Spring wanderings

Posted: Friday, March 19, 2010

After a spring mini-blizzard, I wandered around some of the Dredge Lake recreation area, just to see what I could see. There was too little snow under the dense young spruces to do much animal tracking, but in more open areas, tracking was good. I found numerous tracks of snowshoe hares in the mixed alder/willow/spruce areas. The hares had been gnawing willow bark and nibbling blueberry twigs.

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Photo By Doug Jones
Photo By Doug Jones

I commonly see hare tracks but I've never seen the critter itself in this area. However, I once saw a dead baby hare in the jaws of a neighborhood cat! And watchers near the Visitor Center have been luckier than I, as seen in the photo.

Although people often call these animals "rabbits," they are not, belonging to a different genus entirely. Rabbits are smaller, and don't even occur here, except for some introduced European rabbits near Anchorage and points west. Rabbits make nests under dense cover or underground. Their newborn kits are blind, nearly furless, and helpless; they don't even open their eyes for over a week. In contrast, newborn hares (called leverets) are furry and open-eyed, ready to leave the shallow depression where they were born.

Our hares typically produce one litter per year in the far north, but will produce two or three farther south. Both rabbits and hares make rich milk, high in fats and proteins. Females don't nurse their young very often each day and spend little time with their young. The young ones nurse for about a month or so, but can start eating greens when they are about two weeks old.

Snowshoe hares turn white in winter, gaining both camouflage (when there is snow) and insulation from the hollow white fur. It would be interesting to know the predation rate on hares whose fur does not manage to match the existing background; that is, if they turn white before the snow falls or stay white after the snow melts. In the transition period between winter and summer, and vice versa, hare fur is an interesting mix of brown and white.

I also found mink tracks along the lakeshore but no sign of recent beaver activity, even where there were openings in the ice. I detected no birds except near the river, where four pairs of Common Mergansers loafed at the edge and several eagles flopped ponderously downstream.

The previous day, a friend and I strolled toward Nugget Falls. The most animated critters were small adult stoneflies, which seemed to have emerged in droves from the tiny trickles that flow over the flats to the lake. The stoneflies didn't fly, but crawled over the thin layer of snow. Good bird food, but no birds were around. Long ago, I watched a nuthatch capture one stonefly after another, storing each one in the crevices of a spruce tree.

At the side of the big falls, we searched for the new species of caddisfly that's known only from this location. We'd found it (with expert help) last summer - the wee thing about and inch long in its protective case was moving slowly, clinging to the wet cliff. This time, there were none in the open, but we found a few under a moist moss blanket, where perhaps they get some protection from cold. They were firmly attached to the rock at one end of the case, and I'm told this probably indicates that they had ceased moving in search of food and were pupating-transforming from larva to flying adult.

Later that day, other observers saw what we missed: Five goats, including two big males, on the other side of Nugget Falls. These folks also found bear scat on the lake shore. If bears are out, they can't be finding much to eat!

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



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