Winter birds prove entertaining in Juneau

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2007

On Mary Willsona cold winter day, the Parks and Rec hikers went out to Crow Point from the Boy Scout camp trailhead. As usual, we ate lunch on the beach near the point and offered the visiting raven leftover fragments of our sandwiches. On the way back, some of us strolled through the meadow near the Herb Jaenike memorial bench, observing that the frosty vegetation was bejeweled with hundreds of small, translucent red berries. These belong to "false lily-of-the-valley," a terrible name if ever there was one. The resemblance to real lilies-of-the-valley is remote at best. "Mayflower" would be a better common name, because it is the translation of the Latin scientific name.

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The immature mayflower berries spend the fall as hard, opaque white fruits with reddish-brown freckles, and they don't exhibit the mature red color until there has been a hard frost. Sometimes snow covers the immature fruits in late fall (as in 2006) and the mature red fruits can't be seen until snowmelt in spring.

Juicy, fleshy fruits like this (and blueberries and salmonberries, etc.) are adapted to be consumed by birds and mammals, who digest the flesh of the fruit, eliminate the undigested seeds, and disperse those seeds across the landscape. But in late fall, when the mayflower berries ripen and become attractive to consumers, the bears are generally hibernating and most of the fruit-eating robins and thrushes have left. So the fruits often sit there all winter until the birds return in spring.

However, on the Jaenike bench and on the trail in the woods, we found sizable clumps of stuck-together mayflower seeds, plainly regurgitated by a relatively large bird. Our prime candidates for the producer of these balls of seeds are ravens, as the only species of suitable size that would be likely to perch on the bench or walk on the forest trail. Ravens are known to eat the fruits of mountain ash and domestic cherries and carry the seeds for some distance. Thus, some seeds of mayflower don't have to wait 'til spring to get dispersed.

I wonder if the ravens in town, which dine on succulent McDonalds french fries, and ingest lots of body-warming fat, deign to snack on mayflower berries! Or have they become fast-food junkies?

On another day, on a pond in the Mendenhall Valley, I noticed a group of five mallards all popping up simultaneously from under water. Although it is not unusual for mallards to make short dives, synchronized swimming is not their usual pattern. At the same time, a flurry in the fringing alders called attention to an adult goshawk just settling onto a perch - clearly, it had tried to capture one of the ducks but failed in the attempt. The hawk stood there, grumpily watching the ducks for about 10 more minutes, and then flew up into a tree and eventually departed. The ducks were on the alert until the hawk was gone.

Mallards are reported to weigh an average of about 2.4 pounds, and goshawks about 2.1 pounds, so mallards are about as big or bigger than their would-be predator. Nevertheless, in the past I have seen a goshawk plucking a freshly caught male mallard and moving the carcass away as I approached.

After the deep cold snap of early December had reigned for about three days, I saw a great blue heron on a frozen pond. It stalked slowly across the ice, watching carefully downward. Apparently it saw motion below the ice, because it would strike down with its long bill, but of course the strike was blocked. The bewildered heron crept slowly over the entire pond, pecking at the ice repeatedly. Ultimately, it gave up and hunched disconsolately in a nearby tree. I think it was a young bird, experiencing icy frustration for the first time, and I hope it figured out that a trip to saltwater shores would be a good idea.

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



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