Equinoctial explorations

days of discovery in the snow

About the time of the spring equinox, we enjoyed a renascence of winter, with single-digit temperatures at night and gloriously sunny days. A strong north wind whipped Lynn Canal into a turbulent froth. There were several inches of fresh, powdery snow all over everything. The wind tore the loose snow from the trees, creating showers of tiny, sun-lit crystals that made me think of falling stars.

I set out, with a friend, to walk the route from the first muskeg on the Boy Scout trail over the saddle to Saga meadow. The plan was to reach the beach and then circle back through the long meadow near Saga. The route first follows the old horse-tram line, but where the tram line dips down into the long, narrow meadow, the trail stays in the upland. We were the first humans to tread this route since the last snowfall. Ducking under, over, or around numerous wind-thrown trees, we had no trouble following the route until we reached a muskeg not far from the shore. We could almost hear the waves crashing on the rocks, but the continuation of the trail was nowhere to be seen. We looked in several likely spots where the trail might re-enter the forest on the way to the beach, but came to a dead end each time. Growling gently, we went back the way we came.

The very next day, I went out there again with two other friends, and this time we started from the Saga end. Up the CBJ trail to the little cove, over the tiny stream, make a sharp right, and keep going until the trail enters the first muskeg. Lo and behold, there was our trail from yesterday, right where I’d hoped to intersect it. The point where the trail crossed from the muskeg into the forest was very brushy, so it was little wonder that I’d missed it the previous day. It was good to get the route reconnected in my mental map.

The snow was perfect for recording mammal tracks, and we found an almost-full roster of those we could expect to find. Here, an otter had slithered over the ridge and down into the big meadow and there, it had come back, through a culvert under the CBJ trail, and over the ridge to the rocky shore. A porcupine had ambled along, and a deer or two had trotted hither and yon. Near the shore, mink had left several trackways, which often ended in a hole under a log or stump. Red squirrels had been busy, sometimes leaving little highways of repeated use. A tiny shrew had tunneled and scrambled, leaving dime-sized holes of entry and exit. A coyote had run purposefully across an opening in the forest. We were especially pleased to find the trackway of a mouse that had used its tail for balance, flipping it from one side to the other, as it lurched through the snow. But no evidence of snowshoe hares.

mouse-tracks-KMH
Photo by Katherine Hocker

A few dead leaves hanging off blueberry twigs drew our attention. There seemed to be very small galls at the bases of the leaf stems, where the leaf was connected to the twig. The galls somehow may have prevented the normal process of cutting off the circulation from twig to leaf, so the leaves didn’t drop off in the usual fashion. A quick internet search determined that several things can cause galls on blueberries but nothing resembled what we observed. One more thing to learn about!

Under a rotting stump we found a miniature ice-cavern, complete with stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, and icy sheets over the old roots on one side (like flowstone in a real cavern). There was just enough sunshine coming through the tree canopy that the little cavern was lit up, glittering and gleaming. Even deep in this cavern, the ice seemed to glow with blues and purples.

To top it all off, we saw our first red-breasted sapsuckers of the season. They’re back!—so spring can now begin. Ravens already knew this, of course: they’ve been lining nests with fine grasses, ready to make a bed for eggs and chicks.

An extended day…

expected and unexpected discoveries

When the day began, we only intended to stroll to Outer Point on Douglas in search of the spotted coralroot orchid. Rubber boots were needed for crossing Peterson Creek, but by the end of the day, I was wishing I had a change of footgear. Searching through the understory for some time, we finally noted some small spikes sticking up out of a old rotten log–a limited success, because they were not yet blooming. We’ll have to wait a week or two to get a good picture of the pinkish flowers.

Because the tide was low, we then ambled out along the long storm berm to Shaman Island. Dodging the war games of some rambunctious kids, I learned where to look or some super-sized barnacles down near the low tide line. I’d like to know more about these—are they a different species from the usually types that cluster all over the stones and mussel shells, or are they just unusually happy? (In Chile, where I spent many months in the austral springs, the giant barnacles are considered to be a delicacy!)

rbsapsucker-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

By now, it was well past noon and both of us felt hungry and a little frail. But we decided to go up the Eaglecrest road to check on a willow tree that has been much used by sapsuckers, which drill sap wells in the bark and lap up the sap and any stuck insects. We found the tree, and a sapsucker arrived while we watched, so all the recent construction at this spot hadn’t destroyed the bird’s favorite lunch stop.

Best of all, a group of Plein Rain artists were gathered nearby, enjoying a chilly workshop with a visiting artist—and they had food! By managing to appear really wan and wobbly, we persuaded these very kind folks to feed us too! Many thanks to these good Samaritans! And the art work spread out along the walkway was very nice too—Juneau talent at work!

Reinforced by serendipitous sustenance, we decided to check out a bird nest down along Fish Creek. A short walk by the stream and a brief sit-down on the bank let us get a good look at the nest. At this point the sit-down was welcome, because my feet do not like walking or standing around in rubber boots.

Returning to the car over the new footbridge over Fish Creek, we hailed two other friends, also out for a walk. They had recently seen a female common merganser with eight chicks on one of the nearby ponds, and some of the little ones were riding on mama’s back. We inspected a beaver lodge and some recent beaver cuttings, and enjoyed a long chat.

Thus the day turned out to be much longer and far more social than initially planned. But that is not a complaint (even though my feet said otherwise…)!

 

The next day, three friends hitch-hiked a ride out to Portland Island. The crabapple trees were blooming, although they looked decidedly weather-beaten. The oystercatchers and Arctic terns had eggs and were incubating. Their nests in the sands of the upper beach are nothing more than a saucer-shaped depression, very difficult to spot and easy to crush accidentally, so it is not a good place to walk. One oystercatcher was implanted with a tracking device a few years ago, in order to learn a bit about migration patterns, but she is back again, nesting in almost the same location as in previous years, and incubating three eggs. For some reason, the wire antenna extended from her backside does not seem to interfere with mating or anything else. We got too close to her nest, and she put on a great broken-wing act, with much shrieking in protest. We left in a hurry!

The density of song sparrows was notably high. Some were feeding fledglings, which shrilled their begging calls from deep in the dense vegetation, and others were still feeding nestlings. Because they were still singing frequently, I suspect that they intended to start second broods.

A gang of gulls loafed around on a sandbar. They seemed very nervous, lifting off en masse every few minutes. Some of these flights were probably in fear of an eagle flying by, even if the eagle was far away and seemingly intent on something in the distance. Perhaps the gulls know from experience that eagles can look deceptively innocent but quickly become malevolent.