A beach marmot carries nest material to its den. (Photo by Jos Bakker)

A beach marmot carries nest material to its den. (Photo by Jos Bakker)

On the Trails: Spring is really happening

A spate of fine, sunny weather in mid-April was most welcome. Those clear skies, however, meant that the nights were still about crispy, and at least in the upper Valley, there was a new skim of fresh ice on my pond every morning. Now the mallards that come to snack on fallen birdseed are mostly solitary males, with occasional visits by females. So I suspect that the females have nests of eggs to be tended.

My peanut butter and seed feeders attract the usual juncos, chickadees, and nuthatches, not to mention Mrs. Squirrel, who helps herself too. I put up a hummingbird feeder two weeks ago and it drew just one visitor; this past week, however, both males and females attend the feeder daily. Hummers are always later here than in places such as Fritz Cove Road. The redpolls have finally dwindled away; the last two were seen here several days ago, after a long winter visit.

My walks are now accompanied by the cheery songs of ruby-crowned kinglets. In my notes they are “RCKI” for short, and therefore I call them “rickies.” Song sparrows are singing, too, but I don’t hear many varied thrushes — although one regularly snacks from my suet feeder. Robins have been here for a while and are now spreading out into our neighborhoods, where some of these adaptable birds will nest. Golden-crowned sparrows have been seen and I finally saw a little flock of them on the way to Nugget Falls. Most of those sparrows will go on to the Interior, but a few will nest in our alpine areas. An elegant, pale gray, long-winged harrier coursed over the meadow by the dike trail — a male. Over across the river, a brown-plumaged one, female or juvenile, flew low. One well-watched pair of eagles is tending their two eggs. Shorebirds? I’ve seen a few greater yellowlegs and a snipe that was foraging in a rivulet near Sandy Beach. The gulls are back on the cliffs along Mendenhall Lake, and Valley-dwellers can hear them overhead, flying to and from the coast.

Bears are out and about, first in downtown, as usual. I saw one very recently in the roadside ditch near Auke Rec. Sadly, there seem to be many fewer bears out here than there used to be, and they are missed by many folks. Beach marmots are out of hibernation and looking for greenery to munch.

And, indeed, greenery there is: green-up is underway. Beach greens are just appearing. The early lupine leaves are joined by tufts of cow parsnip leaves. Dandelions have begun to bloom and other small herbaceous species look good; the blades of beach grasses are several inches or even a foot tall, at least in some places. Leaves of wintergreen that spent the winter pressed flat to the ground by snow are reviving and lifting up to resume active participation in spring. In certain places, currant and elderberry bushes are leafing out and some cottonwoods have huge buds. In a young cottonwood, maybe 30 feet tall, I saw a squirrel in the very top of the tree, perhaps sampling the buds.

Bright yellow skunk cabbages are flowering in many places, with more still emerging from the mud. The spadix inside the yellow spathe bears many flowers, all of which are female at first. We can see the tiny tips of the female reproductive structure with the receptive stigma at the end, sticking out on all sides of the spadix. Eventually, each of the flowers will also produce pollen, visible as whitish powder around each stigma. Look for little black beetles gathering to eat pollen and inadvertently carry some on their bodies to female-phase flowers; sometimes flies congregate there too. All those early-flowering individuals being female means that they had no other plants as sources of pollen to fertilize their eggs, so if they are to set seed, they must remain receptive even when presenting pollen and perhaps even self-pollinate.

Felt-leaf willow put out fuzzy catkins weeks ago, but only rather recently have they become reproductively active, sending out pollen-bearing anthers and receptive stigmas beyond the reach of the fuzz. Happiness for bees that can feed there, as well as on the early blueberry flowers. Other species of willow are now starting to make pussy-willows too.

It’s always fun to track the progress of Spring!

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

A bumblebee visits a willow catkin. (Photo by Bob Armstrong)

A bumblebee visits a willow catkin. (Photo by Bob Armstrong)

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