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On the Trails: Winter or spring?

Posted: April 19, 2013 - 12:00am
Purple mountain saxifrage is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. This one, seen near Nugget Falls on April 10, displayed flowers with mature pollen. A few days later, more flowers had opened.   Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Purple mountain saxifrage is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring. This one, seen near Nugget Falls on April 10, displayed flowers with mature pollen. A few days later, more flowers had opened.

The ice is just starting to melt on my home pond, so there is a little open water at both the inlet and the outlet. As soon as there were a few square yards of open water, a pair of mallards moved in. They rested on the edge of the ice, dabbled in the shallows, and gobbled up sunflower seeds spilled from the feeders that hang over the pond.

Then one day I noticed quite a kerfuffle out there. The female was hard to see, posed rather flat on the water. The male was very excited, vigorously bobbing his green head up and down, and splashily diving near the female several times. Quite a showy preamble! Then he was on her back, nipping the back of her neck, and they were doing the mating thing.

She will probably lay seven to ten eggs and incubate them for about four weeks. So, if she and her eggs are lucky enough to avoid predation, I may see ducklings on my pond in due course.

A stroll to Nugget Falls yielded the first purple mountain saxifrage of the season, blooming considerably in advance of others in the area. The flowers of this species are usually female, with receptive surfaces for pollen, before they become functionally male, with ripe pollen. This species does not usually pollinate itself but requires pollen from another plant. So this plant had perhaps lost its chances for seed production, because the flowers clearly presented mature pollen. If a bee now happens to find it and remove pollen, it would be difficult to find another plant ready to receive that pollen—unless some other plants open their flowers very soon. Maybe a bee can fly to the west side of the lake, where this plant blooms on the rock peninsula. Maybe it doesn’t pay to be TOO eager! Research has shown that seed production in the species is commonly limited by insufficient pollen deposition.

In the same area, where mountain goats have been foraging and resting for months, I finally saw a nanny with a kid, moving up the ridge into the brush. The kid was pressed close to mama’s side, so what I really saw was a white blur with eight legs (well, seven legs, actually, but you get the idea…).

Another stroll, on the wetlands, treated me to my first ruby-crowned kinglet song, one of my favorites. They’ve been here for a little while, but I hadn’t heard them for myself. Six swans on the river took off when they saw me move, even though I was still pretty far away and partly concealed. Canada geese were also quite nervous and left the meadows for the far side of the river. Even the ducks were uneasy and sailed slowly away downriver (mallards, goldeneyes, ringnecks, buffleheads, green-winged teal). Sadly, I missed the mountain bluebirds that had stopped there on their way north.

A more strenuous outing took us, on snowshoes, up one of the forested slopes at Eaglecrest. We gained a fair amount of elevation and looked down on the upper cross-country ski loop and Cropley Lake. We watched a ptarmigan snatch buds from blueberry twigs, marching calmly from one bush to another. The first clue to its presence was a line of very fresh tracks in the fluffy snow that lay atop the hard crust.

The greatest fun concerned a raven. First, we heard a lovely little melody coming from high in the hemlocks. It was repeated several times. The song was unlike that of any other songbird that I know. So we couldn’t identify it—until one little trill was followed by a brief squawk. Then a raven flew in, carrying a stick, disappeared briefly, and then flew back the way it came. Back and forth it went, with a rush of air in the wing feathers, each time bringing a stick. All the sticks were about the same size, maybe a foot long or so. After the bird had made several trips, I finally spotted where the sticks were going: high in a hemlock, in a snug spot next to the trunk, was a dark lump. The next two times the busy raven arrived, we could watch it work the sticks into the existing structure. This raven was still building the nest exterior, a bit behind the others that I’ve watched, which have been gathering and carrying dry grasses for nest lining.

Ravens are technically songbirds, along with sparrows and warblers and thrushes, although that comes as a surprise to many folks. On this day, ‘our’ raven earned its technical classification, with it short, sweet, melodic song.

Then, on a fine, blue-sky day, Parks and Rec sashayed, in shirt-sleeves, up to Spaulding Meadows. We didn’t even need snowshoes until we reached the upper meadow, because the trail was well packed. This trail is far easier to negotiate in winter than in summer, because the myriad mudholes are frozen and snow-covered. The upper meadows looked like the skiing would be wonderful, and the two skiers that started out with the rest of us plodders soon disappeared and were not seen again that day. Just before the top, we found some tracks that I think were made by a pine marten. We perched on a snowbank for lunch, shielded from a little breeze by a stand of trees, and thoroughly enjoyed a view of the sunlit peaks around the glacier.

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

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