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On the trails: Some summer observations

Posted: August 24, 2012 - 12:01am
A marmot collects hay, in preparation for the long hibernation.  Bob Armstrong
Bob Armstrong
A marmot collects hay, in preparation for the long hibernation.

During this so-called summer, our rambles yielded a number of nice little observations, along with a few of another kind. Here is a sample:

Near the glacier, a family of five raucous young ravens yelled constantly for food. They were as big as their parents but clearly intended to go on being fed as long as possible. This is probably the family that was raised on the hillside above the visitor center and fed partly on tern and gull chicks. One young raven sat atop the pavilion, where it was mobbed by barn swallows protecting the last broods in nests under the roof.

In July, for a time, the air was filled with flying, fluff-borne offspring of the cottonwoods. They collected in damp wads in roadside ditches and wafted into my garage in bundles. On the East Glacier Trail, we found a place where the ground was covered with mature female cottonwood catkins. The ripe, round pods of the catkin had not opened of their own accord, sending out their flying seeds. Instead, hundreds of pods had been opened and seeds carefully extracted from amid the white fluff. We soon saw the perpetrator: a red squirrel, which was in the very act of nibbling seeds from more pods.

Later, at home, I saw my local red squirrel had a doorway matted with discarded white fluff, left over from its seed harvest. Under that mat was the usual litter of spruce cone cores, ejected from the burrow.

Trips up Gold Ridge were plagued by rain and wind, almost every time we went there. We did see a marmot collecting hay; its mouth bristled with the leaves of grasses and herbs. It was already getting ready for its long hibernation (commonly about eight months).

On another day up there, we were watching marmots when we were surprised to see one being chased by a black dog. The marmot barely escaped, partly because we yelled at the dog. The surly owner of the dog declared that he did not care about the posted rule that dogs on that trail must be on leash, and besides, there were other marmots up there. As he and his marmot-chasing dog went on up the trail, a chorus of marmot warning whistles rang out across the entire hillside, and we didn’t see another marmot for four hours.

Even in the rain and wind, we enjoyed the flower show on the ridge, as always. One patch of narcissus anemones flowers had been assaulted by some herbivore, one that just took a bite out of each petal and managed to drop a few. We guessed that a family of grouse had been having lunch there. On the ridge top, we found a young ptarmigan, with no family members in sight. So we wondered if the rest of the family had come to grief. This young one was good at hiding: as we carefully looped around it, it circled around a sharp rock to keep the rock between itself and us.

In the summer of mostly yucky weather, I have not seen many bumblebees. Near the glacier and in some other spots, the many lupines, which are normally bee-pollinated, are setting no fruit, suggesting poor pollination. One nice (!) day in Gustavus, when bees should have been active, we took a walk through a field with acres of blooming lupines, but we saw no bees. This made us wonder if perhaps our record-setting wet summer might have drowned them in their ground nests, leaving few to pollinate the flowers.

Since all those words were drafted, we entered a spell of wonderful real-summer weather. What a treat! Another trip up Gold Ridge yielded a willow ptarmigan attending a single large chick, and they came right up to us, for a good look (by both parties). On a long hike over Mount Troy, we found a bench covered in deer cabbage. In the midst of the lush green foliage were several large beds, where something had rested for a long time. Some of the deer cabbage leaves had been mowed off in swathes, leaving a tall stubble. Then, aha, I noted some of the largest bear scats I have ever seen. Lunch at the top of Troy was celebrated with lots of chocolate, including birthday cake, while overhead, a few hawks soared, starting their fall migration.

Another huge treat was the opportunity to watch a group of Dall’s porpoises cavorting around our whale-watching vessel. What a show! I can’t say how many there were, because they were coming in from all directions to play in front of the boat. The bow of the boat was not very high, so we could see them well, as they zipped back and forth, changing direction with a tail flick. An amazingly quick breath snatched at the surface is enough to keep one zooming around for several passes in front of the bow. Suddenly, they were all gone. How do they coordinate their departure, and where do they go?

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

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