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In the Beardslees, part 2

Posted: August 10, 2012 - 12:01am
A black oystercatcher patrols a rocky beach. They nest on the upper edge of beaches, but their eggs sometimes become prey for bears and gulls.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
A black oystercatcher patrols a rocky beach. They nest on the upper edge of beaches, but their eggs sometimes become prey for bears and gulls.

Across a narrow channel from our camp, a black bear spent two days grazing on beach vegetation. We were curious about its choices of greenery, so when we thought the bear had moved on, we crossed the channel to investigate. There were clear signs of grazing, but they reflected old munching, not the recent activity. As we meandered over the short vegetation, we were greeted by a loud “Whuff, Whuff, Whuff!” from the dense brush above the beach area.

“Ooooops! Sorry, bruin, we thought you’d gone!”

And we discreetly retreated to our own turf. As it happened, we were less respectful of its turf than it was (as far as we know, at least) of ours.

A little paddling junket to the north end of the archipelago produced good wildlife sightings. A sizable raft of sea otters rested in a kelp bed. A black bear ambled along a beach; when it stopped to look at us while we paddled by, a tiny cub peered out over mama’s haunches. A few yards farther on, a bull moose stared out of the brush, then silently sauntered off. A coyote then popped out of the same thicket and trotted calmly along the shore, inspecting us all the while.

There were lots of other cool things for curious naturalists to find, investigate, explain (sometimes), or guess at. Near our camp we found five probable wolf scats, all composed of densely felted, very fine, brown fur. But whose fur? Hare? Marmot? It would take several of such small beasts to fill five large wolf scats.

On a little rise, above an abandoned river otter den, we found an accumulation of large pellets, presumably the regurgitated, undigested remains of dinners made of eagles, all packed with white feathers. Elsewhere, a large pellet yielded not only feathers, but also the outer part of a tiny hoof (a moose calf? perhaps a mountain goat kid?).

Our beach gave us a great perch for watching black oystercatcher altercations. A group of seemingly peaceful birds would suddenly erupt with loud screams, piercing shrieks and agitated flights, sometimes in response to another oystercatcher passing by and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. At least one of these birds seemed to have a band on one leg.

In many places, moose had left evidence of their passing: deep hoofprints in the moss, dung piles, and willows cropped of all their small branches or stripped of their bark. Even alders had been browsed in some places.

A huge shelf-fungus on a fallen log was covered with fine, brown powder, as was the surrounding moss. This seemed very odd, because the underside of the shelf was not releasing spores. So what were we seeing? Later consultation with a retired plant pathologist suggested that this fungus had already released this year’s spores, which had settled on its upper surface and nearby vegetation, where a later breeze might waft them away.

A sexton beetle flew in to our picnic spot one day. Sexton beetles collect dead mice or birds or bits of fish and bury them as food for their larvae. Did our lunch smell like carrion? Or did we? In any case, it didn’t stay long.

And there were other things: Bears had left deep claw marks going up big spruces. An adult semipalmated plover guarded a fuzzy chick at the water’s edge. A golden-yellow slime mold had formed a reproductive structure, created when scattered single cells somehow “decide” to come together. Of course, there were bones, also: Two sea otter skulls and a scapula, two sizable bird pelvises; various leg and wing bones of long-deceased birds; a raven skeleton. The young primary forest had almost no shrubby understory, just moss and thousands of tiny twayblade orchids.

At the end of a good trip with good company, we were certainly ready for hot showers. But the public shower at the lodge had no hot water on the evening that we came in from the islands. Just as two of us were discussing this with the attendant in charge, we were rescued by a Fairy Godmother, who offered the use of the shower in the room she and her husband had rented. We accepted with such alacrity that our companions, who had to make do with cold water or ‘spit baths’, didn’t know where we’d gone. We emerged, clean and purring, and rejoined our less fortunate friends. Our Good Samaritans from New York would not even allow us to buy them dessert by way of thanks!

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

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