Off the Trails: November musings and mysteries

November musings and mysteries

November brought many small delights and some puzzles along the trails. On the first day of November, near the swamp on the Lemon Creek trail, we found a blooming violet: a tiny yellow flower, almost buried in the surrounding greenery. No chance of getting pollinated, but there it was, unseasonably braving the elements.

 

Along Peterson Creek on Douglas, where we often find the skeletons of salmon left by bears, there were no bones to be seen. Perhaps the run was poor, too poor to attract the usual ursine interest? Or did the bears just carry their prizes off into the woods, farther away from other hungry, cranky bears?

In the meadows at Eagle Beach, many of the seed capsules of chocolate lily were still half full. The capsules shake out the stacked-up seeds when jostled by a sharp wind or by passing feet, and these were still waiting. A gallery of young cottonwoods had produced some extraordinarily large leaves; we picked up some that were almost 10 inches long and correspondingly wide, several times bigger than the usual ones — and very different also from willow-like juvenile leaves on sucker shoots. It’s interesting that one tree species can produce such a variety of leaves (and fun to wonder why).

Out on the sandy delta was a large log, long dead, supporting a small spruce maybe six feet tall. Roots of the spruce were entwined with the remaining roots of the log. This little spruce bore a crown of over two dozen cones, densely clustered at its top. Somehow it had found sufficient resources to let it venture into motherhood. Any male structures that were there earlier in the season were long gone, so essays into fatherhood are unknown.

Amalga Meadow was spectacular when every stalk and blade was sheathed in frost crystals: some were broad, flat plates almost a centimeter wide, while others were fan-like arrangements of several tiny plates. There were miniature pillars of ice and patches that just looked fuzzy, until one looked closely. Deep cold had produced a variety of icy extrusions from sodden wood: some fluffy mounds of fine extrusions were several inches thick. An ice-covered pond was decorated with a large, feathery plume right next to a group of sharply defined triangular shapes. I’m sure a crystallographer could explain all such variation.

A little snowfall made for good tracking in the open areas, where trees didn’t intercept most of the snow. Red squirrels seem to like to run repeatedly back and forth over the “people trails.” Some parts of the Dredge Lakes area showed many tracks of snowshoe hares, including some much-used hare highways. Voles left their pretty trails like stitchery. Shallow grooves flanked by tiny foot marks were left by shrews while running from one wee hole in the snow to another.

At Fish Creek, a mink had gone in and out of the water along the ice edge, and so had a dipper. We found otter slides along the creek and an overland passage that clearly showed periodic footmarks where the otter had shoved itself farther along, still sliding. All of that was readily evident, but of course there had to be a mystery.

At the far end of the berm that leads out to the almost-island, the grasses were bent over and covered with a light layer of snow. A bird with webbed feet had walked over the berm, then back up from the waterline and down again. It must have been a difficult walk in places, because here and there the bird’s foot had plunged through the bent grasses, making it lurch. We eventually tracked that bird up to the edge of the woods, where it had obviously bunked down for some time, under a small spruce; the ground-frost had been melted and ground-cover plants had been flattened into a round bed. This seemed to be odd behavior for either a gull or a duck, which commonly rest on the water. Who was this, and why?

Frosty conditions also brought spiderwebs into view. This made it easy to avoid running one’s face into a web stretched over the trail. One large web, old and tattered, was strung between two sign posts and behind the signs as well. In that web were four tiny spiderlings, each no more than a millimeter long, moving slowly over the silken strands. I didn’t find a brood sac from which they might have hatched, but it seems likely that these were recent hatchlings. I wonder what they could find to eat at this time of year.

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

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