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.