10 August 2010

Widow Eggs

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllllll Magpies Sleep Alone (7Aug10)

0524 Nookoowa - I promised myself that if Dottie Dog woke me up before dawn, I would hike down to the coulee below our house and try to learn where the family of magpies who come visit Derrick and I each morning spend their nights. Sure enough, Dottie came calling at just the right time, and now even though I'm wicked tired still, I have to follow up on the promise

0549 Couldn't leave the house without a cup of coffee, and even keeping the lights off Derrick still heard me and came flapping out of his apartment to perch on the base of one of the dining-room chairs. I know he's still a bit groggy himself though, because he didn't utter a peep while I collected my gear and moved out the back door

0554 I hope Derrick's magpie friends are equally slow at rising. As I cross the single block of suburbia to bring myself to the coulee edge, the dawn is very near. A mule deer looks up at me in surprise from the grass on the rim, stunned it seems that a human being should be out here at this time. The last crescent of okonoki otsitsi'tsspi has risen in the eastern sky, and Naato'si is not far behind. I move as quickly as I can toward a ridge that will take me out above the brush where I suspect the birds might camp. The mosquitoes are swarming

0617 I have no idea where I need to be to witness the magpie awakening. As I hike the ridge, I hear in turn savannah sparrows, catbirds, then crows. The larger corvids are already on their way to the neighborhood. The magpies won't be far behind. In fact, when I get to the end of the ridge and start descending the slope of the upstream and most brushy drainage, where I hope these birds will be, I think I might have heard them briefly. If so, they are one draw over upstream, which is a considerable distance. These coulees leading down to the river are massive. A coyote passes below me, tiny by comparison to the landscape

0629 Naato'si, the Sun, has just come over the eastern horizon, and now I hear a single magpie giving a double call just below me. I leave my pack on the slope and head down with just my camera to check it out

0643 I don't have to go far when the magpie I'd heard wings its way up my slope, over the rim, and out of sight. I can hear another magpie in some brush on the opposite slope giving the same inquisitive "wokwok" call. And as the deer move off the rim and down into this drainage to hide, I see magpies above them as well. My socks are filled with the sharp seeds of needle-and-thread grass, and there's a lot of rice grass down here too. As Naato'si rises, changing his paint from red to orange, I return to my pack

0654 Because I'd observed the neighborhood magpies calling to one another, gathering together, and moving as a collective down to the coulees at sundown, I'd assumed that they shared a communal roost. Apparently, that may not be the case. Back at my pack, I sit and watch as a mule doe and her fawn emerge from the gully in the draw below me and begin hiking uphill toward a large patch of brush I assume are saskatoon. Another lone doe is already there feeding. There's a coyote following the mother with fawn, but it sees me and returns immediately back down to where it can conceal itself in the gully at the bottom of this draw

0713 I'm sure by now the magpies are already up in the neighborhood, and probably waiting in my back yard for breakfast with Derrick. As I begin climbing the slope again to walk the ridge back home, I come across a coyote den right above where I've been sitting. I don't know if this den's still active or not, but I'd be interested in keeping an eye on it to find out

0725 I don't visit this place in my back yard often enough. The last time I was here, all of the milkvetch and onions were in bloom, there were flowers everywhere. Now, although it's still very green, and the first gumweed blossoms are just beginning to open, the prominent flower is dotted blazing star. We are indeed approaching the end of summer

0733 Returning to the neighborhood, what strikes me is the noise. There is a pervasive hum of automotive sound, so different than the quiet that prevailed before dawn. The rumble reminds me of airports, the sound from the tarmac. The magpies are indeed making their way toward my house. They are at the very edge of the neighborhood, surveying lawns, moving inward. There are mountain cottontails on these lawns as well. I'm sure these birds recognize me, the one we call Tuft just looked me in the eye. I have some liver in the fridge for them. Breakfast awaits

0746 Arriving home, Derrick greets me with the same "wokwok" his friends used when they initially woke up. Mahoney too had a double call for me as she emerged squinty-eyed from the bedroom, two words... farmer's market

1941 Sspopiikimi - not much daylight remaining this evening, but we've decided to come out, touch base, and perhaps pick more berries

1952 We enter, as usual, at north-pond, the surface of which is still covered with algae. We can hear catbirds nearby giving their alarm calls, a nighthawk above peeping, and there's a sizeable family of redwings - adults and juveniles - fluttering around the bat tree

1956 The flowering plants of the north end include absinthe, yellow and white sweet clover, alfalfa, and hairy golden aster. There are two-spot lady beetles on the absinthe and black blister beetles on the alfalfa

2003 Up on the levee-walk, above the big river island, it's definitely sunflower season. It is the rhombic-leaved variety. The plant has reddish stems, opposite leaves, and often more than one flower, each at the terminus of a leafless stalk

2009 We stop briefly to sit at the downriver bench. Here, I notice the licorice root in flower, and the early green berries on both the buckbrush and prickly rose. These will be winter berries, for the deer, ourselves, and others. The nighthawk is still in display above, occasionally diving to create the croaking sound after which its Blackfoot name “pisttoo” is derived (flatulence)

2031 It doesn't take long for us to move past the forest main and wind our way around south-pond to the bench by the currant bushes. We have harvesting in mind. Along our route, we passed several lone waxwings, which to me suggests there may be nests. The chokecherries are near to ripening, right on time as we are coming into their moon. Both goldenrods are still in flower, while yarrow is playing out. And the female bulberry trees are draped with bright red fruit

2036 I have not seen the aapsspini Log family this evening. They may have moved to start congregating with what will be their winter clan. Both the north and south coot families are still around, as are the mallards, but I'm unsure as to whether any teals remain. Also, I've not seen any orioles this season, save for one during the flood at Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko. I wonder now if they will return to Sspopiikimi at all this summer

2112 We pick for the next half hour, not getting nearly the quantity of berries we did in our last session here, but not allowing ourselves as much time either. Many of the currants are already playing out. I noticed as I picked that some berries were falling just from the movement of the branch, and I wonder if these ones are not too spoiled. They would be easy to collect with a ground tarp, and could be useful for jelly. The ants didn't appreciate us working their bushes at all. They climbed all over us, and a couple of them managed to get their mandibles into me, but most were too small to do so

2121 It's dark as we walk back to the truck, waving mosquitoes away

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllllllll Widow Eggs (8Aug10)

1401 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - out on this breezy day with the specific intent of visiting the pisttoo nest, seeking another lesson in efficiency. If I happen to bump into any of my slithering friends, or chance upon some insects whose lives are connected to the late summer flowers, these encounters would be welcomed too

1418 Hiking down the slope toward my destination, I'm inspecting all the blooming wildflowers, and finding that the yellow blister beetles are just as apt to feed off broomweed and gumweed as they are sunflowers. There are black blister beetles on the broomweed as well, and though few gumweed flowers are open yet, there are some just crawling with a miniscule insect, smaller-than but shaped-like rove beetles, dark with three white stripes laterally across their back. The gumweed stems are also host to a black, weevil-like creature

1435 Continuing along, I start to notice that the black medick, and even some of the yellow sweetclover plants, have gone to seed. It would be a good time to gather these grains, before any of the grey mold sets in. I munch on some as I walk. There's a lone, scraggly bulberry bush near where I pick the seeds, and a family of about six or seven western kingbirds are perched and chirping there. I stop to see if they are eating the berries. They're not. Most of them are fledglings waiting on the bush while their parents gather other food, insects I presume. Each time a parent brings a load, the fledgling who's being fed (all of whom look mature enough to feed themselves) erupts into begging chatter

1502 Eventually I make it down as far as the hibernaculum, and although I don't expect to find any rattlesnakes here today, not even the bachelor, I can't help but pay a visit. I'm glad I do. As suspected, the snakes are still gone, not to return until summer's end. But the black widows are here. I had thought there was only one widow, shifting her hunt between two of the den entrances of the hibernaculum. Now I have determined that they are two spiders, and each of them have enormous egg sacks they're attending to

1512 I hustle back to where I've left my camera bag, just outside the hibernaculum, so that I can retrieve my macro lens. When I return to the widow who will be the easiest (though still difficult) to photograph, I find also present what I at first suspect is a spadefoot toad, but turns out to be a chorus frog. It hurriedly hops down into the den, just beyond the widow web, and although I may be brave enough to sit close to these spiders and their snake allies, I'm not about to reach through the web to retrieve the frog

1523 In addition to the widows, I find funnel web spiders set up at two of the other den entrances. In all instances, my lingering presence has frightened the animals - frogs and spiders - to retreat into the earth. I will now go check on the nighthawk mama and perhaps return to these others again afterward

1540 In order to get to the pisttoo, I need to climb up to the top of the narrow ridge where it's incubating. As I do so, I make two stops. The first is at the canada goldenrod flowers, which are covered with insect droppings perhaps left by the yellow-and-black striped skeletonizing leaf beetles I find here and there. The second stop is to harvest more ma's. I also notice that there's another flowering of prairie onion underway

1556 Presently sitting about six feet away from the mother nighthawk and her two beautiful hatchlings. I spoke to her reassuringly as I approached and am trying not to act stealthily or predatory at all, and as a result she has let me extremely near and is sitting here with her eyes closed, sleeping

1612 Babies of course have to eat, a lot, and seeing as how mama's just sitting here I suspect papa is the one bringing all the grub. He may not be daring enough to stop by with me around, and there's nowhere to conceal myself. I've backed off and am sitting tight a few minutes in the off chance that he braves it. But if not I'll soon leave this little family alone

1622 A bee has just flown by and slapped me on the back of the head, which I'm taking as a signal to get a move on. If I have an opportunity, I'll return to visit these birds again before they're fledged

1643 I walk immediately back to the spider nests, where I find the widows and funnel-webbers once again tending to their eggs. The toad is nowhere to be found, probably well concealed in the snake den. Now I'm starting my way back up the coulee slope toward the truck. I'd still like to visit the pond and gather more currants this evening, but I need to get some food in me to replenish my energy