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On the Trails: Wonderful winterland

Posted: December 28, 2012 - 1:00am
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Swans were resting by the lower Mendenhall River, even in late December this year.            Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Swans were resting by the lower Mendenhall River, even in late December this year.

I love just prowling around in the snowy woods, looking for whatever presents itself. Solo or shared, there is usually something of interest. Here are a few examples from the past two months.

In November, just after the first good freeze-up, I poked around on the Old River Channel (think Mendenhall River, maybe a hundred years ago or so). A great blue heron had paced — in vain — along the now-icy runnel below a beaver dam, where no fish could now be grabbed. Then I saw some huge prints of webbed feet, bigger than my hand. No goose or duck or gull; this could only have been a swan. Following the tracks, I came to a place on the ice where the swan, perhaps with some friends, had dithered around for a while. They too were cut off by the ice from any tasty green vegetation in the water below. As they dithered about, they left samples of previous meals on the surface of the ice.

By now, my path had been crossed by another retired biologist and well-behaved canine companion. Together, we inspected the digested remains of swan dinners and concluded that the swans had nibbled on their own excreta, recycling the material and probably extracting more nutrients. Well, if you can’t reach the fresh stuff, perhaps this is a reasonable alternative! I wonder how often they do this — is it only occasional, for instance when ice blocks the access to fresh greenery?

Some of those huge webbed footprints led away from the resting and feeding site. They gradually got farther and farther apart, until the last strides were separated by at least seven feet. The very last one was matched with the brush of a single wingtip in the light snow. A seven-foot stride on shortish legs meant that bird was really hurtling itself into flight.

Although swans sometimes overwinter in Southeast, most of them migrate to slightly more southerly realms. Several swans had been seen in the upper Mendenhall River on the days before my little exploration, but increasing ice cover was making further stay a hungry proposition for them.

In mid-December, Out the Road (in Juneau that is a place, not just a direction), we noticed two eagles hunkered down on the bank of a small stream. They were intently staring at a dark, furry object in the water. We were “dying” of curiosity, of course, but didn’t want to disturb the eagles. So we went on, saying we’d stop to look on the way back. When we did so, the eagles and the dark object were gone. All we could do, then, was check out the spot for any signs of what had been there. We found a beaver tail, some gobbets of flesh, and a rib. Perhaps the carcass had shifted farther under the ice at the edge of the stream, but maybe more likely, one of the eagles had appropriated the thing for itself. By mid-December, beavers are usually hanging out in their lodges, awaiting ice-out. So why this one was here, and how long it had been there, was puzzling.

Mid-December also found us wandering around some of the ponds in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. Walking over the ice on the ponds gives one an entirely different perspective from one on the trails or in the thickets. A bonus is walking in actual sunshine! One pond has several beaver lodges that, in four years of monitoring, have never shown any sign of current occupancy by beavers. This time, we noticed small holes in the side of two lodges, with small footprints making a trail right into that doorway. It looked as if mink had moved in. Out in the middle of the pond there were three round holes in the ice, kept open, perhaps, by mink diving in for fish.

Just before Christmas, I ambled over to another pond. By now, we had had several more nights of single-digit temperatures, and the ice was really solid. But there were two holes in the ice that had just recently frozen over. And there was a trackway, made by several animals, running from one hole to the other, and then on toward shore. Following these round-pawed tracks, I came upon a sizable hole under some tree roots, and there the tracks ended. I surmised that a family of otters had used this hole as a part-time den; in the past week or so, a group of three pups and an adult (presumably Mom) had been seen fishing in the few ice-free spots that remained.

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

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