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On the Trails: Sights on Cowee Creek

Posted: June 14, 2013 - 12:00am
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Shooting stars, seen against the background of the creek, show the shape that gives them their name. The petals are reflexed, and the male and female parts form the 'head' of the star.   Photo by Kerry Howard
Photo by Kerry Howard
Shooting stars, seen against the background of the creek, show the shape that gives them their name. The petals are reflexed, and the male and female parts form the 'head' of the star.

We sat on the bank of Cowee Creek in the sun, enjoying a very leisurely lunch. (I’m accustomed to spelling the name of this creek with a C, as it is spelled on the topo maps, to distinguish it from Kowee Creek on Douglas, but the sign at the bridge now says otherwise). The meadows were a spectacular sea of color. There were thousands of pink shooting stars, and we stepped very carefully in order not to tread on them. Broad swaths of yellow buttercups provided contrast, and the blue lupines were coming into bloom. Underneath the conspicuous flowers were dainty white starflowers and pink nagoonberry blossoms, with chocolate lilies here and there.

Our timing was perfect for the first full wave of color that makes a visit to these meadows so enjoyable. The wild iris and geraniums were getting ready to contribute to the next color show. We were congratulating ourselves on getting the timing right and feeling quite satisfied visually and gastronomically, when the cry went up: Pollywogs! Pollywogs!

Oh Yaaaaaayyy! Indeed, a pool behind us was swarming with tiny tadpoles (a.k.a pollywogs), less than half an inch long. Hurrah! The next pool had two adult toads, which may have been contemplating the beginning of another batch of tadpoles. This was greatly encouraging to those of us who have worried about the general, global decline of frogs and toads and marked local decline of our western (boreal) toads. Maybe some of them can resist the fungal disease that has decimated so many populations of these animals. We can hope so.

The first pool also held a pair of predaceous diving beetles in a wrestling match that may have been on the way to making more beetles. They created quite a turmoil in the weeds near the shore, tumbling and diving for some minutes. The pool also harbored fish, some juvenile coho and a larger fish with large black spots on dorsal and tail fins. The fish were not eating tadpoles while I was watching; they were feeding on insects at the surface of the water.

I don’t know if the other folks noticed, but even this late in the morning I heard the songs of ruby-crowned kinglets, robins, orange-crowned warblers and Lincoln sparrows. A mourning cloak butterfly flitted by; these butterflies commonly feed on sap and other exudates and seldom pollinate flowers. They can overwinter as adults, and can be found feeding on the sap wells made by red-breasted sapsuckers.

Another pleasant observation was watching a herd of horses come across the creek from pasturage on the other side. They came in bunches, each bunch followed by a rider on horseback. What a mixed lot of colors: buckskin, palomino, bay, brown with blaze, and so on, but I didn’t see any pintos.

On the trail along the creek toward the highway bridge, we found the expected bear scats, some deer tracks, and flowering baneberry (which has lovely white flowers, brilliant red or white berries, and graceful foliage, so it is pleasing in all its stages). The bear scats reminded us of a hike last summer, on the other side of the creek, when three of us beat a discrete but hasty retreat after hearing some loud “whuffs” and crashing of brush nearby.

Back at the bridge, we shuttled the car drivers back to the vehicles left at Echo Cove, where we began the walk. The tide was low, so we had an easy stroll on the beach and around the point to the mouth of the creek. Lion’s Head mountain was capped with a small cloud but peeked though briefly.

Despite the very active mosquitoes that got busier as the day progressed, the Parks and Recreation group hike was deemed to be highly satisfactory — good company and lots of things to see.

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

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