Reluctant spring in Cowee Meadows

Skunk cabbage gets a dusting of fresh snow as it makes its spring debut along Old Glacier Highway. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire File)

Early April and, despite some earlier signs of spring, we seemed to be stuck in the middle of a long cold spell — freezing at night and daytime temperatures in the 30s or low 40s. All the trails were icy, and it seemed as if I would never get all the ice chipped off my driveway.

 

A friend who had missed a Parks and Rec hike to Cowee Meadows during a warm spell in March wanted to check out that area. Where P&R hikers had waded ankle-deep in meltwater on the trail in early April, it was all frozen solid. We walked securely over the beaver sloughs and ponds — easy going! The only downside was a very stiff and cold north wind, with gusts strong enough to send me off-balance occasionally. So we didn’t go out on the beach at all, but just wandered around the meadows to see what we could see. We hid from the wind behind some dense spruces for a comfortable lunch in the sun.

There was plenty of evidence that the horses from the ranch across Cowee Creek had paid their usual visits. They too had taken shelter in the lee of spruce thickets, leaving digested evidence of their sheltered stay.

Bird life was scarce. A woodpecker drummed, but it eluded our sighting. A couple of chickadees flitted by, at the forest edge. A group of nervous mallards fled down the creek well ahead of us. Two ravens performed their classic rolls as they flew overhead.

A solitary, hapless robin poked along the fringe of a frozen pool, where the sun had loosened the ice along the edges. There was little there to feed on; maybe it was getting a drink. In fact, there’s not much for robins to eat when the weather is like this — some invertebrates on the beaches, perhaps, and a few frozen berries in the woods; I wonder how they manage to survive.

Two little sparrows, buffeted by the winds, dove into the shelter of bent-over dead grasses. From their pale brown backs, I guessed that they were savanna sparrows, which frequent these meadows. They stayed under cover for some time — smart birds!

Later in the morning, and a little farther on, we came upon a bunch of six crows, all gathered around the edge of a shallow, sun-warmed pool with some remaining ice. They looked like they were drinking: they’d dip the bill into the water, then raise it up and tip it back — which is how many birds drink fluids. But what was so special about this pool, when the creek and some other pools were nearby?

A few green shoots emerged from one small open-water slough. But all the skunk cabbage shoots that had emerged above the surface of the frozen meadow had been blasted by the cold temperatures. It’s not unusual to see frost damage on the tips of skunk cabbage shoots, but out in these meadows, the cold had killed and blackened several inches of new shoots. Not a good start of the season for them.

There were deposits of moose pellets on the snow in several places, clear evidence that moose had been visiting the meadows this winter. Moose have been recorded from Cowee Meadows for several years, as well as a few other places in Juneau, where moose are usually a rarity.

Sweet gale, a wetland shrub, is widespread in these meadows. The volatile oils of this aromatic plant are reported to repel midges and mosquitoes, but moth caterpillars are said to love eating the leaves. Insect damage induces the plant to increase its chemical defenses, reducing further attacks. The volatile oils can also reduce some fungal and bacterial infections. Vertebrate herbivores include beavers and moose; the European mountain hare eats it too, leading me to wonder if our snowshoe hares might do so also. We noted that some of the sweetgale shrubs in the meadow had been browsed, possibly by the visiting moose, but we could not exclude the possibility that ranch horses might have done so.

Sweetgale is an interesting plant in other ways too. It harbors symbiotic bacteria in root nodules; the bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen, making it accessible to plants. Although some accounts say that male and female flowers are borne on separate plants, in reality, some individual plants have both male and female flowers and, to further confuse the matter of gender identity, sometimes both male and female sex organs are found in the same flower. However, I have not found any information about the factors that might control sex expression in sweetgale. In any case, propagation is said to be primarily by vegetative means, via underground stems called rhizomes, rather than by sexual means and seed production.

Although this excursion to the meadows was very wintery, I just had a cheering report from a friend that ruby-crowned kinglets have arrived! Now spring can get serious.


• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” is a weekly column and appears every Friday. Her essays can be found online at onthetrailsjuneau.wordpress.com.


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Sat, 06/23/2018 - 13:37

Low-tide explorations