A swan family on Moose Lake. (Courtesy Photo | Jos Bakker)

A swan family on Moose Lake. (Courtesy Photo | Jos Bakker)

The telltale signs of approaching winter are here

The signs of the times.

If autumn comes, can winter be far behind?

There was ice on my home pond for the first time this year on Nov. 10. The mallards that gather there all summer had deserted the place for better forage elsewhere. One lone male peered up over a log in the stream but apparently didn’t want to break the ice—he went back downstream.

That male is in full-dress plumage now: glossy green head, tidy white neck ring, rusty chest, clean white and gray flanks. But in mid-October, males were in all stages of molting into their handsome breeding dress; some still looked rather like motley brown females while others had nearly completed the molt. Even some of the patchwork-plumaged males were regularly associated with females—pairs that stayed together as the other ducks shifted around on the pond. That suggests to me that handsome male dress is not just about getting girl-friends.

[Do you know the history behind the Horse Tram Trail?]

Mid-October also saw the last strawberry flowers blooming (in vain) by some beaches. Anna’s hummingbirds visited the pansies still flowering in pot on my deck, and other folks had Anna’s at their feeders. I’ve heard that they sometimes stay here all winter, but I don’t see them then at my house. I think that the more common rufous hummers probably have departed for their wintering grounds. A special treat, in fall and winter, is the occasional magical song of dippers as they forage in streams, tuning up for spring.

In late October, near the dam at Moose Lake in the Mendenhall Glacier Rec Area, a single Canada goose was hiding under a clump of bent alders. It was so still, at first I thought it was an escaped decoy. But, no—it slowly raised and lowered its head. It stayed put as my naturalist friend and I walked by. I reckoned it was sick or wounded or just plain scared. In any case, it was gone the next day.

We were pleased to see a chubby little bear running across the road near Moose Lake. The coho run in the Dredge Creek area and in Steep Creek by the visitor center seemed small this year; some spawners made it all the way up the usual distance, but I thought it unlikely that there were enough to feed the usual lot of hungry bears, which indeed seemed scarcer than usual. So chubby was good — perhaps a function of the incredibly plentiful berry crop this year. Even in November, berries still hang on the bushes; there weren’t enough bears and birds and humans to harvest them all.

In early November, I chanced upon some friends at the main viewing platform on lower Steep Creek. They were watching two otters slide in and out of a pond tucked back in the trees. Presently, the otters went up over a small ridge and disappeared toward the visitor center. But when I subsequently went up the ramp toward the pavilion, I spotted them down in the nearby pool. The larger of the two (mama?) splashed briefly at the pool’s edge and came up with a nice coho; she dragged it up the bank, followed by the smaller one (offspring?). Otters may well be better at finding those fish than I am.

A few days later, on a tip from a friend, I found a group of swans on Moose Lake: six adults and three large juveniles, just resting there. They were wary as I walked by, but stayed in the cove where I found them. I later saw four adults separated a short distance from two adults with the juveniles, which probably comprised a family. I was told that the whole group got alarmed by dogs the next day and took off for other parts.

On a nice day in early November, I walked with a friend in the Eagle Beach rec area. We make it a regular habit to pick up trash from beaches and trail-sides as we walk; on this day we filled two grocery bags and gathered up a long length of tangled rope that was eroding out of a riverside sand bank. But that junk was not the main purpose of this walk, of course; we were just looking to see what we could see, as usual, and it turned out to be quite a good day.

Cottonwood trees had lost their leaves by then. This is an area where we sometimes find unusually big leaves; some specimens measured 10 and 12 inches long. I would like to know why some cottonwoods make such enormous leaves. In some other species, juvenile trees make larger leaves than adult trees, but these are not juvenile cottonwoods. An interesting feature of a few leaves was the color of the petiole—bright scarlet, quite a contrast from the usual yellowish-brown. Another puzzle.

Just above a little wooden bridge, we noticed lots of small “sticks” slowly moving across a muddy streambed. No, not sticks, but caddisfly larvae, all wrapped in their protective cases built of tiny bits of plant debris. We could keep track of individual larvae by the variegated colors of the little bits; for instance, this one had a yellow spot on its right flank, but that one had a white mark near its head, and that one was all dark.

A northern case maker caddisfly crawls under ice. (Courtesy Photo | Bob Armstrong)

A northern case maker caddisfly crawls under ice. (Courtesy Photo | Bob Armstrong)

Out on the intertidal sand flats, a sizable gang of crows fossicked around something lying on the wet sand. Of course, this required investigation, so we splotched our damp way out to see. The last few crows left as we approached, and the thing was then seen to be an old, barnacle-encrusted log. I suspect that all those crows were snacking on small barnacles, accounting for the bare patches on that log.

To finish off a good walk, we met a very small porcupine on the trail. It was not afraid of us and just wandered about, apparently not finding anything edible.

Down along Eagle River, a mother bear left very clear, recent tracks, while her cub trotted along on the sandbank above. An otter had traveled over the sandbars in the river bed, probably hoping for fish too.


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


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