Discovering our wintry excursions

Posted: Sunday, March 22, 2009

I have a gentlemanly friend who isn't able to hike with the Parks and Recreation hikers anymore. But when he sees me upon occasion these days, he always tells me that he follows the hikes in his imagination and memory when he reads these trail columns. What a kind thing to say. So this one's for you, T.

It had been snowing lightly but steadily for two days, so the lovely powder at Eaglecrest Ski Area was at least a foot deep. The wind had sculpted a myriad of graceful, modernistic forms in the new snow that covered the old berms.

On a day when the ski area was officially closed, about a dozen Parks and Rec hikers gathered in the parking lot and headed up the hill. It was a mixed group of cross-country skiers and snowshoers that plodded up the road and cut over to the traverse that leads to the top of the Logjam run. From there a broad, open way goes up to Cropley Lake.

By the time we arrived at the lake, a sharp breeze was blowing, so after tramping around a bit, we settled for lunch in the ramshackle cabin that sits in a swale just below the lake. Chocolates and cookies were shared around.

The group split up on the way down. Some swooshed or skidded down Logjam and others took a less precipitous route down Sneaky. We met several enterprising snowboarders who were hiking up with canine friends. Sometimes we get to watch daring (lunatic) boarders or skiers plunge off the cliffs near Cropley Lake, but not on this day.

On the previous day, I'd gone exploring on snowshoes with a naturalist friend and canine companion. We meandered around the edges of a large muskeg on north Douglas, looking for whatever we could find of interest. Tracking was no good, because falling snow was covering everything quite quickly.

The highlight of the excursion for the four-footed companion was galloping through the deep snow after sticks that it is my job to throw. For me, a nice treat was a little flock of four greenish-gray female pine grosbeaks that landed in a pine and poked about in the tufts of needles. They were eating the buds that nestle at the ends of branches; conifer buds are a favorite food.

At this time of year, pine buds are still very small, so it would take a lot of them to fill up a grosbeak. Adults of this species are almost entirely vegetarian, eating buds and seeds of many species. The red color on the males is controlled by their diet; their plumage lacks the red pigment if their food lacks the proper chemical compounds. I don't get to see pine grosbeaks very often, although they appear in small numbers every winter.

A little farther on, we found several dead trees with the outer bark flaked off in patches, leaving rusty-colored inner bark exposed. Closer inspection revealed the tunnels of beetles in the exposed patches. Aha! The deduction is that woodpeckers had been snacking on beetles by whacking off chunks of bark.

But what woodpeckers? There are two main candidates: the three-toed woodpecker and the hairy woodpecker. Both have the habit of scaling off bits of bark to reach bark beetles and wood-boring beetle larvae. Both species are relatively uncommon around here, but three-toeds are more closely associated with conifer forest.

Wild crabapple trees still held a few old fruits, all empty. Insects had bored holes in some, and others had been shredded by a forager that extracted the seeds (possibly the pine grosbeaks).

We counted trees with twisted wood grain and, as before, found that almost all these trees twisted to the right. A few, however, twisted to the left. Why so few go left is a bit of a mystery, by any existing notion of why trees twist at all.

A pair of ghostly gulls winged north, barely visible through the falling snow. And we headed home for lunch.

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

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