Little mysteries

Posted: Friday, October 15, 2010

Every year, I encounter little mysteries while I'm traipsing around on or off the trails. What I do not know vastly exceeds what I do know, of course. But here I'm referring to field observations that engender questions that could have interesting answers but are likely to remain in the realm of mystery. Here is a sampling:

Courtesy Of Mary Willson
Courtesy Of Mary Willson

1) Sitting on a ridge, we gazed down into a nice meadow. Two bears ambled out of the brush and worked their way up the opposite ridge and disappeared. Then out of the brush came a coyote, then another one. They meandered around in the meadow, occasionally going back into the same thicket. One of them picked up a dark object from the grass and carried it around, sometimes stopping to gnaw on it briefly.

A friend took some long-range photos, and close inspection revealed that the dark object was a shoe. Now why was there a shoe down in that meadow? The imagination runs a bit wild and asks if there are some bones out there that no longer need a shoe. And what would a coyote want with an old shoe?

2) I was wandering around a low-elevation muskeg with another friend one day, just looking to see what we could see. There had been enough rain that the ponds were filling up again, after almost two weeks of sunshine. Pond lilies grew in one relatively deep pond, but something had pulled up one or two of them and eaten the roots. In another pond nearby, a long root of buckbean had been pulled out; it lay on the bank, minus stem and leaves. Here and there, hunks of certain lichens had been torn out. And one deep pond in the same area looked like some creature had recently emerged, flattening the grasses and sedges at the edge before heading downhill.

What creature(s) could do this? Indeed, was one kind of creature responsible for all of these signs? Pond lily roots are known to be beaver food, but buckbean and lichens...? Why would a beaver be in a muskeg anyhow? Was it just passing through in search of a stream to dam? Could small humanoids have been pulling up the buckbean, making divots in the tufts of lichen, or swimming in the pond?

3) At an elevation of 1,500 feet above the Eaglecrest lodge, a beaver moved into a tiny pond, built some small dams, and dug a burrow into a bank. Some of its little dams were destroyed and not rebuilt, so perhaps it moved on to more promising terrain.

Where did this wanderer come from? I'm guessing that it was a two- or three-year- old that had left its natal lodge and was dispersing to find a home of its own. If it came up Fish Creek, the closest possible source would be down near the mouth of the creek, below the bridge. It could have come up Hilda Creek from the back side of Douglas, and it seems likely that the nearest source in that system would also be down near sea level. In either case, this animal was a long way from its old home, and it had a long way to go to find a new home. Was it really intending to settle in at Eaglecrest or was this just intended as a bivouac along the way to somewhere? What are this beaver's chances of surviving a long dispersal journey?

4) A friend found a congregation of whirligig beetles on an alder stick in a beaver pond. Whirligig beetles whir over the surface of the water, often spinning around, hunting for bugs, dead or alive, and perhaps for other foods. They can dive, holding a bubble of air between their legs. And each eye is double: an upper part for seeing in air, and a lower part for seeing in water. In this case, the question is why were all these beetles hanging out on this beaver-cut stick? Could they be foraging on some minute prey items there? What food could be found on the surface of that stick?

I guess it wouldn't be much fun if we knew all the answers to such questions. The unknowns give us lots of scope for contemplation.

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



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