Cowee Meadows

a May expedition finds flowers and toadlets

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Photo by Deana Barajas

Several things combined, recently, to bring me a strong wave of nostalgia for the Midwest. I love the oak trees—their varied forms and leaf shapes and acorns. On top of that, my brother in Wisconsin regales me with tales and pictures of the birds that throng his feeders—orioles, goldfinches, rose-breasted grosbeaks, catbirds, and more—species that I’ve not seen for a long time. Then one of my old post-docs, in Chicago, wrote to me about all the spring flowers that grace the woodland floors—Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot, spring beauty… Aaahh, I do miss all that!

However, on the last weekend in May, a bunch of regular Saturday hikers went out to Cowee Meadows. On the way down the trail, we enjoyed the many bog laurels and bog rosemary flowers in the muskeg, and we stopped to inspect the young bracken ferns for nectaries. Cowee Meadows is a place I like to visit several times as spring becomes summer, to see the seasonal development of the flower show. A couple of weeks ago, there were a few shooting stars, some buttercups and marsh marigolds, but little else. But now, the meadows were awash in color: lots of yellow buttercups, shooting stars in all shades of pink, joined now by tall blue lupines. Hidden under the taller plants were violets, starflowers, and the coming chocolate lilies. Even without the famous irises and the banks of roses, which will bloom in a week or two, this is a spectacular sight—hard to beat! Carpets of strawberry flowers out near the river weren’t bad, either, even though I never get there in time to harvest any of the fruits. Nostalgic feelings were successfully subdued.

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Photo by Louise Ketcheson

One of the most common plants in these meadows is the shrub called sweetgale (Myrica gale). It is very aromatic, and the nodules on the roots fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable by vegetation. The books say that sweetgale is typically dioecious—male and female on separate shrubs, but occasionally hermaphroditic—both sexes on one plant. Yet the shrubs all looked the same to me; where is the other sex? Then I read that, for unknown reasons, sweetgale males commonly outnumber the females by a big margin. So the many shrubs we see bearing small cone-like structures are presumably males. But if so, what do the females look like? Two field guides and a few official floras were no help at all; if they illustrated any flowering parts, it was the typical cones, and the verbal descriptions were unhelpful. Finally I discovered a website (thank you, Minnesota) that illustrated both male and female inflorescences.

It turns out that the rare female inflorescences look like small, red tufts along a twig. Knowing a characteristic that is useful in the field, we have now found two stands of female sweetgale shrubs and a few mixed-sex individuals in a population that is overwhelmingly male. Good to have that sorted out!

Another satisfying observation on this hike was seeing tiny toadlets making their way through thick tangles of herbage. I don’t know in which pond or slough they spent their time as tadpoles, but with patience, they can travel quite a distance once they have legs. One of these toadlets was crawling about on the upper beach, which is hardly a suitable place for a growing toad. Although it is tempting to catch them, we must remember that if we have insect repellent on our hands, it can poison them through their skin. And, in any case, it is illegal to hold, transport, and release them. Better to just observe and protect them!

When I got home, there was fun at my bird feeders. When the pushy jay and the big hairy woodpecker aren’t there, chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos use the peanut butter feeders daily. I started watching more closely as the three smaller birds pecked at the peanut butter lumps on the feeder. Peck and gobble, peck-peck and gobble. But the last peck gets a little gobbet that doesn’t disappear into the inside of the bill. A small wad of peanut butter is carried off into the woods, and I’m betting that it goes to a chick.

Spring happens!

blossoms and pollination, wetland foragers, and sparrows in the grass

The end of April and early May brought signs that our reluctant spring was finally happening, at least at low elevations. The bright yellow display of skunk cabbage made a welcome contrast with the somber greens of conifers and the still-leafless deciduous trees. A close look at the spike-like inflorescence showed that the numerous individual flowers were all still in their female phase, with no signs yet of the pollen that eventually appears around each pointed stigma. The small brown beetles that are the chief pollinators had yet to show up; they prefer inflorescences with pollen. Deer had munched off the tops of many inflorescences, leaving just a stub with a few flowers.

We found several fern-leaf goldthread plants with their wispy, narrow-petalled flowers, which are pollinated by small flies. The early blueberries were in bloom, their pinkish-white flowers waiting for bumblebees to visit. On sun-warmed cliffs along the Perseverance trail, the first purple mountain saxifrage plants made a splendid show; they are pollinated by bumblebees and probably some other insects. And there are reports of yellow violets along some trails.

We enjoy those floral offerings, but they are a dramatic contrast with what happens in early spring in the forests of the Midwest. There, the forest floor is liberally decorated by the early flowers of many species, including bloodroot, spring beauty, dutchman’s breeches, dogtooth “violet”, among others, many of which have showy white petals. Most of these species require an insect pollinator for seed production, and that job is often done by various species of native, non-social, solitary bees and by the non-native honeybee. Here in Southeast, I am told that such solitary bees occur, but almost nothing is known about their ecology.

The avian world was promising, too: Hooters on the hillsides. Kinglets in full song, along with wrens, robins, varied thrushes, and juncos. Fox sparrows starting to tune up. Other sparrows and early warblers arriving but not yet very vocal. Chickadees with nest material and – in some places—eggs in their nests. Sapsuckers excavating nest cavities. The first hermit thrushes skulking in the understory. Hummers zipping to and fro. Flights of violet-green and tree swallows swooping after flying insects. It is always such fun to see and hear the forest awakening each spring.

A few weeks ago I wrote about our local moose population, noting that population growth might be slow, given that only a few moose were known to be in this area. Well, now there are fewer still. A bear reportedly killed one in Cowee Meadows, and I found the remains of one, killed by a human hunter, in another place.

A little walk on the beach along the Mendenhall Peninsula yielded lots of ducks: the usual mallards, plus widgeon, greenwing teal, and shovellers. I was surprised to see hundreds of scoters rafted up in the lower reaches of the river; they are usually out in the bay. Shorebirds were migrating through, with pipits foraging among them.

Ravens had been turned over a cluster of mussels and barnacles, exposing an enormous hairy hermit crab with its abdomen tucked (inadequately) into a moonsnail shell. They were actively foraging on barnacles, nipping and hacking at the shells; we also found several regurgitated deposits of broken barnacle shells, where the birds had jettisoned the undigestible bits. A couple of ravens near a torn-up patch of sand drew our attention. With their powerful bills, they had just excavated three holes, about five inches deep, and extracted the clams that had been buried there, cracking open the clam shells to extract the meaty morsels inside. As we stopped to watch, a raven was just finishing off the last clam.

On my home pond, a few pairs of mallards found peace and quiet, with lots of spilled bird seed on the fast-disappearing ice. But by early May, the ice was gone. The duck crowd had grown, sometimes to twelve or fifteen, now squabbling over the spilled seed. Most of the females probably had a clutch of eggs in progress, but males were largely still in prime breeding dress, no doubt in hopes of some delayed mating opportunities.

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Golden-crowned sparrow. Photo by Kerry Howard

A leisurely stroll around the Crow Point/Boy Scout beach area found a flock of golden-crowned sparrows in the woods along the river and a couple of groups of savanna sparrows along the grassy upper edge of the beach. A flock of dunlin (I think) swirled over the sand flats. In the big, broad meadow I call the ‘goose-flats’, several white-fronted geese mingled with the usual gang of Canada geese, all grubbing for tasty greens and roots, while, off to one side and separate, a flock of snow geese also foraging intently. I circled around all of them at a distance, and so disturbed them not at all.

Elderberry and wild currant bushes leafed out ahead of most other deciduous woody plants, but by the end of the first week of May, bits of green were showing also on willows and alders. In the beach meadows, green shoots were popping up everywhere. It’s “green-up” time!

Spring

always more questions….

Just before Memorial Day, Parks and Rec went up to Cropley Lake to give the skiers among us a nice taste of spring skiing. The rest of the group walked up, with or without snowshoes. Temperatures were in the fifties, so post-holing was a concern for those of us without platforms on our feet, but we had no such problems.

We noted numerous spiders on the surface of the snow and a couple of kinds of beetles. That was IT, for wildlife, although I heard ruby-crowned kinglets, varied thrushes, and a fox sparrow singing. A fairly fresh trackway crossed on open area and doubled back; judging from the prints themselves and the spacing, I guessed that a pine marten had been hunting.

A leisurely lunch in quasi-sunshine included some special desserts in which chocolate was a major feature. Then the skiers went off to play some more and we plodders headed down to the cars.

But we weren’t quite finished with our day. Three of us decided to look for a certain flower that indicates, to some folks, that spring really may be here. Oh yes, the skunk cabbage has been gorgeous and its sweet aroma so pleasant, and the purple mountain saxifrage has been making beautiful shows here and there. But out on the sea stacks and the sea cliffs there’s another sign that spring is getting serious. The two-toned yellow flowers of northern cinquefoil are displayed on a backdrop of three-parted, hairy leaves. And the whole plant nestles in small rocky clefts and crevices along the shores. Each petal is deep yellow or gold at the base and bright, clear yellow elsewhere. I would not be surprised if parts of the petal reflected ultraviolet rays. Does the difference in color-tone serve as an attractant to insect pollinators?

The week before the Cropley hike produced a few nice observations. Out near the glacier I watched pipits foraging along the beaches; the earliest pipits in the area had hunted for insects out on the melting ice. Pipits are easy to tell from our sparrows, because pipits walk and sparrows typically hop.

I also watched a red squirrel, perched on a twig, eating male cottonwood flowers. That makes at least three mammals that eat these flowers; porcupines do, and black bears have done this so much that near the visitors center many cottonwood have broken tops, where the bears have reached out to grab the branches and get the flowers that dangle near the branch ends. (The bears do the same to the female cottonwoods, when they harvest the seed pods.)

Out on the wetlands on the west side of the river, a row of nest boxes had attracted tree swallows, and almost every box had a pair of swallows. Nest building was in progress and the birds were collecting wisps of dry grass to line the boxes. A flock of thirteen pectoral sandpipers made shallow probes in a mud flat; they must have been finding something good, because there were busily at it and not to be distracted by a mere human nearby. I heard a husky ‘chek’, ‘chek’ note and knew without looking that an old friend, a red-winged blackbird, was there. Indeed, he was perched on a rootwad, with his bright red epaulets covered. So he was not defending a territory but was perhaps exploring in hopes of finding a place to settle. There are not many places within our urban confines that are suitable for redwings.

There’s always something nice to be seen or heard, and always more questions to be asked!