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Late October in Juneau

Posted: November 4, 2011 - 12:01am
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Poison-hemlock leaves can be distinguished from the leaves of related plants by the side veins that go to notches on the leaf edge. Do not eat this plant!  Bob Armstrong
Bob Armstrong
Poison-hemlock leaves can be distinguished from the leaves of related plants by the side veins that go to notches on the leaf edge. Do not eat this plant!

F all is rather a tough time for a curious naturalist here. Most of the songbirds are gone, the flowers aren’t blooming any more, the days are short and getting shorter, and most of the time it’s raining. Furthermore, it is hunting season, so deer, and ducks, and even gulls are rightfully wary and shy.

It’s not a great time for hiking either, although Parks and Recreation always goes, anyway. A few days ago, we hiked up at Eaglecrest in a howling gale that drove celestial shrapnel in our faces. The next week, Mount Roberts offered strong winds, rain, and lots of mud. Although a few sections of the trail have been much improved, it is apparently a “work in progress.”

Not long ago, I walked with two photographer/naturalist friends down the trail to Bridget meadows and along Cowee Creek. We wistfully recalled the tiny toadlets of spring and the excited greater yellowlegs defending its territory in a muskeg. But “more eyes” was useful, expanding our little finds and promoting fruitful — or at least entertaining — speculations.

In the forest and forest edge, birds were few: a Steller’s jay, a raven in the distance, a flock of crossbills checking out the spruce cone crop, and two male pine grosbeaks resting in a tall tree. Along Cowee Creek, there was more avian life: one eagle, a flock of mergansers and a group of bufflehead — all of which reversed their direction of swim when they spotted us, and a gang of gulls loafing on the riverbank across the way — and even they took off immediately. A vagrant seal, no doubt chasing in-migrating coho, was equally shy.

As we strolled across the meadows, we noticed many spots where some critter had been digging. Normally, we would assume that bears had been grubbing for tubers of riceroot (a plant that we call usually call chocolate lily, which is closely related). But there was little other bear sign out there, just one track and no scats. So we wondered if the horses that roam over the meadows, creating trails and pock-marks as they walk and leaving lots and lots of digested evidence, could possibly have added root-grubbing to their repertoire. Hmmmm, a long shot, that!

I learned that the streams flowing into the big slough harbor cutthroats in spring. I also learned that some determined researcher in the Interior had found about 16,000 cones in the winter cache of a red squirrel.

Furthermore, I found out that one can distinguish poison-hemlock from its similar-looking but nonpoisonous relatives, not only by its chambered roots, but more easily by examining the leaf veins: a poison-hemlock leaf has veins that run from the midrib out to notches at the edge of the leaf, but the related species have leaf veins that go to the points on the serrated leaf edges. It is worth knowing the differences if you like to try tasting wild plants: Poison-hemlock is exceedingly poisonous; if you eat any part of the plant, you are likely to get very sick indeed, and possibly die. Note: this plant is not related to our hemlock trees at all, although you probably don’t really want to eat those, either. Poison-hemlock is what Socrates used to commit suicide in ancient Greece.

I found a twig that sported a row of distinctive fungi. These were bird’s nest fungi, so called because they have the form of a cup with several “eggs” or spore capsules. But these were the smallest ones I’d ever seen, only about three millimeters across. They were holding spores, awaiting a direct-hit raindrop to splash them out of the cup.

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

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