On the Trails:Mammals of all sizes liven up Juneau trails

Waddling porcupine, bridge-hopping shrew and sunning marmots highlight half-day hike

Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2005

I walk Juneau's trails regularly and usually I see or hear at least one thing of particular interest. In June, however, I had a really big day with some of our local mammals.

Many Juneau residents are familiar with these animals, most of which are rather common here. But it was seeing them or their signs, all within about three hours, that made this day on the trails so special.

First I passed a fresh pile of shredded green spruce cones, the scales disarticulated from the cores. The fresh shreds lay atop a much bigger pile of old cones that had accumulated perhaps for several years. These cone middens are made by red squirrels, which often have favorite places for shucking seeds out of cones. The biggest midden I ever saw was about 20 yards across and must have been made by generations of squirrels. Everyone knows that red squirrels eat conifer seeds, but less well known is that they are also major predators of bird eggs and nestlings. So the conifer forest can be a dangerous place for birds to nest.

Shortly thereafter, I passed a porcupine that had been nibbling bark from the base of a hemlock tree. Apparently only some hemlocks are sufficiently tasty to be worth nibbling, because some of them are visited repeatedly. This guy scuttled slowly along the trail and then stuck his head into a small gap between two rocks and flared the quills on his backside. This is not as silly as it may seem, because predators can sometimes kill porcupines by grabbing their unquilled heads. I stood quietly at the side of the trail and, after a bit, the head came out of the hole. Quills still flared, the animal peeked over its shoulder as if to say, "Are you still there? Did I scare you off?" Then it ambled away.

When I first came to Juneau, I was amazed to see hoary marmots not only in the alpine zone (where they live Down South), but right down at sea level, wherever there are talus slopes and rock piles. On this day, I passed along an old landslide with some mossy boulders at the base. Several marmots were sunning themselves on the boulders. Most were apparently too comfortable to worry about me, but one sat up and gave the alarm whistle. This sent two youngsters, tussling in the nearby meadow, scampering for cover and elicited answering whistles from across the valley.

Perhaps the high point of this walk occurred when I glanced up at the alpine ridge and saw a groups of mountain goats. I always check out the ridges in summer, hoping for a glimpses of these critters, and so I see a lot of white rocks. But these "rocks" had legs and were moving! There were several adults and two very small ones traipsing daintily along the edge of a vertiginous dropoff. As I watched the little flock of nannies and kids, a golden eagle soared by, probably looking to snatch an unguarded kid or a succulent marmot.

The capper for my day came as I stood on a small foot bridge over a racing mountain stream. I had company on the bridge, for I saw a tiny four-footed beast scooting along, in and out of the rails edging the bridge. A masked shrew, weighing less than 1/6-ounce, had found a way to make a microgeographical leap to new territory on the other side. Shrews live fast - their metabolic rate is so high they have to eat more than their body weight in insects and other small creatures each day - and seldom livemore than two summers.

I haven't mentioned the tiny tracks of a deer fawn, or the bear scats full of grass, or the red-backed vole dashing under a mossy stump. But a big day on the trails can be enjoyed by anyone with open eyes and a bump of curiosity.

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

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