun to watch and photograph. However, there are two unfortunate side effects of this attraction. One is tha numerous cars may line up at the edge of the road, creating what is known as a ‘bear jam.’ This becomes a traffic hazard, with open car doors and people walking around, paying more attention to bears than to traffic.

The second unfortunate side effect is that over-eager photographers often crowd the bears, which can make the animals nervous. A nervous bear is unpredictable and may try to swat or charge a person that comes too close, perhaps leading to human injury. Injury to a human—even when the human brought the injury upon itself—sometimes results in (unfair) lethal action against the bear. Or possibly a nervous and annoyed bear might suddenly bolt across the highway, maybe with cubs in tow, and become a traffic casualty. Obviously, the bottom line is “Give the bears their space!”

Even whales can be seen from some of the highway pullouts (there are not many places in the world where you can do that!). When you see a humpback whale, consider that it feeds on small fish such are herring, which feed on krill and copepods (small invertebrates, which eat plankton)—and the phytoplankton (microscopic floating algae) get much of their nutrition from nutrients washed down in the streams from the forest, rocky peaks, and glaciers. In a sense, the rich foraging for whales that come here mostly in summer is provided, partially but ultimately, from the forests, muskegs, and glaciers.

Some roadside places offer good spots for watching ducks and gulls and maybe American dippers, as they forage and loaf around. Sheep Creek delta is one such place, for example, with pullouts right near the bridge.

Camping in the Beardslee Islands

Part 1 of 2

I edged my kayak along the rocky beach and pried myself out (‘T’aint quite as easy as it was a couple of years ago!). An out-going tide meant a long haul up the beach with gear, but soon all the kayaks were safely stowed above the line of beach rye. Presently, a small colony of tents appeared in the meadow, all carefully placed to avoid crushing too many flowers.

The meadow wore a colorful blanket of Indian paintbrush, ranging in hue from deep crimson through all the reds and oranges to a clear yellow. Tiny purple gentians, white-flowered angelicas, and a few lupines added to the décor. Best of all, underneath the taller plants lurked wild strawberries! Some were still in flower, some had little green fruits, and some were just about ripe.

There weren’t as many ripe ones as we might have wished, because some robins and a group of juvenile ravens had discovered the little red (and almost red) treats lying on the moss. The ravens were so intent on harvesting goodies that they ignored us most of the time. The allure of the strawberry fields was very strong for us too, and each of our exploratory walks on this island had to begin with a hands-and-knees crawl to garner whatever the ravens and robins had missed.

The meadow occupied a point on the south end of an island, ideally located to catch breezes from almost any direction, and also give us the opportunity to shift from one side to the other to find the most comfortable amount of breeze. Both sides of the point offered good views of passing humpback whales and sea otters. We were pleased and surprised to see several very large, hefty terns (probably Caspians) fly by.

Our beach gave us ringside seats for watching the young ravens, which provided much entertainment. They fossicked up and down the windrows of torn-up algae and debris on the high tide lines, turning over bits of sea lettuce and nabbing whatever unfortunate invertebrates were exposed. Sometimes they paraded back and forth, holding some prize, as if to tempt a sibling to pursue. And they played ‘stick’ with each other: one juvenile would grab a small stick, approach another and lie down on its side, offering the stick to the other one, as if to say Play with me!

We amused ourselves by looking closely at the paintbrush flowers, which are visited by hummingbirds. The flower is a green tubular structure within the colorful bracts, and a hummingbird has to probe quite deeply to reach the nectar. When it does so, it presses on a stiff lip, which forces the tube to open and expose the sexual parts. Then pollen sticks to the hummers head (probably) until the bird visits the next flower.

Indian paintbrush plants are hemiparasites on various other plants, meaning that, although they have green leaves and can photosynthesize carbohydrates, they also obtain certain chemicals from their host plants. Our red-bracted species is known to parasitize lupines, from which it obtains alkaloid toxins. The alkaloids are stored in the paintbrush leaves and the colorful bracts around the flower itself, where they deter insect herbivores. However, the nectar in the paintbrush flowers does not contain the borrowed toxins, so the pollinating hummingbird would not be affected.

By some miracle, in this summer that so far was characterized by near-record-breaking cool and wet, we were allowed to revel in rainless sixty to seventy degree temperatures for several days. Being all-too-human, we even managed, on one day, to complain that it was too hot! Nice flat water gave us perfect conditions for poking about in bays and inlets, with occasional stops for snacks and terrestrial explorations.