What is there to see?

the art of noticing among the familiar

The Boy Scout/Crow Point trail is one that some of us walk several times a year. We get to know every rise and turn pretty well. One might think that a trail so familiar could not offer much in the way of interest. Yet it does, regularly—at least to those of us who look for things to pique and tweak the curiosity. Every season brings different things to be noticed.

One day in late August, as we emerged from the forested part of the trail, a ruckus arose out over the river behind us, somewhere near the Eagle Beach State Park parking lot. A horde of noisy crows took to the air and circled over the river, along with numerous gulls, and then disappeared from sight. I’ve never seen so many crows in a flock; there were at least a thousand of them (no exaggeration!). What would draw so many crows to that particular spot, and what would send them all up and away in such a flurry?

A little way before the junction where the Boy Scout trail splits off from the Crow Point trail, we commonly see a little flower that blooms late in the summer. On this day, there were just buds, some of them ready to open and show off the light blue, star-shaped flower. This small annual plant is known as star gentian (in one field guide) or marsh felwort (in another). It seems to favor areas of sparse, low vegetation, and we see it close to the trail. I’ve not noticed it elsewhere around here, although maybe I’ve just not been in the right place at the right time of year. Unfortunately, I have not found any information about its pollination biology, but I’d love to see what insects visit the flowers.

Recent high tides had stranded dozens of chum salmon carcasses and a few body parts alongside the trail and sloughs, which still harbored lively spawners. Many carcasses seemed to have spawned before they were stranded. The carcasses were interesting because all but one of them had intact skulls. However, several bodies had been ripped open, eggs taken from unspawned females, and a good portion of the muscle eaten. If bears had been feeding here, I would have expected to see some skulls opened up so the bears could eat the brains, which are full of fat (every neuron is coated with it). That’s what we often see at Steep Creek, especially on male salmon, which—lacking succulent eggs—have the next best stuff in the braincase. So when a bear happens to catch a male salmon, if it doesn’t reject the fish outright, it often crunches the skull for the brains. But that didn’t happen to these chum salmon by the sloughs. Those with torn-up bodies were, I presume, ripped up by birds—eagles and ravens, probably; they and gulls also took the eyes, as usual.

As we wandered out into the big flat meadow, we noticed an unusually heavy infestation of ergot on the beach rye. This fungus sends up conspicuous blackish spikes from the seed heads in late summer. It’s hallucinogenic and is thought to have been responsible, historically, for such madnesses as witch hunts; rye grain was commonly used for bread, especially by poor folks. In some stands of beach rye, there were twelve to fifteen ergot spikes on a single seed head and ninety-nine percent of the seed heads had at least one, while other stands had little infestation.

On the approach to the south-facing beach, near the edge of one of the spruce groves, there were yellowish, small piles of seed fragments and the occasional dropped seed. They lay beside the empty seed pods of chocolate lily. I’m guessing that a red squirrel ventured out of its grove and made a small feast of these seeds.

Little mixed flocks of sparrows fossicked about for grass seeds in the meadows, while some migrating warblers flitted in the bordering trees. I always enjoy that stand of red alders festooned with beautiful draperies of old-man’s-beard lichens, especially when high-lighted by an errant shaft of sunlight. Bright red fruits of baneberry, elderberry, and highbush cranberry made spots of color at the forest edge.

tussock-moth-with-spots-2
Tussock moth caterpillar. Photo by Bob Armstrong

I harvested a few of those so-called cranberries (they are not even related to true cranberries), with the thought of making some of that savory ketchup. When I spread out my collection on the kitchen counter in order to pick out some little stems and leaves that had found their way into my stash, I found a tiny hairy caterpillar, the kind that most of us call ‘woolly bears’. And that reminds me to say that these caterpillars with broad black and orange bands are not true woolly bears. They belong to another genus entirely (Lophocampa), distinguished from true woolly bears (genus Pyrrharctica) by the long white plumes emerging from the black bands. Both are the larvae of tiger moths but they tend to eat different kinds of leaves. The proper common name of the black and orange caterpillar in our area is the spotted tussock moth. What? Our caterpillars don’t (usually) have spots! But reportedly, in some areas, this species sports a row of black spots on its all-yellow back. And even some of our local specimens show some black spots on the orange/yellow band. In fact, the color pattern is extraordinarily variable across North America, for reasons unknown. Another mystery, for someone to unravel…

Recent sightings

…a collection of small discoveries from recent walks.

Along the road to the Eagle’s Nest and Pittman Ridge, there was a small stand of fireweed that stood out from the rest. The petals were white, while the narrow sepals showing between the petals were the usual vivid pink. A very showy display.

White-petal-fireweed-2-Kerry
Photo by Kerry Howard

At Point Louisa, on a moderately low tide, the rocky shores and pools held the usual assortment of sea stars, chitons, anemones, and urchins. I was entertained by a couple of urchins: in one pool, the urchin sat in a clam-shell bowl that was a perfect fit. And in the next pool, another urchin wore a sizable clam shell as a hat, which covered the urchin completely, to the very tips of its spines—another perfect fit. Urchins often bear stones or bits of shell on their spines, possibly for camouflage or, in some places, perhaps protection from UV light.

A stroll on Eagle Beach brought a surprise—two woolly-bear caterpillars (Lophocampa maculata). One marched steadily along the sand, struggling a bit over small divots of loose sand, but persevering. The other one trudged rapidly up toward the rye grass, made a ninety-degree turn and scurried along for several yards, and then made another right-angle turn back down toward the damp sand near the water’s edge. Both explorers visited milkwort and goose-tongue plants but did not seem to eat anything. According to various sources, these caterpillars customarily eat the leaves of poplar, willow, and alder, so it was a puzzle just why they were down on the beach. If they were looking for a place to pupate, this wasn’t it!

Along a short stretch of the Treadwell Ditch trail we found a series of piles of red bunchberries. Each berry had been opened, and the single fat seed extracted. Surely the work of a rodent—a squirrel or maybe a mouse. In contrast to that pattern of consumption, on Gold Ridge we found some patches of bunchberry in which the berries had been systematically pecked open, removing bits of fruit pulp but leaving the seeds intact. Birds, no doubt, but which? There are very few reports in the natural history literature of birds eating bunchberries.

Skunk cabbage fruiting stalks are starting to fall over and ‘melt’ into puddles of ooze containing lots of seeds. When I first arrived in Juneau, many years ago, I found some of these things that had just fallen over and started to take up water (before the oozy stage). At that earlier stage, each seed was surrounded by a jelly coat, and I (being new in the area and quite ignorant of local matters) took the aggregations of jelly-coated seeds to be frog eggs. But what were those ‘eggs’ doing in the middle of the forest??? Ah well, I learned! On a recent walk, I found the remnants of a skunk cabbage fruiting stalk, with the central pith intact, indentations showing where the seeds had been, and no seeds on the ground. The pithy center had been plucked clean by a seed-predator, such as a squirrel, or a jay, or a flock of chickadees, or…who knows?

Gold Ridge provided several additional observations of interest: A tangle of brush suddenly shook vigorously, drawing our attention. In the middle of the tangle, a red squirrel harvested a cluster of the devil’s club berries and made off with it. We often see devil’s club seeds dispersed by bear scats, but this was the first time (that I can recall) I’d seen a squirrel presumably intent on having the seeds for lunch. Farther up the trail, we surprised a well-grown ptarmigan chick, and stopped to watch. The chick was apparently not too sure what to do: it ran up the trail a little way, came back, turned around and ran up several yards, came back, and finally took off up the trail and into the brush. I was charmed by the fluttering of the white feather over its legs—like lacey pantalettes.

Time out for tea and crumpets at a rocky viewpoint, with marmots whistling on all sides (a couple of illegally off-leash dogs had just gone up the trail). Time, then, to examine our immediate surroundings more closely. Here’s a patch of trailing raspberry, in the subalpine zone, not its usual forest habitat. The pretty little rosettes of pussytoes leaves; the tiny, now-empty, artistic seed capsules of white mountain heather; a lonely purple flower of the miniscule moss gentian. The odd growth pattern of the alpine harebell, with the single flower borne on a stem that seems to emerge from underneath a low rosette of leaves.

A nearby stand of copperbush was covered with immature fruits of a curious shape, rather like small green pumpkins with curved handles on top. I was reminded of the stones used for the game of curling. A few laggard copperbush flowers attracted some bumblebees, who did not linger long.

Hmmm….pumpkins and curling stones, pantalettes, and who knows what else might we find!?