Winter walks

think, consider and imagine

In late January, the Parks and Rec hikers visited Sheep Creek Valley, a place we seldom visit at that time of year. The ground was frozen sufficiently that the mudholes on the uphill trail were no bother, and all that earlier warm weather had cleared the usual iceflow that commonly covers a side-hilling trail segment in winter; no problem there either.

Aside from a few fresh squirrel tracks, wildlife was not in evidence. In the uppermost part of the valley, below Hawthorne Peak, we could see snow squalls, which eventually came down to the main valley. The light dusting of fresh snow, and the seasonal absence of leaves, brought into clear and delightful relief many features of micro-topography that are normally obscured: drainage channels large and small, ridges and hummocks, rock outcrops. As I looked up the big ridge on the north side of the valley, I noticed a series of smaller, parallel ridges that ran up the side of the main ridge. Each of the smaller ridges had a rounded side, facing up-valley, covered with green moss and a few shrubs. The other side of each of these small ridges was a barren, rocky cliff, with a talus pile below, that clearly showed the distinct tilt of the rock strata, leaning toward the channel.

Other walks have been more productive of wildlife. My walking companions and I have found very large canid tracks in more than one location. These tracks were about five inches across, from outer toe to inner toe. Barring a return of the Hound of the Baskervilles, they have to be those of wolves. Happy thought! In a meadow near the Crow Point or Boy Scout trail, we found deer tracks of two sizes—maybe a doe with a late fawn, or a doe with an attendant buck. Vole tunnels in the grass along Eagle River were exposed as the snow melted, and led to small digs where the voles had eaten the roots of chocolate lily (aka rice root), often leaving some of the small bulblets (“rice grains”) scattered in the holes as well as the remains of earlier, well digested dinners.

Vole nibble, Fritillaria bulblets, and vole scat. Photo by Katherine Hocker

We are lucky to live in a place that often offers great views over the landscape or over the seascape, into the distance, and many of us enjoy that. For me, however, the place truly comes alive when I concentrate on what lots of other folks would dismiss as ‘boring details’—seeing the little things. I revel in the little stories in the snow (or mud), the small signs of animal activity, sorting out the distinctions between the winter buds of different shrubs, watching a nuthatch work over the bark of a tree trunk. I loved watching a young porcupine demolish the plywood that reinforced a gate, even as dozens of humans hovered about, or a mother bear trying to keep track of three cubs while she foraged. This sort of fun is enriched by sharing with an interested companion or two, asking and sometimes answering questions.

Here are some very small observations and questions from recent winter walks near the lower ski loop at Eaglecrest. We found a tall snag with at least ten woodpecker cavities, which must have been excavated over many years. What made that particular snag so popular? In some of the meadows, the husks of crowberries held onto the stem but the seeds had been removed. ?by mice? There were quite a few remaining bog cranberries lying on the sphagnum moss, unharvested by any creature, so the seeds had not been dispersed. Will some lucky bird find them in early spring? The seed capsules of bog laurel and Labrador tea held their seeds tight, but the capsules of rusty menziesia were empty. Why the difference? We found well-worn squirrel highways running from one burrow to another. Does one squirrel, moving so predictably over the same terrain, live long enough to make a highway, or are several generations of squirrels using these routes?

That’s a tiny sample of the kinds of things we note and discuss as we wander about the forest and meadows. Another interesting exercise is to define a rather small area, maybe ten feet square, or twenty feet square, or whatever (some observers choose a one meter square!), and study it intently to see as many little stories as possible. Or just find a spot to sit for a while, on repeated occasions (for instance, daily or weekly), to register whatever happens there. It can be quite surprising!

Some folks find such proceedings unutterably boring and totally ignorable. It’s not for everyone! But I think that once one starts to see some of the details, it brings perceptions of our rainforest to the parts of our brains that think, consider, and imagine. Then the rainforest environments become more than part of the scenery.


Stories in the snow

a snowy ramble reveals winter action

I love to go a-wandering along a snowy trail, looking for signs left by others who’ve been out on their business of living. A recent prolonged cold spell had kept the snow soft, preserving evidence of a very busy wildlife community along a local creek.

Mink tracks rambled along the creek-side, dipping down to the stream and curving up into the forest. The footprints were bigger than those of a second mink that traveled part of the same route, so my naturalist friend and I guessed that the first mink was a male. His trackway led a long way upstream on one side of the creek and seemed to circle back down on the other side—at least the footprints were the same size there. This might have been a male patrolling his territory.

Everywhere, we found the delicate, stitchery trackways of small rodents. According to the books at hand, mice are likely to drag their long tails, flipping them to the side as a counter-balance during sharp turns, but voles don’t usually show tail-drag marks. If that’s right, we had both mice and voles, especially on one side of the creek. The tiny trackways of shrews were less numerous.

Snowshoe hares had been busy, especially on the other side of the creek. Trackways led up to the streambank, then away, then back to creekside, then away. It was as if the hares wanted to cross the fragile ice but, lacking the nerve to do so, just dithered along the bank.

A bird had hopped about extensively in and out of some brushy areas. The tracks seemed too small to be those of a junco. Then we found wing-prints where the bird had flitted a short distance to a new site, and the length of the wing was clearly too long to belong to a junco. My guess was possibly a varied thrush, some of which overwinter here.

The only actual bird we saw was a brown creeper, hitching its way up a tree trunk and flying down to go up the next tree—their typical foraging pattern as they search for tiny bugs in the bark. According to the literature, creepers commonly concentrate their efforts on trees with ridged bark, the deeper the ridges the better; this kind of bark harbors more insects than smoother bark.

A few deer tracks, both large and small, appeared as we walked along. But there was much less deer traffic here than, say, in Gastineau Meadows, where peripatetic deer had cruised all over the place.

My friend called to me: Come look at this! I saw a shallow groove in the snow on the streambank and, without thinking, said: Oh, a shrew trail. Look again, said my friend. Ah—there’s a faint yellow stain at the bottom of the groove. And here, where I had casually supposed my ’shrew’ had dived under the snow, was—not a burrow at all, but just a deep dimple. My friend, who is smarter than I am, said: I think a bird, maybe a kingfisher, perched on that branch near the edge of the stream and projectile-defecated a jet of hot poop, melting the groove in the snow. So we said: Well, if that’s so, then in the dimple at the end of groove there should be a little wad of solid waste. And yes, indeed there was! Good detective work, friend!

A final little treasure on this walk was a dead red alder that sported a beautiful array of conks (or shelf-fungi). The living conks all had a slightly soft pile of white stuff at their lower edges. This stuff had occasionally smeared sideways over the bark, showing that it had been soft when the temperatures were above freezing. What is this stuff?

Phellinus conks. Photo by Katherine Hocker

I took a sample to a local forest pathologist, who put it under his microscope. He said that the white material was certainly fungal mycelium (the technical word for the mass of filaments that grow through the wood before producing the spore-bearing conk). However, without DNA work, there’s no way to know if it belongs to a parasitic fungus growing on the conk or to the conk species itself, because this kind of conk (of the genus Phellinus) often grows some of its own filaments right down through the conk itself. So we ended our walk with one more mystery.