03 January 2009

Nimaatohkottohkoonoa Paahsiisipisttoo

III ) lllll Misamiko'komiaato's

After three days indoors, plugging away part-time at a publish-worthy rendering of the inter-coulee events I experienced during the period of the new moon, I still don’t have a complete draft. And although I’m getting really close, I have to put it down and get outdoors, back to the coulees.

On my drive, I notice that there are still no geese on the fields above the Old Man River near my house. While I’ve continued to see small flocks passing overhead, those who were lingering at this bend (some of whom I thought would winter here) have been gone since the first sliver of moon reappeared, five nights ago. It’s somewhere around thirty-below today, so I’m happy to find the access road that leads down to the river-bottom open again, and the tread-wells of a few brave drivers who’ve already blazed a trail through the drifts. In this freeze, I wouldn’t want to have to hike down from the coulee rim again, as I did during my last visit.

I thought I had just about gotten over my brief obsession with finding the secret location of the long eared owl’s roost, when I came across an e-mail last night from Del Huget, of the Lethbridge Nature Society, asking whether I thought this bird was still in the area. Of course I responded in the affirmative. I still believe there may even be two of them down there. And as I drive into the coulee this morning, fantasies of being able to lead Del and his small contingent right to one of these owls play in my thoughts. Today, I imagine, I will find the roost.

The first place I figure I’d better check is a small patch of poplar forest on the east side of the river, just upstream from where I normally park. On several prior occasions, I’ve heard owls calling out from those trees at dusk as I walked back to my truck. Some of these calls were definitely the familiar song of the great horned owl. Others, however, were single hoots that could have been a long eared. I also figure, if I was an owl living along this stretch of the river, I’d either hole-up in the dense, older poplar forest of Akainnaissko (on the flood-plane just upstream, past the convergence of the Old Man and St Mary’s Rivers), or I’d stake a claim in the big trees on the east side of the river from where I park, because this little strip of forest has some farmland to survey on one side, and the river shore on the other.

With this potential in mind, I walk straight from my truck down to the river, and across into the forest, not even the least bit worried about the stability of the ice in the midst of this deep freeze. A few days ago, this whole section of the river was looking slushy and unpredictable. Now it’s solid as a rock. Or at least that’s how it feels underfoot. I can’t know for sure, because with all the snow that has fallen in the last couple days, I can’t see the ice.

Actually, on the river, the snow isn’t all that bad, maybe three or four inches deep. On land though, I’d say it averages seven or eight inches. I’m going in half-way to my knee with each step. And when I hit drifts, they take me the rest of the way and then some.

I decide to start at the downriver side of the forest, so I can work my way up, carefully inspecting every sizeable tree. But before I get to the forest proper, I have to pass through the usual thickets of mixed sandbar willow, diamond willow, and young poplar. There, I’m greeted first by a black-billed magpie, who gives a quick five-cadence call, and then by a black-capped chickadee. The chickadee is digging around in one of the young poplars. It flies away briefly at my approach, but then returns and continues its search, with me near enough almost to touch the branches it’s scouring.

As I move on toward the larger trees, I hear a number of loud cracks and pops behind me. I look back, almost expecting to see someone there with a rifle. But then there’s another loud snap, and I realize the sounds are coming from one of the older poplars right at the river’s edge. Although it looks healthy enough, I wouldn’t be the least surprised to find that one or more of its larger, heavier branches separate this winter.

The land I’m on is clearly someone’s private property. There’s a couple tire-ruts leading through the forest, out onto a farm field beyond. And whoever owns the place has a little riverside camp and barbecue area set-up. Right there, amid their picnic tables and grills, I come across a little flock of black-capped chickadees. Like the solitary one I saw just a ways back, these ones are not bothered by my presence. And they’re not faking their survey of the trees either, as they so often seem to do when they pass me in the forest, curious as to what I’m about. No, these ones are actually looking for food. They don’t even have their little downy woodpecker friend with them. I find that one a little further upriver, as I walk along the farm field, scanning the trees from that side. The downy is way up at the tops of the largest poplars, poking around noisily at the very tips of the branches. It flies twittering and chirping to land on one of these small upper branches, about a foot from the end, and works its way right up to within an inch of the tip, then moves on to the next. Like the chickadees, it’s not faking it today, this woodpecker’s really desperate for food. I’m sure both of these little birds need a lot of energy to keep them warm in such cold temperatures. They’re going to be working overtime tonight.

Moving on, I get to the end of the tree-line and start cutting back down toward the river. There’s only two or three other sizeable poplars to check before the cliffs, and all of these are right at the shore. As I make my way closer to these few trees, I see an odd shape protruding from one of the main forks. It could be the remains of another branch, rotted and broken off. Or it could be some other kind of growth, a burl of some sort. When I get to where I think I’m close enough, I use my field-glasses, and I can right away that it’s an owl… one with ears. I decide to unpack my camera, fit on my 900mm lens, and slowly work my way a little closer. Unfortunately, stealth is not easy to come by when you’re a six-foot tall guy moving through deep snow drifts. I don’t think I could have been any more awkward flailing my way through the brush and snow to get a clear view. And at that point, I found it was not the long eared I’d hoped for at all, but one of the great horned owls pretty common to these parts year-round.

Normally, I’d be happy enough to learn who’s been doing all the singing on this side of the river, and where it likes to roost, and that it’s alone and not with a mate. Today, however, all this encounter leaves me with is the satisfaction of having at least eliminated that patch of poplar forest being the likely abode of the long eared. There are others to survey, and I have enough daylight left to at least check one more, the large section on the north of the conjunction of the two rivers.

I’ve brought a bag of beef liver with me, as has been my routine throughout the holiday break. Walking out onto the river below the cliffs, I take the liver out of the bag and place it on the clean snow, then set up my video camera to record whatever happens while I’m away in the next forest. There are coyote tracks nearby on the river, as there often are. I also see a set of rodent tracks of some sort – two little feet, side by side, spaced about every seven to eight inches. I don’t know who leaves these marks. A few days, I followed a set and found that whoever it is ranges a good ways in its rounds to find food (likely under cover of darkness). The one I tracked went for about fifty meters along one shore of the river, before cutting up all the way to the top of the coulee. While down by the river, it nipped-off the tops of wild licorice plants, eating the stems and seeds, leaving the burr husks behind. It is not a meadow vole. I know their little tunnels all too well. If it is a bushy-tailed woodrat, I’ve one of its nests in this coulee yet. If it’s a least chipmunk, it seems odd that I’ve never spotted one during my walks. Whoever this little night-rover is, it has a long stride, as distant apart as from one end of my ski glove to the other. The one whose prints are left on the river today looks to have come all the way down the side of the coulee, across the river, and onto the sandbar where there are more licorice plants. Quite a journey.

I leave my video camera behind and head through another willow thicket into the next section of forest. While I’m gone, the meat sits exposed on the snow for almost half an hour before a black-billed magpie finds it, which is about average time for what I’ve been observing. Apparently, the magpies are searching for food individually in this season, because it is always a single bird who locates the offering. The first bird that gets there today lands to inspect my footprints, about ten feet from the meat. When it spots the liver, it lets out a staccato call of three rapid, even cries. This is curious, because all the other “first birds” I’ve recorded over the past couple weeks have located and begun working the meat in total silence, keeping its secret as long as possible to themselves.

In any case, after today’s first bird sounds the alarm, it flies directly over to the liver, places one foot on top for anchorage, and begins prying off pieces. It swallows the smaller of the pieces it removes. Only when it has ripped off a sizeable chunk does it fly away to cache. As it takes off, a second magpie lands. This one, like many a “second bird” I’ve seen, spends a lot of time looking around at the cliffs, trees, and sky for others before it begins to feed.

Soon there are more coming to join the second bird, eventually five black-billed magpies in all. They are acting fairly civil today. I see none of the fanned wings and tail-feather assaults from above, nor any of the erect body and tail charges from the ground. For the most part, today’s birds are taking turns or eating together. There is, however, one bird, visibly smaller than the rest, who is forced several times to behave submissively. If another magpie is already eating when it arrives, the smaller bird sits patiently aside on the snow. As soon as the other bird has winged away to cache a piece of meat, only then does the smaller bird jump up, at the moment it’s gone (whether or not a third bird has arrived), and begin to feast. Also, the small bird is not allowed to stand with two feet on top of the meat at any time. If it is eating by itself, it may use one foot to anchor the liver down, but if it is eating with another bird, it may only peck at the meat from the side. When it defies these few rules, there are always immediate consequences. At one point, a larger bird hops up and pecks at it, and the smaller bird lets out a wail of a cry. More often though, the larger birds just look at with an intimidating stare, and the smaller bird backs off trilling quietly.

About forty minutes passes while the magpies work on the liver, which again is about an average processing time for what I’ve been observing. After that, the camera keeps recording the same still image of the snow, as I remain off in the forest.

Today I take a route sunwise through the poplars, moving upstream parallel to the willows first, then rounding a bend in the river and heading back through the trees closer to the coulee cliffs. In the forest, there are signs of recent deer activity everywhere… trails, beds, dung piles, even a substantial rub that looks suspiciously new. The deer themselves, or those that I can see, all black-tailed, are grazing half way up the side of the coulee.

When I reach the furthest of the poplars upstream, at the river confluence, I hear and then see twenty-three Canada geese flying upriver along the St. Mary’s route. They are not low enough to be looking for open water, not high enough for full migration. I suspect they are moving between fields up on the prairie.

At a few different points along my route, I spot birds who are obviously surveilling me. The first is a black-billed magpie, high in the top branches of a poplar, who watches me and lets out a rapid double-call before flying away. Then there is a northern flicker, predominantly red of shaft, who lands on a low branch deep in the forest. When it knows I’ve seen it, the flicker too departs. Later, another magpie close to the coulee cliffs follows the same routine as the first.

For awhile, I’m wondering where all the black-capped chickadees are, with their downy woodpecker friend. Usually they’re the first to come and greet me as I enter the forest. But today, I’ve almost half completed my round when I encounter them. Like those on the other side of the river, these birds are on a serious search for food. But unlike the others, here most of the black-capped have joined their woodpecker ally at the tips of largest poplar trees. And those that are not searching the ends of the branches are down in the bull-berry brush, far below.

The chickadees and woodpecker are not unhappy to see me. They chirp and twitter, and follow me for a short distance through the forest. I return their attention by taking a break in my walk to watch them for a few minutes. There are eight chickadees total, with one friend. As I observe this cohort at work, another twenty-two geese fly overhead, again travelling upriver following the St. Mary’s, likely moving to a new field.

Nearing the downstream edge of the forest, I come to a tree where, during my last visit, I’d spotted a porcupine sleeping in a high fork. Today it’s still at this tree, feeding on bark way out at the end of a long branch. I take out my camera to see if I can get a decent photograph… so often porcupine pictures turn-out looking like an indiscriminate ball of fur in the trees. As I move around trying to get a good angle, I see something else. In another nearby poplar fork, very well camouflaged, sits an owl. Of course I’m thinking, this has to be the long-eared. But when I look through the viewfinder of my camera and focus in, it’s clearly another great horned. Still, it made for a nice shot, and now I knew the roosts of two owls along this stretch of river, instead of none.

After spotting the second great horned owl, I considered this forest duly surveyed. Either the long-eared had moved on, or it was roosting in the far brushier, deeper, and older forest of Akainnaissko upriver. That, perhaps, would be my next section to search. In the meantime though, my toes were fairly frozen, I’d been hiking through deep snow for several hours, and it was time to make my way back to the river, where I could pick up my video camera and head for the truck.