I don’t think the temperature ever got above 40 F today. It was about 38 F when I left work at lunch and drove down to the Tanana lakes recreation area. It’s located south of town on the banks of the Tanana river. It’s a nice area to explore. It consists of several large gravel pits that were used as sources for the protective dike along the river. The gravel its have been landscaped and turned into recreational lakes. During hot summer days people crowd the banks of one of the lakes to swim, sunbathe, and relax. In the winter that same lake is dotted with ice fishing huts. This time of year it can be pretty quiet. I passed one other vehicle on my way out and when I finally parked I realized I had the lake and trails to myself.
It was foggy and a light drizzle was falling which deadened the distant sounds of the city. Everything was wet. It did not deaden the sound of gunfire coming from the gun range a mile away (part of the recreation area), but with that exception it was very quiet. The only sounds were the calls of birds and the drip of water condensing from the fog.
Leaving the truck I headed out on one of several trails along the shore of the lake. I had not been out to the area for several months, but in past visits I’d often seen birds of prey, woodpeckers, magpies, and other small birds. I was also hoping to find some insects. The forest along the south side of the lake consists of mature poplar trees. The forest also contains many standing and downed dead trees; perfect habitat for insects and the woodpeckers that feed on them. I had not gone far down the trail before I came upon several downed poplar trees. Pulling off some of the bark I managed to find a few spiders, some snails, mosquitoes, and a caterpillar.
I’ve been amazed this past week at the variety of small spiders still hiding out beneath protective cover. Today I found two spiders of types I have not seen before. With the fog and the low light, I am not happy with the detail of the images, but adding to my species list is always nice. I don’t have the knowledge to identify most of the insects and spiders I find to the species level, but I am building up image files that will allow me to go back and do so at a later date. I’ve also been very happy that this fall I discovered the Bugs and Plants of Alaska as well as the Spiders of Alaska facebook group pages. When I am stumped, I can normally post a picture and someone is able to identify my finds for me. I’ve been very grateful of the expertise that is freely shared on the sites.
Under one of the pieces of bark I found two species of snail. I guess I should clarify and say that I found the shells of two species of snail. I am not sure what it was about that one log, but it is the only log today of several that contained any evidence of snails. It is much like the 10×5 inch piece of wood I discovered near the Chena river by my work that also seems to attract snails. I’ve found them in other places, but it seems that they have very clear preferences for what they like and I’m still trying to figure out what those preferences are.
The most surprising find today was the mosquitoes that were located under the bark of one of the logs. They do overwinter, but I had always thought they hid under dead leaves or the branches of trees, not under the bark of trees. They were not moving very fast in the cold temperatures so I managed to get a few shots without them flying off. This time of year insects and spiders disappear and while it may seem that they must be all dead and gone, many are just in hiding. Many are able to freeze solid and thaw in spring while others have body fluids that contain a natural anti-freeze component to keep their cells from exploding. It is an amazing adaptation to our very cold winters.
While looking for insects I heard the call and hollow peck of a woodpecker searching for food. It was not hard to find and I ended up following it through the woods and along the trail for several hundred yards as it flew from tree to tree. Woodpeckers rarely stop moving and between the constant motion and the intervening branches that inevitably blocked my shots, it was difficult to capture a good image. I managed a few good shots before the woodpecker took off. Looking at the images when I got home I’m pretty sure it was a female downy woodpecker. I saw a second woodpecker a few minutes later. At first I thought it was the same bird until I saw the yellow patch on it’s head and realized I was looking at a Northern Three-Toed woodpecker. I tried to get a shot of it, but it was not as accommodating as the downy.
I continue on my walk, circling back towards the truck, but taking a short side trip out to the river first. The Tanana river provides the southern boundary of development in Fairbanks. There is no bridge across it that is open to the public upstream of the Nenana bridge located 50 miles west of Fairbanks. It is a large enough river that it would not be an easy process to build one in the Fairbanks area. In Nenana the river comes up against a hill that provides a solid anchor point and funnels the river into a narrow channel. South of Fairbanks the river spreads out into several channels and from one bank to the opposite varies from a few hundred yards to greater than 1/4 mile. South of the river is undeveloped wilderness to the distant mountains 60 miles distant.
It was nice to get out today. The weather we have been having is not to most Fairbanksans liking, but I find it rather nice. It’s not cold enough or snowy enough for winter activities, but for most it is too cold for summer and fall activities. It reminds me of winter weather in Washington where I grew up and where I spent much of my time outdoors no matter the weather as I do in Alaska.