Autumn Begins

bears digging, some unusual flowers, and a lovely purple mushroom

On yet another gray, wet day, some friends went up the Eaglecrest Road in early September, frequently stepping off the road to make way for big equipment. Some headed for the Nest, while I and some others searched for the rare white-petalled variety of dwarf fireweed (a.k.a. river beauty). Sadly, it was done flowering—as was almost everything else. There were a few laggard monkshoods, yellow rattle-box, and groundsels, and I saw some delayed salmonberries just ripening. Deer cabbage leaves shone with yellows and golds. It was really autumn at Eaglecrest.

White fireweed. Photo by Kerry Howard

I was interested to hear reports of a Clark’s nutcracker in the area, and there were several bird-watchers on the road, hoping to spot it for themselves. This bird is normally found in montane conifer forests from central BC southward, but I’m told it occasionally ranges north to the southern Yukon and is very rarely seen in our coastal conifers.

Marsh felwort. Photo by David Bergeson

Looking back to our so-called summer: a trip to Crow Point and the Boy Scout beach in mid-August found the little gentian called marsh felwort in its usual place near the trail on flat, gravelly soils. Five pointed petals make bluish or lavender stars that usually appear in August. This little annual plant occurs widely in the northern hemisphere. In the spruce groves there were fairy rings of white mushrooms and a clump of giant purple mushrooms known as purple (or violet) corts. Corts belong to a multi-species complex in the genus Cortinarius and form mycorrhizal associations with the roots of spruces and other trees. Also, around one big spruce tree, I saw a palatial squirrel midden with numerous entrances, one of the most impressive middens I’ve even seen. A lot of spruce cones were demolished to make a pile that size.

Photo by Jennifer Shapland

Both brown and black bears frequent these meadows, and I recently saw tracks of both species. We often see bear diggings here. Usually the bears have been digging roots of Angelica lucida (‘seawatch’), occasionally also eating the lower stems and leaf stalks. But this time, there was one area where bears had concentrated on digging up beach lovage; dozens of holes were marked by the discarded reddish leaf stalks. When the roots of these perennial plants are eaten, presumably the population of those species is reduced, thus reducing their future availability as bear food—unless the plants set enough seed before the roots were eaten, and the seeds germinate well, to establish a new generation of those species in the area. Also, a few side shoots and root fragments survived the digs and can regenerate full plants, but would this be enough to replace those eaten?

Another August hike took us—squelching all the way—to Cropley Lake in hopes of finding a blue gentian in flower and the yellow fireweed. Success! Also known as yellow willowherb, it usually grows along damp creek-sides and in montane meadows. It looks very different from the common pink-flowered fireweed, which is now classified in a different genus altogether. We also enjoyed some stands of the deep, rich purple monkshood flowers. There were hundreds of fringed grass of Parnassus flowers; in a previous essay, I related the history of how it may have got its name.

Yellow fireweed. Photo by Anne Sutton

At the very end of August, I went with a friend to the first meadow on the Spaulding trail. All across this meadow, we found many small diggings in the moss, leaving no evidence of who made them or what might have been taken. We found the seed heads of the strange little wetland plant called Scheuchzeria (sometimes called pod-grass). Widespread in the northern hemisphere, it has is currently classified in its own taxonomic family, and I have found very little information about its ecology and behavior.

A brief stop on a log for a snack provided a lucky sight of two chickadees: After conversing with each other in a nearby pine (no doubt about the odd lumps on the log), one by one they came down to a fruiting skunk cabbage. On each visit, the bird plucked one seed off the club-shaped infructescence, leaving a little empty pit, and flew off, but quickly returned. Jays and other critters sample these seeds too, sometimes leaving big bare patches, but it was good to see these little guys in action.

Recent sightings

…a collection of small discoveries from recent walks.

Along the road to the Eagle’s Nest and Pittman Ridge, there was a small stand of fireweed that stood out from the rest. The petals were white, while the narrow sepals showing between the petals were the usual vivid pink. A very showy display.

White-petal-fireweed-2-Kerry
Photo by Kerry Howard

At Point Louisa, on a moderately low tide, the rocky shores and pools held the usual assortment of sea stars, chitons, anemones, and urchins. I was entertained by a couple of urchins: in one pool, the urchin sat in a clam-shell bowl that was a perfect fit. And in the next pool, another urchin wore a sizable clam shell as a hat, which covered the urchin completely, to the very tips of its spines—another perfect fit. Urchins often bear stones or bits of shell on their spines, possibly for camouflage or, in some places, perhaps protection from UV light.

A stroll on Eagle Beach brought a surprise—two woolly-bear caterpillars (Lophocampa maculata). One marched steadily along the sand, struggling a bit over small divots of loose sand, but persevering. The other one trudged rapidly up toward the rye grass, made a ninety-degree turn and scurried along for several yards, and then made another right-angle turn back down toward the damp sand near the water’s edge. Both explorers visited milkwort and goose-tongue plants but did not seem to eat anything. According to various sources, these caterpillars customarily eat the leaves of poplar, willow, and alder, so it was a puzzle just why they were down on the beach. If they were looking for a place to pupate, this wasn’t it!

Along a short stretch of the Treadwell Ditch trail we found a series of piles of red bunchberries. Each berry had been opened, and the single fat seed extracted. Surely the work of a rodent—a squirrel or maybe a mouse. In contrast to that pattern of consumption, on Gold Ridge we found some patches of bunchberry in which the berries had been systematically pecked open, removing bits of fruit pulp but leaving the seeds intact. Birds, no doubt, but which? There are very few reports in the natural history literature of birds eating bunchberries.

Skunk cabbage fruiting stalks are starting to fall over and ‘melt’ into puddles of ooze containing lots of seeds. When I first arrived in Juneau, many years ago, I found some of these things that had just fallen over and started to take up water (before the oozy stage). At that earlier stage, each seed was surrounded by a jelly coat, and I (being new in the area and quite ignorant of local matters) took the aggregations of jelly-coated seeds to be frog eggs. But what were those ‘eggs’ doing in the middle of the forest??? Ah well, I learned! On a recent walk, I found the remnants of a skunk cabbage fruiting stalk, with the central pith intact, indentations showing where the seeds had been, and no seeds on the ground. The pithy center had been plucked clean by a seed-predator, such as a squirrel, or a jay, or a flock of chickadees, or…who knows?

Gold Ridge provided several additional observations of interest: A tangle of brush suddenly shook vigorously, drawing our attention. In the middle of the tangle, a red squirrel harvested a cluster of the devil’s club berries and made off with it. We often see devil’s club seeds dispersed by bear scats, but this was the first time (that I can recall) I’d seen a squirrel presumably intent on having the seeds for lunch. Farther up the trail, we surprised a well-grown ptarmigan chick, and stopped to watch. The chick was apparently not too sure what to do: it ran up the trail a little way, came back, turned around and ran up several yards, came back, and finally took off up the trail and into the brush. I was charmed by the fluttering of the white feather over its legs—like lacey pantalettes.

Time out for tea and crumpets at a rocky viewpoint, with marmots whistling on all sides (a couple of illegally off-leash dogs had just gone up the trail). Time, then, to examine our immediate surroundings more closely. Here’s a patch of trailing raspberry, in the subalpine zone, not its usual forest habitat. The pretty little rosettes of pussytoes leaves; the tiny, now-empty, artistic seed capsules of white mountain heather; a lonely purple flower of the miniscule moss gentian. The odd growth pattern of the alpine harebell, with the single flower borne on a stem that seems to emerge from underneath a low rosette of leaves.

A nearby stand of copperbush was covered with immature fruits of a curious shape, rather like small green pumpkins with curved handles on top. I was reminded of the stones used for the game of curling. A few laggard copperbush flowers attracted some bumblebees, who did not linger long.

Hmmm….pumpkins and curling stones, pantalettes, and who knows what else might we find!?

Gambling on Berners Bay

playing the annual wildlife lottery

Going to Berners Bay in spring is always a bit of a lottery—you never know what you might see there. Maybe nothing much, except some scenery. But if you hit it just right, things can get pretty interesting.

When the eulachon (a.k.a. hooligan) are in the bay, staging for their spawning migration up the rivers, there might be dozens upon dozens of sea lions, foraging cooperatively and rafting up to rest from their exertions. Harbor seals would be there too, in quantity, and humpback whales would be likely to cruise through. Orcas may arrive, in search of unwary sea lions or seals.

Once the hooligan are in the rivers, the action in the bay dies down. Tens of thousands of gulls and ten hundred eagles gather to gorge on these oil-rich, slow-swimming fish, which run a fearsome gauntlet of predators in the lower reaches of the rivers.

Springtime also brings shoals of herring, which often spawn in the bay. That draws lots of eagles, which line the shore and swoop down to snag a distracted spawner. Gulls feast on the eggs that coat the rockweed in the intertidal zone, and humpback whales come to fill their maws with fish.

One year, our annual kayak junket to Berners Bay happened when both hooligan and herring were bringing in hordes of predators, and the bay was a crazy place. We hardly knew where to cast our watchful gaze!

This year, 2011, was different again. The eulachon were up the rivers, attracting clouds of gulls, and only a few sea lions and seals remained in the bay. The herring had spawned recently, and their eggs glistened on the rockweed when the tide went out. The gulls were all busy with the hooligan in the rivers and ignored the herring eggs, and the mobs of eagles were notably absent.

Instead, we saw acres and acres of surf scoters—there must have been ten or twenty thousand of them. What a racket! They spent a lot of time apparently loafing and talking. Every so often, a group of them would head to the shore and nibble on herring eggs, sometimes pulling off chunks of seaweed too. I suspect they were also diving for mussels. Or they would suddenly all dash across the water with great splashing, for no apparent reason. When thousands of ducks do this all at once, it creates quite a ruckus.

Bonaparte’s gulls were diving after pink salmon fry that thronged the shallows and maybe also juvenile herring in the deeper water. Barrow’s goldeneyes in small squadrons swam along the rocky shore, gobbling up herring eggs. A kingfisher dove repeatedly and seemed to catch a salmon fry on almost every try. Three solitary black bears foraged on separate beaches.

A little walk in the woods produced three very dead and dried herring, perhaps dropped by some inept or unlucky eagle or gull. Another possibility, however, is that ravens had grabbed a fish as it tried to spawn in shallow water, or had stolen it from another bird, and stashed it in the trees. Years ago, when I was studying predators at the eulachon run, we noticed ‘rains’ of dead eulachon falling from the trees when the wind blew; they’d been stored up there by a gang of scavenging ravens.

Another stroll in the woods found us in a soggy little opening where lots of skunk cabbage grew. But instead of a cheery array of bright yellow, there were only stubs barely showing above the muck. Something had messily chawed them all off, right down to the mud line. The culprit left evidence of its passing: huge cloven hoof prints and occasional clusters of digested pellets about the size of the end of my thumb. Moose were introduced to the Berners Bay area some decades ago and they have found a nice smorgasbord there—we also noted well-browsed alder shrubs along the upper beach.

So, although we missed the show at the hooligan staging in the bay and the show at the spawning herring, we found plenty to see!

Spring has sprung

spring’s many offerings to the senses

Mid-May, and spring things are burgeoning. Deciduous trees leafed out, producing a palette of lively green hues against the somber greens of conifers. Bears and porcupines eat cottonwood flowers, and a mama bear parks her three tiny cubs up in a cottonwood while she forages not far away. Most of the mountain goats around the glacier have moved uphill, but one lingers above Nugget Falls. And a new kid was recently born near there.

Fern-leaf goldthread shows its delicate spidery flowers in forest understory. This plant can change the gender of its flowers from year to year: if it is hermaphroditic (both male and female) in one year and produces fruits, then the next year it is likely to be male only or not flower at all.

fern-leaf-goldthread-in-bloom
Fern-leaf goldthread blossoms. Photo by Mary Willson

A trip into Sheep Creek valley gave us early blue violets, yellow stream violets, and miner’s lettuce. In the valley and on rocky coastal headlands, the villous (woolly) potentilla opened its yellow flowers. The buds of this species are sometimes red, and we wondered why! Near the glacier, the lovely little flower with the silly common name of Sitka mist-maiden and the resounding scientific name of Romanzoffia sitkensis adorns some of the cliffs.

The sweet aroma of skunk cabbage fills the air near large stands of this plant (nothing skunky about it!). Little brown beetles throng to the inflorescences when the flowers are in male phase (with pollen) and can be seen crawling around with their bodies dusted with yellow pollen. In bad weather or maybe just when the temperatures are a bit low, gangs of beetles huddle down in the folds of the yellow ‘hood’ of the flower. The beetles seem to mate on the inflorescence and can often be seen there in pairs. Some will eventually fly to find a skunk cabbage that’s in female phase, carrying pollen and fertilizing the future seeds.

On one of the local trails, we thoroughly enjoyed a close-range look at a male ‘hooter’ or sooty grouse performing his full-blown advertisement for females. Throat pouches puffed out with each hoot, tail fanned like a strutting tom-turkey, feathers fluffed—he was an impressive sight. And he could not have cared less that we were closely observing it all.

I’ve recently seen robins carrying grassy nest lining, hermit thrushes carrying beakfuls of moss, and hawks migrating above Gold Ridge. Fox sparrows are singing. Mallards and juncos are already on eggs. Chickadees now have nestlings to feed. But late arrivals, such as Swainson’s thrushes, are not here yet.

Remember that long stretch of hot sunshine we had earlier this month? Everything was dry and dusty. Then came a small rain shower, just enough to dampen the leaves and rocks—and elicit that special, refreshing aroma that only occurs after a rain that follows a dry spell. From a hiking companion I learned that there is actually a word for this! It’s called ‘petrichor’, a word invented in the 1960s by some Australian scientists who were studying these smells. The ‘petr’ part refers to rock and the ‘ichor’ part comes from Greek mythology: the Greek gods were said to have a golden fluid (ichor) in their veins instead of blood; it was supposedly toxic to mere mortals (I wonder how that was discovered!). The scientists discovered the principal sources of the lovely aroma. Some comes from metabolic by-products of certain soil bacteria, and some comes from volatile plant oils that are produced in the dry time and absorbed by clay and rocks. Rain releases all these chemicals into the air.

I hang around rather often up near the glacier, watching porcupines, or ducks, or whatever is there to be noticed. One day a friend said: your nose is all yellow! Well, I’d been sniffing male willow catkins, to enjoy their faint, sweet smell, and got pollen all over my nose (no, I did not then visit female catkins and try to deposit pollen…).

The progress of spring offers much for all the senses. Try it!

April is the cruelest month

the poet was right

The poet had it right! Although April has often been a benign month here, with lots of sun and rapid warming, this year’s April has (so far) offered us lots of rain and temperatures parked in the forties. Not living up to expectations! Nevertheless, Mother Nature has not forgotten Spring, and things are happening.

The yellow hoods of skunk cabbage are now conspicuous in many damp places, with both male-phase and female-phase flowers available. A little experiment in Washington indicated that the sweet fragrance of the flowering display initially stimulates insect pollinators to search for the flowers, where pollen on male-phase flowers is the chief reward. A more local experiment found that the searching insects land preferentially on displays with the bright yellow hood, rather than those that are still green. The little brown beetles that are the principal pollinators are still scarce (in mid April). But eventually they will appear and come first to male-phase flowers, to feed on pollen and use the inflorescence as a mating rendezvous, and then carrying pollen to female-phase flowers. I have observed that, at any one time, there are usually many more beetles on male-phase than female-phase inflorescences, but on some occasions, there are crowds of beetles on the females too. That pattern suggests that perhaps the females are only fully attractive at certain times, possibly drawing in the beetles by air-borne chemical signals.

rufous-hummingbird-by-bob-armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong

The rufous hummers arrived a few weeks ago, one of the earliest arrivals on record. There are rumors that Anna’s hummers, usually just vagrant visitors later in summer, may have overwintered here. If they start to nest here commonly, it will be interesting to see if there is evidence of competition between the two species.

Ruby-crowned kinglets are now cheering human listeners with their rollicking song, even in the rain. I watched a female white-winged crossbill poking about on the ground, selectively choosing certain wisps of grass for a nest lining. In mid April, I heard my first fox sparrow, singing from an alder thicket.

Salmonberry canes with new pink flowers decorated a south-facing upper beach at Auke Rec, and my favorite yellow streamside violets shone against the still-drab forest floor.

Several observations in the Eagle River/Eagle Beach area piqued the interest of a couple of curious naturalists:

–Crows foraged on a mudflat at low tide, finding very small items and gobbling them down. Later, we saw crows exploring the wrack left by a very high tide, extracting mussels and maybe amphipods, and trying vainly to crack the mussels by flying up and dropping them on the too-soft sand.

–An immature herring gull was foraging at the edge of a sand flat, rapidly paddling its feet up and down on the wet sand. This technique was successful in stirring up small organisms, and the gull nabbed one after another. At what age do they learn this mode of foraging?

–There was goose scat that contained seeds of (I think) Canada mayflower, reminding me that geese up on the tundra (and, as I saw, in Tierra del Fuego) commonly eat fruit and disperse the seeds. Geese are generally known as grazers, so this is an added ecological role, shared with bears, thrushes, and some other songbirds.

–A burrow under some tree roots in the sediment bank at the edge of the river had been occupied for some time by a porcupine, which deposited some long white hairs and the usual oval winter pellets (reflecting a diet of bark and needles), as well as more recent, small, dark, round spring pellets (reflecting a shift to soft, fresh, green vegetation). It seems unlikely that the porcupine made this burrow, but it provided a very nice retreat.

–Deer of all sizes had danced on the river sandbars exposed by low-water conditions. We wondered why they spent so much time in that habitat, which offers nothing to eat.

–A little promontory in the river was liberally strewn with the marks of ownership by an otter. There were dozens of small piles of debris, each one topped by a dark, slimy mass. We failed to find a den in this area, although the nearby forest held a number of old, now-unoccupied burrow systems under tree roots.

–As we basked at the river’s edge in some momentary rays, we saw lots of small insects fluttering about. A few landed where we could inspect them, and so we could see that they were stoneflies. Some of them regularly dipped down to touch the water surface, no doubt laying eggs. We wondered how they choose the sites for placing their eggs—what are the cues that indicate a potentially good place?

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.