04 January 2009


III ) llllll Misamiko’komiaato’s

Today I wait to make my way to the coulees until just a few hours before sunset, hoping to sight the long-eared owl again and maybe even follow it to its roost. But the wind is blowing all new drifts on the west side of Lethbridge, and before I even get to the access road leading down to the river-bottom, I’m helping to dig-out a van that’s high-centered in the snow. That route, I surmise, is barely passable. In a few hours, there’s no telling whether I’d be able to get back out. The owling excursion was obviously shot, but I wasn’t about to give up my coulee walk altogether.

I decide to head toward another one of my close-by stomping grounds, a never-fail winter eagle site about four miles upstream on the Old Man River, where I was bow hunting earlier this winter. There’s a couple access roads that go right down to the flood-plains on the Blood Reserve side of the river, but I’m pretty sure the graders won’t have gone through yet… low priority. The other way is to drive across west Lethbridge, passing just outside the city limits, to Sunset Acres, a little neighbourhood of four cul-de-sacs on the coulee rim overlooking the Reserve. From there, I can hike down.

In the farm fields surrounding Sunset Acres, I sight thirty-nine Canada geese, sleeping and grazing. About half of these get spooked when I stop my truck to count, and they take-off flying upriver.

The wind is kicking-up pretty strong as I hike down the side of the coulee. I keep expecting it to let up, the further toward the river I walk, and eventually it does, but not by much.

When I reach the ice of the Old Man, and begin walking downstream, an adult bald eagle takes wing from high in the cliffs above. It’s not in a hurry, but soars leisurely upriver a little ways above the coulee rim. I sit down in the snow and eat a sandwich as I watch the eagle depart. When it gets about two kilometres away, I see a large grey bird dart up from below, on a collision course. It almost reaches the eagle, then turns and dives back down to the prairies and out of sight. Although initially shaken off-course, the eagle continues along its upstream route until it’s just a speck on the horizon.

Walking a bit further downriver, until I’m right under the cliff that the eagle had been perched on, I figure it’s a good place to leave my beef liver on the ice. There’s coyote tracks nearby, and there may be other eagles. This section of the river offers a long, fairly open view from above. Four years ago, I found eagles right at this same spot, feeding on a dog carcass that was stuck in the ice. Since then, I’ve always found more than one bird here from December on.

I place my meat on the river in as appetizing a pose as I can muster, set up my video camera in a patch of bull-berries on shore, and continue my walk. What little forest there is on this side of the river is young. And while it has its days of ample animal activity, today’s not one of them. Walking through, from one side of the trees to the other, I don’t see a single bird, or anything else that catches my notice. There are some deer tracks and beds down here, as there always are. Beyond that, nothing too exciting.

Only when I get to the cliffs on the other side of the poplars, above a patch of mixed willows, does anything turn up. There’s a northern flicker doing something on the cliff-side. Before I have a chance to really see what he’s up to, the flicker moves off, up a wide draw and out of sight. About a hundred meters further downriver, I sit down in a drift to eat a second sandwich, and there see another flicker fly over from across the river and land on the side of a steep cutbank. Again, I can’t get a good look at what it’s doing there before it spooks at my presence and moves away. I’ll have to try and observe more closely next time.

While I eat my sandwich, the wind picks up even stronger. I’m not looking forward to the long hike back, first against the gusts and then uphill. Twice, as I tread my way upriver through the snow, I hear raucous sounds from the geese on the farm fields above. Then, just as I near my liver offering, I see the adult bald eagle take off again from the same cliff as before. I left my video camera behind about an hour ago, and I’m hoping the eagle had time to find the meat and have its dinner. A few minutes later though, as I round the bend, I can see the liver still out on the ice in plain sight. Before gathering up my equipment, I sit down under a poplar with thick undergrowth and wait another twenty minutes, just in case. But no one comes around.

The higher I climb on the way out, the stronger the wind becomes. I try not to think about it. I find a set of the rodent tracks with big strides that I’ve been wondering about, and follow them right up the side of the coulee. These are definitely cliff-dwellers, whoever they are. Eventually, the tracks come to an abrupt end in an open crevice between a snow bank and a steep slope of earth. Somewhere under there is where this guy is living.

The rodent tracks took me almost to the top of the coulee rim. From here, I can still see my beef liver on the ice far below, and nobody around to eat it. At least an hour and forty minutes must have passed since I initially left it out there. The magpies and coyotes further downriver almost always found the food within the first half hour. They must not want to expose themselves to this weather either. The wind gusts are so strong on top of the coulee, it reminds me of when I used to skydive in the Army.

The Sun is just touching the horizon when I reach my truck. Across the river, I can see that the north end of the Reserve is in white-out conditions. There’s a thick ground-cloud of blowing snow. I’d like to be able to take a picture from this side of the river, capturing the intensity of the wind on the Reserve, but driving from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac I can’t seem to find the perfect shot. What I do see, however, just when I’m going to pull away from the neighbourhood, is a gyrfalcon. It swoops right across my path and then lifts into the air over someone’s house, and back down out of my line of vision. Little birds that I can’t identify in the split second I have to work with come zooming my way from that direction, and dive for cover in some thick fir trees. I make a couple more laps of the neighbourhood, but do not see the falcon again. On the drive home though, I realize that it was probably the same grey bird I saw going after the eagle, and more than likely the cause of the goose raucous I heard from below. The Canada geese that were on the fields here are long gone.