27 September 2010

Two Hibernacula And A Gull Mystery

IIII ) lllllllllll Franklin's Gulls And Mating Meadowhawks (22Sept10)

1330 Sspopiikimi - asked the phenology students to meet Mahoney and I at the pond, as I'm hoping to move the lecture portion of the course series entirely out of the classroom, to resituate it in context at each participant's study site, starting with my own. Unfortunately, because today's the anniversary of Treaty Seven, most students are taking a holiday, and only Joe and Kyle have shown up. Perhaps the others aren't aware that what we're doing in phenology is largely in response to an even earlier and more significant occasion of innaistsiiyssini, the original treaty between non-humans and ourselves, where our current role as learners in relation to other species who've lived here far longer was established

1400 I've set to work introducing each plant and animal I know as we move counter-sunwise along the shale trail. But something out of the ordinary is happening here this afternoon, and when we reach the shore across from the ksisskstakioyis, I can't help but just pause and watch. There are at least a couple hundred Franklin's gulls swooping low around the perimeter of the pond. It's a good opportunity to introduce some of the most important inquiries for the course. The first question is always, "Who is it?" - because without at least being able to attach a specific name to someone, we remain unlikely to pay much attention to them. Some people are happy to stop right there, collecting identification, recognitions. I want to take it several steps further, and that means the very next questions are almost always, "What are they doing? And why are they doing it?" We never see Franklin's gulls at Sspopiikimi, so what is this about? We stand and watch... It's a decent sized flock for our semi-urban area, which could speak to pre-migration congregation. They're focused on the edges of the pond, but they aren't landing anywhere, just swooping down and lifting back up. Probably they're feeding on some kind of insect, but what? There are still a lot of grasshoppers, especially the two-striped species. But if these gulls are eating grasshoppers, why fly so close to the water? Why not the absinthe field? We've been seeing cherry-faced meadowhawks and variable darners along the trail, a resurrected presence after our extended couple weeks of cold, wet weather. Maybe that's what the Franklins are after? It's too difficult to confirm from where we stand, but perhaps we'll come across more clues later

1410 There's three ducks midpond, near the coots, who I'm uncertain of. We can see them from our position across from the ksisskstakioyis, and the guys are curious about what they are. I suspect mallards, because those are the only ducks we've seen here recently, but I don't have any glass to confirm it, and even with the naked eye there seems to be something different about the posture if these three, and one of them is definitely darker around the head. My guess is that it's the first male mallard to return, something Mahoney and I have been waiting for. We move on...

[Note: Mahoney and I returned to the pond at dusk, just after taking dinner, and we've confirmed that this visiting duck family (mother, father and child) are ring-necked, a species we've never spotted at Sspopiikimi before, but which we've run into many times in neighboring ponds, lakes, and canals of the Blood Reserve]

1430 While Mahoney waits at the south bench, Joe, Kyle and I walk down to the peninsula. There are several plants down this way I want to show them. But when we get right to the water's edge, something amazing is happening. The shoreline is swarming with pairs of cherry-faced meadowhawks, each of them joined in mating, all dipping down to set their fertilized eggs in the shallow waters. In my mind, witnessing this resolves the mystery of the Franklin's gulls immediately. There's also a sense if sublimity. Mahoney and I have been here at the pond several days each week for the past four years. In that time, we've never seen so many dragonflies coupling simultaneously before, nor have we witnessed large flocks of gulls here. But obviously this happens at the end if every summer, because the Franklins knew just where to go and when. All of the animals here are far more phenologically knowledgeable than we are. It's humbling

1500 We've now been joined by Cassie, a late arrival, and as we move along the levee between the south marsh and the owl wood, our attention is several times drawn to wandering garter snakes. We'd seen even less of them recently than we had the dragonflies. But here they were and, for Mahoney and I, seeing them cross this levee at this time of year was very familiar. Adding to the excitement of this renewal, Mahoney comes across a ball of garters basking together on the river cutback near the bench and owl wood. They scattered right away, but I wouldn't be surprised if we eventually find their hibernaculum somewhere near

1530 Joe has had to leave, while the rest of us move through the forest main. There's nothing out of the ordinary going on here, as far as we've seen, with the exception of the presence of one great horned owl out of her usual territory. Again, her presence suggests there's still a lot going on here that we're just not aware of

1630 We conclude this visit with a sighting of painted turtles basking at north-pond. Since this turtle is the only local species who basks like this, I have no doubt that the Blackfoot name "Sspopii" (sits on top) describes this species, rather than the snappers who are also long-time residents

IIII ) lllllllllllllll Rattlesnake Stillborns (24Sept10)

1425 Pitsiiksinaikawaahko - though there's quite a chilly wind this afternoon, the skies are blue and I figure it's a good bet my slithering friends will be making the best of the opportunity to catch Sun rays while they still can. I just have a couple hours to work with, but it's enough to get me down the slope to the hibernaculum and back up again with a decent visit in between

1439 Focused on getting to the den as quickly as possible, I don't bother to take a good inventory of happenings and changes on the way down. At a glance on the hustle, I note the lingering flowering presence of gumweed, sow thistle, and white tufted prairie aster. There are small grigs about and a few bumble bees. Soon though I arrive at the main entrance of the hibernaculum and it's absolutely crawling with rattlers. All or most of the residents are here, piled up around the rim of the main den in a thick layer. So many big snakes, what a welcome sight

1500 Twenty minutes in and I've barely moved. Almost afraid to, really. My position is right beside the main entrance, just one long step away. To move in farther, toward the other three large entrances, would be to put all of the snakes at this site behind me, while crossing the area where they traffic. It's super windy, pretty difficult to hear any warnings, so I don't know if I should risk a chance encounter between holes

1505 Using exposed heads as my guide, I count twelve large, adult rattlers basking at the main entrance, as well as a yearling in the grass near my feet, and another adult on my other flank, beside a single, small sub-entrance. There are probably even more among the twelve and in the long grass surrounding that I can't see. I'd guess at least twenty total in an area hardly more than a meter square. My approach was careful enough that I startled only one snake with my presence, and even that one quickly returned to basking

1515 The single adult snake at the sub-entrance has decided to move toward the dens further in, and despite my earlier hesitation, I can't resist following. Each step I make is deliberate, slow, careful. My biggest worry is that I might accidentally step on one of them. That wouldn't end well for either of us. My other concern is that I'll be approached from the rear or flank by a snake unaware and on the move. The latter issue becomes even more pronounced when, because of my cautious slow progression, I lose sight of the snake I'm following in the grass. All I can do is continue carefully forward, following it's last trajectory

1525 Soon I catch up to the rattler on the move, who traveled straight to the farthest (fourth) entrance. I pass two other dens on the way, each of which has just a couple snakes. When the one I'm following gets to the far entrance, she seems to peek down the hole, then back out. I move a bit closer, and I see there's something down there that looks like a piece of snake-meat about the size of my finger. I take some photos, but I don't dare reach for it, because there is a small rattler on the rim above it, and the adult I've been following is still near, now heading into a patch of tall grass

1530 I'd like to follow into the deep grass, but it wouldn't be safe. Instead I stand still and try to monitor the snake on the move, while also keeping an eye on the smaller one nearby and watching out for others. This is when I notice another piece of snake

meat, again about finger-sized, up near the rim of the hole. All I can imagine is that a predator - coyote or badger - made a kill here and left some of their catch behind

1535 This snake I've been following is acting pretty peculiar. After poking it's head into this farthest entrance, observing the piece of meat in the hole and retreating, it has moved in a wide arch through the tall grass even further out, returned again, and is now making it's way close past me in what appears to be a trajectory back toward the sub-entrance of the main den where I first encountered it. I scoot ahead to where I believe it will go, and here I find yet another piece of meat. Working quickly, and in the presence of most of the congregated rattlers, I find a couple dry skunkbrush stems that I can use to pull the meat away from this sub-entrance for closer inspection. To my surprise, it is not "meat" per say, but an entire baby snake, along with some yolk, and still glued into a single oblong disc by a thin outer film. It's a stillborn

1545 The nature of what I've just experienced is now breaking through for me. The rattler I'd followed was probably the mother of an aborted litter, and perhaps she purposely led me to observe the failed babies. Otherwise, why risk crossing the open territory between dens when she knew very well I was right there? Was she distraught? Did she abort just before my arrival? What is she trying to tell me?

1557 Leaving the hibernaculum now, after replacing the stillborn beside the sub-entrance. I'm very glad that I had a chance to visit at least briefly today. But I'm also concerned about what I've witnessed, and I feel for the mother rattler's loss. This hits close to home, and it really makes me wonder if it's just coincidence that there are snakes aborting their pregnancies in a year when Mahoney and I and several of our friends and relatives have also lost unborn babies. What if there is something toxic in our environment causing this?

1749 On my way back down to the hibernaculum, equipped to collect the rattlesnake stillborns. Unsure whether I'm doing the right thing by these snakes, but certain that the mother was trying to tell me something by leading me around to them. I'm intent to find out what her message is, using multiple methodologies. Removing the stillborns may also help keep coyotes and badgers from being attracted to the hibernaculum, and a chemical analysis might not be a bad thing, in case this really is the result of environmental toxins

1803 Again I descend rapidly to the den site, not bothering to look around much. I pass a small flock of robins and a couple northern flickers on the upper slope near the coulée rim. And when I'm almost to the hibernaculum, I see a group of ten magpies take flight from approximately my destination. I hope they've not already eaten the dead babies

1805 Before entering their area and setting to work, I speak out loud to the snakes, explaining my purpose, expressing my sadness at the mother's loss, letting them know that I have no intentions of doing wrong by them, that I only want to understand what the mother was trying to tell me by showing me what happened, and giving my sincere regrets if this unfortunate event in any way resulted from human activities

1820 The shadow of dusk has already come over this part of the coulée, and most of the rattlers who were basking earlier have gone below ground. There are still a few outside of the dens, but I don't see the mother until I look down into the farthest hole, where two of the stillborns are located. She's looking up at me. I collect three babies, the same ones I'd seen earlier. If there are more, I don't see them. I even follow the arched path the mother had taken through the long grass. Nothing. Each of the three stillborns have been sealed in a ziplock sandwich bag, and I'll put them in my freezer until I can arrange for a tox analysis

1850 Driving out, I stop by to talk speak with ULeth biologist Cam Goater in front of his house on the coulée rim. He's getting ready to walk his young son and daughter across an adjacent stubble-field toward a prairie pothole where a flock of canada geese have gathered. Cam tells me there is nobody at ULeth who would be appropriate to carry out a toxicological exam on the stillborns, but that he does recall reading a paper recently that suggested such abortions come about when carrying the babies further would put the mother at risk for surviving the winter. Perhaps the recent cold convinced the mother that she would not have time to raise her babies to full term before the ice set in

IIII ) llllllllllllllll Frog Among Rattlers (25Sept10)

1629 - Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - back again to check on the hibernaculum and see if there have been any further developments after yesterday's aborted pregnancy. Overcast but warm this afternoon in Sikoohkotok, with a strong cloud line breaking to blue skies further west. Not quite as windy as yesterday

1647 Trying to be a bit more attentive to happenings on the way down the slope, rather than rushing straight to the den. There is quite a bit of pollination activity centered around the few broomweed flowers that have not already gone to seed. I've been observing black blister beetles, lots of orangebelted bumble bees, two white-colored moth species, and a fairly spectacular orange and black variegated fritillary butterfly all working these plants. Some of the orangebelted bumble bees can also be seem on the tufted white prairie asters, but nothing noted yet on the gumweed and showy asters. Plenty of two-striped grasshoppers moving about, though not as many as we would normally have at the close of summer

1711 Just before entering into the hibernaculum, I've stopped to look at another patch of broomweed and tufted white prairie aster. On the former there's the ubiquitous black blister beetle, as well as a wasp of some kind. On the latter, I've found some delicate, ornate insects I don't recall ever seeing before,

something like a bee ambusher. I notice also that a lot of the sagebrush is covered in aphids of some sort, but surprisingly no predators to eat them, not even ants gathering nectar

1843 I've been at the hibernaculum an hour and a half now, without too much to report except that there are a good number of snakes here. How many exactly I just don't know. I've been standing in one spot the whole while, at the main entrance. As the shadow of the coulée rim cast by the Sun's fall crept over us, I heard a frog croaking nearby. I think they and the garters and rattlers all winter together. Also at that point, a few of the rattlers moved out in the direction of the other entrances, most of the remaining snakes went underground, but four or five are still above, within view, as I prepare to leave. One in particular is telling me it's time to go. Something about my lingering presence finally upset it, and it's half-way down this entrance, poised to strike, and rattling up a storm that has it's family a little nervous, but not so much so that they're going to flee. I on the other hand should probably head out and let them be

1919 The crickets have sung me back up to the coulée rim, past a few black ground beetles, a harvestman spider, and not much more. Along the way, I met up with Duane (last name forgotten) and his rock hunting buddy. They reported having come across an adult rattler following close behind a garter snake, over by the black shale cliffs. I wonder if there's another hibernaculum out that way, or if they were just moving to this one, a couple kilometers distant

IIII ) lllllllllllllllll Garter Snake Hibernaculum (26Sept10)

1645 Sspopiikimi - finally out here after driving a while against heavy winds to scope out some sites for tomorrow along the south rim of the Oldman. Now I'm racing against the setting Sun to record what I can of today's phenological events while trying to locate the gartersnake hibernaculum that we suspect to be somewhere in the vicinity of the river bench by south-pond, where Mahoney spotted a pile of them the other day

1647 Taking the counter-sunwise route, following the shale trail down the length of the water. There's no sign of the ring-necked ducks at north-pond, just a family of four coots feeding off milfoil near the midpond reeds. The presence of small grigs persists, as does that of the cherry-faced meadowhawks and the as-yet unidentified sulfur butterfly who's been around the past few weeks

1651 Several of the sulfurs are working the flowering alfalfa along the shale trail, but they are as skittish as ever and quickly flitter away whenever I approach. There are also some fair-sized whitish moths in the alfalfa, and I'm at least able to get pictures of some of these

1701 There are ten mallards on the big island in south pond, the usual group of females and juveniles who've been here all along. The human activity this evening is interesting. There's a father and son team down on the peninsula, releasing something into the water from a small terrarium. Perhaps they caught a turtle or frog earlier in the season. A young couple just passed me carrying bundles of prairie sagewort they'd collected. This is all a welcome change, in my opinion, far better than the usual array of joggers and dog-walkers

1705 I'm going to skip my intended visit to the peninsula to look at dragonflies. Not only do I want to avoid intruding on the father and son, but the shadow of the coulée rim is already overtop the currant and bulrushes brambles. If I don't get over to the river bench on the southeast end soon, I might be too late to observe any garters who are gathering there

1715 I arrive at the river bench where - after Mahoney's sighting of several basking snakes the other day, and observations of much localized activities during this season in previous years - we believe the hibernaculum might be located. This is part of the levee or dike built by the city in 1953 to keep floodwaters from eroding the Hwy 3 bridge

immediately downstream, transforming an oxbow into Sspopiikimi. The levee is constructed, at least from what I can see, with large rocks and lots of soil, and the rocks in particular might have created subsurface chambers that attracted the snakes' attention. On initial survey, I immediately encounter a newborn garter, I see lots of rodent holes in the soil between the rocks, and many of these holes have been in use by snakes as evidenced by profuse sheddings

1724 Moving a couple meters down from where I encountered the newborn, I just came across an adult basking, and have followed it's retreat to a flat rock. Carefully lifting the rock, I find a second adult as well. The one I've followed is racing uphill through the grass. The other is dropping down the slope a bit to a larger pile of rocks. Getting down on the ground and peering into the crevice beneath, I can see at least one other large snake

1750 Moving back up toward where I'd spotted the newborn, I came across yet another adult. This one was slowly entering into a hole. When it disappeared all the way in, I took a few more steps up to the large rock where the newborn had been, and sure enough there are now two more. These babies could be emerging from under this rock right now. They could very well be less than a day old, they're smaller than most local earthworms. Having seen what I have this evening, and reflecting on the number of snakes we'd witnessed in this vicinity in previous years just before winter, I feel pretty confident that we've found the hibernaculum. I would have expected to see even more adults than I have tonight, but it is getting later in the day and cooling down. They could very well be here, just underground

1815 I've left the den area now. The snakes are all too aware of my presence now, and the shadow of dusk is growing cooler. Mahoney and I will have to keep an eye on this place until the real cold comes, see if those who are here stay (I suspect they will). Now I'm heading down into the forest main. When I'd arrived at the river bench, there'd bee quite a few cherry-faced meadowhawks and even a few variegated darners around. Now the dragonfly activity has quit

1826 I drop down into the forest and make a quick loop through the wolf-willow in search of the leather-braided caterpillars, but find none. There is, however, a lot of evidence that they'd been eating leaves there. Then, down at the blind over the south-pond shallows, all is quiet. No herons, no yellowlegs, nothing like the previous years when this area truly was shallow around this season. The only avian presence on the water are the ten mallards

1833 If the south waters are quiet, the forest main is even more so. I don't notice any insects to speak of, no birds of course. I stop by some bulberries and shake a fruit-laden branch to determine their ripeness. None of the berries fall, so it is still too early. Before I know it, I am nearing north pond again, and intend to make a quick scan of the cutbank there for garters. That's one of their favorite places in the summer. Although I have no reason to suspect as much, I just want to check quickly for a second hibernaculum

1846 Okay, it's confirmed. There is no snake presence currently on the north-pond cutbank. All of those who had resided here over the summer must now have moved to the hibernaculum on the other side of the south levee. Both sites have south-facing slopes, but the levee composition must make that area more attractive for wintering. At least we now know where it is. Only took four years of study to sleuth out the location

20 September 2010

First Half Of Awakaasiki'somm

I Skunkbrush Berries Stripped Away (6Sept10)

1116 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - just starting to warm up outside, so I've headed over to the confluence to begin recording my introductory phenology lecture for awakaasiiki'somm and the new semester. Hope my slithering friends come out to catch some rays

1140 Off to a slow start. Got partway down the slope when it dawned on me that I should bring my crowbar to demonstrate how to dig ma's. So I left my pack and went back up for the crowbar. Returning to where I'd left my equipment, I then found that I'd somehow forgotten the lock that secures my video-camera to the tripod, so it was back up again to off-load the tripod (no reason to carry extra crap)

1213 Still haven't moved from where I originally set my pack down. Filmed a brief introdu
ction to the course series, then started right into introducing the species for this moon. There's a lot to look at right here - ma's, akspii, broomweed, salsify, and prairie coneflower just for starters, not to mention the pollinating blister beetles on the akspii and broomweed (the only two still in full flower), and several spiders and larva on the same who are new to me

1300 Wow, I've basically spend an hour and a half in this single location, documenting really just three plants - akspii, broomweed, and ma's - and the insects that are to be found on their flowers at present. Adding to the list of those already mentioned, I'm
also seeing quite a few lygus beetles and Riley’s tree crickets on the gumweeed

1340 Finally moved a ways further down the slope, to the hibernaculum, stopping along the route to look at ninaika'ksimo (prairie sagewort), and aokspiyipisatssaisski (prairie coneflowers), as well as a yet unidentified white butterfly who was working the gumweed. Now I'm headed into the snake den to see if anyone's awake, though it may still be a bit chilly for them with
today's cool breeze

1421 I've counted four rattlesnakes here this afternoon, twice as many as my last visit just days ago. They are definitely starting to come back. The large, older snake was situated at the main entrance, but slipped into the den as I approached, along with another who is nearly his size. The younger, darker one from my previous visit is by the third den, at the secret side door. There is also a very small rattler, a first year, at the far entrance. There may be more I've not seen, they're so camouflaged, but I'm staying near for another fifteen or twenty minutes, because I've set my video-camera up to record the large snake at close quarters when it moves back to its basking site

1441 The big snake still hasn't come back out yet, but there are now a couple people hiking in this direction down the coulee slope. I don't want to clue an
y strangers in on the location of this hibernaculum, so I've left the camera on site to record, low to the ground, and I've come back out to the main trail, where I can sit and wait for them to pass

1455 Oddly enough, the couple who were headed my way turned around mid-slope, almost when they'd reached this area, and are now moving back up the coulee. I've just checked on the filming, and found the large rattler starting to return. Hopefully I didn't frighten her as I backed away again. I suppose I'll go collect some gumweed from the trail as I wait

1523 My attempt to get the big snake to slide right past the lens of the video-camera has failed. She decided to bask a little closer to the edge of the den. I could set up the shot again, but I feel like I've bothered her enough for one day. Going to climb up on the ridge to check the nighthawk fledglings, then start making my way back to the truck

1537 On the way up the ridge, I stop to film and
photograph skunkbrush sumac, noting that the berries have mostly disappeared (i.e. been eaten) from the larger plants, but that there were still clusters of this citric fruit available on the younger ones that the birds are less drawn to land on. While at it, I figured I might as well introduce pincushion orange, the calcium-loving lichen that inhabits these plants, and compare it with elegant sunburst, a similar species that grows on rock

1553 Unfortunately, if the nighthawk fledglings are still around, they're not making their presence known. I've decided to head back up the slope toward the truck, so Mahoney and I can go next to Sspopiikimi

1608 I notice as I climb that there are occasionally cherry-faced meadowhawks on the trail who refuse to flee at my approach, a definite change in behavior. Fi
nally I stop to investigate and find a meadowhawk in considerable rough shape, its wings fairly tattered, lethargic. I suspect that what I'm witnessing is the die-off, those dragonflies who have survived the kingbirds and other predators now giving their bodies back to the earth

1649 Back home. Saw a swainson hawk o
n the ground during my drive back, obviously eating grasshoppers. Sure they'll start congregating by BTAP soon

1834 Sspopiikimi - back to our now quiet, fairly empty trees and water. Tonight we're out for just a short walk, counter sunwise, presently making our way around north pond, and doing more filming for my class. So far we've looked at absinthe (still in flower), western clematis (in seed), and alfalfa (flowering)

1856 When we get to the cutbank overlooking the
Oldman, our presence startles a kingfisher, and I can hear a wren chattering in some nearby brush. We stop to photograph and film damselflies, two-striped grasshoppers, and aahsowa (wild licorice). There is a long-legged brown beetle I've never noticed before climbing around on the seed burrs of the licorice. Another interesting insect to learn

1919 It is so strange to have so much green still on the floodplain, but very few birds. Clearly the feathered have not been fooled by the effects of our w
et summer. Almost all of those who are going to leave Sspopiikimi have already packed their bags and either headed out completely, or went to the rendezvous sites of their respective flocks

1931 Walking south on the shale trail, a mule doe
steps out of the forest main and onto our path. She looks us over, then cuts slowly down toward the river, grazing as she walks

1941 When we get to the owl wood, we stop to check the progress of the bulberries. Although we've had a little bit of frost, they're still not dropping off readily when we tap the branches. Down here, some of the bushes are just loaded with fruit. I hope we can get our share before the waxwing flocks stop by to clean them up

1950 Continuing on around the marsh, we can see in the wide south pool fourteen mallards dabble feeding and, oddly, a pair of aapsspini standing on the big island. I did not expect to see geese down here again for a while, especially an isolated pair

2014 Our last note on the way out through the darkness is that the ksisskstaki family still has not crested the surface with their food cache, if they've even begun stockpiling. One young beaver came out of the lodge to observe us as we stood on the cutbank. With how few of them we've seen lately, I actually wonder how many of them are left

III Dragonfly Waning (8Sept10)

1724 Sspopiikimi - this will be our last vi
sit to the pond for a few days, as I have to make a quick run down to Oregon. Tonight we're moving counter-sunwise, starting toward the north end, where there's a group of seven coots diving for milfoil and preening in the bulrush hummocks

1732 Moving along the length of the pond, we are closely followed by a hovering swarm of male mosquitoes. Now and then along the shale trail, we pass dragonflies who have slowed down to a stand-still - variable darners, pale snakeskins, and cherry-faced meadowhawks, all seemingly just waiting for the end. Of the three, there are more of the meadowhawks still active

1742 Sitting down on the bench above the peninsula, overlooking the wide south pool, we count fourteen mi'ksikatsi tonight. Looking back at my notes from this time last year, the males were starting to join them. Not so as yet this go-round, and no wigeons yet either

1800 We decide to switch-up our routine and walk behind the owl wood up to the high-level bridge. Along the way, we see all the same end-of-summer flowering plants - the yellow sweetclover, alfalfa, gumweed, showy aster, hairy golden aster, and tufted white prairie aster. Some of the canada goldenrod is still flowering as
well, but many of these plants are already in seed

1823 When we route back through the owl wood itself, the ground vegetation is lush, a jungle of tall goldenrod, wild licorice, buckbrush, leafy spurge, bulberry, and young cottonwoods. No doubt if the hornets
are nested on this side of the river, here is where they must be. It should be interested when winter comes to see what bird nests emerge from these thickets. Tonight there are two types of bumblebee working the flowers down here - the Hunt's bumblebee on the yellow sweetclover, and another with many thin orange stripes on the tall goldenrod

1836 Mahoney's ankle is bothering her a bit, so once we come out of the owl wood, we follow the smooth route of the levee-walk parallel to the river. It's going to be a short outing. Looking over the canopy of the forest main, there's now patches of yellow leaves on all th
e cottonwoods. Down below, the prickly rose are yellowing as well and the chokecherry leaves are turning red

IIII ) llllll Showy Aster Display (15Sept10)

1822 Sspopiikimi - what a treat to be here, standing on the cutbank over our faithful wetland school after a week's absence. Walking in, we passed two-striped grasshoppers, and we can
see coots diving for milfoil midpond

1838 Many of the same insects are still around as when we last visited... the previously mentioned two-stripe grasshopper with its dead grass camouflage
, a green grig of similar size who hides among the leaves, honey bees, black blister beetles, mosquitoes, and a fat, black ground beetle. Noticeably absent are the dragonflies

1850 Approaching the ksisskstakioyis, one of the adult family members emerges and paddles off toward north-pond. As it moved away, this year's pup came out briefly as well. This is the season when we always see the pups. But the big news is the ksisskstaki food cache has finally breached the surface. We were wondering if they were getting ready for winter yet. Now we have confirmation

1903 As far as we can tell so far, there's be
en no change in the waterfowl situation. Three coots and four mallards midpond, at least ten more mallards at southpond (but four or five more that are too far away to identify until we get to the other side). No male mi'ksikatsi yet, and no wigeons

1915 There are still a good number of flowers blossoming. Rounding the south marsh we see sweetclover, alfalfa, hairy golden aster, toadflax (a.k.a. butter-and-eggs), gumweed, tufted white prairie aster, and goldenrod. The big event at this time, however, is the showy purple aster. T
he south cutbank is blue with it

1922 From the blind we confirm that the ducks on this side are also mi'ksikatsi, seven of them, bringing the total to twenty-one. Already it's getting quite dark, in part because of the heavy cumulous clouds moving over

1928 Wow! I think we've got a soaking coming. The sky is gold with sunlight reflecting off the bottom of these clouds, a massive wind has just kicked up, and there is a sheet of moisture on it's way over the west coulee rim

1948 Indeed, we got dumped on, and of course it began when we were at the absolute furthest point from our vehicle. Luckily we enjoy the rain, and it was a privilege to see it sweeping golden through the forest, quickly calling up earthworms as we made our way out

IIII ) llllllll Otsstatsimaan (18Sept10)

1609 It's been too long since my last visit to this coulée. I'm feeling the need to revamp or renew my practice. I found myself almost prepared to dismiss even noting the swainson's hawk, two mourning doves, few lone magpies, half a dozen robins, and small flock of geese in flight that I observed on the short drive in. I think what's happening is that I'm all too aware of the ease of taking inventory. While notations of presence are import
ant, perhaps even greater value can be found in behavioral inquiry - what are they doing, and why?

1615 Another change I'm hoping to make is in my method of note-taking itself. Over the last couple years, I've always tried to type out my journal while physically in the field. I'm sure though that on days like this, when I only have a couple hours to work with, the notes have been a distraction. In an attempt to avoid this dilemma, I've recently downloaded a voice recording application to my phone, so I will try to rely more on quick voice notes that can be typed out later in the evening

1635 Hiking down the muddy slope today, I can see that there's been some change in the flora with the cold weather. The colors are shifting. While there's still plenty of blooming showy aster, tufted white prairie aster, sweetclover, blazing star and akspii, others - like the broomweed, canada thistle, prairie coneflower, black medick, and eveningstar - are almost entirely gone to seed

1645 There's a pronounced absence of insects. Other than one or two glimpses of a grig and a single fly in cold stasis on one of the few still-purple wavy-leaved thistle flowers, I see none of the six leggeds around. This is none too surprising considering the weather

1650 The hips on the short prairie roses are a deep red. I stop to test a couple plump ones, plucking them from the stem and squeezing them between my fingers to see if the seeds squirt out. They are definitely getting ther
e, nearly ready for harvest. The inner core of the fruits need to soften just a bit more, there's still a too much flesh sticking to the seeds

1703 I've walked into the hibernaculum, knowing full well that there'll be no rattlers out today. The last time I was here, a day before the cold moisture began, there were only four or five snakes returned, a fraction of the number who stay here each winter. I have no way of knowing whether the others made it back. At times like this, with such drastic temperature swings, I usually enter the area of the hibernaculum envisioning an encounter with a cold, helpless snake, and I begin formulating already my plan to bring it home, revive it, and assist it through winter. Of course today I find no such compromised animals. I never do. What I see instead are signs that the mule deer have been bedding near the den entrances, which suggests that my friends have not been out

1715 Before leaving the area of the hibernaculum, I search out and find several otsstatsimaan, the fruit of ball cactus. It is ripe and juicy, and I thoroughly enjoy exploding a few between my incisors. I also take note of the condition of a small patch of common burdock, where the leaves remain green while the seeding stems of at least the second-year plants have entirely dried. Then, just as I'm walking away, a flock of twenty-two robins land on a skunkbrush plant near the den, a move that would be ver
y dangerous if the snakes were about. The robins observe me looking at them and immediately take wing, eventually landing on another skunkbrush plant near the coulée rim. My assumption is that they're cleaning off the last of the citrus-sour berries

1740 My next move is to climb up on the ridge where the nighthawk nested during the previous moon. They are gone at this point, but my motivation to walk the ridge top is not to find them anyway, I'm searching for more otsstatsimaan. The ridge does not disappoint, and in addition to the ball cactus berries, I find the fruits of many prickly pears littering the ground. These have been pulled off and gnawed by small rodents, who seem to relish the seeds. Each winter I see this, the evidence of their cactus-seed feasts. I have yet to learn which mice or voles partake

1745 From far below the ridge, at the edge of the forest on the floodplain, I hear the agitated whistle of a whitetail deer. Looking down, I see two does leap out of a chokecherry patch and bound, tails waving, into the deeper wood. I'm surprised that they're acting so wary, because I'm pretty far away. But then again, it is hunting season, and they know it all too well. I find it curious also that they were in the chokecherries, and I want to go down and see if there's evidence of their feeding on these fruits, but it can't happen today. M
ahoney and I have an engagement to attend, and it's time for me to begin making my way back up the slope

1757 About half-way to my vehicle, I startle a northern flicker who was busy doing something on the ground of the coulée slope (likely eating ants). The bird swoops down and away, eventually landing in some chokecherry and wolf willow brush below. Several other birds come out of the brush to greet it, but it's too far away for me to see whether these others are flickers as well, though they're certainly the right size. A few steps further up the trail and I come upon a dead grasshopper. Surely there are many around, and this could just as easily be a clue as to what the flicker(s) are up to

1810 Back on top and heading home, it's apparent that the goose congregations in the prairie potholes and surrounding stubble-fields are growing. There are at least two dozen at ground level as I drive past, and another seventeen (in two groups) flying low above

IIII ) llllllll Spurge Eaters (19Sept10)

1639 Sspopiikimi - we're here for the afternoon, the rain has let up temporarily, and it's a
touch warmer than it has been for the past several days

1645 Walking in at north-pond, it's already apparent that the temperature change has been good for the insects. There are a lot more grigs hopping through the grass than yesterday, and we see both honey bees and flies that are bee mimics visiting the alfalfa flowers

1655 When we arrive at the cutback by the bat tree, overlooking the pond, we see two female mallards dabbling near the reeds of the north wet-meadows. Beside them is the pied-billed grebe. I'd thought this grebe had gone away after our original sighting of it a few weeks ago, but apparently not. All three make haste into the bulrushes when they spot us, the grebe diving as it does so

1657 We decide to sit down on the cutback and wait for the mallards and grebe to re-appear. It doesn't take too long for the mi'ksikatsi to move out, scooting quickly south. The grebe remains concealed a bit longer, and when it finally does leave the safety of the reeds, it seems to be unaware of our presence. We're expecting it to begin diving and feeding, but then I click off a couple photos, and that's all it takes to make the grebe nervous again. Like the ducks, it sets off to the south, paddling right up against the wet-meadow shoreline, where it is most camouflaged from view

1727 As the grebe departs, something else catches my attention - the chipping call of small birds further up our cutbank. Immediately I recall the first ice on the pond last winter, and the yellow-rumpled warblers who took advantage of it to feast on small insects frozen to the nebraska sedge. I get up to investigate, and my hunch proves correct. The chipping calls are coming from yellow-rumped warblers. There is a small flock of the moving between the canopy of a certain cottonwood and the absinthe along the cutbank. I walk over to look at the plants, expecting to find a good hatching of aphids or some such tiny insect. But all I see are two-striped grasshoppers, a few lygus bugs, and a single seven-spot ladybug

1743 The warblers eventually take off, three magpies fly by overhead (at about the height of the coulee rim), there's a pelican winging downstream by the river, a coot swims into north-pond, eating milfoil collected in short dives, and we pick up to hike around the bend and drop down into the forest main. As we move, the clouds break up, and it appears as though we'll have some sunlight to work with. In the forest, we stop right away at the bulberry brush to test whether or not they can be shaken off yet. They can't, and they're still very tart of taste

1820 About half-way through the forest, as we pass through a patch of tall goldenrod, I find a bronze-colored beetle poplar borer. A little further on, Mahoney spots a colorful caterpillar on a stem of brome. It's mostly emerald-green, with a single yellow stripe down it's back, black lateral bars that each hold two white dots, and a black horn on it's tail. It's almost like a spurge hawk moth larva, but smaller and greener, with yellow where the other has red. Looking around the immediate area, we find another one, and this caterpillar is indeed eating spurge leaves. Perhaps it’s a color-morph variety

1830 Now our eyes are trained on the plants. By the time we reach the blind above the shallows of south-pond, we've seen several cherry-faced meadowhawks and dark-colored damselflies perched in the grass, and have been chastised by a flicker. Out on the water below the blind, there are but seven mi'ksikatsi, only about half as many as there were last week

1840 We don't linger long at the blind. The Sun has already gone down, and the clouds are regrouping. Heading out toward the levee-walk above the south-marsh, we find two more caterpillars in the forest undergrowth. The first is a spurge hawk moth larva proper, a nice fat one. The other is eating wolf willow leaves and looks like braided leather

1903 Before rounding the marsh, we stop off at the river bench. There's a thick patch of spurge there, and we spot two more of the large, introduced hawk moth larvae

1918 Now it's really getting dark, and we make our way back toward the west bank. I notice that there are none of the swarms of male mosquitoes we've grown accustomed to. There are, however, still catbirds and kingfishers about, both of whom we hear as we pass by the bulberry and currant thickets above the south-pond peninsula

1935 The ksisskstaki are up and about, as are their mi'sohpsski allies. Both are swimming around the pond in their usual casual manner. The food cache at the ksisskstakioyis still looks pretty meager, but it's hard to tell, given that we can only see that part of it which happens to protrude from the water

1939 As we hike back to our vehicle in fair darkness, Mahoney directs my attention to the absinthe plants we're passing. Their stems are hosts to hundreds of grasshoppers, all of them settled in for the night

05 September 2010

Goldenrod Spiders, Milkweed Beetles, And Rattlers Returned

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllll Goldenrod Spider (31Aug10)

1742 Sspopiikimi - taking the counter-sunwise stroll around the circumference this evening, and even in the wind we're having the shale trail is alive with cherry-faced meadowhawks, pale snakeskins, and road dusters

1750 There's a kingfisher chattering as we skirt north-pond. A little further south, near some bulrush hummocks, we can see four diving ducks. I'm hoping that at least one of them is the pied-billed grebe from last week. But when we get to where they're feeding, all four are coots. Like the other anomalous faces we see here infrequently - the wood duck, black-crowned night heron, or sora - the grebe was here one day and gone the next

1758 We sit down when we get to the south bench above the peninsula. In the wide pool before us, I count thirteen mi'ksikatsi in three groups, with the largest (eight mallards) on the big island and the other two families tilting their bums in the air, feeding. Above the forest main, one of the swainson's is soaring and occasionally crying

1806 I've been keeping a peripheral eye on the plants as we walked the west length. I'm waiting to see the various lady beetles who were here around this time last summer. But there are none, or very few, just the occasional seven-spots. There are, however, now two different aphid species hatched and feeding on the absinthe. There's the spiny ones I've noted the last little while, and a new hatching of smooth aphids as well

1826 We pick up and begin to move around the south marsh. I notice that the berries on the buckbrush are all turning white already. The same flowering plants are in bloom today as during our last couple visits - yellow sweetclover, showy purple aster, hairy golden aster, goldenrod, alfalfa, tufted white prairie aster. At one point, we come across two large, blue-spotted, variable darners on the trail. Both are hesitant to take wing, allowing us to get much closer (within three inches) than they typically do. Perhaps they are near the end of their lives

1847 We move down through the forest to sit on the edge of the cutbank near the blind. It's feeling pretty lonely. No peeps in the shallows, no sounds of catbirds or robins. We've not seen any yellow warblers, goldfinch, or swallows the last couple visits. They could all be gone already, and their absence leaves a significant void

1908 We decide to walk the edge-zone between the wet meadows and forest main, a route we avoided with the floodwaters and mosquito swarms. It's quiet, almost as though winter were here already, just green. As we walk, Mahoney picks bulberries and splits her take with me, tart red fruits. We'll have a good harvest once the frost comes

1937 Arriving at north-pond, we could easily cut up to the levee walk and move around to the truck, but we decide instead to switch back and walk south again through the forest main. I'm glad we do, because we soon come into some interesting insect activity. First of all, there are female mosquitoes in the forest still, and they're hounding us. But we find other things to distract us from their needles. About halfway through the forest, I notice that many of the apex leaves on the tall goldenrod are misshapen. Unfurling one, I find the leaf to be encasing the web of a tiny spider. And as we're learning about the existence of this resident, we notice others nearby - a hornet on some white sweetclover flowers and many meadowhawks perched on the sticky, green burrs of wild licorice

1951 I'm especially glad to see the hornet. Every summer we've had conspicuous hives in the forest main, but this year none. I was beginning to wonder if their queen survived the last winter freeze, but the presence of this single insect suggests that she did. In that case, it's just a matter that we haven't stumbled across their hive this season, which is good in some respects, but troubling in others. I'd rather be aware of their location in advance

2004 When we reach the path to the blind, we climb back up to the levee-walk and head north again. Immediately we are swarmed by male mosquitoes. The shadow of dusk has crossed the river and climbed the opposite coulee slope. The cottonwood leaves, from this higher angle, look to be on the brink of turning all yellow

2017 There has been a lot of beaver development in the north-pond wet meadows this season. Looking at it from above, we can see a dark green strip of bulrushes bordering a canal that runs from mid- to north-pond, severing a big section of wet meadows into island. Along this canal there are areas where the ksisskstaki have built walls retain new subponds. Whether they will last or not when the flood waters totally recede remains to be seen

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll Rattlers Return To Hibernaculum (2Sept10)

1625 What an awesome closing day for the ethnobotany class. Visited one of my favorite places, the confluence. Dug ma's, aahsowa, and pisatsiinikimm. Observed and discussed dozens of other plants and insects, and had encounters with rattlesnakes and nighthawk fledglings. Can't beat it, my job rocks!

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllll Garter At The Rattler Den (3Sept10)

1732 Straight from work to the hibernaculum, hiking down the side of the coulee now. Geez I feel toxic after a day penned in the office. Hoping a quick visit here and then dusk at the pond willserve to cleanse. Not really prepared, in just my runners, for protection against accidents at the den. I'll have to be extra careful

1748 Okay, entering the hibernaculum now. Have just a few short weeks to make an accurate count of who comes here, in what order, learn to identify them as individuals, observe any social or pre-hibernation behavior, and (hopefully) locate any similar sites in this stretch of the coulee

1815 Brief but interesting visit. There are still just two rattlers on site - a younger, darker one, and the older, lighter one who I filmed yesterday. Both of them hastily dropped into the burrows before I could snap any shots of them. They were using the first and third entrances, respectively. Curiously though, there was also a wandering garter on the scene. I've never seen a garter snake at the rattlesnake hibernaculum in the four years or so I've been coming here. In fact, I've never even seen one this high up on the coulee slope in this area. The garter snake is hanging around between the third and fourth entrances, where the large rattle has been, and also (memorably enough) where the black widows nested, and where I saw a chorus frog seeking its hibernation location a few weeks ago. Though all of these animals are among the sort the most frightening to us, I don't know of any reason why they would gather together like this. Could be just coincidence, or there could be something pretty extraordinary going on

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllll Milkweed Beetles (4Sept10)

1858 Sspopiikimi - the heat from this afternoon has disappeared, it's now on the verge of being something more than t-shirt weather, and I've tied my coat around my waist for our dusk visit to the pond. Already the shadow is crossing the water

1904 We surprise a mourning dove as we approach north-pond at the bat tree, and its flight startles a kingfisher in turn. Down below there is a cluster of five young mallard siblings dabble-feeding. They seem very small to us, and are perhaps a family that has recently moved in from elsewhere. At one point, two adult (or at least much larger) female ducks cross the pond to hide from us, but I don't get the feeling that either is the mother

1924 We climb up the levee and walk to the lookout over the Oldman. All the same flowers are blooming as last week, the sweet clovers and late-summer asters. A remindful thought sweeps through that once these flowers fade, there will be no more this season. Mahoney is concerned about this too, and at her call we stop to clip some more akspii to dry and add to our store for congestion medicine. It really is now or never for harvesting some of these plants

1929 There are lots of grigs around, just in time for the Swainsons to bulk up on before their migration to Costa Rica. As we clip gumweed, Mahoney finds a little bumblebee-ish creature asleep (or maybe even dead), with its head buried in one of the flowers

1932 There is a voice we don't recognize, an intermittent bird squawk, upstream on the big river island. We move down the shale trail to the bench to search for it, but as we walk it passes unseen (but heard) in the opposite direction. Further along the trail, we stop to look at dogbane and milkweed beetles, the former mating, the latter gathering to feed

1948 When we get to the blind and sit down on the cutbank overlooking the wide pool of south-pond, we find more mallards dabbling and resting on the islands. There are eighteen by my count, the numbers are slowly starting to go up. It has been such an odd summer for waterfowl at the pond, I wonder if the wigeons will stop back through for a period as they normally do by now. We haven't seen any of their benefactors this evening, the coots who usually feed them this time of year

1959 We sit still on the cutbank in a swarm of male mosquitoes. Three pelicans pass overhead, gliding toward the river. A pair of swainsons soar above the coulee rim. The shadow has engulfed everything, the Sun out of sight. I'm tense, in a way. I sense the end of the season looming too near

2021 We round the marsh and start making our way back along the west length of the pond. There's a new flower above the peninsula, something I don't remember having ever seen here before, but we'll have to come back out in daylight to photograph it. Somewhere up one of the draws of the coulee we hear a catbird crying. Still not seeing any beaver or muskrat activity, which is disturbing. It's been a while since we've seen any of the muskrats in particular... and just as I type this, one appears, swimming straight across to our shore as if it read my mind

2031 The ksisskstaki are now out as well, or at least one of them. As we pass by the lodge it whacks the pond's surface twice with it's tail. The male mosquitoes crack me up, swarming in thick clouds and following us as we hike, waiting for a female to ascend into their midst, but she's nowhere to be found