Courtesy Photos | Kerry Howard 
                                A colorful sunstar is one of the colorful sights that can be seen in Southeast Alaska.

Courtesy Photos | Kerry Howard A colorful sunstar is one of the colorful sights that can be seen in Southeast Alaska.

A new month brings vibrant colors to the outdoors

Butterflies, birds and sea stars were seen in early May.

At the end of the first week of May, I went with some friends up Perseverance Trail until — somewhere past the double bridges — the residual snow became a nuisance, and we turned around. But that little walk was rewarding: Purple mountain saxifrage was still blooming on the cliffs past the Horn.

Yellow violets bloomed in profusion near the start of the trail, and we saw one early purple violet. There were a lot of tall green shoots promising more flowers to come.

The first little blue butterflies winged about, having recently emerged from hibernation as pupae. Females will soon lay eggs on the host plants for the larvae to feed on; different species of blues have different host plants. Many species in this taxonomic family (Lycaenidae), including one here in Southeast, have larvae that are tended and guarded by ants, which slurp up the “honeydew” excreted by the larvae. But we have so few ants here that I suspect this relationship may not be obligatory for the local species.

[Seasonal seabirds re-tern to Juneau]

A minus 4.5-foot tide in early May drew us out to a rocky intertidal area to see what we could find. There was lots of good stuff. Four kinds of sea cucumbers — huge blackish ones, medium-sized orange ones, lots of small white ones and zillions of little black tar spots on the rocks. Anemones white, tan, green, green and red, and reddish-brown with red tentacles tucked inside. Two or three kinds of chitons.

A particularly beautiful lined chiton was one of the colorful sights found during a minus 4.5-foot tide in early May.

A particularly beautiful lined chiton was one of the colorful sights found during a minus 4.5-foot tide in early May.

Multicolored sea stars, including sunstars and a sunflower star. Limpets and tiny snails. One crescent gunnel and a prickleback. Two molted king crab shells, both female. Some whelk eggs under a big flat rock, which we returned to its original position so as to protect the eggs. Not everyone does that, unfortunately; we found another set of whelk eggs left exposed and desiccated. There was one small Dungeness crab, but no hermit crabs — and very few empty shells for them to use — that was a bit disappointing.

Here are a few other observations from the past two weeks or so. Over on Douglas, a swamp full of brilliant yellow skunk cabbages was swarming with yellow-rumped warblers swooping and diving for flying insects. In that warbler flock was one Townsend’s warbler, seemingly a little less agile than the others.

On the west side of Mendenhall Lake, a flock of violet-green swallows — the first swallows the year, for me — flew back and forth along the marginal strip of open water. They may have been catching — or hoping to catch — recently emerged insects for the several streams that were flowing into the still-icy lake.

Along a trail south of Douglas, a female junco busily sorted bits of dry grass until she had some that suited her. Then she disappeared with her load into a dark space between tree roots and overhung by a drooping carpet of moss. That’s more of a cavern than juncos usually nest in, although they often like some overhanging vegetation just above the nest. That female left her selected bits of grass, no doubt tucked nicely into what will be a nest, and came out to look for more. A risky place for a nest, so close to the trail, even when beautifully concealed.

[Fantastic spiders and where to find them]

I can’t resist adding an observation from late winter, even though it is out of season just now. Up at Eaglecrest, while snowshoeing over that wonderful snow, I watched a smallish porcupine clamber out of some dense spruce branches and go way out on the end of a branch. The branch wobbled and bounced, but the needles at the end were just too enticing. The porcupine reached out and pulled in the tips of some small side branches and stretched out to get the needles at the very end. All the while, it was murmuring to itself. Was it saying, “Oh, yum, yum,” or maybe saying “I’m kind of tired of spruce needles and it’s time for some nice, soft, herbage?”

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” is a weekly column that appears every Wednesday.

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