28 January 2009


III ) l (28 Jan 09)

The first sliver of the moon Ka’toyi lay on its back early last night, for the short time it was visible above the western horizon. Kaahsinnooniksi say this is a sign of warmer weather to come over the next few days, which may be a comforting thought to those who hid indoors while the old lady disappeared for four nights, as heavy winds made our freezing temperatures seem even colder.

Awake of my own accord well before dawn, I too am hopeful that the night has dulled the brisk chill. This morning, on my way to Red Crow, I have plans to take a photographic survey of life on the coulee rim above the Old Man and St. Mary’s Rivers. Prep-work for my next phenology lecture. My drive along One Spot Coulee had been productive last week, with its snow bunting flocks and accessible indigenous plants. It’s been awhile since the back-roads have been clear enough for me to hazard these routes to the college. Figure I’d better take advantage of the snow-free opportunity while it lasts.

It’s still quite dark when I leave the house. The wind hasn’t gone away. It’s strong enough to make my truck sway on occasion as I drive west past Coalhurst, and then south along the 509. I turn off on the gravel road just past Rocky Lake, and head for the coulee rim above my favourite hunting spot. I’m looking for aapiisipistoo, the all-white-faced snowy owl who’s been the terror of ditches and stubble-fields beside the highway over the past few evenings. Where he roosts during the earlier part of the day is a mystery I can’t ignore. The fence-lines near the coulee rim seems as good a place to check as any.

As I get nearer the river, the sky before me takes-on its pre-dawn glow, and I’m able to make out several small herds of deer feeding on the grassy plains around me. When I stop in the middle of the road to fetch my binoculars from the back seat, two of the herds start running for the coulee. Thirteen white-tails in all. There’s another group of fourteen deer closer to my truck. While these latter are duly attentive, and a bit nervous, they don’t run. I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps they’re black-tails when a flock of about thirty snow-buntings distract me, flying low over the field just north of my position. I watch them till they’re out of sight, then start down a side-road toward the deer, and find that they’re white-tails after all. Curiously though, they don’t panic and dash away as usual. Rather, they march casually over a small hill in a single-file line, effectively putting this obstacle between us.

Naato’si breaches the horizon at 8:10 by my clock, and I’m heading south through the bland mono-crops of the Blood Tribe Agricultural Project. Just before the foraging plant, I stop at a ditch to photograph yarrow, sunflowers, cattails, and curled dock – all variously useful and easily recognizable, even in this late season. Good plants to introduce to my students. A little further along the road, I come across more snow buntings. Aapinakoisisttsiiksi, or morning-birds, in Blackfoot. Three flocks pass me, one after the other. Twenty birds... thirty birds... then the main body of a hundred or more. All of them are flying low, no more than a few feet above the ground, apparently avoiding the brunt of the wind. The larger flock nearly sets down in a spot on the field that must have some qualities not discernable to me from the road, thistles I imagine, but then reconsiders and soon wings out of sight.

I keep going past the Lease Road, because up ahead I can see a coyote sitting exposed in the middle of a massive snow drift that has collected on the east side of a shallow hill. The coyote doesn’t appear disturbed by my approach, until I stop - as close as the road can take me – to peer through my binoculars. At that point, it reluctantly stands and trots south to put more distance between us. I stay put and watch, hoping it will either seek refuge in its den or settle down and begin hunting. I’m sure it was sitting on the drift as a matter of convenience, as an escape from the wind. The coyote moves south and then west, in a long arch, and then sits down again, watching me as I watch it. I realize this standoff could take awhile. Impatient, I turn around and go back to the Lease Road, then return to the 509.

My next turn-off is just a few kilometres away, at One Spot Road. Just at its entrance, I pull over and climb out to photograph a very old willow tree and a patch of awnless brome. It’ll make for a very telling analogy when I introduce them juxtaposed in my lecture, the aged indigenous plant thoroughly surrounded by an invasive species.

The Sun is now risen about ten degrees, and from my view there is a single large sun-dog stretched vertically off its east flank. For the next couple of kilometres, past my in-laws’ house, Naato’si is about all I can see. There are still huge mounds of hardened snow piled up on both sides of the road, above my line of vision. This only breaks when I reach the Day Chief’s, whose old barn roof announces their residence in bold block, white letters – DC. There, as last week, I see six rock doves in the air at my approach. Parking for a moment, I watch the small flock descent onto the stubble-fields and begin picking about for grain.

Just past the Day Chiefs’ (a surname which is actually a mistranslation for Ksiistsikomminaa, or Thunder Chief) is a gully leading into a hollow known as the Dipping Vat, part of the greater expanse of One Spot Coulee. As I’m about to pass over this draw, a female ring-necked pheasant flushes from some grass and lands in the gully at roadside. I pull up beside her, wrestling a bit to get my camera in place, and watch as she crawls to an obscure position beneath some low brush and lays down invisible.

Because she’d scared once, when I wasn’t even near her, I figure this pheasant will be easy enough to flush out again. I can at least get a photo of her on the wing. I open my truck door and get out, clearing my throat at the side of the road. She doesn’t budge. Then I start walking down the drifted embankment into the gully. Just as I’m about to the brush I’d watched her seek refuge in, a large white owl flies off. It had been sitting on the drift not ten meters from me, and I hadn’t even seen it. Luckily, my camera is ready, and I get off a series of shots, following the owl to a mid-sized poplar tree not too far away. When it turns around to face me, I hope to see the all-snowy face I’m looking for. Instead, and to my surprise, I’m met with an extremely white great horned owl. In the Blackfoot language, we call them kakanottsstooki, meagre-ears, in joking but official reference.

I’m so startled by the realization that this isn’t a snowy owl and I almost (but not quite) forget about the female pheasant crouched invisible not a few paces from my feet. No sooner do I take my eyes off the owl than she bursts out in flight, heading right back to the grass she’d originally come from. Although I miss the shot, there’s still plenty of opportunity to try stalking up on her again. But I feel like she’s had enough. In my estimation, the owl would have made a run at her were it not for my intrusions. If saving her life wasn’t enough to elicit a consensual photograph, I’d better just leave her alone.

I climb back in the truck and drive up the hill. As I’m cresting the top, another flock of twenty or so snow buntings cross the road, and I pass by several horned larks – individuals and pairs. Then a little further along the ridge, I come to more deer, and these ones are close to the road. I count sixty-seven on one side, forty-seven on the other, all white-tails. Like the last herd I encountered, these ones are not at all anxious. Attentive, yes. Apprehensive, no. Most of them lay where they are. A few bother to stand up. They don’t frighten, even when I park, roll down the windows, and start taking pictures. There’s not a single antler among them, which makes me think we’re finally far enough into winter that they’ve shed their horns. As I watch, visions of a follow-up trip with my bow begin playing in my thoughts. I’m getting hungry just looking at’em. I’ve heard that a man can outrun a deer when it comes to distance. Before I get any really crazy ideas, I’d better drive away.

Around the next bend, I turn west and start making my descent off the ridge. Half-way down, I come across two horned larks, one on each side of the road. I’ve got a whole collection of horned lark pictures, but I stop to take a few more anyway. My approach to the phenology lectures is to keep everything current... what I’m seeing in this moon, not last fall.

Pretty soon I’ve wound around to the highway that goes to Spring Coulee. There I gather speed toward the college. I pass by a farm with a granary, where there are about twenty-five rock pigeons flying circles above. As I come to Highway 2, a single crow flies overhead, moving south. I don’t see any other birds until I reach Red Crow, where house sparrows abound and our two resident kakanottsstokiiksi sit fluffed-up at their poplar roost.

Some hours pass before I leave the building again. There’re the two horned owls, and a black-billed magpie crossing at the end of the driveway. By contrast, the highway is desolate. Below the Belly Buttes, I scan hopefully for the red-tailed hawk who’d been roosting and feeding there since the holidays. It’s nowhere to be seen. Naato’si goes behind the mountains at 5:10 p.m. by my clock. Nine hours of sunshine. Not until I’m at the far north end again does my anticipation peak. There are just a couple more kilometres of power-poles before they dead-end at Rocky Lake. This is white-faced snow owl territory.

I find him sitting on the very last pole. As I approach, he does a quick, deep nod. I wonder if he can see my eyes through the windshield. I drive about a kilometre further, to the next gravel road, and there turn around and head back, pulling off the 509 directly across from the owl. It’s rush-hour on the Blood Reserve, which is nothing compared to places like Calgary, Edmonton, even Lethbridge. All the same, to my sensibilities the traffic seems heavy. Every time a car or truck passes – at a hundred and twenty klicks or so – my truck, off the road, stationary, engine shut down, is tugged by the wind pressure. What could possibly be the hurry? Do they even see this visitor, here for but a moon or so?

Between the breaks in passing vehicles, I rest a 900mm lens on top of my half-rolled-down window and click-off shots. Always, aapiisipistoo has me in his sights. Even when he lifts off, hovering with downy white legs dangling to inspect a possible vole in a ditch beside the power pole, the black pupil amidst the gold of his nearest eye betrays his distraction. I watch the owl for about a half-hour, during which he make three aborted attempts to drop on his prey. When it’s getting dark, I drive up the road, find a pull-off to turn around in, then pass by one last time on my way home. Again, the snowy bobs its head. I haven’t seen this movement since I first passed-by. My only conclusion is that he awaits and recognizes me as much as I do him.

11 January 2009


III ) lllllllllllll Misamiko’komiaato’s (11 Jan 09)

Nitsiipahtsa’ssi… I’ve made a mistake. That’s a good sign. It means the learning is still ongoing. To me, the best mistakes, the most humbling ones, are those that make me aware of how I’ve failed to embody a knowledge already claimed as my own. These are the kinds of mistakes that really grind our experiences in, so that they’re part of us forever, so that they won’t be forgotten or assumed again in the future.

The mistake I made was not a big one, as far as erring goes. And by that I mean it wasn’t Naapi’s kind of mistake. It didn’t affect the lives of others. It didn’t change anything, permanently or even temporarily. It was just personal. A verbalized thought. A hypothesis. A question, but one I should have known better than to ask.

It’s not the appearance of the moon that signals the many disparate flocks of aapsspini to leave their stubble-field feeding grounds at dusk and rendezvous on the river ice. How I could have even entertained that possibility now seems ludicrous. It’s not the moon, it’s not the sun, and it’s not the stars. But it is something. Probably a complex combination of somethings. The trick is to look from many different perspectives....

This evening I went down to the river again, to the cleft, a mysterious slice of remaining open water that functions, at least in the evenings, as a nexus for the drama of life. I could have walked down from my house, following the coulee ridges again, been disturbed once more by the apparent lack of animal signs that had been here only last winter, when the suburbs above had been a block further away. I could have walked, but I didn’t. The strong wind of two nights ago had yet to subside, and I wasn’t in the mood to struggle and sweat.

Instead, I took a path of less resistance. I drove down into Paradise Canyon, on the flood plains, and parked at their golf-club restaurant. I figured, this time of year, nobody would be set back by the appearance of an obvious non-member traipsing across the snow-covered greens to get at the river beyond. And besides, how would they know I wasn’t a resident, the pseudo-rich owner of one of the local bungalows, just out to clear my lungs with the brisk evening air? I trusted they wouldn’t know, and so tried to walk with a stride of belonging… at least to the extent I could, given the terrain. Two full days of chinook winds meant a lot of melted ice and hardened snow. The river was no longer trustworthy, especially at its thin, slushy edges. Although I’d cut some corners driving in, there would be no easy route to the open crag downstream. Only the unpredictable lift and fall over hills of drift, some sturdy, some weak.

For the most part, I followed the edge of the cutbank beside the river, leading past the few remaining poplars that stand as remnants of an ancient forest levelled not so long ago. I was surprised to see several robins, inspecting me like chickadees from the safety of the upper branches. In my tentative opinion, the persistence of robins through northern winters – reported from birders in most of Alberta’s cities this year – is not a particularly good sign. It’s another reminder of how our urban environments are prompting changes in the normative behaviour of avian species. While this may not be immediately problematic, we don’t have any way to gauge where the line is situated between an individual bird’s short-term response to food availability and the long-term selection of a (mal)adaptive trait by the population as a whole. Certainly we wouldn’t want to see too many species becoming overly dependent on the persistence of our unsustainable modern lifestyle. It should be we who labour most to fit-in with the established ecologies of our local environs.

As the robins and I watch one another briefly, under skeletal shadows of the leafless poplars, a small flock of geese pass overhead, presumably making their way downriver to the open water cleft. Thinking the evening’s event might already be underway, I pick-up my pace along the cutbank, but then hear the rhythm-less song of the same flock returning. They move back upriver, past my position, and then ascend to the top of the coulee. What prompted them to abort their intended landing?

It’s another ten or fifteen minutes up and down sinking snow drifts before I come round a bend in the river, and within sight of the open water. There, bent-over atop the feathery mound of a goose carcass, stands a large adult bald-eagle, a host of black-billed magpies dancing at its feet. Busy plucking grey plumes from the belly of its kill, the eagle doesn’t see me. As quickly and stealthily as possible, I pull away from the river, out of view, and move downstream until I’m nearly parallel with the bird. There, hidden by the rim of the cutbank, I set down my gear, readying both my SLR and video cameras. This is the footage I’ve been trying to get at for several weeks, the feeding interactions between bald eagles and magpies along the Old Man River.

I creep, all-too-crunchy step over all-too-crunchy step, back toward the cutbank, keeping my head low and out of sight, until all that shields me from detection is a final berm of hard-pack snow. A defining moment, of sorts, because the next move I make will almost certainly determine how much I’m allowed to gain from this opportunity. I could get quietly onto my belly, then slowly raise my tripod to establish the video shot, so that only the unthreatening camera comes into the eagle’s view. That would be the smart way to proceed. Unfortunately, I’m so excited to have chanced upon this feeding event that the adrenaline is pumping, demanding I do something quick, before I lose all opportunity for documentation. Too often, at this point in an encounter, I divert my attention away in order to change camera lenses, only to look back again and find that the bird I’m hoping to shoot has disappeared. I want to ensure that I at least get one solid photograph of this eagle before I bother arranging video.

Sitting up on my knees and raising my camera, I click-off a burst of three or four shots. The eagle looks up at me, takes another tear at the belly of the carcass, looks at me again, and takes flight. The magpies immediately move in, one hopping up on top of the goose and pulling away at guts exposed by the eagle, another picking at the dead animal from one side, and four more pecking at specks of this and that on the ice.

Luckily, the eagle hasn’t gone far - maybe ten meters away, just to get some distance and gauge the situation. It’s still standing on the river, and obviously doesn’t want to abandon its meal. I may not have totally botched this. Quickly as can be managed, I plant my tripod legs into the snow bank and focus the video for a fairly tight shot on the goose. Then I do what I should have done to begin with… leave the camera there to be my eyes, and back away.

I don’t have to go far to get out of view again, where I plan to sit still. The moment I’m gone, back at the carcass, the magpies scatter in a wide circle as the eagle lands back on the ice next to its kill. It glances around, while the magpies cautiously advance, and then struts up, stands on top the goose, and begins effortlessly pulling off big tufts of breast plumage. Beside this bird, the magpies look absolutely puny. Every time the eagle pulls a wad of plumage, tossing it into the wind, the magpies withdraw a little. They’re not going to try to compete for this carcass. Instead, they eventually begin chasing down the discarded goose plumes, holding them against the ice with one foot while using their beaks to strip whatever flesh they can get off the quills.

Only a few minutes have passed, but I’m already getting curious. Compounding the temptation to get another peek at whatever might be happening with the eagle on the ice, I notice another large eagle soaring overhead and two coyotes pacing across the ice downriver. Moreover, small flocks of geese are starting to fly by, making noise, obviously weighing whether or not they want to hazard landing at the rendezvous site. If any or all of these new arrivals advance, I want to be by my video camera so I can pan out and capture the action.

The decision’s already made, I’m going to try to take a seat next to the tripod, and just hope I don’t look too spooky. But if this is going to happen, I figure it needs to appear casual to the eagle on the ice, not like I’m stalking. So while I still crouch low, I keep my eyes on the ground and move at a fairly swift pace to get into position. The sight of my return startles the eagle at first, and it again puts a little distance between us. But I sit down and fix my eyes to the camera, so the bird won’t think I’m paying it any attention, and after a few minutes it returns.

Of course, the magpies had bolted forward across the slippery ice like a pack of starving dogs the moment the eagle abandoned its kill. They could care less about the ugly, unfamiliar creature perched on the cutbank above. Instead, they uncharacteristically hop on top the carcass non-competitively, two or three at a time, gulping down as much goose flesh as they can in the limited window they likely have to take advantage of. When the eagle returns a minute or two later, they scatter again.

A few more tufts of soft plumage are pulled away and discarded, then the eagle turns its back to me and begins feeding. With each bite, it glances at me over its shoulder, and then turns a bit further away. It’s obviously wishing it didn’t have to see me there, and after swallowing just five or six good chunks of goose meat, the eagle has had enough. It flies away, annoyed, to perch in a poplar on the other side of the river and wait for me to leave. Three of the magpies follow and join it in the branches, several others stay and make haste to fill-up on prime goose meat.

I could get up and walk away again, but downriver I still see a single coyote sitting on the ice, watching. I know it’s only a matter of time before it tries to claim the goose carcass, and I don’t want to miss-out on filming the action. Instead, I stay put, hoping the eagle will lose patience and return. In the meantime, I continue recording the feeding magpies, which now seems a rather unextraordinary event. They work steadily, two or three on top of the dead bird at once, swallowing the smaller pieces of meat they get, and flying off to cache any larger strips they happen to tear loose.

About fifteen minutes pass, during which the magpies continue to feed, a couple more small flocks of geese make low surveys of the scene, and the eagle overhead soars past again. Then I notice there’s something happening with the eagle in the poplar tree. I pan over with the video camera and focus in. The three magpies who had originally joined it in the branches are now making an attempt to chase the eagle away. They flutter, singly and in pairs, at its feet and back, pestering. Every time one of them gets within pecking distance, the eagle jerks its head in that direction, opening its beak, and the magpie backs away. Although it’s not ready to give up on the possibility of returning to its meal, the eagle is clearly uncomfortable. After a few minutes of magpie badgering, it becomes visibly paranoid, and glances over its shoulders every few seconds to make sure one of the smaller birds isn’t on the verge of another attack.

It’s getting darker now, the sun passed over the horizon, and I’m starting to wonder if the aapsspiniiksi will return at all tonight. Perhaps the few small flocks who had surveyed the site somehow communicated its dangers this evening. On the other hand, the waning moon hasn’t emerged yet, and this fits with what I observed two nights ago, when the rendezvous seemed coordinated with the visible illumination of kippitaakii, the old lady.

Just as I am pondering these possibilities, the first brave goose comes in for a water-landing in the open crag. It swims around briefly, probably inspecting the scene. I don’t know if it notices the semi-camouflaged eagle perched in a nearby tree, or the patient coyote sitting on the ice a couple hundred meters upriver. My suspicion is that the goose doesn’t register these threats at all, but is rather more concerned with my intentions. I sit fairly still, with the exception of one arm I use to pan and focus the camera, and soon it hops out of the water, onto the ice, where it stands nervously.

A new thought begins to formulate. Taking into consideration the lone Canada goose on the ice, and the watchful eagle and nearby coyote – not to mention the second eagle who continues to soar by ever so often, and other predators surely lurking unseen – I start considering that it might be a good time to walk away from the camera for a bit and see if anything morbid unfolds. Just a little ways behind me there’s a bit of a hill, an artificial feature sculpted into the golf-course landscape. It’s short, yet high enough to conceal me well from view.

I stand up and walk, over the hill, to the other side, there taking up a prone position just out of sight. Perhaps four or five minutes pass - long enough at least for the eagle to have returned to the carcass. Slowly, I inch up the hill and peer over the grass and snow. The eagle’s still in its tree, the coyote remains seated downriver. Backing off again, I wait another four or five minutes and try once more. Nothing. Then a second goose comes in for a landing on the water.

Okay, I figure if the eagle hasn’t come back to its kill after ten minutes, it must be because the bird isn’t so stupid to assume that just because I’ve walked over a hill and disappeared from view, I’m gone altogether. In fact, all I’ve probably accomplished is to make the eagle even more wary. Best to just return to my seat on the cutbank and stay put. Otherwise my weird behavior might just blow the whole evening.

I’ve definitely got the two lone geese concerned. As I get comfortable again beside the camera, the one on the ice hurriedly moves along the edge of the crag to stand closer to the other, and then a couple minutes later joins it in the water. Together they paddle back and forth, and around in tight ellipses, until they’re confident again. Only then do they climb back out onto the ice together, flapping their wings and wagging their tails to shake them dry. They stand alert, one or the other occasionally walking back to the water and dipping its head down for a drink.

The coyote’s getting anxious now. It moves from the center of the river to one edge and sits down again. Then four more geese arrive at the cleft, this time landing right on the ice beside the two scouts. A few minutes later, the coyote begins its approach. It trots along until it’s no more than about thirty meters from the most downriver edge of the cleft. There, a flock of eight or nine magpies are busy pecking around on the ice. The coyote turns its flank toward them and stands still for about half a minute. I wonder if it’s using body language to communicate, letting them know that it has no intention to harm them, that it’s only after the carcass. I consider this as a possibility, because when the coyote does start moving again it trots right into the midst of the little flock, and neither they nor the nearby geese seem particularly concerned. The coyote sniffs around on the ice beside the feeding magpies and selects two different spots to squat and urinate (it’s a female). Then it moves with purpose toward the dead goose.

The video camera is running and my SLR clicking away, but I myself remain as motionless as possible. The coyote approaches to within just a few paces of her objective when she finally notices me and comes to a slippery stop on the ice. At first, she’s completely dumbfounded. She just stands there with her head tilted to one side, probably wondering how I’d ever managed to come so close to her. Then, with an utterly dejected air, she turns back and starts to trot away, looking at me over her shoulder as she goes. She was so close to having a meal, I wonder why she didn’t just try to quickly steal it. Instead, she pulls back all the way to the far edge of the open-water cleft, to the area she had marked, and there begins to bark and wail at me, briefly frightening the magpies away.

The coyote’s howls are maintained relentlessly, and for a while I continue recording her, wishing there wasn’t so much wind. Then I hear something different, an odd sort of high-pitched, staccato jabbering. And as I look across the river, I see the eagle that has been occasionally soaring past suddenly plummet from the sky and crash down through the poplar branches, almost landing on top of the other eagle. The latter quickly drops to the ground, and then goes flying through the forest downriver. It is pursued both by the eagle who just came down, and by a small host of magpies, the whole group disappearing among the trees.

I go back to recording the coyote, and eventually the coulee begins to fill with yet another sound, that of incoming geese. First there are three or four small flocks, many members of which land in the water rather than on the ice. But soon a massive wave descends, flock after flock, with barely a distinguishable gap between them. In the space of just ten or fifteen minutes, the ice becomes covered with waddling, honking bodies, and the voice of the coyote, still barking and carrying on, is drowned out.

As on previous evenings, I continue to record – panning up and down the river, past more than a thousand birds – until it’s far to dark. Tonight, the waning moon hasn’t even emerged, and I realize that over the couple weeks the old lady will arrive later and later, until she disappears altogether, and still I’m sure the geese will continue to rendezvous here in the evenings, as the last bit of visibility fades. How I could have ever thought otherwise now seems embarrassing.

I pack up my cameras and begin the walk back to my truck, trespassing across the golf course without concern under the cover of night. Oddly, I find a porcupine huddled motionless on one of the greens. And even when I reach the parking lot, I can still hear straggler flocks of geese arriving out on the river.


III ) lllllllllll Misamiko’komiaato’s (9 Jan 09)

Yet another blizzard descended on southern Alberta yesterday. Adrienne and I got caught driving in it for about three hours, on our return trip from her rheumatologist up north. This morning, I woke up late as a result of exhaustion, both from the intense road trip and from a subsequent long night of writing, premised on the assumption that the college would be closed in the morning. It wasn’t. When I phoned-in at ten o’clock, the secretaries told me that the roads were passable, and that most of the staff were there, trying to get our regular operations underway. So off I went...

Along the route south through the reserve, I came across a large flock of snow buntings near the buttes, two pheasants perched in a bull-berry bush at lower Standoff, and an immature bald eagle flying low across the highway near Farm Four. My father-in-law has been watching this eagle feeding on road-kill in that area for several days.

I wasn’t long at the college, just a few hours, before the wind picked-up at my window and I began to hear rumours of drifting conditions on the north end. On my way out the door, headed home early again, I noticed that both our resident great horned owls were present in their poplar tree, which to me suggested the wind conditions weren’t going to be all that troubling right away. During the earliest winter moons this season, when my commute involved surveys along the canal system draining from Mookoan Reservoir, I noticed that great horned owls seemed almost always to seek shelter just before and throughout the early phases of heavy wind storms. If our owls at Red Crow weren’t concerned, perhaps I didn’t need to be either.

All the same, I was happy to hit the road early. I wanted to return to the aapsspini rendezvous site on the Old Man River, and attempt to get better footage of the event from a closer vantage. Making my way north through the reserve again, I encountered four ravens (about where the immature eagle had been earlier), more snow bunting flocks, a red-tail hawk gazing from atop a pole at the bottom of the buttes, and five pheasants sitting conspicuously in a stubble-field about half way to the hump.

As soon as I got home, I threw on my snow gear and started making my way down to the river. This time around I was more prepared, carrying both a tripod for the video camera and a cushioned camp-seat that would keep me from losing so much of my body-heat to the ground. I was also a good half-hour earlier than during my previous visit, allowing myself ample time to select a new position from which to observe. I wasn’t going to cross the river again to the wooded island. Two nights ago, as I made my way back over the ice, I heard and felt a dangerous “gulp” beneath me at mid-river, the kind of sound one imagines preceding a sudden drop into icy waters. Then yesterday’s broth winds melted things even more. I wasn’t going to risk it again without at least a few days of serious cold as a buffer, I don’t trust the ice right now.

I walk the old barbwire fence-line again, following it out along a ridge that slowly descends toward the river. Scanning the drainage between my ridge and the next one over, I once again find no deer, no coyotes, no porcupines, not even a black-billed magpie. Nor are there any trails that I can see. This route had certainly changed from last winter, when signs of regular animal traffic were so dense, I’d have to wait for a new-fallen snow if I wanted to try and detect any stories of their activity. Otherwise, it was just a mess of scrambling tracks going every which way.

As I dip down onto the final ridge-point, the entire river comes into view. I can see two mule deer poking around in the forest on the opposite shore. I also notice – with some surprise – that there are no Canada geese at all sitting by the open water cleft upriver. For a brief moment, my heart sinks as I entertain the thought that they may have moved on to another location. But just as I’m considering this, the first six aapsspiniiksi arrive, silently gliding down from the southeast coulee rim. The event is just beginning.

For the next fifteen minutes, I half walk, half jog through the snow, down the remaining stretch of coulee slope and upstream along the ice. I’m breathing hard and sweating when I reach the cutbank where I intend to find a blind among the willows, goldenrod, and chokecherry. There are magpies on the wing, one of them giving a double-call as I arrive. No doubt the magpies are positioning themselves to observe the same event that brought me here. Their hope is that the reunion of geese will incite a successful predatory campaign, initiated by either a coyote or a larger bird, and that they might then steal a share of goose dinner.

The Sun is just reaching the horizon, bringing the cliffs upriver into golden relief. I push slowly along the cutbank, watching the geese, waiting for the semblance of agitation that will tell me when I’m near to breaching their comfort zone. When it comes, the six on the ice suddenly stand alert, their heads erect, watching me. If I move any closer right away, they may fly. At this particular spot, there’s nothing to conceal me from the others who’ll be arriving. I just have to trust that, even though I’m out in the open, I’ll still be considered far enough away to be no threat.

I plunk into my little camp chair and set-up the video camera. I’m a bit further out from the open water than I had hoped, but it’ll have to do.

Once everything’s in place, I try to relax. I’m in pretty good physical shape, but the snow has given me a workout. I take off my toque and unzip my jacket, hoping the some of the sweat will evaporate and cool me down. Right about now, I’m wishing the river wasn’t so polluted. I’d love to break a hole in the ice and take a long, quenching swig.

Over then next ten minutes, twenty-eight more geese arrive in two flocks. Some of them take a quick bath in the open water before flying up to land on the ice. They’ve come in quiet, and remain that way until a bald eagle comes soaring high overhead, following the coulee upriver. While the eagle’s in sight, a few of the aapsspiniiksi give a series of excited calls, and then quiet down again.

Another ten minutes pass, the cliffs are no longer illuminated by sunlight, and now there are forty-six geese on the ice. Not nearly the kind of numbers I was seeing yesterday at this phase of dusk. I’m beginning to wonder if some of the geese haven’t relocated downriver, when I notice the eagle has circled back. It makes a half-hearted swoop down below the coulee rim over the geese, only a couple of whom seem to notice. A few seconds later, the eagle drops from the sky, coming to within about fifteen meters of the geese, and then for some reason changes its mind and flies again upriver. It could be that the eagle spotted me watching from the cutbank.

According to the digital readout on my video camera, at thirty minutes into the event I spot another raptor of some sort, smaller than an eagle, shaped somewhat like a falcon. It’s flying below the coulee rim just opposite of my position, but far back into the drainages on the other side of the valley. Even with my field glasses, it’s difficult to get better notes for identification. It’s a dark-grey bird with a conspicuous white spot under each wing, occasionally tucking its pointed wings back at the elbow for a rapid, diving glide. I see this bird for maybe thirty seconds, and it’s gone.

All the while as I sit and wait, I occasionally glance into the chokecherries behind me. There appears to be a black, plastic garbage bag stuck up in the branches, probably blown in by the wind. Then I notice that the bag has begun to climb higher, and that it’s starting to look less like a bag altogether. Leaving my video camera, but taking my SLR, I get up and walk over to investigate. I don’t have to cover more than a third the distance when it becomes obvious that the bag is actually a dark porcupine. It has eaten almost all the bark off this tree and several others nearby, from about four feet off the ground, up toward the ends of the branches. The tree that it’s in is low enough that I’m able to get a couple photographs that don’t look like just a ball of fur in the branches.

Getting up to investigate the porcupine has inspired me with confidence that the geese are none too concerned about my movement, that I could seek out an even closer position. I leave my video camera running where it is, but take my field-glasses, chair, and SLR, and start winding my way through the willows and goldenrods, following an obvious beaver trail. The edge of the cutbank is just thick with brush, there’s nowhere to sit and have a concealed but clear view. But about fifty meters upstream, I find a nice slide that’ll take me down onto the river ice. I move slow, so as not to upset the birds, and take up a new position just under the embankment.

The coulees are really growing dark now, the geese are getting louder as they try to locate and guide new arrivals, and I’m wondering if my video camera will be able to capture enough light (I never switched on the night-vision). I don’t bother walking back over to check on it though, because at this point the event is in full swing. Flock after flock of Canada geese are landing in front of me, and I’m doing my best to make an accurate count. Just as their numbers breach the five-hundred mark, a massive flock descends, and I have to face the fact that there’s no possibility I’ll be able to keep up. All of them are coming not from upriver, as they had two nights ago, but straight down from the fields southeast of the open water, above the cliffs. Watching them drop from that height, wings curled tight to grip the air, legs extended, it almost gives the impression that they’re skiing down the snowy slopes. Only in the final phase of their approach, as they give a few strong wing-strokes to reduce their impact on landing, is the illusion broken.

I recognize that several things are different about the event tonight. The position of where the geese were feeding during the daylight hours has changed, judging from the direction of their arrival. Also, there are no flocks this evening that choose to pass-by this site in preference for whatever awaits downriver. Every goose I see lands right here. Another significant difference is the timing of the event. It’s far darker tonight when the bulk of the geese arrive, and I wonder if this may have anything to do with the appearance of the moon. During my last visit, when the geese arrived just at dusk, the skies were relatively clear, with the moon visible and illuminated the whole while. Tonight, on the other hand, the moon was masked behind cloud-cover at sundown, and only emerged bright and nearly full after the coulee grew dark. This late appearance of the moon seemed to coincide with the mass arrival of geese on the ice.

When my view of the geese eventually becomes strained by darkness of night, I climb back up the cutbank and walk over to disassemble the video equipment. The digital readout indicates that the event has been ongoing for an hour and a half, with most of the geese arriving in the last forty minutes. There are still more coming in, calling loudly back and forth with those on the ice below. I lost count at least a half hour ago, and started estimating. I can say with confidence there are at least a thousand geese huddled around this crag of open water, and perhaps as many as fifteen hundred.

Rather than following my same route home, I decide to climb the adjacent ridge just upriver. I want to see if there’s a good lookout position up there from which to observe the geese departing in the morning, suspecting they won’t allow me to come nearly as close at daybreak. As I ascend up the first slope, I begin to realize how much the wind strength has picked-up in just the couple hours I’ve been out. There are gusts now that force me to struggle a bit to keep my footing. I do, however, find the prefect perch to visit in the future… what we would call ni’tommo, a lone peak. At its apex, just protruding from the snow, I find a small rock cairn, maybe three feet in diameter. I’d never walked this particular ridge before, so the cairn is new to me. But it’s one of several such cairns I know of around this bend of the river, in addition to the large turtle effigy just above, on the coulee rim. The smaller cairns, like the turtle effigy, are sites of offering, but in a somewhat different sense. The turtle indicates that the flats below, now better know as Paradise Canyon, once served as a garden for the growing of sacred tobacco. The turtle itself would weigh-down offerings associated with tobacco growing and harvesting, including the rawhide bowl that the seeds were soaked and fertilized in – painted to represent a turtle’s back, with other animals featured in each panel. The smaller cairns, on the other hand, often marked the site where a warrior fell in battle. There’s a line of such cairns a little ways downriver, following the route of the last significant battle against the Cree in 1871. In this case, the offering is the human body itself, which would be wrapped and placed on scaffolding atop lone peaks along the river, such as this one. There was no selfish attempt, as today, to lock the body away in tombs of metal and stone. Rather, it was given back to feed life.

I continue my ascent, fighting against the wind and blowing snow. When I near the coulee rim, I hear a thousand geese in an uproar far below. I can’t see them, but from their cries I know they are on the wing, moving downriver. No doubt the coyotes stirred them to withdraw. A few minutes later though, I hear at least some (if not all) of the geese circle back and return to the crag of open water. I wonder briefly how many times each night they are provoked to undertake such maneuvers. I say “briefly” because, as I crest the coulee rim, already having climbed for at least a half hour, I’m hit with a powerful and relentless blast of snow that demands my full attention. It’s a difficult struggle the rest of the way home. By the time I reach the house, I’m soaked in sweat, my face feels like it’s been sandblasted, and my eardrums ache from the pounding they’ve received despite being covered under layers of cotton and wool. I’ll have to consider whether I’ll want to make the same round-trip again under threat of winter chinook winds.

07 January 2009

Iitsitayo'kaa Miiksi Aapsspiniiksi

III ) lllllllll Misamiko’komiaato’s (7 Jan 09)

Yesterday was business in town for Adrienne and I, a series of meetings that quickly stole away our daylight. I often wonder why we don’t do as in the past, and conduct these kinds of affairs during evening hours in this season, rather than committing ourselves to grow pale indoors. Just another way we neglect to respond to the natural cycles of our environment, I suppose.

During one of the intermissions between meetings, we were able to make a quick run out to Thunder Chief’s gas bar to pick up smokes. On the way back to Lethbridge, I noticed a small flock of geese nestled into the snow in a stubble-field on the north side of Highway 3 and, a bit closer to the river, we saw two adult bald eagles – one sitting in a tree, and a huge bird soaring low overhead. It was frustrating to have to just drive on past these familiar faces. It reminded me of one of the analogies I use at the college when discussing traditional harvests, like berry picking. Our relationships with the plants and animals were established thousands of years ago, and for all but the smallest fragment of time since, indigenous people from around the world lived up to those commitments. Although today we’re only a couple generations removed from our ancestors, we now go driving along the highway at a hundred kilometres an hour, nearly oblivious to what’s around us, and when we see the berries and others present themselves to us, we just pass on by. We might consider scheduling a berry picking excursion into our summer agenda, but we insist that the visit manifests when we’re good and ready, with no concern at all for the desire or intent of the bushes themselves. To me, this is like walking past one of our elders on the street, and when he or she smiles and goes to shake our hand, we just turn a cold shoulder.

I wish Adrienne and I could have stuck around to visit the geese and the eagles. They don’t show themselves to people without cause. Every such encounter is an opportunity for visiting and exchanging, learning and nourishment. Yet we often settle for just being able to see them in passing. That’s not much of a relationship. Driving away to our next meeting, I thought to myself, I don’t do New Years resolutions, but if I have a personal resolve it’s this… I’m going to respond more often to the invitations extended by the plants and animals I encounter. That evening, when we got home, I took my daughter to her piano lessons, and then set off to the coulee to begin following-up on a couple of the invitations I’d been given most recently.

There were a couple of outstanding challenges that I felt needed to be addressed. First off, there was the lingering question of the long-eared owl’s residence. I’d seen it hunting along the river on two consecutive evenings, and I thought (probably mistakenly) that I might have even heard it calling on occasion. I’d searched the two poplar forests where I thought the long-eared most likely to be residing, and came up empty. But in my continuing discussions with Del Huget, of the Lethbridge Nature Society, I learned that these owls will sometimes occupy old magpie nests in areas of dense willow. That was news to me. I hadn’t even thought of searching through the substantial willow growth where I’d first observed the owl hunting.

The other thing that was bothering me was the unidentified rodent tracks. I wanted to know who was coming down off the sheer cliffs, exposing themselves during long-distance journeys across the snow and ice, to get at the seeds and stems of the licorice plants. Doing what research I could on the net, I narrowed the possibilities down to two species: the bushy-tailed woodrat or the least chipmunk. Of the two, the woodrat seemed the more likely, because although I’d never come across any of their nests in the cliffs, I hadn’t really gone looking for them either. The least chipmunk, on the other hand, seemed less likely because, even though some of the literature places it in these parts, I’d think that in a few years of walking the coulees I’d have seen one by now.

Another member of Albertabird, Katie Calon, had read my previous descriptions of the rodent tracks and asked for pictures, so that she and her working group could try to identify them. I sent her a close up, along with a shot of the tracks beside one of my ski gloves, evidence of the eight-inch stride that – from what I’ve seen – is pretty typical of these animals. Katie’s group came back with two potentials as well: the bushy-tailed woodrat (again) and the deer mouse. I hadn’t considered the deer mouse before, because the one’s I’d seen, including the deer mouse who’s in our Beaver Bundle, looked pretty small to be taking such long strides. But it turns out these mice have a stride that can range from four to twenty inches, taking longer hops when out in exposed areas, such as the places where I’d been seeing the tracks. What Katie suggested was that I bring a ruler along on my next hike and try to measure the stride width, and that would tell us who the more likely candidate really was. While I fully intend to follow-up on that advice, I’m also very interested in seeing the animal with my own eyes as well.

I figured a trip to the coulees after sundown might be an opportunity for me to respond to both the long-eared owl and the rodent, both of whom could be active in the dark. Of course I had already missed the magic hour of dusk, but I thought it was still worth a shot. So I got my warm clothes on, grabbed a video camera with night vision capability, and drove out.

With the broth winds we had a couple days ago, the access road to the river-bottom was closed and drifted-in. I would have to hike down again. Unfortunately, the place I wanted to park also had a bit of a drift blocking its access. This one didn’t look too bad though, so I tried gunning through it, thinking that as long as I had some momentum behind me I’d definitely clear it to the other side. Bad decision. For the next forty-five minutes I was laying beside my truck, working a little trenching shovel underneath to try and dig myself out. By the time I got unstuck, I was thoroughly damp with sweat, the kind of sweat that can be dangerous when you’re walking around outside in the cold. I almost turned around to go home. But then I thought, I can at least walk right down to the river and back up. With all that digging to get here, I owe myself that much.

So I started making my way down. Below, I could see a group of seven deer spread-out grazing on a wide grassy ledge, with another larger deer (probably the buck) laying down on a nearby ridge. The deer saw me too, and when I stopped to watch for a minute they got nervous. The seven bunched together and moved around to the other side of the ridge, out of my view. The one laying on top just stayed there, observing my descent.

Further down the slope, I came across two different groups of grey partridge, both of which flew off as I approached. Neither group had too many members. It was dark, of course, but I would estimate four or five birds in each. They may have been a single flock to start, because they were only about twenty or thirty meters from one another. I wondered though, with the cold night air, why they hadn’t nestled in together.

All the while as I walked, I scanned the area around me, searching the snow for any hint of movement that might lead to a rodent encounter. I also stopped now and then to listen. The appearance of both the land and the river had changed with the chinook. Where there had been a more-or-less even blanket of snow two days ago, now there were waves of exposure, broken by high drifts. One of the drifts I came to, on a ledge half-way down the coulee, was piled up taller than me.

When I reached the confluence of the rivers, I sat down on a boulder to rest, have a smoke, and decide whether or not to climb back up to the truck right away. I was warm enough, but still damp. The determining factor in my decision came when the owls started calling. It began with a series of typical great horned owl songs, coming from the forest on the other side of the river…

Hu-hu-huu hu-huu huu

Hu-hu-huu hu-huu huu

Then I heard the same song coming from downriver, probably from the bird I’d found roosted over there the other day. But that call was answered by another owl with a slightly different song…

Hu-huu huu huu

I started walking, using the ice on the river to speed me along. Then I cut up on the bank and wound my way through the willows to the cutbank at the edge of the forest. I wanted to find out where the response call was coming from. When I though I was close enough, I sat down on a log and listened. The songs went back and forth…

Hu-hu-huu hu-huu huu

Hu-huu huu huu

It was definitely two separate owls, because in waiting for responses from one another, sometimes one would try its call again, interrupting the start of the other’s song. I knew the response call was not coming from a long-eared owl, because after sitting quietly for twenty or thirty minutes, I started hearing other couples upriver having the same exchange. I couldn’t say for sure how many great horned owl couples there were within range of my hearing, but at least three, maybe four. I sat, and listened, and wondered. What is this song about? What does it mean to them? Is it comfort? Is it courtship? Is it just keeping tabs on one another? Will it change if I visit them in the night a month from now? Next spring? Next fall?

I stayed there listening to the owls until I really did start to grow too cold. Then I figured it was best I get myself back up the side of the coulee. Again I made my way through the willows (which turns out to be surprisingly easy to do at night), and along the river to the confluence. There I followed the calmest grade back up to the top. The deer were out in open sight again, the buck still sitting sentry on the ridge. Somewhere between the river and the truck, I lost a glove. I’d stuffed the pair of them into my jacket pocket when I started the climb, and one of them fell out along the way. I didn’t even realize it until I got all the way up, and by then I was sweating again, tired, and ready to go home. Retrieval of the glove would have to wait.

The Sun hadn’t even lit the horizon when I returned to the coulee again. I might have had about four hours sleep. Nothing a good cup of coffee couldn’t cure. Luckily, I only had to walk about a third of the way down the slope before the missing glove turned up, frozen solid on a patch of snow. Then I was off to Red Crow.

It was a foggy drive south through the reserve this morning, at least until the buttes. I knew that with yesterday’s decent weather, Blood Tribe Public Works would have finally been able to make some headway pushing their graders through the back-roads and shovelling people’s driveways. Since I was a bit early, I thought maybe I’d pull-off the 509 at One Spot and get a picture of myself in front of the truck, with a drift piled above my head on either side. Then I could follow the gravel up toward St. Mary’s Dam, and maybe spot something interesting along the way. Wishful thinking…. As soon as I made the turn, it was apparent I had underestimated the conditions by quite a margin. Looking at the drifts in front of me, I knew the truck wasn’t going to get more than a hundred meters before I’d be left digging again. I pulled around and got back on the highway.

Given the obstacles, it was surprising how many staff members made it in to the college. For some, it was the first trip out of the driveway they’d made in the last week and a half. One of my colleagues, Alvin Many Chiefs, was printing off a series of photographs he’d taken, showing the growth of a massive drift that settled over the road to his house. When he finally got a trail cleared, just yesterday, the snow piled up on either side stood higher than the roof of his school bus.

Mid-way through the morning, I got a visit from Bruce Wolf Child, one of our elders. Over the holiday break, Bruce had suffered a minor stroke as a result of forgetting to take his blood-pressure medication. But he wanted to assure me that all was well, and that he’d be coming back to help with some of our language immersion projects. While he was visiting, I received word that all the departments on-reserve were closing down at noon. A high-wind warning had been issued for Pincher Creek and Ft. McLeod, so it was likely that those who had managed to drive to work would not be able to get back home again if they waited too long.

The sudden notification of another day’s school closure got Bruce talking about our recent weather. He reminded me that a meteorite had fallen up north a couple months ago, and that this is always a sign of something difficult to come. Bruce related the event to the classic story of Soa’tsaakii, Tail-Feathers-Woman, a human being who married the Morning Star and was brought into the sky world to stay in the lodge of the Sun and Moon. While living there, she was taught how to use a digging stick by her mother-in-law. One day, while Soa’tsaakii was out gathering roots, she went against the advice of the Moon and dug-up omahka’s, the big-root (fern-leaf desert parsley). The hole that was left from where the root had been created a window in the sky, and down below she saw the Earth, and her human family.

When Soa’tsaakii went back to the lodge of the Sun and Moon that evening, she was obviously homesick, and everyone knew just what had happened. The Sun told her husband, Morning Star, that she would never be happy again, and that he should let her back down to Earth through the hole she had made, using a long strand of spider-web. Soa’tsaakii came down wearing a crown of creeping juniper, carrying her digging stick, the omahka’s she had dug, and a son born of her marriage. Today, some people look at the stone monuments left from this time and see “medicine wheels” with “spokes” pointing in certain directions. I look at them and see spider webs.

Soa’tsaakii was instructed not to allow her infant son to touch the earth for a certain period… otherwise he would feel too heavy, and his spirit would want to return to the sky. She tried to live by this, but nobody on Earth believed her story, that the boy was the child of a star. They laughed at her when she came home wearing juniper on her head. Eventually, when Soa’tsaakii went out to pick berries one afternoon, her own mother put the infant boy down on the ground. Immediately, he started to cry. The old lady picked him back up and laid him down in a hammock, covering him up with a robe. When Soa’tsaakii returned, and pulled the robe back, all that remained was a puffball mushroom.

That night, the hole that she had descended from in the sky was filled with a new star, the spirit of her infant boy. Only then did some of the people believe her story… particularly the Iiaohkiimiiksi, those who took care of Beaver Bundles. They gave Soa’tsaakii their elk headdress to wear, in place of the juniper, so that people would know that her story was true. Soa’tsaakii in turn gave the Iiaohkiimiiksi her root, the one that creates a window into the sky world, which we still use today as our winter smudge.

“You know that story of the woman who married the star…,” Bruce told me, “When anything comes down from the sky, it means that something went wrong up there. That’s why we’re having a hard winter.” I’d heard this about meteorites before, but when Bruce put it that way, connecting it to the story of Soa’tsaakii, I began to wonder what gifts the meteorite might have brought down to Earth as well.

By the time Bruce and I finished visiting, the college was closing and there were rumours going around that Standoff was already in a white-out. Driving home, all I encountered was the dense fog again. The heavy winds that had been expected never came. Still, I was glad that somebody had made the call to close-shop. All too often, we don’t act until a storm is already upon us, and then we all drive home through the worst of it. The problem is, we just can’t seem to accurately read the approaching weather.

Since I was home early, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to get down into the coulees for the magic hour of dusk. And since I already knew the access road to the river-bottom was closed, I figured there was no need to go driving anywhere. I might as well just walk down to the Old Man from my house, which sits about half a kilometre from the coulee rim.

Again I took my video camera, in hopes of spotting the elusive cliff-dwelling rodent. As the Sun disappeared and darkness began to slowly close, I followed along an old barbwire fence. I’d gone this way late one night last winter, and walked right through the middle of a herd of mule deer, who weren’t startled at all by my presence. This evening there were no deer, no rabbits, no coyotes that I could see. Just the occasional black-billed magpie flying from ridge to ridge, between drainages.

The fence-line took me down to the edge of a cliff, about three kilometres downriver from where I’d been hiking the last few weeks. From that vantage point, I could see a rift in the ice upstream, much larger than any of the open crags I’d visited near the confluence. I could also see that there were Canada geese sitting on the ice all around this rift. They looked like black dots from where I stood, but I knew right away what they were. From that distance, I estimated there were at least a hundred, possibly many more. Just like that, all my intentions of scanning the cliffs for rodents evaporated. I’d found my wintering geese.

Sitting down to slide part of the way downhill, I completed my descent of the coulee. On the other side of the river was a long island, thick with poplars and brush that I could use to conceal my approach. No sooner had I crossed the ice than I noticed a large flock coming in to join those already seated by the open water. A few minutes later, two more flocks dropped from the sky. As I walked hurriedly upriver, wave after wave began to come in for a landing. I was far too excited to count. All I could say for sure was that barely a minute passed between new arrivals.

I wanted desperately to film this event, and soon I was rushing through the forest to secure a decent position. I eventually chose a seat on one of the island’s cutbanks, right next to a young poplar tree that I thought would provide at least a little camouflage. I pulled out my video camera, turned the night-vision feature on, and started filming. For the next fifteen minutes, one flock after another came to rest at this bit of open water. Some of the flocks were quite sizeable, with probably eighty or more members. All of them, interestingly, appeared to be returning from the prairies upriver. Not one goose flew in from downstream. On the other hand, about one in every six returning flocks continued past this open water, moving downriver to where I’m sure there must be another rendezvous site.

Eventually, it got too dark to continue recording, and I began to grow cold. But in the moment, neither inconvenience seemed to matter. I’d been watching for at least a half hour, and there were still straggling flocks arriving every four or five minutes. The geese on the ice, who’d been exceptionally loud during the height of this event, now sat quiet. The only time they made noise was to alert another flock of their position. The darker it became, the more it seemed this guidance was needed. I observed two late-arriving flocks in particular that looked as though they would have flew right past if it weren’t for the assistance of calls from below. I know an ornithologist might try to rationalize this helpful behaviour with something akin to the standard “safety in numbers”. But that’s not the sensation I had, as an observer. To me, it seemed the geese had a very strong kinship, such that they would be willing to risk betraying their own position to ensure the safety arrival of the collective. Those who were called down were those who belonged to this single, extended winter family.

I only walked away when the number of new arrivals seriously slowed down. By that time, I calculated (loosely) that there must have been at least a thousand geese at this location. Probably many more. My previous experiences observing Canada geese had all been during the spring nesting period. I had no idea that those who wintered here, feeding in small groups on the farm fields, gathered together each evening at the river. I was completely blown away by the magnitude of this event. And I sat there utterly in awe of the way they responded to the transformation of daylight to darkness. This kind of collective, coordinated, and cooperative response behaviour, harmonized to natural ecological stimuli… this is what we human beings presently lack.

As I climbed back up the coulee, toward the lights of my neighbourhood in the distance, I heard the coyotes howling in a valley across the river. The drama of the night, I understood, was just beginning. I would have to return there again if I hoped to take part.