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