31 January 2010

Trailing Aapi'si

III ) llllllllllll Trailing Aapi'si (27Jan10)

1415 Went down to the Old Man river-bottom with my camera bag and coffee for a phenology hike, heading upriver along the ice toward the confluence and my winter study site. Today's semi-agenda (always subject to change) was to look for the tracks of some of the residents down there and see if I could learn where more of their dens are located

1430 Right off the hop, my eyes drew me toward a wonderful example of a kinii or prickly rose that is harboring wintering insect larva in two different kinds of galls. One is a very attractive reaction by the plant, a winter flower of sorts, like a soft-petaled pine-cone that has swollen open. The other galls appear like a round, berry-like growths on the stem. In color and texture, they remind me of rabbit droppings

1449 Just down on the ice, beside the first open water crag, I could see a set of tracks crossing the river. My suspicion, even at a distance, but judging by how close together the tracks were laid, was that they belonged to aapi'si. So I moved down that way to confirm it, stopping off enroute to photograph siinikskaahko or buckbrush, and their dark-colored berries in this season. Once below the cutbank, my suspicions proved true. They were definitely coyote tracks and, on my side of the ice, they led upriver

1512 Following the tracks of aapi'si I was led along the ice, moving from single runs to trails where several runs converged, the most significant factor being a large piece of clay in the river that they're using as a scent mount to mark territory. From that mound, I began following a single animal's run, which soon led up a narrow drainage toward the coulee rim. But before I began my ascent in pursuit of a den location, I stopped among the aaattsistaotsipiiyis or sandbar willow at the shoreline, which harbors yet another pine-conish flowery gall that I wanted to collect and photograph

1544 Up, up the coyote led me, taking some slopes steeply, others along switchbacks. The trail I followed led past blue gramma, skunkbrush sumac, ootsstatsimaan or ball cactus, penstemon and others. It intersected on occasion with trails of the mule deer and runs of omahkaattsistaa, the white-tailed jackrabbit. And on it went, up and down the ridges moving upriver near the coulee rim

1605 As the setting sun began to create that brilliant contrast of shadow, snow and soil on the ridges of the coulee walls, the coyote led me on a sudden switchback arching over the rim and partially back down the slope above the floodplain of Popson Park. As I stopped to photograph the neon-yellow broomweed and glowing orange pincushion lichen on the skunkbrush, I could see the KIA awaiting my eventual return on the river-bottom below

1639 I lost my coyote lead when the prints led me into another steep drainage of the coulee. This time, the coyote's wanderings intersected with dozens, if not hundreds, of other trails and runs of the mule deer and white-tailed jackrabbit. I had to concede defeat, but thought I'd at least go to the bottom of this draw and walk out from there, checking amongst the saskatoon and chokecherry brush that lined the lower drainage to see if I could find the den or anything else interesting

1644 I was photographing the differentially-aged bark of saskatoon and chokecherry when I noticed a cup-shaped nest deep in the thicket. Though filled with snow so that I couldn't see the mud lining, I figured it right away for one of this year's robin nests. I almost left it at that and walked away, but something compelled me to take off my backpack and move into the brush, so I could scoop the snow out of the nest and see the walls for sure. It was indeed a robin nest. But there was something very, very unusual within. This nest held a golf ball. Or, to be more accurate, a golf ball casing, torn open on one side and rubber-band contents removed. I cannot imagine a person either coming up here with the golf-ball casing to deposit it in the nest, nor any miraculous, case-shedding stroke from above that just happened to sink a nest-in-one. My suspicion is that it was brought by a corvid - a magpie, or crow, or raven - ripped open, and its contents stolen away for some strange purpose

1712 With the Sun gone over the horizon, I left the bizarre cache and walked down the rest of the draw, leading almost straight to the truck. Soon the geese would be coming in to roost for the night, but I was tired and coyote-defeated, and ready to head home

III ) llllllllllllll Goose Couple (30Jan10)

1412 I've arrived at the Oldman coulee with a fresh haircut, a pocket full of beef liver, and a hot cup of coffee. The trimmings of hair are for the mice and voles, the liver goes to whichever magpies, coyotes, or eagles spot it first, and the coffee... well that's for me to sip as I visit this place for the afternoon

1426 As I walk down to the river from where I've parked the truck, a flock of nineteen aapsspini come honking from downstream. They're moving toward the St Mary's confluence, but something causes them to spin above the river, two-hundred and seventy degrees, and cut over the coulee rim instead

1455 Down at the first open water crag I find an aapsspini couple sitting out on the ice by themselves. Though it's still very early in the season, my first thought is that these two are forerunners of the movement that will soon be underway, as the larger goose families split up into couples and begin staking out their nesting grounds for sa'aiki'somm

1538 I decide to set my liver down along the edge of the second open water crag, right beside some coyote trails, so that I can survey from the cliff-top above and hopefully get a look at whoever takes it. The magpies are already well aware of what's going on, and they're chattering at me from the other side of the river

1553 Before climbing, in fact before even tossing the liver out on the ice, I stop on the riverbank to reacquaint myself with several of the plants living there - the awaanataapistsisskitsi (pretty flower or yellow primrose), the common plantain, one of the coneflowers and several examples of the same unidentified species I photographed on the coulee rim a few days ago

1637 Up atop the cliff, nisaamissapi, my look-out point, I've begun exploring the potential of my new macro lens to assist in helping me learn the lichen that color the surface of the rocks. So far, I've photographed oranges, blacks, greys, pinks, browns, and a white with black horns. I also found a nice little rodent burrow under a boulder in which to leave my hair clippings

1650 As I sit waiting, wondering why the magpies haven't gone to feed yet, a small flock of geese pass overhead. Though daylight has not faded out quite yet, Naato'si is entirely masked by cold, grey, cloudy skies. I'm expecting the aapsspiniiksi to land at one of the two open-water crags, but they continue their flight. Then I see why. Right on the tail of these eight or nine geese is ksikkihkini, a mature bald eagle. As the geese pass over the coulee rim, the eagle gives up the chase and soars off upriver. As it disappears into the distance, one of the kakanottsstooki begins his love song from the forest beyond the oxbow willows below

1713 Ksikkihkini just passed by again, this time with no aapsspiniiksi involved, and another great horned owl has begun to sing, this one from across the river downstream. The magpies are still near, and I am waiting to see if any geese come in for the night. But I may have to abandon soon. It seems I'm underdressed for the cold breeze that's starting to come in. My gloveless hands are freezing

1750 In an effort to get the blood pumping and my body warm, I decide to hike the rest of the way up to the coulee rim. It doesn't take me long, and is not enough to warm me. But the view is spectacular. From here, I watch several flocks of geese wing their way downriver. They're passing by these crags entirely, no doubt heading to the open waters by Paradise Canyon, where the adjacent human presence ensures them greater odds against the shy coyotes

1810 I've given up on seeing aapi'si today. Moving through the dark, with the songs of kakkanottsstooki now hoo-hoo-HOOing throughout the coulee from at least four owls, I make my way back to the truck and head home

11 January 2010

All In An Oxbow

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll All In An Oxbow (7Jan10)

1554 After my fundraising meeting in town this afternoon, I made my way down to the coulee to make good use of the couple hours of daylight remaining

The snow that fell all day two-sleeps ago had added probably four inches to what was already on the ground, and all of this is mid-winter powder, tiny bits of snowflakes that collided with other flakes and shattered far before they reached the ground. I suspect it won't be long before we get a chinook to compress this powder into drifts that will make road travel difficult or, in some places, impassable. For now though, even some of the gravel roads to the coulee bottom are drift-free

I drove down one such road and parked at its furthest point. From there, I hiked down to the river, where there is a small crag of open water that has been host to one particular clan of aapsspini. Most of the Canada geese along this stretch of the coulee, together numbering several hundred, have been night-roosting further downstream, just before the river passes Paradise Canyon. That locality maximizes their defense against the human-shy coyotes and bald eagles. But there are a few clans who always prefer to stick to themselves, and the area that I visit is host to one such group. Today, there were twenty-nine of them crowded together at the edge of the steaming water crag

Beyond the geese, hiking upstream on the river ice, I pass under what I call the "swallow cliffs," a steep cut in the coulee that has giant mudstone bricks eroding out of it. Beneath of the mudstone, hundreds of cliff swallows build adobe nests, many of which remain intact, though abandoned, through the winter

Few animals inhabit these cliffs at this time of year. Occasionally I find mouse trails running between the coulee rim and some of the plants they like to gather seeds from on the lower slopes. Last year, the mouse preference seemed to be wild licorice seeds. Today, when I follow some of these trails, I find they've been eating russian thistle and gumweed, and far mor of the former than the latter. With the gumweed, it was easy to discern that they have been clipping and stripping the seed heads. With the thistle, on the other hand, it appears more like they are eating stems. But it's hard to be sure, because when I clip a stem myself and give it a good shake, several seeds drop to the snow. It could very well be these seeds that the mice are after

At the other end of the swallow cliffs, the coulee opens to a floodplain. In years when the spring thaw raises the river significantly, there is an oxbow that flows through part of this plain, and occasionally some of that water stays in pockets through the summer. Where the largest such extension meets the river, there's a dense forest of sandbar willow. This is my destination, as it is where I've been keeping some snares to catch sikaaatsisttaiksi, mountain cottontails

Besides the cottontails, other there are other animals who frequent and live within the willows during the winter. There's the whitetail deer, whose trails I follow through the dense thicket. There's also porcupines, like the one I encountered almost immediately upon entering today. It was a young animal, probably less than a year old, who had climbed up some mature willows to about my eye-level. It hadn't begun to strip and eat the bark yet when I arrived. Approaching close, it first tried to climb a bit higher, flaring its back hair to expose its quills. But perhaps realizing this would not be defense enough, it soon descended the trees and scrambled about twenty meters to one of its dens, a deep cavern carved into the cutbank of the oxbow by beavers in previous years. I've seen porcupine scat in these old beaver dwellings for the past few years, so they are well-established as dens

As I followed the young porcupine, our movement scared up a ring-necked pheasant from nearby, where the willow was more sparse. I went to look at where the pheasant had been sitting. It was right in the middle of a rabbit trail, next to a pile or droppings. I wonder if the pheasant had been attracted by these rabbit pellets, perceiving them at first as potential rose-hips. With the new snow, no doubt most of the roses in this section of the coulee are buried

Following the rabbit trail back to the cutbank, and near the porcupine den, I found that it led to several burrows. From what I've read, mountain cottontails typically use a "scrape" beneath brush, beside logs, under rocks, etc. Nowhere have I heard of them excavating burrows. Yet these ones, which are obviously being used as dens by the rabbits, are too small to have belonged to badgers or beavers, too large for ground squirrels. In fact, I could think of only one animal who might have made these particular cavities, and that is the muskrat. Given their position on the cutbank of the oxbow, this made perfect sense

Continuing along the rabbit trails, I eventually came to my snares. Each one had been burried in the new-fallen snow. Only one had been touched by the cottontails at all, and in that instance had merely been trampled over. It took me about twenty minutes to move around and reposition each snare so it was sitting properly above the snowline again. In the midst of making these corrections, I also got a good sense of what the rabbits have been eating - namely, willow. They have been snipping and chewing young shoots. At the same time though, it appears they've been assisted by both the whitetail deer and the beavers. Everyplace where I found a cottontail had stopped to feed, there was evidence that a deer or beaver had clipped the thicker stems higher up on the plants. Some of these clippings were recent, and the deer had left tracks and bark-chewed stems behind, which appear to have been utilized by the rabbits as well. Others, however, had clearly been clipped a year or more beforehand, and it was probably this event that provoked the willows to send up new shoots

Walking back downriver to my truck, I reflected on the relationships I'd observed today, how seasonal flux in the height of the river waters affected plant life and prompted responses by the beavers and muskrats. The temporary shelters made by the latter were then taken-up for years afterward by porcupines and cottontails, who live with the deer in the willow forest, all of them feeding off either the mature willows (porcupine) or the young shoots brought about by prior beaver-feeding (cottontails and deer)

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllll No More Snares (9Jan10)

0813 Howling winds that could make a decent soundtrack for any movie supposedly set in the harsh environs of the arctic north. The Heavy Head weather station reads 3C, 58% humidity, with winds gusting to 28 kph. And I'm up to make my morning coulee expedition

0956 After yesterday's blowing snow, and the heavy winds of last night carried into this morning, I was surprised to find the road leading down into the coulee to still be open and navigable. But the chinook, aisi'kssopo, the snow eater, had certainly changed the landscape below

1000 Arriving at the first open crag on the river, the aapsspini clan who usually roost there were nowhere to be found. And hiking upsteam, I soon felt compelled for reasons of safety to take a trail along the mud at the base of the swallow cliffs, rather than walking atop the river ice which I found to be slushy in places

1005 All signs of my coming and going over the last week have been obliterated, as well as the marks of the deer and coyote. Not until I'd nearly reached the willow thickets did I encounter tracks, and most of these were made by at least two pheasants who've been marching along the edge of the willows. I've not been able to determine what it was they were feeding on here

1048 Moving along my trap line this morning I was saddened to learn that, while two of my ten snares had been successful in capturing sikaaatsisttaiksi, the coyotes and magpies had beaten me to both of them. A day and a half has passed since my last visit, and this is quite apparently too long to wait. That now makes three rabbits killed and coyote stolen in about a week's time, and that is too much to tolerate

1052 Observing what had happened and now confident that the coyotes will continue checking my trap-line a couple times a day, it's obviously time to take down the snares. I need a different approach. I need to build the live box-traps I've gathered material for, but procrastinated in assembling. My kills had not been a waste. They had fed the life of this coulee. But they hadn't fed Mahoney and I, and so the exercise is, in this sense, defeating its intended purpose. In another manner, however, it has worked wonders. I now have the knowledge and capability to catch sikaaatsisttaiksi in this fashion, whenever my schedule will allow me frequent checks, perhaps twice a day, of my line

1122 As I hiked back to the truck, a bit braver now to move atop the semi-slushy river ice, three adult bald eagles passed me. Each flew low and slow upstream, against the prevailing winds, searching for carrion or easy prey. This afternoon might be a good opportunity to make them an offering and watch them feed. Then, up atop the coulee rim once more, I saw that the geese have returned to our now semi-exposed stubble fields

1214 Heading right back down to the river with Mahoney, taking along a freezer-burnt salmon to see if we can feed the eagles

1336 Mahoney and I got down to the river with about four hours of daylight remaining, and found a spot on the cutbank semi-concealed by narrow-leaf cottonwoods and bulberry thickets

1345 Before we even had a chance to sit down, ksikkihkini was passing overhead. Probably it had been roosting unbeknownst to us in a nearby tree, and our trespass had disturbed it. All the same, it was an encouraging sign. I walked down and threw the fish about a third of the way out onto the river ice, then set us up with a log seat and a bit of a log blind, where we could get comfortable and wait for the next bird to come

1423 After almost an hour's wait, the first eagle has arrived. It swooped in from downriver, saw the fish, looped behind us, and then arched overhead and made a fairly low pass. As the eagle, who obviously spotted us, turned to fly back downriver, a magpie we hadn't known was behind us gave a few squawks. Less than a minute later, two ravens flew in from downriver, inspecting the goods much as the eagle had. All but the coyote are aware of the feast we've set on the ice. It's just a matter of waiting them out

1443 Now three bald eagles have arrived, all of them making passes overhead. They want this fish, it's a question of whether they'll be brave enough to come down, aware as they are that we're here

1449 We don't know whether the same three are looping around, or if there are now four inspecting the fish. In any case, one just passed exceptionally low. I was sure it was going to come all the way down, but it swooped past just above our eye-level from atop the cutbank

1513 Shortly after the eagle passed low, a jogger with a dog came by, running on the river ice. This set us back. No other eagles came close for the next half hour. And when the first one did return, it stuck high to the cliffs on the opposite side of the coulee

1556 We are now getting cold and there hasn't been any action for a while. Mahoney is headed back to the truck for a warm-up. It will be getting dark soon, but I have decided to stay at the log for what daylight remains, hoping that with just my lonely presence to consider, the eagles will be less intimidated

1611 Sure enough, fifteen minutes after Mahoney returned to the truck, one of the eagles came by on a pass. I huddled against the tree beside me, trying to stay out of view. The eagle swung around overhead and came fairly low to the fish, but then continued its survey upriver

1636 All three eagles have now come by for a look, and all have presumably seen me, because after assessing the situation they carried on their way. The sunlight is now just illuminating the tips of the coulee rim

1655 In despiration and dimming light, I hustle to situate another log in front of me, hopefully concealing my position just a bit more, though probably not nearly enough. These birds have super powers - an accuity of sight and sound we can't even imagine. If only there were a few more logs here of the right size, I might be able to fashion a blind that would overcome this inequality

1703 Not long after I set the extra log in place, a juvenile makes a fly-by, and now I see Mahoney returning as well. There are four geese are right on her tail, low overhead. I expect them to be the fore-runners returning to the nearby open-water crag for the night, but they're not. They continue moving upriver. Mahoney tells me that from the truck, she was able to watch the eagles hunting a field that is just over the next rise behind out position. I wonder if they are actually hunting there, or just trying to wait us out

1727 All at once, about half of the goose clan, sixteen of the twenty-nine aapsspiniiksi who stay at the open water crag here, swooped in and landed. They were followed a minute later by eleven more, and then the last two

1741 As the first starlight reaches our eyes, yet another goose joins the clan, making an even thirty. Seconds later, twenty more descent. And after them, two more. Fifty-two aapsspiniiksi in total, almost twice as many as I'd observed here on any given dawn, but not nearly the numbers that gather around the next bend downstream. The eagle hours have now passed. It's night, and we begin our journey home, leaving the salmon to the coyotes

05 January 2010

Feeding Eagles

IIII ) llllllllllllll Little Thaw (1Jan10)

0840 Here's your morning report from Heavy Head weather station on planet Hoth: temperature -16C and rising, with sixty-seven percent humidity, wind at 5kph with gusts to 9kph, and a forecast of more snow to come

1049 Trying unsuccessfully not to dwell on how my break is almost over. What bugs me about holy-days like sundance, winter solstice (xmas), and the egg harvest (easter) are that they give a cruel glimpse at what life could be like if we were smart enough to make it so. Hiking and hunting, crafting and cooking, visiting and eating with family, and enjoying Mahoney's company the whole time, that's my idea of the good life. I'm fortunate that I get a lot of it, but I wouldn't mind having it be every day

1355 Lazy day... just been watching movies and tinking around on the computer. Thinking it's time we get outside for a couple hours before the sunshine runs out. Maybe throw a bison roast in the slow cooker and head down to the pond

1500 Sspopiikimi - new snow on the pond means fresh tracks to check out

1504 Mahoney and I make our way straight to the mi'sohpsski complex, their lodges and push-ups in the midpond bulrushes, but none of the little guys have been out. There are several new sets of coyote and deer tracks in and around the rushes though

1513 Moving over to the ksisskstakioyis, we find that a significant pool has melted and refroze on the north side of the lodge. This is quite a mystery for us, because it was not so only a few days ago, it has been ten or more degrees below zero ever since, and the thaw was in the lodge’s shadow. Mahoney says it looks like a beaver skating rink

1522 The subpond has also experienced some thaw, and has significant areas of slush, though no refreeze. Even our footprints on the seemingly iced areas leave a slush trail. It then dawns on me that the new snow has acted as insulation, just as it does on land to create the subnivian zone inhabited by voles and mice

1537 When we get to the blind at the far south end, Mahoney sits down to rest her legs while I pick rose hips. The flesh of some of these berries is soft. They too have been thawing. It must be that temperatures here at the pond have been quite a bit warmer than up above the coulee rim

1553 Soon we enter the forest and both gather rose hips as we walk along, having in mind the notion of boiling it as a tea, high in vitamin C, to boost immunity over the next few days before contact with the dreaded first-of-semester germs at the college

1613 Aside from the appearance of a magpie, who tried to tell us something we couldn't comprehend, the rest of our walk through the forest was uneventful. Although we know there's much going on under the snow, above it there's seemingly very little. We kept an eye out for signs of porcupine presence, but found none. What tracks we saw were those of the white-tails and coyotes

IIII ) lllllllllllllll Aapsspini Assembly (2Jan10)

1820 Just got back from watching the geese assemble at their night-roost on the river, one of the most awesome events to witness in winter. Had a good time sitting on the ice with my Mahoney. We’ve now located three local goose roosts. The one we visited tonight is, like last year, located in Paradise Canyon, a second is upstream from the Wilderness Park, and the third is by Bingo Bridge on the Reserve. There are several other open water crags these birds could be utilizing, but it seems they have chosen areas most frequented by human traffic, I suspect because of the protection it affords them from coyote and eagle presence

IIII ) llllllllllllllll Feeding Eagles (3Jan10)

0719 Dottie Dog got me up at the appropriate hour, as requested, but it feels sooo early. All the same, I need to go down to the coulee now, or I won't have another opportunity today. This morning's weather reading: -17C, 66% humidity, no wind, sunny forecast. Big snow tomorrow, I hope

0824 Well, here I am beneath tangerine skies of dawn, looking out over the floodplain on one of my favorite bends in the river, very aware that the frequency of my five-hour hikes through here is about to take a drastic cut with the close of winter break. There are two mule deer down below me, grazing on one of the ridges of the coulee slope. They get to spend their whole life out here and I'm jealous

0851 This morning, reluctantly, I am removing most of my rabbit snares. I have dispersed them far too widely throughout the forest and coulee slopes, which may very well account for their ineffectiveness to date. But in either case, I won't have the opportunity to walk that entire range every day now that the new semester is beginning. So I intend to gather most of them up, and consolidate the remainder in a single patch of sandbar willow that I think I can hike out to check in under an hour, day or night

0915 Whoever said that all flickers, with the exception of a few urban dwellers, migrate from Alberta in winter is crazy. After pulling what I had from the chokecherry brush on the sagebrush flats, and proceeding to walk the woodline downstream toward the willows, I've seen at least three flickers perched high in the poplar canopy or gliding through the forest. I say "at least" three, because those I observed simultaneously. But I've also had perhaps eight or nine individual sightings as well. The kakanottsstookii couple, on the other hand, are not at the roost where I observed them during my last visit

1032 At the willows, I learned that one of my rabbit snares had finally been successful. I had caught a mountain cottontail. And perhaps if I had come out here yesterday morning as intended, instead of sleeping-in, we'd be eating mountain cottontail. But in my absence, the other animals had already taken a share, eating out the rear end, including the meat on the thighs. I'm sure the foreshanks would still be edible, but I'm not certain how Mahoney would take to me bringing her just half a rabbit. So I detached it from the snare and tossed it out onto the river ice, where what remains of it should soon feed the coyotes, magpies, or eagles. I then reset my willow snares and started my hike upstream to the flotsam

1135 All the way back along the river, into the flotsam, through the forest, and in the hawthorns, none of my snares had been touched. I collected and pocketed each one as I walked. When I reached the site of my porcupine kill from the other day, it was heavily trodden with magpie tracks. They had definitely enjoyed the guts I left behind. With the sun now shining bright and warm in the coulee, I begin my ascent back to the truck

1150 Just before I reach the coulee rim, a large shadow passes overhead. I search the skies and see an eagle winging downriver. When it passes over where I'd left the rabbit, it circles around, and as I leave the coulee it is with confidence that I've at least fed an eagle today

1223 Aah, thought I'd get through this winter without losing a glove in the coulee... I thought wrong

IIII ) lllllllllllllllll Back To Work (4Jan10)

0645 -12C, 66% humidity, weather station wrongly predicts a sunny forecast, and why oh why am I awake so early? whimper

0847 From my door, across the fields of fleeing coyotes, down the coulee slope, past a dozen sleeping geese at the open water crag, over the river ice beneath the cliffs, into the willow thickets behind the old beaver lodge with black-rabbits abound, and all the way back home again - 1hr 20min. Got my quick coulee fix for the morning, now time to head to work

0140 Snow, snow, snow... I have no objections

01 January 2010

Beaver Breath

IIII ) lllllllll Water Hole (27Dec09)

Naato'si has just risen, the skies are clear and the mountains glowing in the dawn light. I'm on my way down the coulee slope. Some lucky coyote, or eagle, or magpie family gets to eat beef liver today

Intermingled with the tracks of deer, coyote, rabbit, pheasant, partridge and magpie, all the way down the slope were the marks of Christmas - fresh cut ski and sled trails. Down on the sagebrush flat, three mule deer were resting. They stood and hopped to the edge of the forest when they saw me

My first stop was at the chokecherry stands on the flat. The birds had visited my sling trap. All the granola and raisins I'd left were gone and the sling had been sprung, but there was no evidence that it caught anything. Perhaps they had bumped the trigger stick, or simply pulled on the line with their beaks, rather than stepping into the leg noose. The rabbit snare I'd set-up next to the sling on my last visit had not moved

At the first cutbank dropping into the forest, I again spotted a large porcupine, asleep on a barren cottonwood branch high in the canopy. If it is the same animal from a few days ago, its moved a ways downstream from its previous position. Today there is no sign of the smaller kai'skaahp, at least within my line of sight, though that says nothing of the view from the adult porcupine's position

Moving back along the cutbank to the tree where I'd formerly observed the larger kai'skaahp, and looking into the forest from there, I still couldn't see the smaller animal. But when I decided to cut through to the river, I soon came upon it. Like its relative, the small kai'skaahp is sleeping high up in a cottonwood branch this morning. Nearby, I hear the peeps and "here-sweeties" of the niipomakiiksi

Rather than heading straight into the willows this morning, I wanted to get my liver offering placed out on the river, along with a video camera to record whoever accepts it. So I continued through the forest and down to the ksisskstakioyis. There, I stopped to photograph some of the wonderful, feathery, shimmering ice crystals formed at the beavers' ventilation hole

I placed the liver on the ice near the ksisskstakioyis, which I thought would make for a nice background in the video. Then, after setting up my camera, I followed the mouse highway out into the sweetclover, heading toward the flotsam where some of my rabbit snares are placed. As I walk, I drop a handful opf granola at each entrance to the subnivian zone that I can see the mice have been using. A lone aapsspini is passing overhead, moving upriver, crying. It sounds like it's in distress. It's not the usual goose honk. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that something happened to its partner

There was nothing at the flotsam besides tracks of all the rabbits I haven't managed to snare, so from there I began walking through the forest, moving downriver to the willow thickets. I thought by now I would have heard the calls of the magpies over at the liver, but perhaps they haven't found it yet

Arriving at the rabbit willow, I was happy to find that one of my snares had caught some action. What was probably a mountain cottontail passed through and got hung-up. Unfortunately, it must not have caught its neck, or if it did the rabbit managed to pull free. But in any case, the snare-loop was pulled tight. There was no blood, or hair, or anything of the sort to make me think that the animal had been injured, or that my catch had been stolen by another predator. All evidence suggested it had merely pulled free

It was nothing for me to walk over the next burm to the river after resetting my trap. Along the way, I passed a magnificent snow angel that looked like it might have been produced by a landing grouse. It was a perfect circle, with sunrays where the wingtips had touched, and a tail flare behind. I took photos, then walked back to the ksisskstakioyis to check on the liver. To my surprise, none of the animals had found it yet. Ah well, I picked up my video recorder and began hiking upriver

Just upriver from the beaver lodge, walking on the ice, I found a little spot of open water against a cutbank where the ksisskstaki keep a slide. Though there's no evidence of their coming and going, I wonder if they've managed to keep this spot open. The tracks leading to it show that they coyotes have certainly appreciated it. I wish the water was clean enough that I too could drink from it

Coming around a bend in the river, I learned why perhaps my liver offering had not been swooped-up as immediately as they've often been in the past. There, at the open-water crag upstream, were the telltale signs of a good feeding in the snow. I suspected it would be a goose kill. But when I got up to the site, littered with coyote and magpie tracks, I found hair. My next guess was that it had belonged to a skunk, because the first couple tufts I saw were black and white. But picking up a bit of white hair in my hand to smell it, I suddenly recognized who it belonged to. This was the hollow hair of a mule deer. As I looked around further, I saw clumps of its grey and brown hair as well. The coyotes had actually taken down a deer. Amazing. All that was left of it was a bit of hair and its undigested stomach contents. There was very little blood and no bones. The coyote and magpie had made use of everything

One last stop at the hawthorn brambles before beginning my ascent. One of my snares there has been pushed aside and needs to be reset. The others are just as I've left them. It's warm now. So much so that I've removed my hat and only wish I could shed the coat. Looking forward to getting to the truck, where I know half a bottle of water awaits

IIII ) llllllllll Beaver Breath (28Dec09)

Sspopiikimi - Dawn with Mahoney at our frozen pond

Aapsspiniiksi, one small flock after another, pass by overhead, moving upstream, as we walk south along the pond's edge. I count them in groups of ten, eight, fifteen, twelve, eight, seven and two. My guess is that they all spent the night together in one of their large congregations at some openwater downriver

As we walk down the peninsula and across the icy pond, several more goose flocks pass. They are all headed in the same direction, and I suspect their groups are comprised of families. I put my customary beef liver down on the ice and situate our video-camera to record a magpie feeding event, but I'm not sure we'll be here long enough to witness it. After placing the liver down, I go to the southeast corner of the pond to take a few photos of the open water and its frosty ice crystals amidst the cattails and bulrush hummocks. By the time I get back to where Mahoney's sitting, her toes are already getting too cold. Mine are not too warm either

We walked the ice over to the ksisskstakioyis, so I could take pictures of the feathery, frost crystals around the beavers' air vent for a new photo album I'm compiling. Then Mahoney went back to the truck to warm up and rest her legs, while I continued to wait for the magpies. Even still the geese were passing overhead

I figured I'd go into the forest to give the magpies a chance to feel comfortable coming down to the liver. I know they've already spotted it. But before entering the forest, I returned to the ksisskstakioyis to inspect their food cache. Contrary to our earlier perceptions that it was all bulrush, looking more closely I found the beavers had also collected quite a bit of bullberry, prickly rose, and cattail

After registering this new info about the beaver cache, I thought I'd best check the midpond muskrat lodge as well, the new one they'd built at the end of summer. I found it to have been constructed of bulrush, cattail, and lots of aquatic roots (probably from milfoil). There were some rodent tracks leading from the wet meadows to and from the muskrat lodge, though they seemed too small a pace to belong to the latter. However, following these tracks I was led to two more small muskrat lodges at the edge of the wet meadows that I hadn't even been aware of

Further north along the meadows, on my way to check the old beaver shore-lodge, I came across more of the rodent tracks, which led me to yet two other muskrat lodges we hadn't seen before. So perhaps these were muskrat tracks after all. The north shore lodge, however, had no such tracks around it. Instead, it had the signs of coyoe and magpie who, from the looks of the feathers scattered around, had recently feasted on pheasants

It was then I noticed there was a man walking along the west shore of the pond, heading toward the place that I had left both the liver and my video camera. I could not risk the gamble on human decency, I needed to make it back to the site before this other person arrived there. So I cinched my backpack, headed up through the wet meadows, then south within the poplar forest. My movement stirred up some white-tail deer, two bucks and two does who, upon rising, found themselves boxed-in between myself on one flank and the new visitor on the other. I stayed still and took some photos, giving them the opportunity to escape in my direction

At the south end, I learned that the magpies still hadn't taken to the liver. Probably my close placement of the video camera gave them cause to worry. With Mahoney back at the truck waiting, I figured it was time to collect my gear and head home

IIII ) lllllllllll Northern Flicker (29Dec09)

0930 The coyotes are already up on the stubble-fields above the coulee rim when I drive out, two of them scouring for voles. No geese on these fields today, nor have there been any since the slow melt-off began, a week or so ago. They must have literally located greener pastures

1015 I hike straight down the slope with no incident, stopping only to check my snares in the chokecherry brush, nothing. I then proceed to the edge of the forest, which I can follow downstream to the sandbar willow thickets

1030 As I walked along the forest edge, a red-shafted northern flicker swooped in and landed high up in a poplar. It gave a single call, then sat there perched. I thought it might be a good occasion to sit down myself, have a smoke, and watch it. The bird didn't stay long. Before I'd finished my cigarette, it swooped over to a different tree, and then a few minutes later flew off toward the river. I heard it give a staccato call from somewhere out in that direction. This is the first flicker I’ve seen in this stretch of the coulee this winter. Last year there were several here

1124 I took my time in the willows. There, it was evident that I'm coming ever closer to successfully capturing a mountain cottontail. One of my four snares had been pulled tight, and a tuft of grey fur left behind told me this rabbit was very lucky indeed. Either that or the coyotes beat me to my kill. I set up another two snares along the runs, and hopefully they will prove ample on my next return

1145 The river ice allows me to cover some distance pretty quick, and in no time I’m at the flotsam pile upstream. Though there’ve been rabbits around, none have run through the few snares I have placed there

1213 Between the flotsam and the place where I begin my ascent, I pass through a clearing in the forest that is dense with buckbrush. Here I find a few mule deer bedded down. They stand while I walk by. At the base of the coulee slopes, I find that my snares in the hawthorn brambles have been no more successful than any of my others. I must be doing something wrong, though I can’t quite figure out what it might be, unless the snares need to be better camouflaged

1303 It takes nearly an hour to ascend the slope. Along the way, my presence provokes a flock of grey partridge to fly to a different area of the coulee. I can’t get an accurate count of them, but I know that there were more than a dozen

IIII ) llllllllllll Hutterite Shopping (30Dec09)

0827 Up, Up, and Awake... from another dream-heavy sleep. Today we go grocery shopping at the Hutterites

1010 Rethinking this "drive out to the Hutterites" idea. Too much snow falling, it can wait a couple days. Maybe it's time to go look for a new bison connection in town

1153 Snow let up, so now we're on the 509, headed to the headquarters of beards and polka dots

1233 Damn, the "boss" of Standoff Colony's in Lethbridge today, so all we got from them was eggs ($5.00 for 30 eggs). We have to talk to the boss if we want to buy turkey, chicken, goose, etc. Anyway... off to the Cardston Colony in search of cheese

1537 Couldn’t find the Cardston Colony, even with directions from residents. But did pick up a sack of organic wheat (produced in Vulcan) and grain mill at the In Case Of: Solutions For Self Reliance store, plus three Saskatoon berry pies from a Hutterite family who happened to be in town. The family told us that their colony probably would not sell us cheese anyway, so perhaps it wasn’t a big loss that we couldn’t find them. Driving back to Lethbridge via Magrath, we hit the jackpot at Spring Valley Colony - corn, peas, potatoes, onions, cabbage, tomatoes - about 50 pounds of veggies for $60. They've got a year-round greenhouse

1640 Back in Lethbridge, we found the Old Country Sausage Store, which sells only locally produced meats and cheese, including bison and cured meats that have no nitrogen or other weird preservatives

1703 Project Niitaowahsin, Day 33 - Bought a wicked lot of good, local Oldman Watershed food today for only about half the cost of what we normally spend on first-of-the-month groceries. Includes Hutterite eggs, veggies and saskatoon pies, as well as wheat from Vulcan, our own flour grinder, bison roasts and sausages, and three different locally-made cheeses. Will post a pic of our haul tonight

IIII ) lllllllllllll Ode To Kai’skaahp (31Dec09)

0856 Getting a late-start on my coulee rounds this morning

0947 Had a typically uneventful hike and butt-sled down the hard drifted slopes, straight to the sagebrush flats and the chokecherry cluster where my first snare is set. Thanks to the new snow of yesterday, I could tell that nothing had been in the chokecherries recently. In fact, most of the aapi'si and omahkaaatsisttaa tracks this morning were observed high-up near the coulee rim

1005 I then dropped down below the first cutbank of the floodplain, in the tree-line. Four white-tail deer sprang out from their beds beside the thick diamond willows as I entered the forest, blowing as they ran toward the river. I began walking downstream beneath the cottonwoods and poplars along the edge of the cutbank, surprised to see no sign of rabbits or porcupine along their usual trails there. Where the tree-line met the coulee cliffs, the sounds of chickadees drew my attention to a thick bramble on a cottonwood snag where I could see a great horned owl roosting. Moving closer, I found that there was not one, but two owls in the tree. This reminded me that their nesting cycle would be starting again before long. I'll have to return to check this roost on future visits

1037 The snow started coming down heavy as I moved into the dense stands of sandbar willow. By the looks of it, all of the sikaaatsisttaiksi that have been moving through here the last couple days went cleanly around my snares. One even nibbled clean through the twine tethering a snare to a thick willow. The chickadees followed me into this brush. And above, on one of the coulee cliffs, I can see a small herd of eight mule deer starting to graze their way down the slope. I'm tempted to wait here for them, in case they come down

1130 The deer spotted me in the willows, so I walked away from there until I was beyond their line of sight. About five minutes later, I took a peek and saw that they were indeed headed down the slope into a narrow draw. Cutting through the forest, I quickly made my way about a third of the way up the coulee cliff, figuring that the deer would come down the draw and then walk along the trails below me. I hid behind a boulder and waited. After about twenty or thirty minutes, when no deer were showing up, I thought I’d sneak over to the entrance of the draw and see what they were doing. Just then I heard something above me and looked up to find a doe staring down at me. The deer had not followed the draw. They’d merely gone down the one side and up the next, and were now passing above me. The distance between us was such that I’d likely just lose any arrows I attempted to send their way, so instead I packed up and hiked away

1210 I followed another cutback back upstream, the one that defines the border between the sandbar willow thickets and the lower forest. This led me eventually to the flotsam piles where I’ve been keeping some other snares. Surprisingly, there were no fresh rabbit tracks there at all. But then, it has been snowing pretty consistently the last couple days. Chances are the mountain cottontails are all hunkered down in their scrapes to avoid the storm

1223 There’s still a lot of seeds on the dry sweetclover plants. I took a ziplock out of my pack and began collecting handfuls to try-out in our new flour mill. While gathering, I’m careful to strip only the seeds that are black in color. I remember reading somewhere that sweetclover plants often get a mold on them late in the season, and that this fungus is not good to consume

1315 I picked sweetclover seeds along my path until about halfway up through the forest, where the dominant non-grassy ground vegetation changes to buckbrush. Then I made haste toward the hawthorn brambles low on the coulee slope that would be my last stop before heading back up to the truck. Just as I was checking my snares in the hawthorn, all empty and with no sign of activity, I noticed that a porcupine had suddenly appeared in the buckbrush below, in the same area I’d just passed through minutes earlier. Since I’ve confirmed that there are several kai’skaahp living in this section of the coulee, I decided that this one would become our food. It stood almost as if waiting while I descended the slope again and walked up to it. When I got very close, I could see that it was shivering. The arrow I shot at close range went straight through it, disappearing into the snow. Once mortally injured, the porcupine attempted to crawl into an old badger hole, and it probably could have made it, but perhaps the pain made it back out again. Still at the entrance of the badger hole, I grabbed one of its front legs and slit its throat. There were only a few more attempted breaths, and the animal died. I gutted it on the spot and left the innards for the magpies and coyotes, then began the hike back to the top

1400 Home from the coulee and processing the porcupine in the basement. Now I can see that this animal is a bit younger than the last one we ate, and more fatty as well. All the same, it has enough meat on it for a few dinners at our table