21 June 2010

O'kakoyi - The Flood

IIII ) ll Milfoil Bloom (15June10)

1854 Sspopiikimi - here to sit a couple hours or so by the bat tree overlooking north-pond, and what a welcome we got. Just walking in, we passed four large garter snakes. The first one was basking stretched out across the trail, the other three were sitting a few feet apart from each other along the top edge of the cutbank. Very happy to see their return

1857 My guess is that the north-pond aiksikksksisi nest has not hatched yet. When we set our chairs down just past the snakes, we could see both coot parents out foraging. They don't have to dive for milfoil these days, its grown high and is blooming with white flowers above the pond's surface

1902 Some of the bank swallows are out, swooping over the water and returning to a snag branch below our seats. A mi'ksikatsi drake flew in just after we arrived, and soon flew back toward the south. There was a ksisskstaki briefly exploring the wet-meadow shore, and mi'sohpsski is currently heading into the cattails where the coots are nested

1913 Another mallard drake, possibly the same fellow as before, has arrived chasing a lady who wanted nothing to do with him. As they approached the levee-walk, she split toward the absinthe field while he circled the cattails and came in to land. She then flew back over him and landed far out on the midpond wet-meadows. Meanwhile, ominous clouds approach, threatening perhaps to rain us out this evening

1920 The north-end cinnamon teal drake, whose nesting mate we haven't found, has waddled out of the reeds to sit at the edge of the wet-meadows straight across from us. We see him standing sentry at this position quite often

1927 One of the male coots picking at milfoil tips makes his way over to the log that the cinnamon teal is occupying. When the coot begins splashing to bathe and preen, the teal takes wing and flies south

1943 A very pond-ish smell rises through the air, and we are suddenly surrounded by thundering clouds. The north-pond residents seem very quiet this evening, and in the interests of keeping our equipment dry we decide to cut this visit short

IIII ) llll Swollen Waters (17June10)

1823 Sspopiikimi - last time we were here, two nights ago, we had to cut our visit short due to the arrival of thunder storms. It's been raining ever since

We are in the moon called misamssootaa, and this kind of rain is what it refers to. Mi'ksskimmiisoka'simm told me that if the rains are heavy, it will last four days. If it's light, it will last two weeks. This is the way it works. Perhaps this is the conclusion of the two week cycle we’re experiencing now. It's a cleansing, moving the worms up and the trash down. And from my perspective, it's sacred, directly connected to the origin of sstsiiysskaan, the sweatlodge. It is, in fact, the ultimate sweat, conducted by Naato'si, the Sun, and observed by Ko'komiki'somm, the Moon, who looks in through the clouds when they part

I didn't bring my BlackBerry, given how wet it is, so these notes are being taken after the fact. Tonight, Mahoney and I have several intentions. First, we simply need to be at the pond, to stretch our legs and take-in the changes occurring with the constant rain. We also think it will be a good opportunity to gather worms, to feed Derrick, the magpie fledgling we adopted last week. Finally, we want to check on how some of the pond's residents are coping... Scabby, the redwing and yellowhead blackbirds, the coots, geese and magpies

Just walking in to north-pond, we pick-up our first couple worms, the mid-sized ones that Derrick likes to eat. The pond, we find, is quite flooded, even more so than after the last big rain. The white blooms of the milfoil that had been above the surface during our last few visits are now submersed. Most of the wet-meadows are underwater too. If the water gets much higher, it will look as though the pond merely stretches back to the edge of the forest

The aapsspini families don't seem to mind the flood. They are all travelling together mid-pond. And it's clear the parents are molting. Along the path on the west cutbank, we find dozens of their large black feathers strewn about

There's one mi'ksikatsi drake on a little bit of exposed land on the wet-meadows north, and a drake and hen couple on another bit of earth midpond, as close to the ksisskstakioyis as they can get, given the conditions. The beaver lodge, usually right up against the wet meadow, now appears to be in the middle of the pond. It hasn’t actually moved, of course, but the water... the water. One of the ksisskstaki is packing extra mud on the north wall of the lodge, and we can see they've added several freshly bark-cleaned poplar boughs to the works

The situation at south-pond is similar. Here, there is no longer a peninsula, and most of the logs that the turtles like to bask on are sunk. We walk into the bulberry and currant thickets above what used to be the peninsula, to check on the magpie nest. The fledgling here is able to come out onto the brush now and, like Derrick, this one has recently begun to leave adult-like droppings (as evidenced in the once-clean nest bowl). Unlike Derrick, who gives singular calls, it is crying in the staccato caw of its mother. To make up for disturbing it, I leave a fat night-crawler in the nest bowl, a nice contribution to the evening meal

From the magpie nest, Mahoney returns to the levee-trail to continue around the south bend. I have my waders on, so I decide to cut across the marsh instead, so I can check on Scabby and the blackbirds. The water is so high, I almost can't make it to Scabby's nest, not without filling my chest-waders anyway. When I do get out there, I find the eggs still above the pond surface, and covered with some reeds, as if Scabby herself just went to eat (which is likely the case). There is one egg caught in some flotsam nearby, but I suspect it belonged to the nest that was sunk with the last flood

Moving on, I come across a muskrat standing on a mat of reeds he'd cut. I want to take my video camera out, but in order to do so I have to remove my fishing gloves. The fabric of my glove makes a squeaking sound that the muskrat apparently mistakes as the call of one of his own, because he dives into the water and swims directly over to me. When, at close range, he realizes that I'm not another muskrat, he turns and swims away. Then I purposely make the glove squeak and he turns and swims back. Again seeing that it’s only a human being, he dives and disappears. I remember my friend Kiitokiiaapii telling me about this, how muskrats will come to you if you make squeaking sounds, sucking your lips. This is the first time I’ve actually experienced it

Wading toward the east shore, I'm wishing I could go further out in the reeds to look for the coot nest I know to be here, the only one at Sspopiikimi I've yet to see. And then suddenly, to my surprise, there it is... not at all where I'd suspected it to be, hidden in the thick cattails like the other coot nests. This one is right in the open, surrounded only by a handful of bulrush stems. The mother is sitting in it, and she hops out as I approach. Her nest, lined with a few fresh cattail leaves, holds nine eggs

There are no redwing or yellowhead nests in the marsh, or at least in that part of it which I can still access, though this has been a major breeding-grounds in prior years. Any nests that had been here are underwater. Only the top ten or twelve inches of the tallest bulrush stems are breaking the surface

Near the shoreline, I find a piece of beaver-chewed poplar that looks like it has a cluster of barnacles growing on it. When I pick it up and look closely, I see that the cluster is made up of tiny snails. There are probably fifty or more, all packed tightly together in a little circle

Climbing to the duck blind, I meet up with Mahoney again. She has collected more worms, and reports that there are massive logs floating down Oldman River. There is a redwing male swooping us by the blind, which means there's a nest nearby. But since both of us are getting soaked through, we decide not to conduct a search

Together, Mahoney and I hike back to the levee-walk to continue our round. Here, between the wooded river cutbank and the main forest of the pond, we collect one worm after another, making our way north. Like those near our home on the coulee-rim above, there seem to be three worm species here. The most populous is a small, slender worm with a bright pink band. They account for perhaps as much as eighty percent of the worms that have been washed to the surface. The next most numerous are mid-sized worms that look like small night crawlers. These are the ones that Derrick prefers – they’re small enough for him to handle, but big enough to give him that sensation of having a full belly. And then there are the night crawlers themselves, some as large as juvenile garter snakes. These seem to be far more rare, accounting for only about two percent of the worms we find

When we get to the lookout over the big river island, there is no island to speak of. All that remains are the tops of the willows growing there. We can see several massive trees, old deadwood probably cut by beavers, floating downstream. The beaver shore lodge here is totally submersed. And if the water gets any higher, the kingfisher and bank swallow cavities will be filled as well

1954 We round north-pond and make it back to the truck. In the hour and a half we've been out here, we collected just forty-six worms. In comparison, I was able to gather one hundred and five worms in under a half-hour the evening before, in our neighborhood, where the concrete keeps them out on the surface. At neither location, however, do the birds seem to be taking particular advantage of the wormy situation. While I do see some picking them up here and there, they are not as busy at it as I would expect

IIII ) lllll The Flood (18June10)

1805 Sspopiikimi - we've arrived, again in the rain, to find not only the main access road closed due to flooding, but also the gate to the parking area locked shut. No matter though, we'll just park outside the gate and walk in

1816 We've hiked around north-pond, passing papa coot on the way, and climbed the levee-walk to find the Oldman swollen massive. Its waters have spilled into the forest (good for the poplars) and risen quite a ways up the levee itself. The river’s so high, only the tops of the russian olive trees are visible, and it's probably a good eight to ten feet higher than the waters of the pond, just on the other side of the levee

1824 Strolling to the overlook on the river cutbank, we find the Oldman almost ready to come up over-top. There is now no evidence to the big island's existence, not even the tops of the willows show. The cutbank where the swallows and kingfishers were nesting is sunk far below

1842 I'm amazed at how much the river has risen, and I'm grateful for what it will ultimately do for the forests, but definitely a lot of nesters are in mourning. Most of the brush up to the levee itself is underwater, and I'm sure in other parts of the coulee, without levees, the situation is even more grim. There is no sign yet of the hundreds of bank swallows who had been here. There are ksisskstaki tracks leading up the shore from beavers who've had to abandon some well-established lodges. No telling where they've gone

1851 We notice there are several small rodent burrows, possibly pocket gopher tunnels, open to the surface. I wonder if perhaps this is part of their flood strategy, to leave their exits open while the water is rising. Or have they simply evacuated? Also, the birds of the forest, and most vociferously the robins and starlings, seem to be in an alarm panic. There is non-stop shouting between them. We hear very few courting calls

1855 There is good reason for panic amongst the small birds. We've just found the source of their angst... a large kakanottsstooki

1902 Check that! We don't have one great-horned owl at the scene, we have a whole family of them. So far, we have seen the two parents and one of their fledglings. We suspect, of course, that the owl wood has been flooded out, and that this is what has brought at least some of them here to the forest that is protected by the levee. We're making our way south to the owl wood now to find out

1925 Before arriving there, we decide to cut down into the main forest. The possibility that many animals have come here for sanctuary lures us. Walking through, we find both the starling and flicker parents feeding hatchlings in their cavity nests. Toward the north side of the forest, we stop to check the fine little fibrous basket nest we found in some brush the other week. Finally the first egg has been deposited, small and whitish with dense brown spotting on its wider end, becoming sparse at the narrower side. The egg cinches it as a yellow warbler’s

1936 Aside from the robins, starlings, owls and flickers, we see catbirds, yellow warblers, and wee house wrens. A snipe is winging his display overhead. And by the blind at south-pond there are redwing blackbirds, a cinnamon teal drake, the male coot of this water, tree and bank swallows, and a kingfisher. There has been a mosquito hatch. The ksisskstaki, for their part, are doing exactly as they had last time it flooded, making their rounds to survey the shoreline and put up new scent mounds

1955 On the way back out of the forest, I cut into the brush and flush a mourning dove from her nest platform. It's set safely up about ten feet in a poplar tree. Then we climb the levee again and move over to the owl wood. As predicted, all but the canopy is completely underwater. The Oldman, surging up over the tall concrete anchorings of the high-level bridge, has pushed a lot of flotsam into the woods, and several western kingbirds, yellow warblers, and catbirds are making use of it as a source for finding bugs

2011 Now from the levee-walk I can see both mama coot and Scabby's nests. Like yesterday, Scabby is absent. It's a bad sign. I hate to do so, but at this point I have to assume she's abandoned the project

2036 Moving around to the west cutbank, I locate Scabby. She’s swimming side by side with a mallard drake, of all characters. And just a ways up from them, across from what used to be the subpond canal, are the three aapsspini families, happily feeding on our cutbank

2048 Continuing along the length of the pond, heading for the truck, we come across several more exposed rodent tunnel entrances. Now I am sure they belong to the pocket gophers, because the area they're positioned in is criss-crossed with their normal works

2100 Coming out of the park, we are approached by a man who is parked at the barricade. He was there when we came in as well, but we simply walked through before he could pester us. This time, he's waiting to tell us that the area is closed by police orders. Since I doubt the flood waters are going to recede over the weekend, tomorrow I guess we'll either have to visit the police station seeking permission, or hike in from a less guarded point… irritating

IIII ) llllll Young Rattlers Galore (19June10)

0751 As if the police and fire chiefs think they can keep me out of the coulee this weekend, when we're having such an awesome flood. Not likely

1233 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - we've come to check the flood situation out here where there is less authoritarian surveillance. From the coulee rim, we can see that the entire forest below is flooded, who knows how many active nests along with it, and it's likely my little lean-to shelter in the trees is a wash-out

1255 Walking down the slope, we pass lots of flowering plants... white morning glories, scarlet mallow, black medick, purple wild vetch, yellow salsify, creamy drummond's vetch, yarrow, butte marigold, and prairie onion

1332 We've stopped by at the rattlesnake hibernaculum, of course, to check on my slithering friends. Like last time, there's just the one younger snake basking. Our sense is that he's going to stay at the den site all summer, and it makes me wonder if perhaps they always assign this duty to one of their young warriors, keeping others from occupying the burrows so the clan has somewhere to return to in fall. We've now seen this snake at two of the den entrances, and the black widow is here today occupying a third. It has caught a beetle in its web meant to trap mice

1345 About half-way down the slope, there’s been a significant landslide, making passage treacherous. To avoid it, we chose a steeper part of the slope to descend. Both of us have itchy arms from mosquito bites, and Mahoney smartly starts chewing yarrow flowers and rubbing her skin with the juice. I follow her lead, and though the yarrow tastes awful, it relieves the irritation instantly

1407 Finally we make it down to the sagebrush flats, all sweaty and hot. We sit down for a break in the shade of grandpa tree. There are some little chipping sparrows flitting about, and there are gooseberries growing here, still green at present

1437 We're able to get down into the first echelon of the upstream forest, where the water has passed through, leaving the buckbrush caked in mud, but at the cutbank above the second echelon we encounter the flowing river. This is quite a distance from where the Oldman normally runs, and so what damp (not dry) land there is has filled with whitetail and mule deer. We just had a doe whitetail followed by a buck mule come running past us at close quarters, jaws open, obviously stressed. My lean-to, miraculously, has survived. It’s on a small island in the forest, surrounded by moving water

1517 There are a lot of the usual feathered suspects down here. The robins are singing away. One bird whose presence is pronounced today is the western kingbird, who is performing an aerial display in several locations at the forest edge, swooping up and down from open perches. As we sit to take our last break before climbing back up the coulee slope, I spot my first baltimore oriole of the season, brilliant orange and black as he wings over the water and through the trees

1539 About halfway up the slope we stop when I catch a glimpse of baby rattlesnake cutting across our trail and into the grass. Following this little beauty, I'm able to get a few close-up shots from hardly twelve inches away. It would have been nice to get some film footage too, but I figured I'd stressed out both the snake and Mahoney enough at that point

1539 Right at the top of the coulee, I spot the tail of another young rattlesnake under a step in the path. This one's a bit older than the baby we came upon, but still small. I wonder how many people have stepped right over this one on their way up and down today without even noticing

IIII ) lllllll Ksisskstaki Precautions (20June10)

1836 Sspopiikimi - today access to the pond is being blockaded by the Commissionaires, mall cops of Sikoohkotoki. Not wanting to have our vehicle towed, we're attempting a hiking route from the coulee rim upstream

1854 Vegetation along the rim from this side is much the same as that we recorded yesterday at Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko. Lots of wild vetch, butte marigold, and scarlet mallow. There's spear-grass here, which I didn't notice at the other site, and rice-grass, which I know to be around the snakes, though I didn't bother to note it yesterday

1923 We stop about half-way down the slope. The next part is extremely steep and, still sore from hiking down and up the coulee yesterday, Mahoney doesn't think it's a good idea for her to proceed. Down below, we can see that the Oldman has receded at least a meter from where it was two nights ago. The water in the owl wood is now land-locked, and there’s an osprey perched in one of the trees

1944 Mahoney says she'll wait for me if I want to conduct a quick survey, so I bound the rest of the way down the coulee slope and am presently squatting on the levee-walk between the waters of the pond and those of the owl wood. I just witnessed a large ksisskstaki cross this same levee, and slip into the waters of the owl wood. I'm waiting, at least for the moment, to see if he'll return. I wonder if it is one of the residents of the ksisskstakioyis at the pond, or if it was the kind of flooded-out infiltrator the pond beavers were warding off by putting up new scent mounds the other day

1957 I now suspect it was a river beaver, because though the animal itself has disappeared into the bayou of the owl wood, I've located a set of enormous ksisskstaki tracks leading from the river's edge into the owl wood waters. And when I come within view of the pond again, there’s another ksisskstaki swimming the levee shoreline on surveillance

2004 I stand corrected, at least in part. The larger ksisskstaki has just crossed back over the levee-walk to re-enter the pond. He was met at the water's edge by the younger sentry. The two came nose to nose and then spun around in a circle cheek to cheek. Then the older animal swam up to place another scent mound under the duck blind, while the younger beaver remained to guard this south access point

2015 Not wanting to keep Mahoney too long, since she so graciously agreed to wait, I've cut tonight’s observations considerably short and hustled back up the coulee slope to meet her. I'm sweaty, covered with mosquitoes, and itchy all over

2020 I never saw the osprey down in the forest, and Mahoney never saw it leave, but the canopy is all leafed-out and I could only get to the treeline before I was met with swamp. I did, however, notice a squabble between a couple eastern kingbirds. A pair of them were sitting together on a snag branch when a third one arrived. This provoked some furious chatter. Then one of the pair, presumably the male, chased the unwanted bird off, hollering all the way

2031 Sitting on the coulee slope, with Mahoney wiping away my mosquitoes, I find a wood tick on my leg. It hasn't dug in yet, so I flick it away and we start climbing again. Almost to the rim, we come across an ant event in-process. There's a stream of thatchers crossing our path in both directions. Their hive is easy enough to spot. It's a massive construct in high, fertilized grass on the downhill side. Some of those leaving the hive carry tiny, white, dry-looking objects. Those moving toward the hive, on the other hand, haul pieces of dry grass stems about an inch in length. Peering down at the hive itself, it's clear there is construction going on. Many small pieces of stick and grass stem are being shuffled around

2046 Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about the lives of ants here. I would like to choose a hive to visit regularly during our trips to the pond, to learn what their annual cycle is like