Solstice at Cowee Meadows

surrounded by abundance

Around the time of the summer solstice, I spent a couple of nights in the Cowee Meadow cabin, along with some friends and my visiting niece. We like the flower show in the meadows. This year, everything was a bit early (after the sunny, hot month of May) and flowering was somewhat past its best, but nevertheless we noted as many species of plants in flower or just past flowering as we found last year (over 75 species, barring grasses and sedges).

The cabin needed some attention, so we swept it out and washed the windows with plain water, having neglected to bring window cleaner. We brought in window screening and duct tape, so we were able to cobble together screens to exclude the flying bugs and thus keep the windows open. As it happened, however, there were astonishingly few mosquitoes and such (what a difference from last year!). Sitting outside for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was very pleasant.

Every day we cruised around the trails, seeing what we could see. A major highlight was the discovery of a sizable patch of RIPE strawberries—just one big patch; the plants all around this site held only green, unripe berries. This discovery caused a significant delay in our progress but there were big smiles all ‘round!

strawberry-kgh
Photo by Katherine Hocker

These coastal strawberries have a very interesting distribution: they occur naturally along our coasts but different subspecies or varieties also occur on the coasts of Chile and Argentina and, reportedly, in the mountains of Hawaii. The species is thought to have originated in North America, but it was probably carried to South America by migrating birds. There is good evidence that migratory shorebirds can carry seeds and spores of a variety of plants on their long-distance seasonal journeys. Some seeds may stick to feathers and escape being preened off. Strawberries (and other fleshy fruits) are adapted to be eaten by vertebrates, which snack on the fruits and pass the seeds through their guts. Most small birds pass seeds rather quickly, in just a few hours, so viable strawberry seeds travelling all the way from the northern hemisphere across the equator to the southern would require a really quick flight or a long residence time in the gut. I observe, with interest, that the coastal strawberry, Fragaria chiloensis, bears the name of the Chilean island where I spent many happy austral field seasons. Historically, this strawberry was widely used and cultivated in Chile and reportedly was hybridized with another species to create the domestic strawberry.

A small botanical mystery confounded us. We noted that the oysterplants (a.k. oysterleaf) on the upper beach fringe made smaller leaves on the parts of the stems that bore flowers. But on saltbush (a.k.a. orache) plants, flowers were borne on stems with both small and large leaves. Why the difference?

We had a report from later hikers of a sickly bear cub beside the main trail and eventually learned that ADF&G had picked it up. Their investigations failed to reveal any obvious cause of the distress, but clearly the little cub was malnourished and in a very bad way. Nothing could be done to save it, and it was a public safety concern to leave the cub where it was as long as the mother was nearby, so it was euthanized. Some observers later saw a female with one cub and thought that the family of the dying cub had moved on.

Along Cowee Creek a doe with two fawns come out of the woods to the sand bars. The doe was limping from a wound on a hind leg, but she was able to lead her fawns back into the thickets when she detected us a hundred yards upstream.

The meadows were popping with savanna sparrows, including lots of recent fledglings. Lincoln sparrows burbled their complex song along the shrubby edges, maybe contemplating a second brood. As we sat on the beach for a while, a male belted kingfisher came over our heads and landed on a big rock partly exposed by a low tide. Presently, he dove and came up with a long, thin fish. Then he headed overland toward an upstream part of the creek. The next day, we were walking up along the creek and heard a group of kingfishers raising a ruckus. We surmised that the chicks had fledged and were begging, but they all went around a bend of the creek and out of sight before we could be sure.

We watched dragonflies laying eggs: the females repeatedly dipped down to touch the end of the abdomen to the chosen substrate. One species dropped her eggs into open water, while another, larger one (a blue darner, I think) chose to put her eggs in decaying wood.

The wonderfully long days of solstice time gave us lots of time to wander about, including a stroll out to the beach in the evening to watch the sun setting—and anything else that came our way.