A stiff, cold wind was roaring down Gold Creek valley and over the trail up to Gold Ridge - strong enough to knock me off balance more than once. Soft, residual snowdrifts offered good footing between the bare, exposed parts of the trail. This was an excursion in search of whatever looked interesting, and on the way up to Gold Ridge in spring, there is always something of interest.
Basketball-sized depressions in snowbanks marked the overnight bivouacs of ptarmigan, which left their characteristic cylindrical scat behind. These shelters once had snowy roofs, which have since melted away. Networks of narrow, well-worn channels in the dead grass showed us where voles had carved tunnels under the now-melted snow.
Sheltered from the wind behind a rocky outcrop, we had lunch with a slightly wary marmot that was having its own lunch a few yards from our feet. Food was evidently available just outside the opening of its burrow, and it munched away as long as we did. By its size, we guessed it was a yearling.
A little later, sunning ourselves in another protected spot, we watched a rock ptarmigan whiz by. Ravens and eagles began to gather, to play in the aerial currents. A northern harrier coursed over the open ground in search of two-footed or four-footed edibles.
Along with the songs of robins, hermit thrushes, fox sparrows and Wilson's warblers, a special treat was the song of a golden-crowned sparrow. A bird of brushy montane habitats, this male moved from thicket to thicket, singing all the while. He was later seen in company of another bird of the same species, presumably a potential mate. A pair of golden-crowns is known to nest every year in this area on the side of the ridge.
Although snow still covered lots of ground, we found a nice array of flowers in bloom. Purple mountain saxifrage still bloomed in its rocky niches. Tiny alp lilies bobbed in the breeze on exposed and inhospitable outcrops. Swathes of Cooley's buttercups graced their chosen habitat, and single specimens of another buttercup and large-leafed avens reared their little yellow heads. Some brave coltsfoot plants had flowers but few leaves in a sheltered spot. Big narcissus anemones and dainty little northern anemones were both in flower.
Great mats of alpine azalea were just starting to bear open flowers and were dotted with hundreds of red buds. Lupines were getting ready to bloom, the fuzzy flowering stalks already elongating.
We didn't make it to the top of the ridge, having spent so much time dawdling with marmots and flowers. Nevertheless, it was a highly satisfactory day.
Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.
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