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Advancing spring

Posted: April 20, 2012 - 12:00am
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The red cap of a male ruby-crowned kinglet is seldom as visible as in this photo. His cheerful song announced that spring is really here.  Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
The red cap of a male ruby-crowned kinglet is seldom as visible as in this photo. His cheerful song announced that spring is really here.

Ever so slowly, spring is creeping up on us. Although my terraced rock “gardens” are still well-buried in snow (but less so, since I shoveled off a foot or two), the ice on my pond is perceptibly thinner. The seemingly endless sunny days (in Juneau?!?) are helping, but the night-time temperatures, at least at my house, are still freezing. The ice on Mendenhall Lake is quite thick — in the middle, but near the edge it is not reliable. There was much consternation on a recent Parks and Recreation hike, when a new hiker ventured out on the ice and fell in. He swam through crumbling ice to shore, where he was quickly required to shed at least some of his soaked clothes and don borrowed raiment.

Some good things are happening. The hummingbirds are back, hovering around some folks’ feeders. There’s a dearth of flowers with nectar, so they must be eating mostly insects and spiders, plus the sugar syrup in the feeders. I’ve heard red-breasted sapsuckers squealing their nasal call, so they have returned. Robins are back again, too, in flocks on the beaches and, as singletons, clucking and fussing and starting to sing in treetops. Song sparrows are singing in the thickets near the shores. Just after Easter, I saw the first golden-crowned sparrow at my seed feeder, looking chubby but eating as fast as its bill could go.

Recent explorations around Easter turned up more signs of progress.

On the big rock peninsula across from the Visitor Center, we found the first purple mountain saxifrage in bloom, with lots more to come. Out near Nugget Falls, crevices in the cliffs held the first green fronds of the rusty cliff fern and parsley fern. Nearby, a single flower of purple mountain saxifrage peeked out of its leafy clump. Elsewhere, skunk cabbage is up, in places, and should soon be swarming with the little brown beetles that come there to mate, and incidentally pollinate the flowers.

The goats around the glacier are still foraging at low elevations, but they seem to be slowly working their way up to their summer grounds. Hooters are sounding off on the hillsides. We are starting to see queen bumblebees zooming around, gathering food for their first brood of larvae. Willow catkins are a good source of pollen for the bees.

A trip to the Boy Scout beach area yielded a broad expanse where geese had grubbed for roots and shoots. There were also some mysterious craters in one area, some of them at least a foot deep. Could they be evidence of early prowlings of a brown bear? That’s a question, because a keen local naturalist has suggested that brown bears may dig deeper holes than black bears, when they’re after roots.

Over on Douglas, the snow was still impressively deep. The Dan Moller cabin was still buried at Eastertime; a very narrow defile led down to the outhouse door. A little meander over some mid-elevation muskegs (on snowshoes) showed us that deer had been regularly moving from one tree well to another. Snow at the tree bases had melted, exposing several feet of actual vegetation-covered ground (several feet down!). We guessed that the deer were foraging on dwarf dogwood and trailing raspberry leaves, and perhaps lichens as well, with snacks of blueberry twigs in between.

Wild crabapple trees grew at the edge of several small muskegs. They provided us with a nice puzzle. The bigger, older trunks had cracked, scaly bark, and almost every one had been visited by some creature that scaled off flakes of bark, exposing the lighter-colored wood or new bark beneath. And most of those light-colored patches were dotted with up to four tiny, conical pits. Our best guess was that a three-toed woodpecker had been foraging, whacking off the bark scales in search of whatever small invertebrates might be hiding there. Indeed, two days later, I saw one of those birds in the same general area, drumming on a dead spruce. But what are those little pits? Could they be marks where a woodpecker’s sharp bill had stabbed at a bug startled by the sudden removal of its bark shelter?

A walk out to Bridget Point involved lots of post-holing and some wading in the little canal that forms on the trail in the lowlands. A woodpecker was drumming, which led to a big discussion about how to tell the drumming patterns of different species apart. It clearly was not a sapsucker, but distinguishing several other species proved to be dicey, even with the aid of helpful programs on convenient hand-held electronics. There were rewards in seeing a northern shrike perched atop a spruce, hearing a pygmy owl calling, and glimpsing a few of the first ruby-crowned kinglets. I didn’t hear them sing, however, until the next day, when spring could then “officially” begin.

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

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