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.