Crusty old Joe's

Kodiak Alaska Military History

The official web site of the Kodiak Military History Museum

by Dave Evans

Of Whales and Spittlebugs
July 7, 2003

I arrived just a few days ago for the beginning of my fifth season as Naturalist at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. There's only one small patch of snow on the mountains across Monashka Bay, and I did come expecting rainy weather(Checking in on the Kodiak WeatherCam at home presented me a series of unfocused views of raindrops on a camera lens). I woke up that first morning at the Park delighting in the sounds out here at Miller Point; hearing the trills and wheezes of the hermit thrushes and those telephone rings of the varied thrushes.

Planning for the new summer season had to begin right away, and tide tables in hand, I started putting a schedule together. The Kodiak Military History Museum in the Ready Ammunition Bunker begins its expanded hours: 1-4pm on Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. There is a $3.00 admission fee for adults, but children 12 and under are admitted free. The Park will be having its series of Summer Naturalist programs at 7pm Saturdays at the Visitor Center. And look for announcements of the tidepool excursions and military history tours hosted by the Park periodically during the summer.

My own season started off immediately with two nature walks on that first day at the Park. My first walk was with a group of fourth graders, who turned out to be a great help in reintroducing me to Kodiak. Our first view of Monashka Bay from the trail showed us two humpback whales cruising along halfway out in the Bay. Then we walked through one of my favorite places at Fort Abercrombie, the wildflower meadow. The meadow is in its Blue Phase just now, with expanses of nootka lupines and wild geraniums. I know that the color shifts to pink, white, yellow, and purple are coming up. The season looks advanced to me this year, the shooting stars and chocolate lilies past their peak, and the rosebuds just ready to burst.

On the walk up the meadow trail, my fourth-graders happened to spot some spittlebug froth masses on a few of the grass stems. The kids, of course, were equally wound up by our sightings of both the humpbacks and the spittlebugs. Fourth-graders are certainly impressed by interstate bus-sized mammals superbly adapted to pursuing their crustacean or schooling fish prey and baleen-filtering it from swimming pool-sized mouthfuls of water. But, they could be similarly fascinated by minute insects that cluster as immatures in froth on plant stems, sucking sap at one end, releasing it at the other, and whipping it into a froth by rapidly agitating the tip of the abdomen.

Spittlebugs are as well-adapted to their own set of circumstances as the humpbacks are to theirs. The bubble shelter protects them from predators and provides these soft-bodied nymphs a perfect environment until they mature as mobile hard-bodied adults which move actively from plant to plant in the meadow, suck sap, mate and lay eggs which hatch into new spittlebugs.

After the walk with the fourth-graders(each one wanted to take a spittlebug home), I realized again one of the main reasons I've been returning to the naturalist position at the Park. It reminds me of why I got into the study of natural history in the first place. I've had some training in recognizing the phenomenon of adaptation of organisms to the complexities of the world about them-but to reconnect with the unjaded appreciation and awe of this process of adaptation, I need to take those nature walks with fourth-graders.

The kids let me see the phenomenon with new eyes again, whether it occurs in a huge and conspicuous marine mammal or in an otherwise unremarkable insect in a spitmass on a meadow plant.

David A. Evans, Naturalist, Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park Updated 2003 August 20