Out and about in mid-June

spring songs, subalpine sightings, and a choosy bear

I went, with a friend, into Sheep Creek Valley one morning, to listen to bird songs. I especially wanted to hear Swainson’s thrush, whose vigorous, upward-spiraling song is beautiful, and Sheep Creek Valley is usually a good place to hear them. We entered the valley around eight o’clock, and I heard fox sparrows, an orange-crowned warbler, a Lincoln’s sparrow, a ruby-crowned kinglet… and a few unenthusiastic, feeble-sounding Swainson’s thrushes. The valley was far quieter than I had expected, even though we missed the dawn chorus, which would have started about two-thirty—this being near the summer solstice. Then, about ten o’clock, the Swainson’s got warmed up and tuned up and sounded like their normal selves.

There’s a conifer grove in the midst of the cottonwoods, alders, and willows, and there we saw a chestnut-backed chickadee, perched just over our heads. It took a surprising interest in my cap, approaching it from front, side, and back and looking closely at it. I have no idea why it was seemingly so fascinated. The cap is red, but that doesn’t seem to signify. On the front is a picture of a crowned crane, which has a big white cheek patch (like a chickadee) framed by black (like a chickadee), and we wondered if that could have been the attraction. We’ll never know!

On another day, we wandered up to Cropley Lake, to check on the stands of yellow-flowered fireweed that grow in wet patches on the back side of the lake. We fund a big boulder to sit on while we had our morning tea and crumpets, but as we started to settle down, we flushed a female sooty grouse and a tiny chick from the dense ground cover. Mama grouse clucked and fussed, and they both took refuge at the edge of a willow thicket fringed with dense ferns. Mama kept peeking out to check on the ‘monsters’ that had entered her domain. We thought she might be waiting for a few more chicks to catch up with her, from farther up the hill, and we were perhaps keeping the family from re-uniting. So we gathered up the tea party and moved about a hundred yards away, where we may have bothered some jays. We found the yellow fireweed plants, just budding and not yet showy.

Other treats on this walk included a set of very tiny deer fawn tracks in the mud, and an olive-sided flycatcher singing from the tops of mountain hemlocks: “Quick, three beers !!!” again and again. The little insectivorous plant called butterwort or sometimes bog violet (it is not a violet, but the flower is superficially similar) was blooming, sometimes hidden in the other vegetation but often making a nice purple show in barer patches along the way.

The Dredge Lake area is once again a site for nesting American redstarts, not a common bird around here. Females do the nest-building and incubation, but both parents feed the chicks. Northern waterthrushes have been heard frequently and might possibly nest here, near some of the ponds. In addition to the usual mallards, ring-necked ducks (neck rings seldom visible) have been seen and may nest here, so we might yet see a brood or two of ducklings. The little ones don’t learn to dive well until they are about a week old, but eventually get most of their food by diving. I have reports of curious doings by tree swallows at a nest site, where more swallows than just the nest owners were interacting, and sightings of solitary sandpipers, which have the unusual habit of nesting—not on the ground, like other sandpipers, but in abandoned nests of birds such as robins.

Back home: on several days, I was entertained by the view out my front window. A juvenile bear came into the yard, which is a riot of fireweed, nagoons, horsetail, and buttercups. He (yes, definitely a male) foraged avidly on horsetail, avoiding the buttercups and spitting them out if he happened to grab one while gobbling horsetail. Very selective feeding, and probably a good thing, because buttercups are known to be poisonous to livestock and can cause contact dermatitis to humans who handle the plants a lot.