As February became March, the longer days and a streak of relatively warm days meant that folks on the trails were greeting me with “It smells like spring!” and “Spring is in the air!” Of course, we weren’t really done with snow—one day in the second week of March, I slithered and slewed, creeping through deep slushy snow on the North Douglas highway, and my driveway was thick with the same. More snow came a few days later.
Critters and plants are getting ready for spring, too. Ravens carry sticks to build a nest. Eagles are building too, bringing sticks to a growing platform that will, one day, hold some eggs in a soft cup. Mallards are seen in pairs on the wetlands; mergansers too. Juncos begin to sing, but not yet in full voice. There is a report of snow geese, the first of their kind this year.
Plants also know what’s coming. Skunk cabbage pokes sharp green tips of folded leaves above the surface of ice-fringed ponds. Buds on elderberry and cottonwood are getting fat, preparing to send forth young leaves in a few weeks; buds on the rose bushes at the end of the dike trail are also showing promising signs. Woolly cinquefoil on a rocky outcrop above the beach shows green leaves tucked under old brown foliage.
Meanwhile, we’re still ski-ing the campground and the Montana Creek trail. The big lake and the ponds in the Valley are still covered with (softening) ice. The slate-colored form of dark-eyed juncos that visit us from the Interior are still here, coming to feeders along with the local Oregon form.
We all have signs of spring that we await eagerly and greet with glee. Here is a sampling of favorite signs from a few trail-walking friends (a few of these examples have happened already!):
–Pussy-willow catkins, males presenting pollen
–the squalling of varied thrushes
— the first bumblebees, coming to crocus flowers and willow catkins
–mermaids’ purses (egg cases of long-nosed skates) washed upon a particular North Douglas beach
–the rollicking song of ruby-crowned kinglets
— early yellow violets
–wren songs from the thickets
–footprints of a bear, just emerged from hibernation
–arrival of sapsuckers, their drumming and tapping and calling
–the appearance of rufous hummingbirds (in addition to Anna’s, some of which stayed all winter)
–a flight of shorebirds on their way north for the nesting season
–alder catkins starting to get soft and limp, in preparation for releasing pollen
–the refreshing aroma of cottonwood buds (after some warm days and nights)
Looking for signs of spring as they develop is a big part of the pleasure in taking a walk at this time of year. Given Juneau’s assortment of microclimates, we can expect to see things happening at different times in different places. And the lookingwill only get better in the next few weeks!
Spring is officially here: the vernal equinox has gone by and the days are rapidly lengthening. There are much livelier signs of spring as well. Sapsuckers have arrived in force, rat-atat-tating on rain gutters and stove pipes (and trees). Juncos trill at the forest edge and song sparrows are tuning up in the brush above the beaches. Pacific wrens sound off from invisible lookouts in the understory. Best of all, ruby-crowned kinglets can be heard, high in the conifers, calling ‘peter-peter-peter’ or singing their full, cheerful song. That’s when spring is really here, for me.
A walk on a favorite beach on Douglas Island was focused on finding mermaids’ purses—the egg cases of long-nosed skates. Every year, about this time, we find them washed up in the wrack at the high tide line—there must be a nursery just offshore. On this day, we found sixteen eggs cases, mostly black, dry, and in various stages of decrepitude. Just a few were still mostly whole and khaki-colored, and two had natural openings at one end, where perhaps the young skate had exited. All the egg cases had sizable holes punched into them. I would love to know if marine predators had nabbed the developing embryos or if the holes were made by a tardy, would-be predator just hoping that an embryo was still inside.
A good find in the rolled mats of rockweed at the high tide line was the body of a sea star, entirely eviscerated. All the gonads and digestive parts had been cleanly removed, neatly exposing the calcareous skeleton of the water-vascular system that runs from the center of the star out into each arm. In a living sea star, the canals of this hydraulic system are filled with fluid, mostly sea water. Numerous branches of the main canal lead to the tube feet (often visible in a live star, in rows under each arm) that function in locomotion and in opening clams. When the tube feet are extended, their ends stick to the rocks or the clam shell, and muscles in the feet contract, pulling the animal forward or pulling the clam shell open. We sometimes see a sea star humped up over a partly open clam while the star is having dinner.
A stroll on the Boy Scout/Crow Point trail led to the goose-flat covered with hundreds of crows fossicking in the dead, brown vegetation. Lots of searching and probing. Sometimes half a dozen crows would suddenly converge on another one, everybody poking at something. Apparently, successful hunts were not very common and the gang thought that sharing was appropriate.
Lots of Canada geese were scattered in small groups on the flats, in the river, and in the vegetation by the river. There were mostly head-down, intent on foraging—grubbing for roots and such, and of course talking to each other. Occasionally, two of them would take off and wing around in a wide circle before landing back where they started. One of these duos took off upstream—perhaps a mated pair about to look for a nest site in the forest.
As we often do, out there, we encountered a fellow we call the Raven Man, who carried a big bag of dog biscuits to feed the ravens. He does this from time to time, and the local ravens recognize him. As he passes through each raven territory, the residents come to greet him and cadge some biscuits. We watched some of these ravens carry five biscuits at a time, first stacking them up in a neat pile so they could be held in the bill. A dog, with some hikers, came along later and sniffed out places where ravens had cached their loot, covering it with grass or moss—surprising the hikers who were not expecting to see dog biscuits in the moss.
Most folks in Juneau are glad to see the snow disappear, at least at the lower elevations. But I loved the good snows we had in February, and here are a few flash-back memories.
–Weasels had been very active in the Peterson Creek meadows and Amalga meadows. They bounded over the clean snow, ranging widely. Every so often, the trail dove straight down under the snow and re-appeared a few feet beyond or disappeared under the overhanging edge of a frozen slough. I think they were hunting voles, whose tunnels run under the snow; did they dive down in response to the sound or fresh smell of vole or were the dives just exploratory? Another treat in one meadow were well-defined trails of mice, showing a good tail-drag.
–On the west side of Mendenhall Lake, one day I found a set of tracks running way out onto the snowy ice and right back again. It was clearly a member of the weasel family, probably a mink. What was it doing??
–A snowshoe trek up a creek out the road was a bonanza of tracks (and no recent human tracks). In the woods on the way up the hill, there were tracks of deer, mouse, weasel, squirrel, and maybe a marten. Big excitement of some large tracks that were surely those of a wolverine—the toes and the gait gave it away. The most fun was seeing a set of wolf tracks coursing over a frozen pond that sparkled with sun-struck hoarfrost.
Now the fun in the snow is finished for the year, and the fun of spring begins. Juneau folks typically love to note the progress of spring, as the season unfolds. Skunk cabbage emerging, pussy willows appearing, blueberry buds expanding, the gradual arrival of more kinds of birds, ravens carrying sticks for a nest—they all mark the progress of a favorite season.
glimpses of red, yellow and purple herald the season
There often comes a time in early spring when the seasonal progress seems to stall—there are still freezing temperatures at night, many ponds are still ice-covered, the iris shoots in the meadows aren’t getting perceptibly bigger, meadow grasses and sedges lie flat and dead, the lady ferns stay humped under their old dark fronds—and we get impatient for more signs of spring.
That is a good time to notice little spots of color in the forests and meadows. Folks who live in Southeast had better like green and gray, because those colors are the common background on the landscape—green conifers and frequent gray clouds. One can add ‘brown’ for all the dead grasses and sedges lying in the meadows. But the little bright spots of other colors are a visual treat, adding interest to a walk.
Touches of red pop up in several ways:
–Ruby red berries of so-called false lily of the valley lie nestled like glowing jewels in the moss. These are last year’s fruits that typically don’t ripen until they have overwintered. They will feed the early-arriving robins and then the hermit thrushes.
–Red twigs of the early-blueberry shrubs gleam, adding a pleasing contrast in the still-leafless understory. That observation brings up a question: why do these twigs turn red but not (or so I am told by those who know more than I do) those of the later-blooming Alaska blueberry?
–A few translucent red berries of high-bush cranberry hang at the ends of thin branches, uneaten by bears or pine grosbeaks or anybody else last fall or winter.
–A flash of red on the side of a tree trunk helps to advertise the presence of a red-breasted sapsucker as it hitches its way upward, tapping the bark.
–Along the roadsides, the male catkins of red alder make a swathe of a duller red that is nevertheless very noticeable against the conifers’ green. As the catkins mature, they droop and gradually open to release pollen, and the redness fades.
In residential areas, gardens of multicolored crocuses attract queen bumblebees, busily searching for nectar deep in the flower and grooming pollen off their heads. Some of them probably collect pollen too. Away from settled areas, however, those queens have only male pussy-willows as a source of nectar or pollen, until the early blueberries bloom (adding pinkish-white to the color-scape).
A favorite of many folks is the bright yellow of skunk cabbage. First appearing as a yellow spear emerging from wet places, the hood (or spathe) around the cylindrical inflorescence expands. It helps attract pollinating insects and also happens to provide shelter for the little beetles that come to the small flowers of the inflorescences to feed—and also to court and mate, and incidentally pollinate the flowers. Skunk cabbage provides a ‘progressive party’ of color, because different stands mature at different times as their specific locations warm up. Even one skunk cabbage is delightful; a whole pond full of them is spectacular.
Many of us look for purple mountain saxifrage in early spring. It likes to grow on cliffs and other rocky places, so it is very localized. We always feel rewarded when we find the first blooming ones each spring.
At somewhat higher elevations, Cooley’s false buttercups make splashes of yellow. And don’t forget to look for the violets!
Of course, impatience doesn’t suffice to hurry spring along. But it will come—flocks of robins now skitter along beaches, mallards congregate in the ice-free part of Riverside Park pond, the early songsters are heard more often. Ruby-crowned kinglets now serenade my house daily!
I never tire of watching the prolonged arrival of spring. The basic patterns are generally consistent, but always with some little variations and even surprises. This year, the big difference is what is missing: there is very little snow on the mountains. The rocky mountainsides are showing all too clearly and the usual cornice on Thunder Mountain hardly developed at all. The lack of snow ‘upstairs’ will surely have serious consequences, reducing our sources of water and hydropower and the water supply for the creeks where salmon usually spawn.
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.
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!
Early April and, despite some earlier signs of spring, we seemed to be stuck in the middle of a long cold spell—freezing at night and daytime temperatures in the thirties or low forties. All the trails were icy, and it seemed as if I would never get all the ice chipped off my driveway.
A friend who had missed a Parks and Rec hike to Cowee Meadows during a warm spell in March wanted to check out that area. Where P&R hikers had waded ankle-deep in meltwater on the trail, in early April it was all frozen solid. We walked securely over the beaver sloughs and ponds—easy going! The only down-side was a very stiff and cold north wind, with gusts strong enough to send me off-balance occasionally. So we didn’t go out on the beach at all, but just wandered around the meadows to see what we could see. We hid from the wind behind some dense spruces for a comfortable lunch in the sun.
There was plenty of evidence that the horses from the ranch across Cowee Creek had paid their usual visits. They too had taken shelter in the lee of spruce thickets, leaving digested evidence of their sheltered stay.
Bird life was scarce. A woodpecker drummed, but it eluded our sighting. A couple of chickadees flitted by, at the forest edge. A group of nervous mallards fled down the creek well ahead of us. Two ravens performed their classic rolls as they flew overhead.
A solitary, hapless robin poked along the fringe of a frozen pool, where the sun had loosened the ice along the edges. There was little there to feed on; maybe it was getting a drink. In fact, there’s not much for robins to eat when the weather is like this—some invertebrates on the beaches, perhaps, and a few frozen berries in the woods; I wonder how they manage to survive.
Two little sparrows, buffeted by the winds, dove into the shelter of bent-over dead grasses. From their pale brown backs, I guessed that they were savanna sparrows, which frequent these meadows. They stayed under cover for some time—smart birds!
Later in the morning, and a little farther on, we came upon a bunch of six crows, all gathered around the edge of a shallow, sun-warmed pool with some remaining ice. They looked like they were drinking: they’d dip the bill into the water, then raise it up and tip it back—which is how many birds drink fluids. But what was so special about this pool, when the creek and some other pools were nearby?
A few green shoots emerged from one small open-water slough. But all the skunk cabbage shoots that had emerged above the surface of the frozen meadow had been blasted by the cold temperatures. It’s not unusual to see frost damage on the tips of skunk cabbage shoots, but out in these meadows, the cold had killed and blackened several inches of new shoots. Not a good start of the season for them.
There were deposits of moose pellets on the snow in several places, clear evidence that moose had been visiting the meadows this winter. Moose have been recorded from Cowee Meadows for several years, as well as a few other places in Juneau, where moose are usually a rarity.
Sweet gale, a wetland shrub, is widespread in these meadows. The volatile oils of this aromatic plant are reported to repel midges and mosquitoes, but moth caterpillars are said to love eating the leaves. Insect damage induces the plant to increase its chemical defenses, reducing further attacks. The volatile oils can also reduce some fungal and bacterial infections. Vertebrate herbivores include beavers and moose; the European mountain hare eats it too, leading me to wonder if our snowshoe hares might do so also. We noted that some of the sweetgale shrubs in the meadow had been browsed, possibly by the visiting moose, but we could not exclude the possibility that ranch horses might have done so.
Sweetgale is an interesting plant in other ways too. It harbors symbiotic bacteria in root nodules; the bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen, making it accessible to plants. Although some accounts say that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, in reality, some individual plants have both male and female flowers and, to further confuse the matter of gender identity, sometimes both male and female sex organs are found in the same flower. However, I have not found any information about the factors that might control sex expression in sweetgale. In any case, propagation is said to be primarily by vegetative means, via underground stems called rhizomes, rather than by sexual means and seed production.
Although this excursion to the meadows was very wintery, I just had a cheering report from a friend that ruby-crowned kinglets have arrived! Now spring can get serious.
The days get longer and longer, and folks in Juneau begin to wish that spring would hurry up and get here. The spring equinox occurred this week, so now Spring is officially here.
The real world was ever-so-slightly ahead of officialdom. In the days of March before the equinox, there were clear signs that spring might really happen, even though snow still covered the ground and hung in clumps on tree branches, and creeks were mostly ice-covered. Redpolls still thronged to our seed feeders, and the magpies were still in town too, not yet ready to head over the mountains to their nesting places.
But the plants knew that the times were changing. Cottonwood buds swelled with the developing leaves inside them. The catkins of feltleaf willow, always the earliest willow to flower, began to emerge from their bud covers but were not yet sexually mature. The still-immature male catkins of red alders along the roads began to blush with a rusty-red hue. Blueberry twigs took on a brighter red and their buds began to peep open. Young willow shoots shone with a yellow hue.
Near several streams, adult stoneflies began to emerge from the creeks, crawling over the snow. Some observers have suggested that female stoneflies stay closer to the streams than males do, because they lay their eggs in the water, where the larvae develop. That leads me to wonder why the males don’t hang out where the girls are, since their main goal is to find mates.
The early birds were singing: Juncos trilled from the tops of trees and shrubs. I heard a few song sparrows and had reports of varied thrushes and a wren in song—still rather sporadically. A few robins foraged for skimpy foods. At least some sapsuckers are back, drumming their rhythms on metal roofs and drainpipes. There is a report of black oystercatchers, early returnees to our rocky shores from points south. Groups of gulls were checking out their nesting areas near Mendenhall Lake one day, but apparently they decided that the visit was premature and it would be better to wait a while. Then, just before the equinox, they tried again; I heard their calls as they flew up the valley and over the lake toward the glacier.
Pairs of ravens canoodled on lamp posts, and a raven on Sandy Beach was diligently filling its bill with clumps of dog fur, a sign that a nest was being lined with those cozy materials. At least some of the Canada geese near the Boy Scout camp were consorting in pairs. A few days later, in the same broad meadow, hundreds of Canadas grazed, joined by a lone snow goose. Steller’s jays expanded their vocabulary: their spring repertoire includes a variety of more musical sounds than the familiar year-round squawk.
One of the beaches on Douglas Island is a place I like to check, about this time of year, because I often find ‘mermaids’ purses’ washed up at the high tide line. These are the egg cases of long-nose skates (relatives of rays and, more distantly, sharks). There is one egg, and thus one embryo, in each egg case of this species. Eggs are fertilized inside the female skates and the cases of protein fibers are constructed around the eggs. The cases are yellowish-brown before they dry out and turn black on the shore. Most of those that I found had been hacked open, perhaps by a raven or gull, but some appeared to be intact. Maybe the embryo had already emerged through the seam in the side of the case, ready to go as a fully formed young skate. Or maybe a predatory snail had drilled a very small hole (less than five millimeters or so) in the case and slurped up the young embryo. Or there is also a possibility that no embryo had been there—that the case was produced with no egg.
When someone says ‘spring is in the air’, it really is! As Parks and Rec hikers waded through flooded meadows to the beach just beyond the Cowee Meadow cabin, little zephyrs brought the welcome smell of spring to our noses. I don’t know what makes that aroma so distinct, but there is nothing quite like it.
With two treasured companions, I set off on an easy stroll on the Rainforest Trail on North Douglas. As usual, we went in search of nothing in particular and whatever things of interest we could find. Not having a specific, predetermined goal is often a good way to stumble upon the unexpected or just touch base with the familiar.
At the trail head, we meet a couple of Fish and Game biologists who were monitoring bat movements. They shared their discovery of a marked bat that was apparently roosting in the cliffs next to the beach. This little brown bat, a female, had been tagged at Fish Creek. The biologists reported that other marked bats were also moving around to different places in Juneau.
On down the trail, we encountered a small flock of ruby-crowned kinglets that included a brown creeper. The creeper hitched its way up a big dead tree and spent at least a minute checking out the space behind a loose flap of bark—just the kind of place creepers like to put their nests.
Down on the beach, we found deep windrows of rockweed piled up way into the beach-rye zone, clear evidence of recent high tides and high winds. Now the tide was low, and we ambled along the water’s edge, peering into rocky crevices and turning over rocks (and turning them back, too!). Some rocks were obviously favored habitat, housing quite a community of miniature critters: dainty six-armed sea stars only half an inch across, tiny limpets and chitons just two or three millimeters in size, sea cucumbers an inch long or less, and an occasional miniscule sea urchin. Toothpick-size towers stuck up from the mudflats; excavation revealed skinny tubes of sand grains, presumably inhabited by some kind of worm.
I was fascinated by the burrowing anemones, buried up to their tentacles in muck. They came in many colors, including green, tan, yellow-orange, and brownish, all with white bands on the tentacles. They may come in many other colors as well, including red, blue, and black, depending on location. Many of them had bits of shell stuck around their bodies, so when they retracted, all one saw was a ring of broken shell about the size of a silver dollar. They are reported to feed on fish eggs and small, floating invertebrates.
We perched on Shaman Island for a while, just to watch what might be going on in the coves on either side of the tombolo (a.k.a. the spit) that connects the island to mainland when the tide is out. A group of twenty or thirty black-bellied plovers prospected over the sand flats (and I got a quick reminder-lesson on how to tell them from other plovers that have black fronts). Crows were foraging in the mussel beds, sometimes walking around with straggling bits dangling from their bills and seeming to cache their prizes among the cobbles. Groups of harlequin ducks and common goldeneyes floated peacefully around the edges of the covers.
A sizable flock of scoters suddenly erupted in panicked flight and fled out around the point. Just the sort of thing they would do if an eagle swooped down over the flock. But the eagles were quietly perched in spruce trees on shore. The perpetrator of the panic was a male harrier that coursed low over the flock, briefly followed the birds around the point, and then turned to follow the beach, perhaps looking for something of a more convenient size. Could a harrier actually take a scoter that weighs twice as much as itself?
On the way back up to the parking lot we noticed quite a few flowering fern-leafed goldthread; close inspection showed that all of these were male. Maybe those that also have female parts (that is, they are hermaphrodites) flower a little later?
Finally, as we left the parking lot, we spotted a snowshoe hare scampering up the bank. Not white, not brown, but in between, and not well camouflaged in any habitat. Although I’ve seen thousands of hare tracks, one dead leveret (baby hare) in the jaws of a cat, and one dead adult hare in the clutches of a goshawk, I can’t remember seeing a living adult hare around here. So this was a minor coup.
During our short perambulations on the beach, we also filled a yellow litter bag to the very brim, with cast-off food and drink containers, oil rags, broken plastic parts of unknown objects, and a thick, sodden seat cushion. The bag containing all that mess we deposited near the trash container at the trailhead. However, on the shore of Shaman Island there was a wheel, with tire, that was too much for us to carry out; we hope some kind soul with a boat might go and remove it to a more suitable location.
In June, we witnessed an explosion of tiny flies that swarmed in dense clouds. These mating swarms of March flies were so common that the Empire carried a story about them (22 June, 2012). The flies are short-lived, and their bodies accumulated on the surface of muskeg ponds and along the shores of Mendenhall Lake, where birds gobbled them up. Some of the March flies arrived, by choice or by wind, on the slowly dwindling snowbanks on Gold Ridge, above the tram. The surface of the snow was dotted with their tiny bodies and even with a few still living. Some were lively enough, however, to make their way to early flowers blooming in the snow-free areas.
Many of the remaining snowbanks had reddish streaks and patches. Going by the informal name of watermelon snow, both for the color and a faint aroma, it is actually an alga that lives on snow. It is common worldwide in alpine areas and polar regions.
Technically, the snow alga is a single-celled green alga, with chlorophyll that captures sunlight to fuel the process of photosynthesis, by which green plants build carbohydrates, releasing water and oxygen. However green it may be underneath, it ultimately turns red, from molecules that protect the green, photosynthetic pigment from intense UV radiation. In winter, the alga is dormant in the soil and contains antifreeze to protect it from freezing, but come spring, the dormant cells release several smaller, green cells that have two whip-like hairs called flagella. Using the flagella, the little green cells recolonize the spring snow by swimming upward through the snow to the surface layers. At some point, they acquire the red color. At the surface, they may form thick-walled resting cells capable of enduring desiccation and summer temperatures and waiting for the next snow season. Or they may fuse in pairs to form zygotes–the product of sexual union, and then become dormant, later dividing into the swimming cells to recolonize a new layer of snow.
Snow algae build their carbohydrates for energy, but needed minerals are derived from wind-blown dust and bits of organic debris; they get needed water from slight melting of the snow. They are eaten by a variety of micro-herbivores, including protozoans, rotifers, nematode worms, ice worms, and springtails. These grazers are, in turn, eaten by mites, spiders, and insects, which often end up in the stomachs of alpine songbirds. The pipits, rosy finches, and occasional robins and sparrows also gorge on insects that are blown up the sides of mountains, eventually becoming immobilized by the cool temperatures at higher elevation. A condign fate for all those March flies too!
Gold Ridge had other things to offer that day too. There were long-abandoned ptarmigan beds, where the birds had spent the night in a snow-burrow that was now exposed by snow-melt. We found a strange pellet about two inches long, just lying on the snow. Close inspection revealed lots of little pebbles stuck together and—aha!—pieces of shell, including a recognizable fragment of barnacle shell. So the perpetrator was probably a raven that had been foraging along the shoreline and had unloaded this clump of indigestible bits.
A few flowers were blooming, such as the tiny primrose called pixie eyes, a mat-forming plant known as alpine azalea, some adventurous lupines and valerian, Cooley’s buttercup, hairy cinquefoil, and caltha-leaved avens.
Our peaceful sojourn in the alpine was terminated by the temptations of dinner-time and rising winds that presaged a change from our brief spell of post-solstice sunshine.
When I got up that morning and looked out the window, rain was cascading down. This is spring, so I really didn’t want fall weather. But I glumly packed up my gear, somewhat grumpily donned my rain pants, made sure my rain jacket was in the car, and went to pick up some Parks and Rec hiking friends. By the time we reached the Perseverance trailhead, the sky was blue, the sun had climbed over the ridges, and with smiling faces we headed up the trail (after greeting the large, furry, white dog that lives in the Gold Museum and likes to check out folks at the trailhead).
Spring is always quite exciting, because there will be something new to see or hear or smell almost every day. In the past two or three days, leaves had fairly leaped out of their buds, and cottonwood leaves glittered in their new-green hues. Salmonberry canes sported their first pink flowers, and clumps of shooting stars decorated the trailsides. My favorite yellow violet was in good flower, along with the small-flowered lavender one. The air was fresh with the delicate fragrance of cottonwood resin (on the bud covers) and the sweet perfume of skunk cabbage (nothing the least skunky about it!).
Robins carried food to their chicks, and parental varied thrushes clucked warnings to their newly fledged youngsters. Wilson’s warblers chattered on all sides and a few yellow warblers announced their recent arrival. Fox sparrows held shouting matches (in song) in the thickets. Ruby-crowned kinglets gave many variations of their rich, musical song. A few hermit thrushes fussed in the underbrush but did not sing. A pair of harlequin ducks loafed on a midstream rock, presumably with thoughts of eggs to be laid in a nest not far away.
Where Lurvey Creek joins Gold Creek, I gazed upstream for half an hour and was finally rewarded by a small gray bird that darted out of a crevice in the cliff and perched on the deep snowbank that lined one side of the creek. Dippers often nest here, except in years when snows still cover the entire creek. A snow-bridge below the dipper’s nest site collapsed bit by bit and sent snow-bergs downstream, as we enjoyed a leisurely lunch with homemade cookies.
If we had been there two days later, things would have been really exciting. Big slabs on the flank of the ridge loosed their moorings and slithered down into Gold Creek, just above the junction with Lurvey Creek. A deep mound of dirt and boulders now squats over the creek, which has carved its way through the debris. Gold Creek was turbid for several days, and this is likely to continue for a while, given the size of the dirt pile. The heavy sediment load is probably bad news for the dippers trying to nest downstream, because the water is too opaque for them to find their food.
A warm day or two later, I was on the West Glacier trail, finding the first baneberry flowers, lots of buttercups, more violets, and batteries of white butterflies looking for mates and visiting the violet flowers. On damp, rocky sites we found clumps of a flowering plant that was new to me until very recently. It goes by the utterly silly common name of Sitka mistmaiden (more formally known as Romanzoffia sitchensis), and it looks enough like a saxifrage (which it is not) to fool a botanist. This trip had the ultimate goal of checking for a dipper nest at a stream that plunges off Mt McGinnis into Mendenhall Lake. And indeed, the birds were there, although this year the nest was in a new site across the creek. I think that dippers started nesting by this stream as soon as the glacier left the site open.
The next Parks and Rec excursion was a stroll out to Blue Mussel cabin on the shore of Berners Bay. Overcast skies kept the temperatures relatively cool, and mist lay low over Lynn Canal. We gobbled up a homemade rhubarb dessert (yes, mom, even before ‘cleaning our plates’), as small squads of sea lions foraged enthusiastically and a humpback whale made unexpectedly tight turns in pursuit of the same small fishes.
Although our spring arrived late this year, the meadows were awash in pink-flowered shooting stars. Bright yellow buttercups dotted the fields of pink, yellow marsh marigolds adorned the wet ditches, and the yellow display of skunk cabbages attracted the usual crowds of small, brown, pollinating beetles. Lupine was just beginning to bloom, but these early blooms had already been visited by bumblebees, turning the upper petals from white to magenta.
I heard a snipe performing its great aerial display, but I think I was the only hiker who noticed this. Savannah sparrows sang and flitted low in the herbage, and I heard a distant burbling song of a Lincoln’s sparrow (but I had to think hard for a bit before I could pull that one out of my so-called memory!). And I have not mentioned the mosquitoes…
On the walk between the beach berm and the Blue Mussel cabin, we encountered several signs that the trail is also used by bears. There was a strange, barren patch of forest, in which there was no ground cover and all the smaller trees were quite dead. It looked as if a ground fire had passed through, but there were no signs of charring, leaving the cause an open question.
Considerable work has greatly improved the formerly squishy trail between the Cowee Meadow cabin and the beach berm, where sweetgale was just leafing out. However, parts of the trail through the meadows were ankle-deep in water, nicely contained between the logs that mark the trail edges. A few more loads of gravel between the logs in these sections would surely be appreciated!
A poet wrote “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” For Juneau in 2013, the answer is Yes! We’ve had, I think, three big snowstorms in April. Another poet wrote: “April is the cruelest month…” and, this year (so far!), that seems appropriate (with apologies to said poets for taking their lines quite out of context! Also to my long-gone eleventh-grade English teacher, who would be rolling her eyes and shaking her head, because the lines floated into my head, out of context, but not the poets; I had to look ‘em up to refresh my so-called memory. Sorry, Miss Dahl!).
The snow seems likely to bring temporary hardship to many creatures. The nesting hummingbird is sitting tight but no doubt having a hard time finding enough food for herself. The ducks on my pond are swimming through thick slush. Juncos, which typically forage on the ground, are driven to visit the seed feeders hanging over the pond; they cling with some difficulty to perches made for smaller birds. Mountain goats may stay at low elevations longer than usual, because the snow is too deep in their alpine haunts, and any newborn kids become more vulnerable to bear predation than they would be in the alpine zone. Will the early blueberry flowers get pollinated if the bumblebees are obliged to retreat to their nests?
But beautiful it is; as the annual Audubon cruise to Berners Bay set out in a snowstorm, we told ourselves that there is no place more beautiful than Juneau.
The spring run of eulachon (hooligan) in the rivers of Berners Bay had not yet begun, and there were no signs of herring spawning. But there were obviously forage fish in the bay, because their marine predators were busy. Tightly packed squads of Steller sea lions splashed and dove in unison, chasing some kind of small fish, or rafted up to rest in between foraging forays. A rocky reef was lined with bald eagles, with harbor seals scattered around just offshore. We saw humpback whales doing something that most of us had not seen before: five or six whales were foraging together, shoulder to shoulder in a tight bunch, often making short dives simultaneously. Some lone humpbacks foraging elsewhere in the bay came and joined in. My guess is that there were several small schools of forage fish in the bay, as a preamble to the big spawning events, and the predators concentrated their efforts because the prey had a patchy distribution.
Along with the usual assortment of gulls and sea ducks, we saw yellow-billed loons, which commonly winter along the shores of the northeastern Pacific. They look a lot like common loons and are indeed closely related, but they have a pale, slightly up-tilted, bill. These birds would be staging for a northward migration to the Arctic tundra where they nest, probably about the middle of June. They have to wait for the tundra lakes to thaw, so they can hunt for fish and various invertebrates; if they go north before leads open in the ice, many would die. Breeding pairs get together on the nesting grounds, and each female commonly lays two eggs that hatch around midJuly. It takes about three years for the young birds to mature and find their own mates.
There are reportedly fewer than about three thousand of these loons in Alaska. Their populations may be limited by the availability of suitable habitat—they need lakes with early ice-out, protected shorelines for nest sites, stable water levels so the nests don’t get flooded, and clear, shallow waters for foraging. They also may have to compete with other loons for suitable habitat.
Another wintry foray in April took us on snowshoes up the forested route to Cropley Lake. Among the interesting observations was a well-gnawed tree where a porcupine had found dinner. Much of the bark was gone. Porcupines feed on the inner bark and commonly reject the tough outer bark. The unusual thing was a deep, very tidy, circular mat of outer-bark chips closely packed at the base of the tree. We’ve seen lots of porcupine-chewed tree but had never seen (or ?noticed) how the chips piled up so neatly. We also found a little hemlock tree that had contorted itself into a full circle in its struggle to reach the light. Never give up!