Beaches and tideflats

sightings and discoveries in a sudden spring

Several sunny (!!) days in a row in mid April. I’ve now hacked most of the ice off my driveway and trimmed back the piles of snow on my terraces from two feet deep to a few inches. Mallards are thronging to my pond, which has ice only in the middle, with wide open channels around the edge. I hear juncos, ruby-crowned kinglets, varied thrushes, and nuthatches in my yard. Maybe it’s really spring!

All that sunny weather drew me out to soak up the sunshine. On Boy Scout beach, while a group of friends perched to have lunch, a beautiful, huge queen bumblebee checked us out—she particularly liked a certain blue/purple jacket, to the consternation of the human inside. Those bees just love that hue and come buzzing around, as if it were one huge flower. They usually figure things out fairly quickly and go away.

On another day, I visited Eagle Beach and found a partial skeleton near the high tide line—one forelimb and a body sans skull. The bones were quite well picked-over by scavengers. I was puzzled—they clearly didn’t’ come from a deer or a seal; otter and bear were quickly ruled out; so who was it? A little bony detective work on the internet later found a likely prospect—a small Steller sea lion. The clues were the short, stout bones of the forelimb, a curve at the back edge of the shoulder-blade, and the lack of well-developed flanges (neural spines) on the outer part of the vertebrae. That tentative ID was later confirmed by a photographer-friend who had seen the carcass. The forelimb was especially interesting—the upper arm bone (humerus) was very short (maybe five inches long); the two lower arm bones (ulna and radius) were not quite so short but quite thick. That morphology might be related to how they use their forelimbs on land, hoisting the heavy body over the ground.

A couple of days later, I walked the dike trail with a friend, and the place had really come alive. Ruby-crowned kinglets serenaded us all along the trail, helped by a song sparrow or two. Golden-crowned sparrows scratched around in the thickets for fallen seeds and occasional bugs. Four pipits explored a channel left dry by the low tide. Robins were scattered widely over the grassy tideflats, foraging, and scolding when disturbed. A male yellow-rumped warbler hawked for flying insects over a pond and a female flitted about in a semi-dry channel after bugs that apparently jumped around. Two shorebirds got away from me but a greater yellowlegs was poking around in some shallows. All that warm sun had made green shoots of several species begin to rise from the soil, and on the trees a few leaf and flower buds were ready to open.

The next day I walked Eagle Beach again. Things were very quiet until a northern harrier coursed over the flats, scattering a few small birds and provoking the geese into vociferous protests. Harriers often cruise the beaches at this time of year, no doubt hoping to nab migrating shorebirds. Although I’d missed (sadly) the migrating mountain bluebirds reported from several beach areas, I did score a minor coup—a Townsend’s solitaire was hanging out in the brush at the edge of the big meadow at Eagle Beach, making occasional forays into the open in pursuit of small flying insects. This species typically nests in the Interior, often in open forest habitats, placing its nests in cutbanks and steep rocky slopes; the nests are on the ground but usually have some overhanging rocks or stumps.

Townsend’s solitaire. Photo by Scott Ranger

A few more fine, sunny days, and there were blueberries in flower, skunk cabbages up and open for their female-phase flowers, a flock of snow geese on the wetlands, and reports of wood frogs chorusing in a pond over on Douglas. It’s happening!

Autumn bits and pieces

alpine colors, tasty berries, and treats for bird-watchers

I’m inclined to think of fall as ‘dud’ season here. The birds are no longer nesting and few are singing; the forest is silent. Although we have our gorgeous, golden cottonwoods and sometimes some bright yellow willows, we don’t have the dramatic and spectacular show of fall foliage that the Midwest and New England enjoy. The days are getting shorter and shorter. And then there usually is the rain…

However, September brings us a number of good things too. Highbush ‘cranberry’ bushes had a bumper crop again this year, and soon the pungent aroma of cranberry ketchup-making will fill my kitchen. Their pink and red leaves brighten the forest understory. Devil’s club leaves make a fine yellow background for the bright red fruits. Brilliant scarlet dwarf dogwood berries dot the ground. In the muskegs, the leaves of shooting stars are bright yellow spears of light on a darker backing.

But the best color is in the alpine zone. The sedges and avens make a golden-brown backdrop for swathes of deer cabbage, whose leaves run the gamut of color from yellow through orange and red to purple. Dwarf dogwood is here, too, its leaves ranging from summer green to autumn crimson. Low-growing blueberry bushes make a purple-leaved carpet topped with a heavy crop of blue berries. Close up or from a distance, this is a color treat.

The blueberry crops on the ridges are rich pickings this year. With ‘berry rakes’, it is possible for two people to gather over twenty-five pounds in an hour, and leave the patch still loaded with berries for later foragers.

There are two species of low-bush blueberries that grow up on the ridges (and in bogs). One has leaves with smooth edges; the other has somewhat darker leaves with very tiny teeth along the edge. The blossom-end of the berry is slightly different: the one on the toothy-leaved species looks like a small bulls-eye. Once you train your eyes, the two species are readily distinguishable. And, at least for some of us, it is worth making the distinction—berries of the toothy-leaved species (Vaccinium caespitosum) taste better (although the difference may dwindle if the berries are cooked).

In late September, the upper meadows still feature a few late flowers: an occasional purple monkshood, sturdy little clumps of the blue gentian, and lavender daisy-like flowers of fleabane. On the way up to Granite Basin, we even found a thriving stand of miners’ lettuce in full flower, well past its usual blooming season.

Despite the paucity of bird song, there are a few treats for bird-watchers. Hawks migrate south along the ridges—Gold Ridge is a great place to see a variety of species, sometimes in considerable numbers. On a recent trip up to Naked Man Lake on Douglas, we spotted a lone female northern harrier coursing over the meadows and a sharp-shinned hawk dashing into a grove of trees. Flocks of pipits and lapland longspurs flit overhead in open habitats. In Granite Basin, we watched a flock of twenty-five or thirty ptarmigan fly up-valley and disappear behind the ridges. And occasionally, a soft, winter song of a dipper can be heard along the streams, or a song sparrow may trill from a shoreline thicket.

Townsends-Solitaire-by-Bob-Armstrong
Townsend’s solitaire. Photo by Bob Armstrong

On the upper slopes of Ben Stewart, we saw a pair of Townsend’s solitaires, presumably on their way south. This long-tailed thrush is a rather rare bird around here; it is more common in the open forests of the Interior. It typically nests on the ground on open slopes, cutbanks, and even cliffs, often tucking the nest under an overhanging rock, log, or tuft of vegetation. Summer foods include all kinds of insects and other invertebrates. But in winter, in montane woodlands down south, it commonly feeds on juniper berries. This food resource is so important that each bird defends a territory around clumps of juniper trees, to help ensure its winter food supply. Other fruits may be eaten, especially if juniper berries are scarce.

 

Even though it signals the onset of dark days, snow shovels, and slippery streets, I rather enjoy watching the termination dust gradually increase on the peaks. At first it’s just a beautiful powdered-sugar dusting on the highest crags. It may disappear for a spell, but the inevitable accumulation is imminent.