Wanderings in early November

a lucky porcupine, a seed pod investigation, earthworks, and some notes from the field

Before I even left the house, I saw that a porcupine had trundled over the ice on my pond. Back and forth couple of times, and then—oops!—the ice near shore apparently gave way. Lots of scrabbling marks around the edges of the collapsed ice indicated that the critter had saved itself and wandered on.

A little expedition to collect seed pods for a class project showed that seed pods of wild iris and chocolate lily were abundant and full of seeds. Pollination had been very successful, no doubt thanks mostly to the fine summer just past.

We collected a few blue-gray seed capsules of starflower, in order to make a closer inspection. A look at the exterior of each capsule revealed a very pretty pattern of roughly hexagonal shapes, each one enclosing a finely reticulated surface. Each capsule is about the shape and size of a BB, so dissection required a steady hand and good light. When we (that’s the editorial ‘we’; my friend did the work) opened the capsules, we could see that the seeds lining the capsule bore the reticulations that showed through to the exterior, and the center of the capsule was composed of a jelly-like material. We were left with questions, of course, about how the capsule normally opens and how the seeds are dispersed.

Several hiking friends noticed that shrubs such as willow, blueberry, and salmonberry bore leaf buds. Of course they do, in preparation for spring. But the surprising –and possibly worrisome—thing was that some of the buds had become fairly large and plump, as if they might open prematurely. A few nice, warm days (and we did have some) in late fall might send a mistimed signal to the plants. We can hope that these buds didn’t develop so far that the ensuing low temperatures would wreck them.

Shallow digs by bears had left big clumps of uneaten chocolate lily root nodules on the surface of the ground in the meadows. As always, we had to wonder why bears seem to leave these edible parts behind. A bear, or something else of good size, had dug deep between the roots of a big spruce tree. This exposed part of a red squirrel’s cache of cones. But what other animal would want the squirrel’s cones? Or could the digger have been after the squirrel itself (probably in vain)?

Other sightings:

–Somewhere out the road, we found a carnivore (coyote?) scat full of soft, silky fur, perhaps of a hare.

–Relatively recent tracks of a small bear pressed into the mud on the west side of Mendenhall Lake. This was rather late in the season, but one was seen about that time near the Back Loop. Other tracks had been left by an eagle, a heron, and a magpie.

— The grasses on the wetlands on the west side of the Mendenhall River hid numerous vole tunnels punctuated by special latrine chambers. These little animals seem to be very tidy.

— Out on the wetlands, we also saw a young northern shrike and a rusty blackbird, both uncommon around here, but seen occasionally in winter. The shrike was perched, in typical fashion, on the tip-top of a small alder, possibly hoping to spot a careless vole.

–Going up the snowy Dan Moller trail, with the snow still falling, I noted a cranefly resting in mid-trail, and moved it aside. There were many tiny insects (probably stoneflies) crawling about and making short flights, presumably in search of mates. An interesting time of year for that activity.

Solstice in the sun

spotlighting a wild flower show

It had rained, just a little, during the night, so the wet grass soaked our britches as we waded through it. But for once, these Juneau-ites didn’t whine about the wet—it felt really good! The outdoor temperatures the day before had reached into the seventies and the little cabin in Cowee Meadows was a heat collector. There was no cross-ventilation in the cabin unless we admitted hordes of hungry mosquitoes through the unscreened windows—a choice we were unwilling to accept. For real Juneau folks, this was a heat wave! The Down-Southers may laugh, but it was enough to make us a bit wilted.

So we waded happily through the wet grass, in search of nothing in particular and anything in general, and we found lots of things of interest. We brought to bear a diversity of eyes and mind’s eyes, which made our explorations very productive and more fun; one person could never have seen quite so many things. Here is a sampling:

We stood surrounded by acres of purple and blue iris and lupine, with patches of yellow buttercups. A few tall white cow parsnips and tufts of lady fern added contrast and texture. But if we looked more closely, there were dozens of other flowering species in bloom: roses on the raised berms, shooting stars fading, yellow pond lilies, silverweed, and on and on; the list grew very long. Out along the beach were arrowgrass, beach greens, milkwort, and goosetongue. In fact, when we tallied up all the kinds of flowers we saw (excluding grasses and sedges) from the trailhead out to the rocky beach, we had found a grand total of seventy five species of flowers. That’s pretty remarkable, and it indicates just how very rich this area is.

Wild iris. Photo by Katherine Hocker

Irises came in many shades, ranging from pale blue through royal purple to a gorgeous reddish purple. Beach peas also varied, some with more white, or a deeper pink, or more purple. A big surprise was chocolate lilies that weren’t the usual brownish color (or brown with a few yellow speckles) but rather were entirely yellow (or yellow with a few brown spots). I have to wonder if the color variations affect the behavior of the pollinating insects.

Some species were going to seed, and their ripe fruits or seed pods were diverse in structure and function. Shooting star capsules looked like little red and green easter eggs, sitting in cups. When the capsule dries and splits open, the tiny seeds will be dispersed by the wind. Lupines had been quite well pollinated, but their seed pods were not yet ready to pop open explosively, sending seeds in all directions. Marsh marigold seed heads were like crowns of attractive spikes, each with a little hook, as is common in the buttercup family. Apparently the hook does not contribute to seed dispersal; the seed drops out of the enclosing tissue and floats on the water. We decided that a field guide to fruits and seeds and means of seed dispersal for local plants would be both useful and fun.

Sweetgale shrubs are usually either male or female, although occasionally they are both. Next year’s ‘cones’ were already formed and very small. We noticed that twiglets bearing last year’s female cones were invariably dead, so there seems to be a cost to producing seeds.

The hot weather meant that the insect pollinators were busily visiting flowers. Bumblebees foraged on iris and lupine and beach pea, and their behavior would be worth some detailed attention. The broad, white inflorescences of cow parsnip were covered with foraging flies. Many insects scrobbled over the pollen-rich rose flowers.

It’s the flowers that make these meadows so rich and spectacular, but vertebrate life is also abundant. It was so hot (and rather late into the season for some species) that bird song was at a low level, but I heard a northern yellowthroat singing in the big marsh and warbling vireos in the forest edge. Three kinds of sparrow sang, each in its own habitat.

We visited the colony of beach marmots, who were all down in the cool earth for the day. From the beach berm, we watched a sea otter diving and feeding. A mama seal was accompanied by a small, dark, young one. Whales spouted in the distance, out in Lynn Canal.

Of bears, we saw none. But there was plenty of sign of their presence. Bear-sized trails ran through the thick meadow vegetation. Bear scat decorated the human trails. And one morning we found numerous fresh digs along the upper beach: turned-up moss and soil that hadn’t been there the previous afternoon. Most of the digs were at the bases of rocks, and all seemed to be focused on the roots of species in the carrot family (possibly sea coast angelica and hemlock parsley).