23 December 2008

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.