Strolling on the Treadwell Ditch Trail

a trail report, fungal diversity, and fall colors

One fine day in early October, three friends set out to walk the Treadwell Ditch from the Dan Moller trail to Paris Creek. On our way up from the parking lot off Pioneer Avenue, we noted major timber cutting not far above the trail; trees had fallen over the trail earlier but had been trimmed back. The lower part of the Dan Moller trail, up to the Ditch, winds through some pretty, little meadows, but the boardwalk is in serious need of repair: there are many broken boards and popped-up nail heads. A big, sad contrast with the Dan Moller trail above the Ditch to the cabin, where the trail is in pretty good condition.

The Treadwell Ditch trail south of the Dan Moller has received a huge amount of recent work and is now in good shape, as far as Paris Creek. In addition to the big bridge over Lawson Creek, there are many new, smaller bridges that save hikers and bikers and skiers from scrambling in and out of eroded gullies. One especially nasty gully is now circumvented by a re-routed trail with steps that may be tricky for skiers and snowshoe-ers in winter. A few muddy spots remain to be ‘hardened’ by the deposition of gravel, but we strolled by a lone volunteer who was in the process of doing just that. Thanks to Trail Mix for all the good work!

We’ve been told that a bridge over Paris Creek has been planned and funded, so eventually Treadwell Ditch walkers can readily join up with the Mt Jumbo trail to the south. That will avoid the risky, slippery-log walking now required for the creek crossing and the extremely muddy informal trail that parallels the creek down to the lower end of the Jumbo trail. We did none of those things, but back-tracked to the CBJ trail down to Crow Hill.

So much for the trail report (in brief). Now for the fun stuff.

Fall is a good time for fungi of many sorts, and this trip was no exception. We were particularly pleased with the numerous delicate white ones known as angel wings. These dainty fungi grow on conifer logs and stumps, especially on hemlock. Although it is often said to be edible, it is reportedly toxic and potentially lethal for some people. Another interesting one was a small, translucent jelly fungus growing out of the softer growth rings on top of a stump.

Angel wing fungus. Photo by David Bergeson

The muskegs were awash with colors, a real treat for the eyes. The sedges provided a backdrop of lustrous golden orange. Bunchberry leaves showed off every possible shade of red. Avens leaves were deep red and high-bush cranberry leaves ranged from pink to red. Low-bush blueberry leaves gave us muted maroons and purples, and deer cabbage added some yellow and orange. We don’t have the blazingly colorful tree canopies of the boreal aspen forests or of the eastern forests with their maples and ashes, but if you look lower and think smaller, we sure do have spectacular fall colors!

In the forest, the devil’s club leaves had mostly turned yellow, brightening up the somber tones of the conifers. They were so conspicuous, I paid them more attention than I had earlier in the summer. If you look carefully at these leaves, you can observe that they are usually spaced out laterally so that they don’t shade each other. When one leaf does occur above another, there is usually quite a good vertical distance between them. That way the lower leaf still gets some light. It turns out that the bigger the leaves, the more vertical distance must separate them in order that they don’t shade each other too much, so the big leaves of devil’s club will be more widely separated than the small leaves of willows or blueberry bushes. In fact, this intuitive principle has been quantified and formalized mathematically, for the benefit of those who like such things.


Switzer headwaters

ice formations, a smattering of tracks, a goshawk encounter, and a secretive snipe

At the eastern reach of the Switzer Loop Trail, there is an old logging road that goes straight up the hill to end near a long-abandoned beaver pond. On a recent exploratory prowl there, I was accompanied by a two-footed friend and a four-footed friend—although it might be more accurate to say that I accompanied these two quicker and more agile hikers.

The first observation of interest (for the two-footed hikers, at least) was a set of raven tracks in soft snow, zigzagging from one side of the trail to the other. At each point of the zigzag, the raven had probed into the snow with its bill, leaving a smudge of blood. What could be the story behind this record in the snow? Our speculations lasted until we reached the end of the road, where a set of mousy tracks wandered about and a weasel had meandered in and out of burrows and stumps.

The road runs through an old clearcut, several decades old (probably cut in the 1950s). Sometimes known as the Dismal Woods, this second-growth stand is indeed rather dismal. The dense canopy of young trees cuts out so much sunlight that few plants (except mosses and lichens) can grow in the understory. The forest floor is littered with rejected branches and abandoned logs. Remarkably, red squirrels traveled here often enough to leave a few well-used little trails and a porcupine had passed through.

The old beaver pond is filled with grasses and sedges. The ice-free little rivulets entering and leaving the pond were flowing well (at a time when most other streams in Juneau were frozen over), so the pond ice was feeble and offered treacherous footing. We never knew when we’d punch through the flimsy ice or humps of bent grass; after a few stumbles and lurches, we elected to go around the pond. It was reminiscent of hiking on the wet tundra Up North—which I hope never to do again.

A fine grove of red alders grows between the pond and the hill-slope behind. Where a tree had been uprooted by the wind, we saw an astounding array of needle-ice; many of the thin strands were perhaps twenty inches long. I think this formation occurs when water is forced up out of the freezing soil, and it is pretty common around here, but I’d never seen such long strands. A few big alders showed signs of long-ago bear claws. And here we found an enormous stump whose top made the entrance to the burrow of a red squirrel.

Just beyond the needle-ice, we inadvertently flushed a goshawk, which took off at high speed from behind a log pile. Closer inspection of the site revealed no signs of a goshawk lunch – no feathers or fur or blood, so perhaps it had missed its prey or was just resting.

Working our way along the upper edge of the Dismal Woods, we crossed and re-crossed the rivulets that feed the old beaver pond. At least one of them pops right out of the hillside with no sign of the origin of the water, so we guessed that the water flows down the side-slope under the soil until it reaches the little gully that holds the stream.

The clear little streams were floored with layers of dead alder leaves, which undoubtedly harbor some interesting invertebrates. A foraging snipe certainly hoped so–it was probing in the leaf packs and mud with its long bill. This one had left many lines of footprints with three forward toes and no back toe (like many shorebirds but very unlike most of our forest birds) as it walked in and out the stream, around log jams, and down to where the stream entered the old pond. It’s always a surprise to me to find a wintering snipe in the forest, because I think of them as living in marshes and wet meadows, where they often nest.

Snipes commonly eat many kinds of invertebrates: insects, worms, snails; their digestive tracts also contain seeds and vegetation, but it is reportedly not certain how much nutrition they obtain from plant material. Snipes forage by probing with their long bill; sometimes they put their entire head underwater. They can swallow small items while the bill is still in the mud, probably by using the tongue to push them back along the backward-oriented serrations inside the bill. The bill is very flexible, and snipes can open the tip without moving the base. There are sensory pits near the tip of the bill that help them find buried prey.

On the ice in one corner of the pond, we found tracks of a hopping bird (with four toes). Judging from the size of the foot and a tail mark, we guessed that a Steller’s jay had searched the edge of the pond.

After bush-whacking over to what looks like another abandoned beaver pond, my companions pranced (and I bumbled) over the piles of discarded branches through the Dismal Woods back to the road and the car. A very successful prowl!

Thanksgiving Week strolls

mallard perambulations, mustelid meanders, and enchanting ice

We had deep cold, then big snows, and then huge rain, and now the gray, foggy, misty rains seem to have settled in. But it’s no fun just staying home, so out we went, on a couple of leisurely strolls.

The home pond offered some interest, even before I left the house. Two mallard drakes had ventured up the creek to the frozen pond, where they scarfed up spilled bird seed. Their perambulations over the ice left muddy trails to and from the lower end of the pond. Red squirrels had made several visits to the spilled seed, leaving a fan of trails in several directions. And –oh,oh!—mama bear and two cubbies came by. The cubs romped over the ice, wrestling and chasing, while mom checked out the out-of-reach hanging feeders. I’m told that this family has been roaming our part of the Valley lately, well past the time they should be in bed.

An easy walk along Montana Creek began by discovering the new gate across the road, near the rifle range. The issue of placing this gate was discussed at least two years ago, and I had despaired of it ever happening. But here it was. Hallelujah! The gate will at least help the serious problem of dumping trash along the road; whole truckloads of junk used to be off-loaded on the roadside by irresponsible citizens. A nice set of ski tracks clung to one side of the road, and the several skiers made the skiing look good.

Near the bridge, a mink had come along the bank of the creek, then up and over the approach to the bridge, and back down to creek-side, apparently unwilling to get wet by going under the bridge. A weasel had meandered all over the place, looking in nooks and crannies for something to feed its voracious appetite. We finally spotted a dipper, busily nabbing small insects around the boulders in the creek.

Across the creek, we saw a long groove in the snow, way too loopy and curvy to be a simple crack in the shore-fast ice. It led from under a log, around a boulder, and finally over the ice edge to the gravel. The groove was too wide to have been made by a shrew, so presumably a mouse or a vole. Another traveler on the road had left baby-sized footprints with long claw marks: a small porcupine taking advantage of the shallower snow in the ruts between the deep stuff. It had really hustled along, with a stride length much greater than the more common shuffle we often see.

The next day, Parks and Rec walked the East Glacier Trail in mist and fog. There might as well have been no glacier, because the entire upper part of the lake was obscured by fog. We could just discern a dark, fuzzy shape across the way, where the rock peninsula is. A pavement of ice fragments marked the foot of Nugget Falls. The snow was sufficiently soft that walking was quite easy, and we were glad that the footprints of previous walkers had not frozen into lumps and bumps that make walking miserable.

Perhaps the biggest attraction along the trail was the ice, draped over boulders. Water still ran in thin sheets over the surface of the boulders, creating a lacework of frozen crystals that grew up from the ground into even finer filigree. Where ice had formed over bumps in the rock, the surface was decorated by beautiful, very fine traceries, creating what I would call vermiculations and reticulations. Of course, there were lots of icicles, of all sizes and shapes. There were all the usual spears of ice, but I was particularly enchanted by some of the complex joinings and separations among adjacent ice-spears, creating little networks of related icicles. (I would, in other circles, call these ‘anastomoses’; there’s another new word for some of you!).

There were signs that red squirrels or maybe some crossbills had been active, leaving scatterings of alder cone scales on the snow. Porcupines had waddled through deep snow, leaving characteristic trenches. The most fun was discovering a very young porcupine near the visitor center. It was intent upon eating grass and was not the least disturbed by the presence of several fascinated observers. This little guy was much smaller than expected for this time of year; it was about the size of those we had watched and followed last summer, four months ago. Good luck, small one!

The crossover

above the snow and under the sky

The day was overcast and gray when we started up the Spaulding Meadows trail, but by the time we passed the junction where the Auke Nu trail splits off, the sky was clear and a welcome sun appeared. The trail was in fine shape: nice, hard-packed snow, with only a few spots where deep post-holes made for uneven walking. We put on snowshoes and skis in Second Meadow.

Spaulding Meadows were splendid, as always. A clear view for three hundred and sixty degrees revealed shining peaks and gleaming waters, set off by dark conifers. Sad to say, some snowmobile tracks marred the surface in places, providing evidence that there always seem to be a few riders who don’t respect the boundary that is supposed to leave half of the great meadow for folks who let their legs do the work.

Wind had crusted the snow a bit in some places, but there was a thin layer of loose snow on top of the crust. This was perfect for good tracking. Animal tracks registered clearly, at least on parts of their little trails, so we could identify most of them. Mice had left tiny, paired prints in lines emerging from under bent-over conifers. A marten had looped its way across open spaces, mostly breaking through the thin crust but, luckily, occasionally leaving clear five-toed prints on the surface. A weasel (probably) had left small prints and long body marks as it leaped through some softer snow. Ptarmigan had been very active in one area, leaving footprints in a two-footed walking pattern and occasional wing marks at take-off points. A red squirrel had ventured out for a short scamper and a raven touched down briefly, leaving long wing tracings. And some small songbird had hopped along by some blueberry bushes.

After floundering around for a little while, and fortifying ourselves with shared chocolate, we found the start of the crossover to the John Muir cabin. I hadn’t done this route for a while, but parts of it began to look familiar. Lunch at the cabin, sitting in the sun, sharing more chocolate—does it get better than this??

Presently, two friendly acquaintances came along, with two Cairn terriers (still energetic after that long uphill walk on those short legs) and a black lab, all of whom had their own lunches. But when my attention was focused elsewhere, that black lab very neatly and quickly filched one of my petit écolier cookies that I’d stashed alongside me. Her person told me she gets half an oreo cookie every day, so I guess she thought she’d have a little dessert at lunch too. And goodness knows, I didn’t really need it!

Just before reaching the cabin, two of us stopped to watch some crossbills. One female sat in the top of a scraggy mountain hemlock, looking golden in the slanted sunlight. Two others clambered around in a dead hemlock, gleaning small items from the seemingly barren branches. We’d heard crossbills, both white-winged and red, all day, but these were the first we saw. We thought ourselves lucky, because it is not often one gets to see these birds at such close range.

The hills of home

from Wisconsin to Alaska

I recently returned from a visit to the Midwestern locale where I grew up. There, the hills of home are very ancient mountains, now worn down to their stumps. Pink quartzite cliffs ring a deep, spring-fed lake. Moraines now stretch across both ends of the lake; this is where the last glacier terminated, thousands of years ago.

An Ice Age Trail loops for hundreds of miles across Wisconsin, following the former border of the glacial ice. A nice atlas of the trail provides detailed maps. I walked a portion of the trail, enjoying some old friends, such as Pileated Woodpeckers, goldfinches, chatty little Black-capped Chickadees, and jack-in-the-pulpit with its bright red fruits. I saw ‘real’ Blue Jays (not our Steller’s Jay, which is sometimes called a bluejay). Eastern bluebirds were feasting on wild grapes and the last of the black cherries, alternating between the cherries and a conveniently adjacent grape vine. Fall colors were well underway: sumacs and Virginia creeper in shades of red, and sugar maples glowing red and orange and yellow.

I came back to my Juneau hills of home, with its much more recent mountains, to find that the snowline had crept down to treeline. The low-lying blueberries and dwarf dogwood offered shades of red, cottonwoods provided gold and bronze, and muskeg sedges made brassy tones of orange.

On a walk on the shores of Mendenhall Lake, we encountered a surprising diversity of birds: three kinds of sparrows, hermit thrushes, two species of shorebird, three kinds of waterfowl including a flock of widgeon, some American Dippers, and magpies visiting from the Interior. Kinglets were gleaning vanishingly small insects from the willows; we inspected numerous willow twigs and couldn’t see more than one or two miniscule bugs. I was astonished to see, at this late date, a male and a female yellowthroat (migratory warblers that nest in marshes). They flitted around in the brush, occasionally zooming straight up into the air and catching what looked like small moths.

The sun—amazingly—came out from behind banks of gray clouds. Two ephemeral rainbows emerged from the base of Mt McGinnis and grew toward the glacier, and then disappeared in the same order. The sands of the beach showed signs of passage of beavers, caddis flies, and shorebirds. And no planes or helicopters disturbed the peace!

A happy sighting on the way was an American Coot, busily foraging in a slough and apparently being very successful. Coots are widespread across North America, but they are relatively rare in Southeast. They eat a wide variety of foods, including seeds, greenery, snails, and little fish. This particular coot was probably catching sticklebacks and caddis fly larvae.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

I’ve never found a coot nest here, but they were common in the marshes of eastern Washington where I did a lot of fieldwork many decades ago. Male and female coots collaborate in building a floating nest of vegetation and in other aspects of parental care, right through until the chicks are independent. Young coot chicks are, to my eyes, very silly-looking: body covered with dark down, a ruff of orange and red fluff around the neck and base of the bill, setting off a totally bald crown. Coots defend their nesting territory with great vigor, charging at intruders with loud protests and excited splashing. The females have the unusual habit of dumping some of their eggs in the nests of other coots, and so letting somebody else raise part of the brood.

Coots are prey for many predators, including large gulls, owls, and hawks. In some areas, coots are the main prey of bald eagles. Around here, I see them occasionally in Twin Lakes, especially in fall, but then the eagles are generally busy elsewhere, filling up on salmon.

Stoneflies in winter

surprising, cold-seeking insects

When the little streams start to open up in late winter and early spring, the snow on either side may be dotted with small, dark objects crawling slowly along. Look more closely, and see that they are slim, winged insects that range in length from a few millimeters to about a centimeter. Sometimes there are hundreds of them, generally moving away from the stream into the surrounding vegetation. They may crawl fifty or a hundred feet or even more away from the water. After mating, females go back to the stream to lay their eggs.

Winter stonefly adult. Photo by David Bergeson

These are the so-called ‘winter stoneflies,’ of which there are reported to be about six species (in four different taxonomic families) in Southeast. The larvae are active in cold water; in fact, they apparently cannot handle warm conditions. After spending their larval lives in the water, they transform into adults; the emergence may be triggered by increasing daylength. They emerge below the surface ice where lowered water levels have created a little space and then find small openings in the ice so they can move onto land. Adults are more cold-tolerant than the larvae and they are exposed to more temperature extremes. Most adults don’t live very long, perhaps a few days or a few weeks, and their main goal is reproduction. The adults of at least some of these species eat algae that grows on tree bark.

No one seems to know why these species emerge so early in the year, when temperatures regularly drop below freezing. They are rather conspicuous on the snow and would be ready prey for hungry birds—but there aren’t as many of those around in February and March as there will be in May, June, and July, when ordinary stoneflies emerge and mate. So some researchers suggest that predator avoidance might make early emergence advantageous—leaving open the question of why more species don’t emerge so early. Other researchers suggest that some as-yet-undetermined negative conditions in the water might drive these species to metamorphose and emerge. Here is a ready-and-waiting research opportunity!

While the ‘winter stoneflies’ are emerging and mating, the numerous other species of stonefly are still in the creek, as larvae. There has been a fair amount of research on the ways in which stonefly larvae (and many other invertebrates) cope with the cold of winter. It turns out that most Alaskan stoneflies are not especially tolerant of cold.

The salient exception is a stonefly called Nemoura arctica, the only Alaskan stonefly known to tolerate being frozen. This species develops slowly in Alaska, requiring at least two years of larval life before metamorphosing into adults. Specimens were collected from the headwaters of the Chandalar River, where temperatures in the streambed in midwinter reached –12.7 degrees Celsius (about nine degrees Fahrenheit). Larvae collected in winter were encased in ice, but most of them survived and became active again when thawed. ‘Anchor ice’ on the streambed is exposed to less extreme temperatures than surface ice, because it is buffered by flowing water.

For comparison, fewer stoneflies tolerate being frozen than midges (Chironomidae), danceflies (Empididae), and some dragonflies (in several families).

Freezing commonly kills organisms because ice inside cells expands and tears cell membranes, ruining the integrity of essential physiological processes. How, then, do dance flies, midges, dragonflies, and one stonefly manage to survive the ice?

Freeze-tolerant insects generally produce ice-binding proteins outside of the cells. Ice then forms around the cells in the extra-cellular spaces, taking up much of the water, so the remaining extracellular fluid becomes very concentrated. Water molecules then move from inside the cells to the outside by osmosis, and the cells effectively become partially dehydrated. In some cases, as much as ninety percent of body water may be lost. These insects run a risk of death from desiccation, if temperatures drop too low and too much water leaves their cells. Furthermore, being encased in ice necessitates being tolerant of low oxygen levels.

Freeze-tolerant insects also produce various types of antifreeze, often small sugar molecules or certain proteins that lower the freezing point of body fluids, protecting enzymes and lipid (fat)-containing parts of the cells (such as the cell membrane).

Still other insects, including some stoneflies, are not freeze-tolerant but would be very susceptible to freezing, except that they make use of the strange phenomenon called supercooling. Extremely small volumes of water (such as those in a small insect) can often be cooled many degrees below the normal freezing point of body fluids (i.e. about – 3 or – 4 degrees Celsius) before freezing occurs. So, for example, a supercooled insect might survive a body temperature of minus fifteen or twenty degrees Celsius. These insects also produce antifreezes that limit the growth of ice crystals in the cells. The risk to supercooling is that virtually any contact can disrupt or circumvent the antifreeze function and allow formation of lethal ice crystals. For instance, soil particles, micro-organisms, or even food in the gut can serve as nuclei for deadly ice crystals. So these insects can’t be very active at all.

Research has shown, however, that the majority of freshwater insects in Alaska try to avoid extreme cold by burrowing down into the substrate below the frost line, or remaining in habitats where water does not freeze. These larvae, including the larvae of ‘winter stoneflies’, stay active through the winter, feeding, molting, and growing.

Plant evolution and life cycles

spores and seeds

Occasionally, friends have asked me about the life cycles of plants, so here I will attempt to summarize them, in the context of plant evolution. I set the stage by describing the basic pattern of life cycles in animals, with which we are more familiar, in order to make the contrast with plants.

Most animal life cycles are relatively simple, compared to most plants. During sexual reproduction, eggs from a female-functioning animal are fertilized by sperm from a male-functioning individual, creating a zygote. Egg and sperm each have one complement of chromosomes—one set of DNA, so when they join, the zygote has two sets of chromosomes with DNA from both parents. Having one set of chromosomes is called ‘haploid’ and having two sets is called ‘diploid—or 1N and 2N for short.

The 2N animal zygote develops into an adult, in some cases passing through an intermediate juvenile stage or several such stages, which may look different and behave differently from the adult form. For instance, caterpillars are juvenile moths and butterflies. But the development is more or less continuous, from fertilized egg to adult, and generally only the 2N adult form is capable of reproduction. The 2N adult produces eggs or sperm that are 1N by the process of meiosis.

In the plant world, things are quite different. Plant life cycles (in plants consisting of more than one cell) in general consist of two phases or two generations. A haploid or 1N phase is typically known as a gametophyte—a plant that produces 1N gametes (eggs or sperm or both). When a 1N sperm fertilizes a 1N egg, the resulting 2N zygote grows into a 2N sporophyte—a plant that by meiosis produces 1N spores that grow into 1N gametophytes. Thus, the life cycle alternates between a 1N gametophyte plant and a 2N sporophyte plant (this is known as alternation of generations).

However, the relative sizes of the gametophyte and sporophyte vary tremendously in the plant kingdom. All plants were derived originally—many, many tens of millions of years ago—from algae (probably green algae), so I’ll start there. Among the thousands of species of multicellular algae, there are many in which the gametophyte is tiny, microscopically small. A zygote—the future and much larger sporophyte—typically develops on the gametophyte, which may then disintegrate. In some algae, however, the gametophytes are large and persistent, easily visible, and about the same size as the sporophytes.

Somewhere along the line, over four hundred million years ago, aquatic green algae found a way to colonize land (possibly by means of symbiosis with fungi). These ancestral algae led to two quite different evolutionary lineages: the mosses, which are small and absorb water and nutrients from air and soil but do not transport them very far internally, and all the other plants (ferns and seed plants), which have internal vascular systems for transporting water and nutrients throughout the plant (and so they are known as the vascular plants).

Moss sporophytes. Photo by Katherine Hocker

In the mosses and their relatives, the eggs and zygotes began to be protected in jackets of sterile cells. The visible mosses that we see throughout our forests and muskegs here are gametophytes (1N). Sperm swim in water to reach eggs on female gametophytes. A fertilized egg (in its protective jacket) on a female gametophyte produces a sporophyte (2N), which we see as a little stalked capsule growing atop a frond of visible moss. The 2N sporophyte reduces the chromosome set to 1N by meiosis, producing 1N spores, which are dispersed and grow into gametophytes. Both of the alternating generations of moss plants are readily visible.

The other evolutionary lineage led to a huge diversity of vascular plants: ferns and their relatives and all the seed plants (conifers, wildflowers, our familiar trees, etc.). Having a vascular system for transporting water and nutrients allowed the plants to grow taller, sometimes much taller, than mosses. Ferns continue the pattern of alternating generations, with a small, typically microscopic, 1N gametophyte and a much larger, 2N sporophyte, which is what we see. Some ancient forms of club-mosses, which are distantly related to ferns, had sporophytes as large as our present-day trees; and even today, there are tree-sized ferns in some parts of the world. Spores from the sporophyte disperse and germinate into the tiny gametophytes in the soil; as in the mosses, water is necessary for sperm to swim to the eggs.

Next to evolve were the seed plants, in which it is the 2N sporophyte that we see. Freely dispersing spores (which would have made independent gametophytes) are not produced. Instead, the 1N gametophytes are now reduced to tiny things on the sporophyte: pollen grains enclosing the male gametophytes and sperm, and miniscule female gametophytes containing eggs (or ovules), inside an ovary. The ovules are enclosed in protective layers of tissue and, after fertilization, will become the seeds. Ecologically, then, the life cycle of seed plants resembles that of animals, with each individual developing from seed to reproductive adult, and the evolutionary history is hidden from sight.

What the seed plants accomplished was finding a way for sperm to reach eggs through the air, rather than depending on water for sperm to swim or float to the eggs. Pollen grains containing sperm are transported by air currents or animals to receptive surfaces that capture the pollen. Sperm then move down a tube produced by the pollen grain to an egg (ovule), resulting in a 2N zygote. The ovules are contained in several layers of tissue, some of which are derived from the tiny female gametophyte and some of which are derived from the large sporophyte. We call these ‘seeds’, and they are often wrapped up in additional fleshy or protective tissue (from the sporophyte) that we call fruits or pods or cones. The seeds of most plants also contain a supply of nutrients to support the growth of a seedling.

Thus, over the millennia, the life cycles of multicellular plants on land have taken several directions. The mosses have gametophytes and sporophytes that are fairly similar in size. The ferns and their allies have tiny gametophytes alternating with much larger sporophytes. The seed plants have reduced the gametophytes to tiny things dependent on large sporophytes, and the alternation of generations is no longer apparent. The evolutionary reasons for all these variations are a subject of scholarly debate.

It is easy to think of the seed plants as being dominant on our landscapes. Indeed, they are the largest land plants today. But the mosses and ferns are still with us, doing things in their own ways; in Southeast, they are important and visible components of the land-plant communities. So they cannot be viewed as merely primitive or evolutionary failures in any way—they are just smaller.

(I have neglected the fungi here. Historically, taxonomists have sometimes classified them as plants and sometimes not. Their life cycles are varied, complex, and quite different from those described here.)

Midwinter rambles

and some thoughts on ravens and wolves

Late January brought us some wonderful snow, deep and fluffy. Of course, after a few days, the temperature rose and the rain came, turning the low-elevation snows to heavy, hard-to-shovel stuff and sending down great lumps of snow from the trees. Very disappointing!

However, before the rains, there was time to squeeze in a couple of little excursions. Parks and Rec went up to Gastineau Meadows on a lovely day, all of us on skis or snowshoes. Shore pines in the muskegs were turned into ‘trolls’ by the great loads of snow they bore (but these trolls didn’t have any bridges under which to lurk). Most wildlife tracks had been smothered by new snowfall, although a few hare and porcupine trails were just barely discernible.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable excursions, nonetheless. We greatly appreciated a group of three young and very courteous snowmobilers who cheerily made room for us pedestrians to pass and even cut their engines so we didn’t gag on the fumes. Well done, guys!

Soon after that, I went snowshoeing in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, on a mapping expedition with a friend who has a giraffe-length stride. Much of the time we were off-trail, bushwhacking through thickets and tangles. I wallowed along in the “giraffe’s” wake, lifting piles of loose snow with every step. So I began to understand the perspective of a porcupine, nose down, pushing snow aside as it trundles along on its short legs. My understanding improved when I tumbled nose-deep into a partly obscured tree well. Fortunately, the “giraffe” very kindly hauled me out and even presented me with a refreshing cup of tea. And so we went on our way.

Another friend was skiing on Mendenhall Lake one cold day, accompanied by a dog. A raven approached and hopped slowly just ahead of the dog, as if tempting the dog to chase it. The dog did so, briefly, before being called back. The raven tried again but then, getting no response, flitted back and tweaked the dog’s tail. The raven tried one more gambit, in an attempt to get the dog to play. It found a stick, landed a little way in front of the dog, lay down and rolled over, stick in claws, as if offering the stick to the dog. Alas, this dog doesn’t play ‘stick’, so the raven failed to entice it into a game and eventually departed.

Photo by Bob Armstrong

Ravens have been observed to play with wolves, too—tweaking tails and playing tag. In at least one case, the game of tag was played by the raven diving at the wolf’s head and quickly darting up and away when the wolf leaped at it. A daring sort of game, indeed. Bernd Heinrich, who studied ravens intensively, suggests that games of daring are a way to show off to other ravens and build status in raven society.

Were other ravens watching this Mendenhall raven from a distance? Perhaps. Or maybe the bird was really just playing. Anyone who has watched ravens rolling and tobogganing down a snow slope and running back up to do it again, or doing aerial acrobatics, cannot seriously doubt that they know how to play.

Ravens and wolves have a long-standing relationship that may be more complex than previously supposed (of which more, anon, I hope).

Lawson meadows

wet-snow tracks and tiny treasures

The meadows near Lawson Creek are a favorite destination for a Parks and Rec hike or just for exploring. You can now get there from the snowmobilers’ parking lot on Blueberry Hill, up to the Treadwell Ditch, then south on the Ditch Trail and over the new bridge at Lawson Creek. The upstream loop of the old Ditch Trail is now cut off by the new bridge, but you can go partway up the valley on the old Ditch Trail after crossing the bridge or hop right up into a chain of meadows that stretches up the valley.

Or you can start on Crow Hill, go up the CBJ trail to the Ditch and then, instead of going left on the Ditch Trail to Gastineau Meadows, go right. Rather than using the Ditch Trail here, I prefer to go up the little slope into the first big meadow. From there, you just continue around the slope and head up Lawson Valley through the chain of meadows.

Eventually, you run out of meadows and the forest takes over. Parks and Rec usually turns around at that point, has lunch, and heads back down. On a recent excursion, our lunchtime ‘café’ was sheltered from the rain by some tall, dense conifers, and we looked out our ‘window’ at the last meadow.

The snow was heavy and wet, and the skiers in the group found it fast going, making it back to the cars in record time. The snowshoers took a good bit longer. On this wet day, the muskegs on the CBJ trail were overflowing the trail in some places, creating deep slush but no problems for our passage. (Right now, as I write, it is hard to even think about rain and wet, what with low temperatures and howling winds that lift the snow into swirling clouds hundreds of feet tall. The mountain peaks are invisible.)

There were deer tracks in the lower meadows. The deer were sinking in pretty deeply and probably found it hard to move from one relatively snow-free, forested area to another. In winter, deer find their food under the trees, where the snow pack is less than in the open. There were also several sets of snowshoe hare tracks, partially covered by a little recent snow. Best of all was a set of porcupine tracks, small and close together, showing where a young one, now independent of its mother, had wandered around snacking on shrubs.

Two other wintry walks yielded a couple of tiny treasures that I’ll share:

Before the rains, during an earlier the deep-freeze, I found lots of silken threads dangling from branches. The silks were probably left by juvenile spiders, which use these threads to become airborne on a passing breeze. That’s how they disperse away from their mothers to begin their independent lives. On that day, each silk was covered with layers of tiny crystals of hoarfrost, which sparkled like holiday tinsel—only better!

The second little treasure, at the edge of the Mendenhall wetlands, was short-lived. I heard an unusual bird song nearby and soon spotted a magpie under some alders. The bird was fossicking about, occasionally pecking at the ground, and singing a very soft, sweet, delightful little song, all to itself. It sang for several minutes, and gradually went out of sight and hearing in the alder thicket. The bird seemed happy; I certainly was!

Little sounds in nature

the rewards of listening in silence

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.