11 April 2010

Redwings, Mountain Bluebirds, And Aapsspini Matrilocality

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll Second River-Island Survey (7Apr10)

1147 Sspopiikimi - an otherwise beautiful day with gusts of cold wind. Mahoney and I have returned to check on the nesting progress, particularly of the aapsspini at the river island, to work more with the mallards, and continue our regular phenology study

1156 Today we walk sunwise, so we can get to the river first. On our way around the north end of the pond, we notice there are now lots of red-winged clickhoppers. And turning over a few logs, we see that the fuzzy brown caterpillars with light lateral stripes are hibernating still

1253 Soon we arrive at the riverbank, and I wade across to the island while Mahoney stays back on shore to guard our gear. It takes me a half hour to thoroughly survey the island. The two nests that are established have just three eggs each and are incubating. One of these would have had four, but I took an egg a few days ago to use at our Beaver Bundle ceremony. The other would have had five, but I got one of those as well, and the gulls or magpies took the other. When I was last here, this five egg nest had the bird-eaten one still in it. Now that shell has been crushed into the nest lining. The failed nest I found last time, with two eggs that had rolled down the cutbank, was not re-established. I also found two other failed nests, where the down lining had already been placed for incubation, but there were only egg fragments around. I noticed, though, feeling them, that the down lining itself is very warm, whether a goose sits it or not. I also found two new caches, hiding one egg each. Of these two, one couple is fairly protective, and there is no evidence of gull or magpie intrusions. The other one, however, is owned by a couple who are easily frightened, and it looks as though they have lost at least one of their eggs, probably as a result

1321 From the river, we head across the levee, through the forest, and down to the south pool of the pond. The wind gusts are vicious, keeping dust in our eyes, but it's not too cold. Here in the south pool there are three mi'ksikatsi couples in the water, spaced out from one another. There are also five lone mallard drakes in the water, and another three drakes on the big island with the nesting goose couple. Obviously, with this many males around, we worry that we’re again missing the boat on the mallard nests

1347 As we sit in the duck blind beside the south pool, eating our lunch, I can see that the subpond goose is still incubating her eggs in the hawk nest. That's day three for her, twenty-seven more to go

1410 After our lunch, we move onto the wet meadows and split up in search of mi'ksikatsi nests. I have my waders on, so I take the wettest and most dense patches of cattail and bulrush, while Mahoney conducts her recon in the hemp and willows. It's possible that the male mallards congregating are simply without mates, but there were more females here not so long ago, and it wouldn't surprise us if they spring up in a month with broods of ducklings

1452 Trying to find a female mallard on her nest, which could be anywhere within sight of the pond, is a bit like the proverbial needle in a haystack thing. You pretty much have to depend on their skitish nature and hope that they reveal themselves when you get close. After forty minutes of searching, during which we surveyed perhaps half the wet meadows to no avail, Mahoney said that her stomach was starting to ache from her recent operation, and that she needed to go home

1458 This was fine by me, because I was ready to get out of the sweaty waders and grab a cold drink. But I definitely planned to return

1615 Sspopiikimi - returned again, this time on my lonesome, wearing regular cargo pants and gum-boots, and carrying a bladder of water to drink instead of coffee. Mahoney gave me my directive before I left the house... find more eggs. I figure there's a few hours to work with before it gets too dark

1425 The first thing I do on arrival is take a stroll through an area that I believe has a high potential for hiding duck nests, but which is oddly enough the place we always fail to search: the absinthe field. I weave my way through waist high absinthe and buckbrush, moving from one end of the field to the other, but finding nothing, save for a few gigantic wood ant hives

1642 I then cut over the levee at the north end of the pond, walk down to the river, and begin hiking upstream through the forest. Aside from the western and narrow-leaved cottonwoods, this forest is characterized by a dense and thorny undergrowth of prickly rose and buckbrush, and the only real trail through it runs right along the edge of a dangerous twelve-foot high cutbank that has been hollowed out by the river in many places, its earth held in place only by the root systems of the surrounding trees, grass, and brush

1653 It's a great strip for discovering bird nests. The robins, mourning doves, kingbirds, orioles and others will almost certainly raise broods in the brush here when things green-up. The bank swallows and kingfishers will use the cutbank. I suspect it would be good for mi'ksikatsi too, and in fact there is a pair on the shore of the river island looking toward this strip when I arrive. My instinct is to sit on a log and watch them, to see if they'll come into the forest. But the moment I sit down, they fly elusively away. I then continue to walk the path, scanning the brush, listening, watching

1712 My route takes me eventually to the high-level bridge, where there's now far less aapsspini activity than there was a week or two ago. There are now two couples there who have claimed neighboring concrete bridge anchors, though I see no sign of eggs. There is also a couple patrolling the waters just off-shore. Mahoney and I have watched this pair previously, suspecting that they'll nest somewhere on shore. I follow them for about twenty minutes this evening, hoping that they'll reveal the location of their cache, if they have one. But perhaps they don't

1720 I continue upriver, beyond the bridge, interested in checking another nearby island, one that is more like a land-bridge right now, with the river low, connecting two ends of an oxbow. Where I walk down to cross over to the island, there are significant oxbow pools. When I arrive, there’s a mi'ksikatsi couple on either side of me, lingering in these pools. There's also a lone goose, probably a gander, honking from the river, and I can hear killdeer upstream. I sit down to watch and immediately the downstream mallard couple drifts away. The other couple stays their place

1728 I suppose it's possible that the mallards don't have nests yet, but I know that they've been mating, so I find it hard to believe that they're not caching eggs. Again I have the sense that I need to spend a day at the pond just watching the established pairs there. If they are caching eggs now, the female should be going to the site to lay an egg about once a day, and so watching patiently would lead us to the nests

1747 Finally I cross over to the island. As I do, the mallard couple flies further up the oxbow, and the goose who I at first thought was a lone gander is met by her mate. I move slowly past the geese, sensing that I'm on their chosen nesting site. The ground is all river cobble though, and I see no sign of an egg cache

1550 I then walk the perimeter of the island, which is larger than I'd anticipated. So large in fact that I doubt the geese perceive it as an island, and smartly so. It’s far too accessible, and I certainly find no other geese present. I do, however, on the upstream end, again encounter the mallards. They begin quacking and move in small increments downstream ahead of me. They definitely have a stake in this oxbow, and a day spent watching this couple would probably not be in vain

1808 Daylight's burning, and I want to be back at the pond. So I decide to take the most direct route. Rather than following the river bank, I cut up and over one of the coulee ridges. I'm glad I do. It gives me a sense of what events are unfolding uphill. Here I find new green growth of scarlet globe-mallow and one of the milk vetch emerging, and moss phlox in full bloom. About half of the bulberry bushes are also in flower here, probably those of a certain gender

1832 When I reach the bench at south pond, I can see only two mi'ksikatsi couples - one in the pool behind the peninsula, and the other on last-year's successful nesting island. I'm sure there is a third couple here that I'm not seeing. But I'm surprised at the absence of the drake congregation who'd been here earlier in the day. I decide to sit for a while on the peninsula, just above the turtle nests, and watch

1843 My peninsula vigil is short-lived. Evasive as ever, the pool couple slips down a beaver canal into the reeds and out of sight, while the wet meadow island mallards take flight out to the river. With both pairs gone I decide to shift positions and go sit by the ksisskstakioyis

1849 Its feeding time on the golf course. Six aapsspini are dining on the greens, while the hawk nest and island mothers diligently incubate their respective clutches

1917 I sit in front of the ksisskstakioyis a half hour and all is quiet. Then suddenly the midpond aapsspini couple comes honking back to their shore cache. As they do, two magpies fly from that area to the opposite shore. They stand on a rock briefly and observe the geese. The magpies know where the eggs are hidden. If they've not stolen from the cache already, they will

1945 I've now waited here an hour and finally the beavers have woken up. But the wind is ferocious and I've grown too cold to sit with them. As I walk back to the truck, I notice a single hawk circling above. It is the first I've seen here this season, but it's too far away to identify

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllll Aapsspini Matrilocality (9Apr10)

1046 Off to a late start this morning. I was hoping the wind would die down, but no dice. Today I will be checking the owl nest at the St Mary's - Oldman confluence, and exploring a ways upstream

1128 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - arriving at the coulee rim, the wind is just brutal. I feel compelled to wear my fur-lined hat, even though I suspect it won't be needed once I get down below. There's a meadowlark here, heard but not seen. The moss phlox is all in bloom, and the yellow flowers of one of the biscuit roots, musineon, are starting to emerge

1144 On my way down, I can't help but walk through the rattlesnake hibernaculum. I know they won't be out here in this cold wind, but after seeing the first turtles resurface, I'm very much looking forward to visiting my slithering friends again

1206 My route upstream takes me along the edge of the black cliffs, rich in ammonite fossils from the ancient sea. Walking this edge, I see more of the yellow musineon, and these are in full bloom. Within a matter of weeks, they will go to seed. They are one of the first flowers to disappear

1234 Soon I have hiked the extent of the cliffs and dropped down onto the riverbank. Right away, at the end of a long peninsula, I spot what looks like a pair of aapsspini, sitting in the rocks together, with a ring-billed gull standing beside them. I suspect they have eggs out there, and that the gull is waiting for an opportunity to get a taste of them

1244 My suspicions prove incorrect. As I begin to approach the birds, the ring-bill takes off right away. Then the aapsspini stand up and, to my surprise, so do a pair of mallards who are sitting with them. The geese take flight next and, oddly, the mallards simply enter the river and drift a little ways off-shore. There is neither cache nor nest in the cobbles where they'd been, so I return to hiking upstream

1310 It's actually a good thing these geese don't have an egg cache, because just five of six-hundred meters further upstream, I see a coyote dashing up the river bank toward the forest. Immediately behind it, a magpie follows. They are hunting partners. Moving to where I'd seen them, I try to sleuth out their purpose on the gravel, but to no avail. However, after trudging headlong into the wind for another short distance upstream, I come across a possibility. Here, at the bank below where the original Fort Whoop-Up once stood, hundreds of mallards burst into flight from the river. There are also about a dozen geese here, and several ring-billed gulls. Why they chose this little bend to settle in, I don't know. There’s an old, well-established ksisskstakioyis against the cutbank here, it's secluded, and they have ready access to a grassy flat surrounded by forest and cliffs. But there are many such habitats along the river. Even standing at a fair distance, my presence sends the birds scattering

1332 Moving further around the bend, I find that the island I had come so far upstream to scout-out is no longer, or at least not this season. At present, it's nothing more than a wide, gravel peninsula in the river. It offers no shelter from predatory mammals (myself included), and there are no geese here

1427 With my island check out of the way, I begin the hour-long hike back downstream and over the black cliffs. This time, I go by way of the forest, which cuts down some of the wind factor. Among the trees here I encounter a group of robins feeding off something in a pile of deadwood. Stopping to rip some bark off the base of an old poplar snag, I find a fuzzy caterpillar half-inside a chrysalis. It appears, however, that a spider has gotten to it before it can finish producing its protective shell. It's covered with webbing, seemingly lifeless, and there's an eastern parson spider right beside it

1434 Around the other side of the tree trunk, there are four cucujus beetles. These are exactly who I was looking for. And, like encounters at mid-winter, they are in groups, under the bark, near the base of the tree

1436 Leaving the forest and climbing up over the cliffs, I decide to dig out one of the musineon roots. I soon wish I had my little crowbar, because it's a nice-sized root, but it takes forever to inch down with the blade of my pocket knife. I'll have to come back to dig these when I have the right tools. The one I do take out, though, is excellent. They are ready to be gathered, and I munch on it as I travel along

1420 With the wind at my back, it doesn't take long to get to the other side of the cliffs, though I'm lucky I don't get blown off. At one point, there’s a stink beetle in my path. It seems to be after some tiny, red spider mites, much like ticks in size and shape, but brighter in color. I also come across one lonely yellow-bell. So rare to see these flowers in this coulee

1505 There's much I'd like to check-in on in the more familiar floodplain this side of the cliffs. But I started out too late, and I know Mahoney is waiting for me to take her for a late-afternoon visit to Sspopiikimi as well. So before lumbering back up the coulee slope to my truck, I have to just look-in on one more thing, the owl nest

1509 Situated high in the canopy of a cottonwood tree, at the edge of a meadow surrounded by forest, mama kakanottsstookii diligently sits her eggs. I'd fully expected to see one or two fluffy owlets peering over the edge. But no, it looks like mama is still hunkered down there. Maybe she's just resting with her babies, it's impossible to tell from so far below. If not, they should be coming along any day now. She's been on that nest for a good month or so

1616 Sspopiikimi – picked up Mahoney and we’re now walking the length of the pond. All looks to be in order. We count four aapsspini mamas incubating four nests of eggs, and with the exception of the subpond goose in the hawk tree, all have their ganders nearby (the subpond gander is in neutral territory in the waters between the canal and island couples)

1625 The mi'ksikatsi count today is thirteen, comprised of the midpond couple, a pair on the bulrush flotilla beside the ksisskstakioyis, the big island couple, the peninsula couple, a pair in the shallows, and three lone drakes in aggregate on the south pool

1654 Moving over toward the high-level bridge, we follow the cutbank above the forest-line, scanning the trees for the young kakanottsstookii. We don't find him. It's been several weeks now, and I'm still denying that he's gone. One thing impossible to dispute, on the other hand, is the presence of the ring-necked pheasant rooster, squawking from the brush of the coulee slope above

1659 Arriving at the bridge proper, we find ten pairs of aapsspini, only one of which looks like it could actually be sitting on eggs. Impossible to be sure though, as the goose is set back behind steel on one of the concrete anchors well out in the middle of the river. Certainly they are acting it though, her gander giving chase to any of the other couples who paddle near

1704 Also by the bridge are four rock doves, picking at the gravel on the neighboring island, as well as a mallard couple, and a sleeping bird who I believe to be the merganser drake, his head tucked out of view

1802 Since the canal and midpond aapsspini both seem to be incubating now, we head down to the wet meadows to learn the egg total for each. Our first stop is at the nest of our favorite goose and gander, the canal couple. Two years ago, their nest was raided out by other birds (magpies and gulls) beside the canal. Last year, they chose a small island, where they deposited four eggs, one of which we took for ceremony, and the other three of which they successfully hatched. When we checked in on them five sleeps ago, they had cached just one egg. Today, the mama is incubating two, with a third egg broken open a little ways off, obviously victim of a magpie

1806 As we arrived to check this goose, her gander was in the midst of chasing off the subpond gander. This is part of what we really respect about them. They are so protective of their nests. It surprises me that the magpies penetrated their defenses. The goose, for her part, was definitely being strong. She stood up when we arrived, opened her beak, hissed, spread her wings wide, and was not about to leave the nest, even though we were close enough to touch her

1811 The midpond goose, who is new to nest at the pond this year, must be the daughter of the canal couple, and maybe three years old. I say that because, when we get to her, she behaves just like her mama (and no other geese around). Her gander, however, is somewhat a weakling. He floats out in the pond in the distance, watching, but refusing to protect her. She has five eggs in her nest, even though I took one of the two they had cached seven sleeps ago. This is a good clutch, that of a bird at least three or four years old, and I hope they succeed

1814 Though we don't know how many eggs the subpond goose has up in her hawk tree, the average clutch this year between the four nests at the pond and the six we've seen on the river island this year is low. Most birds are having only three or four eggs, some less. By comparison, in previous years, at least some of the geese nested here had seven

1854 Our last stop is back at the river island, to check the aapsspini nests there. Five sleeps ago there were two being incubated, each with three eggs, and another two caches, each with one egg. We can see even from our shore that the incubating mamas are still at work, so I won't bother them. But I will wade across anyway to check the caches

1859 I don't have my waders, so I use my boot gambit again, taking off my socks and liners, rolling up my pants, and just crossing with the gum-boot shells. Once across, and dumping the water out of the shells, I head straight for the first cache. Its geese are not attending, which is a bad sign. And indeed, when I look under the covering foliage, the single egg that had been there is broken into pieces

1904 Moving toward the next cache, I see two new geese laying low by the river's edge. It tells me they have something hidden. I go to investigate and find another egg cache, set amidst an old bicycle that has become flotsom. They have just one egg so far, but I can see the goose is big with egg and will no doubt lay others. With this confidence, I take their single egg

1907 There’s still another cache to check on, toward the upstream end of the island. I expect this couple to be incubating already, but when I walk up the goose is still off the nest. They are fairly defensive though, coming at me from both flanks as I close on their cache, so they obviously still have eggs. Lifting its dead foliage cover, I see they have two. This is odd. They started their cache at least five sleeps ago, when I first checked it, and still only two. No evidence of raiding by other birds either. The goose must still be producing though, otherwise she'd be incubating already. I take one of their two eggs, and as I do, the goose charges all out after me, crashing through the brush and jumping at my face. If I'd have shown fear, she'd have bitten me good. But instead, I charge right back at her, and it's enough to make her back off

1957 I bring the two eggs across the river with me to Mahoney, and she's happy. We now have fifteen eggs gathered from fourteen pre-incubation caches, and since each is equivalent in content to about two and a half chicken eggs, we should have enough to feed eggs to everyone who will attend the Beaver Bundle opening. Now we can focus more on watching the mallard couples, gather the first food roots and shoots of the season, and await the hatching of this year's goslings. If even half the nests succeed, we should have twice as many goose families at Sspopiikimi this summer as last

0032 Today it really hit home for me that aapsspiniiksi are matrilocal

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Redwing Return (10Apr10)

1050 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - off to a late start this morning. Though Dottie Dog woke me up at dawn as requested, seems I really just wanted to stay in bed

1055 Today I intend to explore this coulee proper. I'm curious to see if any sapsuckers have returned, and what the waterfowl situation is like near the willow thickets and beaver lodge. I've also brought my little crowbar / root-digger, so I won't have to pass up the opportunities for musineon again

1058 Just before I turn off the gravel road to park, there's a pair of ring-necked pheasants, the turkey and hen, grazing at the edge of a stubble-field. When I slow down, they split up, running in different directions toward tall grass, where they immediately disappear

1105 Just like yesterday, soohksiisiimsstaan, the meadowlark, sings from a fencepost as I head off on foot to descend the coulee slope

1121 Starting my way down, I see my first bumblebee of the season, hovering and searching at ground level. This is very likely a queen, looking for a place to start-up her new colony

1133 I was torn between following deer trails along the downstream slope, so I could stop by the fossil beds to see what new pieces of alligator and turtle have been exposed by the thaw, or walking the regular trail upstream, so I could pass by the rattlesnake hibernacula. I chose the fossil beds, but it is turning out to be a fairly warm afternoon in this coulee. The clickhoppers are out in abundance and I've had to tie my jacket around my waist. I'm hoping, when I make my way back up in a few hours, that my slithering friends will have judged it warm enough to emerge and bask beside their dens

1150 The fossil beds are littered with the bones of ancient reptiles. I always hope to find a tooth, but nothing so amazing is jumping out at me this afternoon. I'm hungry, so I decide to eat my lunch right here, out of the tick zone. In the forest below, I can hear the drumming and chatter of northern flickers. I'm waiting for the tell-tale call of a sapsucker to follow

1207 Sitting here on a bit of badland outcropping, halfway up the coulee slope, I am so struck by the beauty of this place, and the sense of both sublimity and connection I feel here. I absolutely love being out here, no matter the weather conditions or season, and I feel so lucky to have all this, practically at my doorstep

1217 Just as I’m picking up my pack to continue on my way, a mountain bluebird flies up and perches to sing from atop the skunkbrush above me. It is yet another first of the season encounter

1258 After lunch, I move quickly down onto the floodplain and into the forest, following a gully that in some years serves as an oxbow. This corridor takes me past the clumps of diamond willow the sapsuckers here carve designs into. But I find none of the birds today, and am soon out of the diamond willows and into the rabbit willows. Here, in the corridor that is even more often wetlands, where bulrushes await the next flood, small moths and mourning cloak butterflies are enthusiastically courting for mates. The moths somehow finding on another in the dead grass. The mourning cloaks waiting for a suitable partner to happen past, then dancing into the air above the willows, circling around one another

1340 Reluctantly leaving behind the moths and butterflies, I head over to the river and follow it upstream for nearly the entire length of this floodplain. Along the way, I see many hover and greenbottle flies, and one lone goose couple who don't behave like they have a cache or nest in the works, but who definitely have claim to a certain gravel bar. I'm hoping to spot more tiger beetles, but no luck. Aside from the flies on the river cobbles, all I find are the remains of bird-eaten crayfish

1358 Cutting into the forest to check on mama kakanottsstookii, I find her still sitting on the big nest, no sign of babies. A family of four mule deer below the nest stand up to watch me as I pass through

1403 With only an hour or so to work with before I'm promised to pick up Mahoney for a walk at the pond, I figure it's time to visit the hibernacula. It's plenty warm today, my snake friends should be awake

1413 As I walk deeper into the forest, heading toward the base of the coulee slope, I'm startled by the sudden appearance of a goose who has been flushed from hiding by my presence. This goose has chosen to nest quite a distance from the river, on a terrestrial sort of island created by the fall of a massive cottonwood. Her nest is eight feet off the ground, set in the top of the stump. It's lined with down, of course, and contains just one egg in the midst of incubation. Another very small clutch, as seems to be typical this year

1454 Unfortunately, arriving at the hibernacula, I find the same thing as yesterday. I check four of the most populated den entrances, and not a one of them has a snake next to it yet. Disappointed, I head home

1738 Sspopiikimi - just arrived at midpond and can both hear and see our first redwing blackbird of the season. Male, of course, up in a cottonwood tree beside our trail, overlooking the water

1751 The midpond aapsspini couple are off the nest, out in the water as we first walk in, but soon mama is hiking back into the brush. The usual mallard couple is here too, and the female is being somewhat harassed by a second drake from north-pond. A lone magpie stands sentinel on an old snag limb overhanging the water by the north-shore lodge

1802 We're looking at turtles by the bulrush flotilla when suddenly the subpond gander flies over and we realize there's an unfamiliar goose couple beside the ksisskstakioyis. The chase moves into the canal couple's territory, and this incites an absolute brawl which only ends when the new couple fly a loop around the pond and come to land in the neutral waters south of the canal. We may have a fifth couple searching for a nesting location

1809 The subpond and island couples are still doing their things, incubating nicely. At southpond, for mallards, there is the peninsula couple and the shallows couple. The wet-meadow mallards pair is oddly away from their usual site, hanging out on shore beside the incubating canal goose

1831 Just as we'd seen midpond, one of the mallard drakes (that of the shallows) breaks off and goes after the peninsula female. Obviously they're still mating. Perhaps by next week we can start looking for their cache sites. Need to watch these females

1835 The new goose couple eventually drifts too far south, out of the neutral zone. Right away the island couple are on top of them, chasing them to the wet meadows, where they are then ganged-up on by the midpond and canal ganders. The new couple is pursued until they flee the pond altogether, splashing down in the river

1909 We round the pond, spend a few quiet minutes at the duck blind, then hike the edge-zone between forest and wet meadows. Along the way, we hear robins, starlings, and flickers. We have no idea what is going on in their lives right now. I suspect the robins are waiting for the trees to leaf-out before building their nests, and we've not seen them mating at all (if the females have even arrived). The flickers and starlings are another story though. Being cavity dwellers, they could very well be getting started, though last year they seemed to be timed about the same as the robins

1931 Before leaving, we sit on a log in the forest. The robins are singing their dusk calls, a downy woodpecker flies chattering past, the redwing gives a few more of his calls. Something seems very quiet about the pond this evening