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December rambles

Posted: December 23, 2011 - 12:01am
Lettuce lichen covers the branches on one side of a spruce tree, where growing conditions seemed to be ideal.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Lettuce lichen covers the branches on one side of a spruce tree, where growing conditions seemed to be ideal.

 

By early December, heavy rains had mostly spoiled our lovely early snowcover. Even up at Eaglecrest, a Parks and Rec group could walk around Cropley Lake without snowshoes or skis, borne up by a hard crust.

On top of the crust lay a thin layer of new, soft snow, just enough to show good animal tracks. Porcupines had left many traces of extensive wanderings. Occasional snowshoe hares and red squirrels had ventured out. One trail looked like a weasel had looped along, and a raven had investigated a possible source of food.

We followed the route of ptarmigan as they had trotted from bush to bush. Under these bushes were scattered crumbs from the buds the ptarmigan had eaten. A small puzzle was provided by a narrow furrow in the loose snow—too wide to belong to a shrew, so probably a mouse or vole. A long tail-drag mark suggested the passage of a deer mouse across an open area toward the shelter of low-hanging conifer branches.

On another day, a friend and I watched a gaggle of mew gulls near the mouth of Fish Creek. Every so often, one would fly a few yards upstream, then drop to the water surface and float there briefly before taking off again. On a few of these “touch-and-go” episodes, the gull would dip its bill into the water, possibly picking up some small item. We wondered if the high water levels in the creek might be washing down some prey items, but if so, they were too small for us to see.

In mid-December, several friends ambled out the trail to Crow Point at the mouth of Eagle River. Bird-watching was unusually low-key. The only land birds seen or heard was a pair of ravens, surprisingly too shy to come close for treats. Gangs of gulls rested on the sandbars, retreating to higher ground as the tide came in. Among the usual glaucous-winged and herring gulls was a more unusual species — a Thayer’s gull. I seldom try to distinguish Thayer’s from herring gull, but the more experienced birder in the group recalled the difference in the wingtips (check your bird book for details). Thayer’s gulls nest in the Canadian high-Arctic but winter along the coast. A significant portion of the world’s population of this species stops in Berners Bay on the northward migration in spring, to feed at the eulachon run.

The stars of the show for the day were lichens, those much-ignored combinations of an alga with a fungus, whose precise relationship is subject to dispute and to change through time (of which more, perhaps, anon). We were on a campaign to learn some of the common lichens and easily found about 15 conspicuous kinds, no doubt by-passing numerous others. We noted a grove of alders well-festooned with strands of beard lichen, which seemed to shine when the sun’s rays poked through the partial cloud cover. At the edge of a meadow, we found a spectacular colony of what we thought is ‘lettuce lichen’ (Lobaria oregana) draped along all the lower branches of one spruce tree. What conditions made that particular tree such a favorable site?

Along the beach, we followed a beautifully clear trail of an otter for several hundred yards, and it looked like a coyote had run across a meadow. But the day was made complete by watching the shifting light on the sharp peaks of the nearby Coast Range.

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

 

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