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On the Trails: Anticipating spring

Posted: March 23, 2012 - 12:01am
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An American dipper has caught a recently emerged pink salmon that still shows some of its red yolk sac.  Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
An American dipper has caught a recently emerged pink salmon that still shows some of its red yolk sac.

Those who are not into the March Madness of basketball have their own form of madness around the spring equinox. Tired of winter, juiced up by the lengthening days, these folks tally every little sign of approaching spring.

The earliest pussywillows appeared a few weeks ago and now are visible in many places. A friend just reported bud-break of early blueberry and red huckleberry in some spots. A small bear was seen out the road in February—perhaps because of an unseasonable warm spell.

Crows perch in amicable pairs on lamp posts, and ravens have been carrying sticks and moss to nests that will soon have eggs. Canada geese in squads of twenty or thirty grub for sedges and roots out in the wetlands. On a recent hike, a few not-yet-enthusiastic hooters (sooty grouse) sounded off. A fat, brown caterpillar lay in a pocket of snow and a tiny centipede (?) scrabbled over the snow in search of prey.

Pink and chum fry have emerged with their red yolk sacs still visible but almost used up and buttoned into tiny bellies. American dippers forage happily on these tasty morsels, sometimes prying them out of crevices in the gravel.

The little garden in front of my house was mostly buried under a four-foot berm of snow, because my reliable snowplow guy has no place else to put it. So one day I went out with a stout shovel and hacked that berm down to a quarter of its former bulk, and then did it again the next day. If I don’t do this, it would be September before the berm was gone! Lo and behold, there at the very edge of the berm I saw tiny green shoots of an eager bachelor button plant that can’t wait for warmer weather. When I looked again, there were wee shoots of hardy iris and chives, just emerging from the ground a short distance away.

The magpies have left my feeders and presumably are on their way to nesting sites in the Interior. Steller’s Jays became scarce a few weeks ago, as usual, perhaps because they start setting up breeding territories while spring is still just a hope. Juncos are fewer, as the slate-colored ones begin to head to the Interior, and the Oregon ones, which nest here, start warming up their song.

Up by the glacier, it is still winter, even though the ice is getting soft. Mountain goats continue to forage on willows and alders just above the lake near Nugget Falls. Snow lies many feet deep at Eaglecrest and on the east side of Douglas. But we’ll soon see that first big, slow, early mosquito and hear a varied thrush yodeling in the trees. Even so, it’s a hard time of year to be patient!

By the way, many Juneau folks saw the odd ‘snow rollers’ that littered the surface of Mendenhall Lake a couple of weeks ago. They came in various sizes, from a few inches to about a foot in diameter. I was skiing across the lake with a friend and pondering those strange things when suddenly one of them rolled right past us, getting bigger as it went! A snow roller is a cylinder of snow that somehow gets rolled up like a jellyroll or a bale of pink fiberglass insulation. I’d never seen or heard of them before, but I finally got around to looking them up, and this is what a weather-service web-site said: They get to be up to a foot in diameter (so some of ours were as big as they get). For them to form, the ground needs to be covered with ice that snow does not stick to. The snow must be loose and wet, with a temperature near the melting point of ice. The wind has to be strong but not too strong. The fourth condition noted on the web-site is that the ground must slope, at least at the beginning of the roll. However, I don’t think that condition held for many of the snow rollers we saw on the Lake. In any case, they were a very cool sight.

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

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