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Harbor birds and snowy tracks

Posted: December 2, 2011 - 1:01am
An adult Pacific Loon with three juveniles in a local harbor.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
An adult Pacific Loon with three juveniles in a local harbor.

Sometimes, perhaps especially during the holiday season, it’s hard to fit a long, exploratory walk in among all the other activities. Then a quick trip to the harbors may produce some interesting observations.

On a recent harbor visit, we enjoyed watching Pacific loons. They dove frequently, but we never saw a loon with a fish in its bill, so we guessed that they were foraging on very small fish or even invertebrates—small enough to be swallowed immediately. The loons sported a variety of plumages: one was in good adult plumage, one seemed to be an unusually young juvenile without the typical juvenile plumage, and most were in well-marked juvenile plumage (check a good bird book!).

Pacific loons winter all along the northern Pacific coast but nest on deep lakes in the Interior and across the Arctic tundra. Like other loons, they are typically monogamous and both parents incubate and rear the chicks. Loon legs are placed far back on the body, which is good for swimming and diving (when the legs are almost like propellers) but very bad for walking. So loons place their nests right next to the water’s edge. This makes them vulnerable to motorboat wakes that swamp the nest and to droughts that lower the water levels and make the nest too far from water.

The harbor visit also produced a couple of seals, several marbled murrelets in winter plumage, some long-tailed ducks, red-necked grebes, Barrow’s goldeneyes, buffleheads, one or two great blue herons, and a song sparrow. We wondered if song sparrows (in springtime) might sometimes nest under the decking of the floats or if they merely forage there and nest, as usual, in shoreline shrubbery.

There were some large “jellyfish” slowly pulsating in the cold water. Perhaps a foot or so in diameter, one was translucent white and the other was a murky orange with thick wads of tentacles. In our land-based ignorance, we didn’t have names for them.

On another day, after a recent snowfall, a tracking expedition was profitable. Snowshoe hares had seemingly conducted small riots under the spruces; their feet had created a maze of interlocking pathways and localized spots of concentrated activity. We saw no scats, perhaps suggesting that the hares had re-ingested them. Hares and rabbits (as well as many rodents) produce two kinds of feces: the ordinary kind, which is not re-ingested, and a softer kinds, produced by a digestive organ called a caecum, which is consumed—recycled, so to speak, to extract more nutrients from their food.

No small mammal trails were evident. Shrews, voles, and mice were presumably active but stayed under the soft snow. A porcupine lefts its customary trough where it had waded, up to its ears, in fluffy snow.

We followed the trail of an otter that seemed to know just where it was going. Several long leaps were followed by a smooth slide, then more leaps and another slide mark. Nobody else makes a trail like that! The otter had crossed a sizable pond, cut over a hill to another pond where it checked out a beaver lodge (from the outside), and gone down a small frozen stream to a deep channel where fish could be found.

The best find was along a shallow slough in which there were still small stretches of open water. A narrow furrow led out of one little pool straight over to the next one. A water shrew? But no, there seemed to be alternating footprints lightly covered with new-fallen snow. So, some critter that walked on two feet, from one bit of open water to the next, and then the next one, and so on for 50 yards or so. Finally we found some clearer footprints and a spot where something had landed and started to walk. Definitely a bird! But not a shorebird, because the hind toe was well-developed. So — a songbird, not very big, but not tiny, either. Well, who would be foraging in shallow water, going from pool to pool? Most likely an American dipper, looking for aquatic insect larvae or maybe sticklebacks. Dippers often wander far from their nesting streams in winter. The real mystery is why it walked through the snow instead of flying.

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

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