Courtesy Photo | Bob Armstrong                                 This willow ptarmigan rests between snacks of willow buds.

Courtesy Photo | Bob Armstrong This willow ptarmigan rests between snacks of willow buds.

Finding fun and feathered friends in February

The prize observation came from Eaglecrest.

February brought lovely snowfalls, covering the tracks of mice and shrews so often that I seldom saw them. Juncos had hopped over the snow here and there, but the other little folks of the woods and meadows didn’t record their small stories for me to find.

However, ravens had done something mysterious and interesting in two places at different times. On a bank of Peterson Creek, one or two ravens had tromped down a patch of snow, occasionally circling a short distance out into a meadow and then returning. Similarly, on a bank above the Boy Scout Beach, ravens had had a party — the trampled dance ground covered a couple of square meters. In neither case was there any evidence of predation or feeding. What were they doing?

Otters had been traveling.

In Amalga Meadows, an otter went from one side of the lower meadow to the creek. Another one had traversed the upper meadow several times, visiting the small unfrozen tributaries of the creek and gradually working its way toward the low saddle where the horse tram once ran.

Years ago, we tracked an otter from near the lodge to that saddle, on a direct line going over to the river. At Boy Scout Beach, a fairly small otter had come out of the woods from the direction of the camp and slid its way beautifully across open meadow to the river. I wondered if it might have traveled all the way from the open water near the camp, taking a shortcut from there instead of going the long way around Crow Point. Overland journeys happen; these critters learn their geography.

The prize observation came from Eaglecrest, on the way to Hilda Meadows.

Ptarmigan sometimes forage in the willow stands near the entrance to the meadows, but we hadn’t been there much in recent years, in part because of poor snowfall.

In late February, a little group of snowshoers traipsed its way out there. The small streams were invisible under the deep snowpack and easy to cross. On our way in, we spotted several ptarmigan — willow ptarmigan, I think — crouched under the willows, keeping us under surveillance. A network of their tracks laced the surface of the snow under the shrubs, connecting one feeding place to another.

After lunch under a big tree that had intercepted much of the snow and made an easy picnic spot, we headed back out of the meadows. I happened to be ahead of the others, which is not my usual position, only because I left the picnic spot first. Suddenly I signaled “stop” to the others.

I had spotted a ptarmigan making a winter shelter — creating a bowl-shaped burrow to keep out the cold. Scratch, scratch turn. Scratch, scratch turn, again and again. As the bowl got deeper, the bird would pop up its head and peer over the rim, no doubt checking on possible danger. Although I’ve seen lots of used and abandoned bowls in late spring, on Mount Roberts, I’d never seen the making of these shelters. All six of us watched as the burrower gradually became nearly invisible. Meanwhile, a nearby ptarmigan was busily nipping off willow buds; the lowest twigs now have few buds left.

To avoid disturbing the burrower, we decided to try circling around it at a little distance. If there had been just two or three of us, it would have worked. But six “monsters” were too much for it; it fled to the forest edge. Too bad! But it was good fun until then.

Much as we love this snow, we look for signs that spring is not far behind. Indeed, varied thrushes have begun to sing, albeit sporadically, and red squirrel pairs are chasing each other in the preamble to mating.

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

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