Late winter walks reveal snowy owls

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008

One gloriously sunny day in late February, a group of hikers set out for Spaulding Meadow. Although the lower part of the trail had some patches of flare ice, the rest of the trail, all the way up to Third Meadow, was hard-packed snow and easy walking. The forest was quiet, except for a couple of flocks of talkative chickadees, a jay calling, and a woodpecker tap-tapping.

As soon as we reached the upper meadows, we put on our skis. The crust was hard - hard enough to walk on without skis or snowshoes. But there was a thin layer of new snow that made for fast skiing over the rolling hills of the meadow. After a lunch and a brief bask in the sun, we skied to the yellow cedar stand near the end of the meadow and played on the gentle hills.

A high point of this part of the day was seeing a snowy owl winging away from a clump of hemlocks. This spectacular raptor is very uncommon in Southeast, appearing in small numbers chiefly when their food supply fails on the northern tundra where they nest. Because the snow crust was so hard, this bird may have a hard time finding food here too.

Most of the small pines and hemlocks had lost their big caps of snow, and sometimes those great wads of snow could be seen in the treehole at the base of the tree. But a few little hunchbacked mountain hemlocks still bore heavy crowns of packed snow, and one has to doubt that they can ever stand straight again.

The view out over the islands and smooth waters in the channels was a treat. Far to the south and west, however, a line of clods was creeping ever closer.

The next day was cloudy with light snow falling, easy on the eyes, and beautiful in its own way. I walked with a naturalist friend through a chain of muskegs on Douglas Island. My job was to throw sticks for the third member of the party, an indefatigable retriever of thrown sticks (or balls, or frisbees, or....). In between bending over to pick up the stick laid at my feet, I had a little time to look at the world around us.

The crust was very firm in most places, so we soon ditched our snowshoes under a tree and ambled on with only occasional postholes. However, the crust was not strong enough for the narrow hooves of the numerous deer that traversed this area. We found numerous lines of deep postholes left by deer as they bucked their way along. The blueberry bushes under one grove of trees were heavily browsed and, judging from the many piles of deer pellets on the ground, we thought that the deer had spent some time in this patch.

A string of alder trees ran up the slope, probably on an old landslide. Several large trunks bore clear signs of bear claws, some quite large and some smaller.

Elsewhere, we found ptarmigan tracks, passing between blueberry clumps. A close look at the blueberry twigs quickly showed that buds had been neatly removed from many of the stems.

Other sightings of interest: A scrappy little shore pine with frayed bark around a trunk, surely where a male deer had rubbed his new antlers free of their velvet. A single set of snowshoe hare tracks. A young spruce nearly girdled by a porcupine. A dead spruce whose loose bark supported a diverse community of colorful lichens - some flat, some leafy, and some frizzily branched.

We returned home, well-satisfied, for tea and cookies (and biscuits for the retrieving friend).

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology and a Trail Mix board member.

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