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Camping among the Beardslee Islands in Glacier Bay

Posted: August 3, 2012 - 12:00am
A juvenile raven harvests a wild strawberry.  Photo by Pam Bergeson
Photo by Pam Bergeson
A juvenile raven harvests a wild strawberry.

I edged my kayak along the rocky beach and pried myself out (‘T’aint quite as easy as it was a couple of years ago!). An out-going tide meant a long haul up the beach with gear, but soon all the kayaks were safely stowed above the line of beach rye. Presently, a small colony of tents appeared in the meadow, all carefully placed to avoid crushing too many flowers.

The meadow wore a colorful blanket of Indian paintbrush, ranging in hue from deep crimson through all the reds and oranges to a clear yellow. Tiny purple gentians, white-flowered angelicas, and a few lupines added to the décor. Best of all, underneath the taller plants lurked wild strawberries! Some were still in flower, some had little green fruits and some were just about ripe.

There weren’t as many ripe ones as we might have wished, because some robins and a group of juvenile ravens had discovered the little red (and almost red) treats lying on the moss. The ravens were so intent on harvesting goodies that they ignored us most of the time. The allure of the strawberry fields was very strong for us too, and each of our exploratory walks on this island had to begin with a hands-and-knees crawl to garner whatever the ravens and robins had missed.

The meadow occupied a point on the south end of an island, ideally located to catch breezes from almost any direction, and also give us the opportunity to shift from one side to the other to find the most comfortable amount of breeze. Both sides of the point offered good views of passing humpback whales and sea otters. We were pleased and surprised to see several very large, hefty terns (probably Caspians) fly by.

Our beach gave us ringside seats for watching the young ravens, which provided much entertainment. They fossicked up and down the windrows of torn-up algae and debris on the high tide lines, turning over bits of sea lettuce and nabbing whatever unfortunate invertebrates were exposed. Sometimes they paraded back and forth, holding some prize, as if to tempt a sibling to pursue. And they played ‘stick’ with each other: one juvenile would grab a small stick, approach another and lie down on its side, offering the stick to the other one, as if to say Play with me!

We amused ourselves by looking closely at the paintbrush flowers, which are visited by hummingbirds. The flower is a green tubular structure within the colorful bracts, and a hummingbird has to probe quite deeply to reach the nectar. When it does so, it presses on a stiff lip, which forces the tube to open and expose the sexual parts. Then pollen sticks to the hummers head (probably) until the bird visits the next flower.

Indian paintbrush plants are hemiparasites on various other plants, meaning that, although they have green leaves and can photosynthesize carbohydrates, they also obtain certain chemicals from their host plants. Our red-bracted species is known to parasitize lupines, from which it obtains alkaloid toxins. The alkaloids are stored in the paintbrush leaves and the colorful bracts around the flower itself, where they deter insect herbivores. However, the nectar in the paintbrush flowers does not contain the borrowed toxins, so the pollinating hummingbird would not be affected.

By some miracle, in this summer that so far was characterized by near-record-breaking cool and wet, we were allowed to revel in rainless 60- to 70-degree temperatures for several days. Being all-too-human, we even managed, on one day, to complain that it was too hot! Nice flat water gave us perfect conditions for poking about in bays and inlets, with occasional stops for snacks and terrestrial explorations.

 

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

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