26 October 2009

Ksisskstaki Food Cache

IIII ) ll Disconnect (21Oct09)

0928 Thick fog in Sikoohkotoki prompted us to stop in at Sspopiikimi before heading south to Mi'kai'sto. I would have liked to spend all day outside. Perhaps tomorrow will have to be a "field day" for me. I'm getting desperate to visit Omahksistsiiksiinaa Kawaahko, and I really want to take my time there and not rush it

0946 In any case, lots was happening at the pond this morning. We saw a couple dozen mi'ksikatsi midpond, along with the three aiksikksksisiiksi. We learned that there are still mi'sohpsskiiksi using the north shore ksisskstakioyis. There was a flock of aapsspini in the south pool, who flew off noisily when a photographer walked down that way. The a'siitsiksimm niipistsi are finally falling individually, instead of attached to twigs. And the ksisskstaki family was busy bringing more reeds to their bulrush flotilla and packing mud on top the south side of their lodge

0954 Leaving Sspopiikimi, the route along Hwy 3 and then through the Old Man River Valley was hair-raising, due to heavy fog and extremely stupid people who don't change their driving habits in response to these conditions. Things cleared up on the north end of Kainaissksaahko. We'd have liked to drive the canal, but it looked too muddy. We did check out Innokimi and Mookoan Reservoir - the former had lots of ksikkomahkayii, and as we were driving away from the latter a flock of at least three-hundred aapsspini decended

1607 Driving some sections of the BTAP canal for the ride home. In the reservoir just west of Mi'kai'sto there are several hundred aapsspini and dozens of kaayiiksi. Then at Mookoan reservoir, again hundreds of aapsspini, all huddled against the east shore, but also some flocks of aiksikksksisii and buffleheads. No snow geese or swans, and still nowhere near the number of geese and ducks I'm expecting to arrive with winter's freeze

1640 The hidden part of Innokimi also had aapsspini, as well as a flock of ksikkomahkayiiksi. All in all though, things are as yet very quiet on the canal. There were a couple horned larks along the way, and three or four yellowlegs by the muskrat pipe, but no flocks of smaller birds and no predators

2052 Had an interesting thought this evening, while reading student papers... Several have been noting the large flocks of geese in contrast to the ring-billed gulls who are traveling solitary or in very small groups. They wonder why the gulls aren't more social like the geese. Little do they know that the gulls nest communally on small islands in the summer, while the geese nest as isolated couples. Many birds have these kinds of seasonal cycles. Some group together in winter, some in summer. It reminds me of human societies with our holidays and ceremonies - we all come together, have our intensification rituals, and then go our own ways renewed in our sense of identity and belonging. Problem is, the timing of our celebratory gatherings used to have direct connections to important seasonal phenomena - there are practical reasons for the timing of the easter egg hunt, the opening of certain bundles, solstice celebrations like christmas, and the sundance. We've lost our connections to those seasonal practicalities, and who knows what sense of meaning or purpose we're missing as a result

2214 Most recently contrived holidays (birthdays, celebrations of nationhood, remembrances of sacrifice or tragedy or human greatness) have nothing to do with seasonal phenomena at all. Totally disconnected. And they're training us (inadvertently) to understand and experience ceremony differently. With no underlying practical application, how can we come away with that real sense of interdependence - that there are some things we can't accomplish without the collective?

IIII ) lll Ki'sommainihkssin (22Oct09)

1403 Totally blew it. Had the day set aside for coulee-roaming, but after the early morning Zzzzs, and the much-needed trim, and putting some food in my belly... Oh well, spilt gravy. So we'll be going to the pond for the evening, and right now I'm walking down the coulee slope at the conjunction of the Old Man and St Mary's Rivers to see if my slithering friends are still awake at their hibernaculum

1427 Moving down the slope, I'm looking at all the plants that were so recently vibrant - the dry earth-toned remains of aksspi, the dark-red buckbrush, the leaves curling and crispy on the sage, the empty seed-heads of crested-wheat and other grasses. I'm still seeing ants and a few grasshoppers, and there's a single cricket singing, but most of the insects are gone. I want to slow down and take some pictures, but maybe on my way back up. Keeping in mind that my main objective here is to check on those ones that slither and rattle, so I want to get that accomplished first

1447 I walk to where there is only a very small bump of land separating me from the hibernaculum, and there I set down my backpack and get my cameras and tripod set up. From this point I walk extremely slow and cautious, partially for my protection, but also so that I don't frighten my friends. When I get within sight of their main den-hole (one of about a half-dozen such holes on this small shelf of the coulee slope), I can already see a couple of the larger ones basking. I'm going to need to move very quiet and calm in hopes that they don't scramble underground

1501 One of them slithers slowly down into the den as I approach, but there are others who remain. I walk closer and closer until I cross the threshold of their comfort. At that point, they begin to rattle. It's not their really anxious rattle sound, but just a half-hearted attempt to alert me of their presence (in case I didn't already see them). Then they too slip down into the hole - first an adult couple together and intertwined, then their two babies, smaller than wandering garters, one at a time. Just then I get a call on my cell, it's Quenton. I whisper to him that I'm standing with my slithering friends at the moment, and promise to phone him back later. Then I set-up the video camera to record on this main hole, for when they re-emerge. And while it does, I'll check some of the other den entrances

1510 There's a group of fossil hunters walking up the slope, shovels in-hand. They’re young guys, and maybe the kind who'd come after scaly skins if they knew where to look. They see me here, so I try to cover by pretending to take pictures of the forest and river below. Hopefully they don't clue in to what it is I'm really up to. I'd hate to have put these endangered animals at any more risk

1519 In the minutes that passed trying to misdirect the fossil hunters' attention, at least one of the parents has re-emerged for the video camera

1521 Seeing me here again, it's giving a bit more agitated buzz. It doesn't want to go down in the hole again, but eventually decides to err on the side of caution and slithers off angry. One of its babies remains out still, well-concealed in the grass. Now I'll check the other dens

1534 Very surprising, I've walked around to look at four of the other entrances to this hibernaculum, and there's nobody basking at any of them. I wonder if they all made it back here this year, without sudden two-week freeze

1544 When I get back to the main den, I find that the other parent has now emerged. It too becomes upset when it sees me and retreats to the hole, slowly bringing its rattling tail down behind it. I've bothered this little family enough, I think. Usually they’re not so troubled by me being there, once we establish comfort zones. I've decided to pack up and head home. I've got a pond date to keep with the lady. If the warm weather holds a bit, I'll get down here again. If not, it may not be till end of winter that I learn more about what has become of the other couple dozen who live at this site

1700 Sspopiikimi - temperature seems to be dropping a bit, and naato'si is almost behind the coulee rim already. We're fairly bundled up though. Entering from the north, I count fifty-one mi'ksikatsi and a single aiksikksksisi spread out on this side of the pond. Although a few of the mallards are dipping for food, most seem just content to float for the moment, facing into the wind, and some are even sleeping on the water. I think one of the sleepers is a female wigeon

1727 Moving along, we see that at least seven of the fifty-one mi'ksikatsi are actually female wigeons. One of the larger groups of mallards flies off, circles, and lands again to the north, opposite of where we're heading. As we pass the ksisskstakioyis, we find the bulrush flotilla is still growing larger, now at least a quarter the size of their lodge. Here, amidst the buckbrush, we hear the repetitive little tweets of several tree sparrows

1732 When we reach the south end, there are just two pairs of sa'aiksi. One pair is mi'ksikatsi, and the other flies off before we can identify them. I hear cries of a killdeer briefly, coming from somewhere on the mudflats. And just a couple minutes after we sit down to watch, a great blue heron struts slowly out of the reeds near the opposite shore. It's eating something small today, taking rapid, shallow pecks at the water

1805 Piipiiaakii wants to circle over to the river, to see what's happening there, so we make our way around the south pool. Enroute I notice how the buckbrush down here is still green (albeit a fast-frozen hue) as compared to the deep red color of those higher up in the coulees. The hairy golden asters still have their fluffy seed heads. The leafy spurge is now shades of red and pink. Down in the forest, the ground is absolutely covered with brown-green cottonwood leaves that never got a chance to yellow. They're falling in mass and many of the trees are looking barren and skeletal

1814 From the river's edge, we can see no waterfowl or deer, or anything that grabs our attention, so we're soon turned around to head back the way we came. I've suggested we go to the ksisskstakioyis and wait for the family to begin their evening. As we walk back, the heron finally tires of our antics and takes flight, moving to some point upriver. We go to the beaver lodge

1825 We haven't sat long when a large muskrat comes out from the lodge, climbs over the log pile by the south door, and heads off for the subpond canal. I hope that this is a sign the ksisskstakiiksi will be out shortly too. But we sit and wait and all is quiet. Piipiiaakii starts to get cold. In her wheelchair, she's been sitting the whole time. I suggest she get up and take a short walk around just to get the juices flowing and warm herself. She does, using her chair as a walker. As she moves up and down the trail, I notice that the new sliver of iitao'tsstoyi is finally visible in the sky, having been covered by clouds the last few nights

1835 The first ksisskstaki has just come out. I think it might be Patches. I can see that it's one of the lighter colored ones, but it's a bit dark outside now for photography to confirm. She swims over by the gate surrounding the pipes that bring water to and from the neighboring golf course. Watching her, we suddenly see a second beaver by the gate. I don't know how we missed this one coming out of the lodge. It continues paddling south, while the one I think is Patches dives and re-surfaces going into the subpond canal

1843 Next to come out of the ksisskstakioyis is a very small muskrat, probably one of those born this year. It swims south, and from somewhere on the east coulee rim in that direction we see a small flock of sixteen aapsspini flying and honking. They circle once and come to land in the north end of the pond

1846 As the geese land, Piipiiaakii notices something in the water beside the bulrush flotilla. It's the beaver pup! It floats there a few minutes, then dives into the lodge. A minute later it's back out, floating again, and again it enters the lodge. Obviously it's not allowed to stray far

1855 Although things are just getting interesting, we decide to pack up and leave, to return early in the morning. Piipiiaakii is still cold, it's too dark for us to see, and we haven't brought the night vision. Moreover, we need to respond to this moon. We haven't done our ki'somainihkssin ceremony to sing-in this new winter cycle, and now that we've seen the first sliver we shouldn't wait any longer. We'll go home and take care of it right away

2220 Just finished ki'somainihkssin, starting our winter night stick count. I'd like to go to the kano'tsisis tomorrow, to put some of our beaver protection songs toward the offering being made to block H1N1 in kainaissksaahko. But I don't know if I can handle teaching all day after twenty-four hours no sleep

IIII ) llll Dawn At The Pond (23Oct09)

0748 Sspopiikimi at Dawn - We've finally made it out here before sunrise, this windy morning. The eastern horizon is pink and light's coming fast. We're sitting at the ksisskstakioyis - mallards, coots and wigeons on the north, a flock of Canada geese to the south, and three beavers have just come home from the subpond

0804 One of the ksisskstaki swam south to the subpond canal, another is busy with something on the lodge - it ripped some plastered mud and reeds off the north wall, then dove under the bulrush flotilla with it. There are a couple geese passing overhead, and a rapid call coming from one or two in the south. That photographer's here again, walking toward the geese. I suspect they'll pick up and leave when he gets too near

0815 A flock of ten geese fly in from the river. Two of them split off and join those in the south pool. The other eight wheel around and return toward the river. I can see one beaver hunched over, munching on something (probably bulrush) near the subpond canal. Those at the lodge have gone inside. It's light out now, but the sun hasn't broken over the horizon of the coulee rim

0822 The ksisskstaki who had been sitting by the subpond returned and entered the lodge by way of diving under the bulrush flotilla. This brings to mind interesting possibilities. It reminds me of the long wooden tunnels used on old-time war lodges, made such that an enemy can't get inside without crouching very low, maybe even on hands and knees. I wonder if the flotilla might have a similar protective function in winter, when coyote predators can walk right up to the lodge

0837 The geese didn't fly off as I'd predicted when the photographer disturbed them. Instead, they started swimming north toward the ksisskstakioyis and our position. I suspect the heavy winds might have had something to do with their chosen method of escape. I counted sixty-one of them on their way toward us before we had to pack-up to leave so I could make it to my morning meeting at the university

IIII ) llllll Food Cache (25Oct09)

1045 Akaiinissko - nitohkattsisamayaaksipookaki, but I probably needed the Zzzzs. The girls were still sleeping, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to come down here and begin my usual winter study of this stretch of the river

1057 On my way in, driving along the coulee rim, I noticed that the big shore lodge the ksisskstaki had built along the river last year seems to have a mound in front of it. From a distance, it reminds me of the bulrush flotilla the family is constructing at Sspopiikimi, though I'm sure it's something different, given that the bulrush stands along this stretch are slim. All the same, I decided immediately that investigating this mound for comparative purposes would be my main objective in the brief time I have to work with today

1127 From where I parked on the rim, I walk about half way down the slope, where I reach a wide shelf. There, I follow deer and coyote trails along the shelf downriver. I do this for two reasons. First, I've heard there's another hibernaculum on this side of the shelf, so I'm always hoping to come across it, though it's doubtful I will today given the cool temperature. My other purpose for coming this way is that I want to pass by the little area of badlands where I started finding fossil bones over the summer. Originally, I'd thought they were a small dinosaur, but a couple of experts have identified them as alligator and turtle. I figure if I keep passing over that area, eventually I might find a tooth

1119 Along the way to the badlands, I collect photographs of several plants in their early-winter appearance: fringed sage, big sage, sagewort, crested wheatgrass, a ball cactus with a fruit that has been nibbled on one side, nearly leafless skunkbrush sumac, ma's or breadroot, prickly pear cactus, broomweed...

1141 Eventually, I arrive at my destination. My boots are caked with mud, the ground’s still soggy from yesterday's rain. Already, I see fragments of fossilized bone all around me. I take off my backpack and intend to look around a few minutes before moving on

1153 I'm not the kind of guy to get greedy and take every little fossil I find. What's the benefit of such hoarding? Things end up stashed as trophies in little boxes - either in people's houses or in museums. It's a shame. I'd much rather see these fossils stay out here where they belong. I might take an interesting piece or two home to show the girls, and I can understand a paleontologist wanting to take something back to the lab for study. But I'm of the mind that if you do remove something from its place of context, you need to either be utilizing it for a beneficial purpose, or you need to return it to where you got it

1215 Today, although I find the best piece of turtle shell I've seen yet, I decide not to take a thing. I'm ready to move on toward the river and beaver lodge

1225 Like at Sspopiikimi, the a'siitsiksimm on the floodplain here have recently shed their leaves. This forest wants me to be its student. I feel like each tree is waiting to introduce itself. I'm looking forward to visiting more frequently, and regretting that I did not take the opportunity to do so this summer

1233 The awatoyi have spotted me walking through the forest. They run somehow silently amidst the grass and fallen leaves, weaving through the trees to distance themselves from me. As they wave goodbye with their tails, I follow their movement and see that there is also a small herd of mule deer here. Unlike the white-tails, they don't immediately scamper. Rather, they stand clustered together as a group, watching me for several minutes. Then two of the sizeable bucks (eight and six point, from what I can see) stay behind to keep tabs on me while the rest trot leisurely off into the bush

1300 I'm enthrawled by the two bucks, and hope I find them together again in the future, so I can travel with them for a day. As it stands, I follow for just a brief time, watching them nibble from low branches of cottonwood, and wondering what brings them together. I thought these large males were more aggressive toward each other this time of year

1313 Unfortunately, I can't linger. I need to get down to the beaver lodge to investigate their pile, before I'm expected back home for our afternoon to dusk pond visit. So I leave the deer behind and continue, exiting the forest and passing through the dense willow stands to arrive finally at the river. Just at the forest edge, I encountered some familiar faces from last winter. Two niipomakii, black-capped chickadees, passed by. They were moving from tree to tree, chattering about my presence and pretending to hunt for insects in the bark as they checked me out

1326 When I got to the river's edge, it was immediately apparent that what the ksisskstaki are doing here is the same as what those at the pond are engaged in - namely, making a food cache. I had thought the bulrush flotilla was something else, but at this bank lodge they've created a similar structure - a massive pile of willow stems right in front of the lodge entrance. This is obviously a winter food store. Now the question is, why did the beavers at Sspopiikimi opt to use bulrush for their cache when there's an abundance of rabbit willow available there?

1348 Departing the river just upstream of the ksisskstakioyis, I begin hiking up through the various echelons of the flood plain - through the sand and rock and licorice burrs by the shore, then rising past the first stand of trees I wade through an expanse of sweetclover (dried and yellow skeletal stems). Another wave of trees and the forest opens up to a meadow. Off to one side of this meadow I find a fallen poplar that is positioned perfectly for my intended construction of a survivalist-style lean-to for use as a base camp this winter

1412 Coming out of the forest, I cross the big sagebrush flat to the base of the coulee slope and begin my ascent, heading straight up toward the den of my slithering friends. I have my doubts as to whether they'll be out today. It's not warm. But it's sunny, and I'm sweating hot from the climb, and the closer I get to the hibernaculum, the higher my expectation rises

1422 But no. Walking into the hibernaculum, all the den openings are vacant. The inhabitants are underground beneath my feet, huddled and twined together to conserve and share heat. I probably won't see them again till the frogs emerge

19 October 2009


II Ksisskstakiikoan (17Oct09)

Sspopiikimi - after two weeks of premature freezing weather that even caught the trees off-guard, we've now officially entered iitao'tsstoyii (cold's-arrival) and, contrary to this first winter moon's name, it has brought a heat wave

Mi'ksskimmiisoka'simm, our advisor for amopistaan, told us that it's going to be an "open" or mild winter. He says this prediction is based on the excessive amount of fog we've had recently

Walking in at the north end of the pond, I feel renewed. The whole place was iced over when we last visited, quiet and cold. Now the waters have thawed and there are ducks galore. I count fifty mi'ksikatsi north of the ksisskstakioyis. And to our surprise we find the aiksikksksisiiksi have returned as well, a group of three young coots feed in the water between bulrushes just off-shore

The cottonwood trees, which still had lots of green leaves when the ice came, are now brown. The sound of these quick-dried leaves shaking in the wind reverberates across the pond. Yet few of these leaves are falling

Something else I notice at midpond, the muskrats have constructed their first free-standing lodge in a stand of bulrush. I'd seen their starter mound last week and didn't think too much of it. Now, however, this lodge is becoming a significant feature. They've obviously added to it considerably in recent days, and there are dozens of green, floating bulrush stems around it that have yet to be incorporated

Among the midpond mallards, closer to the ksisskstakioyis, is an American wigeon couple, their feeding technique exactly the same as their mallard comrades. We might not have even noticed them had it not been for the white mohawk of the male

Also near the beaver lodge, we encounter a small muskrat lazily floating atop an exposed milfoil patch, apparently eating the same. When the muskrat dives, I walk down to look more closely at the patch. Most of the foliage has been stripped off the upper stems, and there are bits and pieces of bulrush strewn about too, making me think the muskrats use the milfoil as a float when eating other plants as well

At the ksisskstakioyis proper, we can see that the bulrush flotilla has grown, now beginning to approximate the size of the pile from last year. In amongst the bulrush stems are logs that have already been shaved clean of bark. I still have no idea what function this flotilla serves. I don’t think it’s a food cache, because it always becomes ice-locked in winter and, as noted today, wood that’s incorporated into the flotilla has already been processed for bark

As we move toward the south pools and mudflats, we pass under several large cottonwoods, and we can see that what has dropped below them are not so much individual leaves as many whole leaf-bearing twigs. The snow and ice was too much weight for them, and this simple fact is perhaps the principle reason they lose their leaves for winter in the first place (otherwise they’d lose too many stems and branches)

The first thing we notice, upon reaching the southern pool, is that there are two great blue herons here today. We spot the first one because it takes flight, landing further out amidst the islands. The second one then emerges from nearby to join the first, and together they walk slowly through the water to the opposite shoreline. They look like they're trying to sneak away from us, which I'm sure is very much their intention

Also in the south pool there are more than a dozen painted turtles basking on logs. All but two of them slip into the water as we approach. Not too far from these turtles, I count another thirty-six mi'ksikatsi. They are resting on one of the islands when we arrive, but many of them move cautiously out into the water when we sit down to watch. A few minutes later, a ring-billed gull passes overhead and more than half the mallards take flight, heading toward the river. Their movement alarms a lesser yellowlegs, who begins giving an alarm call and flying from island to island

We decide to go around the south end, through the forest, and into the duck blind, to get a closer look at the herons. Surprisingly enough, though they watch us travel practically the whole route, and remain clearly aware of our position, they're not flying away. They are, however, on high alert, and it remains to be seen whether they'll go back to feeding in our presence

We had originally thought these herons to be a couple, but watching them now we see different. One of them continually hunches over and charges aggressively at the other, who in turn strides away. Then, with my eye on the aggressor, I see him evacuate his bowels and take flight, moving just a short distance to land nearly atop a third heron we hadn't even noticed on a nearby island. The third heron also gives way, flying a short distance to the opposite end of the island

We watch the herons until a woman comes by with two large dogs, which quickly provoke all three birds to move to the more concealed subpond. With the herons gone, we retraced our path back around the south end to the opening of the subpond canal. Here, there are several members of the ksisskstaki family dining of bulrush roots. We're pleased to see that among them is a pup who’s staying close to one of the adults. The two occasionally break from their meal to play in the water, diving and rolling together

As we sit up on the high bank, the baby beaver comes out of the canal and swims over to our shore, obviously curious about us. It's dark, and my pictures are a bit blurry across the distance, so I decide to walk down the slope to the water's edge. When I'm about halfway down, the pup gets spooked and dives with a style that mimics that of muskrats more than beavers. While it's underwater, I quickly close the gap and sit down by the water's edge, and when it emerges and sees me there it swims right over. This immediately catches the attention of one of the dark-furred adults by the lodge. The adult swims quickly over and leads the pup away to the south. It doesn't splash, or dive, or seem overly concerned about me at all. It merely approaches the young one and, by some means of communication unseen, tells it to follow. As they swim off together into the darkness, the pup porpoises alongside its elder

III Heron and Pike (18Oct09)

1504 Sspopiikimi - we arrive to find the northern half of the pond full of feeding mi'ksikatsi, fifty-eight by my count. These sa'aiksi have been much more skittish our last few visits, quick to give themselves a bit of distance from us. I wonder if this is because they know its hunting season, or if they’re migrants less familiar with Sspopiikimi, unaware that it's a protected area

1510 We don’t see the wigeons or coots here this afternoon, but as we walk along midpond one heron chases another in from the south. The ousted heron lands beside the bulrush tufts where the new muskrat lodge stands with a mallard asleep on top. The aggressive heron turns wide and wings its way back south. When the bird who's just arrived realizes we're here, it too takes flight and moves east, passing through the forest on its way toward the river

1522 The south end of the pond is equally populated with mallards, fifty nine - a nice parallel. On this side, most of the sa'aiksi are sleeping on the rocky islands or bathing almost violently off-shore. We're sitting up on the high cutbank above the deepest pool. Across the pond, in the mudflats, we've spotted two lesser yellowlegs trolling the shallows. And just beneath us, from the depths of this pool, the painted turtles are surfacing for air and diving to feed

1548 While Dani remains atop the high cutbank, I walk down and crouch amidst some logs and reeds closer to the water. From here I can see that there's a milfoil patch the turtles have been going in and out of. They know I'm here, so most of them decide to move a little further out into the pond. A couple of the larger ones swim north and crawl atop their basking logs to warm up. I squat patiently to watch the others surface and dive, surface and dive, hoping that I can learn what they're eating

1600 These turtles might just be too wary to let me get close enough to watch them feed. But one who does not seem to mind as much is the rusty blackbird who's been picking along the rocky shore south of me

1606 I climb back up the bank to sit with Dani and have a smoke, my calves and insteps tight from the extended squat. No sooner do I sit down than the turtles begin surfacing again above the milfoil. As we smoke, a couple dark-eyed juncos fly from bush to bush past us. Across the pond, by the duck blind, Dani spots another heron standing motionless, neck crooked, on shore

1634 After our smoke, we round the south pool, making our way toward the duck blind, hoping to get a better look at the heron. As we near the river, just before descending into the forest, I begin hearing a repetitive high-pitched chirp, like a tight little wire being rapped by a thin stick. We search for the source of the sound, and out of a chokecherry bush flutters an American tree sparrow. Soon we notice there are several around, all in chokecherry bushes, obviously cleaning out the remaining berries

1644 We’re lucky that a train crosses the high-level bridge, masking completely the sound of our approach into the duck blind. As we near our position, we see a second heron come gliding in to land in the nearby shallows. And when within sight of the full southern pool, we find that all the mallards have now left their island to feed near the newly arrived heron. The original heron we’d come to look at is presumably still standing on shore, concealed by the cutbank below us. But with the second heron now in the shallows, we dare not leave the blind

1647 We’re only watching for a couple minutes when the exposed heron bends strangely over to one side, holding its head just above water. I'm thinking for a moment that it's taking this position because it noticed the other bird on shore. The way its body leans is away from the other heron, and there’s a small island between them. It looks like it's trying to duck out of sight. But just as I'm considering this possibility, the heron plunges its head into the water and comes out with a pike almost as long as its own neck. It takes no time for the bird to manoeuvre the wriggling pike into position to swallow it whole, head first, and continue on its hunt

1655 As we watch this heron return to slowly stalking the shallows, the Sun's low position on the horizon begins to reveal hundreds, perhaps thousands of free-floating strands of spider silk moving through the air, some of it as much as twenty feet above the pond. One strand passes close in front of me, and I can see that it’s thicker on one end than the other, but there does not appear to be any actual spider attached (unless it’s too small to see)

1707 The heron has walked all the way to the other side of the pond, where it’s been stalking along the edge of the peninsula, and just moments ago caught another fish. Meanwhile, we've been visited on this side by a killdeer feeding on the mudflats, and a honey bee not-so-surprisingly attracted to my honey-sweetened cup of coffee

1715 Eventually we become curious about the status of the original heron we had seen below the blind from the other side of the pond. With the second heron away in the distance, we decide to walk out to peek over the cutbank and investigate. What we find is that there is no first heron here anymore. Either it was actually the same heron we’ve watched hunting all along, and only appeared to fly in as we arrived to the blind, or it may have flown off and had its region of the pond nabbed by this other bird

1736 As the Sun drops behind the rim of the coulee, and the pond falls into shadow, we make our way back through the forest to start our return trek. As we walk, several waves of whistling-winged mallards pass overhead. And when we come out of the forest and round the south pool again, we find that these were the same ducks we'd been watching for the last hour. Now the wide south end of the pond is completely empty of all but the heron and the still-bobbing painted turtles

1741 I was hoping that the new beaver pup would be out when we reached the subpond canal, but no such luck. There are no beavers awake yet at all. There are, however, three first-year coots here, undoubtedly the same ones we saw yesterday. They must have been bedded down on shore when we'd passed through earlier. From here, across from the subpond entrance, we can also see that the northern mallard conglomerate remains feeding in the pond. Why the southern group had so suddenly departed is yet another mystery among many in understanding these very complicated ducks

13 October 2009

First Ice

IIII ) lllllllllll Cold (1Oct09)

1801 Sspopiikimi - Got here a bit late, our side of the coulee's already in shadow

1804 Walking our usual route (with Dani in her chair today), we count thirty mi'ksikatsiiksi north of the ksisskstakioyis, and thirty-eight south, all mixed male and female. The ksisskstakiiksi themselves are not out yet, nor mi'sohpsskiiksi. We did see one mountain cottontail about midpond, but no sign of the redheads nor aiksikksksisiiksi. I might have thought the latter migrated, but I saw several earlier this afternoon in the water by Picture Butte

1812 It's been cold, dropping around zero at night, with frosty mornings. This has had an impact on the insects, the most noticeable of which is the absence of meadowhawks that have been prolific here for at least a month

1814 We stop on the high south bank above the largest mallard flock. There is a squabble between two of the males, one swimming after the other. When the chase was through, both gave several head dips, putting their heads underwater, then simultaneously stood high and flapped their wings at their sides before settling back down

1817 Suddenly more than half this small mallard congregation take flight. Our only explanation for this is "fear of fish," as Dani spotted the wake of a large pike headed toward them just before they flew. A swainson hawk had been overhead as well, but the time gap between the hawk's visit and the mallards departure seemed too great. A couple minutes after they left, a heron took wing toward the river. We hadn't even seen it in the reeds across from us until it rose

1900 Its too cold for Dani without gloves, so we pack-up to head back. Along the way, I stop to do a little survey of part of the west bank, where the water has receded. I can see the ksisskstaki have been eating buckbrush lately, as there are several stems in the water. I also notice the seven spot ladybugs are still doing their thing, so this chill must not be too unbearable for them yet. The last thing we see on the way out of the pond are four lesser yellowlegs swooping toward the southern mudflats

IIII ) llllllllllllll Blackberry Death (4Oct09)

1755 Sspopiikimi - it's drizzly and cold, snowing in many other parts of the region, but not here.. Tonight I am alone

1803 My first stop is at the north-shore beaver lodge, which we suspect is now abandoned. Looking down on it from atop the cutbank, there's still no indication of ksisskstaki activity. Just a few floating strands of bur-reed, which I figure were more likely left by muskrat occupants. Where I stand though, a large wood-ant complex has been dug out, and I wonder who might have done this

1812 There are twenty mi'ksikatsi feeding midpond, the usual male and female mix

1833 Oddly, there are just a couple mallards in the wide southern pool. Not nearly the numbers I'd expected. Seeing this emptiness makes me lonely. I turn around to head back to the truck. The last thing I see before leaving sight of the water is a muskrat swimming across in the dim dusk light

2150 My Blackberry dies, and Roger’s says it’ll be three to five days before I get a replacement. Guess I won’t be taking notes for the next while

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllll First Ice (9Oct09)

1651 Yes! New Blackberry in-hand and functioning... normality can now proceed

1812 Sspopiikimi - seeing it now, it's hard to believe that this place was abuzz with dragon and damsel-flies only a couple weeks ago. Already the entire north end of the pond has frozen over. I see the backs of a northern pike rising against the ice in confusion, and several small possible-ovenbirds walking on the pond's surface to feed amidst the bur-reed stands

1836 The southern half of the pond is still mostly open. It's snowing and only the very tops of the east coulee cliffs still have direct sunlight. We've brought night-vision equipment if needed. The main ksisskstakioyis has a Y-shaped trail leading up to the top through the snow, and there are members of the family out - one punching holes through the ice in the north and another heading for the subpond canal

1843 Thirty-four aapsspiniiksi pass overhead from the fields above, and the mallards are all congregated in the open waters. I'm counting them as we walk south

1854 There are two ksisskstaki working at the canal opening, alternately breaking ice and digging bulrushes. I can see that behind the wet-meadows the subpond is frozen over. Patches is floating just below us as we walk, occasionally making a nervous switch-back, and a redtail hawk passes over the north end, crying its way to the river

1905 Reaching the far south end of the pond, I've counted one-hundred and six mallards on the water. All are either feeding or preoccupied by the threat of our presence and swimming as a group toward whatever open water is furthest from our position in the moment

1914 Already we are starting the walk north again. There's a family of coyotes yipping and howling from the coulee cliffs close behind us. I look for them, but find no silhouettes in the darkness

1922 Stopping off at the ksisskstakioyis, one beaver is heading home from the canal while another swims north to the edge of the ice then dives under. Most of the mallards who were in the south pool have picked-up and flew quacking downriver. There are others here near the lodge who are huddled near our western shoreline

1941 Remaining by the ksisskstakioyis, we play a bit with the night vision. It works decent for watching activity across the pond, where we can see the beavers come and go or keep tabs on the mallards. But when there's anything in the water close to our shore, the reflection of the snow creates such a drastic contrast that the water and anything in it turns black. We're also noting that the vapor of our own breath, if passing too directly in front of the goggles, whites-out our view

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll Yellow-Rumped Warblers (10Oct09)

1524 With a sense of uncertainty, I head down to Sspopiikimi alone. This is our place, Dani and I, so it always bothers me to come here solo. It's lonely to be here by myself, that's one part of the problem. The other is that Dani and I have such a history of sharing our experience here together... this place knows us, not me. And as a result, I get the feeling, the gut sensation that I should not be here by myself, that when Dani's too sore to move around I should just go to the places that are used to having me there alone - Akaiinissko or my hunting grounds. I ignore this feeling today because I've only a few hours of daylight remaining and this place offers easy access. But also because there are some things happening out here that I need to follow-up on, to watch and hopefully learn from before the pond freezes over

1551 As I walk down the path leading to the north end of the water, I see unfortunately that it might be too late already for some of the events I'd hoped to watch. Sspopiikimi appears to be frozen along its entire length. Last night, there were large sections open from midpond to the southern pools. Today, I can see one mallard congregation in the distance that tells me there's still a bit of open water, but all the rest is at least thinly sealed

1558 For the ksisskstaki family, this is bad news. They should still be able to break through for the next little while, but very soon they'll be sealed in for the winter. Beavers don't hibernate. They simply have to live with this darkness for half the year

1601 For Dani and I as Iiyaohkiimiksi, this situation is significant as well. The iced-over pond means we've missed our mark for the first time in the four years we've been taking care of the Beaver Bundle, and so we'll probably not be hosting a ceremony bringing summer to a close - it's already happened without us

1613 I stop at the midpond bulrush stands, there the narrow-leaf bur-reeds are flattened down atop the ice. Yesterday we'd seen some small birds I thought were ovenbirds searching the bur-reed and picking at what I presumed were frozen insects. When we got home last night, I'd sent a picture to Gus Yaki in Calgary for a confirmation on my identification, and he responded that they were probably immature yellow-rumped warblers. This afternoon, they're here again. When I first arrive, they fly off to the wet meadows. But after a few minutes patient waiting they return, a flock of perhaps thirty. They're very conscious of my presence, and stay within the partial protection of the bulrush stems. But there are a few who eventually hazard out, and I try to inch my way closer to these ones, wanting to find-out what exactly they're eating. The warblers only let me go so far. At some point, I cross an invisible line, and they retreat at once to the wet meadows

1635 Again I wait, squatting as close to absolutely still as I can. And again the warblers return after just a few minutes. This time, rather than flying in to land concealed in the bulrushes, they come right to the ice and bur-reeds in front of me. I couldn't hope to get any closer, but still I can't see what it is they're picking at. I wait, watching and taking photos, my feet beginning to lose circulation. Finally, I decide to just go inspect the bur-reeds myself. Of course, as soon as I stand up the warblers depart again. All the same, I go to the water's edge to inspect the plants. It doesn't take long to find that there are pockets of frozen black aphids amidst these reeds. This must be what the warblers are feasting on. At least I consider it a mystery solved. I walk back up the bank to the path, and no sooner do I leave than I see the flock return again

1702 Leaving the warblers, I make my way toward the ksisskstakioyis and the mallard congregation. Now I can see there are three small pockets of open water remaining on the pond - one by the south entrance to the beaver lodge, one by the pipes that both pump water to the neighboring golf course and feed drainage back again, and the third just a bit south of the others, near the gosling couple's old nest island. All but two of the fifty-four remaining mallards are packed into this last pool. The other fifty-some birds who were here last night must have gone to find better sources of open water. As I approach, the mallards climb out onto the ice and waddle as a group toward the opposite shore. But as soon as I pass, they return to their pool

1721 The ksisskstakiiksi are not awake yet. I want to see what they'll do, faced with this icy scenario. In the meantime though, I decide to climb the side of the coulee to get a photograph of the whole of Sspopiikimi from above. My path is the same as that taken to and from the pond by coyotes. Their paw prints remind me that the opportunity to try and locate their dens will be coming, with the arrival of more snow

1726 There are robins all around me in the chokecherry brush as I climb. Eventually reaching the top of the coulee, I can see that Naapisisahtaa - the Old Man River - has begun to ice over in exceptionally slow spots as well. Winter is indeed upon us. I can also see here and there some waterfowl on the river, and a few deer coming out of the golden-leaved poplar forest to get a drink. I sit down on the coulee rim to have a smoke and take-in this sight, everything so beautiful with life and death. A flock of seven geese fly honking downriver, parallel to my position, high above the water. They remind me of the seven moons of winter. Soon it will be dark, and I need to make my way back to the ksisskstakioyis

1752 Down in the bottom-land again, I take a look toward the beaver lodge and mallard congregation. Still no ksisskstaki about. I weigh my options - either sit on the high west bank that overlooks the lodge, or move down onto the wet meadows near the entrance to the subpond canal. I choose the latter

1805 I stop at the southeast corner of the pond, amidst the mudflats. Here there is a mysterious little curl of open water adjacent to shore that tends to stay ice-free all winter. In the coming months, this will likely be the only place we see any ducks at Sspopiikimi, and it will serve as a drinking hole for deer and others. Why this little strip resists freezing, I can only conjecture. My best guess is that it's simply lower than the water table, and therefore fed through the earth by the river. Whatever the reason may be, it's hopping with activity tonight. Stopping by, I'm able to watch robins, lesser yellowlegs, killdeer, and several rusty blackbirds all feeding together in the shallow trickle. The blackbirds are flipping-over submersed sticks in the water. None of them seem to mind my presence

1833 When I arrive at the entrance to the subpond canal, two beavers are already here, breaking ice and munching bulrush roots. Seeing me, they dive and resurface in the middle pool of open water in the pond. They give a couple tail slaps as I sit down beside their feeding space, but about five minutes later they dive again and come back up right next to me. I am sitting here with the beavers as I write. They're not ten feet away, digging up roots and crunching them loudly with their huge incisors. They're watching me, cautiously. I'm sitting cross-legged beside them, quiet, trying to demonstrate that I pose no threat

1859 I don't want to stay too long here this evening. My hope is that the family will keep this little spot open for a while, and that we'll be able to continue visiting them here, at least for this early part of winter. I figure, if I don't intimidate them too much tonight, they'll allow us to get close in the weeks to come

1907 Just as I'm getting prepared to stand up and take my leave, I hear the rippling wet sound of another animal surfacing. I look up and see that it's the beavers' closest friend, Mi'sohpsski. The little muskrat stands up out of the water on its hind legs to look me over, then dives and swims under the ice, up the canal and right past me

1912 The muskrat's caution seems to be contagious, because as soon as it swims away so do the two beavers - Patches and her dark companion. I take this opportunity to stand and gather my things. As I do so, I hear a strain and crack of ice. Looking out at the pond, I can see the beavers are punching more holes in the shallows - basically positioning themselves between the ice and the pond floor, then pushing up until they break through. Each time they punch a new hole, they stand briefly to look around before going back under

1917 Of course it's now quite dark, so I make my way off the wet meadows and through the forest, passing under the immature kakanottsstooki who's still using its begging call from atop a poplar snag. I also startle one of the whitetail fawns, who dashes a couple meters off the path and then watches as I make my way past. I never know for sure what to make of all this, whether these animals are just used to seeing Dani and I or whether it's just our luck to have these kinds of close encounters through persistent visiting. Either way, this evening's over for me, but soon we'll be returning again, becoming part of the lives that unfold here, an ongoing drama of untold years

0026 Contemplating the pros and cons of stashing a sledge by the subpond canal, so I can help the beavers keep a hole open this winter