06 May 2010

The Adoption Of Miracle

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll The Adoption Of Miracle (6May10)

0735 Snow and more snow in the final quarter of matsiyikkapisaiki'somm, the last winter moon. All the new-age, borrowed medicine wheel concepts crumbling like the cutbanks into our swollen river. Think I'll go visit the pond

0930 Sspopiikimi - As we pull in at the parking area, we can already see the first presence of interest, a large bird perched up in one of the cottonwood snags by north-pond. Mahoney guesses that it's paahtsiiksiistsikomm, mistaken-thunder, the osprey. And when we walk down the path in that direction and use our telephoto lens to snap a picture, her suspicion is confirmed

0935 We're not the only ones who've noticed the osprey. Up on the levee-walk between north-pond and the river, there's a man standing with a pair of binoculars. When he comes down off the levee, the bird takes wing

0937 As usual with these ospreys, it doesn't waste energy in a simple retreat. Instead, paahtsiiksiistsikomm uses the opportunity to survey the pond waters for pike. It glides along high over the surface, hovering briefly here and there, then continuing south

0938 When it is nearest our position, and stops to hover, we look down at one of the ksisskstaki canals below it, and there see four ducks weaving between the bulrush hummocks. There is a pair of cinnamon teals, a single cinnamon teal drake, and a lone blue-winged teal drake. The osprey's not interested in them, it's a fish eater. Soon it glides out toward south-pond, hovers at a few more spots, then sweeps back past us to land in a tree in the forest beside the levee-walk, where the man with the binoculars had originally been standing

0942 The man, it turns out, is Ken Orich, one of the regular birders who visits Sspopiikimi. We've bumped into Ken on several occasions in the past, occasionally exchanging notes on recent sightings (which he carefully records in a small notebook). Today he approaches us to ask about whether we got any good shots of the osprey hovering above. This inquiry is all it takes to get us swapping stories of what we've been seeing so far this season

0945 Ken reads my notes posted to Albertabird. Like us, he visits the pond daily, usually in the morning (in contrast to our evenings), and he's been watching some of the same nests. He also shares our disdain for the people who come here to walk their dogs, especially at this time of year, when ground-nests are in place and hatchlings beginning to appear

0947 This brings us to the topic of the goslings, and Miracle in particular. Our hypothesis, giving the timing, has been that Miracle originated from the subpond aapsspini who nested in the hawk tree. But Ken isn't so sure. Apparently, when the storm hit seven days ago, and the winds came blasting through, tearing the tree-nest apart, he found one of the broken eggs up on the levee walk near the shallows of south-pond, with a fairly developed, but not nearly ready-to hatch gosling. He suspects it was one of the eggs from the hawk tree, which would mean that Miracle probably wasn't ready to hatch by then either

0948 This is interesting news, because the nest was indeed broken at least three days before I expected the eggs to hatch. On the other hand though, even with the winds as strong as they were, it would seem to me impossible that one of the fallen eggs could be blown up to the levee walk, which is probably a hundred meters distance through forest and patches of thick brush from the hawk tree, and sharply uphill from the tree's base. The egg must have been carried up there by another animal, and in that case it could have just as easily come from one of the nests of the river island or elsewhere

0953 Either way though, it's clear that Ken's a great resource. The notes from his morning walks could tell us a lot about the events we don't get to see, because of our routine of visiting mainly during the afternoons and evenings. Like us, Ken has noticed the relative shortage of shorebirds this season as compared to last year, including the total absence of avocets. But where his morning walks failed to produce any Eurasian wigeon sightings, we did come across one during an evening earlier in the season. Similarly, we hadn't seen any sparrows, but Ken had noted three or four species' arrival already. We'd spotted bank swallows last week, while he'd seen tree swallows. The comparisons went on

1012 Eventually the conversation turned to the history of Sspopiikimi. Ken is probably close to twice our age, and grew up with this place. I thought he might know about the wooden wall that defines part of the north-pond cutbank and extends with the oxbow, through the forest and to the river. Was it a boardwalk of some kind? He didn't know, it was a feature before his time. But he suspected it was more for docking boats, which makes a lot of sense

1014 Throughout Ken's life, Sspopiikimi has looked much as it does today, with the exception that there was no levee walk at one time, and that the cutbank along the west length of the pond was less built-up. This made it so that there were also more reeds along this bank in the past as well. What we call the absinthe field used to be a dump. And folks in Lethbridge just knew the pond itself as "The Backwaters"

1015 As our conversation wound-down, one of the kingfishers flew by, chattering, a first of the season sighting for our friend, and a nice way to close until our next chance meeting

1020 A bit chilled from standing, Mahoney and I are now ready to walk. We head off toward south-pond, but we don't get too far. Just like during my last visit, the Miracle gosling and its parents, along with the Triplet family, a pair of non-breeders, and a lone mi'sikatsi drake are sitting together on our shore. As we approach, they stand up and walk down to enter the safety of the water

1022 At that point, we notice that both sets of parents with goslings are behaving curiously. All of them enter the water and paddle with their necks and heads lowered right to the surface, a posture used both for concealment and to express a goose's utter lack of threatening intention. A lot of times, the geese will use this sign when entering the nesting territory of another, so as to avoid provoking a fight. We figure they're doing this at the moment because of their close proximity to one another... since they both have goslings to protect, neither pair wants any trouble with the other. But what happens next is completely unexpected

1024 With the video camera rolling, we watch as the Triplet goslings leave their parents' side and paddle over toward the other family. Miracle's mom keeps her baby beside her, and dad moves between her and the approaching goslings. It's obvious that he's trying to keep them away from his baby, while at the same time seeming non-threatening. With his head and neck still low to the surface, he nudges the curious goslings with his beak. The Triplet parents, meanwhile, are concerned, but only willing to come so close. They too are trying to avoid catastrophy, or so it seems

1028 The nudging and blocking seems at first to work, the three goslings turning back toward their parents. But then one of them returns and moves around to the gander's other flank. At the same time, Miracle himself meets his mother face to face and nuzzles against her beak briefly before leaving her side and going to peek out from behind his father's tail a the liaison Triplet gosling. It appears as though the latter is trying to coax Miracle out, and he is at least curious, if not excited. When the Triplet gosling then begins to paddle toward its own parents again, Miracle follows right along. From our vantage point, it looks very much as though the goslings themselves orchestrated this kidnapping of the willing

1030 Now we're expecting Miracle's parents to make a more bold move to retrieve their hatchling. Certainly the posturing has changed. Now the two mama geese continue to hold their necks low to the water surface, while the ganders give a certain type of head-bobb. This is not the angry head-bobb, but more the kind of greeting sign we often see between mates when they reuinite. The four goslings are now with the Triplet parents and swimming toward the ksisskstakioyis, with Miracle's parents following cautiously behind

1031 Eventually, the Triplet mama reaches the edge of the beaver lodge and steps up onto it. Two of her own goslings follow her. Papa then steps up as well, and two goslings follow him, including Miracle. Meanwhile, Miracle's parents go to the bank of the wet-meadow just north of the lodge, and continue to give their respective displays. Then another adult goose, probably a close family member of either the Triplets or the Canal couple who are nested not far away, paddles in from south-pond and begins protesting toward Mahoney and I. We have no idea what this one's problem is, but it's giving an alarm call and flanking us from just off-shore

1032 While the protester continues to bark at us, the Triplet family, with Miracle in tow, decide to return to their original position on the midpond cutbank of our shore. Miracle's parents watch them go and, when they are already climbing the opposite shore, suddenly give a half-hearted chase. The pair takes wing and flies, honking, about half the distance that the Triplets have just crossed. To Mahoney, it looks like Miracle's mom wanted to go after him, but that her gander interceded and convinced her to back down. Either way, the couple then swims over and walks up the side of the cutbank themselves, but at a fair distance from the family that now has their baby

1035 We watch for a few more minutes, but nothing changes. Miracle is with the Triplets, probably twenty meters from his own parents, and there's no indication at all that he will be returned. The protester has now ceased carrying on, and is swimming back toward south-pond. We decide to walk that way too, and that we'll return in a bit to find out if anything has changed. It looks very much like Miracle has been adopted into the larger Triplet family

1040 It doesn't take us long to move between the beaver lodge and south-pond, following the goose who had been calling to us a few minutes ago, and passing the still-incubating canal mama on the way. Once at the bench above the peninsula, we start taking in the south-pond scene. There is a lot going on here, but our highest priority is to check the status of the big island nest, which by our measure should have hatched out a few days ago

1042 When we talked to Ken earlier, he said that the big island mama was still sitting her nest when he'd passed by, which is not to say that her eggs hadn't hatched. Mahoney and I are lucky to arrive at the right time. As we look toward the island, mama is indeed sitting her nest, but out beside her are five, wriggling yellow fuzz-balls. They peck around on the ground near the nest briefly, and then scoot back into hiding under mama's wing

1043 So we have confirmation, the big island nest has succeeded. But given the snowfall, there probably won't be too much to see of these new goslings today. We doubt they'll leave the island anyway

1044 With the goslings tucked under-wing, we take a survey of who else is here. There's the small island goose and her gander, along with five other aapsspini couples spaces around this wider end of the pond. The two male mergansers are still lingering, stationed today by the small island nest. One of the redhead couples and and the male of the second couple are just off-shore of the big island. This is the second time I've seen this male alone, so I suspect his mate (which could be Scabby) is nesting. Also on the big island is the mallard drake associated with the nest by the blind. Finally, a spotted sandpiper is poking around one of the uninhabited islands, and we can see more ducks off in the far shallows, but will need to hike over there to identify them

1057 It's too chilly to sit on the bench for long. Soon we are making our way around south-pond to the shallows, following the levee walk. When we eventually drop down into the forest, I recognize some of the new shoots coming up as those of false solomon's seal

1058 Cutting down to the blind, we're rewarded with the treat of another new face for the season. There's a pair of green-winged teals here. At first, we only notice the male, because his mate is associating with two nearby mallard drakes. But when this latter trio begins to move around, the size disparity between them immediately catches our attention. The mallards are giants compared to the teals. And almost as soon as we notice, the female returns to her man. The mallard drakes, however, are not giving up. They follow her to the tiny island where the green-wing male is stationed. Then two more mallard drakes swim in and join them. I'm almost expecting to see the mallard drakes gang up and rape the lady teal, as they are known to do with their own hens. But for as long as we watch them, they remain gentlemen

1100 Also present in the shallows are one aapsspini couple, a pair of northern shovelers, and both male and female redwing blackbirds. The redwings must be approaching their nesting season too. Just before we leave the area of the blind, we see one of the male redwings fly through and peck each of the geese in the head. And as we walk away, there's a kingfisher flying and chattering high above. This is something we haven't witnessed before, a display of sorts

1118 For the rest of our return hike north, Mahoney and I decide to go back up on the levee-walk rather than trekking through the muddy forest. This passage will give us a better view of the canopy anyway. As we move along, we hear a very distinct call, causing us to turn to one another simultaneously and announce, "catbird." The last time I heard this call, a few weeks ago, the question was brought up as to whether it was really a catbird or just a starling in mimic. Well, today we solved that issue. It is indeed a starling, one whose catbird imitation is uncannily precise

1120 Just past the deceptive starling, we spot a female flicker clinging high on trunk of an old poplar snag. From our position, it looks to us like she's sleeping, she's so perfectly still. But on closer inspection, it's learned that she's excavating a new nest cavity. Her quiet and stillness must be an attempt to camouflage herself and her actions from our notice

1129 Soon we are nearing north-pond again, and we move to the cutbank overlooking the river island. There, we see the log goose is sitting on her nest, though it seems a few days late. Just downstream from her, however, the mama of what we consider the main nest of this island is standing. At her feet, a single foraging gosling. For whatever reason, her other eggs didn't make it. Neither gander of these two nests is present, but there is another couple, likely relatives, standing near the mother with gosling, looking on

1148 We have seen a lot in our short visit this morning, and are ready to go home. Mahoney's legs are tiring out. But before leaving, I decide to quickly walk over to midpond to check on the recent adoption. It has been more than an hour since we left the Triplet family, and I want to see if the subpond parents ever went to collect their Miracle... they haven't. When I get there, the subpond parents are nowhere to be found, and the Triplets still have all four goslings