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On the Trails: Happy endings

Posted: June 19, 2014 - 11:00pm
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A junco nest with three chicks that are almost ready to leave the nest. The bright yellow edging on the bill provides a target for food deliveries.  Bob Armstrong | For the Juneau Empire
Bob Armstrong | For the Juneau Empire
A junco nest with three chicks that are almost ready to leave the nest. The bright yellow edging on the bill provides a target for food deliveries.

I hang out near the Mendenhall glacier quite often and, as the season progresses, I get to see many interesting things. Sometimes the observations make a nice story. Here are two little stories with happy endings.

A female bear and her three tiny cubs were asleep up in a cottonwood tree (no doubt after lunching on seed pods). After a while, mom and two cubs came down and wandered about in the meadow, eating grass and horsetail. Number Three slept on. Mom plus two eventually drifted off into the woods and disappeared. Number Three slept on.

After maybe half an hour, Number Three woke up, stretched, and clambered down the tree. But where was mom?? Number Three ran all over the meadow, searching and bawling. No luck. So then it made a bigger circuit, through the woods at the meadow’s edge, bawling and searching. No luck there either. It made two more circuits, each one wider than the last, bawling all the while. Then the cub crossed the creek on a convenient fallen tree and careened upstream, calling and calling. And then there was silence.

Did we dare hope for a family reunion? Fortunately, the next day someone reported seeing the entire family half a mile away. Together again!

On the way to Nugget Falls, the trail passes through a little canyon on a raised walkway. Early in the spring, before the hordes of humans descended on the area, female junco built a nest in a niche on the rock wall. It’s beautiful site, nestled among some alder roots with overhanging alder twigs. The juncos couldn’t know how their peaceful location was going to change!

As the season advanced, more and more folks (including me) wended their way out to Nugget Falls and back again. Sometimes there was an almost constant stream of people passing by the nest. Most people never noticed it, but those that did often poked a finger into the nest itself or peered closely into the nesting niche. To a junco, which weighs less than an ounce, a human must look like a monster.

Juncos incubate their eggs for about twelve to thirteen days, and nestlings usually stay in the nest another twelve to thirteen days; if too disturbed, the nestlings may leave a bit sooner. Somehow, for all those days, despite the prolonged daily disturbances, this tenacious pair held on. They endured the human eyeballs staring from inches away and the probing fingers. Male and female would flit quickly across the trail during a little gap in the human procession or skitter surreptitiously down the cliffside to deliver food to their chicks. Eventually, tiny, fuzzy heads were visible over the rim of the nest (I sneaked a quick look from the other side of the trail). Several days later, I saw a good-sized chick, with its juvenile stripes on its chest, standing on the rim of the nest, flapping its wings. Its siblings huddled in the background.

The next day, all the chicks were gone. I thought they had fledged (possibly a little early) and were now following their remarkable parents through the understory, learning how to feed themselves. Two days later, I heard a junco family in the brush not far away, dittering to each other. So I concluded that this was another success story.

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

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