City Wilds

Bill Sherwonit





The Turnagain Arm Trail south of Anchorage has long been my favorite local woodland path. For more than three decades it’s been one of the primary places where I mark the arrival and passing of the seasons and where I notice and celebrate the many life forms—from moose to morel, chickadee to high-bush cranberry, butterfly to birch tree—with which we share the local forest landscape.

The trail extends some 9½ miles from Potter to Windy Corner, yet over the years I have mostly walked the trail’s 3½-mile-long Potter-to-McHugh section. It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve hiked that stretch of trail thousands of times, in every imaginable sort of weather and woodland mood, from winter’s stark silence to spring’s burst of new and renewed life, summer’s green lushness and autumn’s fiery endings.

Though I feel most strongly bonded to that northernmost part of the trail, over the past 10 or 15 years (and perhaps longer; it would take some digging through my pile of TAT journals to know for sure) I’ve discovered the vernal allure of the its “middle” section, which connects McHugh Creek to Rainbow. This, I’ve learned, is the best place to find the earliest signs of the forest’s annual rebirth, especially in the form of sprouting plants, the opening of leaf buds, and the blossoming of wildflowers.

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There’s something about finding the season’s first wildflowers that’s especially exhilarating, and likely has something to do with the way they brighten and enliven the landscape with their forms and colors—and hint of even greater floral extravagance to come—after our long, stark winters.

In my experience, many of the earliest flowers are tiny and white (with some notable exceptions); in other words, they’re not particularly showy. Yet they’re small beauties, jewels of a sort. The first that I notice vary from year to year, but almost always they’re either rock cresses or saxifrages, cinquefoils, Jacob’s ladder, red currants, or soapberries. The latter two are considered shrubs, but they have small, distinctive flowers and I (like the late wild plant expert Verna Pratt in her guidebooks) include them on my list of blooming flowers.

This year I first noticed the soapberry’s tiny and inconspicuous yellowish flowers (which are easily overlooked unless one knows what to look for) on April 7, which seems—and likely is—unusually early by “normal” long-term standards. But as we all know, the climate is warming and we seem to have entered a “new normal.” This year the Anchorage area (like most of Alaska) experienced record-setting warmth in March and I suppose that set things in motion for both an early flowering and green-up.

Six days later (on April 13) I found the season’s first “true” wildflowers, the white, four-petaled flowers of Kamchatka rock cress, which like most of the early wildflowers along this stretch of trail grow well on dry, open slopes of gravelly ground. By the time of this writing (the last day of April) I have also found blooming Holboell’s rock cress with white to pink to lavender petals; the first gorgeous violet-blue flowers of Jacob’s ladder, the white flowers of serviceberry (another shrub), the tiny, five-petaled flowers of a small, thin- and red-stemmed saxifrage (name uncertain to me) and, yes, the year’s first dandelions.

Before long, several of the open, stony slopes along this stretch of trail will be veritable rock gardens, brightened by a large assortment of spring and early summer wildflowers, a truly glorious showcase of wild beauty.

I suspect that this terrain produces such an early flowering and green-up because of a few interconnected factors: first, long stretches of the trail in this area are bounded on the uphill side by rocky debris and cliff faces; second, these open, rocky slopes face to the south or southwest, which means they get lots of sunlight and its associated warmth; third, because there are few trees on the trail’s uphill side, many of its smaller flowering plants aren’t shaded by taller or bushier forms; that is, they’re getting direct sunshine and benefiting from warmer air; fourth, the rocky talus piles and cliff faces both absorb and reflect the sun’s energy, resulting in added warmth to the ground, which both melts the snow cover more quickly and energizes the plants that grow from the rocky soil.

In short, I think there’s something of a greenhouse effect that spurs the early flowering and green-up; and that, in turn, makes this area such a joy for plant and flower-loving folks to hike in early spring.

But there’s more.

McHugh to Rainbow is also the place where I most often hear the season’s first whistled notes of ruby-crowned kinglets, delightful little forest creatures that I didn’t “discover” until my fifth decade and now among my favorite life forms.

Among the smallest of the migratory songbirds to spend their summers in Alaska, ruby crowns weigh less than one-third of an ounce. In their coloring, the birds are rather plain, even drab; their head and back are olive and undersides are grayish. And while males have a streak of red feathers atop their head—hence the name—they are revealed only when the bird becomes excited, as by a potential mate, rival, or threat.

Though their plumage may be unremarkable, ruby-crowned kinglets have other standout traits. One is their tiny size. Another is their hyperactive nature: ruby-crowns seem to flit about constantly, often flicking their wings open and closed as if nervous. Even when treetop singing, they constantly shift position.

And then there’s the voice: their songs are among the forest’s loudest and brightest—and most complex. Once learned, the ruby-crowned kinglet’s long, warbled song is among the most recognizable to be heard in local forests. The singing is what I love most about ruby-crowned kinglets; both the distinctive melody and the fact that such a small bird can have such a BIG voice.

Joining the kinglets are some of spring’s first varied thrushes. Close relatives of robins, they are strikingly handsome songbirds with distinctive orange “eyebrow,” orange underparts, and orange bars on otherwise dark wings. Males also have a black breast band, black facial streak below the eye, and dark bluish-gray head and back that contrast smartly with the orange.

Like ruby-crowns, varied thrushes have a distinctive song. Theirs is a haunting series of repeated one-note trills, each sung at a different pitch and separated by several moments of silence. Some notes seem more buzzy than whistled; occasionally they resemble a telephone ring, or the sound made when you try to whistle while also blowing air from your mouth.

In my experience, varied thrushes are shy, secretive birds, seasonal residents more often heard than seen during their brief Alaska stays.

It seems likely that both the kinglets and thrushes follow a migratory path that brings them along the Turnagain Arm Trail. And perhaps even those that are moving through are prompted to stay a while by an abundance of early spring bugs—those insects, like the wildflowers, revved up early by the exceptional warmth along this section of trail.

Soon the kinglets and varied thrushes will be joined by other members of the thrush family, along with a variety of sparrows, warblers, and other passerines, and their songs will enrich this forested, meadowed hillside as much as the brightly blooming rock gardens of wildflowers.

There’s more that draws me to this stretch of trail in spring, but the early, exuberant “explosion” of new and renewed life as expressed in flowers, greening hillsides, and returning songbirds is at the heart of what repeatedly lures me here each April and May.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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