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