15 June 2010

Turtle Eggs And The Garter Snake Return

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Turtle Eggs (8June10)

1843 Sspopiikimi - we've been here about a half hour now, and have just arrived at the south bench after walking the length of the pond. It's still extremely flooded, and so far we've encountered a lot of the usual residents

1848 There's a stronger redhead and mallard presence here than there has been since the flooding began. I couldn't know where they went in the interim. I'm hoping this evening to see the reported cinnamon teal with her ducklings, but so far no sightings of their kind at all, which seems odd until considering that so much of the wet-meadows is now pond too

1851 It's really bothering us at this point that we've not come across any wandering garter snakes. In previous years there were so many out here. Last fall, we witnessed their exodus over the levee-walk at the south end of the pond, but assumed they were heading to their usual hibernaculum. Now that they've failed to return, it makes us wonder

1925 Leaving the bench, we walk around to the other side of the pond, passing Scabby on the way... she's still sitting her nest. Once on the opposite shore, we return to the site where we observed a painted turtle depositing her eggs last week. Using a photograph of the event still on Mahoney's camera to relocate the concealed nest site, we slowly remove soil and soon come across the egg cache. There are fourteen in all, leathery white, and oval in shape. Though we've seen the mothers at work on these nests many times, we've never laid eyes on the eggs themselves. We are careful to cover them back up as protectively as we found them

2007 Over by the blind, we notice two asparagus plants have been broken off and dragged into the water. At first I suspect ksisskstaki, though we've never known them to eat the asparagus before. When I fish one of the stems out of the water though, it appears to have been broken lengthwise on its stem, roughly, not like the relatively clean snip of beaver teeth. When on the bench at the opposite shore, we'd seen a group of scouts out here. Finding the matching asparagus base, it is wet as though recently broken. Our assumption is that an irresponsible scout master was showing the boys these edibles, failing to teach them that they're too fibrous when they've grown almost to seed, and that it’s better to leave them to produce more plants

2016 We’re walking through the forest now, passing the starling and flicker trees. All is quiet, fledging must have occurred. Mahoney is whistling, trying to call the flicker out, if she's still in there. Suddenly my BlackBerry spontaneously plays the call of a pileated woodpecker. This is very odd, because I hadn’t even used that application recently. The burst of electronic woodpecker noise causes a robin to shoot out from the trunk-hugging branches of a narrow-leaf cottonwood beside us. Peeking between the scraggly branches, we find her nest with three large hatchlings, nearing fledge. At the same time, mama flicker appears on her tree, carrying nothing we can see, and dives down into her cavity nest. She must still be incubating, and was just out for a quick bite of dinner

2031 The robin's nest on the north end of the forest still has not hatched yet, and I've given up on the one dove nest… their platform is coming apart at this point, and they never produced eggs

2041 Approaching the truck, I'm reminded that we still haven't seen the teal ducklings. It may be that I need to put my waders back on for another exploration of the very wet, wet-meadows

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllllll Comparative Snaking (9June10)

1720 Pitsiiksiinaikaawahko - perplexed over the absence of wandering garter snakes at Sspopiikimi, Mahoney and I have come down to the coulee at the river confluence to check on whether the rattlesnakes are still at their hibernaculum. If they are, perhaps the same would be true of the garters

1729 Because this is more of a grasslands area, the flora constellation here is quite different than that of the pond. More vetch and onion, sage and various yellow asters. The meadowlarks are here, and the canary grass in the dips of the rolling hills is already growing quite tall

1811 The answer to our inquiry comes pretty fast, as it doesn't take long before we're walking into the hibernaculum site. Just outside of the area they inhabit, I find and photograph ma's, a.k.a. Indian breadroot, one of the dietary staples of the past that most people can't even identify today. A few steps beyond the ma's and we come within sight of the first den entrance. We walk slowly, checking four or five of these holes, and encountering only one young snake. Ordinarily, if the clan were here, we'd see at least a dozen with the Sun out like it is. Clearly these snakes have left the site to find individual summer dens throughout the coulee

1826 Leaving the hibernaculum, we climb up on the ridge above so I can show Mahoney the stone effigy that's there. I still don't know what it is, but there are curious lines and arcs on its flanks, and the elegant sunburst and other lichens cover the surface of the stones in a manner that tells me they've been here a long time

1856 We make our way off the ridge and down to the river. As we come out of the trees at the water's edge, a whitetail deer way over in the brush on the opposite shore begins snorting in alarm. This provokes two aapsspini families with goslings near the deer to enter the water and swim upstream. As the geese moved away, a flock of fourteen pelicans flies past, also moving upstream, quite a stunning vision as they wing calmly just over the surface of the river

1931 Off in the forest we check on the kakkanottsstooki oyiiyis. The last time I was down here, before the rains, the owlets were just puff-balls of white down. Now they are fledged and gone, roosted somewhere in this broad floodplain forest

1936 From the owl nest, I take Mahoney to show her my progress on the lean-to shelter I've been slowly building since the start of last winter. When it was snowy down here, I lost an arrow on the edge of the meadow beside this shelter. I'm telling Mahoney about it, and there it is... sticking conspicuously out from a log pile. The razor tip is buried deep in the wood and visibly broken, but I'm able to unscrew and retrieve the shaft

1942 As we walk through the green forest, full of purple-flowering lupine and gold-blooming buffalo bean, we talk about how we'd like to start camping out in the coulees for the weekends, maybe even invite groups of students to pick berries and accrue ethnobotany course credits

2024 Moving up through the buckbrush echelon of the forest to the sagebrush flat, we pay visits to both grampa and grandma cottonwoods, the two oldest living trees here. Both have neat hollows, and grandma in particular seems to have legs, arms, and a head. Not far from them, there’s another tree bent over to appear like a bear with legs and a white face

2054 Hiking back up the coulee slope, there are western kingbirds and gray catbirds calling to us from the brush. We can't resist making one more survey of the rattlesnake hibernaculum, but this time find nobody out at all

2113 Finally back up on the coulee rim, I'm already looking forward to a future visit. This coulee brings my thoughts back to hunting, and I'm conscious of the fact that we're not taking good advantage of the season's fresh greens and bulbs. It's something I'd like to change

II Garter Snake Return (11June10)

1516 In the interest of rekindling the Niitaowahsin Project, I've hiked into the Oldman River coulee just out my back door, to survey for potential edibles, and possibly harvest the same

1535 As I walk the top of one of the ridges, with a meadowlark singing from an old fencepost nearby, two plants present themselves right away. The first is pisatsiinikimm, the ubiquitous prarie onion. They are growing in close clumps of four or more plants together, with shallow bulbs that make it a simple matter to pry them up with my eight-inch crowbar (a.k.a. root-digger). In ten minutes I'm able to collect about forty onions

1539 The second plant, which I've not come prepared to deal harvest, is otahkootsis, the prickly-pear cactus. Their paddle-shaped leaves are thick and succulent right now, and it appears as though they'll be in flower soon. Better to wait for the fruit to form

1554 Looking around as I hike along the ridge, I see ground plums (which I plan to harvest later), drummond’s milkvetch, and butte marigold. There are several plants in bloom that I just have not learned to identify yet, other asters, purple vetches and a white flower like penstemon that I really should learn

1600 I've just come across a man and his son. They are dropping baseball-sized field rocks down a vertical hole, the opening of which is perhaps the diameter of a fence post. This strange hole goes a ways down, three or four meters by the sound of the thump when the rocks hit bottom, and it really is a mystery what might have created it

1624 When I come to the end of the ridge and begin my more rapid descent toward the river, I come across ma's, the prototypical starchy root vegetable, otherwise known as the prairie turnip. These roots are set deeper than the bulbs of onions, and it takes a bit more digging to unearth a clump of five of them. They are unfortunately small, like those bite-sized white potatoes you can buy at the grocery. I've dug up others in the past that were far larger, but I've not yet learned to judge by the appearance of the plant above what to expect below

1646 The next ma's I come across is a singular plant with a bit larger root, but still not as thick as could be. While I dig, a savannah sparrow sings from atop a nearby tuft of skunkbrush. It has a very distinct song, and I can hear others of its type elsewhere in the coulee

1706 Turning around at the cutbank above the river, I see that the draw from this point and almost all the way back up is thick with pakkii'p, okonoki, saahsiipakksinisimaan and other berry plants that will ripen later in the season. Then, as I begin climbing again, I'm finding all kinds of ma's I hadn't seen on the way down, perhaps because the angle brings the earth closer to my eye

1719 I've got a pond date with Mahoney to keep, so I don't make any stops on the way back. But I'll definitely be returning soon for more harvest. Chewing on some of the onion as I walk, I wonder what it would do for our bodies if we had such foods in our diet every day

1805 Sspopiikimi - back for another evening at the pond, and we are met at the trailhead from the parking-lot by this season's first giant stink beetle. He lifts his rear end high when we approach, pauses for a moment in that fashion, then begins scrambling for the safety of the grass

1810 As we step onto the cutbank overlooking north-pond, I can see the water has gone down a bit, but the wet-meadows are still very marshy. There are two mallard drakes here, and the usual cinnamon teal drake by the beaver canal near the north coot nest. Little white flowers on top of the water are the blooms of water milfoil, and mi'sohpsski has just brought one back to his den

1822 We’re going to walk sunwise around the pond today, beginning by rounding the north end. The asparagus plant on this side is now taller than me, and there are still good shoots coming up. The plants here typically do not get this tall. We believe it’s the result of Mahoney's work, clearing off the old growth

1836 The constant presence of the cinnamon teal drake at this end of the pond makes me suspect that his mate may be nested nearby. While Mahoney moves to check out the river, I walk the brush-line around the north-pond bend, and just before I come to the forest, I spot a broken duck egg. Looking under some dead branches nearby, I find the nest. It is like so many other mallard and teal nests this year, destroyed by predators. No sign of the hen, and I don't know the cinnamon teals well enough to verify if this nest is theirs, but if it is I suspect the lady has fallen victim to coyotes

1845 As I scan the remaining siinikskaahko before the forest, I'm pleased to encounter not one, but two large wandering garter snakes. They have returned after all. I think I even hear a third one, but when I check the grass I find nothing, and turning back toward the other two, I'm unable to locate them again in the thick brush

1857 I meet back up with Mahoney in the woods, we stop to take a break on our usual log. We can hear house finches and yellow-rumped warblers singing around us

1917 As we resume walking again, through the forest now, I find a beautiful little fiber-woven basket nest in some chokecherry brush. There are no eggs in it, and I don't know who made the nest. As I'm taking pictures to help me identify it at home, we hear child-like cries from further up in the forest. It's not a catbird. We suspect it's a porcupine. But as we begin to search, the cries stop

1940 We never find the source of the cries, though we climb the levee-walk and scan the forest on both sides. Unfortunately, in doing this we've bypassed a lot of potential bird-nesting brush. But to make up for it, I suggest we check the owl woods, which we haven't gone into for a while. So we're breaking on the river bench, and then in we go

1957 The owl woods live up to the name we've given them. We don't have to go too far in before we see a large kakanottsstooki flying silently between the trees. Stalking up on one of her flanks, we hear her give the usual call, and then watch her preen for a bit before she glides quietly away again

2013 Nothing else too momentous occurs in the owl woods. We hear a catbird in there, along with others we don't know by sound. I lift a plywood board and find what appears to be a queen yellow-jacket oddly affixed and squirming on one side. She has not been squished, at least not by us, nor as far as we can tell. But something is happening here, and I will hesitate before I dare lift this board again

2017 Soon we are at the south-pond bench, where the waters are full and quiet. A mi'ksikatsi couple is resting on the peninsula before a stray drake flies in and gives chase to the female. All three fly off in chase and avoidance. Across the pond, the Triplet and Big Island aapsspini families are interrupted from feeding on the cutbank by a couple who've come to peer out the blind

2032 Many of the flying insects are finding perches for the night on the siinikskaahko and old absinthe stems. I move around and photograph some of the flies. The goose families have now made it over to the peninsula, and we see that the Log couple is among them

2052 The Triplet and Big Island goslings sure are growing up. Their adult coloration is really coming in, though they're still much smaller in body than their parents

2103 Soon we are cutting away from the pond and back up toward the truck. We've still not seen the mama with ducklings, but again there is a lot of wet marsh to work with now

IIII Asparagus Beetle Love (13June10)

1646 Sspopiikimi - a very hot day, compared to others recently. No clouds and almost no breeze. The bluets are mating, coming together in heart-shaped form. The large blue dragonflies are out, zooming along parallel to the shore. And the kingbirds and yellow warblers are in place to make the best of it

1650 Walking the length of the pond, we pass the three aapsspini families, who are moving toward the wet-meadows. There is also a lone redhead drake, drifting north near the mouth of the subpond canal. The waters of the south pool are still up above the old nesting islands. And there are a pair of mi'ksikatsi drakes here, swimming together near the peninsula

1724 We walk down onto the peninsula to try and photograph the large, blue dragonflies. Several of them pass, but all at such accelerated speeds that we don't stand a chance

1732 Up on the levee walk, we see Scabby taking a frantic dinner break down by her nest. On the other side of the path, at the edge of the owl forest, I spot a wandering garter snake lifting its head high above the grass. We wonder if it's dining on damselflies as well, and we intend to watch and find out, but after a minute or so it knows that we're aware of its presence, and it slowly retracts back into the grass. We wait three or four minutes longer, and when it doesn't emerge again we check the grass. It's gone

1739 Over by the river bench, the cutbank is greenish-yellow with blooming spurge. It's also swarming with honey bees. The only other plant we've seen such a concentration of honey bees on is the bulberries, when they first come in bloom. As we sit and watch them work, a catbird cycles through a repertoire of mimicked songs from the understory of the owl forest behind us

1811 Making our way toward the blind, we pass another garter snake, this one probably no more than a year old. It crosses our path in a hurry. Curious they waited so long to come out. After this snake, and just before cutting down into the forest, I find a gold poplar-boring beetle. It's something I've never seen before, and I lay prone on the ground to photograph it

1818 We don't spend too long at the blind, in fact we walk right by it. There is an insect event underway at the asparagus plants. The aptly-named asparagus beetles (like lady beetles, but longer of body) have come here to mate

1843 The forest is beautiful this time of year, all lush green and full of birds and insects. We stop at the flicker tree, but see no sign of the mother or her fledglings. Nearby though, a starling brings a mouth-full of worms to its young. Further along the trail, we check on the delicate little basket nest we found during our last visit. Still no eggs yet, but the interior has been lined with a white down that wasn't there before

1908 Up from the north end of the forest, we cross the levee walk and look out over the river island. Though the Oldman still looks swollen, we can see by the extent of island visible that the waters have dropped. There's a spotted sandpiper bobbing on a sandbar here. The swallow colonies are still swarming at the cutbanks, but we haven't seen much of the kingfishers. And just in the big rocks at our feet there's a pair of large garter snakes, making four so far today. This is what we'd expected weeks ago

1922 As we round north-pond to approach the truck, I scan the reeds that house the two nearest coot nests. It's entirely possible that at least the mid-pond nest has hatchlings now, but I don't see the parents bringing milfoil. I don't see the parents at all. Perhaps during our next visit, we'll sit and watch these nests