Courtesy Photo | <strong>Kerry Howard</strong>
                                A content crow watches the world go by in Homer on May 9.

Courtesy Photo | Kerry Howard A content crow watches the world go by in Homer on May 9.

Sights, sounds and smells of spring

Springtime in Juneau tickles the senses.

Early April brought some nice sunshine and the first purple mountain saxifrage blooms. Swans graced some of the ponds in the Mendenhall Valley and on Douglas. Bufflehead males showed off their white cockades to females. Skunk cabbage (aka swamp lanterns) began to glow in the warmer spots. The first songbirds tuned up. At Fish Creek, I watched a crow chase a greater yellowlegs, apparently just for the fun of it.

Toward the end of April, around the lower loop at Eaglecrest Ski Area, the ice was gone from many of the ponds. Waterstriders scooted over the pond surfaces, making big-footed shadows. I saw one damselfly larva, one diving beetle and hundreds of tiny mysterious beasties crawling through the mucky bottoms of some ponds.

A few ponds were covered with the floating exoskeletons of unknown insects, presumably left behind when the adults emerged and went off somewhere. Some pond lilies had large buds not quite ready to open.

[New fishing area provides wetlands access, honors conservationists]

Robins moved about in small flocks over the muskegs, although at sea level they were already singing on territories. A persistent red-breasted sapsucker hammered away, announcing his presence in no uncertain terms. A few male hooters called from far away.

There was plenty of evidence of deer chomping on the yellow floral display of skunk cabbages. Usually, they bite off the whole top of the display, leaving just a stub, but I saw two plants on which the deer had neatly extracted just the cylindrical inflorescence from the still mostly-furled yellow spathe. The sweet fragrance of these flowers sometimes builds up near a patch in full bloom, and it is worth savoring.

Early May brought (excessively) prolonged gray skies and drizzle, punctuated by occasional downpours and fresh snow on the peaks. On a little trip up East Glacier Trail, I heard hooters advertising their availability to females and my first Townsend’s warbler of the year. Sadly, I saw no signs of dippers at their traditional nest site on Steep Creek, although elsewhere they were already incubating eggs.

[What lurks beneath: Creatures under tree bark and the stories they tell]

Earlier in the spring, a pair of dippers foraged on lower Steep Creek, and I had hopes that they would nest at the usual place. There was good evidence of considerable human activity on the gravel bar just below that nest site, and I suspect that may have been too much for the birds’ comfort. Very unfortunate; that nest site had been occupied for many years.

Above the Mount Roberts Tramway, Cooley’s false buttercups were making a splendid show, in between remnant snow patches. Robins and fox sparrows sang from the alder thickets. A wary ptarmigan was beginning to molt into its summer-brown plumage, with just a smattering of brown on head and chest.

When I grew impatient with post-holing through softening snow, I decided to slide down on a shortcut between two loops of the trail. Two big-ship crew members on the lower loop near the place I intended to land opened their arms to catch what they thought was an accidental fall (nice guys) but I stopped my slide just at the edge of the trail.

[Why should anyone care about clam breath?]

Along the trail to the Boy Scout camp, shooting stars had fat buds, ready to open before too long. Pale purple and dark purple violets were in bloom, along with yellow buttercups and baneberries had big buds. On the beach, strawberries were flowering profusely. Two humpback whales cruised and dove just off the south-facing beach.

A week or so after the first stroll up East Glacier Trail, I returned. Now there were Townsend’s warblers everywhere, along with robins, varied thrushes and an occasional junco. The purple mountain saxifrage on the cliff overlooking the falls was still blooming. Down near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center was a fine early specimen of Romanzoffia sitchensis (with the silly common name of mistmaiden) that was in full bloom on a cliff.

When my home pond was still half-covered by ice, mallards began to visit. All was calm when only one male was there and had females all to himself, but the arrival of other males always led to acrimonious squabbles. (What the females thought is not known).

By early May, the ice was gone and as many as five males gathered together, all buddy-buddy, a clear sign that somewhere not too far away there were five females on eggs. If they (and I) are lucky, there will be broods of duckies on my pond later on.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology. “On The Trails” is a weekly column that appears every Friday. Her essays can be found online at

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