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An extended day of survey

Posted: June 16, 2011 - 4:01pm
This black oystercatcher patrolled the rocks near its nest, on the lookout for marauders such as gulls or humans.   Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
This black oystercatcher patrolled the rocks near its nest, on the lookout for marauders such as gulls or humans.

When the day began, we only intended to stroll to Outer Point on Douglas in search of the spotted coralroot orchid. Rubber boots were needed for crossing Peterson Creek, but by the end of the day, I was wishing I had a change of footgear. Searching through the understory for some time, we finally noted some small spikes sticking up out of an old rotten log — a limited success, because they were not yet blooming. We’ll have to wait a week or two to get a good picture of the pinkish flowers.

Because the tide was low, we then ambled out along the long storm berm to Shaman Island. Dodging the war games of some rambunctious kids, I learned where to look for some super-sized barnacles down near the low tide line. I’d like to know more about these — are they a different species from the usual types that cluster all over the stones and mussel shells, or are they just unusually happy? (In Chile, where I spent many months in the austral springs, the giant barnacles are considered to be a delicacy!)

By now, it was well past noon and both of us felt hungry and a little frail. But we decided to go up the Eaglecrest road to check on a willow tree that has been much used by sapsuckers, which drill sap wells in the bark and lap up the sap as well as any stuck insects. We found the tree, and a sapsucker arrived while we watched, so all the recent construction at this spot hadn’t destroyed the bird’s favorite lunch stop.

Best of all, a group of Plein Rain artists were gathered nearby, enjoying a chilly workshop with a visiting artist — and they had food! By managing to appear really wan and wobbly, we persuaded these very kind folks to feed us too! Many thanks to these good Samaritans! And the art work spread out along the walkway was very nice, as well — Juneau talent at work!

Reinforced by serendipitous sustenance, we decided to check out a bird nest down along Fish Creek. A short walk by the stream and a brief sit-down on the bank lent us get a good look at the nest. At this point the sit-down was welcome, because my feet do not like walking or standing around in rubber boots.

Returning to the car over the new footbridge over Fish Creek, we hailed two other friends, also out for a walk. They had recently seen a female common merganser with eight chicks on one of the nearby ponds, and some of the little ones were riding on mama’s back. We inspected a beaver lodge and some recent beaver cuttings, and enjoyed a long chat.

Thus the day turned out to be much longer and far more social than initially planned. But that is not a complaint (even though my feet said otherwise …)!

The next day, three friends hitch-hiked a ride out to Portland Island. The crabapple trees were blooming, although they looked decidedly weather-beaten. The oystercatchers and Arctic terns had eggs and were incubating. Their nests, in the sands of the upper beach, are nothing more than a saucer-shaped depression, very difficult to spot and easy to crush accidentally, so it is not a good place to walk. One oystercatcher was implanted with a tracking device a few years ago, in order to learn a bit about migration patterns, and she is back again, nesting in almost the same location as in previous years and incubating three eggs. For some reason, the wire antenna extended from her backside does not seem to interfere with mating or anything else. We got too close to her nest, and she put on a great broken-wing act, with much shrieking in protest. We left in a hurry!

The density of song sparrows was notably high. Some were feeding fledglings, which shrilled their begging calls from deep in the dense vegetation, and others were still feeding nestlings. Because they were still singing frequently, I suspect that they intended to start second broods.

A gang of gulls loafed around on a sandbar. They seemed very nervous, lifting off en masse every few minutes. Some of these flights were probably in fear of an eagle flying by, even if the eagle was far away and seemingly intent on something in the distance. Perhaps the gulls know from experience that eagles can look deceptively innocent but can quickly become malevolent.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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