Douglas in the mist

Posted: Friday, August 06, 2010

By the time the Parks and Rec group headed up the new road at Eaglecrest, the rain had diminished to a soaking mist. The ridges were shrouded in cloud and skeins of cloudlets drifted in the valleys.

Courtesy Of Bob Armstrong
Courtesy Of Bob Armstrong

On the way up, two of us stopped by a lovely little meadow with a meandering stream and a pool, a bit below the fork in the road. A junco fossicked about, searching for bugs. A hermit thrush made repeated visits here, capturing loads of insects for its chicks. The hermits were probably raising a second brood of the summer; the junco may have been feeding a third brood.

Something was swimming in the stream, moving very fast along the cutbanks and zipping across the current. Once, it leaped up at some overhanging vegetation, presumably to grab an insect. Then it disappeared altogether. It had to be a water shrew! This was a treat, because I've only seen a few of them in my life.

As our photographer companion came up to us, we told about our observation. Then "Oh! I've always wanted to get a photo of a water shrew!" and forthwith, dropped the backpack and settled down on the streambank to watch. The rest of us continued up near the ridge for lunch and caught up with the shrew-watcher on the way down. Indeed, this aquatic insectivore had come out again but only briefly and was not captured by the camera (this time).

Water shrews are about 2.5-3 inches long and weigh an average of 13 grams (roughly half an ounce). They are very active and need to eat frequently. They're active all day long, but especially in evening and early morning. They have fringes of stiff hairs around the edges of their feet, creating paddles used in swimming and diving. Air bubbles caught in the fringes even let them run on top of the water. Their fur catches air bubbles too, which provides good insulation in cold waters but also makes them buoyant, so they have to paddle hard in order to dive.

They are short-lived little beasts, usually living only about 18 months. Females can produce two litters (or three, where the season is long) in spring and summer, each one averaging about six pups. A litter takes about seven weeks to rear: three weeks gestation and four weeks to weaning. Their nests are built in tunnels in the banks.

This was a great time of year for wildflowers up there: lots of bog orchids, both white and green, yellow arnicas and buttercups, white valerian and narcissus anemones, pink paintbrush and fleabanes, white mountain-heather, creamy partridgefoot. The bog blueberries were in good bloom, their small, pink flowers visited by bumblebees that ignored the nearby mountain-heather.

Later in the afternoon, I joined another friend to hike a short distance uphill along a creek, through the dripping shrubbery and over fallen logs. Here we'd seen not one but two ground nests of marbled murrelets some weeks before, and we wanted to check on them.

Hallelujah! The nest with an egg now held a fluffy downy chick, resting at the base of a big tree adjacent to the creek. In the nest that had held a young chick, I now saw a big chick that had shed its mottled down to expose its smart new juvenal plumage of black and white feathers. This one will very soon leave its comfy nesting place on a low mossy stump to take to the seas. It has one try - its first flight it must go down the creek to salt water. There it will be on its own, learning the hard way to catch little fish - no more nice fishy meals delivered by mom and dad.

On the way up to the murrelets, we checked a huge pile of sticks on a gigantic spruce limb. This time we could see three big eaglets, one perched on a branch above the nest and two down in the nest cup. It must be a good year for the eagles' fishing. I'd already seen a few young of the year standing around in estuaries awaiting the influx of salmon. In general, it seems that eagle chicks often fledge about the time that salmon start to come in - very handy for klutzy youngsters who are just learning how to fish.

Then it was home, as the rains began again, for a dry shirt and hot tea, and some friendly, furry, purring lap-sitters. A good day!

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.



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