Winter may be here

edging into a colder season

The days grow shorter and darker, until we turn a corner at the winter solstice and the sun slowly starts to come back. At this time of year, my little excursions tend to be short too. Even so, some things of interest always appear.

Around Thanksgiving time, the West Glacier Trail offered a spectacular collection of hair-frost displays. A cold snap froze many rain-soaked sticks, forcing out thin strands of ice. Some displays featured long stretches of two-inch long curved strands; other displays had multiple sets of shorter strands, each one curling in a different direction, like an enviably wavy hairdo.

Dippers were sometimes foraging and singing in Steep Creek. Two otters, possibly a female with a juvenile, were fossicking about in a nearby pond, observable from the viewing platform. Eventually they went over a small ridge toward the pavilion—and as I went up the ramp in the same direction, I could look down into another pond, where I saw the otters again. The bigger one caught a nice coho and both otters went up the bank to feast. Later, I learned that this was a fish that had been radio-tagged by the Forest Service in the Holding Pond—a fish that apparently backed out and went farther up-river to try Steep Creek instead. The remains of this fish were found by a Forest Service fish biologist.

At the lower end of Steep Creek, a beaver dam slows the main stream just before it reaches the lake and creates a good pond for the beavers’ lodge. Unfortunately, in late November and early December, some very unhelpful person(s) were destroying part of this dam, which thus drastically lowered the water level in the pond. This vandalism served no useful purpose whatsoever. The pond protects the entrances of the beaver lodge; this is the lodge featured in the educational ‘beaver cam’ in the visitor center, allowing visitors to see beavers at home. The pond is also habitat for over-wintering juvenile salmon, as well as feeding sites for dippers and ducks. There were no more coho coming in, and in any case, they commonly enter this pond over a small dam off to the side. Fortunately, a spell of warm weather melted the ice and allowed the beavers to repair the breach in the dam to some degree—there were several new beaver trails going up the banks, for collecting more repair material.

I like to walk along the lake shores when the water level comes down. It’s often a good place to look for animal tracks and sometimes an unusual bird. In late November, I found a nice group of swans in the Old River Channel—three adults and a juvenile—in a spot that seems to be popular with swans on migration.

Then, at the very end of November, there was some snow at Eaglecrest, so it was fun to see what animals had been out and about. Two little explorations with friends noted the usual perpetrators– hare, porcupine, weasel, red squirrel, shrew, a possible coyote, and numerous tracks of deer of all sizes. By the end of the first week of December, there was a lovely thick blanket of snow, traveled by the same array of critters and, by us, on snowshoes. In addition, a small bird, probably a junco, had hopped over a still-open rivulet and spent a lot of time jumping up to reach some seed heads that poked up out of the snow.

In early December, the snow in one of the lower meadows on Douglas was too crusty for the tracks of small things. But again there were lot of deer tracks. A tiny shore pine, no more than three feet tall but possibly quite old, did not seem to be doing very well. It had only eleven tufts of needles on the few living branches. But it bore dozens of old cones—perhaps this was its last attempt to reproduce.

Over on the Outer Point Trail on north Douglas, a friend and I remarked with great pleasure that the recently revised and improved trail passes just below the long beaver dam, leaving the dam undisturbed. Major kudos to CBJ and Trail Mix for using ecological sense!

In the first muskeg after that beaver dam, I noticed something that I should have seen on one of the many times I’ve passed that way: Most of the small pines (less than about three feet tall) were thriving, but virtually all of the mid-size ones (six to ten feet tall or so) were dead. This pattern is not repeated in other muskegs that I have visited recently. So the question is What kind of event(s) might have wiped out a whole size-class of shore pines in this place?

On our way down to the beach, we spotted a few varied thrushes and a red-breasted sapsucker that should have been on its way south by now. We startled a small porcupine, who scuttled off a few feet and waited for us to pass. At the uppermost edge of the beach, a sprawling little herbaceous plant had green leaves and out-of-season buds. Two alders had crossed their branches very closely, rubbing hard against each other until each one had flattened scars where the rubbing occurred. We joked that now they are just ‘rubbing along together’ more or less comfortably.

A stroll with another friend in the Dredge Lake area was not very eventful until we were almost finished. On the trail ahead of us, we spotted two birds. It was so dark that almost no color could be discerned, so it took us a minute to decide what they were. Juncos? No, too big and they were walking not hopping. Blackbirds? No, tail is too short and bill is too stout. Then one of them hopped up into a nearby shrub and a white wing bar could be imagined. But what really gave them away was their characteristic behavior: they were snatching the fruits of high-bush cranberry, stripping and dropping bits of pulp, and gulping down the seed. Bingo! Pine grosbeaks doing their namesake behavior: their scientific name is Pinicola enucleator, meaning pine dweller that extracts ‘nuts’ or seeds.

Wonderful Winterland

herons, swans, and an eagle’s dinner

I love just prowling around in the snowy woods, looking for whatever presents itself. Solo or shared, there is usually something of interest. Here are a few examples from the past two months.

In November, just after the first good freeze-up, I poked around on the Old River Channel (think Mendenhall River, maybe a hundred years ago or so).A great blue heron had paced–in vain—along the now-icy runnel below a beaver dam, where no fish could now be grabbed. Then I saw some huge prints of webbed feet, bigger than my hand. No goose or duck or gull; this could only have been a swan. Following the tracks, I came to a place on the ice where the swan, perhaps with some friends, had dithered around for a while. They too were cut off by the ice from any tasty green vegetation in the water below. As they dithered about, they left samples of previous meals on the surface of the ice.

By now, my path had been crossed by another retired biologist and well-behaved canine companion. Together we inspected the digested remains of swan dinners and concluded that the swans had nibbled on their own excreta, recycling the material and probably extracting more nutrients. Well, if you can’t reach the fresh stuff, perhaps this is a reasonable alternative! I wonder how often they do this—is it only occasional, for instance when ice blocks the access to fresh greenery?

Some of those huge webbed footprints led away from the resting and feeding site. They gradually got farther and farther apart, until the last strides were separated by at least seven feet. The very last one was matched with the brush of a single wingtip in the light snow. A seven-foot stride on shortish legs meant that bird was really hurtling itself into flight.

Although swans sometimes overwinter in Southeast, most of them migrate to slightly more southerly realms. Several swans had been seen in the upper Mendenhall River on the days before my little exploration, but increasing ice cover was making further stay a hungry proposition for them.

In midDecember, Out the Road (in Juneau that is a place, not just a direction), we noticed two eagles hunkered down on the bank of a small stream. They were intently staring at a dark, furry object in the water. We were ‘dying’ of curiosity, of course, but didn’t want to disturb the eagles. So we went on, saying we’d stop to look on the way back. When we did so, the eagles and the dark object were gone. All we could do, then, was check out the spot for any signs of what had been there. We found a beaver tail, some gobbets of flesh, and a rib. Perhaps the carcass had shifted farther under the ice at the edge of the stream, but maybe more likely, one of the eagles had appropriated the thing for itself. By midDecember, beavers are usually hanging out in their lodges, awaiting ice-out. So why this one was here, and how long it had been there, was puzzling.

Mid December also found us wandering around some of the ponds in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. Walking over the ice on the ponds gives one an entirely different perspective from one on the trails or in the thickets. A bonus is walking in actual sunshine! One pond has several beaver lodges that, in four years of monitoring, have never shown any sign of current occupancy by beavers. This time, we noticed small holes in the side of two lodges, with small footprints making a trail right into that doorway. It looked as if mink had moved in. Out in the middle of the pond there were three round holes in the ice, kept open, perhaps, by mink diving in for fish.

Just before Christmas, I ambled over another pond. By now, we had had several more nights of single-digit temperatures, and the ice was really solid. But there were two holes in the ice that had just recently frozen over. And there was a trackway, made by several animals, running from one hole to the other, and then on toward shore. Following these round-pawed tracks, I came upon a sizable hole under some tree roots, and there the tracks ended. I surmised that a family of otters had used this hole as a part-time den; in the past week or so, a group of three pups and an adult (presumably Mom) had been seen fishing in the few ice-free spots that remained.

A quick visit to Gustavus

…a change of place

When the ferries are running, it’s an easy ride to Gustavus: about four and a half hours, usually, with chance of seeing Dall’s porpoises and other marine critters. The ferry often has a Monday-Wednesday schedule, which makes a quick two-night visit quite possible. The great, wide sandy beaches over there are a big draw; they offer a very different habitat from anything here in Juneau and therefore the possibility of seeing different animals, and it’s easy walking, too.

I made a visit there in mid-January. My naturalist friend had set a trail camera at a place where moose habitually cross a wet ditch, carving deep, narrow trails in the banks. The camera captured plenty of moose images, including mamas with calves. One image showed a very odd thing down in one corner, and for a long time we couldn’t figure it out. Then my clever friend got it: ‘twas the rear end of a duck, dabbling in the ditch in the dark of the night. All we could see was an end-on view of the tail with crossed wingtips above. Very odd-looking, indeed.

Out on the grassy flats where spruces have begun to colonize, we found owl pellets, probably of a short-eared owl, containing tiny mammal bones and a shiny beetle. We noticed that clumps of young spruces often seemed to grow on low mounds, where drainage might be better than in the swales. But do they need to grow on these slightly elevated places? Apparently not, because we found a number of very small spruces getting started in the low spots. So maybe a clump of little trees makes its own mound when needles and twigs are shed, or the branches intercept wind-driven dust and silt??

On the sandy beach, we enjoyed following the tracks of a raven fossicking in the tidal wrack and digging up some treasure from the wet sand. There weren’t many mollusk shells left below the high tide line, but I did find one nice piddock shell; just one, though, a contrast with last summer when there were many. Piddocks are burrowing clams, with a jagged edge on the shell for scraping a way into wood or packed sand or even soft rock. Other shells were scarce too: a few whelks in good condition, and some cockles and ordinary clams.

We made a brief foray into one of those long meadows that eventually drain out onto the beaches. Moose tracks going every which way, of course; moose are really common over there. Wolves had gone single-file as they entered the meadow and then fanned out, leaving their big paw prints on the way to the beach.

A rivulet that meandered through the meadow had some open water, despite the recent low temperatures. Peering down into the openings of the ice, we could see amphipods, caddisfly larvae, a diving beetle, and a couple of very small juvenile salmonids that quickly dashed for cover. The water temperature couldn’t have been much above freezing, yet all these critters were active.

We returned to the car on a game trail through the woods. Many critters used this trail, at least in places: moose, wolf, coyote, and best of all, a wolverine that had gone from the trail to the meadow, leaving nice clear footprints. Later, we went back to set the trail camera in this area and hope for some good videos. Along the road, we chanced upon a flock of pine grosbeaks, busily foraging on seeds (more on this next week).

Photo by Cheryl Cook

Back at the house, looking out on a bend of the Salmon River, we were treated to a small parade of trumpeter swans: a pair of adults, then another pair with a handsome gray cygnet. They pulled out on a gravel bar a little way downstream and so gave us a good look at them. An uncommon sight here in winter, although much of the Alaska-nesting population winters along the coast in various places. The swans have the interesting habit of incubating their eggs on their enormous feet, rather than in a featherless incubation patch on the adult’s belly, and both male and female can incubate. Cygnets keep some of their gray juvenile plumage into their second year, becoming fully white-feathered by the next year. Although occasionally they may pair up and start nesting when they are two or three years old, this does not unusually happen until they are about four years old.