To the headwaters of Switzer

Posted: Friday, January 07, 2011

At the eastern reach of the Switzer Loop Trail, there is an old logging road that goes straight up the hill to end near a long-abandoned beaver pond. On a recent exploratory prowl there, I was accompanied by a two-footed friend and a four-footed friend - although it might be more accurate to say that I accompanied these two, quicker and more agile, hikers.

Photo By Bob Armstrong
Photo By Bob Armstrong

The first observation of interest (for the two-footed hikers, at least) was a set of raven tracks in soft snow, zigzagging from one side of the trail to the other. At each point of the zigzag, the raven had probed into the snow with its bill, leaving a smudge of blood. What could be the story behind this record in the snow? Our speculations lasted until we reached the end of the road, where a set of mousy tracks wandered about and a weasel had meandered in and out of burrows and stumps.

The road runs through an old clearcut, several decades old (probably cut in the 1950s). Sometimes known as the Dismal Woods, this second-growth stand is indeed rather dismal. The dense canopy of young trees cuts out so much sunlight that few plants (except mosses and lichens) can grow in the understory. The forest floor is littered with rejected branches and abandoned logs. Remarkably, red squirrels traveled here often enough to leave a few well-used little trails and a porcupine had passed through.

The old beaver pond is filled with grasses and sedges. The ice-free little rivulets entering and leaving the pond were flowing well (at a time when most other streams in Juneau were frozen over), so the pond ice was feeble and offered treacherous footing. We never knew when we'd punch through the flimsy ice or humps of bent grass. After a few stumbles and lurches, we elected to go around the pond. It was reminiscent of hiking on the wet tundra up North - which I hope never to do again.

A fine grove of red alders grows between the pond and the hill-slope behind. Where a tree had been uprooted by the wind, we saw an astounding array of needle-ice. Many of the thin strands were perhaps twenty inches long. I think this formation occurs when water is forced up out of the freezing soil, and it is pretty common around here, but I'd never seen such long strands. A few big alders showed signs of long-ago bear claws. And here we found an enormous stump whose top made the entrance to the burrow of a red squirrel.

Just beyond the needle-ice, we inadvertently flushed a goshawk, which took off at high speed from behind a log pile. Closer inspection of the site revealed no signs of a goshawk lunch - no feathers or fur or blood. So, perhaps it had missed its prey or was just resting.

Working our way along the upper edge of the Dismal Woods, we crossed and re-crossed the rivulets that feed the old beaver pond. At least one of them pops right out of the hillside with no sign of the origin of the water, so we guessed that the water flows down the side-slope under the soil until it reaches the little gully that holds the stream.

The clear little streams were floored with layers of dead alder leaves, which undoubtedly harbor some interesting invertebrates. A foraging snipe certainly hoped so - it was probing in the leaf packs and mud with its long bill. This one had left many lines of footprints with three forward toes and no back toe (like many shorebirds but very unlike most of our forest birds) as it walked in and out of the stream, around log jams and down to where the stream entered the old pond. It's always a surprise to me to find a wintering snipe in the forest, because I think of them as living in marshes and wet meadows, where they often nest.

Snipes commonly eat many kinds of invertebrates: insects, worms and snails. Their digestive tracts also contain seeds and vegetation, but it is reportedly not certain how much nutrition they obtain from plant material. Snipes forage by probing with their long bill; sometimes they put their entire head underwater. They can swallow small items while the bill is still in the mud, probably by using the tongue to push them back along the backward-oriented serrations inside the bill. The bill is very flexible, and snipes can open the tip without moving the base. There are sensory pits near the tip of the bill that help them find buried prey.

On the ice in one corner of the pond, we found tracks of a hopping bird (with four toes). Judging from the size of the foot and a tail mark, we guessed a Steller's jay had searched the edge of the pond.

After bush-whacking over to what looks like another abandoned beaver pond, my companions pranced (and I bumbled) over the piles of discarded branches through the Dismal Woods back to the road and the car. A very successful prowl!

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



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