A male willow ptarmigan in full summertime plumage, with his family nearby. (Courtesy photo | Bob Armstrong)

A male willow ptarmigan in full summertime plumage, with his family nearby. (Courtesy photo | Bob Armstrong)

Summertime rambles: Seeing seasonal flora and fauna

Scenes from a summer place.

Summer’s here, for sure: great swathes of fireweed a-buzz with bees, juvenile ravens hollering to be fed again and again, the songbird chorus is nearly silent. But the sockeye must be wondering if their streams will have enough water for their annual activities; the piffling little rains we’ve had recently haven’t compensated for the long drought or the lack of snow on the peaks.

A couple of summertime rambles brought some enjoyable observations — nothing spectacular, just pleasant.

With a few friends I strolled up the lower part of Gold Ridge above the tram. We chose to go up quite early, in order to beat the mobs let loose from the cruise ships. Partly because we were early, partly because it was a bit foggy — and partly for a third reason; of which more, later — there was wildlife to be seen. Marmots rested calmly on rocky outlooks or leisurely scampered through the low vegetation, stopping here and there to sample some leaves.

[Spring happens!]

The best sighting was a family of willow ptarmigan: male, female, and one chick. The male was fully dressed in his reddish summer coat (that’s why they are called red grouse in the U. K.). We stopped as soon as we spotted them, while the family trotted up the trail ahead of us. But the female kept coming back down in our direction, as if perhaps she had left something behind. There could have been other chicks hiding in the salmonberry bushes, although we did not hear any. Eventually the little family disappeared up the trail and off into the brush. Willow ptarmigan are unusual members of the grouse family; in most grouse-like species the males are not involved in parental care, but willow ptarmigan males stay with their mates and chicks until the chicks are grown.

We were moving slowly as we left the tram, stopping frequently to look at plants or insects. On this part of the slope, the peak of the flower show was over, but there were lots of harebells and grass-of-parnassus. Salmonberries were ripe, and some of the songbirds were still singing, presumably starting second broods.

A water strider sucks the juices from a captured damselfly. (Courtesy photo | Bob Armstrong)

A water strider sucks the juices from a captured damselfly. (Courtesy photo | Bob Armstrong)

We turned around near the big talus slope where marmots are commonly seen. And on the way down, we noted a third reason why our early start paid off in wildlife viewing. We now encountered several sets of dog-walkers and associated canines — at least seven of them and all off-leash. When we suggested to the dog-owners that their friendly, lovable dogs should be on-leash, we were told: My dogs don’t chase wildlife; What wildlife?; My dogs stay on the trail; Nobody else has their dogs on-leash. I note, however, that we did not hear any marmot alarm whistles until the dogs went up the trail.

A few days later, a friend and I went to the lower ski loop at Eaglecrest to see if the long-leaf sundews were blooming. Well, they were all done, and setting fruit, but we did find them in many more ponds than we had known. And on these ponds, the long-leafs were not restricted to barren areas but also occupied areas of low moss cover, sometimes co-occurring with round-leaf sundews — a contrast to some of the ponds nearer to the trail. We also found bur-reed in a few ponds, a species we hadn’t noticed there before.

The ponds were interesting: while most of them were dried up or nearly so, a few were well filled, even some on top of small rises. How does that happen? The yellow pond lilies were past blooming and were setting fruit. Mud in the bottom of drying ponds held records of visiting critters: lots of footprints about the size of robins’ and one small porcupine.

Where there was water, the predatory water striders were busy, skating over the surface, using the surface tension of the water and distributing their weight widely, on their long legs. The middle legs are used for rowing and the hind legs for steering. The long-bodied adults were now joined by juveniles, distinguishable not only by small size but also by the short abdomen. Dragons and damselflies patrolled the meadows. The big blue darners were common, and at least two kinds of damsels. I also found a four-spotted skimmer — the Alaska state insect — resting on a pad of moss.

Later that morning, we stopped at a pond where toads sometimes breed.

I had looked for tadpoles here before, but the water was covered with so much thick scum — pollen and algae — that nothing in the water could be seen. But friends had reported that toadlets had emerged from this pond and were hopping about in the edges. So we went to look again and, indeed, there were hundreds of tiny toadlets, all less than half an inch long, crawling through the grass. They often crossed a gravel trail, hopping over stones that (to them) were the size of boulders. We had to be very careful where we put our feet, lest we inadvertently crushed some. I was interested to note the variation in color; some were more blackish, or reddish, or greenish than others. These boreal — or western — toads take several years to mature. The adults are terrestrial, returning to ponds only to breed in spring. Although each adult male can breed every year, females — who can lay thousands of eggs — may skip a year if they laid extraordinary numbers the previous year.

Note: It is illegal to collect toads or toadlets without a special permit from Alaska Department of Fish & Game. Don’t even handle them to look more closely. If you have bug repellent on your hands, it can be toxic to them.

Back at home, there were two families of mallards on my pond, one with three full-grown young ones and one with five still-downy ducklings. A visiting friend heard a ruckus of agitated quacking and looked out the window. A kingfisher was fleeing for its life, pursued by a goshawk! The hawk made one pass, but missed. (By now I was at the window also.) It tried again: the kingfisher made a sharp turn and dove into the very shallow pond, emerging in a splutter of water drops, miraculously not covered with mud. The hawk missed again and, amazingly, did not try for any of the ducks.

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

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