09 November 2009


IIII ) llllllllllllllll Flocks (4Nov09)

1001 Driving the BTAP canal, expecting to encounter some large mallard or goose congregations. The nights have become cold enough to freeze-over the relatively still bodies of water, the duck numbers at Sspopiikimi have recently dropped... I think it's time

1008 Arriving at the hidden part of Innokimi, my suspicion is confirmed. The waters here are black with massive flocks of aapsspini and mi'ksikatsi

1029 We pull off the canal at the next spillway and drive the field to get closer to the lake. Along the way, we prompt a huge flock of aapsspini, who had been eating in the stubble, to take flight. They split into two separate subflocks moving toward the water and we follow, arriving at a high bank just in time to watch them land amidst the thousands of birds already on the water. From this vantage point, we see that there are far more geese than mallards. After we linger a few minutes, the former take wing loudly, defining a cloud of sorts, stretching out across the horizon. Likely they're on their way to Mookoan Reservoir, which is our destination as well

1044 Driving away from Innokimi, we pass a group of five awatoyi, standing beside the willows that line the canal. They are all does and yearlings. Then, back on the canal, we find a great horned owl hunting the muddy, exposed drainage. The owl's not comfortable, and keeps moving further down the canal in front of us. After about a kilometer, it finally decides to circle back and move in the direction opposite our trajectory

1058 At Mookoan Reservoir, there's one massive mallard congregation, with individuals numbering in the thousands, a fair-sized goose congregation (all aapsspini, no snow geese), and about half a dozen western grebes. All these birds make haste to move toward the center of the lake as we drive up. And in the few moments we stop to survey, three more flocks of geese arrive to join those already on the water here

IIII ) lllllllllllllllll Chewed Wood (5Nov09)

1149 Sspopiikimi - the temperature is comfortable today, no wind, but evidence of the cold we've had the last few sleeps abounds. There are large but thin ice patches throughout the north and midpond. A dozen m'ksikatsi are feeding in the unfrozen strips, but there's no sign of the wigeons or coots

1201 Nearer the ksisskstakioyis, we find five more mallards (four males with one female). Also present here are three aiksikksksisiiksi and three wigeons. Each of the latter has attached itself to a coot, and is stealing some of the milfoil the coots surface with after each of their dives

1209 Mi'sohpsski swims along the length of the pond, heading north and passing right between the coots and wigeons. The muskrat surfaces and dives, surfaces and dives as it moves along, eventually disappearing near the mouth of the midpond canal

1217 In contrast to the north end, the wide southern pool appears to have no ice on its surface (I'm guessing because it is far more open and exposed to the Sun). Here I count fifty-seven sa'aiksi - mostly mi'ksikatsi from the looks of it, but I just heard the three-tone call of a wigeon in their midst. Across the pond, somewhere in the poplar forest or by the river, I also catch the trill of a kingfisher

1229 Sitting on the high bank above the south pool, its warm enough that I've stripped off my light jacket and am now very comfortable with just a t-shirt. I'm surprised, given this warmth, that the sspopiiksi are not out, though I wouldn't bet on them remaining that way the whole afternoon

1247 I leave Piipiiaakii at the cutbank and head down toward the peninsula. I've decided this would be a good day for a preliminary exploration of the critter tunnels that wind through and beneath the dense bulberry patch. I have to get down on my hands and knees to do this, and it's a very stickery ordeal. I'm much larger than the animals who normally move through here, and when I'm not carefully avoiding bulberry thorns, I'm being poked by the prickly roses that seem to be the second-most prolific plant in this patch

1304 Winding and weaving my way from one end of this brush to the other, what I see from scat sign is that the principal resident of this maze is a rabbit, probably a western cottontail. I also notice that there are lots of new plant starts hidden under here, what look to me to be burdock and a type of mint, possibly hempnettle. The ground is covered in a soft blanket of fallen grass and bulberry leaves, but this blanket can also hide fallen rose stems. Toward the end of the patch, I find a huge steel drum next to a magpie nest set low to the ground and deep in the thicket, but no other signs of nests or dens along the way (I must not be looking close enough). This was just an initial foray, I'm sure I'll see more in the future

1312 Returning to Piipiiaakii, she has been joined by a middle-school group led by Lloyd Price. There are just six or seven students, and they are handling a yearling wandering garter when I arrive. Each of the students has a plastic bag, and they are on assignment to find and collect "six signs of fall." As they set the reptile back in the grass, I chat briefly with Lloyd, then sit again with Piipiiaakii as the group continues on their way. Just as predicted, there are now painted turtles rising to the surface in the deep pool below the southern cutbank. A number of mallards are taking splash-baths and grooming

1334 We decide to walk around the south end of the pond to the duck blind at the edge of the poplars. Piipiiaakii remains there, at the blind, overlooking the pool from the opposite vantage of where she'd been sitting earlier. I move out to explore the forest and subpond

1339 Entering the forest, I catch a glimpse of movement and find its source to be a small yellow grasshopper. I then come to a place where the ksisskstaki family have been working to knock down a large western cottonwood. They chewed through the trunk far enough that the tree has listed to one side, but remains braced by a smaller cottonwood adjacent to it. Two different species of fly and a seven spot ladybug have been attracted to the fresh cut base. They are scouring the wood right below the cut-line of the bark, I would presume out of some interest in the sap? There is stump evidence around that this particular little cottonwood grove in the woods has been used in previous years by the beavers. In fact, one of the trees that appears (by aging of the wood at the stump) to have been knocked down last year by the beavers is only now having its branches harvested

1405 I follow the drag-trail from this harvest area, and it leads me directly to the subpond. I decide to walk along the edge of the subpond looking for other trails into the forest that might lead me to more harvest sites. Along the way, I turn over a log in the wet meadows and find, beneath it, a rodent trail and quarters, complete with the skeletal remains of a prior occupant, and several small brown slugs. I might consider collecting small rodent bones in the future, if I can find a decent guide that will help me learn to identify species by these samples

1418 I find no other evidence of recent tree-harvesting. But I do see that a dome-shaped muskrat lodge of bulrush stems has been constructed in the middle of the subpond. That's two such lodges in the pond this year (the other having been built toward the north end), compared to only bank lodges in

previous years

1433 Not wanting to leave Piipiiaakii waiting too long, I hike back through the forest to the duck blind, and by the time I arrive she's ready to go, her electric note-taker is running out of juice. So we make our way round the rest of the pond and back to the truck in haste and with little event

IIII ) llllllllllllllllll The Twin (6Nov09)

0759 Woke up to vicious winds, dark clouds, and a rainbow arching under the moon

1416 Akaiinissko - I'm on my way down the side of this steep coulee, yearning to explore the forest in the flood-basin below. It's an incredibly windy day, and so I'm hoping to learn something from this weather, though what exactly I haven't a clue

1419 I decide to take a different route down this afternoon, descending a relatively steep crevasse where a large section of coulee-side is slowly breaking away, exposing a variety of sediments going back, I'm sure, many millions of years. The plants that seem to grow best on the yellow-clay slopes of this relatively recent exposure include ninnaika'ksimo, sunflowers, sagebrush, and evening star. I notice that some of the sagebrush have spherical balls of fluff at their branch-tips, about the size of large marbles. I don't know if these are seed heads of some sort or the work of a parasite. I suspect the latter as these pom-poms only seem to occur on the odd plant, and the obvious seed structure on most of the sagebrush stems is an elongated panicle

1446 There are also dark mudstone exposures that, when examined up close, are infused with a criss-cross of orange crystal layers that divide the hardened grey soil up like puzzle pieces. Within this sediment, which does not slope, but rather falls horizontal like a cliff, there are embedded pieces of petrified wood and small fissures that are home to various spiders and others. I find the split-open remains of a red-colored moth cocoon, for instance. No plants grow in this sediment. The roots from plants in the yellow clay above turn as soon as they encounter the yellow crystal

1500 Eventually, I make it down through the crevasse, cross the grass and sagebrush flat below, and arrive at the bank beneath which the forest begins. My sudden presence startles two whitetail doe who were bedded down, out of the wind, on the edge of this bank. They run and leap off into the forest, blowing sneezes as they move

1508 Near to where the deer were bedded, I see a small tree amidst a circle of giants. I've been meaning to get closer to some of the trees here, and there's something about this one that attracts me. It appears, from where I stand on the bank, to have a trunk that's forked very low. So I climb down amidst the buckbrush at its base for a closer look. Parting the ground-cover, the two trunks both go into the soil, so I can't be certain if it's one tree or two, but they are close enough and angled toward one another in such a way that I'm figuring it as an individual. All the same, in recognition of this dilemma, I think I'll name it "Niistsimii" (The Twin). Looking up from its furrowed grey bark to the skeleton stems of its perhaps twelve-foot high canopy, I can see by the few remnant leaves that Niistsimii is a narrow-leaf cottonwood. This surprises me, because I assumed the giants surrounding it were its elders. But though Niistsimii has one nearby sibling close to its same age, as I walk around I confirm that all of the other nearby trees are western cottonwoods and balsam poplar. Looking closely at Niistsimii one last time before moving on for the afternoon, I see it already has its buds prepared for next-year's leaf growth. They are thin and closely hugging the stems, but buds none-the-less. This, I can see, is the way it is with all the local poplars

1537 Now I am checking other woody plants as I move through the forest. The bulberries, even the buckbrush, also have small leaf-buds awaiting winter's end

1549 Soon I come to the outskirts of a long meadow, surrounded on all sides by trees, and defining the middle echelon of the flood-plane. Here there's a large balsam poplar that cracked about eight feet up its trunk and fell over, creating the perfect framework for a lean-to that I've envisioned building as a winter base camp of sorts for my forays into this coulee. I don't know what caused the tree to fall, but it appears that at one time the bark must have been stripped off one side of the trunk. The bark flanking this trauma site healed over and rounded, but left the inner wood of the tree exposed. This inner wood has areas of rot and obvious insect infestation. Had it not cracked and fallen, it may have eventually become hollowed. In any case, the lowermost lateral limbs are still very much alive, and three of them have redirected themselves upward, vying for position as the new trunk. Today I examine this tree closely to try and sleuth its story, then clear out branches under the lean-to framework and start placing logs against the fallen trunk to create what I hope will eventually be a nice little survival nook for overnight visits

1636 Moving on, I walk to the line of trees marking the boundary of the next echelon down on the flood plain, and begin following this line toward the downriver side of the coulee, where there’s a gradual slope to lead me back up. Bedded below the bank atop which this line of trees grows were a mule buck and four does. All stand and begin hopping away for safety. They move about a hundred meters out from me, then one of the does turns to stare me down while the others continue on to seek their shelter. Eventually, when I come close enough, this doe too turns to hop away. They are headed toward the side of the coulee, but I will not follow. The Sun has dropped out of view, and I've got another destination in mind before turning to climb out

1654 Where I go is to find the old hollow stump where, last year, through the wound from one of its fallen lateral branches, Piipiiaakii and I found a rodent nest (possibly deer mouse), absolutely stuffed to the hilt with all manner of soft fibrous plant material. I'm wondering whether the resident will use this same nesting spot again and, if so, how it will look this early in the season. Arriving at the stump, it appears I'm in luck. The cavity has not been completely stuffed with nesting material yet, but construction has begun. A very nice layer of leafy grass stems has been brought in and twisted around to form a base, and this grass has been interwoven with deer hair. Using a little flashlight to peer inside, the resident does not seem to be home, but I intend to check back before things get too cold, and to learn finally the identification of who lives here

1730 The ascent from rodent nest to coulee top was fairly uneventful, the light growing more dim and the wind stronger as I climbed. Most of this hike, I was just thinking to myself. I did see three more of the fuzzy, dark-rust colored caterpillars we've been noticing the last couple weeks. They were each crossing my path at different elevations - one at the coulee bottom, another about a third of the way up, and the last about two-thirds of the way. Somewhat different micro-environments in these zones, so I do wonder what kind of larva this is. Other than the caterpillars, my mind was mostly on birds. I'd neither seen nor heard a one in these few hours, and I assume this is a response to the wind. Certainly there are owls, flickers, downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, magpies, and grey partridge still down here, and probably a half-dozen other species as well. But none were hazarding the gusts today

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllll Minii (8Nov09)

1602 Minii (The Island) - Back out at my stalking grounds along the Old Man River. Rather than hiking across the mudflats of the oxbow to the island today, because Piipiiaakii’s with me I drive along a set of ruts that leads through the forest downriver, to a point where the waters of the Old Man come right up against the coulee cliffs. Here, at about the same season last year, the bulberry brush was still brilliant-red with an unharvested bounty. We thought Piipiiaakii could rattle some off the branches this evening, while I stalked through the forest. Unfortunately though, it seems we're much too late. This year the berry bushes are almost completely bare already, save for the odd branch of shriveled fruit here and there. Instead of picking, Piipiiaakii will have to explore near the truck, while I make a careful circuit of the forest

1616 I make my way into the trees and along trails that wind between the massive bulberry patch. High up in one of the poplars above, I spot one of this year’s hornet nests, a layer or two of its outer paper flapping in the wind. Eventually I come to a stretch where the undergrowth is more saskatoon, silverberry, and red osier. Here there is kind of a clearing through the woods that could only have once been a meandering of the river, one that still probably retains some water after any floods. Off to the side of this open strip, near my path, is a large fallen poplar log. I sit beside this log, to watch and write some notes. When I finished my notes, I stood up, and only then did I notice that there was a whitetail buck standing in the clearing. It had apparently just come out from another trail on the opposite side of this opening. When I stood and noticed it, the buck obviously noticed me, and trotted back off the way it had come

1640 When the buck left, it was not in a sprint, and would not likely scare other animals. My thinking is, if I sit back down, perhaps either the buck will return or some other nearby deer will wander down the same trail. So again I sit by the log and watch the clearing. About fifteen minutes pass, and I start taking my notes on the buck. I’m only distracted in this manner a couple minutes, but when I again glance toward the clearing, there are two whitetail does staring back at me. This forest is so much theirs, they look like they've just sprung up from the fallen leaves. And they are so keenly aware of their surroundings. As still as I sit, obscured by the huge log, they sense my presence, craning their necks to discern who it is hiding over here. I need only make the slightest movement, which I do, and they go bounding back into the forest, tails wagging. This time, they are in a sprint, so I don’t expect others will hazard down here

1702 About ten minutes after the deer depart, I begin walking again, following established animal trails and tracing a wide arch around the middle of the forest. Along the route I find all kinds of deer sign in the form of fresh dung and scrapings on saskatoon. As soon as I again reach the edge of the bulberry, I come face-to-face in one of the bushes with a good-sized porcupine. Quickly it turns to face the other way, raising the hair on its back and flicking its tail. I quietly tell the porcupine to calm down, and then I back off about twenty feet. Still, it's nervous, and it begins making its way down to the ground. Through the dimming twilight, I watch this animal climb backward out of the bush, and then proceed into a den it has in a nearby stump

1720 With the porcupine in hiding, I make my way back to the truck. Just as I come within sight of Piipiiaakii, a bald eagle flies past low over her head, moving from there downriver. I relate to her my “funny” encounters with the deer, and she is none too impressed. Likely I will not be allowed to bring my Blackberry for note-taking anymore when visiting this particular coulee