I tried to second-guess Juneau weather the other day. The Parks and Recreation hike was scheduled for Mount Roberts, up to the tram and the cross. I figured that trail would be a nightmare of ice, so I (with a friend) opted to go out the road — where it is usually colder, they say. So we hoped that the rain-and-snow mix that was falling in town would be just nice falling snow in the colder zone out the road. Ha!
Wrong! Out the road it was raining. The temperature was several degrees warmer than in town. And there was even less snow on the ground out there. It doesn’t pay to try to second-guess our weather.
Nevertheless, there we were — way out the road. So we went up the Bessie Creek trail, which starts just past Adlersheim Lodge. The quagmires that mess up the beginning of the trail were largely frozen and elicited none of the usual bad words from us. The route through the forest was quite passable: some snow, a little ice and some open ground. Cleats were useful but not absolutely necessary.
I think Bessie meadows are at an elevation of about six hundred feet. Alas, the new-snow line was tantalizingly just out of reach, about a hundred feet or so higher. However, the existing snow was plenty deep for good snowshoeing.
We put on our snowshoes when we reached the beaver pond and the main meadow and then we strolled around the beautiful, rolling meadow in the rain. Someday I’d like to do the whole route from the Bessie meadows down along the south fork of Cowee Creek to the mainstem of Cowee Creek, and thence back to the road.
Early morning snow and all-day rain had blurred most of the animal tracks, unfortunately. A series of paired, rounded paw prints, with about four or five feet between pairs, suggested a large sort of weasel-relative. Some other creature had plunged deeply in the snow, lunging forward, but I couldn’t be sure who it had been.
We found a horde of pine siskins on the ground at the edge of the forest. They were busily picking up fallen seeds and chattering to each other. There could easily have been a thousand of them. Our approach sent them flying, but they returned to the feast as soon as we went by.
I heard a gang of red crossbills, foraging in the treetops. I’d never really understood how the crossed bill-tips served to pry open cones. But a good video is available online from the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology; this makes it all very clear. Once the cone scale is pried up by the crossed bills, the bird extracts a seed and removes the wing by holding the seed in a palatal groove while the tongue helps work the wing off the seed.
These crossed bills are somehow also capable of picking up seeds and grit from the ground, just as do birds with ordinary, straight bills.
Red crossbills are widespread in North America, and may comprise a group of closely related species. Different types of crossbill are adapted to forage specifically on certain species of conifer cones; some have large bills and large palatal grooves for large cones with large seeds, and others have small bills and small palatal grooves for small seeds. Each type of crossbill can also feed on other species of conifer, but they are most efficient on their own type of cone. Their calls are also distinctive to the trained ear and they seem to seldom interbreed. Red crossbills, and the related white-winged crossbill, move around seasonally, appearing in large numbers in a certain place and then moving on in search of better foraging.
After several hours of soggily tramping around, we got back to the car, wet but happy. And the Mount Roberts hikers? Well, it seems I was not far wrong in thinking that trail was a misery.
• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.
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