Juneau's high garden is thawing out, and so is the wildlife

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2007

At the top of the tram, on the way to Gold Ridge and Mount Roberts, the snow was still over head-high, with short paths carved through the drifts. Farther up the ridge, bands of snow, at least 15 feet deep in places, alternated with snow-free areas.

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The snow was hard enough to walk on, so up we went. The top of Gold Ridge was shrouded in mist, and mist swirled around us from time to time. In and out of the mist glided migrating hawks, frolicking ravens, and occasional bald eagles.

Near the top of the ridge, a male rock ptarmigan made himself conspicuous atop his lookout rock. Keeping a watchful eye out for rival males and predators, he guarded his territory vigilantly.

Although he still wore his pure white winter plumage, his female would have already molted from her winter white into her summer dress of browns.

She wears mottled brown in spring, so she is almost invisible while she sits on her nest, incubating the clutch of about eight eggs. The male rock ptarmigan, unlike the closely related willow ptarmigan, has no parental duties once the eggs are fertilized.

Ptarmigan, like many songbirds, are often adulterous, however, making surreptitious liaisons with their neighbors.

A male rock ptarmigan keeps his white feathers all through the time of courtship and egg-laying. So he is very conspicuous against the gray rocks and brown vegetation, and white males suffer high predation when the snow is disappearing.

Why does he stay white so long? One suggestion is that it is a sign of how "macho" he is - living dangerously under a high risk of predation. Studly males may be more attractive to females and more likely to deter rival males. So the mating advantages appear to outweigh the risk.

Once the eggs are fertilized, rock ptarmigan males have the curious habit of making their white plumage dirty and much less conspicuous. If the clutch of eggs is destroyed, the males clean themselves up again to a dazzling white for the next round of mating.

The dirt seems to be a kind of reversible camouflage. Eventually, when summer arrives, they molt to brown plumage.

Several of the snowbanks were marked by shallow, circular depressions containing ptarmigan scat. These ptarmigan pits indicate the night roosts of wintering ptarmigan.

The birds burrowed into the snow for protection from severe weather, and now some of the snow has melted and all that remains is the floor of their shelter and the remains of their dinners.

There were other stories happening up on Gold Ridge in late May. Some ravens were taking snow baths, rubbing and rolling in the snow, flipping loose snow over their rumps. One raven lay on its back with its feet in the air, chatting with its three companions.

The hoary marmots were out of their dens, nibbling salmonberry leaves and tiny green shoots buried under last year's dead vegetation. Two marmots stood on their hind legs and boxed with their forepaws. They frequently nose-kissed. There was ample indication that courtship was in progress, with sniffing and hugging and come-catch-me chasing. We watched the show for an hour.

Songbirds advertised themselves with songs: fox sparrow, Wilson's warbler, varied thrushes, American robins. We saw only male robins, picking worms off the snow and eating last year's crowberries in the snowless patches. Their females were presumably incubating. A few golden-crowned sparrows sang their wistful "Dear, dear me," and flocks of American pipits twittered by.

In between the snowbanks was a surprising diversity of early flowers: two kinds of anemone, Cooley's buttercup, the last of the purple mountain saxifrage, a yellow cinquefoil, and carpets of tiny, pink alpine azalea. Miniscule, solitary primroses that bear the frivolous name of pixie eyes were scattered here and there.

The rocky outcrops on the side of the trail up Gold Ridge often tempt walkers to stray from the path. But yielding to this temptation is very destructive, because this is primary habitat for many low-profile flowers, some of which become visible only later in the season. Trampling can kill the tiny, delicate plants and spoil the native flower garden for other trail-walkers.

We didn't make it quite to the top of the ridge, because we spent so much time seeing what was to be seen. There were no dogs running loose, frightening the birds and marmots, and we walked slowly and quietly, so there was a lot to see.

On the way down to the tram terminal, we received additional gifts. A set of very fresh black bear tracks crossed our uphill path on a deep snowbank and plunged over the edge into the valley. And a flock of violet-green swallows darted high and low, snatching insects on the wing.

And the sun came out.

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

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