A dipper perches at streamside. (Zachary Hanna)

A dipper perches at streamside. (Zachary Hanna)

On the Trails: Even at solstice time, wildlife is everywhere

Sometimes you don’t need to even leave the house to see something interesting.

By Mary F. Willson

A long series of dark, dreary, damp and deluging days around the time of the winter solstice didn’t contribute much to holiday spirit. But just outside my front window, there was daily action, including a small horde of chickadees, sometimes a nuthatch and a hairy woodpecker, occasionally bunches of juncos, and even a downy woodpecker that appeared several times. The brazen, blue bullies were taking a break from hogging the show out there.

I hadn’t seen “my” raven for some weeks, but one day it made two passes over the deck and then perched in a spruce across the pond. Taking the hint, I quickly hacked off a piece of my dinner chicken, stepped out onto the deck and waved it, then put it on the deck railing. The raven watched intently and hardly hesitated before coming in to snatch a nice little chunk of meat and retreat to the spruces again.

Very soon thereafter, a large bird landed behind some dense spruce foliage. It came a little closer, still well-hidden. Then suddenly it burst out into the open and dashed across a small open space, showing itself to be a mostly brownish hawk (moving too fast for me to identify). The raven took off p.d.q., just ahead of the big raptor, and they both disappeared into the neighbors’ yard.

I reckon that the raptor was probably a goshawk, maybe the same juvenile that perched on my deck railing a few weeks ago. They like to lurk in thick foliage, dashing out to nab a squirrel or a woodpecker; I once watched one take a mallard from my pond. But would they try for a raven?

Down by the little dam that helps make my pond, some of the ice had melted and the creek was flowing. An otter had crawled out of the creek, under some brush, and down into the pond. After leaving a good slide mark on the bank of the pond, it had rumpled up the edges of the soft ice. There are juvenile salmon and sticklebacks in the pond — perhaps fewer now than before the otter’s visit.

That little dam also makes a fine perch for a foraging dipper. One afternoon, I watched a round, gray shape out there, barely visible against the dark background. But it was bobbing up and down in characteristic fashion and occasionally diving in, if it saw something promising.

A dipper has captured two small fish. (Bob Armstrong)

A dipper has captured two small fish. (Bob Armstrong)

Sometimes I don’t have to leave the house to see something interesting!

Then came early January, with more days of gray and rain. But a few nice things were out there to be found on exploratory strolls. In Fritz Cove, groups of humpback whales appeared, presumably following a horde of small fish. One little short-lived snowfall let us find places where shrews had scuttled back and forth, leaving body-width grooves and rows of tiny foot dents from hole to hole. In a grassy meadow near Eagle River, shrew trails crossed older trackways of larger beasties, probably voles, that ran from one tussock to another. An ermine had bounded across an open area between willow shrubs. And on the nearby sand flats, where debris had collected in lots of little depressions, a raven had paraded from one debris pile to another, carefully inspecting each one for something interesting.

At the end of the first week of January, the morning view down the channel offered a fine surprise. The sun (!) was coming up and peering through scattered clouds, a colorful, splendorous (but temporary) show. The whales were still in Fritz Cove, but farther out, and a sea lion barked as it cruised by. A bit later that morning, a dipper was singing as it foraged along lower Fish Creek.

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

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