Enjoying spring on Mount Roberts

Posted: Sunday, May 18, 2008

On the last day of April, the first cruise ship of the season arrived in Juneau, so the Mount Roberts Tramway was operating. Dozens of tourists crammed the up-bound cars, along with three locals carrying snowshoes. The snow at the top of the tram was still many feet deep, and a steep-walled tunnel had been carved from the main building to the nature center.

The trails were not open yet, but the tourist kids didn't care. So much snow was a big thrill - and a novelty to some, and there was much shrieking and giggling as the small fry cavorted. Meanwhile, the three locals quietly made their way to the edge of the throng and put on their snowshoes. A few yards into the forest, the noisy circus was left behind.

Now we could hear the trills of the juncos and the high-pitched song of golden-crowned kinglets. A ruby-crowned kinglet announced that spring was here despite the white landscape. Numerous robins zoomed overhead and a venturesome fox sparrow sang from a thicket not yet emerged from snow. There certainly wasn't much for these birds to eat up there that day, but eventually the robins and fox sparrows will nest in the alder thickets.

We looked for the mountain goats that had been resting among the trees near the forest edge, but all we found were several neat piles of oval scats. A recent light snowfall had obscured most of the tracks, but we found a line of ptarmigan prints and a long set of probable wolverine tracks. We missed the black bear seen moving uphill the previous day. But we found an early marmot, sitting at the entrance of its burrow. There wasn't anything for it to eat, either, and perhaps it just went back to bed.

At the very edge of a grove, a male hooter was calling. Well-hidden in dense foliage, he didn't pose well for the photographers in the group. We all hoped that he'd find a lady friend that had survived the hunting season too. This fellow alternated sessions of hooting with bouts of nibbling spruce needles, keeping up his strength.

Hooters were long known, formally, as blue grouse. But recent studies have suggested that there are really two species: an Interior species called the dusky grouse and a coastal species called the sooty grouse. They differ visibly in the color of the vocal sacs that puff out with each hoot. In the coastal (sooty) species the sacs are yellow, and in the Interior (dusky) species they are purplish-red. However, the coastal hooters around Juneau have reddish vocal sacs and fit the description of the Interior form. So the last word is not yet in! Are there really two species? Or two races that hybridize? Or is the so-called Interior form not so "interior" after all? Or....?

Some of the small trees near the treeline clearly showed the effects of strong winds and driving snow. All the little mountain hemlocks on one ridge were leaning strongly downwind. A group of tattered Sitka spruces had almost no needles and very few branches on the windward side. These struggling survivors must take a beating every year.

Three sets of snowshoes tracks stitched nice patterns across the snowy ridges into Bear Valley. The circular parts of the patterns didn't mean we were lost - just the naturalists checking out sounds and special sites. A feeble sun peered through the snow flurries and then it was time to go home. Halfway down the tram ride, we watched an eagle trailing long streamers of grass to its nest.

No major adventures, no earth-shaking discoveries, just a pleasant day of exploring in good company!

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

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