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On the Trails: Stories in the snow

Posted: December 20, 2013 - 1:01am
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 A brown creeper hitches its way up a hemlock tree, in search of insects.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
A brown creeper hitches its way up a hemlock tree, in search of insects.

I love to go a-wandering along a snowy trail, looking for signs left by others who’ve been out on their business of living. A recent prolonged cold spell had kept the snow soft, preserving evidence of a very busy wildlife community along a local creek.

Mink tracks rambled along the creek side, dipping down to the stream and curving up into the forest. The footprints were bigger than those of a second mink that traveled part of the same route, so my naturalist friend and I guessed that the first mink was a male. His tracks led a long way upstream on one side of the creek and seemed to circle back down on the other side — at least the footprints were the same size there. This might have been a male patrolling his territory.

Everywhere, we found the delicate, stitchery trackways of small rodents. According to the books at hand, mice are likely to drag their long tails, flipping them to the side as a counter-balance during sharp turns, but voles don’t usually show tail-drag marks. If that’s right, we had both mice and voles, especially on one side of the creek. The tiny trackways of shrews were less numerous.

Snowshoe hares had been busy, especially on the other side of the creek. Trackways led up to the streambank, then away, then back to creekside, then away. It was as if the hares wanted to cross the fragile ice but, lacking the nerve to do so, just dithered along the bank.

A bird had hopped about extensively in and out of some brushy areas. The tracks seemed too small to be those of a junco. Then we found wing-prints where the bird had flitted a short distance to a new site, and the length of the wing was clearly too long to belong to a junco. My guess was possibly a varied thrush, some of which winter here.

The only actual bird we saw was a brown creeper, hitching its way up a tree trunk and flying down to go up the next tree — their typical foraging pattern as they search for tiny bugs in the bark. According to the literature, creepers commonly concentrate their efforts on trees with ridged bark, the deeper the ridges the better. This kind of bark harbors more insects than smoother bark.

A few deer tracks, both large and small, appeared as we walked. But there was much less deer traffic here than, say, in Gastineau Meadows, where peripatetic deer had cruised all over the place.

My friend called to me: “Come look at this!” I saw a shallow groove in the snow on the streambank and, without thinking, said: “Oh, a shrew trail.”

“Look again,” said my friend. Ah — there’s a faint yellow stain at the bottom of the groove. And here, where I had casually supposed my “shrew” had dived under the snow, wasn’t a burrow at all but just a deep dimple. My friend, who is smarter than I am, said: “I think a bird, maybe a kingfisher, perched on that branch near the edge of the stream and projectile-defecated a jet of hot poop, melting the groove in the snow.”

We assumed then that at the end of groove there should be a little wad of solid waste. Sure enough, there was Good detective work, friend!

A final little treasure on this walk was a dead red alder that sported a beautiful array of conks (shelf-fungi). The living conks all had a slightly soft pile of white stuff at their lower edges. This stuff had occasionally smeared sideways over the bark, showing that it had been soft when the temperatures were above freezing. But what is this stuff?

I took a sample to a helpful local forest pathologist, who put it under his microscope. He said that the white material was certainly fungal mycelium (the technical word for the mass of filaments that grow through the wood before producing the spore-bearing conk). However, without DNA work, there’s no way to know if it belongs to a parasitic fungus growing on the conk or to the conk species itself, because this kind of conk (of the genus Phellinus) often grows some of its own filaments right down through the conk itself. So, we ended our walk with one more mystery.

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

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