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