A black bear yearling carries a chum salmon up the bank, but discards it later. (Photo by Stacey Thomas)

A black bear yearling carries a chum salmon up the bank, but discards it later. (Photo by Stacey Thomas)

On the Trails: High summer in Juneau

As July came to an end, fireweed was in bloom everywhere, the early flowers, low on the stem, already putting up big seed pods. Many stems still had buds at the top of the stem, and some of these may open and eventually produce pods. Chum salmon were running upstream to their spawning areas, often followed by foraging seals in the big rivers, while more chum were still out in saltwater. The little yellow-flowered plant called rattlepod or yellow-rattle was common in many open areas. Budworm larvae dangled on long silken threads from the conifers, having munched up the needles and dispersing on their way to pupation. Big blue darner dragonflies zoomed about. Cottonwoods had dropped the last of their fluffy-seeded catkins. Along the highway, browsing deer wore their smooth, reddish summer coats. And after a little much-needed rain, bright sunshine brought temperatures up into the seventies (We call that “hot!”).

I walked with a friend to the Boy Scout beach area on one of those fine days of high summer. The salmonberry crops had been picked over, but the blueberry crops looked plentiful, and highbush cranberry was just ripening.

At the far end of the first big meadow, we saw a bear, hardly visible in the tall grasses, moving along an intertidal slough. The tide was out, so I suspect it was hoping to find some salmon stranded in the residual pools. We could follow its progress almost all the way to the river, but then it disappeared.

As we walked past the trail junction and through the other big meadow, we noticed stands of a distinctive grass that is a kind of wild barley. Although I didn’t key it out, I think it is foxtail barley. The flattened seed heads have long bristles extending from the ripening seeds and droop gracefully, swaying in the breeze. Those seed heads give a pinkish-red cast to each barley stand, and with my sunglasses on the color became much richer. This barley from seed to seedling to adult is quite salt-tolerant, although the degree of salt-tolerance varies among populations. It can behave like an annual or a perennial, depending on the situation, and it hybridizes with other grains. It and other grains are subject to leaf-blotch fungal infections. This species is considered to be invasive in agricultural fields and in Russia.

After passing through that second meadow, we walked along the beach. We could see chum salmon slowly moving along the shore in some places and, farther off-shore, salmon occasionally jumped. There were over a dozen carcasses (mostly chum, at least one pink salmon) above the water’s edge, and some of them still had plenty of flesh for foragers — if the beach flies didn’t finish them off. Several jellyfish had been stranded by the outgoing tide and were probably doomed. Out in deeper water, two murrelets drifted and dove.

Eagles cruised over the shallows, checking the incoming fish and perched noisily in the trees. They were molting, and lots of feathers lay on the ground. Some of the eagles nibbled on dead salmon in the river, along with the gulls.

The next morning, I headed out to the weir at the Amalga salt-chuck. The weir was closed, so the chum salmon couldn’t go upstream to spawn and just thrashed around in frustration below the weir, sometimes making the metal pickets clank. I later learned that most of those hatchery fish will be kept out, to avoid overwhelming the small stream; only about 3,000 of them will be allowed to pass upstream at intervals (according to what I was told). Lots of salmon were still jumping out in the bay in front of the estuary. (That raises a question for me: why make so many adult fish in the first place? The stream cannot accommodate so many, and human harvest seemed to be limited — on several visits, only once did I see fishing boats out in the bay.)

I was lucky, and some bears were attending the thwarted fish. A small female and her yearling prowled along the shore, in and out of the water, ignoring the many dead and dying fish. The young bear ventured up the slope on the far side and spent a couple of minutes poking around an elderberry bush where, on a previous day (as reported by a fellow observer), it had harvested the berries. After traipsing up and down for a while, the yearling grabbed a living fish but, after hefting it out of the water, just dropped it on a rock and moved on. We reckoned that these bears were sufficiently well-fed that they could afford to be choosy — preferring female fish laden with eggs. Indeed one of the observers spotted the adult bear in a rocky channel where she pinned down a fish and pressed out the eggs. Both bears eventually wandered off into the woods, at least for the time being.

On the way home, I stopped at the nearby trailhead at the Eagle Valley Center, thinking to walk up the horse tram trail a bit. But I didn’t get very far. Many of the “pebbles” in the gravel walkway got up and hopped away as I approached. It was hard to find a non-murderous place to put my feet — I certainly didn’t want to step on any of the tiny toadlets. There had been earlier reports of toads breeding in the ponds out there, and clearly there was some success. All those toadlets were dispersing from their natal ponds to begin the terrestrial part of the life cycle. They may take two years to reach maturity if they are male, and four years if they are female.

These boreal or western toads used to be quite common around here, but that changed some years ago. A deadly chytrid fungus has afflicted some populations, and that may be one reason for the diminished distribution. Now there are just a few places where breeding toads can regularly be found. So I chose not to contribute to the existing difficulties of dispersal and left the toadlets in (temporary) peace.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.“On The Trails” is a weekly column that appears in Wednesday’s print edition of the Juneau Empire.

Foxtail barley has colorful and graceful seed heads. (Photo by Mary F. Willson)

Foxtail barley has colorful and graceful seed heads. (Photo by Mary F. Willson)

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