11 October 2010

Fritillaries Mate And The Drakes Return

III Fritillaries Mating (8Oct10)

1154 Pitaiiksiinaikawaahko - taking a quick walk down to the river before I have to pick Mahoney up from work. I've only got two hours to play with, and I want to make it all the way down to the shore lodge on the river cutbank, so I'm following the quickest route, a steep shale trail made - like all park trails in Sikoohkotoki - from the burnt, red colored tailings of the old coal mine

1158 As I begin my descent, it is to the seasonal soundtrack of cricket song, accented occasionally by the chirp of a chorus frog. The grig population is at it's peak, with dozens of small grasshoppers flying away from my every step

1206 About half-way down the shale trail, I cut away from the path to explore a bit of a saddle shelf on the coulee slope. I'm hoping to stumble upon another rattlesnake hibernaculum, as I suspect there's one over in this direction. But no success so far. I'm seeing very few flowers, just a smattering of low yellow sweetclover and wilted akspii

1210 One plant that is still flowering is the sagebrush. Some are played-out already, but most still have their tiny, inconspicuous yellow blooms. These plants are covered with aphids, the ants that are feeding off the aphids' nectars, and seven-spot lady beetles eating the aphids themselves. One plant also has a large orb-weaving spider who I don't recognize, waiting patiently on the edge of its web

1214 When I arrive at the floodplain, it becomes more apparent that the younger sagebrush in particular are the ones still in flower. There's also a few yellow salsify blooms still to be found here, and pink-rimmed sulphurs visiting some of these

1216 Crossing the floodplain to the forest edge, I see the sulphurs are stopping by another flower as well, this one a spindly plant with tiny blue blossoms that become burrs in their seed state. Here in the shade there are even some canada thistles still in flower, but the sulphurs don't seem to have much interest in these purple blooms

1220 Dropping down into the first eschelon of forest, all is familiar and yet incredibly changed. I haven't been down here much since the big floods early in summer. These waters left a significant silt deposit over the floor, and piles of drift-logs clutter the old trail. The flowers remaining here in this first moon of winter are showy aster and tufted white prairie aster

1226 It's quite warm today, warm enough to provoke me to go shirtless, which is strange given that we're starting the first winter moon. Not much for a bird presence in the forest. I hear a few magpies giving their wok-wok-wok calls, alerting everyone to my presence (if they were announcing their own presence it would simply be wok-wok). But other than the magpies, I see and hear no one

1228 It doesn't take me long to move through the three descending echelons of the flood plain forest, and drop down into the willow thickets nearer the river. At the edge zone between the two, there are many flowering white sweetclovers being visited by honeybees. In the willow tickets themselves, much change has occurred. The floods deposited immense driftlogs that pinned even the largest willows to the ground. Everywhere the willows are caked with mud, and many of the plants have been cemented together in clusters

1234 I've now made it to my furthest destination point for the day, the shoreline ksisskstakioyis along the river. This lodge was built last year, when the family moved upstream. It's a large dwelling, and I wondered what became of it during the flood. Now I have my answer. Like the willows and the forest floor, this ksisskstakioyis is caked in silt. All the wood embedded in the lodge is old, and there is no food cache and no sign of recent reinforcements to the walls. Although there are a few footprints and chewed willow twigs at a stop-off point used by visiting beavers beside the lodge, there's no indication that it's still occupied. I don't know whether the family died in the flood, or were able to reposition. From my position, I can't see any new lodges up or downstream. If they did relocate though, I would suspect to find them in the oxbow area downstream, near their old lodge, and where beavers have gone in previous flood years

1240 Leaving the beaver lodge, I begin following the river upstream. There are no birds on the water, no mergansers. I spot a few bronze tigerbeetles hunting the sands along the shoreline, but no sign of whatever insects they may be preying on. At one point, a drift log far off on the opposite shore appears to me like a deer. But as I get closer, I realize it is only an illusion. Haven't seen any deer yet today, which is odd. But then again, I've not really taken my usual route along the cutbanks that hide most of the animals and define the different echelons of the forest

1245 There's a really scattered smattering of sandrocket mustard with pale yellow flowers being visited by the pink-edged sulphurs. Other than that, the riverside is fairly quiet. Just a small grig or tigerbeetle here or there, and a few small, greenish meadowhawks, possibly pale snakeskins

1254 Finally some action on the riverbed. I've come across an area where several pairs of variegated fritillaries are joined in mating. Like the sulphurs, they face in opposite directions when in this vulnerable bond. And they are mating right on the rocks of the riverbank, enabling them to see approaching danger from afar

1258 Just past the area where the fritillaries are mating is a mud flat, and here there are several pink-edged sulphurs and drone flies. I wonder if the drone flies in particular are depositing their eggs here

1309 Leaving the riverbank, I start my way up the coulee slope, and right at the base there's a long stretch of exposed earth, some kind of dark shale where few plants grow. Right here I come across a lot of road dusters. I don't know a lot about these largest of the grigs, but I suspect their superior flight ability has some relation to why they select open areas like this to inhabit

1315 When I get up to the landslide area where I observed so many different insects the other day, I find that most of the white tufted prairie asters that attracted them here have played out. Now this stretch is fairly quiet, save for a handful of black blister beetles. This landslide is close to the rattlesnake hibernaculum, and though I don't really have time left to have a good visit there, I can't help but at least stop in to make greetings

1319 Interesting... although it is warm enough that I've moved around all afternoon shirtless, there are only two snakes basking at the hibernaculum. The rattlers are definitely spending more time underground. It's not surprising that there's at least a minimal presence above, but the compulsion for them to seek positions in the hinernacular chamber must be more related to Sun position than to actual temperature

1334 Back up at my vehicle now, with not much to report between the hibernaculum and the coulee rim. More of the smaller grigs. One thing that impressed me today though, and that has touched me on many previous occasions, is the manner in which all the residents of this coulee have everything they need right here. Their lives don't require the kind of environmental degradation that our comtporary ways produce. There's no reliance on importation, and the biproducts and/or passing of each species and season is timed with the needs of another

IIII ) l Mi'ksikatsi Drakes Return (10Oct10)

1027 Pitsiiksinaikawaahko - off to search this morning for the second rattlesnake hibernaculum on this bend of the river and, ultimately, to find out where the beaver family down here moved in response to this summer's flood

1043 It's another blue-sky warm day, with a potential for shirtlessness. This is good, because it means at least some of the snakes will be out, as well as what insects remain. I've already seen a melissa blue on a yellow salsify, and I haven't even left the shale trail

1049 Off the shale now, and making switch-backs across a saddle shelf about half way down the coulee slope. It's the kind of place a rattlesnake clan might select for a hibernaculum site, and in fact I once came upon a large stone effegy of a rattlesnake while walking in this area. I saw it just the once and was never able to find it again. I don't know if it has been concealed by the grass since, or whether somebody destroyed it, or if it was a spiritual thing... something shown to me that wasn't as physical as it appeared at the time. But though I've tried to locate it again on several occasions each year since, never have I seen it again. Today I'm not completely prepared to search for a hibernaculum. My footwear is all wrong, I have no safety stick to sweep in front of me, and I've been suffering from an eye infection which has left me having to wear glasses. My vision is so impaired that no glass can appropriately deal with it, so normally I wear contacts. With the glasses, not only is my sight unclear, but my peripheral vision is extremely warped and I get strong glares from the Sun

1110 No luck yet in locating a new hibernaculum. I've almost walked to the end of this shelf and am nearing the badland cliffs where there are exposures of ancient reptile bones, alligators and turtles. Moments ago, my approach into this cliff area frightened a swainson's hawk, who must have been perched somewhere above on the coulee slope. I haven't seen any of these birds, sikohpiitaipannikimm, for a couple weeks, and I've been assuming they left. As I watch the swainson's wing away, a small family of goldenfinch flitter out of some skunkbrush below me and head for the forest. There's still a lot more green on the trees here than there is at the pond right now

1125 The little boy in me can't help but stop at the fossil beds, because you never know what'll be exposed. Along with all the reptilian bone litter scattered over the ground, I find what looks to me to be the remains of a Pleistocene herbivore's tooth, fossilized almost crystal. That one I take with me to offer as a toy for my magpie

1128 I've now reached the sagebrush flat. There's a few yellow sweetclover plants here, and some insects visiting them - a couple honey bees and a melissa blue

1143 Crossing the flats, heading toward the edge-zone where the downstream cliffs meet the forest and willow thickets, I come across what I suspect is a clover looper, though I haven't seen any of these moths around since early summer. I just see the one. It's color patches are so dark, they're almost black. Not knowing the life cycle of these loopers, I'm curious now whether this is one of the first emerged, if we are going to have a lot of them appear before winter really sets in, and if they hibernate in their mature form

1145 At the forest edge, I notice that unlike the poplars and cottonwoods, and even the saskatoons, the chokecherries have dropped pretty much all their leaves, save those that are so attached that they'll probably remain all winter

1151 I walk past where the forest transforms to willow thickets, in an oxbow area that contains standing water in the worst flood years. I was hoping to fund the ksisskstaki family relocated here, but I can already see it's too dry right now for them to dare attempt to winter. The bulberry brush along this way has been stripped of almost all berries. Probably the waxwings took care of them. I'm surprised their flocks have not found the berries at the pond yet

1202 There is a lot of insect activity at the base of the cliffs overlooking the oxbow area. There are red-wing clickhoppers and road-dusters. I briefly spotted a green-morph cowpath tiger beetle. And above them all, making much more noise, are several crackling forest grasshoppers, hovering and rattling away

1225 There's some kind of wasp event going on here at the cliffs overlooking the oxbow. Several members of a certain yellowjacket species are here, moving back and forth between the long-leaf sage and the clay soil. When in the sage, they rub their back legs over their bodies. Then, when they land on the clay, they find a crevice and dip their abdomen into it. I suspect them of depositing eggs, but if so their eggs must be extremely camouflaged to the human eye, because I certainly can't spot them, even on close inspection

1245 I've finally made my way to the river's edge to check the old downstream ksisskstakioyis, which appears as abandoned as ever. There is no sign of any animals regularly entering the oxbow for willow harvest. I intend now to follow the cutbank upstream searching for signs, but I can already see that no new lodges have been built, and that therefore the beavers who had once inhabited this stretch are gone. The question now is whether they drowned in the lodge or drifted to another turn of the river somewhere, to establish a new home

1302 I walk along the cutbank from the old downriver shore lodge to last-year's upriver one, and sure enough find no food caches in between, no sign of any new dorm however hidden. There are areas where some beavers have come ashore to harvest sandbar willow, but there's not been too much of this activity, even given the rich willow thickets here with which to work. Now I'm sitting on shore contemplating two things. Firstly, I'm considering jumping in the river. I'm not appropriately dressed for it, but this may be my last chance of the season. Secondly, I feel compelled to open the upstream shore lodge and find out whether the residents drowned within. But I know it would be better to wait until I brought a crowbar for this

1308 As I sit pondering, cloud cover blocks my direct sunlight and the wind picks up. I decide not to bother with the swim, but instead to follow a deer trail into the forest toward the inner meadow where I keep a survival shelter of sorts

1321 I find the shelter much as I'd left it at the end of last winter, still in need of further fortification against the elements. Proceeding from there, I've now come to the furthest point of the forest upstream, from which I'll ascend the coulee slope again. All the way through, the forest was quiet. Save for the occasional sighting of a magpie, I saw no one. Even the deer are absent, which is very strange in this season, when they normally congregate here to evade hunters

1339 At the base of the slope is a patch of dark sediment where few plants grow. Here there are lots of road-dusters and other grigs. I'm seeing a curious number of dusky grasshoppers with only one back leg. I don't know if their other legs have been eaten off by predators or if it is a birth defect among this population. In any case though, it appears that the winter die-off is underway. I've just found a large stink beetle feeding at one of the carcasses

1345 The very, very few tufted white prairie asters still blooming at the landslide near the rattlesnake hibernaculum are absolutely crawling with black blister beetles. Obviously these are the last flowers on the slope that they've been able to find

1406 Of course I stop by the hibernaculum to see what's happening here today. As I walk in, I count ten snakes at the main entrance. Some of them look as though their getting ready to shed, and others are so brilliant I have to assume they've recently shed. Moving along, I find no snakes at the second entrance, but I encounter a large rattler in the tall grass nearby. It apparently was either hunting or moving between the dens, and when it sees me it retreats to the third entrance. I'm a bit shaken by this encounter, and the wind is so strong I wouldn't be able to hear a younger snake warning me if I came too near. So rather than continue my survey without the proper footgear, I make my way back out

1420 It doesn't take long to hike between the hibernaculum and the coulee rim. Here within view of the truck, I startle (and am equally startled by) a female ring-necked pheasant. She bursts impossibly out of some short grass in front of me and provides my final encounter of this afternoon's visit

1740 Sspopiikimi - hitting the trail for our dusk stroll around the pond, scoping out what's new at the turtle waters

1755 Just walked the length of the pond along the shale trail. We saw a lone adolescent coot midpond, and the food cache if the ksisskstaki family continues to grow. When we get to south-pond there are forty or fifty mallards, lots of males among them. Finally it seems the drakes have returned. They are skittish though, and have already flown off to either north-pond or the river. Still no sign of the expected wigeons

1811 Though the mi'ksikatsi have departed, we sit down on the south bench and look out over the waters. There is a muskrat below us. It's diving down to pull stalks of narrow-leaf bur-reed, hauling these to shore, and munching on the white bases

1813 Next to appear is a member if the ksisskstaki family. It paddles out in our direction, than dives down for milfoil, which it munches while floating on the pond surface

1832 Leaving the bench behind, we walk down toward the peninsula to check the status of the bulberries. They're still not dropping off when we give the stems a good shake. There are a very few cherry-faced meadowhawks down here, clinging to the plants. We also saw a single variable darner buzz past

1843 It's getting dark already by the time we move around the south marsh, following the levee, and sit down again on the river bench. From here we can see a small flock of aapsspini in the water beside the river island. Another small flock has just flown down from the coulee rim to land in south-pond. Apparently, this is going to be a night roost area until things start icing-over

1853 Excited about the geese, we've dropped down into the forest main and are currently at the blind overlooking south-pond. There are thirteen aapsspini all packed onto the big island. As usual, one of them is standing guard, two more are on half-alert, and the others are resting

1920 Continuing on, we walk the forest main north then climb back in the levee walk. It's really getting dark now, and there are more geese coming in. All we can see are their silhouettes as the pass near. We count nineteen descending to the river island, and a pair dropping in south pond. There are other flocks as well that we can only hear. It would be nice to come back out here at dawn and find out how many are spending the night