Early spring on The Rock

Posted: Sunday, May 06, 2007

Rain and wind were forecast, and the snow was still deep on parts of West Glacier Trail (along with way too many piles of digested dog dinners).

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There was fresh snow on the mountain peaks, and Mendenhall Lake was still covered in ice. We went up the trail anyway. As it turned out, the day was merely cool and gray, and the closer we got to the glacier, the less snow covered the trail.

The signs of spring were everywhere: fern fiddleheads poking out of the leaf litter; emerging leaves on elderberry and currants; pussywillows in full array.

Juncos were trilling. I heard my first yellow-rumped warbler of the year. Varied thrushes and golden-crowned kinglets were singing.

Best of all, newly arrived ruby-crowned kinglets were caroling their rollicking, cheery song that means spring is really going to happen. Small groups of robins fossicked in the underbrush for errant worms. A few robins were calling and singing, but not yet in full voice.

The goal of this walk was to spend some time on "The Rock," the big peninsula on the west side of Mendenhall Lake across from the visitor center. This promontory offers visual treasures both grandiose and miniature. The glacier is in full view, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Nugget Falls tumbles down on the far side of the lake.

On the mini-scale, lichens and mosses on the rocks created intricate patterns of color and texture. The first purple mountain saxifrage made patches of vibrant color in protected nooks and on south-facing ridges, with many more of them waiting their turn to bloom.

Despite the cool temperatures, there were several bumblebees zooming about, ready to pollinate the vivid purple flowers.

We found evidence that red squirrels had invaded the burgeoning alder thickets: middens of destroyed alder cones near burrows in the remaining snowbanks. These were probably young squirrels, born last year and not able to establish territories in good spruce forest.

The small streams that flow into the lake were ice-free and running. One of the streams near the glacier had a nesting pair of American Dippers last summer, and we saw a dipper fidgeting about near the old nest site. This nest site was not the usual niche on a cliff but deep in a tiny cave under a large boulder. The only approach to the nest itself required the birds to swim across a small pool and into the cave entrance.

On the way back, we spooked a pair of mallards clearly seeking seclusion for their final courtship activities and the beginning of nesting, although their beaver ponds were still mostly frozen. And beavers had recently augmented their dam with fresh-cut branches.

As we left The Rock, we were observed by two mountain goats resting calmly on ledges above us. We'd seen plenty of sign: white hairs caught in the brush, tracks in the mud, and scat piles much too big for any hare.

A falcon streaked overhead. And quite unaccountably, we sang "La Marseillaise" on our way home. A good day on The Rock!

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

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