03 February 2009


III ) lllllll (3 Feb 09)

Kaahsinnooniksi weren’t mistaken about the significance of the moon’s horizontal position on her initial appearance into this cycle. Nor were they incorrect in interpreting the single sun-dog observed in my last journal entry. Asking around a bit, I heard the same formula repeatedly: one dog means coming warmth, two signals cold. Several sleeps have passed since the old lady lay on her back and the old man walked with one dog. The weather’s been warm ever since.

These strangely temperate winter days have kept me rushed and road-bound. Not much opportunity at all to poke around on foot. There was, however, the visit Piipiiaakii and I made to Sspopiikimi, walking the circumference of this small turtle and beaver oxbow just downriver from the trestle in Lethbridge. If the now yellow-green hued, bud-covered poplar trees are correct, it won’t be all too long before we can expect some of the warm-season birds to begin returning. Maybe the red-winged blackbirds or killdeer. But on this particular afternoon, we were met only by wintering hold-outs. Seven mallards squeezed into a tiny gap of open water near one shore of the pond. Four aapsspiniiksi nestled atop the ice under the trestle. The corvids were aptly represented. We saw two crows fly across the river. A few minutes later, there was a black-billed magpie raucous in the brush ahead of us, and we observed two of them give chase to a Harlan’s red-tail. The hawk followed the same route as the crows in crossing the river. It settled briefly into a tree, but soon took to the air again and arched casually around by the trestle, making its way back to our side of the water. I wondered if this wasn’t the same Harlan’s I photographed over the holiday break, upstream a ways.

The day after our visit to Sspopiikimi, I traveled southwest with Ki’naksaapo’p, my in-law Narcisse Blood. We took the Marias Pass through the mountains, destined for an overnighter at a ski resort just outside Columbia Falls. We weren’t there for the slopes, of course. Rather, ours was a planning session with the National Science Foundation. A group of environmental scientists from the University of Montana, funded through NSF, intent to host a dialog this spring between themselves and indigenous thinkers concerned with the watersheds that meet at the crown of the continent.

Ki’naksaapo’p drove us both ways, to and from the meeting, as he usually does when we travel together. I have a reputation for driving too slow, taking my time. The benefit of this reputation is that I often get to sit shotgun and relax. The drawback of being a passenger however, is that I can’t pull the vehicle over on a whim to give closer inspection to what I’m seeing. There was one point going through the mountains, for instance, where I caught a glimpse of a hawk flying between the trees, carrying something almost half as large as itself. I’d have loved to find a pull-off and go stalking through the forest in pursuit, but we were in a hurry. For the most part, I didn’t see much along our route. Mostly crows and magpies. I was happy enough to get back home the next evening, greeted in our final leg by the now familiar all-white-faced snowy owl on a power-pole near Rocky Lake.

Two more sleeps pass, and Monday arrives to find me following the bland highway route for my round-trip to Red Crow College. White-face was on his pole again in the morning, but elsewhere by late-afternoon.

The next morning, anxious for a change of scenery, I decided to wind my way along both the Lease Road and One Spot on my way to work. I didn’t come across anything particularly remarkable along the former. My only stop was while descending the St. Mary’s River coulee, where I took a few deep-perspective shots of the all-too-expansive fields of awnless brome.

One Spot Road was far more interesting. I was met almost immediately by a prairie falcon near my in-laws’ place. It flew from a fence-post perch as I approached, landing atop a short hill in an adjacent field. I parked the truck, got out my binoculars, and climbed up the snow bank beside the road to get a better look. Apparently, the falcon hadn’t gone to the field for food. It was merely creating some distance. As I watched the bird, it watched me back. An observational stand-off I knew would eventually just result in the falcon flying away.

I climbed back in my truck and moved-on down the road. When I got to the draw leading into what we call the Dipping Vat, there was the white kakanottsstookii (or great horned owl) again, sitting on a snow drift in the ditch. As soon as I started to slow down, it flew to the safety of its young poplar roost a little ways up the creek.

Continuing on, I ascended One Spot Ridge and turned west at the yellow house (I should find-out who lives there), heading toward Standoff. Dropping back down off the ridge, past the little aspen patch, and the as-yet-unidentified brush with parasitic black growth on its stems, I came across the usual array of black-billed magpies. There must be plenty of food to support their continual presence here in this dip. Something about the juxtaposition of various brush, seasonal creeks, year-round ponds, native grasses and ranch lands, all meeting at this spot.

A little ways beyond the magpies, up among the grain fields, I was met by what – on first impression – struck me as an anomaly, a miniature prairie falcon. It sat on the fence about four posts down from a second, normal-sized falcon. The smaller bird couldn’t have been too much bigger than a fat robin, but with a definite hawk-shaped body and beak. I only had a couple seconds to pull the truck over and take it in. As I reached for my binoculars, the tiny predator took to wing, flying straight off across the field. The regular falcon stayed put, and I was able to get a good gaze in (as well as a few pictures) before it too became nervous and started to fly. Rather than jetting across the field as the other bird had, the falcon flew in a long oval arch, returning again to its same roost. I sat still to watch for a few minutes, then moved on.

As an aside, a couple days later Del Huget reported to the Albertabird network about sighting an American kestrel on the eastern edge of Lethbridge. Only then did it dawn on me that the little raptor I’d seen must have been a kestrel as well. We call these birds pisspsksiiksi in Blackfoot, one of a handful of bird-names I don’t really understand the meaning of. I’ve never come across a name for prairie falcons, or any of the other falcons for that matter, which makes me wonder if they all share this title. Many Blackfoot bird-names speak to the genera rather than the species.

Further down the road from the “falcons” I began to pass horned larks. Three in all. Each hanging onto the barbwire, with a fair distance between them. Seeing the larks reminded me, for some reason, of the absence of snow buntings that morning. Usually, along the One Spot route, I’d have seen several bunting clouds. But on this particular morning, perhaps because of the booming falcon presence, none.

Past the larks, the only other bird I saw before arriving at the college was a single crow following the same gravel road I was traveling, but in the opposite direction. Then, when I pulled up at Red Crow, I noticed that our resident horned owls were missing from their poplar roost. Although this was not at all out of the ordinary, something about their absence felt peculiar to me. It was often the case that one or both of these kakanottsstookiiksi would be away in the morning. But on this particular occasion, I sense that their presence was altogether removed. It bothered me so much that I went back outside again during the lunch hour to have a look around their tree. With the snow mostly melted, I expected to find a fair number of pellets under the roost. When I got out there though, all I came across were two little partials. There was, on the other hand, evidence of frequent use of that area by the local rez-dogs. I wonder if they might eat the owl pellets?

Back in my office for the afternoon, I decided to open the window. Our building is a century old, and the heat and plumbing will testify to it. Whenever there’s a dramatic shift in the weather, it takes a few days for our furnace and pipes to catch-up. I began to feel like I was being slowly roasted in my office, so up went the window. Outside, I could hear sparrows and magpies. Their songs carried subliminal messages. They told me, “Hey, your window’s already open. Maybe you should just throw some food out onto the western roof.” Well, the only thing I had around was a few cans of salmon pate I’d received as a Christmas gift. I supposed it was worth a shot. I opened one of the cans and spoon-flung chunks of pate out onto the roof. Splat, splat, splat. Figured it would be maybe thirty minutes to an hour before I had a small magpie congregation just outside my window. I waited. Worked. Waited. They never came.

When I knew there was only an hour or so of direct sunlight left, I gave up on the magpies and headed for home. Just down the road from the college, at the first house past the Kainai Board of Education, there was another prairie falcon. That would make three in one day, plus the kestrel. I pulled off the side of the road, setting my hazards on, and took out my camera. This one was sitting on a power pole and, like the last one I’d seen that morning, when it got nervous it took off and flew in a narrow, oval arch, landing right back on its perch again. I had just taken a couple nice shots when my friend Duane passed by, stopped, and backed up. Two vehicles was one too many. The falcon flew off down the road a ways, landing on another pole beside a barn at the next residence over. I climbed out of my truck, camera still in hand, to talk with Duane. When he saw what I was carrying, a big smile stretched across his face. “I thought you were in distress,” he joked. “Nope, just trying to get a few shots of the falcon,” I replied. Duane grinned broadly, “And I scared him off.”

I could have followed back after the bird when Duane left. Or I could have just sat where I was for a bit and watched through the binoculars. But dusk would be on its way soon, and I had a few other places in mind to visit. In particular, I wanted to get back to One Spot Road and see how many more falcons were around for the evening. This time, I decided to take the Spring Coulee Road out toward St. Mary’s Dam, and just drive from there along the St. Mary’s ridge to One Spot.

On the way, I passed seven rock doves sitting atop the slanted tin roof of the old Out West gas bar. Then, just a couple kilometres up the Spring Coulee Road, I came across a snowy owl on a fence-post. It had a familiar all-white face, but this was about forty kilometres south of the one I’d been watching by Rocky Lake. Could it be the same? I pulled over, a little too close to the owl’s position. Seconds later, it was winging off across a farm field. As it flew, a cloud of about a hundred and fifty snow buntings erupted from the earth and swarmed away. The owl landed on another fence-post in the middle of the field, well out of the way of any human passers-by. Still, I checked him out good through my glass, and if it wasn’t the same one from the north end, then they must be twins.

I needed to get out to Rocky Lake and see if there was still a snowy out there too. Hustling down the road, I turned just before the dam and drove along the ridge. There were the white-tail deer I’d passed a few sleeps ago, still lazing and grazing in the stubble-fields. I counted sixty eight in all and, again, not an antler among them. Just before descending the ridge, I found two male ring-necked pheasants pecking along the side of the road. Then, at the bottom, in the draw feeding the Dipping Vat, the white great horned owl glared out at me from his young poplar roost.

Much like the horned larks had during the morning commute, that evening the diamond willow clumps began to remind me of absences. Along this stretch, almost year-round, one will encounter groups of grey partridge. It’s a no-fail strip. They’ll either be sifting around the gravel at roadside, or keeping bunched together beneath the willow clumps or amidst the stubble fields. How long had it been since I’d seen any of them? Two or three weeks at least. Odd.

After the white horned owl, I didn’t see any other birds until I was almost home. No magpies or crows. No larks or buntings. And, interestingly enough, no all-white-faced snowy by Rocky Lake. Maybe it was the same bird after all.

My last sighting of the day came when I was nearly home. In the fields above the Lethbridge Research Station, several small flocks of Canada geese were feeding and looking anxious. Dusk was closing fast and soon they’d be off to join other flocks at their rendezvous around the open water pools on the river. As I drove past, a few of the geese were starting to pace, honk, and nod their heads – not in aggression toward one another, but in preparation to lead their families away for the night. I’d have liked to stick around and learn which water hole these ones would fly to. But I too was eager to reunite with my girls at home, and so I left the geese to be.