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.

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!