15 November 2010

First Ice, Bulberry Cleaning, And Dung Beetles

II Simitsiimiksi (6Nov10)

1631 Sspopiikimi - another comfortable evening for a survey at the pond. Nearly clear skies and a bit of a breeze, a cold night to come, no doubt, but pleasant at the moment

1646 We start with the west length, as usual, which today is absent of all but a handful of small grigs. When we're almost passing the ksisskstakioyis, we first hear and then see our first mallard, sticking close to the wet meadows. Then we see another duck moving north. This one seems a little small to be a mallard, it is more teal-like in profile. But even using glass I'm unable to confirm. Eventually we come to the bench overlooking the south pool, where there are twenty mallards, a mix of male and female, dabbling around the waters near the big island. We're also hearing a peep somewhere out in the shallows, but will need to get around to that side to identify the author

1707 Leaving the bench, we wind our way along the trail through the bulberry brush above the peninsula. It's a hot spot for small birds, which we often neglect to pay attention to. But since so many of the summer birds and insects have departed, died off, or gone to hibernate, this is now one of the places we focus on. This evening, our search is rewarded with the sighting of a house finch couple. No telling what they are up to, because they flutter into view from a low, obscure position when we approach, and then bounce around the bulberries attempting to hide momentarily, before finally winging off toward the forest main

1728 It's bohemian waxwing day in the owl wood, and this is one small bird call we easily recognize. There are about fifty of them clustered together in the canopy of a particular cottonwood tree. Below, their objective... a lone bulberry bush absolutely full of fruit. We've seen all this before in prior years. The flock will position themselves like this, then send a crew down to harvest. When their stomachs are satisfied and their beaks full with all they can carry, the team will rejoin the flock and a new expedition by others will be mounted. In this manner they can quickly strip a bulberry bush of all it's rewards. Mahoney and I walk down to the intended target and sit in some buckbrush to watch. This is an exercise we've done in previous years at this exact location with success. But today, no doubt because there are a great many berries still to be had along the river, the flock erupts with it's characteristic cricket calls and departs, moving in switchbacks to gain altitude high above the coulée rim, then heading upstream

1759 After the bohemians, our walk gets quiet. We cut down through the forest main to the blind overlooking the south shallows, but the peeps we had heard before are gone. From there we continue through the forest, all the way back to north pond, encountering nothing but the rustling hint of a deer mouse or vole scurrying under the fallen leaves. The trees are bare. Soon I'll have to spend a day taking a count of all the nests I can find, those that were invisible to us in summer

III Coyote Playground (7Nov10)

1418 Sspopiikimi - needed to get out and stretch my legs, and ground myself again in a less political, less human-centric reality. The pond is good for that. And I think, as an objective for the visit, I'll check in on whoever's around near the water, then climb the coulee slope to see if I can happen upon the coyote den

1425 Six of the mi'ksikatsi (a couple and a group comprised of three drakes and one hen) are midpond today instead of their usual southern haunts. They're dabbling and preening along the edge of the wet-meadows

1433 In the south pool itself, including a lone drake in the subpond canal, there are an additional thirty-one mi'ksikatsi, all dabbling or dipping, preening and resting. From my position on the bench, I can see several painted turtles, rising and diving in the deep milfoil pool just below. And I hear some small birds chirping from the currant and bulberry thickets above the peninsula, which I intend to walk through now

1502 Curiously enough, the small birds who I heard in the bulberries are silent when I move past them, and I do not see a one, if they are even around any longer. But my next best bet is that they'll be in the chokecherry brush up the coulee draw, and so I start my ascent in that direction. But again, no birds. I am now sitting about half-way up the coulee slope, already high above the brush, and here there is the abandoned entrance of a past coyote den. I know it's no longer in use, because it is thoroughly crisscrossed with the distinctly chaotic geometric webwork of black widow spiders, and I can see two of their egg casings attached within, positioned in such a manner that I'm sure no larger mammal has passed through this entrance in at least a couple months

1527 Just over the next rise, I'm led by way of faint trail to a nice, grassy shelf which is irrefutably within the active coyote home-zone. In fact, it appears to be their playground, littered with deer bones and objects they've found to use as chew-toys: pieces of tattered human clothing, bone-length sections of skunkbrush root, and tube of Tremsil silicone sealant

1554 Above coyote's playground is the highest knob of the coulee rim, sparsely vegetated and, when explored, found to be not actually naturefact at all or, rather, not in the manner of the rest of this landscape, which has been shaped over millions of years. No, this particular knob is a century old at most, and predominantly a human creation... the sooty tailings of Lethbridge's coal-mining history. Thousands of tons of black dust and rock, poured into one of the coulee's natural draws until it appeared itself to be a ridge like any other. I can't imagine that this is where the coyotes den, though it very well may be. But regardless, at the top I find another well-chewed tube of Tremsil

1622 I take a different draw back down the coulee, still hoping to find the active coyote den. This draw leads me straight onto the golf course and, before that, through a rather dense jungle of prickly rose. No den as far as I noticed, but I did scare up a small family of grey partridge, and I passed a couple flickers who were digging for insects on the steep cliffs. Now I am back to the truck, a bit sweaty, and headed for home

IIII ) lll Initial Ice-Over (11Nov10)

1403 Sspopiikimi - big news of the day, the pond has iced-over. It's thin, and the beavers have retained some open pools by their lodge, but there's no longer any doubt that the freeze is upon us

1413 For obvious reasons, there are no mi'ksikatsi at southpond or anywhere else, though I suspect a few will remain here all winter, in the bit of open water by the spring of the south marsh. Today, however, they have no doubt relocated to the river, which won't ice up like this for several weeks yet

1434 There are no juncos, robins, tree sparrows or the like in the bulberry thickets above the peninsula this afternoon, though it does appear they've made significant progress cleaning up the remaining fruit since our last visit. Making our way around the marsh to the river, we find the mallards as expected - fourteen of them, fairly evenly balanced between drakes and hens

1450 We follow a trail upstream, along the river's edge, past the bulberries of the owl wood, many of which have been stripped by the waxwings. At one point, we pass another abandoned ksisskstakioyis on the cutbank, bringing to mind again the question of what has become of all the river beavers. It looks like at least one family may have a lodge against an anchor of the high-level bridge. But where all the others have gone is a mystery

1513 From the bridge, we circle around the back side of the owl wood, where it meets the coulee slope. Here we find an especially dense patch of bulberries just absolutely draped heavy with fruit that, for one reason or another, the waxwings have left alone. This will be the patch I guide my traditional foods students to in the coming week

1533 Next we cut down into the forest main to walk the path beneath the trees. About half-way through, we stop to watch a magpie who is searching the high canopy for what we can only imagine to be frozen insects of some sort. Soon though we are again at the north end, back on the levee, and making our way to the truck

IIII ) lllll Dung Beetles (14Nov10)

1117 Sspopiikimi - after a freezing wind yesterday, things somehow warmed up last night, and as we walk in today we find the pond mostly thawed

1122 We decide to switch things up and move sunwise around north-pond to the forest first, rather than walking the length. Our first encounter is on the paved pathway leading toward the levee, where we find a small, fuzzy larva inching it's way toward some unknown hibernation site. Then there was another of the same just as we crested the levee. They are smaller than the large, fuzzy larva we recall moving about in this season last year. I've been thinking about the magpie we observed in the forest last week, how it moved from limb to limb in the canopy searching. And I compare this with our relatively quick stroll through, observing very little. The magpie offers clues on how to be aware of what we aren't seeing in our haste

1146 From the levee, we drop down into the forest main, then pass through the trees to arrive at the wet meadows. We want to confirm that a berry brought to us the other day by our neighborhood magpies is a Russian olive, and we're right. There's a magpie in the thick bulberry patch in the wet meadows, again reminding me to open my eyes. But I'm torn today between wanting to take it slow on the one hand, surveying the bark and leaf litter closely, and on the other to keep moving so that Mahoney stays warm and doesn't stiffen up

1212 Continuing along the edge zone between forest and wet-meadows, we begin to notice that many of the licorice plants have been raided by rodents for their seeds. This is something we've seen before in winter. The deer mouse (presumably, but not confirmed) climbs up the licorice stalk and clips it off just below a cluster of burrs. It then returns to the ground and opens each burr at one end to extract the seeds. In addition to the licorice-mouse event, I turn a few old, wooden beams, and under one of them I find a number of blackish beetles, a species I don't recognize (but photograph for research), along with an wolf-spider egg sack of an unknown species. The eggs themselves are a bright orange cluster, small pebble-sized, sandwiched between two translucent, circular sheaths. I photograph the egg sack too, and mean to take it with me to try and hatch at home, but a gust of wind suddenly blows it away

1221 When we near the blind above south-pond, there are mi'ksikatsi feeding in the wide pool. We count fourteen, all but two of them drakes. Out on one of the smaller islands there is what appears to be a new muskrat lodge. We've been watching it grow for several weeks, and I'm looking forward to the thick ice if for no other reason than it will allow us easy access to this new feature

1224 We stop briefly at the blind to have a cigarette and catch-up these notes. Here there is a dung beetle, somewhat reddish, clinging weakly to the blind's wooden wall

1249 Not until we're picking up to leave the blind do I notice that there's been another kind of fuzzy caterpillar sitting beside us the whole time. This one is a little larger and more yellow-ish of fur than the others we've seen today. I take it's picture and we walk on, climbing out of the forest again, onto the levee, and around the south marsh

1311 After a brief stop at the bench overlooking south pond, we make our way back to the parking lot along the shale trail of the west length. On this route, we find small, active dung beetles and several short, dark-colored centipedes that have apparently frozen. We should have warmed one up in our hands to see if it would become active again but, not thinking about it at the moment, we continued on