Exploring the high country

Posted: Sunday, June 11, 2006

Courtesy of Bob Armstrong The state bird in the state capital: A willow ptarmigan near Mount Robert's Trail surveys the country.

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Marmots are whistling and ptarmigan are nesting in the subalpine country above Juneau. With the lengthening days and warmer temperatures, the snow is melting and opening up the high country, providing excellent hiking and wildlife watching opportunities.

The Mount Roberts Trail is one of the best ways to access the alpine from downtown Juneau, and the Mount Roberts Tram offers an express ascent to the 1,800-foot elevation level. I spent a rainy, foggy afternoon last week with Juneau photographer and naturalist Bob Armstrong, hiking the section of the trail above the tram and below Gold Ridge. Armstrong, who has recently written a book about the area, pointed out a number of highlights. He's been hiking Juneau ridges and exploring the high country since 1960, and said the Mount Roberts Trail offers outstanding wildlife watching opportunities.

"You can watch ravens playing, which is just fascinating, and there are deer and bear," he said. "I always see goats - sometimes they're distant, but they can get close - on Gastineau Peak. I've seen wolverine tracks and wolverines, and there are lots of songbirds."

Rock ptarmigan, hoary marmots and songbirds are particularly abundant. Marmots are a favorite, and Armstrong has spent countless hours here photographing these giant ground squirrels and watching them interacting and raising their young.

"Since the tram was built, the wildlife watching has really improved," he said. "It's the opposite of what I expected, and it really surprised me. But there might be three reasons why: People are taking fewer dogs up there, which love to chase birds and marmots in the alpine. There are fewer hunters. And because there are so many people, there may be fewer predators, and the predators may be more wary."

Predators may be wary of people, but ptarmigan, marmots and many other birds and animals have become habituated to their presence. These wild animals are relatively tame and go about their business in close proximity to hikers and wildlife watchers. Because dogs harass and kill these unsuspecting mountain residents, the city requires dogs to be leashed on this portion of the Mount Roberts Trail.

Dogs may be off-leash between the Sixth Street trailhead and the tram, but dogs must be leashed at all times on the section between the tram terminal building and the intersection of Gold Ridge and Gastineau Peak. This section of the trail is about a mile long and climbs from the 1,800-foot elevation to the 3,000-foot level. Ground-nesting birds are abundant along the trail in this area, and last year Armstrong said he consistently saw six broods of blue grouse, five broods of rock ptarmigan and one willow ptarmigan brood-foraging here. This summer promises to be a repeat.

In the blowing mist at the 2,000-foot level, just above the Father Brown's cross, a rock ptarmigan announced his presence with his peculiar croaking cluck. He was still in his white winter plumage, with just a few streaks of brown. His bright-red eye combs stood out. Rock, willow and white-tailed ptarmigan can all be seen in the area. Willow ptarmigan favor the lower elevations. Rock ptarmigan are the most abundant in the subalpine, and white-tailed tend to be found at higher elevations, on Mount Roberts or Sheep Mountain.

Undaunted by the brisk, fog-laden breeze, a fat, wet bumblebee lifted up from a tiny purple flower called wedge-leaf primrose. "Those bumblebees are very important alpine pollinators," Armstrong said. "They can fly at cooler temperatures than other bees and insects."

We passed blooming blueberry bushes and Cooley's buttercup, one of the first alpine flowers to bloom in the spring, and a spreading carpet of showy purple alpine azalea. Armstrong said the blooming wildflowers peaked around June 1 last year, and are about six weeks behind that this year.

"There are some areas here - little rock gardens, I call them - that contain examples of almost every flower found on the entire mountain," he said.

A disintegrating clump of ground-up shells lay amid the flowers. A closer look revealed a dozen piles of tiny white shell fragments, which Armstrong identified as raven pellets. Ravens feed on barnacles and mollusks on the beaches of Gastineau Channel along Thane Road, and then disgorge the shells on their visits to the alpine.

Mount Roberts is extremely popular with ravens, and spectacular displays of play can be seen here. The same uplifting thermal air currents that draw Juneau parasailers to these skies also attract hundreds of ravens. I've seen ravens in flight playing fetch and catch with sticks and feathers, playing tag, sliding on their bellies down long snow patches, and reveling in acrobatic exhibitions of flight that include barrel-rolls and upside-down flight.

• Riley Woodford is a writer with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation. His column on natural history and wildlife viewing appears every other Sunday in the Juneau Empire. For comments or questions, he can be reached at riley_woodford@fishgame.state.ak.us



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