Early April jaunts

through forest and seashore

Decent weather in early April encouraged several low-elevation jaunts. Parks and Rec hikers went to the rock peninsula on the west side of Mendenhall Lake, stopping for lunch amid a fine display of purple mountain saxifrage. Some clumps were in full bloom, and others were just starting, so the little purple flowers will be there to entertain visiting bumble bees and wasps for a while. Saxifrage flowers on the east side of the lake don’t get as much sun, so they lag behind by a week or more, but they should appear soon. After lunch, some hikers went on to the face of the ice, checking out the interstadial forest on the way, while others settled for a pleasant walk back to the cars.

A stroll with a friend on the Outer Point and Rainforest trails on north Douglas was enlivened by the songs of ruby-crowned kinglets and Pacific wrens—such big voices from such little birds! Several bumblebees circled our heads, even though we don’t look much like blueberry flowers, which were blooming in profusion, just waiting for a bee.

We detoured briefly out to Shaman Island, where the crows were starting to nest; lots of dilapidated old nests were easily visible in the conifers. Going along the tombola (or berm) we gently turned over a few rocks, cautiously replacing them after we looked at the critters hiding underneath. One rock sheltered six small tidepool sculpins, as well as several tiny urchins and sea stars. We found a mossy chiton, a ribbon worm, some pricklebacks that quickly slithered under the next available rock, a scale worm, and a very small, bright green polychaete worm. One tiny sea star, less than half an inch across, was huddled over a pile of yellow eggs, as if brooding (?or eating?) them. All of this was such fun that we barely made it back to the mainland with dry feet—the tide really came up fast!

Out at the mouth of Eagle River, the usual golden-eye ducks and Canada geese cruised around, moving up stream as the tide came in. A pair of swans sailed in stately splendor among the clutter of lesser fowls. At Windfall Lake, there were at least eight swans, conversing with each other and foraging on the far side of the partly ice-free lake, as hikers basked in the sun by the cabin.

skunk-cabbage-early-male-2
Photo by Mary Willson

The bright yellow hoods of skunk cabbage gleam in the understory in many places, but are sometimes nibbled off by deer or seriously frostbitten and black. But those are not the only complications. The inflorescence sheltered by the yellow hood is composed of many tightly packed flowers, each of which is first female, with receptive stigmas, later becoming male, with mature pollen. In early April, every inflorescence we inspected bore only female-phase flowers. No males! This poses a conundrum: These early-appearing, beetle-pollinated flowers may not set seed, because there is no source of pollen (and no beetles yet). It is possible, however, that the first pollen maturing at the bottom of the inflorescence might pollinate some lingering female-phase flowers at the top, if pollen from the same individual is effective. Indeed, one study has reported that this is possible, because the plant is self-compatible. But there might be another, wilder, possibility: Maybe these plants that first emerge from the ground have sacrificed at least some of their female function and, eventually becoming male, will pass on their genes chiefly by fathering many seeds on other, later emerging, plants that are still acting as females.

At Steep Creek, the American dippers have been trying to set up a territory, as usual. Unfortunately, they may not be using their traditional nesting site near the waterfall. This site has been used for many years (at least fifteen in my experience), and there are no other satisfactory nest sites on this stream. But this year the disturbance of the nest site area by humans has been serious. The little waterfall attracts too many people to the gravel bar that is very near the nest site, preventing the birds from courtship and nest-building there. This spring, we have seen groups of people spending twenty or thirty minutes or more on that gravel bar, photographing, throwing rocks, piling up rocks, and playing, oblivious of the needs of the birds even when informed of the disturbing effects of human activity, and even when they then see a dipper fly in, touching down briefly, and fleeing upstream. That kind of behavior is disrespectful of the birds and of the many other people who enjoy watching them. One can hope that humans can eventually learn to avoid disturbing birds at their nest sites.