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On the Trails: Wanderings in early November

Posted: November 22, 2013 - 1:00am
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A young northern shrike perches at the top of a small tree, looking for prey to nab with its hooked bill.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
A young northern shrike perches at the top of a small tree, looking for prey to nab with its hooked bill.

Before I even left the house, I saw that a porcupine had trundled over the ice on my pond. Back and forth couple of times, and then — oops! — the ice near shore apparently gave way. Lots of scrabbling marks around the edges of the collapsed ice indicated that the critter had saved itself and wandered on.

A little expedition to collect seed pods for a class project showed that seed pods of wild iris and chocolate lily were abundant and full of seeds. Pollination had been very successful, no doubt thanks mostly to the fine summer just past.

We collected a few blue-gray seed capsules of starflower, in order to make a closer inspection. A look at the exterior of each capsule revealed a very pretty pattern of roughly hexagonal shapes, each one enclosing a finely reticulated surface. Each capsule is about the shape and size of a BB, so dissection required a steady hand and good light. When we (that’s the editorial “we”; my friend did the work) opened the capsules, we could see that the seeds lining the capsule bore the reticulations that showed through to the exterior, and the center of the capsule was composed of a jelly-like material. We were left with questions, of course, about how the capsule normally opens and how the seeds are dispersed.

Several hiking friends noticed that shrubs such as willow, blueberry and salmonberry bore leaf buds. Of course they do, in preparation for spring. But the surprising — and possibly worrisome — thing was that some of the buds had become fairly large and plump, as if they might open prematurely. A few nice, warm days (and we did have some) in late fall might send a mistimed signal to the plants. We can hope that these buds didn’t develop so far that the ensuing low temperatures would wreck them.

Shallow digs by bears had left big clumps of uneaten chocolate lily root nodules on the surface of the ground in the meadows. As always, we had to wonder why bears seem to leave these edible parts behind. A bear, or something else of good size, had dug deep between the roots of a big spruce tree. This exposed part of a red squirrel’s cache of cones. But what other animal would want the squirrel’s cones? Or could the digger have been after the squirrel itself (probably in vain)?

Other sightings:

• Somewhere out the road, we found a carnivore (coyote?) scat full of soft, silky fur, perhaps of a hare.

• Relatively recent tracks of a small bear pressed into the mud on the west side of Mendenhall Lake. This was rather late in the season, but one was seen about that time near the Back Loop. Other tracks had been left by an eagle, a heron and a magpie.

• The grasses on the wetlands on the west side of the Mendenhall River hid numerous vole tunnels punctuated by special latrine chambers. These little animals seem to be very tidy.

• Out on the wetlands, we also saw a young northern shrike and a rusty blackbird, both uncommon around here, but seen occasionally in winter. The shrike was perched, in typical fashion, on the tip-top of a small alder, possibly hoping to spot a careless vole.

• Going up the snowy Dan Moller Trail, with the snow still falling, I noted a cranefly resting in mid-trail, and moved it aside. There were many tiny insects (probably stoneflies) crawling about and making short flights, presumably in search of mates. An interesting time of year for that activity.

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

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