July explorations

subalpine and sea-level explorations

Toward the end of July I hiked with some friends around Cropley Lake at Eaglecrest. It was the first full day of sunshine after something like three weeks of nearly continuous rain and cool temperatures. We reveled in the dazzling light and warmth. Some of us hoped we’d find yellow fireweed and sky-blue gentians blooming on the soggy back side of the lake, but apparently we were too early. Maybe the unseasonable weather slowed them down.

Swamp gentian. Photo by Bob Armstrong

But there were other things to be seen. Millions of swamp gentians starred the meadows, interspersed with the tiny pink dots of bog cranberry. As we approached the elevation of the lake, there were clear signs of late spring: the last of the spring violets and Jeffrey’s shooting star, and swathes of bog laurel. Late spring mingled with summer: little iris-like Tofieldia and leatherleaf saxifrage, with inflorescences of varied shades of red, were common; grass of Parnassus was about to bloom. Pink paintbrush prefers this habitat to the lower-elevation gravelly flats occupied by the yellow paintbrush species. The big treat was seeing dozens upon dozens of butterworts in bloom. Sometimes called ‘bog violets’ for a supposed resemblance to true violets, butterworts are not related to violets at all (although they both may have purple flowers). Butterworts are insectivorous, catching bugs on their flattened, sticky, yellowish leaves that are not a bit like violet leaves.

Paintbrush. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Earlier in the month, during all that rain, we made a special trip to Cowee Meadow. On a previous visit, we’d finally discovered what the female inflorescences of sweetgale looked like when they were in flower, and now the goal was seeing the mature form. By luck, our timing was good—the female inflorescences made slim, brown, cone-like structures, whose scales opened up to release seeds. By traipsing around for a while in the meadows, we also found more female plants than we’d found earlier, so females aren’t quite as rare as we thought (although still vastly outnumbered by male plants).

We happened to look at some fireweed flowers. I don’t know what attracted our attention, but when we looked attentively, we noticed that many of the flowers had no visible female parts. Fireweed flowers are both male and female, with a set of stamens with pollen-bearing anthers around a conspicuous, white, four-branched stigma for receipt of pollen. But some of these flowers seemed to be missing the big stigma.

After much closer attention, we found that the female structure was there, but small and drooping and apparently with the four branches both short and closed up tightly, as if they’d never fully matured. Fireweed inflorescences bloom from the bottom up, so older flowers are borne below younger ones, with unopened buds up at the top. But age of flower did not account for the development of female parts; both young and old flowers often lacked fully developed stigmas.

What is going on here? Is this just something I should have noticed long ago? Or could the long spell of un-summery weather have made the plants decide not to even try to receive pollen and make seeds?

Everywhere we wandered in the meadows, we found recent bear digs, usually for angelica roots. In some cases, the edible root-nodules of chocolate lily (rice-root) had been incidentally dug up too, but were left uneaten.

Back in the middle of July, on the Crow Point/Boy Scout trail, I watched a hummingbird visiting yellow paintbrush. It dipped in, then floated (or so it seemed) high into the air before coming back down to try another flower in the same patch. It tried a few flowers but soon zipped away, as if to seek better foraging elsewhere.

Red fruits of baneberry decorated the sides of the berm edging the goose flats. The felwort that we often see later in summer wasn’t blooming yet. But the wide meadow between the trail and the river was covered with white arctic daisies (Chrysanthemum arcticum), not to be confused with the weedy, alien white daisies on the roadsides.

A search for Salicornia in the big goose flat was futile for what seemed like a long time. But finally we struck the right microhabitat and found a lot of it—a tasty snack! This highly salt-tolerant annual plant is known as glasswort or saltwort or sea asparagus, among other common names.

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.

Early fall in Cowee Meadows

burying beetles, sweetgale ecology, and dragonfly sex

A trip to Cowee Meadows usually provides a curious naturalist with something to contemplate. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for large, brown, sometimes temperamental, mammals with claws or hooves.

A stroll out there in mid-August discovered several things of interest.

A desiccated toad carcass lay in the trail, cause of death unknown. The body was attended by two big, orange and black, sexton beetles, maybe just looking for a meaty snack but possibly foraging for a carcass on which to rear a brood of larvae. Sexton beetles are also called burying beetles; they bury the bodies of small mammals and birds (or chunks of dead salmon), denuding them of fur and feathers, which are used to line a chamber housing the carcass. Eggs are laid near the buried carcass and the larvae crawl into the food-filled chamber. Unusual among insects, both parents feed the larvae on liquefied, partially digested meat, as the larvae also feed for themselves on the stored carcass. The number of larvae feeding on a carcass may be regulated by parental infanticide; if there are too many for the available food pile, the parents reportedly reduce the numbers. If for some reason, a female beetle does not have an active partner, she can raise a brood by herself, fertilizing her eggs with stored sperm. In this case, the question in my head was whether or not a desiccated toad would make good larval meals.

The low wetland before the beach berm is thronged with aromatic sweetgale shrubs. They harbor symbiotic bacteria in the root system; the bacteria take atmospheric nitrogen and ‘fix’ it into a form that plants can use. This species usually (but not always) has male and female flowers on different individuals. Male plants have already set their flower buds for next year, while female plants bear cone-like structures with small one-seeds fruits attached to the core. Some small critter had feasted on the seeds of a few plants, leaving the cone-core and fragments in a heap. A fat green caterpillar grazed steadily along the edge of one leaf, not deterred by the reported insect-repellent properties of this species. I was interested to find out that two field guides and two tomes on the flora of Alaska do not instruct a field naturalist how to tell male from female flowers—but the Trees and Shrubs of Alaska by Viereck and Little does!

Out on the beach, it was time for tea and snacks on a favorite log. The tide was low, and far out on a distant rock there was a black lump, which turned out to be an oystercatcher, able to loaf now that the chicks have been raised.

Instead of hobbling over the cobbles around the point, the return trip came back through the grassy/sedgey meadow, where the trails of trampled vegetation left by wandering horses made easy walking in most places. Sparrows popped up out of the tall grass and quickly dove back into the next dense cover. Closer to the river, the vegetation is shorter and marsh felwort flowers began to show up, not only on gravelly soils (as the books say) but also in deep black muck.

The old trail next to the beaver pond has been abandoned, but the water level was very low; there was not even any water in the stream below the dam that makes the pond. That encouraged a little exploration at the edge of the wet meadow along the old trail, which was apparently built (or rebuilt?) without consideration of beaver activity. In recent years, beavers had raised the pond level so the trail was often flooded well over ankle-deep; water was often trapped between the log rails on the trail margins. Rows of young alders have now sprouted up along the edges of that trail, making most of it rather impassible. But the low water level made it quite easy to tromp through the sedges on a parallel route. The newer, improved trail along the hillside would still be the trail of choice most of the time.

Near the beaver pond, dragonflies zipped to and fro, some of them in copula. Male dragons (and damselflies) chase whatever female flies by. If a female is not interested, she may evade the male by running away or hiding; in some species she just plays dead! A successful male grabs a female behind her head with claspers at the end of his abdomen, and they may fly in tandem for a while. The female, if willing, bends her body under his to bring her genitalia (near the end of her abdomen) next to where he has previously stored his sperm in the anterior part of his abdomen, so sperm can be transferred. Copulating dragons make a circle or ‘wheel’ of their bodies. If the female had mated previously, the present male may try to scrape out the sperm of the first male; the ‘opinion’ of the female with respect to this action apparently has not been recorded.

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Photo by Bob Armstrong

Some days later, I watched a pair of bluet damselflies in tandem, perched on a sedge blade in a mid-elevation muskeg pond. The female bent her body up to touch his, in the copulatory position, several times, but they did not form the mating wheel. Three other bluet males patrolled this pond, sometimes zooming in closely on the pair, and even contacting them, as if to try to steal the female away. This is a behavior I’d not seen before. At the edge of the pond lay a dead female, possibly drowned in the act of laying her eggs in underwater vegetation. Some bluets lay eggs in vegetation near or on the surface, but some species of bluet actually submerge the whole body while egg-laying, and upon occasion need to be pulled out by their partner or perhaps by a nearby unmated male.

Reluctant spring

…in Cowee Meadows

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.

Solstice in the sun

spotlighting a wild flower show

It had rained, just a little, during the night, so the wet grass soaked our britches as we waded through it. But for once, these Juneau-ites didn’t whine about the wet—it felt really good! The outdoor temperatures the day before had reached into the seventies and the little cabin in Cowee Meadows was a heat collector. There was no cross-ventilation in the cabin unless we admitted hordes of hungry mosquitoes through the unscreened windows—a choice we were unwilling to accept. For real Juneau folks, this was a heat wave! The Down-Southers may laugh, but it was enough to make us a bit wilted.

So we waded happily through the wet grass, in search of nothing in particular and anything in general, and we found lots of things of interest. We brought to bear a diversity of eyes and mind’s eyes, which made our explorations very productive and more fun; one person could never have seen quite so many things. Here is a sampling:

We stood surrounded by acres of purple and blue iris and lupine, with patches of yellow buttercups. A few tall white cow parsnips and tufts of lady fern added contrast and texture. But if we looked more closely, there were dozens of other flowering species in bloom: roses on the raised berms, shooting stars fading, yellow pond lilies, silverweed, and on and on; the list grew very long. Out along the beach were arrowgrass, beach greens, milkwort, and goosetongue. In fact, when we tallied up all the kinds of flowers we saw (excluding grasses and sedges) from the trailhead out to the rocky beach, we had found a grand total of seventy five species of flowers. That’s pretty remarkable, and it indicates just how very rich this area is.

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Wild iris. Photo by Katherine Hocker

Irises came in many shades, ranging from pale blue through royal purple to a gorgeous reddish purple. Beach peas also varied, some with more white, or a deeper pink, or more purple. A big surprise was chocolate lilies that weren’t the usual brownish color (or brown with a few yellow speckles) but rather were entirely yellow (or yellow with a few brown spots). I have to wonder if the color variations affect the behavior of the pollinating insects.

Some species were going to seed, and their ripe fruits or seed pods were diverse in structure and function. Shooting star capsules looked like little red and green easter eggs, sitting in cups. When the capsule dries and splits open, the tiny seeds will be dispersed by the wind. Lupines had been quite well pollinated, but their seed pods were not yet ready to pop open explosively, sending seeds in all directions. Marsh marigold seed heads were like crowns of attractive spikes, each with a little hook, as is common in the buttercup family. Apparently the hook does not contribute to seed dispersal; the seed drops out of the enclosing tissue and floats on the water. We decided that a field guide to fruits and seeds and means of seed dispersal for local plants would be both useful and fun.

Sweetgale shrubs are usually either male or female, although occasionally they are both. Next year’s ‘cones’ were already formed and very small. We noticed that twiglets bearing last year’s female cones were invariably dead, so there seems to be a cost to producing seeds.

The hot weather meant that the insect pollinators were busily visiting flowers. Bumblebees foraged on iris and lupine and beach pea, and their behavior would be worth some detailed attention. The broad, white inflorescences of cow parsnip were covered with foraging flies. Many insects scrobbled over the pollen-rich rose flowers.

It’s the flowers that make these meadows so rich and spectacular, but vertebrate life is also abundant. It was so hot (and rather late into the season for some species) that bird song was at a low level, but I heard a northern yellowthroat singing in the big marsh and warbling vireos in the forest edge. Three kinds of sparrow sang, each in its own habitat.

We visited the colony of beach marmots, who were all down in the cool earth for the day. From the beach berm, we watched a sea otter diving and feeding. A mama seal was accompanied by a small, dark, young one. Whales spouted in the distance, out in Lynn Canal.

Of bears, we saw none. But there was plenty of sign of their presence. Bear-sized trails ran through the thick meadow vegetation. Bear scat decorated the human trails. And one morning we found numerous fresh digs along the upper beach: turned-up moss and soil that hadn’t been there the previous afternoon. Most of the digs were at the bases of rocks, and all seemed to be focused on the roots of species in the carrot family (possibly sea coast angelica and hemlock parsley).