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Perambulations in June

Posted: July 6, 2012 - 12:01am
This stunning moth visits various kinds of flowers but it seems to be rare around here.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
This stunning moth visits various kinds of flowers but it seems to be rare around here.

Sheep Creek valley is a great place to be in June. The dense shrubbery hosts a rich community of nesting songbirds. By June, the late-arriving Swainson’s thrushes are here, sounding off with their distinctive rising notes. Hermit thrushes have been here for a while, but they’re still singing, a high, prolonged note followed by a descending burble. Fox sparrows were in full voice, rich and varied, their dark plumage surprisingly hard to discern in the foliage.

Wilson’s warblers chattered and yellow warblers called sweet-sweet-twitter on both sides of the trail. The feeble trill of the orange-crowned warbler can be hard to hear over the rustle of leaves. Robins were still caroling, although some already had chicks in the nest (and eggshells on the ground). A few varied thrushes and ruby-crowned kinglets could be heard near the conifer stands. There was an occasional Pacific wren (what we used to know as winter wren) and a warbling vireo. There must be some Lincoln’s sparrows somewhere, and birders report at least one MacGillivray’s warbler.

Juncos nest up there too, a bit behind the ones near my house, which in mid-June already have young ones out of the nest and are thinking about a second brood. A dipper flew quickly upstream, perhaps one of the pair nesting in the big log dam.

The cheerful cacophony of bird song goes on all morning. Parks and Recreation hikers miss the full-blown dawn chorus, but there was still enough bird music to entertain me. A good portion of my acoustic attention is focused, not on human sounds, but instead on smaller creatures, so to some extent, I walk in a different world than most of my companions.

A Parks and Rec hiking trip up Perseverance Trail found a City and Borough of Juneau trail crew hard at work, clearing the last boulders and junk left by an avalanche. There was still some snow on the upper parts of the trail, but these patches were easily passable. It was still early spring up there. Willows were just leafing out and only the earliest birds were evident. On the way back to town, I dawdled along, listening to bird song. I caught up with a birder-friend, and she brought me good luck: we checked a couple of dipper territories and found nesting dippers in both places.

Some days later, a small group of hikers went out the Bridget meadows trail and then along Cowee Creek. The planks on the first part of the trail have been replaced by nice gravel turnpike, and the board-walk down to the meadows is in quite good shape. However, the turnpike through the low-lying meadows is still flooded, ankle-deep, and the forested part of the lowland trail is a mess of mud-holes and some treefalls. We can hope there’s a plan to make some more improvements!

“Twas a fine, hot (!!!) day (remember??? There was one!), and lots of folks thought this would be a good place to visit. We avoided the crowds and wandered off toward the creek. As we ambled along, admiring the wild-flower show, we heard a series of branch-snappings in the alder thickets. Hmmm. That’s odd … Then we heard some loud “whuff-whuff-whuffs” as something large barged through the brush toward us. Ah, OK, — we are not wanted here! So let’s clear out and leave Mr. or Mrs. Bruin to its lunch (but I’m sure wondering what it was defending). I have, on a solo canoe trip in the past, been literally nose-to-nose with a bear, but this was my first whuffing. We never even saw the whuffer.

As usual, the June flower show in the meadows was spectacular. Shooting stars were about finished, but some stands were still in full, pink bloom. The wild iris was well underway, with lots more to come, showing shades of purple ranging from the intense, deep, royal hue, through one with a rosy tinge, to a pale, almost lavender. The white heads of cow parsnip were set off by fields of yellow buttercups and blue lupine. The lupine had been well-visited by bees; on most of the open flowers the upper (so-called banner) petals had turned from white to purplish-blue.

Nestled down among the taller flowers were yellow silverweed, pink-purple beach pea, white chickweed and starflower, a few pale purple northern geranium, and plenty of brown-flowered riceroot (known here as chocolate lily). On one of the lily flowers, we saw a spectacular moth, which we had seen only once before in our lives: It had little more than an inch of wingspan and was deep black with large white patches. Circling four of the six legs were fluffy, orange bracelets. Known as Langton’s forester moth, the caterpillars feed on fireweed, but the adult feeds on a variety of flowers; in this case it was apparently attracted to the fetid odor of decay that chocolate lily uses to attract its pollinators.

A good day! We listened to Pacific-slope flycatchers on the way down through the woods, and savannah sparrows in the meadows. A blessing as we departed came in the form of two small juvenile toads, telling us that there are still some tadpole ponds in the meadows.

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

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