A pine grosbeak munches on some old berries. (Photo by Kerry Howard)

A pine grosbeak munches on some old berries. (Photo by Kerry Howard)

On the Trails: Animal tracks and pine grosbeaks

February had an extra day this year, a cold and gusty one. Those gusts were enough to knock me off balance and make it temporarily impossible to open or shut my car door. So walking on Sandy Beach was not a pleasant option and I walked with a friend in the woods on the Treadwell trail instead. A light, fluffy snow lay atop the old, hard snow, making excellent conditions for finding animal tracks. It’s always fun to see if we can figure out what the critters were doing. This trip turned out to be productive.

Red squirrels had been busy, of course, with their usual affairs. There were lots of delicate trails left by very small mammals, probably shrews. They were so small that they left little mark of their bodies in the trail, but often showed a dragging tail. They had tiny feet and made very short bounds of about three inches or less. Weaving in and out by the shrew trails, we found a weasel (ermine) trail: smaller feet than a squirrel, often making bounds of 10 inches or more. We imagined that fierce predator looking for a hapless shrew.

In the open area near the end of the formal trail, there were lots of snowshoe hare tracks. We easily found alder twigs that were missing their tips, having been clipped off by hungry hares.

Shrews leave long trails in the snowy upper beach. (Photo by Mary F. Willson)

Shrews leave long trails in the snowy upper beach. (Photo by Mary F. Willson)

The most interesting find was on the snow-covered upper beach, below the area of hare activity. The snow was laced with shrew trails — many dozens of them — virtually all of them going between the wooded beach fringe and the narrow wrack line of algae left by the last high tide, sometimes ducking under a convenient log on the way. Occasionally, a trail made a little loop and scuffle-mark on the way.

We wondered what those little travelers might be getting — why venture out into the open, with so little cover, and travel 10 or 20 feet to visit washed-up algae? Or did they go beyond that, onto the pebbly beach itself? What gave them the clue to go out there; how did they know? I don’t think that shrews normally run about in groups, but this was a lot of trails for just one or two or even three shrews making repeated trips. Two days later, gusty winds still prevailing, all those tracks had been obliterated by blowing snow, although a raven had recently checked out the area where the many shrew trails had been.

We saw other things of interest: a small, loose flock of pine grosbeaks was moving rather rapidly through the understory, sometimes poking at an upright shrub stem, as if checking for edibles. Mainly, however, they visited devil’s club stems, perching on the tips and, after inspecting them, often tweaking off the young terminal bud that was just emerging. They didn’t seem to be interested in un-emerged buds buried deep in the stem tip or in older, slightly larger and harder buds. Pine grosbeaks often feed on buds of various types in winter, including new tips of spruce branches. I’ve seen them eating willow buds, and studies in Finland recorded them regularly eating willow buds and spruce buds. They are best known for their habit of extracting the seeds from highbush cranberry and mountain ash fruits and discarding the fruit pulp. That still leaves the question of what the consequences might be for the now bud-less, terminal devil’s club shoot: can it replace that bud at a later time or is that growth-point dead?

The next day, I walked with another friend on the Outer Point trail. A stiff cold breeze came from the north, but we were spared the nasty gusts. The snow there was light and fluffy, and the beach fringe and upper beach gave us entertainment. There were tracks of a mouse (or a large vole), which had scurried around among the young alders, often making bounds of five inches or so. Small birds, maybe juncos, had hopped way out onto the snowy beach, leaving lots of trails. Scattered over the snow surface were numerous spruce seeds, perhaps shaken out of their cones by the winds. Surely those foragers were removing as many of those seeds as they could.

Although I’ve looked for recent porcupine tracks in several places, I have found none. That seems strange.

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

More in Sports

The author’s wife fights a steelhead while the author contemplates fly selection. (Photo by Jeff Lund)
I Went to the Woods: The fear of missing fish

Student: “You know, FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out” Me: “I know… Continue reading

Astrophysicists Lindsay Glesener, left, and Sabrina Savage enjoy the sunshine on an observation deck at the Neil Davis Science Center on a hilltop at Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks. (Photo by Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Waiting for the sun at Poker Flat

POKER FLAT RESEARCH RANGE — Under a bluebird sky and perched above… Continue reading

Maddy Fortunato, a Chickaloon middle school student, sets to attempt the one-hand reach by touching a suspended ball while remaining balanced on the other hand during the Traditional Games on Sunday at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Striving for the perfect balance of competition, camaraderie at seventh annual Traditional Games

More than 250 participants pursue personal goals while helping others during Indigenous events.

Purple mountain saxifrage blooms on cliffs along Perseverance Trail in early April. (Photo by Pam Bergeson)
On the Trails: Flowers and their visitors

Flowers influence their visitors in several ways. Visitors may be attracted by… Continue reading

Elias Lowell, 15, balances his way to the end of the pond during the annual Slush Cup at Eaglecrest Ski Area on Sunday, the last day of what officials called and up-and-down season. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Up-and-down season at Eaglecrest ends on splashy note with Slush Cup

Ski area’s annual beach party features ice-filled water, snowy shores and showboating skimmers.

Aren Gunderson of the UA Museum of the North inspects the back paw of a Siberian tiger donated recently by officials of the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage after the tiger died at age 19. (Photo by Ned Rozell)
Alaska Science Forum: Siberian tiger takes final rest at museum

It’s a safe bet that Aren Gunderson’s Toyota Tundra is the only… Continue reading

A rainbow connects with Kajson Cunningham (30) as he connects with the ball for Thunder Mountain High School during Tuesday’s game against Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé at JDHS, the opening match of the season for both teams. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
High school soccer season starts with a spectrum of goals and milestones

JDHS boys begin state title defense with 4-0 victory over TMHS, which is playing its final season.

Donovan Jackson, 12, of Juneau competes in the one-foot high kick during the 2022 Traditional Games on April 2, 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire file photo)
Record number of participants expected for seventh annual Traditional Games

Teams from Alaska, Canada and Lower 48 to compete in 12 Indigenous skills events starting Friday.

Alwen Carrillo, a senior at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, signs a letter of intent on Monday to play college basketball at Edmond College in Lynnwood, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Annie Lazo-Chappell)
Alwen Carrillo signs letter of intent to play basketball for Edmond College

All-state JDHS guard averaged 16.2 points, 5.2 assists during senior season.

Most Read