24 May 2010

Sora, Milfoil, and Baskets Over Water

IIII ) lllllll Sora (22May10)

1359 Sspopiikimi – Mahoney and I have just walked the length of the pond, along the west shore. Today, in addition to seeing what's new after several days absence for meetings up north, we're video-taping a lecture for my phenology class. It's overcast without too much wind, decent conditions for filming

1407 Much ado with the aapsspini here this afternoon, as always. At midpond, we encounter six couples, including the Log pair with their two goslings and the Small Island pair with their five (this is the first time we’ve seen the latter). There are also two couples lingering around the subpond canal, and five more on the golf greens. Entering south-pond, we pass the Triplet family with Miracle. And right now, in the south pool proper, there are two couples, and one of them appears to be making a new nest on the small island

1450 Since we're busy video-taping, there's less opportunity for taking notes, but I do want to jot down some of our important observations. While sitting at the bench above south-pond, Scabby redhead comes to dive and feed in the pool below us. A redhead drake approaches, probably her husband, but when she surfaces from one of her dives to find him there, it upsets her and she chases him off. Now he's lingering around the big island, watching her from a distance

1459 Also at the bench, we're able to get a good look at several bank swallows using the little snag above the peninsula as a perch between flights. These swallows are fairly abundant across the length of the pond today, soaring and feeding just above the surface on small insects we can't see

1503 All of the trees in the forest are now leafed-out, and things are changing with the okonoki and pakkii'p - the former are now mostly out of flower and beginning to form berries, the latter have burst into full bloom

1509 The coots seem to still be going well with their nests at both ends of the pond, though I've yet to confirm these suspected nests by wading in. When we pass the Marsh aapsspini mama, she's off her platform to feed. The Big Island family is occupying a grassy shoreline of the shallows. And as we're coming down into the forest toward the blind, we're sad to find that one of the blue-winged teals has had her nest destroyed. She herself is dead and partially eaten beside it

1512 Currently at the blind, we just saw a pair of muskrats pass below us. They are on their mating journey, swimming and diving together. Unfortunately, they don't linger here too long, but head off together toward midpond

1549 After coming across the destroyed blue-winged teal nest, we can’t help but feel compelled to check in on the nesting mi'ksikatsi mother near the blind. Sure enough, her nest had been ruined as well, but at least there's no sign that the predators killed her like they did the teal

1553 Next we make our way onto the wet meadows to check on one of the snipe nests, which we see has hatched out. Perhaps the most exciting note of the day, there's a sora in the subpond. This is the first sora we've seen in four years of study here. In Blackfoot, this bird’s name is ootohtoyi, or carrying-food. The old phenology lore says that when the first geese migrate out for winter, one member of the flock carries a sora on its back

1604 Mahoney's ankle has suddenly flared-up with pain from walking on the uneven ground of the wet-meadows, so we've climbed up to the edge of the forest to sit and rest on a log. Above us, we see that the swainson's hawk nest, completely torn apart during the last winter storm, when Miracle gosling's mother nested here, has been repaired and is looking stronger than the original ever had. No doubt we are going to have another hawk brood here this year. It would be nice to wait a while, to see if the swainsons show up, but Mahoney’s found a tick on her pant-leg and brushed it off onto the grass at our feet. We’ll move on before it finds us again

1628 There are a lot of songbirds in the forest today, small birds singing from up in the canopy. I recognize one song as that of a house finch, which we haven't heard much since sa'aiki'somm, so perhaps they are now going into their second breeding cycle. I also see and hear orange-crowned and yellow warblers up there. On one of the lower limbs, I spot and photograph a house wren. They’re singing a much more abbreviated song today than they do later in the season

1635 Mahoney tried playing the orange-crowned warbler song on her iphone, but was getting no answers. Then she tried the yellow warbler, and one began singing back right away. Meanwhile, the house finch close by tried to mimic every song she played, but always finished with its own high-pitched ending

1702 Arriving at the north end of the forest, I check-in on the robin hatchlings and they're coming along fine. There's also one of last year's robin's nests in the bulberries nearby, and it has curiously been replenished with a new cup of dry grass over-top of the old, mud and grass interior. I'll have to keep an eye on this one to see if it’s reused

1733 Exiting the forest and coming back around the bend of north pond, we find that a pair of midpond coots has come over to recruit the north-pond couple into an orgy with them. No idea why they require an orgy to do their thing, but it certainly seems that's their preference. After a quick mating round, the north couple return to their nesting reeds and the midpond pair go on their way

1740 Our last encounter of the evening occurs at the bat tree. We're sitting on the cutbank nearby when we notice some small birds hopping around, checking the flower panicles of this small western cottonwood. When one of the birds finally comes into view, we see it's an adult male, common yellowthroat. It hops around for a few more minutes, then chases a female north along the cutbank. No sooner does this bird leave than the yellow-rumped warblers fly over to take its place in the bat tree. They too are surveying the cottonwood flowers

IIII ) llllllll Milfoil Feast (23May10)

1310 Sspopiikimi - here with my Bella girl this breezy afternoon. Walking in at north-pond, we've come across the Triplet family, whose goslings are growing quick. The coots nested in the reeds here are present as well, and there are about a dozen painted turtles basking on the beams of the old boardwalk. Remembering discoveries of our last visit, Bella has been intently searching the grass for new snipe nests

1347 As we ascend, descend, and ascend again the stairs leading up and down the north-pond levee walk, we come across one of this summer’s Kainai Phenology participants, Dr. Cynthia Chambers. She’s taking a photo of the pink-blossoming tartarian honeysuckle at the base of the stairs. I’d like to walk with Cynthia and give her a bit of a tour of this pond I know so well, but I have a Bella to watch after. This girl is not so much interested in the plants and animals, however, as she is in the soil. As soon as she tires of climbing up and down the stairs, Bella sets to work collecting the red gravel that paves the public trail. She's fascinated by this material, bringing me handfuls and instructing me to touch it

1354 Next I'm told to "Mon!" and led by hand down the levee bank into the forest by the river. There we find rabbit willows in flower and tall goldenrod starting to raise new stems

1402 We wind along a path that takes us to the river cutbank. There Bella finds another kind of soil to investigate, the soft silt of the floodplain. I'm not paying enough attention, and start filming her before I notice she's digging her new discovery out of a rodent burrow. This is not wise practice in rattlesnake country, so I guide her over to some mounds pushed-up by a pocket gopher, and these keep her more than satisfied

1454 We are at the pocket gopher mounds for nearly an hour. When Bella sees there are tiny ants crawling on the mounds, she goes completely prone and puts her face down within an inch of them to have a close look. While she watches the ants and runs her hands repeatedly through the soft silt, I try unsuccessfully to take pictures of a small sparrow flittering from branch to branch in the trees above. Eventually, after Bella had followed the ants out onto the trail again, I convince her that we should move on

1518 Back on the levee-walk, we stop to sit on the bench overlooking the river and the canopy of the forest along the bank. Like yesterday, house finches and wrens can be heard all around us. But today I can't catch but the briefest glimpse of them. My Bella girl is getting tired, and is now insistent that we return to the truck

1946 Sspopiikimi - tonight Mahoney and I have brought lawn chairs and set ourselves up above the old north-shore ksisskstakioyis. We are waiting hopefully for the dusk appearance of the big brown bat

1949 The tree and bank swallows are swooping around just above our eye-level from the cutbank, the coots are moving in and out of their nesting reeds, where two male yellow-headed blackbirds are perches surprisingly close to one another, and there is a single ksisskstaki out here, diving and feeding on aqua-milfoil. This is the second night in a row we've noticed a lone beaver out this way, and it makes us suspicious that perhaps it is moving out of the main lodge

2010 Mama coot is still off her nest and a second, somewhat smaller ksisskstaki makes its way past us. This one is also eating milfoil, but its presence makes us second-guess our hypothesis about any move away from the main lodge

2017 Finally mama coot returns to her nest. A muskrat has emerged from somewhere in the bank below us (probably the old ksisskstakioyis. It swims south, making a wide arch around the bat tree. We see a lone pelican flying upriver, and the swallows continue their acrobatics above us. They come in waves, the swallows, but the pattern of their hunt is hard to discern

2028 I watch as the male coot drifts alone further and further toward midpond, along the wet-meadow shore. Meanwhile, the larger ksisskstaki makes its way back south, a blue-winged teal drake comes in for a landing in front of us, and the muskrat is floating in the middle of the water, eating with its tail held erect in the air behind it

2035 Soon mama coot is back out of her nesting reeds, following her husband. Just as she begins to move in his direction, there is angry coot chatter from midpond, and the male is chased back in this direction. Mama, seeing this happen, flies over to join in the fight. Once they have the defending male backing off, mama goes into the same kind of white bum-patch display we usually associate with mating. This display is short-lived. The couple move back toward their reeds, and mama (assumedly) returns to her nest, while the mid-pond defender retreats to its territory

2038 As the coot dispute was playing out, both the blue-winged teal and the small ksisskstaki head south. Then the large beaver returns, and this time swims switch-backs in front of the shore lodge and slaps his tail at us. Either he's upset because he wants something from up here where we're sitting, or we actually are too close to his new lodge. Several times, it seems he's dived down into the lodge, but quickly we see the tell-tale bubbles that tell us he's back out again

2044 Finally the shadow of dusk has blanketed the entire pond. Just before it does so, we see the north coots have a quick romp amongst themselves, the male biting the back of the female's neck. This is the first time we've witnessed a coot mating session that involved just two birds. There's a Wilson's snipe flying in display overhead now, and the large beaver has come back out of the lodge to eat milfoil by the coots’ reeds, but no sign yet of the big brown bat

2051 With the shadow fully upon us, a robin has begun to sing its night song from the bat tree. After just a couple verses, two more robins fly in. Perhaps this is one of their night-roosting trees. While we listen to them sing, a muskrat swims in from somewhere by the wet-meadows. It’s carrying plants in its mouth, and it dive into a burrow just south of the beaver shore lodge

2101 With the darkness increasing, gradual but steady, a number of turtles have begun to surface in the middle of the pond below us. The swallows are still flying around, but I don't imagine they'll continue to do so much longer

2114 What looks to be a female blue-winged teal just flew over from somewhere in the brush behind the wet meadows. She's hurriedly dipping to eat in the pond, like a nesting mother would. I'm watching and see where exactly she returns to when she’s done

2136 After watching the female teal intensely for twenty minutes, as she cycles between frantic bouts of feeding and preening, she finally takes wing. She doesn't go to where I thought she had come from, but rather crosses the levee-walk and dips down into the forest by the river. It's impossible to tell where she lands, but no doubt her nest is in that forest somewhere

2139 While watching the teal feed and preen, a spotted sandpaper flew in and picked around on the mud of the north shore ksisskstakioyis. It wasn't here long before it flew somewhere over in the wet-meadows at midpond

2150 At some point, the swallows go to roost. We don't notice exactly when. We do, however, register the sudden quiet that overtakes the pond at present, as most of the birds quit singing, bringing the sounds of the chorus frogs into relief. A mallard drake flies in from the river, and has landed in front of us to quack. These sounds seem to attract the attention of a redhead drake, who paddles in from midpond. Now both birds are heading south

2204 We've decided to call it a night. The bats have not emerged, but it could be because there's been a little temperature drop, and there really are very few insect clouds. Still, we've enjoyed sitting again, and will surely be returning for more of this kind of study soon

IIII ) lllllllll Baskets Over The Water (24May10)

0822 Sspopiikimi - just walked in to find the aiksikksksisiiksi up and about at north-pond and a lone aapsspini incessantly giving an alarm call on the wet meadows. This morning is probably our last opportunity to see the coot and redhead nests in the reeds before they hatch, so I've worn my waders and am prepared to hazard the leechy muck

0831 We are surprised at the very north end of the pond to find the cinnamon teal couple present. It's been a few weeks at least since we last encountered them, and my assumption was that, like in years previous, they'd already moved on

0912 So our first target of the morning is the north-pond coot nest. We know where they keep it in the reeds, surrounded by deep beaver canals and pools. While Mahoney waits on shore, I wade in. There are a number of yellow-headed blackbirds here, and it doesn't take long to spot one of their newly-woven basket nests. There are no eggs yet, but the nest looks fairly complete, so they shouldn't be long

0927 As I come within view of the coots, walking around in one of the bulrush hummocks furthest from shore, I step into one of the beaver canals and find it's just too deep to move through without soaking my camera equipment. So I back off and make a wide arch around to approach it from the opposite side, where I discover the waters are much more shallow. Now I'm able to get right into to coot lair, and what I find is that they've built a slap-shot platform, but no basket, and they have no eggs as yet. We thought for sure they'd be at least caching, but reflecting back on their behaviors observed the last couple evenings, it all makes sense

0933 Knowing now that there'll be more opportunities to follow the evolving coot nest, I'm even more curious to find out what's happening with the redheads. Following the wet-meadows, we start moving south toward the midpond cattail marsh

0941 About half-way there we come across a redwing blackbird female in the midst of putting finishing touches on her basket nest over dry land, amongst the Indian hemp. She's bringing in long, wet strands of cattail and bulrush, probably material left behind on the surface of the water by the beavers and muskrats. Interestingly, this redwing has also woven the plastic cord from a child's balloon into her nest. She did not, however, take to the balloon itself. It’s still attached to the cord, but has been anchored to a branch as far from the actual nest as possible

0942 We’re almost at the midpond cattail marsh when we come across a major ksisskstaki project. One of their canals has been expanded significantly, with rocks, mud, and plant material cast off to create a kind of levee along its edges. The canal goes back into the wet-meadows and opens into a significant pool which, with a bit more work, could easily become a second subpond

1018 Activities in the midpond marsh seemed much the same as those at the north end, at least as far as blackbirds are concerned. Here I encounter another yellow-headed family in the midst of nest construction. I’m photographing one of the blackbirds when I notice some movement below in the bulrush tuft it’s standing on. Here, in a beautifully woven reed nest, is mama coot

1026 She’s sitting on eight drab, dry-cattail coloured eggs, with a faint speckling of black just like the old reeds. She stays close as I inspect her nest, and several times displays her white rump patches toward me. Eventually her mate comes along, and she quickly swims out to join him. Then the two come over to find out what’s going on. They won’t climb back up on the nest with me standing there, but they keep protectively close

1050 Leaving the coots behind, I meet back up with Mahoney at the edge of the forest and we begin making our way toward south-pond. Along the way, we stop by the subpond in hopes of spotting the sora again, but it’s not to be

1054 When we reach south-pond, it is full of birds. There are eight aapsspini couples, two redhead drakes, one redhead couple, a male merganser, the cinnamon teal pair, a mallard drake, two spotted sandpipers, seven brewer’s blackbirds, and probably a host of others who I can't see hidden in the marsh. The brewer’s blackbirds, new arrivals to the pond for the season, are grazing (assumedly on insects) on the small islands. All the others are sleeping and feeding in their usual manner

1205 Amazing! Over the next your I wade through the south marsh. It’s everything I'd hoped it to be. Not only are there an abundance of redwing and yellow-headed blackbird nests, all presently in the midst of construction, but I’m also able to find two redhead nests. The mama of the first one I come across abandons early and stands off near the peninsula as I pass. Her bulrush basket, hanging just above the waterline, holds five cream-colored eggs

1214 I’m almost back to shore when Mahoney messages to advise me that I should check on the marsh aapsspini nest, because she can see eggs exposed from the levee walk above. I turn around and made my way back, and it’s a very lucky thing that I do. Unfortunately, the marsh goose nest has been flooded out. What remains of the platform is a wet flotilla with just three cold eggs

1215 But not far from the travesty of the goose platform, I spot another redhead sitting her nest. It's Scabby! I'm able to walk right up to her, practically close enough to touch her. The moment I see her start to get too anxious, I stop in my tracks. It’s as close as I’ll go, I’m not about to make her get off her eggs to do a count. For me, it’s just incredibly beautiful to witness her there, so much smaller at this range than I imagined

1215 While I'm out in the water, Mahoney for her part gets our first visual confirmation that the catbirds have returned. We've heard several as we walked the last couple days, but after the false alarm of last month with the mimicking starlings, we were not planning to announce again until there was visual. Well, today we have it, a fine little catbird photographed by Mahoney in the bulrush and currant thickets above the peninsula

1240 The last thing I want to check out before heading for the truck is the status of the magpie nest. Once again I go on hands and knees through the tick-infested rabbit tunnels of the bulberry and currant thickets to climb the magpie tree. The effort is worth it though. When I peer into the orb-shaped nest, I find a pile of bald, newborn hatchlings

1247 I make it back to the bench where Mahoney's waiting just in time to see another dramatic event in the lives of the resident geese. The grounds keeper of the neighboring golf course drove a cart out and went to chase the geese off their greens. In doing so, he separated a clutch of seven young goslings from their parents. The goslings, able to run through the chain-link fence on the perimeter of the course, made their way to the pond. Meanwhile, their parents ran to the end of the fence so they could cross. By the time they were able to come down to the pond as well, the goslings were surrounded by other adult geese. One of the latter took it upon herself to lead the babies back to their parents. There are seven goslings in this group, which means that the Small Island couple have adopted the two brought from the river by the Log parents

1253 I’m frustrated with the greens-keeper. But in the grand scheme of activity at the pond, he’s just a minor nuisance. This being Victoria Day, there’s all kinds of people walking around here with their dogs, and there’s a couple guys on the west cutbank midpond catching and releasing pike. I don’t know if Mahoney and I should be considered just as guilty of disturbing the lives of the residents here, perhaps. For me, it’s another reminder that we should better learn and act upon our long-time relationships with these others, that we are only really part of this place again if we engage it as a source of sustenance, instead of mere recreation, intellectual or otherwise