Old Journals and Song Sparrow

I haven’t seen it yet, but Connor told me he saw the white and blue banded Song Sparrow back in our yard today. The last I saw it this year was on 11 April. Last year it was not seen between 10 April and 5 September.

I spent some time today adding entries from June 1998. These were journal entries I actually wrote originally by hand and then later posted them to my website in a somewhat blog-like fashion. I thought it would be nice to just have all of those sorts of journal entries in one place, so I’ll probably do the same with the rest of my journals up to the time I switched over to this site and weblog format entirely in 2007.

There have been several things that I’ve found interesting about reading through the old journals. For the most part, those first ones were pretty brief. That’s due in part to the fact that I was writing them by hand, something that’s hard for me to do too much of. Also, I have reasonably clear memories of the outings, despite the fact they took place 16+ years ago.

That time period was when I think I really took significant steps down the path towards my obsession with the natural history of this area. Prior to that I did some hiking, but mostly just to get out (and up) because I enjoyed the country. I do remember trying to take some pictures of flowers while hiking with a point and shoot the year or two prior, but they didn’t turn out well, and I didn’t spend much time with them. However, in 1998 purchased my first SLR (my first digital camera was the next year), and I was more successful getting pictures of flowers, and trying to take pictures of birds. At that time I recognized and/or knew names of very few things, and it was fairly common for me to notice things that were ‘new-to-me’ despite probably having walked by them many times before.

Comparing that time and my memories of those wanders and hikes with now, I think I was more energetic and/or less easily distracted by all the things there are to find. I think I did not tend to get out as often, but when I did go, I tended to go further with much fewer stops. I think it might be worth trying to mix back in some of these longer outings. As I near 40, it’s easy to feel less ambitious about distance and elevation gain since it takes more effort to maintain the conditioning that makes such trips much more enjoyable, so probably the key is to make a regular practice of it.

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Red Alder (Alnus rubra) Red Roots

While walking through Totem Park recently, I noticed something red that seemed to be growing on or at the base of red alders (Alnus rubra) near the estuary. In places, it was unclear whether they were coming out of the ground, but I did find a couple where it was clear that they were growing out of the alder tree itself. There was some branching, but many were unbranched, and the surface was very smooth to the point of being slippery (though I don’t think it was slimy).

As best I could tell, they are roots, though I don’t know why they would be sending roots out into the air (and why they would be so red). At this point my best guess is the moss growing on the tree trunk blocks enough light and holds enough moisture that the tree responds as if it were buried at that point, and so sends out roots. It doesn’t take long for the roots to get outside the moss covering, so I’m not sure why they would keep growing, but I think they do die off over the winter.


Questions:

  • Does anyone have other ideas for what’s prompting these growths?
  • Why are they red?
  • What mechanisms drive root development (that is, how does a tree ‘know’ where to grow roots)?
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Baird’s Sandpipers

A couple of days ago was only the fourth time I’ve seen a Baird’s Sandpiper, and it was the first time I saw more than one.

The tide was on its way up, though still out quite far (it has been a minus tide maybe an hour before) as I made my way from the beach access near the river mouth toward the access at the sea otter sign bench (formerly the battle site sign bench, though signs have just recently been changed). This time of year it’s pretty typical to have lots of gulls (present), a fair flock of Black Turnstones (present), and scattered smaller shorebirds including Least Sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers. I was not surprised when a flock of 10 or so small shorebirds took off from in front of where I was walking and landed a short distance away. I assumed they were probably all Least Sandpipers, or perhaps a mix of Least and Western Sandpipers. Checking more carefully with my binoculars in order to get a better count and confirm the presumed id, I was a little surprised when I saw a bird that didn’t seem right.


Least Sandpiper (front) foraging with Baird’s Sandpiper (behind)

It looked sort of like a Least Sandpiper, but with on right next to it, it was easy to see the difference in size. It had black legs, so I tried to shoehorn it into being a Western Sandpiper, but the coloring was wrong, and it was too big for them as well. I became aware that there were actually several of these mystery birds, but I just couldn’t get them to fit into any of the commonly occurring migrants here. I found myself wondering if they were some sort of variant I just hadn’t seen before of a common species.

When faced with such uncertainty, my impulse is to take pictures and try to figure it out later. Although sometimes I might miss things as a result of this practice, I think the overall the practice has served me well and I’ve learned far more than I would have otherwise. In this case I grabbed a few shots, and was later able to confirm the identity by sending them on to more knowledgeable birders with my best guess.

Still not knowing what they were, I recorded them as Western Sandpipers with the intention of changing that when I figured it out at home. I estimated there were 5 of these shorebirds, and continued on.

As I neared home and was reflecting on the birds and still trying to fit them into one of the species I’m most familiar with. I noticed the thought ‘average sandpiper’ come to mind, and let it go as it didn’t seem to fit Dunlin (which is the species I had been considering). It was only later after I had a chance to look in the books and realized Baird’s Sandpiper was the most likely candidate that I remembered I’ve described Baird’s Sandpipers as being like the average small sandpiper. Their bill isn’t too long and not too short, they’re in the middle size-wise, they have black legs (like most do), their color pattern is kind of middling brown, with nothing in particular that seems (to me) to stand out. It seems my subconscious may have been trying to tell me what they were, but my conscious mind was stuck on the common species.

In addition to the size difference, the other thing that stuck out to me about the Baird’s Sandpipers was the pale edging on the back and wing feathers as well as the overall brown tone lacking in any real rufous coloring (like I would expect in a Western Sandpiper).

Baird’s Sandpipers have only been reported in Sitka a few times, with most of those in the spring. J. Dan Webster reported seeing them in August 1937 and July 1938, Marge and Tedin’s records have reports in August, late October and early November from 1981.

I checked again yesterday, and did not find them down at the beach.

Questions:

  • How often are Baird’s Sandpipers actually moving through the Sitka area? (annual in small numbers for short stays? Typically just flying over and not landing? Less than annual?)
  • Does the migration route of Baird’s Sandpipers differ significantly between spring and fall? (it does for many migrant species)
  • Is it just random they showed up here this year, or was there something about the weather that influenced it?

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Rain Showers – Heavy at Times

“Rain showers, heavy at times” is a fairly common phrase in Sitka area weather forecasts, especially as we move into the fall season. There were a couple of times today when the rain came down so hard, the pounding on the roof made it easy to imagine the proverbial buckets being poured out from above.

I had some stuff to pick up at the airport, so I made a quick stop by John Brown’s Beach trail to check out some plants I had wanted to look at the fruit of. Unfortunately, they were further along than I had hoped, but I was able to get some photos and collections. (I’ll post more about that later.)

This afternoon Rowan and I walked around the park (Connor has been going down by himself earlier in the day). No Baird’s Sandpipers today, but there were several Least Sandpipers still hanging about. Also a lone juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull out on the flats.

I’ve noticed Song Sparrows singing from time to time recently, and it occurs to me that perhaps they are getting territorial now as wintering birds start to come back and they are setting up winter territories.

[pictures to come]

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Totem Park Walks

A cloudy day punctuated with some showers at times. High temperatures are still holding up in the upper 50s and lower 60s, but I don’t expect that to last much longer. For the last couple of weeks it’s been getting dark noticeably earlier, and it seems like once a week or so I’m surprised by how early it is given the level of light.

While down at the park this morning, I saw a flock of small sandpipers take off in front of me. Assuming initially they were probably all Least Sandpipers (with maybe a Western or two mixed in), a more careful look revealed several that didn’t seem right for our regular species. I grabbed some photos and continued on. Once home, I decided they were likely Baird’s Sandpipers. I took another walk down to the park this afternoon to try for more photos and a more careful count. I never saw them in a single group, and they were difficult to see out on the beach at times, but as best I could tell, there were 7 or 8. Along with them were a handful of Least Sandpipers, 3 or 4 Semipalmated Plovers, and bunches of gulls.

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Slender Bog-orchid (Platanthera stricta)


Slender Bog Orchid (Platanthera stricta) along Beaver Lake Trail

One of several fairly common orchids around Sitka, I have seen the Slender Bog Orchid (Platanthera stricta) in a variety of habitats, from low elevation forests, open meadows and fens, and up to the alpine. With relatively small green flowers, it’s not an especially showy plant by orchid standards. Plants usually at least several inches, and I have found them over a foot. The appearance of the plant seems (to my minimally trained eyes) fairly variable. That is probably due in part to growing conditions (shaded vs. sunny), as well as just variability within the species. There are other similar green orchids that are known to occur in Southeast Alaska, but around Sitka at least, it seems that almost everything I find ends up being this one.

Questions:

  • Does this species require specific fungi to grow?
  • What pollinates the flowers?
  • Does anything eat these?

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