Eagle River beaches

rare tracks, bear diggings, and nifty fungi

The day started well—the sun was shining (!) and the mountain peaks were well frosted with new snow. The first good find was a set of tracks in the sand that were probably made by a wandering wolverine. Certainly not made by an otter and –upon consideration and consultation of field guides—not made by a small black bear: the stride was short and the foot pads did not fit the bear pattern.

The sand flats offered little but bunches of gulls and a few shorebirds, so we forsook the sands and roamed around on the grassy berms above the tide line and through some small groves of spruces. This choice proved profitable.

As we strolled through the grass, we found it easy walking where some large creature had preceded us. We then encountered numerous shallow pits, where bears had dug up roots. The plant of choice, consistently, was seawatch angelica (Angelica lucida), a member of the carrot family. It has a stout taproot, like a parsnip or carrot, and this is what the bears were after. They gnawed off the root, leaving the wilting plant to wither beside the pit. We found dozens of these pits, each one where a seawatch plant had grown. Of course, we had to wonder what made this particular plant so desirable, and whether or not it could regenerate from the leftover scraps.

angelica-lucida-taproot-by-bob-armstrong
Angelica root. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Naturally, what goes in must come out, and so we also found many sizable bear scats, all filled with whitish vegetation fibers (and an occasional intact highbush cranberry). Now the plot thickens: in the open areas, these fiber-filled scats were attended by lots of small brown slugs. One scat was entertaining over thirty slugs, and more were slowly creeping toward the bonanza. Similar scats under the trees, however, attracted no slugs, suggesting that perhaps the slugs favor the variety of leafy plant foods in the open areas. Even so, these bear scats were clearly saving some living plants from the rasping ‘tongues’ of the slugs.

Although the understory of the wooded areas had only scattered plants, there were some nifty fungi. Pinkish-purple coral fungi sent up narrow, fleshy fingers, often in dense crowds. A lovely white jelly fungus grew under the spruces, apparently on the roots.

Emerging from the trees, we settled on the beach again, for a picnic lunch. Although ravens called in the distance, none came to the offerings of bread crusts and bits of meat. That was disappointing, because picnics at this spot are usually attended by ravens, which we love to watch as they cautiously hop toward odd food items. Instead, a friendly dog gobbled up our raven bait as it passed by. The ravens had also missed a dead capelin (with a parasite on the gills) stranded on the sand.

The humpback whales have headed to Hawaii, but we watched a river otter swim by. Its swimming motion seemed peculiar, and when it came up on the beach we saw it had a wound on its head and perhaps other injuries. But it walked long way down the beach and seemed to have little trouble walking.

This beach is a place where we commonly see otter tracks running up into the grass and back down to the water.

Beach rye near the high tide line was heavily infested with ergot, the famous fungus that featured in many a witch hunt of yore (more on this crazy fungus later).

Going to the dredge islands

eagle bones, lichen gardens, and an octopus rescue

On a fine low tide in late April, I headed out to some of the dredge islands in Gastineau channel, along with two friends. Before we even got to the islands, we found several interesting things. In the middle of the dike trail lay the feathers and other remains of a dead bird. Grazing on the innards were at least twenty little brown slugs—officially known as reticulated tail-droppers. We often see them on bear scats filled with digested vegetation, and gardeners make war on them when they attack some treasured plants, but what were they getting from bird guts?

Just as we left the dike trail, our attention was drawn to a pinkish blob lying in sparse grass. A second look told us it was on octopus, stranded by a recent high tide. An octopus has no business being up in the grass, so after determining that it was still alive, we carefully put it in a plastic bag (from which it tried to crawl out, of course) and carried it with us until we reached some permanent salt water, where it was released and slowly crawled away. It may not have been in very good shape by then, and maybe some disability accounted for its being washed up into the grass, but at least it got a second chance.

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The octopus tries to escape its rescuers. Photo by  Katherine Hocker

One island of this chain of islands was a real island before the channel silted up; its core is a forested ridge of bedrock, now surrounded by uplifted land that supports a ring of small spruces and elder berry bushes. An exploration of this island turned up two bird skeletons, minus the skulls; a little forensic work later determined that the bones were very likely those of bald eagles. That made us suspect that they had been shot and left to rot. A sorry thing!

Under some of the trees we found burrows that looked like old otter dens, probably made back in the days before post-glacial uplift increased the distance to permanent water. A cast-up pellet of undigested bits, probably from a raven, held—of all things—the better part of the bowl of a plastic spoon. Overhead, a group of eagles and crows circled peaceably.

We flushed several snipe from the sloughs that cross the wetland. A female harrier coursed in and out of the trees on the smaller islands, probably on her way north (although harriers do nest here occasionally). And buttercups were starting to bloom along the edges of the spruce groves.

Best of all were the lichen gardens on the smaller islands, which are made of dredged sediment from the channel. Sometimes called lichen ‘barrens’, these gardens are barren only of trees and shrubs and tall herbs. They can be a wonderfully artistic spread of color and form. The lichens were very happy, owing to recent rains, so we spent some time admiring the natural art show. We also tried very hard to place our feet where they would do the least damage. Each of these gardens of miniatures was surrounded by a ring of young spruces, lending them a feeling of seclusion and privacy.

On the way back to the car, we spotted a little group of five snow geese, busily grazing—the last reward of a profitable excursion.

Early October

gray, rainy days, some expected seasonal changes, and a few little surprises

The mallards on my home pond gradually molted into their breeding plumage, so I could now distinguish males from females, in most cases. Some males were already in good feather for breeding, while others lagged behind, sometimes way behind. So some of those brown ducks were just getting a few green feathers on top of their heads, and it would be a while before they caught up with the rest of the males.

Most of the cottonwoods were nearly leafless (and I would soon have to clean my rain gutters), although the alders were still leafy. A little stroll through Eaglecrest meadows gave us not only some tasty alpine blueberries but a few floral surprises: we found a single blooming bunchberry flower amid thousands of others bearing ripe fruits. One late-blooming pink bog laurel flower stood out against a background of mostly green. There was even a lonely shooting star, which commonly blooms in spring. These solitary flowers had gotten their hormonal signals crossed and had no hope of pollination at that late date.

Fall is mushroom season, and they were in full exhibit out around the Eagle Beach area. Big moss clumps growing way up on the side of a cottonwood tree sported great tufts of white ‘toadstools’ (but no toads, up there). Alder stumps were covered with crowds of brown mushrooms (I fear I’m sadly ignorant about mushroom ID). Tough little bright orange fungi poked through the packed gravel on the trail. Purple coral fungi (I do know that one) were common in the forest, growing in groups of slender, pale purple ‘fingers’.

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Amanitas. Photo by David Bergeson

Beautiful, but poisonous, fly amanitas (or fly agarics) spanned all age classes from bumps newly emerging from the ground to decrepit and no-longer-beautiful old age. The cap comes in various colors: often red, but sometimes orange or yellowish. The ‘fly’ part of the name may come from an Old World custom of putting pieces of this widely distributed mushroom in a dish of milk; this apparently attracts and traps flies. Despite their well-known toxicity, many of the mature amanitas had nibble marks around the edges, where squirrels or mice had snacked. Amanitas are important components of the plant community, because they form mutualistic associations with many trees, providing nutrients to their partners and sometimes serving as links for transport of nutrients and defensive compounds between trees.

There was plenty of bear sign: tracks in the mud, a few scats with undigested high-bush cranberries mixed with vegetation fibers, and numerous shallow digs. Some of these digs had turned up clumps of the white nodules of rice root (a.k.a. chocolate lily), but these remained uneaten. Instead, the bears may have been after angelica roots, but that’s a guess, because there were few identifiable remains. Small brown slugs festooned themselves over the digs, enjoying the decaying leftovers.

We found two of the small brown slugs engaged in some sort of sexual activity. They circled each other, with penises erect, for many minutes. We went off to look at something else briefly, and when we returned, they had each gone their own way. So we don’t know if they were just thinking about mating, or if they were engaged in some post-mating display, or what. Slugs are hermaphroditic, meaning both male and female (Hermes was the Greek god of travelers and the handsome messenger of Zeus; Aphrodite was the goddess of fertility and love), and mating is generally reciprocal. After mating, slugs of some species chew off their mate’s penis, but there are many kinds of slugs, and I don’t know if that curious habit applies to these. One might well speculate about how this habit came about!

As the temperatures dropped below freezing around the high mountain peaks, the water levels of our glacial rivers dropped markedly, leaving sloughs and sandbars and exposing interstadial wood from forests that grew in the valleys before the Little Ice Age glaciers demolished them. We surprised a dense gang of gulls and six or eight ravens gorging themselves on stranded salmon carcasses in a slough beside the main river. Farther upstream, a broad sand bar had hosted a wolf party that apparently involved some dancing. One of the cavorting group had left enormous tracks in the sand, some of the largest we’d ever seen. What fun!