A golden-crowned sparrow nibbled on elderberry flower buds. (Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)

A golden-crowned sparrow nibbled on elderberry flower buds. (Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)

On the Trails: Enjoying birds, blooms and more near the Mendenhall Glacier

The trail to Nugget Falls was a lively place in early May.

By Mary F. Willson

The trail to Nugget Falls was a lively place in early May. Hermit thrushes had arrived and were flitting about in the understory, not yet ready to sing. In more open, shrubby areas, a mixed flock of migrating sparrows was joined by some juncos, all busily foraging for whatever they could find on the ground. White-crowned sparrows were on their way to the Interior for nesting. Golden-crowned sparrows alternated ran and hopped; they are headed for alpine zones and we’ll probably hear them up on Mount Roberts later on. Another naturalist spotted one munching on elderberry flower buds.

White-crowned sparrows were flocking with golden-crowns along the beach route. (Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)

White-crowned sparrows were flocking with golden-crowns along the beach route. (Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)

As the flock moved into thicker brush, they were joined by a fox sparrow or two, using their characteristic two-footed scratching technique in the leaf litter: hop forward, pull back, inspect the scratched area. I’ll hope to hear them up on Mt Roberts eventually, if the snow ever goes away.

Ruby-crowned kinglets were flitting through the trees and singing, not only from their usual haunts in the woods but even from little conifer stands on the lakeshore. Robins were everywhere, sometimes calling but mostly running over the ground, stopping to poke at some likely looking item. Varied thrushes shrilled from the forested slopes.

First one, then a whole flock of yellow-rumped warblers appeared, welcome spots of color. They hunted insects on twigs that were just leafing out and looped out into openings to snag a flying bug. They are usually the first warblers to show up here.

A falcon flew in and perched in the top of a cottonwood to survey the area. The small birds got very quiet just then, and the merlin eventually moved on. Three Steller’s jays perched briefly in a small tree, holding an animated, not altogether friendly, conversation.

I often see a dipper foraging at the base of the falls, coming down from a nest site not far upstream, but not this time. But I finally found one perched on a short snag near the usual nest site on Steep Creek, though there was no sign of a nest on the customary cliff ledge. That may come later, or perhaps they will chose (as they occasionally do) to nest in a rocky bowl just upstream.

There were two mountain goats browsing high on the rocky slopes. They didn’t move around very much, so the menu in that spot was really good…or they were very hungry.

The terns are back, claiming nest sites out on the sand flats. Sometimes one brings a little fish to tempt its partner.

On a cliff across from the parking lots, a small plant had produced tiny yellow flowers. It’s called ‘mist-maiden’ or Romanzoffia sitchensis. The flowers are usually about a centimeter across, but these were unusually small—only about 3 milimeters wide.

A few days later, the golden-crowned sparrows were gone, leaving a few white-crowns skittering about under the scattered shrubs along the beach route. Terns were circling over their prospective nest sites and occasionally hovering over the shallow pools beside the lake. The sweet, delicate aroma of cottonwood buds lingered in the air. Now the cottonwood catkins were ripe and dangling; I wish the bears would resume foraging on them, as they have in past years — it was such fun to see those large critters up in the tops of the cottonwoods!

An unusually tiny-flowered specimen of Romanzoffia sitchensis (‘mist-maiden’) blooms on a cliff near the road (Mary F. Willson / For the Juneau Empire)

An unusually tiny-flowered specimen of Romanzoffia sitchensis (‘mist-maiden’) blooms on a cliff near the road (Mary F. Willson / For the Juneau Empire)

Now, in mid-May and for the rest of the summer, quiet observation will be difficult, given the arrival of thousands of inhabitants of those gigantic floating hotels that are parked downtown. Perhaps there will be a few lucky, quiet days for peaceful natural history.

Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On the Trails” appears every Wednesday in the Juneau Empire.

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