26 December 2008


IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllllll ( Mamia'tsikimiiksi

Canada’s Boxing Day, last day of the current moon cycle, what should I do? Go on a shopping splurge, or head back to the river? Wade through throngs of impatient people to buy things I don’t need, with money I really can’t afford to lose, just because they’re on sale? Or wade through snow drifts to see once more the same magpies, geese, and coyotes I’ve been watching throughout the holidays? Hmmm…

Okay, the choice wasn’t that hard. Tidying up a bit in the morning, I noticed that the package of ground beef we’d pulled out two nights previous in preparation for a taco dinner we never made was looking just a tad too grey. We probably still could have eaten it, but we’d have been taking a risk. I was just about to bring it out to the trash when the proverbial light bulb went off above my head - I bet the coyotes and magpies won’t mind a few bacteria. I bet their stomachs have a stronger constitution than mine. Magpies eat road kill, after all. That was enough excuse for me. Half an hour later, I was on my way out the door, this time accompanied by Piipiiaakii, whose curiosity was piqued after my liver tales of Christmas Eve.

As we drove to the coulee, at the interface between field and suburbia, we noticed someone perched on top of the very last light-post of our neighbourhood. A beautiful hawk of some sort, with a dark back and heavily-white-speckled chest and legs. Below the hawk, not far into the field, a host of magpies and a single raven, moved excitedly about. Was there a dead jackrabbit out there? Had the smaller birds stolen it from this young raptor? Or was it the other way around, had the hawk been attracted by the activities of these other birds? We didn’t stop to investigate. I took a couple photos and moved on. Later that evening, I compared my photos to others on the web and guessed that the hawk might be a pale, immature Swainson, which would be extremely rare here for the winter. Still unsure though, I passed my best image along to Gus Yaki, a lifelong naturalist from Calgary who thought it more likely to be a Harlan.

Just a bit further down the road, we came across aapsspiniiksi, sleeping in the fields they had been grazing on Christmas Eve, just after the chinook. This time, I made a count. Given, there were so many birds huddled so closely together, it was hard to ensure any real accuracy without disturbing them. By my count there were eighty-two geese on the east side of the road, one-hundred and five on the west.

Down in the coulee, all was very much as it had been two days previous - big drifts on the embankments and picturesque waves of snow on the frozen river, an almost complete absence of goose travel in the air above, magpies waiting still in trees near the open water, fresh coyote tracks on the river’s edges. The only conspicuous absence was the pair of golden-eyes who’d been feeding in the crag of open water in front of the old beaver lodge. Where did they go?

When we got near the new beaver lodge, we plunked our hamburger down on the ice in the middle of the river, then moved to take cover beneath the same jutting sandstone ledge I’d used the last time. As we ate lunch, magpies began to arrive, one at a time, until there were three or four of them perched in distant trees, but within line-of-sight of our offering. They were going to wait us out. And really, they didn’t need to have much patience, because right after we ate Piipiiaakii stood up to stretch her legs and noticed that the heavy sandstone ledge we were sitting under had a significant fracture where it met with the cliff. She didn’t want to tempt fate.

We decided to walk upriver to the second open water source, to learn if there were any birds lingering in that area. Then we’d cut around through the woods, return as quietly as possible to the other side of the river, where there was a bank overlooking our offering site, and see what we could observe of whoever had come there to feed. It was much like my plan of the previous day, and carried similar results.

Piipiiaakii and I hiked around the bend upriver to the next open water, which we found empty. Again no golden-eyes. The only signs of life there were a couple magpies calling from the poplars across the river, using a double chirp “wee-week, wee-week”. Then we cut into the woods, where we split up, each taking a different route to the embankment overlook. Along the way, I was visited by a pair of black-capped chickadees who appeared to be travelling with two downy woodpeckers. The four of them went to work feeding on nearby trees (as if they weren’t conducting surveillance), and then flew off. Further through the forest, I ran into the same four again, still feeding and travelling more-or-less together. I also saw, deeper into wood, two white-tail deer moving swiftly and silently away.

By the time I got back to the riverbank, Piipiiaakii was already there to meet me, and the hamburger wasn’t. We’d been away for twenty to thirty minutes, and it was gone. Upon close inspection, the prints told the story… a host of magpies and a single coyote. I’d have liked to follow the tracks and learn where this one was denned-up, and whether it was in a position where it could watch that area of the ice. But once the trail left the middle of the river, it just converged with three or four other coyote paths along the edge of the ice. Next fresh snow, I promised myself, I’m going to follow trails until I find out where each of the nearby dens are.

Although we hadn’t seen the whole thing play out, the magic of the disappearing meat was excitement in itself, and it gave Piipiiaakii an idea. She had one turkey sandwich left in her pocket. Why not put it out on the ice, set my video camera up next to it, and walk away for twenty minutes? The possibility of observing at least what goes on directly at the food source was better than seeing nothing at all.

Ten minutes later, we were sitting on a log in the woods, having a cigarette and waiting. From our position, we could see individual magpies making short flights between the river and various positions on the nearby cliff, obviously caching bits of turkey sandwich. We waited until their activity appeared to slow, and then we made our way back. When we reached the offering site, we found two pieces of heavily pecked bread, no turkey.

Reviewing the video later at home, this is what happened: After we’d walked away for about five minutes, a magpie flies into view and lands about midway up the cliff in the background. He makes a couple winged drops to lower rocks, all the while watching the sandwich, and then soars low over it, moving behind the camera. Then a magpie moves low over the food and doesn’t land, but is immediately followed by another bird who does. That bird (M1) walks around the sandwich a bit, pecking at it lightly, and then starts tugging turkey pieces out from the middle – grabbing a piece and hopping urgently backward, its wings giving a few flaps. As soon as M1 starts pulling in earnest, we begin to hear and see other birds. They are using short, single chirps, and most seem to come for a brief landing at the safety of the cliff before swooping low past the food. Two birds swoop past the eating magpie, then a third bird lands (M2). The two do not exchange any chatter, they just work individually as if hardly aware of one another. The newcomer soon has a sizeable slice of turkey in its beak, and wings away back toward the cliff upriver.

M1 still remains, and in its next move it figures out the sandwich architecture, bending down to flip the top piece of bread right off the lower piece. It then stands on one of the pieces, tearing chunks out of the middle and visibly swallowing them. After it gets four or five significant gulps, it hops off the sandwich and turns away to face the cliff. Is it looking for someone, or is it selecting a cache sight? After a few moments, it turns back to the sandwich and starts pecking again, first at turkey and then at bread.

A third magpie (M3) comes in for a landing and scampers around right behind the M1, as if it wants to get at whatever it’s eating from the exact same angle. Again, they do not exchange any chatter. When M3 gets pushy, M1 just moves to the other side of the sandwich, takes a few more bites, again scopes out the cliff, and then flies downriver in that direction, but out of the shot. M3 then scoops up a big piece of turkey in its beak. Just as it’s getting the piece balanced and positioned for flight, what appears to be M1 again (because it comes in from the same angle) swoops down for a landing, making a little squawk as it does so. M3 flies immediately away toward the forest downriver with its seized meat.

As soon as M1 starts eating again, another bird lands, this one coming from the cliffs upriver. I assume it is M2 returned. It approaches with a little caution, turning its body to the side almost submissively to avoid the abrupt movements of M1, who at that point has grabbed another slab of turkey and flies away toward the forest upriver.

Now M2 cautiously pecks at the sandwich, looking and moving around cautiously as it does so. It hasn’t had much to eat when M1 comes back in again, giving a single call as it approaches, and purposefully startles M2 away from the food. It does the latter by swooping down almost right on top of the feeding bird, with its wings and tail spread to their furthest expanse, giving another little chirp as it touches ground. Given, magpies usually land with their wings and tails somewhat spread, but this was different, quite intimidating.

Immediately, M1 goes back to work eating, while M2 – who has scampered a short distance away – walks around to the opposite side of the sandwich, snatches a little crumb and half-flies, half-hops away just a meter or so, to get some distance in case it gets chased.

Now a fourth bird (M4) comes in from the cliffs downriver. This could, of course, be M3 again. It had flown off toward the forest downriver, but outside of the camera shot it could just as easily have crossed back to the cliffs. In any case, M4 lands right next to the M1, but without any aggressive flourish. It takes a few pecks right next to where the other is eating, but then seems to notice some potential threat, hops back, and walks a three-hundred and sixty-degree circle around the sandwich before coming back in to eat on the other side of M1.

Just then, a fifth magpie (M5) lands, this one coming in from the forest upriver. It makes a little chirp as it lands on the ice opposite where the other two are eating, and stands back for a few moments watching them. At that point, M2 - who has been standing back ever since it was chased away - runs around and comes in behind the two who are feeding. This upsets M4, who gives a little squawk and hops off to one side. M2 then takes a definite peck at M1, who also quips once and hops away. Now M2 and M4 start eating, each at opposite ends of the sandwich. M1 watches them for a few seconds, then comes running in, quipping once as it passes M2. But the noise and the little running feign doesn’t have any effect.

A sixth magpie (M6) then comes in, again from the cliffs downriver. As it lands, M5 – who hasn’t had an opportunity to touch any of the food at all – flies to the cliffs downriver, within view of the camera. All four birds who remain take a couple pecks at the sandwich, but then M4 makes a play, running after and chasing first M6 (who flies to the cliffs downriver) and them M1 (who wings away to the cliffs upriver, within view of the camera). While this chasing is going on, there are several little squawks, each a single quip, but it is difficult to discern which birds are making these sounds.

While M4 is giving chase, M2 is tearing out large pieces of turkey, and eventually takes flight with these chunks to cache them in the cliffs between where M5 and M1 are sitting. M5 then moves over to a rock where it can get a better look at what M2 is doing. And M1 begins to fidget, moving from rock to rock.

At that point, a magpie who I’m assuming is M6 returns from the cliffs downriver, just as M4 takes a piece of meat away to cache in the same direction. Up on the cliffs within camera view, M2 finishes tucking its turkey away, and wings up to a rock just overhead of M5, while M1 returns to the sandwich.

When M1 reaches the ice, it does so with a show of claim, giving a number of single quips, hopping after M6, and aggressively pecking-up bits of food. This is enough to make M6 take whatever it has and fly downriver toward the forest. While M1 continues to eat alone, M5 can be seen to leave the cliffs and fly downriver. A moment later, M2 leaves the cliff and comes down to the ice, giving the broad-wing and tail display to startle M1 into scampering off a little ways. A bird I’m assuming is M6 then immediately comes in from the forest downriver. It also gives the broad-wing and tail display, but doesn’t seem to have too much effect. M2 continues eating as if nothing happened. M1 darts in, moving around M6 to grab a bit of sandwich, and then wings away downriver to the top of the cliff, within sight of the camera.

Soon M2 has gathered another mouthful of turkey, and flies away toward the cliffs downriver, just as another bird (I’m assuming M5) is returning from the same direction. As M5 comes in to eat, M6 gathers up some meat and wings away following the flight pattern of M2. And at that point, M4 comes back in, giving a few quips and chasing M5 away from the sandwich. M4 immediately grabs a slab of turkey and flies upriver with it.

M5 seems most interested in just eating. It picks up a big piece of turkey, but then drops it in trade for smaller pieces it can swallow right away. Not until M1 returns again, giving a little quip as it lands, does M5 take a slightly larger piece and fly downriver.

Luckily for M1, it is able to grab up a large piece of turkey just as M2 and M6 return. It takes this treasure back up to the high part of the cliff within camera view downriver. M2 is first to land, followed immediately by M6, who flies right over M2’s back, almost low enough to touch. The two of them eat momentarily, each at separate pieces of bread. Then a new display comes into play. M2 turns its back to M6 and, while eating, lifts its tail straight up in the air. M6 then walks toward M2 with both its body and tail lifted similarly, a definite strut. M6 takes a bite of M2’s half of the sandwich, then lifts its tail and, while turning back toward its own piece of bread, brings its tail swishing down toward M2.

Just then, M5 returns, and as it does M6 lifts its tail again, slightly fanning it this time, and hurries to the side of M2. The latter walks over to start eating at the bread M6 has abandoned. Then M6 tries to peck at M5, who hops backward with a squawk. M6 then notices that M2 is eating the other piece of bread, and hurries over to chase it away. M2 flies low to the cliffs on the upriver end of the camera frame.

By this time, M5 and M6 are pecking away at the two pieces of bread. M6 then lifts its tail again and dashes over to claim the bread M5 is eating. In response, M5 merely runs over to begin pecking at the bread M6 has abandoned. Clearly, M6 would like to be able to control access to both pieces of bread. But since they’re slightly spread apart now on the ice, it’s left to run after whatever piece someone else is enjoying.

Soon M5 has salvaged a big strip of turkey from the bread M6 abandoned. Seeing this, M6 rushes predictably over. But it’s too late, M5 takes the prize and flies downriver. As soon as it’s gone, both M2 and M1 return from the cliffs. M2 swoops in low, landing right next to M6, and causing it to abandon its bread again. M6 pecks at nothing but ice a couple times in an attempt to save face. When M1 lands, it also seems to go after M6, who runs a foot or so away and again pecks at the ice. At this, M2 runs after M6 and takes a nip at it. M6 hops back, chirps and makes another little groaning noise. It’s ready to face M2, but by this time the latter has turned away, and M6 has nothing to look at but tail, held high.

M6 then hops around and chases M1 away from the other piece of bread. M1 moves off to the side and begins to pick at the snow. Meanwhile M2 is just eating away. When M6 sees this, it again abandon’s its re-acquired bread and dashes toward the other piece. M2 gives no ground, just keeps eating. M1 then gets into it, moving in close on the other side of M2. Still to no effect. For a moment, M1 and M6 are just watching M2 eat. Then M2 gets a big chunk of bread and moves out of the way, looks toward the cliff, and then wings off downriver.

M6 starts eating, with M1 picking at snow off to the side. Then M5 returns. While M6 is preoccupied with what piece of bread M5 is going to pursue, M1 dashes in, grabs a chunk and flies toward the cliffs downriver. M5 and M6 now pick at separate pieces of bread, but it isn’t long before M6 wants it all again. It walks over to M5, then takes a strong hop, spreading its wings and tail, and pecks. M5 jumps back, making a chirp that sounded like it actually got hurt. While M6 takes over eating M5’s bread, the latter scoots around to the side and grabs a remaining piece of turkey off the ice. It takes flight downriver just as M4 is returning. Rather than landing, M4 swoops back up, does a sharp one-eighty, and follows M5. M6 then looks in the direction of our camera, and it too takes off downriver.

Of course, what startled M6 (and probably M4) away was that Piipiiaakii and I were returning from the woods. They heard our approach a ways off, because there was at least four or five minutes of bird-less space at the end of our video. We had been gone nearly a half hour, and by that time figured we might as well head home. We packed our camera away and made our trek back to the car. It was quiet almost all the way back along the river, until just at the end of the swallow cliff, where we observed a single northern flicker flying across the river.

23 December 2008


llll ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Ayiisakootsiiyo’p

If a guy’s wearing cargo pants, what does he get when he fills one thigh pocket full of raw beef liver and the other with bologna sandwiches? Don’t worry, it’s kind of a trick question. What I hoped I would get was an opportunity to share a late organic lunch with a bald eagle.

Okay, so it’s Christmas Eve and I couldn’t abandon Piipiiaakii and Ohkomaakii all day to go trekking around in the coulees. But after my first-of-the-season ksikkihkini sighting yesterday, and the Chinook that passed through last night, I’m itching to get back down to the river to learn what’s new. And after a little bit of running around in Lethbridge for last-minute holiday supplies, I get my chance. I figure I’ve got maybe three hours of sunlight left to work with, so I fill my pockets, bundle up (a little less layered than yesterday, given the warmer temperature), and drive down into the coulee.

Along the way, I catch sight of a northern flicker gliding between a couple of small, introduced conifer trees, part of the landscaping of my neighbourhood. I also pass by three small flocks of aapsspiniiksi, feeding and sleeping in the now-exposed fields of the coulee rim. Because I know there’s limited daylight left in which to feed the eagles, I don’t bother stopping to make an accurate count of the geese. Just eye-balling the three groups, I’d say they numbered fifty or sixty all together.

Down on the river-bottom, things are quite a bit different than they were just twenty-four hours ago. For one thing, all the remaining snow has shifted into drifts. On the shore, they create quite an obstacle. The snow is compact enough in some areas to walk on, but there are weak spots too, and when I hit these there is a sudden drop of a foot or two. To make matters worse, my pants are so weighted-down on the one side by beef livers that I have to hang onto a belt-loop as I walk to keep them up. On the river itself, travel gets easier. There’s drifts here too, but they’re formed like waves or sand dunes – very easy to recognize and navigate through. They’re also extremely beautiful, so nice that I cringe at the thought of what they’ll look like after I’ve tromped over and between them in my clunky gum boots.

The river is quiet today. I make my way past the swallow cliffs and around the bend without incident. The only notable presence is the two golden-eyes who are diving in the crag of open water in front of the old beaver lodge. This exposed trickle has expanded lengthwise with the bit of heat brought by the chinook and, as I approach, the golden-eyes make their way to the far end of the pool. I glance briefly away, my eyes following a coyote trail up a slide in the canyon wall. When I look back again, the golden-eyes are gone. At first I think that maybe they’ve just dived below. But as I continue to watch the water, they fail to resurface. Nope. All it took was thirty seconds of distraction, and they vacated without a sound.

Just yesterday there were so many geese flying up and down the river, I spent a good part of the day counting them. Now, besides occasional chirps from chickadees in the poplar forest, the river’s totally silent. I move between the old beaver lodge and the new one upriver almost as if it’s a chore.

Just downstream of the new beaver lodge is a good spot of solid river ice – no jutting pieces of old icebergs, no suspicious circles of blackness, as if the running water were just inches below the surface. Clean, thick, milky ice, cleared of snow by the chinook. This is where I decided to drop my first couple slabs of beef liver.

I have my choice of natural blinds. On one side of the river, there’s a sand bank thick with old licorice and brome. If I hide there, I’d be concealed on a horizontal plane. My other choice is the cliff on the opposite side of the river, where there’s a sandstone rock ledge that would conceal me from any viewpoints above. I choose the cliff.

Unpacking my camera equipment, I ready myself for the ultimate eagle shot. Okay, almost. I didn’t bring my tripod. Too much of an impediment to movement. But I brought my 900mm lens, and I figure I can prop it up on my knee for at least bi-pod stability. I’ve also brought my camcorder, because I figure I’ll see some interesting interactions between the magpies and eagles… and, god-willing, between a few eagles. Of course, all of this technology junk fits in a single sling-pack. I’m conscious of the fact that the most important equipment I have is my own eyes, ears, nose, intuition. Never discount the significance of intuition. The last thing I do before sitting heavy on the ground is I stash the ziplock bag with the remaining liver up high in a crevice of the cliff, where the coyotes can’t reach.

Having readied myself for the stake-out, I settle down beneath the sandstone ledge and start eating. Two bologna sandwiches and a peanut-butter-flavored PowerBar. The latter was left over from an excursion I made last summer, twenty miles into the back country behind Chief Mountain, when I wanted to travel especially light. But the thing about PowerBars is, if they’re not warm they’re hard as a rock. I ate my sandwiches. I sucked my PowerBar.

After about twenty minutes, the magpies started to gain interest. I could see them passing now and then between poplar trees on the periphery of my vision. Finally, one swooped in, awkwardly fluttering about on the slippery ice to tear off a piece off the liver, before hastily flying into the forest to cache its treasure. Then another landed, spotted my gaze immediately, and took wing again. Another half-hour passed. In that time, four magpies visited the liver and my back-side grew colder, colder.

The heat of my body was dissipating into the ground, and in reciprocation the cold of the frozen earth was moving into my hands, my toes, my legs. I wanted to be a good birder and stay put, but I had to move. I decided to cross the river again, to go into the poplar forest, thinking that I would circuit back around to the liver offering eventually, and then have an opportunity to observe magpie (if not eagle) social behavior.

Between me and the poplars lay a thick tract of aged rabbit-willow, a kind of forest in itself. As per my usual habit, I found a well-worn deer trail to take me through with the least obstacles. Just on the other side of the willows is an eight-foot embankment, and above that the poplar forest. I climbed up and found an old fallen log to sit on, where I could observe a few large trees. No sooner did I sit down than I heard and saw, in the distance, five black-capped chickadees making their way toward me. They flittered from tree to tree, stopping for a few seconds at each to poke around in the bark for whatever they’re eating in this season. Despite their apparent busyness, I knew that ultimately their movement through the forest was prompted not by a lack of available food in any particular tree, but rather more by their curiosity about the new arrival in their territory, namely me. Niipomakiiksi are inquisitive little birds.

In a famous Blackfoot story about Naapi, the trickster creator, he comes across a group of chickadees playing a game where they cast their eyeballs out to a distant tree or log, and then call them back in. Naapi wanted to join in the game, but the birds warned him against it… they knew that once he’d learned how to throw his eyes, he wouldn’t be able to abide by the rules of doing it only four times. But Naapi begged, so they finally consented to let him play and taught him their technique. Naapi threw his eyes out to a tree, and called them back. Then he threw them out to a log, and called them back. It was so much fun, the old man soon lost count of how many times he’d tried it. When he threw his eyes out a fifth time, they didn’t come back. Naapi was left with no eyes. He walked around blind in the forest, running into thorny bushes and tripping over deadwood. Finally he came across a coyote and stole its eyeballs. That’s how Naapi came to have blue eyes. This story’s used to admonish those who let their eyes wander in infidelity. But on another level, it speaks to the inquisitive character of niipomakiiksi, who I’ve found are always quick to investigate any new activity going on in their midst.

Within a matter of minutes, the five chickadees made their way to the trees nearest me, where they seemed to linger just a little longer picking through the bark (and no doubt checking me out) before moving on. As they departed, I heard some magpie calls down by the river. I stood up and looked. From atop the embankment, I could see several magpies, moving individually between the river and the forest. By my count there were at least five, although there may have been more outside of my field of vision. I had only been away from the liver offering for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, but with all the magpies at work I thought I’d better just get back over there.

I went down the bank and wound my way back through the willow thicket. Just before the river came into sight, there was an eruption of frantic magpie calls. But when I got out to the ice, there were no magpies in sight. Moreover, there was no liver in sight. It was gone. How could they have possibly taken apart two beef livers on slippery ice in just twenty minutes?

As I walked out on the ice to gaze dumbstruck at the blood-stained ice, coyote howls sounded from immediately downriver. Looking through my binoculars, I could see – by the old beaver lodge – the two coyotes who had been hunting geese there a few days before. When I spotted them, they noticed me too, and made their way quickly off the ice and into the brush, giving a few more howls once out of sight.

It was evident then that the coyotes had quickly darted upriver and stole the liver in my absence. Had they been attracted there by magpie activity? Or was it that they, like the magpies, had been watching me all along, waiting for their opportunity to nab whatever I’d left on the ice? This thought made me wonder how many other animals in the area were aware of my activities without my knowledge. I had come there intent on being the observer and, at least on this occasion, was obviously more the observed.

Alright then, we’d try again. I walked across the river to the cliff, climbed up and retrieved the other two livers I had stashed there, brought them back to the same bloody spot on the ice and set them down. I then took a seat in the licorice and brome, hoping to watch it all happen again. As I sat there, I could see magpies gathering, perched here and there in nearby trees. I counted four. They were going to wait me out.

Stubbornly, I held my ground. The sun dropped lower, lower, eventually passing beyond view of the horizon. They had won. I got up and started walking downriver, until I’d reached whatever distance marked the magpie threshold of security. Then I turned and watched with my binoculars as they went back to work, swooping down to the meat, hopping and tearing at it, and then flying as individuals back into the trees to stash what they had taken. They did all of this without a sound. I might have stayed to watch a little longer, but darkness was coming quick. Soon I wouldn’t be able to see them anyway.

So I walked, past the old beaver lodge and the crag of open water, around the bend in the river and under the swallow cliffs, until I reached the trail that would take me to my truck. As I struggled to plow my way through the large drifts, an eagle came into view, flying low upriver. I watched it, silhouetted against the darkening blue sky. It passed the swallow cliffs, turned to follow the river, and when it came to approximately the area where I’d left the liver, it wheeled quickly one-hundred and eighty degrees and dropped down, presumably right to the ice.

For the briefest moment, I considered returning to the site to see what I could of the interaction between the eagle and the magpies. But I knew it was no use. Darkness was upon us. I continued on to the truck, and as I drove back out of the coulee I saw a first a porcupine wandering uphill, then six mule deer eating at the coulee’s rim, and again the three flocks of geese as splotches of blackness in the fields.

Although I hadn’t been able to observe and photograph the eagle as hoped, I was content at having fed it and others. For me, this was aatsimihka’sin, a reciprocation, an act of balancing. I’d been down in that coulee several times recently as a learner and therefore, ultimately, as a taker. The geese, golden-eyes, coyotes, magpies, chickadees, porcupine, deer, eagles, the water and the forest itself had all been my teachers, feeding me. It was apparent from the events of this day that they were on-average far more aware of my presence, activities, and potentialities than I am of theirs. If they had wanted to, they could have concealed much more than they did. Instead, they were willing to share what they might without endangering themselves. It is only appropriate that I, on occasion, offer something useful in reciprocation. This exchange, aasimihka’ssin, is in my opinion one of Blackfoot concepts and practices most crucial to share with wider society, because it is so much needed as a guiding policy and principal for our interactions with the environment.

Last spring, I had an opportunity to travel east with my in-law and colleague Narcisse Blood, to receive two days of intense training in climate science by Al Gore, David Suzuki, and others. Coming away from that workshop, Narcisse and I discussed what we had heard and came to the agreement that, while their climate science was solid, the ramifications should not come as such a surprise. As Narcisse said, “If the elders of the past were here today, they would tell those scientists kitsiisiimootsspoaa, you all were warned.” Because this way of life, which we are all now complicit in, is so consumption driven. The psychology behind what’s happening to our climate is the same as that which led to the purposeful slaughter of the bison. We are in the business of mining resources (whatever they may be) for short-term gain, turning a blind-eye to our long-term dependence on this place. Even the proposed solutions for today’s climate change amount to little more than a commitment to take-less. And while taking-less is important, for our short term gain, what we should be considering is aatsimihka’ssin – how are we going to create a balance? What are we willing to feed back into our relationships so that we can ensure that they are maintained and lasting?

Ksikkihkiniiksi Akaito'tooyaa

llll ) lllllllllllllllllllllll Ksikkihkiniiksi Akaito’tooyaa

One can only linger indoors avoiding the cold for so long. By last night, I was already committed to bundling myself up again in the morning and heading to the coulees. During my last visit, I’d been a little bit too cold. This time round, I decided to put on an extra layer of everything. A second pair of socks. Another long-sleeved shirt under my jacket. An extra pair of shoes. Two layers of long-johns…. Just kidding about the shoes, but I was bundled pretty tight. The one thing I forgot, that didn’t register until I was already half-way to where I park my truck, was my cold-weather face mask. But no bother, I figured if worse came to worse, I could always use one of my shirts as a scarf.

Driving down into the coulee, I was met by a red-tailed hawk, who glided over the road in front of my truck and took up on a high fence-post. I pulled over on the side for a quick photograph (which didn’t turn out all that good), before continuing along to my parking site. I was eager to get back upriver to the open water sources, to see if I’d have a repeat experience of events from the other day, the drama between aapsspiniiksi and coyotes. But I promised myself that this time round I’d take my time a little, try to be more observant, give a bit of attention to the details. To this effect, I brought a little I.C. recorder, and it was a good thing I did, because there wound-up being a lot to note.

I’d barely walked out of site from my truck, heading to the river, when I came across a lone mule deer, grazing and moving in my direction. Okay, I thought, this is an opportunity to find out what the deer are eating when so much is concealed by ice and snow. I set myself down between two scraggly, transplanted ponderosa pines and watched. As I sat there, an aapsspini passed overhead, followed by a duck of some kind with a largely white under-body. Both were headed upriver. The duck, flapping its wings rapidly, soon overtook the aapsspini.

The mule deer continued moving toward me, poking its nose down in the snow here and there. Another pair of aapsspiniiksi moved upriver overhead. When the space between the deer and I had breached some invisible threshold, it began angling away down toward the river, entering the bullberry brush. At this point I walked over to where it had been grazing and looked around for nipped plants. I didn’t see any obvious bites, but what I did notice was that the buck-brush stems in the areas it had nosed around were bare, which wasn’t the case even ten feet away, where some of the stems still had a few berries. As I inspected this scene, more aapsspiniiksi made their way upriver – first two single birds, then a pair followed closely by a third member.

Continuing on, I cut down to the river and began following the coyote trails along the water’s edge. Again I wondered whether the coyotes could hear the waters beneath the middle of the river, and whether this might be why they travelled the fringes. And this thought led me to consider how I myself might discern the best place to cross an iced-over river. What I figured was, if I didn’t already know what sections had slow moving water, then I would try to find an area that animal tracks did cross. A set of deer tracks, preferably, but a few coyotes would probably do.

As I pondered the river crossing, there was a larger aapsspini exodus. A flock of twelve, split into two sub-flocks of six each, followed shortly by a group of eight, then a second group of eight, then a loner. All were moving upriver, honking as they flew, and staying fairly low (not too much higher than the coulee rim).

Walking on the obstacle-free river, I passed cliffs full of last-summer’s swallow nests and was soon within sight of the open water where I’d been observing winter dramas the other day. Just then, five aapsspiniiksi passed low overhead moving downriver (opposite the popular trend), followed shortly by two more heading back up.

In one of the coyote tracks I found a small red pebble, picked it up, and watched as it melted to blood between my fingers. A little further up, beside the tracks, I found another bit of frozen blood. Obviously, whoever made this trail had been travelling from a successful kill site. Again, inspecting the coyote tracks, aapsspiniiksi were moving overhead, six of them – a couple, then a group of four, then a loner, then another group of four in a line, then a second loner, all going upriver. That made my count so far fifty-one aapsspini moving upriver, with only five going down.

When I eventually did reach the open water crag, there were no aapsspiniiksi present. Just a magpie, flying from one side of the river to the other. I wanted to continue going upriver, to find the next bit of break in the ice, but first I thought I’d check on the porcupine den. Winding my way back along the beaver canal through the willows, I peeked inside the den and looked around in the local brush. No sign of the porcupine beyond footprints going in several directions. There were also a number of rabbit trails in the willows, which I hadn’t noticed the other day.

Making my way back to the river, I was surprised when two ducks took flight from out of the open water. I hadn’t even noticed them there a few minutes previous. They flew briefly downriver, wheeled about and gained altitude as them moved upriver instead. I wasn’t sure of their identification, and silently scolded myself for not paying enough attention to have spotted them before they were scared away. All I knew was that they had black heads and backs, with a white belly and a white stripe across their wing where it was broadest, near the body. My first guess was that they were buffleheads, which I had gotten somewhat used to seeing over the summer. But by the end of the day I would learn better.

Just as I was taking note of what few characteristics of the ducks I could see as they flew into the distance, a raucous barrage of honking erupted from around the bend upriver, and nineteen aapsspiniiksi came into view. I scurried to find an acceptable blind in a short stand of bullberry and Russian thistle, hoping that they’d land beside the open water. But I must have been too obvious, because they just passed low overhead. Four of them turned back to make another pass over my position, while the others passed out of view downriver and around another bend. Then I heard some honking from that direction, and the four who had been considering landing near me returned the call and flew off to reunite with their companions.

Everything grew quiet again, and I got back onto the ice. I had only gone a short distance from the open water crag when I noticed a considerable number of coyote tracks leading toward and away from the other side of the river. Confident that the ice would hold, I followed one of these trails and it brought me directly to realize why this area was suddenly so dense in coyote sign. There was, near the opposite bank, a matted-down area in the snow, heavily littered with aapsspini feathers. It was a kill site. Looking around, I noticed two things. First, almost all of the plumage seemed to have come off the body rather than the wings. In particular, none of the longer wing feathers were present. Secondly, there was very, very little blood. Just a few tiny ice-pebble drips here and there, and a bit of coloration on a few of the many plumes.

While I looked over the slim remains of the kill, five aapsspiniiksi moved upriver (three solo and one pair as a couple). Curiously, there was also a single aapsspini who flew downriver. As I noted each of these passing birds, I continued my walk upriver. Eventually I reached the “new” beaver lodge (the older one being back by the first bit of open water). Where the old lodge had taken advantage of a deep but narrow pool in a curve of the river and against a bank atop which stretched a considerable forest of willow, the new lodge – appearing just this past summer – was positioned in a very deep section of the river. I know this because it is one of my favorite summer swimming holes, and this for the very fact that I don’t have to worry about bumping into boulders. This new beaver lodge is also positioned against the riverbank, as the old one had been, and I had expected to find at least some opening through which the family might still emerge in winter. There was none. These beavers were completely iced in. However, it was apparent that a large section of water in front of their house had remained open longer than other parts of the river. Here the surface was choppy with ice-bergs that had come together at odd angles when they finally froze in.

Leaving the beaver lodge behind me, I neared a bend in the river around which I expected to find another crag of open water. As I neared this point, a pair of aapsspini passed overhead, moving upriver. Then, when I’d actually come around the bend, another four followed, travelling in pairs.

As I had suspected, there was open water… just the slimmest bit. Seated on the ice beside it were three aapsspiniiksi, and in the water itself another of the black and white ducks. The duck dove and immerged. Dove and immerged. Was it a bufflehead? This time, I promised myself, I was not going to mess it up. I would move as slowly as necessary to arrive at a position where I could identify the mystery duck and closely observe the social behaviour of the aapsspiniiksi.

Slowly, slowly I move toward them. Ten paces at a time, with long stops in between. Behind me, from up on top of the coulee, I hear and see twelve aapsspiniiksi flying downriver. They must have been feeding on the fields above. I also see a group of thirteen flying toward my position from upriver, and another single aapsspini moving in from downriver. I sit myself down on the ice and watch. Of the fourteen who converge on my position, all circle several times but only four land beside the open water. I figure the other ten aren’t excited to come down in a location where another potential predator is already quite visible on the open ice. Instead, they continue downriver.

Amidst the new group of seven beside the water, the late arrivals seem agitated. One in particular takes a long time before it finally sits down, but even then it keeps its head up and erect. And when it sits down, another slides into the water for a swim.

I wait until they seem to be calm, then stand up, move another ten paces closer, and sit back down. Across the river, in the poplar trees, a couple of magpies start making noise. For a moment, I get anxious, expecting the magpie call to be announcing the arrival of a coyote. But none emerge.

I move closer, sit back down again. The diving duck (who I still can’t identify) paddles over to the edge of the water nearest the seated aapsspiniiksi. The one that had gone for a swim comes back out and sits on the ice. Then a very loud aapsspini starts honking from downriver, and eventually comes into view and makes a landing right in the open water. This new arrival, climbing out onto the ice, is met with a series of honks from the more alert aapsspini and two of its companions. After about a minute of this, all goes quiet again.

Now there are eight, but soon they are nine. Another loud loner comes in from downriver. This one was not at all sure about landing here. Either that, or its just not the most experience flier. It makes two failed attempts to descend, both times coming to the point of having its legs dropped, but then climbing again. When it does finally come down, it isn’t graceful at all. It arches its wings and drops its legs far too soon, provoking the need for much wing flapping to reach the ice without injury.

While all this is going on, I notice that there is a magpie beside the ice, pecking at specks of something. I get my binoculars up to my eyes, and the magpie is immediately tipped-off to my peeping. With a bit of chatter, it flies off and sets down in a poplar.

I begin to notice a pattern in the aapsspini behaviour. The most recent arrival is, it seems, automatically made the next sentry for the group. After this last aapsspini came faltering down to the ice, the ones who had been alert before put their heads down on their backs and rested. In the mean time, the new bird stood on one leg, with its neck erect and its head scanning the river for danger. It stood like this for so long that I grew impatient and got up to walk a bit closer again. I was only able to go about six paces before it started honking and looking agitated. I sat back down.

While I wait for things to calm, a flock of ten aapsspiniiksi come into view, these one’s flying rather high and not following the river at all. Rather, they seem to be moving cross-country from north to south. Given, my sense is that most of the aapsspiniiksi travelling upriver are following Isski’taiitahtaa, the St. Mary’s, and therefore moving fairly southward as well. But this group of ten was something different. They weren’t looking for the next place to land. As they passed by, the nine on the ice began calling to them. They in turn answered with a few calls, but did not even consider descending.

Just after the ten migrating birds passed, two crows moved overhead in the exact opposite direction, south to north. They too were calling out periodically as they travelled. They weren’t as high as the migrating aapsspiniiksi, but neither were they flying as low as those who were interested in landing on the river.

By this time, my presence and proximity is obviously making the aapsspiniiksi a bit nervous. The last to have landed continues to stand guard duty, and every time I try to edge closer, now only five or six paces at a time, he honks and three or four other heads come up off their backs. Oddly, this doesn’t seem to bother the diving duck at all. It goes right along with its business… diving and emerging, diving and emerging. I would just stay put where I am, except I still can’t get a good look at the duck. The sun is at the wrong angle, and there’s considerable fog rising off the water around it.

Yet another aapsspini lands amidst those on the ice. This one comes in from the south, making me wonder if it was part of the migrating flock. It’s guided to the group by considerable honking. As soon as it lands, the one who had been standing guard sits down. Another, who had been sitting for some time, and is closest to the new arrival, flicks its head up and down rapidly. The late-comer returns the gesture, but with far less confidence. It then stays on its feet, eventually moving to one foot, and keeps aware for several minutes before sitting down.

Now when I move closer, I can only go about three paces and four or five heads immediately come up. One even rises to its feet and honks at me, shaking and nodding its head vigorously between calls.

I sit on the ice again and a large wave of aapsspiniiksi pass overhead. They are at a middle altitude, seemingly migrating, but unlike the earlier ten, these ones seem to be following the route of Isski’taiitahtaa, travelling southward following the St. Mary’s. They fly in sub-flocks of thirteen, thirteen, eight, three, and sixteen in number. A few minutes later, another wave passes, this one much higher but going in the same direction, travelling in sub-flocks of seventeen, forty, five, and thirty.

As I watch the migration, another two solo aapsspiniiksi arrive, one at a time, from upriver to join the small group beside the open water. Now there are twelve on the ice next to me. When the first of this pair came in, those by the water did not honk. When the second one came, a number of them sounded out on its approach. This brought my attention to the fact that none of the aapsspiniiksi on the river attempted to call as the large flocks passed overhead, which is curious. Again, each time a new member lands, it is greeted with head flicks and takes the position of standing sentry for the group.

Eventually, I had to come to terms with my situation. The Sun was getting nearer the horizon. I had edged my way quite close to the aapsspiniiksi and yet still couldn’t adequately view the diving duck. What I needed was a complete repositioning. I needed to be on the other side of the river. Perhaps foolishly, I determined to make this move in one quick swoop. I stood and walked an arch around the aapsspiniiksi and open water, to the shadows of the poplar on the other side. I made it all the way around without much incident, but as soon as I sat down all but three of the aapsspiniiksi took flight. They moved downriver. The three who remained (were they the original three?) seemed completely unconcerned, even though I was – distance wise – much closer to them on this side of the river than I had been on the other side. My feeling though was that they knew well the obstacle that the open water between us presented.

I sat back down on the ice, now with a much better view. While I nestled in, four of the aapsspiniiksi who had been startled downriver circled back, appeared as though they might land back at my position again, but then continued on upriver. They were soon followed by another six moving upriver. Whether any of these six were from the original group on the ice, I couldn’t say. My sense was that probably at least some of them were. To make matters even more confusing, just moments later a solo bird came from downriver simultaneous with six coming from upriver (and who knows whether this was the same six that had just travelled in that direction). When the one met the six, right above my position, they merged into seven, flew together a little ways downriver, met up with another three, and merged into ten. These ten make several swooping passes by my position, obviously considering landing there. One of them does land, and the remaining flock splits with four moving downriver and five upriver. As I try to keep track of all this, I notice high above another flock of thirteen migrating southward following Isski’taiitahtaa.

It was time to turn my full attention to the diving duck. I took out my camera, which actually has glass more powerful than my binoculars, and began taking pictures. Even at the range I had gained, I still couldn’t be certain the identification. My hope was that the photographs themselves would tell me later. Unfortunately, I was only able to get off five or six shots before, like the earlier magpie, the duck became aware that my gaze was upon it, and decided to depart with haste. Dark head, white belly, wings whiffling as it moved downriver. It could still be a bufflehead.

With the diving duck now out of the picture, and the sun almost touching the horizon, I packed up to begin the trek back to my truck. Of course by this time I had grown pretty confident in the strength of the ice. I decided to take the quickest route back, which meant using the river to cut the curves. But as I passed the new beaver lodge again, and began breaking through some of the secondary freeze ice above waters I knew to be deep, I made toward the edge again. I was walking the opposite side of the river I had come in on. The snow patches on the sandstone cliffs at sundown were beautiful, and I decided to stop and take a picture. Then I noticed, perched right above me on a sandstone pillar was a mature bald eagle, the first I’ve seen this season. I took a couple great perch shots, but missed a nice one when the eagle got nervous and took wing (I was fumbling with my glove at that moment).

As I neared the open water by the old beaver lodge, I looked through my binoculars and saw that there were two of the black and white diving ducks there. Right away I took my camera back out and began moving forward each time they dove. Closer, closer, shooting pictures when they’d surface. Before long I was close enough to see clearly through my lens that these were not buffleheads, they were male goldeneyes. And there were not just two of them in the open water, there were three. I took several decent shots of them before they flew away, and a few more while in flight.

Moving on, I suddenly became aware of how the aapsspini activity had dropped. Since I'd departed the far water hole, I hadn't seen or heard anything. It was odd… just as I knew it was time to go home, they knew it was time to stop moving around. Another thing that hit me was why I'd seen magpies lingering at both water sources and, in a related way, why there'd been so little blood at the kill site. The magpies are the clean-up crew. They were waiting at the water for the coyotes to make them another dinner.

The remainder of my walk uneventful, until just within sight of the truck. At that point, I saw two more mature eagles pass overhead moving, like the majority of the aapsspiniiksi, upriver. Tallying all my numbers up when I got home, I figured that over a four hour period I had observed eighty aapsspiniiksi moving upriver, fifty-six going downriver, and one-hundred and sixty-eight flying in a migratory fashion southward following Isski'taiitahtaa. I guess that's what I get for wanting to add some detail.

20 December 2008

Mi'kotso'tokaaniksi Aiksikkiaakiyaa

llll ) llllllllllllllllllll Mi’kotso’tokaaniksi Aiksikkiaakiyaa

First day of clear blue skies for some sleeps now, and I had to get outside despite the severe cold. Bundled to the hilt, and yet still not quite enough, I took a walk along Naapisisahtaa, where it becomes confluent with Isski’taiitahtaa. I walked on the river itself, noting that the coyotes – like myself – follow a route along the ice close to the bank. I wonder if the sound of the water beneath keeps them away from the middle.

I took my time walking up to a still-open section of water, where there were significant aapsspiniiksi gathered. I moved only three or four paces at a time, pausing longer between. As I grew near, all the aapsspiniiksi stood up at once and quickly took to the air. At first, I was sure that I had finally scared them. But as they lifted, I saw the real culprit running along the ice on the other side, a single coyote who proceeded to follow them in their flight upriver. In their immediate absence, I found a good blind beside a boulder, where I could overlook the exposed water in case they returned. But after all grew quiet, and some further minutes passed, I decided to move on.

Entering the brush behind an older ksisskstakioyis, I began noticing curiously pattered carvings in bands around some of the willow stems. They were a kind of checker pattern or removed bark that reminded me immediately of the cut-out designs of old war shirts. I photographed several of the marked trees, thinking that they must have been made by something like a woodpecker… which was very interesting to me, because woodpeckers, flickers, and the like are very important allies to warriors, for their ability to quickly dodge or hop to the other side of a tree trunk. For many years, I’d thought the holes in the “bullet-proof” war shirts were merely that, representations of bullet or arrow holes, while the one wearing it goes undamaged. To realize that there may be a connection between these designs and certain birds multiplies the symbol’s significance. (After returning home this evening, I did a bit of research and question-asking online and found that the artist is almost definitely a sapsucker species, although which might prefer willow I don’t know)

Eventually, the aapsspiniiksi began slowly returning to the open water source, and by that time I was very cold and happy to start heading back in that direction. I followed an old ksisskstaki canal (now dry) out, along the way coming across a porcupine feeding near its den. This one had taken over one of the old ksisskstaki lodges along the side of the canal, perhaps moved from last-year’s porcupine location in a burrow under a nearby cottonwood. As I would soon learn, the latter den is now apparently occupied by coyotes.

I sight of the river just as a great wave of aapsspiniiksi passed overhead, coming from upriver. About a dozen of these decided to land in the open water where I was positioned. And no sooner had they sat down on the ice than I saw them jump to their feet again, and then watched as two coyotes came out onto the shore. They started trotting toward me, and came within about ten meters before they realized that I was sitting there. The two quickly turned and fled upriver, and the aapsspiniiksi calmed back down and sat again on the ice. When the coyotes climbed the bank some distance away, they began immediately to howl, and I watched as one of them threw clouds of snow in the air. I don’t know if they found something in that bank and were digging it out, announcing it, or what was going on. But soon they trotted off again, into the woods, where they continued to howl for the next ten minutes or so. By that time, the sun had gone a ways beyond the horizon, it was getting dark, and I made my way back to the truck, frozen toes and all.

15 December 2008

Iitaohkanaikokotoyi Niitahtaistsi

llll ) llllllllllllll Iitaohkanaikokotoyi Niitahtaistsi

Our first real blizzard of the season unfolds just as we fly back to mohkinsstsis after a week-long summer sojourn in Melbourne, Australia. We went down under – piipiiaakii, ohkomaakii ki niisto - for the World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education (WIPCe), an intensification ritual hosted by a different community once every couple years. It was the first time our family had an opportunity to attend. Luckily, piipiiaakii and I were both giving presentations there, so we were able to pull funding from our respective projects. Although we were able to catch most of the keynote talks, we didn’t bother sitting too many of the other sessions. To me, the excitement of our visit was in observing ki photographing birds ki other local animals. For piipiiaakii ki ohkomaakii, it was in shopping ki meeting new people.

We had three particularly enjoyable experiences. The second day there, after attending registration ki opening speeches hosted by the Koori ki Boonwurrung tribes at their recreation centre in one of Melbourne’s suburbs, we returned to the city ki split off to address our separate interests. Piipiiaakii ki ohkomaakii shopped the busy metropolis for hours, picking up souvenirs for folks back home, ki a few wardrobe items for themselves. I decided to take a hike through Melbourne’s green strip, which included the Royal Botanic Gardens. My planned destination was Albert Park ki its wetlands, touted in the visitor brochures from our hotel to be something like a nature reserve, with a variety of waterfowl ki a colony of rare skinks. As I wound my way through other parks toward it, occasionally stopping to ask a local for precise directions, it became clear that many of the city’s residents either didn’t know about the wonders of Albert Park or couldn’t quite understand why a tourist would be attracted to the place. Most suggested strongly that I should visit the botanic gardens instead, ki those inside the garden itself assured me that there were no larger nature parks in the vicinity. All were, of course, correct. But as a stubborn tourist I had to learn this for myself. When I finally reached Albert Park, all I found was a golf course ki an over-developed lake, surrounded by busy streets. There were a few black swans there, but no skinks I encountered. Thoroughly disappointed, I returned to the botanic gardens ki there passed the remainder of the day photographing the many birds that enjoy this magnificently lush ki sculpted park.

While walking, I also made note of some of Melbourne’s quirks. For instance, one of the things we learned very quickly was that most of the coffee available in the shops there is made from freeze-dried crystals. A black coffee is called a long black, an espresso a short black, ki a mocha is a flat white. Their large cups are not even equivalent in volume to our medium, ki nothing tastes the same. This goes for food as well. Small portions, all of which seemed missing key ingredients. Nearly every city block includes the Subway ki 7-11 chains, but the latter do not have Big Gulps or corndogs. Burger Kings are called Hungry Jacks, ki have the same menu as we do at home, but the fries taste funny. Ketchup is labelled tomato sauce (we never learned what tomato sauce for pasta was called). When people talk racist, they use the term “feller” – as in “you’re a white feller, eh?” or “me being a black feller...” etc. The understanding of at least some people there is that the First Nations of Canada used to be referred to “Red Indians” but that now we prefer to be called Aboriginal. Their paper currency has windows in it. Their coins are not sized as per denomination. In fact, the smallest coin is two-dollars. And there were no pennies (a good thing).

So our exploration day was the first good experience we had. The second came later in the week, when we hopped on with a tour to Phillip Island, just southeast of Melbourne along the coast. For me, this visit was particularly enjoyable because it took us to several ancient Boonwurrung sites, as well as a number of wetlands, a koala reserve, and places where the State of Victoria had engaged in successful environmental restoration projects. Overall, I was very impressed with the ecological consciousness of Australians. They were doing far more, even in the metropolitan areas, to conserve water, recycle, ki ensure that waste was managed. On Phillip Island, the government had gone so far as to buy-back large housing tracts from the public in areas where the sharp-winged plovers nest, so that the land could be rehabilitated. If only Alberta could see this as a model to combat the popular perception that a reintroduction of bison is unrealistic. On our tour, I was able to observe ki photograph several bird species (all new to me), colourful insects, amazing foliage, a wallaby, ki the precious koalas. I got to enjoy the company of piipiiaakii ki ohkomaakii. Ki the tour was capped off with a visit to the beach where little penguins return each evening at sundown, riding in on the waves ki hiking up to their nests in the dunes.

Our final day at WIPCe was another treat. In the conference’s exhibition hall, the Maori had set-up a nice display. They were very welcoming of all the other visiting nations, so much so that at times it felt as if they were more host to us than the Australians. We were lucky enough to be invited to a Maori dinner party a few evenings prior, but piipiiaakii had been trying to arrange to receive a traditional tattoo, ki on the last day of the conference she got her wish. Two or three of their artists had flown in from New Zealand with their equipment ki were ready to get to work. We learned that each of them had been specially selected to apprentice with elders while in primary school, ki had undergone extensive training before they were ever allowed to work on human skin. We waited on the sidelines for several hours past the appointment piipiiaakii had made before they called her to be drawn-up. One of the men took her outside with a set of ink pens. The way these tattoos work, the recipient is to tell the artist about themselves, ki from that narrative the artist hand-draws a design that will incorporate elements both reflecting ki assisting the assistant in his or her life. While piipiiaakii was outside sharing her story, I was still at the booth where another artist (the youngest among them) was told that he would be giving her the tattoo. He immediately asked where she was, ki when he learned that she was already outside being drawn he jumped up ki ran to intercede. It was apparent that he didn’t have the greatest confidence in the man who was supposed to do the drawing. As it turned out though, part way through piipiiaakii’s narrative the man had stopped her himself, telling her that he didn’t believe he was qualified to draw her tattoo. He said that their best artist was also their youngest, ki that he should work with her. The two artists met half-way, each having gone in search for the other, ki the young man Damion Scarlett took over.

Damion was amazing. He brought piipiiaakii inside, sat her down, listened to her story, ki proceeded very quickly ki skilfully to draw on her shoulder the most intricate ki beautiful tattoo we’d ever seen. It incorporated several underwater spirits, including the hammerhead shark, a life-line ki birthing canal, ki a braided weave of a sorts he explained bonded her to water. Before setting to work with the needles, Damion put his hand on piipiiaakii’s shoulder ki prayed. It took him at least an hour to complete the work. Afterward, I took a picture of piipiiaakii ki Damion together, in case we meet again in the future.

10 November 2008


IIII ) ll Iitao’tsstoyii (2 Nov 08)

I’m crouched, squatting behind a thin veil of aahsowa. Not ten meters from me, slightly further up the bank from her watering hole, is awatoyi. She had been casually eating when I walked up on her. And although she didn’t notice me then, she knows there’s something there, a shadow in the burr thicket. She’s facing me, ears forward. I stoop my head lower, she raises hers. As quiet as possible, I ready the arrow - a thin carbon rod, tipped with razors. From my position, so near the ground, all I can see is her head stretched high above the grass, eyes and ears alert. If I were to suddenly stand up, could I hit her in the chest before she turned tail? I wait, hoping she’ll go back to eating, give me that split-second advantage I’ll need. But she doesn’t. She knows something’s wrong. She makes a quick shuffle forward, just her forelegs, and whistles. I keep absolutely still. She lifts her head a little higher and whistles again. I know that if I don’t draw down soon, she’s going to run. And she knows that if she doesn’t turn soon, whatever the shadow is will pounce. We move at the same time. I stand and draw while she bolts. Three leaps it will take her to move through the bullberry bushes and out of sight. Somewhere near her second leap, I have my chance to release. No doubt the arrow would make contact. But it is not the target I want. Not the absolute kill shot. And so I hesitate and she’s gone. Nothing but a crashing forest sound growing more distant.

This awatoyi was not the only I’ve seen today. From dawn to dusk I move around an island of poplar forest on the north end of kainaissksaahko - sometimes with stealth, at other moments carelessly stomping through the brush and fall leaves. Many times I see the white tails, flickering as they bound away. There are no issikotoyiiksi in this stretch, as far as I can tell. No bucks either. Just awatoyi females, moving cautiously between beds, meadows, and watering holes. Twice I am near enough to warrant notching my arrow, but only the once in a position to draw. I wonder… if it were the past, and it meant the difference between eating and going hungry, would I have released anyway? Would I have dared ever move as carelessly?

The trees are all bare of leaves now, the songbirds gone. On a couple occasions, I startle large, grey sipisttooiksi from their roosts. But they see me before I see them, and so I get no clear identification. I also hear pairs of ringed-neck pheasants, flying away from me to keep their distance. The occasional flock of aapsspiniiksi passes overhead. And while I sit in a poplar, burning a cigarette and waiting for awatoyiiksi to pass below, a few niipomakiiksi come to inspect my circumstances. Dusk closes fast.

Although I go home empty-handed, for me it is a good day. Its times like these I really learn to appreciate aokakio’ssin, and how little I’m actually aware of in this place. But rather than taking such observation as a set-back, I receive it as a challenge and an opportunity. Every mistake carries within it the possibility for growth. Certainly now I have gained a sense of how different the odds are when hunting with a bow, as compared to a rifle. One needs to know the deer well if there’s any hope of ambushing them, and even better if there’s intent to stalk. I’ll have to experiment for a bit. I’ve determined that next time I come here, I’m going to set myself up comfortably in a brush blind overlooking the waterhole, and be patient. We’ll see what transpires then.

Itsiinohksikanikimmiksi Akaito’tooyaa

IIII ) lllll Iitao’tsstoyii (5 Nov 08)

A few short days can bring a lot of change. In the south, a new and hopeful president-elect. Here in kitawahsinnon, our first real wave of winter snow and an accompanying shift in avian phenology.

Miistapatonni, we awoke to strong, freezing winds coming from the northwest. For most of the morning, there was a well-defined arch of high clouds sculpted by these winds, and a more ominous dark curtain of low clouds peeking through the miistakiistsi. Driving along the canal, from BTAP through to Mookoan Reservoir, it was apparent that the animals were not overjoyed by this change after such a prolonged warm stretch. There were kakanottsstookiiksi sitting on gopher and badger mounds in the shelter of the canal’s levees, and awatoyiiksi as well. None of the usual aapi’siiksi were out. And the large flocks of mi’ksikatsiiksi were nowhere to be seen.

By the following morning, the wind had played out, and the low dark clouds that were previously lurking from behind the miistakiistsi had rolled down over the prairie, forming an even ceiling not much higher than Mookoanssin. It was still very cold, and apparently more so just below the clouds. Yet another wildfire was burning west of Levern, and it wound up testifying to the location of the cooler, more compact air. The smoke rose almost straight up, hit this wall, and spread out in a thin plane horizontal to the earth.

Along the canal again, the kakanottsstookiiksi were off the ground, onto the fenceposts. The awatoyiiksi were off somewhere doing their thing, no longer impeded by wind. The aapi’siiksi had come out of hiding. And all the sa’aiksi had returned. The hidden lake was covered in patches of mi’ksikatsiiksi, Mookoan Reservoir with flocks of aapsspiniiksi set right in the middle of the water, and a half-dozen stray buffleheads off the shoreline (all but one being female). On the fields between the two bodies of water were itsiinohksikanikimmiksi, feeding in a line. Although some of my earlier observations of ksikkomahkayiiksi on the lakes – a few of which remain, by the way – could have been itsiinohksikanikimmiksi, misidentified because of their distance from me, this sighting on the field was a sure thing. White goose bodies with black wing tips… as far as I’m concerned, the first I can confirm along my route this season.

Traveling the highways, ksikkapiitaipanikimmiksi and mamia’tsikimiiksi are the predominant sight. On my way home, as the inevitable snow finally began to fall, I counted seven ksikkapiitaipanikimmiksi between Mi’kai’sto and the turn-off to Mookoan Reservoir. Back along the canal, the aapsspiniiksi had moved to the shorelines, the itsiinohksikanikimmiksi had disbursed, and just a single patch of mi’ksikatsiiksi remained in the hidden lake.

What interested me most about these couple of days, besides the arrival of itsiinohksikanikimmiksi, was the number of kakanottsstookiiksi that are around. I wouldn’t be surprised if these were the sipisttooiksi I had been seeing while out deer hunting the other day. And it reminded me that, each winter, at Mi’kai’sto, we usually have a kakanottsstooki couple who live in one of the poplar trees lining the driveway. So this morning, when I went to work, I looked for them. They’ve not returned yet, but I would suspect it won’t be long.

The snow continued throughout the morning today, letting off finally by afternoon. It wasn’t cold enough to ice the streets, so it only stuck to the fields, but it was a respectable little storm. I’m still wondering whether the quick burst we had during the last moon was makoyisttsomo’kaan. On the drive home today, passing Innokimi, the waters were absolutely full of both mi’ksikatsiiksi and itsiinohksikanikimmiksi. Quite a sight. If it’s the same in the morning, I plan to take a few photos.


IIII ) lllllll Iitao’tsstoyii (7 Nov 08)

Matonni, the cloud cover was high and, just as predicted, the first of the kakanottsstooki couple who usually winter at Mi’kai’sto returned to the perch. At Innokimi, hundreds of mi’ksikatsiiksi covered at least a third of the lake’s surface, but no sign of the many itsiinohksikanikimmiksi.

Annohk ksiistsiko - which began with blue skies, but eventually gathered some high altitude clouds – nitsitapoo Siksika. As with my last trip up that way, there was no sign of wildlife (not even many ayinnimaiksi) during the drive, with the exception of my detour to Keho Lake. There, I found thousands of mi’ksikatsiiksi and hundreds of ksikkomahkayiiksi, the latter travelling in family groupings: mother, father, and an average of four juveniles. I noticed that some of the mi’ksikatsiiksi had black collars around the necks, and wonder what intrusive, so-called “environmentally-concerned” monitoring group is up to this? My thinking is, if you don’t want to take the time to get out there and look for yourself, get to know individual birds, and be a part of their lives, then you don’t deserve to know what’s going on with them. All these radio-based studies that involve chip insertion or collars seem wrong. Non-radio bands (bracelets) on the other hand, I don’t have such a problem with. In the past, niitsitapi would sometimes capture a juvenile bird, keep it for a short period in a willow cage, then put a bracelet on it and release it. They would tell these birds that they were empathizing with them, and this is why they were going to let them go, but that they hoped, in the future, those birds would return the favor, and come visit them again bringing a powerful gift. If the bird returned, it would be recognized by the bracelet.

Another recent arrival to the region this season, as far as I’m aware, were the kiihtsipimisa’aiksi swimming in the canal that drains from Keho. I’m going to be watching them this winter. I want to get a photo of one of the males in display, rearing his head back until it almost touches his tail. The image I’ve inserted here is of one of the females, just stretching her wings.

Outwitted, Outsmarted, Outlasted

IIII ) lllllllll Iitao’tsstoyii (9 Nov 08)

I have a newfound respect of awatoyiiksi. Over the last couple of days, they’ve completely skunked me. Miistapatonni, I returned before dawn to the north-end hunting grounds. After my prior failure to even line-up a good shot, I decided that rather than stalking I would sit still and wait for the awatoyiiksi to come to me. I found a good position between a bush and an embankment, where I could hide and look out over a watering hole on one side, and across a brushy feeding area on the other.

I brought a cushion to sit on, my bow and morning coffee, and just sat still for about an hour. A little ways off, down by omi niitahtaa, there was a flock of aapsspiniiksi, and I considered going after them. But I’d made up my mind whether to make the shift in intent, the aapsspiniiksi flew away. At that point, I decided to stalk a couple hundred meters into the brush, just to stretch my legs. I hadn’t gone more than a quarter this distance when I came head-on toward an awatoyi. She almost saw me before I crouched below her line of vision. But she knew something was amiss ahead, and so casually turned and began walking through some thick pa’kiipistsi. I got an arrow ready, and even though I didn’t have the perfect shot I went ahead and loosed it. At the sound of my bowstring, the awatoyi ran straight through the pakkii’pistsi and part-way up the side of the coulee. At first, I thought there was a good chance I had hit her. But when I moved forward, I found my arrow stuck neatly in the ground.

Walking back to my natural blind, I thought to myself that if I’d just stayed still another ten or fifteen minutes, that awatoyi would have walked right up to my ambush. I sat down again and waited. A heavy cumulous cloud moved overhead, drizzling rain. The rest of the morning passed with no activity. Eventually I got hungry and drove to town to pick-up lunch.

Returning about an hour later, I moved back into the blind again. Soon a flock of simitsiimiksi came over, alighting on a nearby a’siitsiksimm. I had expected them earlier in the season, when there were more mi’ksinittsiimiksi, and I’d even wondered if they’d passed through especially early and unnoticed, which might have accounted for the general lack of these miinistsi when we began picking. But here they were now, colorful and happy as usual. From the hight of their chosen tree, they would send out a few scouts in different directions, to find the choice miinistsi. Then parts of the flock would join the scouts, clean the bushes of their remaining fruit, and go back up the a’siitsiksimm. Never does the entire flock abandon the anchor tree until either they’ve had their fill or there’s a danger that provokes them to fly away. The simitsiimiksi remained near me for at least an hour, chattering away and eating mi’ksinittsiimiksi in this manner. When they finally left, I decided my legs were overdue for another stretch.

This time, I walked past the water hole, along the opposite embankment, toward omi niitahtaa. Out that way, there were some thick patches of kinii and mi’kapikssoyiis, and there I just saw white tails wagging into the woods as one after another awatoyi made easy escape.

Returning again to my blind, there was an awatoyi standing right in the open by the water hole, where I could have shot had I just remained in hiding. As it was though, she spotted me coming, and made her way quickly into some brush. I hunkered back down, watching the bush she entered, waiting for her to re-emerge. Eventually, she did, but not completely. She’d just put her head out every few minutes, and I got the sense that she was monitoring me, and would never come fully into view as long as I sat there.

By this time, dusk was coming. I hatched a final plan to circle wide around, out of sight, and stalk up on the bush with the doe. I took my time getting around to come at her from the opposite side. Walking the woods was a far different experience than it had been a few days prior. The snow had dampened and flattened most of the poplar leaves, making it a much more quiet experience. When I eventually got within decent range, I heard the awatoyi whistle twice. She’d spotted me. I crouched down and sat still. Then a pheasant, apparently also hidden in the same cluster of brush, began gobbling. When it finished its protest, I took four or five steps and hunkered back down. Again the awatoyi whistled. And then the pheasant picked up its gobbling. When it finished, I took a few more steps, sat down. The deer whistled. The pheasant gobbled. Now it felt like some kind of twisted game. Like we were all toying with each other. Our sequence went on another couple of rounds. By then, I’d moved too close and the awatoyi emerged, well within range and right in the open woods. My arrow was ready. I went to draw, using my trigger device, and I must have done something awkward in the excitement because, before I had drawn half-way, my arrow released. With the unexpected break in tension, I ended up slapping myself in the mouth. And of course the arrow fell far short. The awatoyi took off.

As I moved forward to retrieve my arrow, three other awatoyiiksi emerged from the same clump of brush, one of them a big buck. He stopped about where the first doe had, and so I quickly notched my arrow again, and this time drew back perfect. The buck jumped at my release, ran just a little ways, and stopped to look at me again. I wasn’t sure if I had hit him or not, so I got a second arrow out of my quiver, aimed and shot. This time, the buck bolted far into the bush.

I wasn’t completely confident that I’d hit him. Walking out to where he had stood, I began searching the grass and leaves for any sign of blood. It was getting quite dark, and after about fifteen minutes of search, I realized that I would not be able to see the signs if there were any, and that by the time I found him the woods would be black. So I gave up and resigned myself to go home (minus my two arrows) and return at first light.

This morning at dawn, I went back to the site. There was my first arrow, its yellow fletching bright against the brown leaves. I began walking switchbacks in the area of the second shot, finding neither my other arrow, nor blood traces. I continued switching-back into the woods, where the buck had run. Nothing. Half the day I wandered around the area. Nothing. I'd been skunked again.