Forests sit silent as residents prep for spring arrival

Posted: Friday, February 12, 2010

What a strange winter! There is almost no snow at low elevations, but it's not warm enough to melt the sheet of ice that purports to be my driveway. And there's not what I'd call a lot of snow at Eaglecrest, either, although there is enough to ski. In fact, there seems to be so little snow up there, that I worry about having enough spring snowmelt to keep the streams running adequately for fish and dippers.

Photo By Bob Armstrong
Photo By Bob Armstrong

One recent Parks and Recreation hike wound its way, with or without cleats, on a well-packed trail to Windfall Lake. There, we found a group of ice-fishers, who reported catching Dolly Varden char and brook trout (another species of char). This got me wondering. So when I got home, I checked in with some fish biologists.

Windfall Lake is known to harbor rearing coho and sockeye salmon, cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden. And although brook trout, which come from the eastern part of North America, were once widely introduced to stream systems in Juneau, they are apparently not known to live in Windfall Lake. According to one fish biologist, there are likely to be two forms of dollies in the local lake: A smaller, darker-colored resident form and a larger, more silvery anadromous form that migrates in for the winter. The resident form could be what the ice-fishers called "brookies."

The next Parks and Recreation hike went to Hilda meadows above Eaglecrest. We hiked straight up Sneaky and over the Troy Loop, then continued across Hilda Creek, through a nice series of meadows. Most of us were on skis or snowshoes, but one person just walked on top of the hard, crusty snow. The creeks were all open and running, albeit at low levels. But, there were enough good snow bridges that our route into the meadows was trouble-free. A light fall of snow rapidly covered a few sets of ptarmigan tracks, but the many porcupine trails were still evident.

In the forest things have been quiet. A few chickadees flit here and there, a flock of redpolls congregated in the alders, a little family of golden-crowned kinglets was spotted, and an occasional dipper was seen in the creek. Evidence of a mouse skittering hurriedly across a frozen pond could be seen, as well as cruising ravens, an eagle or a magpie crossing above the road. But not much else was seen amid the trees.

Yes, it's been a quiet season in the forest. But a lot of quiet things are going on, unseen and unheard. Hidden under bark, in leaf litter and rotting logs and on stream bottoms. It's there that the larvae of many insects are slowly transforming themselves from grubs into winged adults, that will emerge from the water to fly in spring or summer (if not eaten by a bird or a shrew). Mice, voles, and shrews continue to scurry about in tunnels under the snow or sprint from the shelter of one bush to another.

Beavers typically rest in their lodges, adults living mostly on stored fat. The cache of twigs and branches in front of the lodge is said to be used mainly by the young members of the family, which are still growing. However, beavers do emerge, sometimes, through a hole in the ice - they get some fresh air and leave a litter of chewed twigs around the hole. I'm told that beavers have been out in the Mendenhall River, which is flowing freely this winter.

Even plants may be doing things, silently. Plants buried in snow can capture light and use it to create energy by photosynthesis. Some conifers canphotosynthesize during above-freezing days in winter, or at least they can gear up their photosynthetic machinery in the late winter, after a period of dormancy, even if temperatures are still low. Aspens in the Interior, and probably the related cottonwoods here, have chlorophyll in the bark and can photosynthesize even when leafless, perhaps enough to pay the costs of respiration, which continues at a low level.

Within the quiet time of winter lie the beginnings of the following spring. Buds will open, insects will fly and the migrant birds will return. And the lengthening days bring the stirrings of spring fever to restless naturalists!

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

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