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On the Trails: Gold Ridge in seasonal transition

Posted: June 21, 2013 - 12:00am
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Two marmots greet each other at the den entrance after returning from their foraging expeditions.   Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Two marmots greet each other at the den entrance after returning from their foraging expeditions.

On a hot sunny day in mid June, we set out on the trail above the Mount Roberts tram, in search of whatever happened to catch our fancy. Several residual snow drifts offered no difficulties, just a pleasant coolness.

The snow drifts held several bowl-like depressions that were the remains of ptarmigan winter roosts under the snow, each with a pile of scat in the bottom. One such bowl had melted out so much that it was close to four feet wide — so we had fun imagining a giant ptarmigan roosting there — perhaps left over from the Pleistocene?

The big flower show came from thousands of narcissus anemones, whose fields of white were dotted with blue lupines. Yellow northern cinquefoil and reddish roseroot adorned the rocky outcrops. Down near the ground were big purple violets, yellow violets, pink wedge-leaf primroses (a.k.a. pixie eyes), and tiny white alp lilies and starflowers. The heathers, both white and yellow, were also coming into bloom.

It was so hot that birds were not singing a lot, but we heard ruby-crowned kinglets and varied thrushes in the conifer forest, fox sparrows, robins and Wilson’s warblers in the brush. And best of all, we heard at least two golden-crowned sparrows up near timberline. Their plaintive three notes (“Oh, dear me!”) gave us a treat. A little bunch of ravens had figured out what the snow was good for: snow baths! A raven would lay its head on the snow and then shove forward until its whole body followed its bill along the snow (much as a dog might do). Then it would roll a little, perhaps working the soft snow into its feathers. I bet it felt good! I was a tad envious.

Marmots were out foraging in several places. One big snowdrift covered a den with a good blanket, but the marmots had dug their way out and their trails led in several directions over the snow. Down at sea level, this year’s crop of baby marmots is already emerging their dens, so these at higher elevations should be coming out before long. Farther south, hoary marmots are found just at high elevations (and not on beaches as they sometimes are, here) and they are typically quite polygamous. I wondered if our marmots have a similar mating arrangement. We watched our marmots for quite a while — until an unleashed (illegal) dog started snooping around, when all the marmots promptly took cover.

We like to sit quietly in various spots, just to see and hear whatever is in the neighborhood. At one such stop, I perched on a flat rock and inspected the mat of low-growing vegetation at my feet. There were blueberry stems with occasional pendant pink flowers and prostrate willows sending up erect catkins. And there was another plant, too, that mystified us all. It had tiny, yellow, bell-shaped flowers, rather like a faded, wizened blueberry flower and firm leaves with marked reticulate venation. None of us had even noticed it before, although at this site there was quite a bit of it.

I took a small specimen of the mystery plant to a botanist, we consulted various plant books, and the mystery was resolved. The plant is alpine bearberry, a species apparently not recorded quite this far south, although it is reported from Glacier Bay and upper Lynn Canal. In autumn, the leaves will turn a spectacular red and the flowers will have made black berries, beautifully set off by the red leaves. It’s a good bet that there are more patches of this species on the ridges, if we look carefully.

At the top of the ridge, our famous photographer observed a female rock ptarmigan foraging on the petals of Cooley’s buttercup (now reclassified as a “false buttercup” and placed in a different genus). True buttercups are generally poisonous (even the flowers) if eaten and often cause skin irritation if rubbed, so I wonder if this is the case for Cooley’s buttercup too. If so, then ptarmigan may have physiological means of dealing with the poison, or perhaps can tolerate small quantities of it. Many animals eat poisonous plants, sometimes counter-acting the poison with another food item. Here is another little local mystery to be solved.

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

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