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On the Trails: Spring, high and low

Posted: May 31, 2013 - 12:01am
The two-toned yellow flowers of northern cinquefoil are displayed on a backdrop of three-parted, hairy leaves. These little flowers are another indication that winter is long gone.   Photo by Pam Bergeson
Photo by Pam Bergeson
The two-toned yellow flowers of northern cinquefoil are displayed on a backdrop of three-parted, hairy leaves. These little flowers are another indication that winter is long gone.

Just before Memorial Day, the Parks and Recreation hiking group went up to Cropley Lake to give the skiers among us a nice taste of spring skiing. The rest of the group walked up, with or without snowshoes. Temperatures were in the 50s, so post-holing was a concern for those of us without platforms on our feet, but we actually had no such problems.

We noted numerous spiders on the surface of the snow and a couple of kinds of beetles. That was it, for wildlife, although I heard ruby-crowned kinglets, varied thrushes and a fox sparrow singing.

A fairly fresh trackway crossed on open area and doubled back; judging from the prints themselves and the spacing, I guessed that a pine marten had been hunting.

A leisurely lunch in quasi-sunshine included some special desserts in which chocolate was a major feature. Then the skiers went off to play some more and we plodders headed down to the cars.

But we weren’t quite finished with our day. Three of us decided to look for a certain flower that indicates, to some folks, that spring really may be here. Oh yes, the skunk cabbage has been gorgeous and its sweet aroma so pleasant, and the purple mountain saxifrage has been making beautiful shows here and there. But out on the sea stacks and the sea cliffs there’s another sign that spring is getting serious. The two-toned yellow flowers of northern cinquefoil are displayed on a backdrop of three-parted, hairy leaves. And the whole plants nestle in rocky clefts and crevices along the shores. Each petal is deep yellow or gold at the base and bright, clear yellow elsewhere. I would not be surprised if parts of the petal reflected ultraviolet rays. Does the difference in color-tone serve as an attractant to insect pollinators? We noticed that the flower buds were reddish, and the back sides of some petals retained a touch of red even when open. Why would the buds be red but the mature petals yellow?

The week before the Cropley hike produced a few nice observations. Out near the glacier I watched pipits foraging along the beaches; the earliest pipits in the area had hunted for insects out on the melting ice. They’ll soon be going up to the alpine zones for nesting. Pipits are easy to tell from our sparrows, because pipits walk and sparrows typically hop.

I also watched a red squirrel, perched on a twig, eating male cottonwood flowers. That makes at least three mammals that eat these flowers; porcupines do, and black bears have done this so much that near the visitors center many cottonwood have broken tops, where the bears have reached out to grab the branches and get the flowers that dangle near the branch ends. (The bears do the same to the female cottonwoods, when they harvest the seed pods.)

Out on the wetlands on the west side of the river, a row of nest boxes had attracted tree swallows, and almost every box had a pair of swallows. Nest building was in progress and the birds were collecting wisps of dry grass to line the boxes. A flock of thirteen pectoral sandpipers made shallow probes in a mud flat; they must have been finding something good, because there were busily at it and not to be distracted by a mere human nearby. I heard a husky “chek, chek” note and knew without looking that an old friend, a red-winged blackbird, was there. Indeed, he was perched on a rootwad, with his bright red epaulets covered. So he was not defending a territory but was perhaps exploring in hopes of finding a place to settle. There are not many places within our urban confines that are suitable for redwings.

There’s always something nice to be seen or heard, and always more questions to be asked!

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

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