Not so Frosty Winter

Large Frost Crystal along Green Lake Road, February 2014

Last winter was pretty mild until February, at which point temperatures dropped a bit and we had some pretty chilly weather. As it’s still only the middle of January, it’s hard to be certain this winter will remain warm, but looking at the prediction maps on this post from Cliff Mass, it looks like chances are we’re in for a relatively warm remainder of the winter. I would expect there to be at least a few cold days/nights in the mix if/when skies clear a bit between storm systems, but it will be interesting to see.

With so little frost and ice to be found this year, I thought I would share some pictures of large frost crystals I got last February on an outing to Medvejie Lake, as a reminder of the season.

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Crows and Oystercatchers

This time of year is a good one to see Black Oystercatchers and Northwestern Crows down at the beach during low tides. Although they look very different in good viewing conditions, their similar size and color can make them hard to distinguish when viewed from a distance.

At moderate distance in good light it’s still not too difficult to see the different tone of the oystercatcher plumage compared to the darker black of the crows. Often heads are down, so it’s not always easy to see the orange bill, and the yellow eyes are not really distinguishable.

At even further distances, it gets more difficult to spot the orange bill, unless the angle is right. The difference in plumage tones is much less clear, and basically disappears if the light is poor. With some careful observation you can often tell them apart by differences in how they move, but getting accurate counts can be a little bit of a challenge without getting closer or having good binoculars or a scope.

Just for fun, how many crows and how many oystercatchers do you think are in each of the photos shown in this post?

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Indian River Trail Grass Patch

While walking back from Indian River falls yesterday, I noticed a patch of grass along the trail. That in and of itself is probably not such an unusual thing, but it stood out to me because of how dense the grass was where it was growing, but how limited the area was. In the photo that leads this post, the grass patch is the yellowed vegetation on the left side of the trail. The rest of the non-trail ground is pretty much covered in moss. To the right of the image, there was a sizable gap in the canopy where a tree or two had fallen sometime in the past.

It seems likely the grass is taking advantage of the increased light, but it seems just as likely that the increased light is more widespread than just the area the grass covers. Perhaps on the right side of the trail the salmonberry bushes keep things shaded enough. In conversation with my hiking partner, we also considered the ground might be better drained on the left. Also, the grass maybe growing via rhizome rather than seeding, so once the initial plant was established, it’s spread from there, but the foot traffic along the trail is sufficient to keep it from spreading across to the other side. The initial seeding could have been from a seed that drifted in, or perhaps one that came in with the gravel that was placed along the trail.

Whatever the reasons, I enjoyed considering what the reasons might be for what I observed here.

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Indian River Trail

Today’s adventure was a walk up to Indian River falls with a friend. We hadn’t really planned to go much past the first bridge, but the day was pleasant (overcast and in the 40s, no wind in the valley at least) and it felt good to walk, so we kept on going and before long found ourselves at the falls. Having not expecting to be gone for quite so long, we were a little short on food and drink, but didn’t have any trouble maintaining energy for the walk back.

I realized it’s probably been two and a half years since I had gone to the falls. It’s a hike I’ve intended to do with Connor and Rowan, but so far haven’t managed to do so. (Thwarted most recently by illness and recovery time over the holidays.) Rowan’s generally not very keen to go for such (long) trips, so that means I have to come up with even more motivation to get us moving. That’s motivation that all too often is in short supply for me (which is why I’ve not even gone up there on my own for so long).

I’m glad I got up there again, and it was interesting to see how familiar the trail felt to all the way up, despite my extended absence. It was also fun to reminisce about some of my prior experiences in and around the valley (going back over 20 years now).

For a change, I didn’t get very distracted by natural history sorts of questions (which definitely makes it easier to get further). The scene in the photo accompanying this post raised some questions for me (which I think I’ll post about separately). I also took a moment to look at (but not photograph) what I think had been a pile of bear scat that was now degraded to only deer hair and bone fragments. My guess is a bear had found a skinned/boned out deer and made a meal. It was interesting to see the size of the bone fragments – they seemed relatively small to me, but I didn’t investigate closely to see if there was teeth marks or anything like that.

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American Tree Sparrow

I spent a little time at the airport late this morning between errands. While there, I saw four different American Tree Sparrows, the previous high count I had heard of this winter was three, and the most I had seen at a time was two.

Weather today overall was overcast, but the rain held off.

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Winter Rufous Hummingbird

Today’s outdoor highlight was getting photos of what sounds like it may be only the second winter record of a Rufous Hummingbird in Alaska (and the first that has made it into the new year). Cindy and Gary have been hosting one for some time, and they were gracious enough to let me come and try to get photos. With gray skies and fading light as the afternoon went on, I didn’t get photos as nice as I might have liked, but they’re enough to tell what it is, at least.

Thanks to Cindy for reporting this bird!

In other bird news, I didn’t find the Eurasian Wigeon at the park (though I didn’t spend too much time looking). Nor did I find the American Kestrel at the airport (Paul N. saw it earlier in the day), but I didn’t spend too much time there either.

The wind today was pretty warm for this time of year. It was especially noticeable as I walked out of the forest at Totem Park. I think the trees were dense enough to keep the warmer air being blown in from mixing with the cooler air in place.

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