Sheep Creek Valley

nest-building, a song chorus, and a wildflower show

In early June, Parks & Rec hikers went up the Sheep Creek trail on a day of fitful rain showers and intermittent sunshine. This is a favorite trail, but it was clear that the trail could use some work! The uphill portion of the trail is seriously eroded by water coursing down the trail. The long traverse below the road is cut by deep erosional gullies and the edge of the trail is collapsing in spots. Along this stretch, cow parsnip overhangs and obscures the trail. Once in the valley proper, the going is easier, although several wind-shattered cottonwoods and sagging willows lie across the trail and there are more erosion cuts. Some of these things are easily fixed, while others are significantly more challenging.

This was a good time to go up into the valley, because it is rich in nesting, singing songbirds. Even though the P&R summer hikes begin well after the early-morning chorus of bird song (and my hearing is not as good as it once was), I identified the songs of twelve songbird species, plus hooters on the hillsides. One species, in particular, was a treat: Swainson’s thrushes commonly nest up there but they arrive later than the others; I don’t usually hear them until June. By that time, robins and fox sparrows are feeding chicks and juncos have fledglings.

swainson's-thrush-by-bob-armstrong
Swainson’s thrush with nest material. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Swainson’s thrushes nest all across northern North America and down along the Rockies. They spend the winter mostly in southern Central America and northern South America, although some go as far as northern Argentina. When they at last arrive here in spring, the female builds a nest, usually in the understory, lays her eggs and incubates them, while the male sings. But both parents tend the chicks. Hearing the song of that species is certainly a treat for me, but my favorite remains the ruby-crowned kinglet’s cheering carols from the canopy.

Right next to the trail we found a very large scat of a carnivore, full of fur and bones, artistically arranged. A wolf (or possibly a bear) had dined well, probably on marmot.

On this hike, some of the wild flowers were appearing—lots of buttercups, some chocolate lilies and miner’s lettuce, three kinds of violets, a few enchanter’s nightshade. Occasional salmonberry canes bore flowers, but there were wide stands of dead canes, some of which showed no evidence (?yet) of new canes coming up at the bases of the old ones. Does that bode ill for salmonberry production up here this year?

A special floral sighting was a clump of some kind of saxifrage, growing on boulder. We’d seen this on previous hikes too and noted the leaves with three sharp terminal teeth. That made identification simple—the three-toothed saxifrage. The leaf margins have scattered hairs, a feature that led us astray for a while, but consultation with real botanists eliminated the confusion and confirmed the name. This species is not common in our area, but it seems to be the only saxifrage here with three-toothed leaves. The white petals have reddish spots on them (so does another species, but that one has different leaves). It’s fun to try to figure out such things and learn new species; now if I can just remember all the distinguishing features…

Of course, having the right name is just a small part of any story! Many questions lie in wait for curious naturalists. What insects pollinate this plant? What is the function of the spots on the petals? Do the marginal hairs on the leaf deter some herbivores? Does this plant typically grow on rocks? And so on. That’s where the real interest and fun lie!

Just for fun of a different sort, on a completely different topic: I put up a peanut butter feeder on my deck this spring. A simple thing, it consists of a small block of wood with pits (for peanut butter) drilled into both sides of it. This dangles on a hook where I can see it easily, while lazing in my big comfortable chair. The chickadees found it almost immediately and visit it regularly. Did they know that this funny-looking thing might have food or are they just curious? Once there, one experimental peck would tell them there were goodies to be had, worth coming back for. For several weeks, I saw only chickadees there. Then the juncos began to come. Maybe they saw that the chickadees were making repeat visits and decided to check it out. They are considerably larger and much less acrobatic than chickadees, but they somewhat clumsily began to perch on top and reach down to the peanut-butter-laden holes. As time went on, they became more adept and more skillful at extracting several nice bites before losing their balance and fluttering down. Clearly they were learning how to exploit a new resource!

Occasionally other birds came too; a hairy woodpecker clung to the side of the feeder and reached quite easily over to the food source. A Steller’s jay sat on the deck railing, scoped out the situation, and flew straight at one of the gobs of peanut butter, snatching out a good mouthful on its way back to the railing. That worked, so it repeated the maneuver a couple of times. But it has not been seen again.

 

Out and about in mid-June

spring songs, subalpine sightings, and a choosy bear

I went, with a friend, into Sheep Creek Valley one morning, to listen to bird songs. I especially wanted to hear Swainson’s thrush, whose vigorous, upward-spiraling song is beautiful, and Sheep Creek Valley is usually a good place to hear them. We entered the valley around eight o’clock, and I heard fox sparrows, an orange-crowned warbler, a Lincoln’s sparrow, a ruby-crowned kinglet… and a few unenthusiastic, feeble-sounding Swainson’s thrushes. The valley was far quieter than I had expected, even though we missed the dawn chorus, which would have started about two-thirty—this being near the summer solstice. Then, about ten o’clock, the Swainson’s got warmed up and tuned up and sounded like their normal selves.

There’s a conifer grove in the midst of the cottonwoods, alders, and willows, and there we saw a chestnut-backed chickadee, perched just over our heads. It took a surprising interest in my cap, approaching it from front, side, and back and looking closely at it. I have no idea why it was seemingly so fascinated. The cap is red, but that doesn’t seem to signify. On the front is a picture of a crowned crane, which has a big white cheek patch (like a chickadee) framed by black (like a chickadee), and we wondered if that could have been the attraction. We’ll never know!

On another day, we wandered up to Cropley Lake, to check on the stands of yellow-flowered fireweed that grow in wet patches on the back side of the lake. We fund a big boulder to sit on while we had our morning tea and crumpets, but as we started to settle down, we flushed a female sooty grouse and a tiny chick from the dense ground cover. Mama grouse clucked and fussed, and they both took refuge at the edge of a willow thicket fringed with dense ferns. Mama kept peeking out to check on the ‘monsters’ that had entered her domain. We thought she might be waiting for a few more chicks to catch up with her, from farther up the hill, and we were perhaps keeping the family from re-uniting. So we gathered up the tea party and moved about a hundred yards away, where we may have bothered some jays. We found the yellow fireweed plants, just budding and not yet showy.

Other treats on this walk included a set of very tiny deer fawn tracks in the mud, and an olive-sided flycatcher singing from the tops of mountain hemlocks: “Quick, three beers !!!” again and again. The little insectivorous plant called butterwort or sometimes bog violet (it is not a violet, but the flower is superficially similar) was blooming, sometimes hidden in the other vegetation but often making a nice purple show in barer patches along the way.

The Dredge Lake area is once again a site for nesting American redstarts, not a common bird around here. Females do the nest-building and incubation, but both parents feed the chicks. Northern waterthrushes have been heard frequently and might possibly nest here, near some of the ponds. In addition to the usual mallards, ring-necked ducks (neck rings seldom visible) have been seen and may nest here, so we might yet see a brood or two of ducklings. The little ones don’t learn to dive well until they are about a week old, but eventually get most of their food by diving. I have reports of curious doings by tree swallows at a nest site, where more swallows than just the nest owners were interacting, and sightings of solitary sandpipers, which have the unusual habit of nesting—not on the ground, like other sandpipers, but in abandoned nests of birds such as robins.

Back home: on several days, I was entertained by the view out my front window. A juvenile bear came into the yard, which is a riot of fireweed, nagoons, horsetail, and buttercups. He (yes, definitely a male) foraged avidly on horsetail, avoiding the buttercups and spitting them out if he happened to grab one while gobbling horsetail. Very selective feeding, and probably a good thing, because buttercups are known to be poisonous to livestock and can cause contact dermatitis to humans who handle the plants a lot.