Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Colville Lousewort's

We have four species of lousewort (Pedicularis) growing around our home here in the Colville Delta.  With the different species we get a blooming period from early June through late August, and even a few stragglers into September if it is a warm summer.  The habitat varies from dry polygon ridges to wet sedge meadows; all lousewort are edible though some have a tap root too small to be of much interest.

The genus name, Pedicularis,  means little louse. It was once thought that animals feeding on this plant would become infected with these pests. Wort comes from the old English word meaning flower, giving us lousewort.

The Wooly Lousewort (P. Kanei subsp. Kanei) is the first to appear in the spring, often starting to grow in early June when much of the ground is still covered with snow.  It isn’t uncommon to find the first ones of the season blooming in a small patch of tundra surrounded by snow, a bit of pink in a world of white. To protect itself from the freezing temperatures and cold winds it has developed a covering of dense wool, and before it starts to bloom, it looks so different it could be mistaken for a different plant.  This plant also has the largest tap root of the four and it is good to eat cooked or raw, a good source of starch, and the taste is similar to that of a sweet potato.  It grows 15-20cm/6-8 inches tall from a thick yellow taproot with rose colored corolla.











  Three views of the Woolly in different stages    from early inflorescence white and woolly and as a mature flower.


The next two  louseworts to bloom are the Capitate (P. capitata) and the Purple lousewort (P. sudetica).   The Capitate Lousewort is yellow and prefers dryer ground and can grow in large patches covering several meters in diameter.   The stem is single, growing from a thin rhizome, and the unbranched stem can have up to four flower heads, although one or two are more common. The corolla is yellowish or at times the upper lip can become rose-colored with age. Average height is around 15cm/6 inches.



  The photo on the left shows the rose coloring that the older flowers can acquire, while on the right is one that is all yellow.



The Purple Lousewort (P. sudetica subsp. albolabiata) likes moist to wet tundra and grows either  as a single flowering stem, or in clumps of ten or more flowering stalks from stout rootstock.  These  two plants tend to have a long growing season and overlap the start of the flowering of the fourth species that grows here.  The petals are multicolored,  having a pink corolla with a purple apex that has a white lip.  This species is also referred to as the Sudeten Lousewort.

 Lousewort-Purple_2812  Lousewort-Purple-V_2817






A nice Purple Lousewort  cluster and a close up of the flowering head.

The Whorled Lousewort (P. verticillata) has the most delicate blossoms of the four and you can have a single flowering stalk or many growing in a tight group from a branching taproot.   They like moist meadows and river banks and grow up to 7 inches or 18cm.  Petals are purple with a pink base.

Lousewort-Whorled-V_5396 Lousewort-Whorled_5377






A nice group of Whorled Louseworts on the left with a close up of the flower on the right.

All of our louseworts have eatable tap roots, but other than the Woolly, most are too small to make it worthwhile to collect.  Speaking of collecting, some species of voles collect lousewort tap roots and store them in small caches for the winter.  The vole caches I have found are usually about a cup in quantity.  Since these are such a good food source, the grizzly bear love to search out these vole treasures and feast on them.  I watched one bear work several willow thickets in the river bed, and after a couple hours had consumed a large quantity of stored roots.  I’m sure the voles weren’t too happy about this, but at least they didn’t get eaten on this day.

LaplandRosebay-0439 One last photo showing a yellow Capitate Lousewort blooming next to a Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Fresh Snow

The seasons are changing again, a light snow is falling and covering the rust and red colors of the fall tundra.  The soft flakes are of a mixed size, but it isn’t coming down hard enough to completely cover the ground yet.  As I look out the kitchen window in the early dusk of the coming morning , I am treated to the sight of the cow and calf muskox sleeping in our Muskox-Snow_5333yard and partly covered in the falling snow.  They are not in a hurry to get up and start feeding, as both have gotten up, walked in a circle and then laid back down.  At times they were stretched out full length sleeping , while the more normal position has them resting with their head up, as to keep a watch on things in between naps. 


It is hard to grasp that this gentle snow fall with its big flakes is not a common sight for us during the winter.  Most of the time the snowflakes are well rounded and small by the time they reach the ground in our windy climate.  I’m sure that during some stretches of  winter we see the same snow several times, as the wind whips it back and forth and the drifts of winter deepen.


Pendent_Grass-sn_7308The lake has ice around the edges this morning and the red pendent grass (Arctophila fulva) is either weighted down with the fresh snow or frozen in the fresh ice, which doesn’t extend much past the grassy area.








The Willow Ptarmigan are glad to see a bit of snow as they are starting to stick out in the rusty colored tundra since they are almost all white now.  It makes them very nervous and take flight at the first sign of a falcon or snowy owl.  They like to swoop in and hide in and around the buildings where it is harder for a bird of prey to make a diving run to catch one. 

WIPT-flock_flight_5403       Large flock of Willow Ptarmigan taking flight.


One afternoon several years ago I watched as a snowy owl and a flock of 30 willow ptarmigan played keep away.  The owl had the birds cornered at the base of  an old wire bird cage that was 10’ square and 8’ high that I wasn’t using anymore. The owl was perched up on top and when it moved from one side to the other the ptarmigan would quickly run to the other side staying right up against the pen.  This maneuver didn’t give the owl enough room to swoop down and grab one of the ptarmigan. This went on for about 45 minutes before the snowy owl decided it would have better luck some place else.

With the days of fall getting shorter, we now can enjoy the Aurora Borealis again as well as watch the constellations swirl overhead.  It looks like it will be a good winter for sky watching the as the sun has been putting out lots of solar activity that translates into good viewing conditions.

 Aurora Reflections_5139 Aurora Borealis reflecting in the lake.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sweet Smell of Summer

Several species of flowers are now in bloom and the tundra vegetation is greening up nicely. One of my favorite flowers is the Rock Jasmine – Androsace chamaejasme, which has  a very fragrant smell.  It grows in large patches in sandy areas here in the Colville River Delta and  the breezes carry the lovely fragrance about the area.



Rock Jasmine




So far the spring and early summer has been on the cool side, and the warm spell of the past two days really brought out the mosquitoes.  This was the worst I have seen them around on our island.  Even with a stiff breeze they were everywhere and one was glad to have a good headnet or bug spray in order to enjoy being outside.




Mosquitoes attracted to a fresh set of caribou antlers that are still in the velvet.



Some of the other early flowers that we have out now are Purple Saxifrage - Saxifraga oppositifolis subsp. oppositifolia, Wooly Lousewort -Pedicularis kanei subsp. kanei , Parry’s Wallflower - Parrya nudicaulis,  Arctic Sweet Coltsfoot - Petasites frigidus, White Avens - Dryas integrifolia subsp. integrifolia,  Marsh Marigold - Caltha palustris subsp. arctica,  Snow Buttercup - Ranunculus nivalis, Mastodon Flower – Senecio congestus, and Northern Primrose - Primula borealis.



UPDATE:      The Muskox family has continued to stay in the local area, feeding either on our island or the one just to the west of us.  Even when they are at the far end of the island, we still have a good view of the cow and calf in the spotting scope.  At times they have fed down to the north end and close to the house.   One foggy morning they even fed around the lake and right past the house.  It has been fun watching the calf,  who has grown quite a bit since we first saw them in early May.   The cow is shedding her soft wool-like underhair, also called qiviut, so she is now looking quite shaggy compared to her earlier pictures.




  Cow muskox shedding her soft undercoat and looking quite shaggy.  Also you can see lots of mosquitoes buzzing around her. With her long hair she  seemed to be only bothered around her ears and face.



Cow and calf muskox feeding on sedges and short Arctic willow.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nesting Season Underway

Breakup turned out to be on the mild side this year and we enjoyed one of the few non-flooding ones we have had in the last 15 years.  Once we had our initial flooding, we still had 12 days to go before reaching the final breakup and all of the ice disappeared from the river channels.  The weather remained overcast and cool right up to the day before ice went out.  Then with a week of clear skies, warm nights, and temperatures up to +56F, our snow pack receded rapidly and by the end of the week the only snow left was from the deep drifts around all the buildings.

As the tundra rapidly emerged from under the snow, the geese started building nests and laying eggs.  The late spring seems to have depleted some of the Greater White-fronted Geese’s body reserves for egg laying, and the clutches have been much smaller than normal.  Last year the average clutch was 6, and I even found clutch counts as high as 10.  This spring most White-front nests are running between 2-3 eggs, which is quite a drop in production. 










Above is a photo of a White-fronted Goose nest, and to the right is a gander trying to draw attention away from setting female.



The Snow Goose is the other  large goose that nests in our local area, and while they arrived about two weeks behind the White-fronts, their clutch size seems to be down by about 30%.









Above shot shows a pair of Snows and the male is a blue morph.  Photo to the right shows a Snow Goose nest with the white down used to cover the eggs when female is off the nest.


The Brant arrived much later than the White-fronts and their egg production is normal, with an average of 4 eggs per nest.  Out of several hundred Brant nests, the highest count so far has been 5, and a very few 2 egg counts have been found.   At this time it looks like it is going to be a very good year for the Brant colony.


A Brant nest showing the dark speckled down and how much more down the Brant have in their nests, compared to other geese. Nest on mound with old Caribou skull.

Other waterfowl that will be nesting near by are Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Northern Pintail, the lovely King Eider and perhaps this year for the first time since 2003 we might have a Spectacled Eider nesting near our lake.

KIEI_males-face_1928         Two male King Eiders tussling over females.

With nest boxes available, the Snow Buntings were the first to start nesting and some of the  eggs should be hatching shortly. Both the Savannah Sparrow and Lapland Longspur are also nesting, but I have only found Longspur nests so far this spring.

The Semipalmated Sandpipers were the first shorebirds to start nesting and it looks like it will be another good year for them, as I have already found several nests in a small area around our Lodge. 

SESA-cover1-0323          A well hidden Semipalmated Sandpiper Nest.

Some of the other shorebirds near-by the lodge that are “on territory” and will be nesting shortly, if not already started, are Pectoral, Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Red Phalarope, and Black-bellied Plover.  I have seen Long-billed Dowitchers, and Stilts close by also, so perhaps we will get a nest from one of them.  All the Ruddy Turnstones seem to have moved off to other islands to nest, with just the odd one or two that are still coming into the feeder for a quick bite. 

Today I watched a female Hoary Redpoll pulling long dog hair from one of the willow bushes by the house, so she is working to line her nest, thus should be laying in the next day or two.  She is probably the only Hoary to line her nest with silky Pyrenees dog hair!

Remember, we now have 24-hour daylight…the land of the mid-night sun. This is a time of year filled with bird songs and there is never a time when birds cannot be heard, photographed, or just observed.   Shortly the yard and surrounding area will be full of young Snow Buntings begging to be fed.





Willow Catkin, the first flowering plant by the house this year.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A new Season Starting

Winter is finally loosening its grip, and with the warm weather in the Brooks Range, the Colville River next to our home has started the first stages of breakup.  The start of breakup for us is the flooding of the shallow parts of the river where the ice has frozen down to the river bottom during the winter. This “overflow” occurs as the water pressure from up-river continues to increase and the channel ice over the deeper parts of the river lifts up. 



The ice needs to lift up between two and half and three feet before it will crack and let the water flow out over the frozen-down areas.


Start of breakup-first water









                 Clear brackish water boiling out of a blowhole.

Some of the shore leads created at this time can be over a half mile wide. Since the Colville has very little flow in the winter, the delta fills with brackish water from the Arctic Ocean during the winter months and the first water to flow up on the ice is clear greenish-blue color.  It usually take from 1-2 days to flush the brackish water out of the delta after which the water becomes a dirty brown.  Then it usually takes another week for the ice to weaken enough to break up and move out into the ocean.ColvilleVillageMay25-2005

Dark waters are shore leads, white channel ice over the deep water.

During the last wind storm, just before the river flooded, we had a special treat when a female Muskox and her calf showed up and spent four days in our local area. During the first two days they were here, it was storming so hard it was difficult to see them in the blowing snow. When they were lying down they were quickly covered with snow and blended in even more.   When the storm broke, the cow and calf continued making their way to the west and were on an island west of us when the river flooded. 


 Upper  photo shows female Muskox with snow packed in her pelt. Bottom photo was taken two days later, still whiteout but the wind has died down and they are enjoying a warmer day.








With our cold spring and heavy snow cover, the waterfowl were happy to see the river flood, and many White-fronted Geese and Brant were seen out bathing in flood water.  Even with a few days of warm weather and melting during the day, the ground is nearly 95% snow covered, with only the higher polygon ridges and grass tussocks melted out.

The number of birds around our feeders at one time has started to decline, as birds pair up and move out onto their nesting territories.  Our Lapland Longspur numbers peaked at around 150 during some of the worst parts of last week’s snow storm, and now we might see 15-20 at one time, with many birds shifting in and out of the feeders.

The Brant are our most numerous species now, with over 600 within sight of the house, either feeding along the river- banks or staking out nest sites in the nesting colonies.  With this many Brant here already we should have an early hatch this year.  


                          A pair of Brant

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Windy May

May came in on a strong wind and it has continued on the windy side with 12 of the first 19 days having winds of 20 knots or more.  Besides being windy, most days have been overcast with blowing snow, creating many whiteout days.

Today we are into "day four" of the latest wind storm, with visibility less than a mile in blowing snow and mist.  The temperature over the past 24 hours has been pretty steady with a low of +26F and a high of +28F.  With all the drifting snow and temperatures below freezing the tundra is still 100% snow covered and almost no grass above snow level. 

Despite the storms, birds have been working their way north.  The southern part of Alaska has been having very warm temperatures and it looks like this has prompted some birds to continue north sooner than they should have.  The worst species to be hit hard (that we know about at this time) are some of the eiders.  We started finding King and Common Eiders weak and dying as early as the12th of May, and most have been females.  Perhaps these are birds that were migrating on east to northern Canada, but ran out of body reserves and perished in our area.  We wouldn’t expect King Eiders that are going to nest in the Colville Delta to arrive before the last couple days of this month or first few days of June.



Roosting Willow Ptarmigan-Male just starting to get summer feathers on its neck and head.



Here on the homestead our first migratory birds (Snow Buntings) returned on the 17th of April as I reported in “They’re Back” in April’s blog.  Earlier this month some of our Willow Ptarmigan showed up around the house, even roosting outside our bedroom window for a couple nights.

May19-owl_0157  Short-eared Owl that passed through the yard in the early morning hours.

Today even with this wind we have had six new species arrive: a Savannah Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Lapland Longspur, Hoary Redpoll, Short-eared Owl and a Sanderling.  Only the owl and Sanderling kept going, the others were happy to find food and shelter out of the storm, joining our Snow Buntings and Ruddy Turnstones at the feeders. The Savannah Sparrow and some of the female Longspurs seem quite weak and after eating from the feeders, took quick naps before going back to refuel on more seed. 








 Resting Savannah Sparrow







Sparrow preening after eating, getting ice off its     feathers.

For most of these species, this is an early arrival date, some by over a week.  Also, we would expect to have only male longspurs, in the beginning, with the females trailing 4-5 days behind them. Today we have 6 females and only one male at the feeder.









 Male Longspur




           Female Longspur – good view of long hind claws



As hungry as these birds have been, it makes me wonder about all the ones that didn't find our place with shelter and food and how many will perish from this late spring storm. Combine this with the many birds coming north too soon, and it is a sad picture of many lost birds.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

They're Back!

Here in the Arctic we like to think of the return of the Snow Buntings as the first sign of the awakening of spring.  While it will still be weeks before any flowers are in bloom, the little bird’s melody drifting on the wind lifts ones spirits with this sure  sign of the coming season.
Male Snow Bunting- Mid April
One Snow Bunting was seen on the 4th of April, which set a new record for seeing one in the spring here.  It made one circle around the lodge then was never seen again. So it seems it was an early bird that was traveling to some other destination.  Our first Snow Bunting that came into the feeder arrived on the 17th, which is the long term average arrival date.  The following morning a second male was seen at the feeder, and the two males were busy chasing each other around the yard. 
SNBU_TO_7499Take Off – Male Bunting 
The most recent male has taken to chasing the other one from the feeder every chance he gets.  They still haven’t completely changed into their complete  breeding plumage. Both still have brown caps, brown or black ring across the chest area, and lots of brown in their back feathers.  It will be a while before they have their clear white heads and glossy black backs.
Besides their chirping calls that they make most of the time, I have also heard them making their territorial call.  It sounds like this to me “ATVeeee, ATVeeee”, and is usually made from a high perch next to the area they have selected for nesting.  We have 20 nest boxes around the property for them to use and the males have plenty of time to make a selection as the females won’t start arriving for almost another two weeks.   I watched one male yesterday making his ATVeeee call from several locations, like he was trying out different areas to see where his voice carried the best.

Stepping outside and hearing the sweet melody of the Snow Bunting makes one almost forget that the ground is still 100% snow covered and some of the drifts are nine feet thick.

Checking Out Nest box
The Snow Buntings have been the first birds around the house this winter besides the ever present Raven.  One of the individuals has a wing tag from a study done several years ago by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
            Wing Tagged Raven.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Warm Sunny Day

What a difference a day makes as we went from -25F to a balmy +26F in about twenty-four hours.  The weather had been colder than normal for this time of year, so it was an extra special day to be so warm with bright sunshine.  With the added reflection off the snow, it was so bright out that it made me squint even with sunglasses on.  It also has been a snowy winter and we have a deeper snow cover than we would on average.  Even with all the wind storms to blow snow away, most of the tundra lies buried and this has likely contributed to the fact that we have very little bird life around the house yet. 
I had hoped to see a few willow ptarmigan around the local area by now, but with the deeper snow cover they seem to be late moving this far north.  They are most likely still further up-river where the willows grow tall enough to reach above the snow and provide willow buds and left-over leaves on which the ptarmigan can feed.  Down here by the house our willows are only inches tall and one variety, the snow willow, grows flat along the ground.  For this reason, it doesn’t take much snow cover to make feeding hard for the ptarmigan.
I decided to take advantage of the nice day and take a snow machine trip, going up river a few miles to  see if I could find some  ptarmigan to photograph.  In 38km of travel, the only bird I saw was a raven about 2km from home.   After about an hour of wandering about 14km around the delta and seeing only a snowy landscape, I reached the south end of a large island that we can Ptarmigan Island.  It is good habitat for ptarmigan most seasons but today there wasn’t even a track or any sign that any birds had been feeding in the area in recent times. 
No birds here but I did find one lone cow caribou in one of the vegetated sand dune areas.  She was lying down chewing her cud when I first spotted her, and she finally got up as I neared her location. 


She let me get within 100 meters, then started moving off, with me following along for a short spell, taking pictures as I went. 


          Resting Cow Caribou



When I stopped following her, she went on for another 400 meters or so and went back to feeding.

Caribou Watching Me Take Its Picture.

As I turned away from the caribou, I spotted a red fox watching me on down the island a ways.  I drove towards it to see if I could get close enough for pictures. 


It didn’t seem too frightened and let me get with 120 meters, and when I stopped the snow machine, it turned back and worked closer to check me out. 

   Red Fox on a Bright Sunny Day.

There were signs that a seismic company had been doing work earlier in the winter in this area, and some of the crew probably had been leaving food out for it. Thus she worked downwind to see if there was any food smells about. 












The Pair of Red Foxes, Female on Left, Male on Right.

After about 10 minutes she decided to continue on down the ridge, going in the general direction of the feeding caribou.  I continued on my way in the opposite direction and as I drove over the top of large dune there was another fox out in a flat area.  I headed over in its direction and stopped about 75 meters away.  It was following along one of the old track vehicle trails, sniffing here and there, perhaps getting a few old food smells.  

RFox-squinting_7294Sunglasses Needed!  Both Foxes and the Caribou Kept  Squinting in the Bright Light.

As it turns out, it was the male and he came within 20 meters of me, checking to see if I might have something of interest.  After taking several pictures we heard the female barking and he headed off in her direction.  I followed along hoping to get pictures of them together.  I did get a few long shots of them together but they kept moving rapidly along the ridge and finally separated, so I let them go their way and I continued on my travels to see what else I might find.


They were the last game seen on my travels this day, although I did see a lot of pretty country and it was great to just be outdoors enjoying such a bright day. 

I stopped on top of a Pingo* to survey the surrounding area, looking for game. All I saw there was a set of fresh white fox tracks, but never saw the fox.

*A pingo is a mound of earth-covered ice found in the Arctic and subarctic that can reach up to 70 metres (230 ft) in height and can only form in a permafrost environment. They are essentially formed by ground ice which develops during the winter months as temperatures fall and cause the ground to push up.



A Close-up of the Caribou’s Face Showing Her Reacting to the Bright Sunshine.

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Arctic Smoke Signals by James W. Helmericks is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.