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