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.