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On the Trails: Short winter junkets

Posted: January 3, 2014 - 1:00am
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Black turnstone in winter plumage. The dashing black marks that drape over the flanks are barely visible in this one.  Photo by Bob Armstrong
Photo by Bob Armstrong
Black turnstone in winter plumage. The dashing black marks that drape over the flanks are barely visible in this one.

One day after a nice little snowfall, I ambled out to Point Louisa in Auke Bay. The usual squads of harlequin ducks sallied out from the rocks or poked along the boulders. A few common and Barrow’s goldeneyes sailed by, some of the males half-heartedly beginning a courtship routine. A stray sea lion and a harbor porpoise swam by, looking for something tasty.

The best of the avian sightings was a little flock of black turnstones, calling as they flitted from one patch of rockweed to another. They only come to us in winter; they nest in western Alaska and winter all along the Pacific coast. These were not flipping little rocks — the behavior that gives them their name — but rather were merely pecking and poking for small invertebrates among the fronds of the rockweed. All of them were in winter plumage. But, unlike the photograph, most of them showed snazzy black crescents along the flank below the wing. These are created by small feathers that cover the bases of the inner flight feathers, and sometimes they hang down over the flanks. I have not been able to find out if the crescents show only in certain circumstances, and they are only illustrated in a few bird guides.

The snow on the upper beach told stories. Shrews had made their narrow grooves as they “swam” over the snow. A vole, heavier than a shrew, had waded through the snow from log to log, leaving a wider groove and a few footprints. An older set of tracks showed that a weasel had snooped into grassy tussocks and under logs, covering a good bit of ground in its search for dinner; it had missed both this shrew and the vole.

Up in the forest edge, a varied thrush prospected for anything edible and small, junco-size tracks hopped around under the brush.

A few days later, we entered a prolonged deep freeze. Everywhere I went, hoar frost decorated all the weeds and branches that were not under the forest canopy and spangled the ice wherever the snow had blown off. I strolled with friends around the rainforest loop near Eagle Beach State Park and ambled around in the Dredge Lakes area. The best bird we saw in the Dredge area was a rusty blackbird at the edge of the ice that fringed some open water; it was hunting for bugs in the water and found some. That’s exactly what dippers do in winter, and this bird fooled me for a minute.

I found it fascinating to observe the tremendous variety of forms the frost could take. I don’t know exactly what determines each variant and I probably don’t really want to know — much too complicated for me! But I can appreciate the wonderful forms anyhow. On a metal bridge we found flat, visually simple blades of frost, very different from the visually complex blades on many twigs. The more complex ones were as individually distinct as snowflakes are, and were composed of crystals oriented in many different ways. Some were flat and blade-like, but in some cases, the crystals took the form of tiny trees, with branches in all directions. Down on the bare ice, the spangles took the forms of flowers, or birds, or butterflies, each one originating from some little irregularity in the ice. A few days later, a light snowfall piled up on the ice-spangles, creating lumpy little muffins.

In the middle of December, after high winds had snapped off three snow-laden trees near my house and most of the wreckage had been cleared away, I plodded my way in to Tolch Rock and made the loop around by the gravel pit to the road. The trail was not obvious all along this route, but some long-legged, large-footed chap had plowed through the overhanging brush before the last snow fell, making it easy to find the trail once it was “misplaced.” The only exciting thing was flushing a grouse, who took off with thunderous wings, and gave me a good jolt (Question: Why don’t grouse turn white in winter, as ptarmigan do?) The snow was perfect for tracking critters, but very few small ones had been out. In contrast, the snowshoe hares had had a party! A mink had visited a tiny trickle that feeds into the smelly ditch near the entrance to the campground, and a mallard drake cruised by in that fetid ditch. Sometimes I even see dippers foraging in that sorry stream.

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

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