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On the Trails: Winter to spring

Posted: May 3, 2013 - 12:01am
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This little hemlock twisted into a full circle before sending its tip up toward the canopy.   Photo by Pam Bergeson
Photo by Pam Bergeson
This little hemlock twisted into a full circle before sending its tip up toward the canopy.

A poet wrote “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” For Juneau in 2013, the answer is Yes! We’ve had, I think, three big snowstorms in April. Another poet wrote: “April is the cruelest month…” and, this year (so far!), that seems appropriate (with apologies to said poets for taking their lines quite out of context! Also to my long-gone eleventh-grade English teacher, who would be rolling her eyes and shaking her head, because the lines floated into my head, out of context, but not the poets; I had to look ‘em up to refresh my so-called memory. Sorry, Miss Dahl!).

The snow seems likely to bring temporary hardship to many creatures. The nesting hummingbird is sitting tight but no doubt having a hard time finding enough food for herself. The ducks on my pond are swimming through thick slush. Juncos, which typically forage on the ground, are driven to visit the seed feeders hanging over the pond; they cling with some difficulty to perches made for smaller birds. Mountain goats may stay at low elevations longer than usual, because the snow is too deep in their alpine haunts, and any newborn kids become more vulnerable to bear predation than they would be in the alpine zone. Will the early blueberry flowers get pollinated if the bumblebees are obliged to retreat to their nests?

But beautiful it is; as the annual Audubon cruise to Berners Bay set out in a snowstorm, we told ourselves that there is no place more beautiful than Juneau.

The spring run of eulachon (hooligan) in the rivers of Berners Bay had not yet begun, and there were no signs of herring spawning. But there were obviously forage fish in the bay, because their marine predators were busy. Tightly packed squads of Steller sea lions splashed and dove in unison, chasing some kind of small fish, or rafted up to rest in between foraging forays. A rocky reef was lined with bald eagles, with harbor seals scattered around just offshore. We saw humpback whales doing something that most of us had not seen before: five or six whales were foraging together, shoulder to shoulder in a tight bunch, often making short dives simultaneously. Some lone humpbacks foraging elsewhere in the bay came and joined in. My guess is that there were several small schools of forage fish in the bay, as a preamble to the big spawning events, and the predators concentrated their efforts because the prey had a patchy distribution.

Along with the usual assortment of gulls and sea ducks, we saw yellow-billed loons, which commonly winter along the shores of the northeastern Pacific. They look a lot like common loons and are indeed closely related, but they have a pale, slightly up-tilted, bill. These birds would be staging for a northward migration to the Arctic tundra where they nest, probably about the middle of June. They have to wait for the tundra lakes to thaw, so they can hunt for fish and various invertebrates; if they go north before leads open in the ice, many would die. Breeding pairs get together on the nesting grounds, and each female commonly lays two eggs that hatch around mid-July. It takes about three years for the young birds to mature and find their own mates.

There are reportedly fewer than about 3,000 of these loons in Alaska. Their populations may be limited by the availability of suitable habitat — they need lakes with early ice-out, protected shorelines for nest sites, stable water levels so the nests don’t get flooded, and clear, shallow waters for foraging. They also may have to compete with other loons for suitable habitat.

Another wintry foray in April took us on snowshoes up the forested route to Cropley Lake. Among the interesting observations was a well-gnawed tree where a porcupine had found dinner. Much of the bark was gone. Porcupines feed on the inner bark and commonly reject the tough outer bark. The unusual thing was a deep, very tidy, circular mat of outer-bark chips closely packed at the base of the tree. We’ve seen lots of porcupine-chewed tree but had never seen (or noticed) how the chips piled up so neatly. We also found a little hemlock tree that had contorted itself into a full circle in its struggle to reach the light. Never give up!

Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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