If we venture off into the forest, away from town and roads (and aircraft, if possible), we often comment on the Quiet. But Quiet in the woods is not silence—it is the absence of human noise. Then we can hear the little sounds and contemplate the small stories they tell.
Most of us notice–at least sometimes–the conspicuous songs and calls of birds. Many folks rejoice at the first song of a varied thrush that in heard in spring. A friend enjoys the ‘rattling key chain’ vocalization of golden-crowned kinglets. Some of us are cheered every time we hear the song of the American dipper. Those sounds are noticeable by anyone who pays a bit of attention. Birdwatchers pay a lot of attention and do almost as much ‘watching’ by ear as by sight.
Not so very long ago, many of us enjoyed a talk by Hank Lentfer and Richard Nelson, featuring their recordings of some natural sounds. Some of these sounds were easy to identify, while others, being much magnified, were harder. Easy or hard, it was an enjoyable and educational presentation.
Taking a cue from those well-known naturalists, I thought it would be fun to think about some of the small sounds in nature, sounds that become perceptible in the Quiet, sounds that otherwise might easily be overlooked. With the contributions of two observant and thoughtful friends, here is a sampling of small sounds that we have enjoyed as we stroll along, stopping every so often to look and listen.
–wing beats of ravens, wind rasping through their feathers as the birds power their way along, in contrast to the slower, softer wingbeats of a heron
–the puff of air as surfacing sea lions exhale, quite different from the puff of porpoises as they pass by
–thud of falling spruce cones, nipped off by a red squirrel
–rattle of lupine seeds as they fall, when warm weather makes the ripe seed pods burst open
–rustling leaf litter as Steller’s jays bury nuts or search for previous stashes
–fluttering leaves as a wren flits through the shrubs, and the wren’s quiet little notes used to keep in contact with others
–creaking of tree trunks in the wind
–a woodpecker flaking off bark scales from a spruce
–clattering of dry leaves falling through twigs and branches
–bill-clacking of nestling herons
–murmuring of a beaver family in its lodge
–scraping of the ‘tongue’ of a banana slug feeding on a leaf
–the distant roar of sea lions and the far-away whoosh of a spouting whale
–whistling wings of goldeneye ducks taking off
–rhythmical lapping of water on a sandy beach or the quite different pattern of water lapping against rocks
–strong wind in conifers compared to that in deciduous trees
–geese talking as they travel north to the nesting grounds or south to the wintering grounds
–waves withdrawing over a pebble beach
–hoar frost crackling when it collapses
–the buzz of a bee changing as it enters a flower
–the grinding of deer or moose teeth when foraging or a beaver gnawing bark from a branch
–lake ice popping and groaning on a cold winter day
I’ve focused here on auditory perceptions. But perhaps it is useful to keep in mind that we can use all of our senses when we are out and about, and doing so can enrich the experience.
a beaver story, wolf tracks, twisted pines, and a raven’s prank
Our meanderings in March produced some interesting observations. One day we followed a tiny creek up a hill, through the forest, to a muskeg. At the edge of that muskeg, our canine companion showed great interest in some blueberry stems. We then saw that these stems had been cut by sharp teeth; just a few feet away there was a small, de-barked hemlock stump, and the upper part of the little tree was gone.
Then we found obscure old footprints in the snow that looked like beaver tracks, and down in a tiny gully were several bark-less blueberry stems. An opening in the ice at the bottom of the gully showed where the bark-eater had come and gone, connecting to the main creek. Of course, we then searched on downstream a short distance and soon spotted a small beaver lodge, with a cache of sticks in a pool not far away. This beaver had built several very small dams, creating little pools at the headwaters of the creek.
This is a strange place to find a resident beaver—and perhaps it is just an overwinter bivouac. The creek is extremely small, maybe just a foot wide, and offers little prospect of creating an extensive pond system. The beaver had harvested blueberry, alder, hemlock, and crabapple sticks, in the absence of more usual fare (cottonwood and willow). Soft, green aquatic vegetation would be rare to absent in this little drainage system, so this summer food would also not be available.
We imagined our beaver—probably a young one—swimming in the salt water from its natal stream as it dispersed to find a home of its own. Then it must have sniffed out the fresh water coming down to a beach and explored its way up to the headwaters of this little creek. At least it could overwinter here.
We were not the only ones to discover the beaver signs. A wolf had left it gigantic pawprints rather recently, as it checked out the lodge and cuttings before cruising over the ridge.
There were other things to see, too: Tracks of deer, porcupine, and grouse. Grouse scat that looked as if the bird had started to shift from winter food to soft summer food. An old, rotten log riddled with beetle borings full of frass (beetle feces) that was better preserved than the wood itself. Very fresh bird scat on the trail, berry-stained and full of false lily-of-the-valley seeds.
A big, dead, double-trunked shore pine claimed our attention. As do the great majority of dead pines we’ve looked at, this elegant specimen showed a strong twist to the right. In fact, I’d say that over ninety-nine percent of the many dead pines we’ve inspected have this right-hand spiral in the wood. So far, we have found no cogent explanation for this observation; all the suggested published ideas fall far short.
On another hike, at the edge of a muskeg, we were entertained by a raven that flew overhead and dropped something—thud—onto the snow next to the trail. It was a wad of moss and tiny twigs. Oh, I said—nesting material. But something didn’t look quite right (and would moss and little twigs make a thud??). So I reached out and turned over the wad. It was nesting material, all right, but not for a raven. It was an old robin’s nest, mud-walled inside the moss-and-twig mix, and frozen solid. Now the question became—what was that raven really doing? Bombing us, as message? Playing games?
One of the treats of a snowy winter is wandering around looking for animal tracks. When I counted up the species for which we’ve found tracks, I saw that one taxonomic family was disproportionately represented—the Mustelidae. Five species of mustelids are likely to leave tracks in snow in our region: ermine, mink, marten, river otter, and wolverine. I’ll first present some basics about mustelids in general, and then some specifics about each of these five species.
Mustelids are a widespread family, occurring on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. There are over fifty-five species, ranging in size from the diminutive least weasel, weighing as little as one or two ounces, to the sea otter, reported to reach over a hundred pounds. They tend to have relatively long, thin body shapes, although some, such as badgers, are stockier; legs are generally short. The claws do not retract (unlike most cats), but again there is an exception: the claws of the fisher are partially retractable. Males are generally larger than females of the same species; their home ranges are larger and tend to overlap those of several females.
They are typically carnivores, preying on a variety of small or middle-sized animals, and sometimes scavengers, although some, such as marten, also eat fruit (and serve as seed dispersers). Much of their ecology is related to availability of food: population abundance, litter size and survival, frequency of reproduction, rate of maturation of juveniles, adult survival (starvation is reported to be a common cause of death in wild populations).
Along with males of many other placental mammals, male mustelids possess a baculum or penis bone. The size of this bone in different species has been suggested to relate to the length of the copulatory act: long bacula are correlated with long copulations. Extended copulations are not generally possible when penile erections depend entirely on hydraulics, i.e. blood pressure. This begs the question of when and where long copulations are adaptive or, conversely, when and where short ones are adaptive. As you might imagine, the subject has attracted some discussion but with no definitive answer.
Most mustelids also share a reproductive habit that (to humans) seems odd: After copulation, the fertilized egg divides just a few times and then rests; it does not implant immediately in the uterine wall, so no placenta is formed and the embryo does not develop further for some time. The delay of implantation lasts several months, during which the few-celled embryo just floats around in the uterus. Eventually, however, it does implant, a placenta develops, and active gestation (just a few weeks long) begins. Thus, the time of mating and the time of active pregnancy are well separated, and birthing is therefore postponed to a season well after the mating season. Delayed implantation is typical of numerous other mammals, including bears and seals.
The adaptive value of a seasonal separation of mating and birthing is often discussed. Most explanations address the importance of rearing young at times of year when food and other conditions are optimal.
This leaves unanswered the reason(s) why mating occurs so long before the season for rearing offspring, and I have not discovered good explanations. In some cases, other aspects of the life history may have created limitations on the convenience of getting male and female together; for instance, bears hibernate for the winter and sexual encounters shortly before birthing are not likely, summertime is surely more convenient; or males take advantage of freedom from child care to go roaming and foraging while females tend the young. I’d like to find a serious analysis of the conditions that favor the seasonal separation of mating and birthing.
Here are a few interesting factoids about our resident mustelids:
River otter—They are very aquatic, eating mostly fish, other aquatic animals in open water or tide pools, and sometimes capturing floating birds from underwater. They can dive to about twenty meters, staying under up to four minutes or so. Being heavy-bodied, they must tread water or scull with the tail to stay afloat. Otters are reported to forage cooperatively in some locations (e.g., Prince William Sound). Otters often travel overland between bodies of water, sometimes sliding over the snow. Their home ranges are said to be smaller on the coast than in the interior, presumably because food sources are more abundant. Otters usually mature at age two years.
Wolverine—They often favor remote areas but use a variety of habitats. In winter, this large mustelid mostly forages by scavenging carcasses left by other predators; its powerful jaws can crack the bones of moose. It is sometimes said that wolverines are too big to survive very long on small prey, too small to kill large game animals regularly, and too slow to chase fast prey. So scavenging becomes a good way to feed. In summer, carrion is less available and wolverines eat more small mammals and birds. They commonly den under deep snow in alpine areas, but commonly travel widely (many miles) to find food. If they get lucky, they will cache surplus food in a handy location. They are slower to mature than our other mustelid residents, usually maturing when three to five years old.
Marten—Denizens of old-growth and mature forests, they are highly arboreal. They commonly feed on small mammals, as well as birds, eggs, and carrion, and are said to need the equivalent of at least three voles per day. However, they can also kill hares and marmots. They mature at age one or two years, depending on food supply. There are two species in Southeast; detailed genetic studies have shown that Kuiu and Admiralty islands are home to a distinct and strictly coastal species (which also occurs on Haida Gwaii and Vancouver).
Ermine—They eat almost anything that moves and need to eat almost continually; they are good swimmers and climbers. They make cozy nests, often usurping the nest of a prey mammal (after eating it), even lining the nest with fur of the prey. Well-insulated resting places are necessary for this small, slender predator that needs this help to keep warm in winter. Sometimes they cache their prey near the nest. Juvenile females can become sexually mature while still in the natal nest, at an age of only one or two months. So, when their mother mates after giving birth (which is the custom with these animals), sometimes the same male will fertilize her daughters as well! They have a short life span in the wild, often living less than two years. Ermine are represented by three distinct genetic lineages in our area, and one of them, with a very limited distribution, is considered to be of conservation concern.
Mink—Comfortable on land and in water, they eat fish, crayfish, various other small aquatic critters, and birds—they are said to be especially fond of bird eggs. They make short dives but usually forage in the shallow water or on land. Mink (and wolverines, ermine, and marten) are adept at climbing. They, like squirrels, are able to descend from a tree rapidly and skillfully, because they can rotate their hind ankles so the claws engage with tree bark. They breed as yearlings, and seldom live longer than three years in the wild.
The populations and historical geographic ranges of marten, wolverine, and river otters in North America have been seriously restricted by human activity: habitat loss including deforestation, over-trapping, pollution (especially otters), reduction of their prey populations. In some cases, reintroductions have restored local populations.
Footnote: (There are three other mustelids in Alaska but we don’t generally see evidence of them here. Least weasels live up north and do not occur here. Sea otters live in the sea, yes, and seldom come ashore. Fishers have only rarely been recorded in Southeast and, in any case, are very elusive.)