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Late December sightings

Posted: January 6, 2012 - 1:01am
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A marbled murrelet in winter plumage, so calm that its reflection is clearly visible in the still waters.  Bob Armstrong
Bob Armstrong
A marbled murrelet in winter plumage, so calm that its reflection is clearly visible in the still waters.

On one of those dark, short, wet December days, Parks and Rec went up to Spaulding Meadows, a favorite destination. After we got past some icy patches on the trail, it was easy going. Most of us were more comfortable wearing cleats, but some hikers were content with rubber boots.

As we passed through a long stretch of snowy forest, we noticed some interesting tracks wandering up the hill right beside the trail: a bipedal pattern—left, right, left, right—with three toes on each foot. OK, so it was a grouse of some sort, probably ptarmigan. The pattern ended near two hollows in a snow bank. In the bottom of each hollow were groups of dark pellets. Aha! Two ptarmigan had spent the night here, leaving behind the remains of their recent meals. We could see the little piles of snow they’d scratched out of the side of the snow bank as they dug their burrows. And there were the wing marks they left when they burst through the roofs of the burrows in the morning. Most of the hikers had not seen ptarmigan beds before, so this was a mini-treasure.

I’m guessing that the burrowers were willow ptarmigan, which often come down into the forest in winter. Male and female willow ptarmigan stay together more than other ptarmigan do, although I don’t know how much they might associate in winter. Other grouse also roost in the snow sometimes, but the feet of our burrowing birds were small, more the size expected of ptarmigan.

Snow started to fall as we broke out into the lovely, snow-covered upper meadows. On went the snowshoes and we made a quick tour around before heading back down — into the rain again.

A day or two later, a friend and I strolled out (still in the rain) onto the floats in the Auke Bay harbor. Moderate swells were coming in from the channels, so the boats and the floats were heaving up and down a bit — any more and I’d have gotten seasick!

The harbor was an active place that day. There were both common murres and marbled murrelets, all in black and white winter plumage, floating calmly around and occasionally diving. It is unusual to be able to watch marbled murrelets at close range for any length of time; in summer, when they pop up next to a boat, they generally dive again immediately. Pacific loons, a cormorant, some goldeneye ducks, and common mergansers loafed and dove, but we could never see what they were after. However, a later visit, when feeding was very active, detected some transparent invertebrates (possibly euphausids, a.k.a. krill) in the bill of a successful forager. A song sparrow swept in and out, under and around the floats.

The prize for this day went to a squadron of long-tailed ducks. They were diving too, and seemed to be able to stay underwater for quite a long time. I later learned that they can dive (using their wings) to depths of more than 100 feet and stay under over a minute, if necessary. Several males in white and black winter plumage, with the famous long tail, were accompanied by over a dozen females and, presumably, juveniles that exhibited variation in plumage patterns (chiefly in the degree of darkness of chest and neck patches).

The diving long-tails came up with items that differed in shape and size, but we failed to identify their prey. Long-tailed ducks winter breed in the Arctic tundra, all around the globe, but they commonly winter on marine coasts. In winter, they have a varied diet of amphipods, isopods, bivalves, snails, and fish. They are very well insulated with a thick coat of feathers. Their hearts are large, relative to their body size, presumably related to their diving ability.

Populations of long-tailed ducks in Alaska are reported to be declining, which is also true in some other parts of their huge geographic range. The causes, however, are not clear. Long-tails do not begin to reproduce until they are 2 years old (i.e. in their third summer) and probably produce only one clutch of eggs a year. Predation on nests can be high, and duckling mortality is typically high. So this species does not have a quick recovery time once the populations decline.

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

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