30 December 2010

Curl The Coon

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllll Christmas Bird Count (26Dec10)

0834 Sspopiikimi - I promised myself (and others) dawn at the pond, to conduct the annual bird count for this small nook of Sikoohkotoki, that Mahoney and I would be contributors of data that will tell us minimally what we already know - that there are fewer and fewer birds each year; that of those who remain, more are being drawn toward the centers of human habitation, for access to food and protection from predators; and that the Earth is getting warmer, enabling birds like kingfishers, who absolutely would not have attempted to winter this far north in the past, to do so

0849 The most pressing objective, upon arrival, is to count the geese who are lined up along the open water crag on the river before they depart for their daily feeding. So we immediately begin to make our way around north-pond, greeted by a magpie as we went. Then up the levee and around the north wood to a cutbank overlooking the big river island. There's a bad smell on the north end today, like sewage. From the cutbank, we can see geese stretching all the way to the high level bridge, separated into three groups. The nearest flock has thirty-nine members. And the larger body, a little further upriver, has one-hundred and twenty nine. We can't really count the third flock from where we're at, so we're moving in that direction now

0918 We use the levee to move quickly, before the morning departure. We know that all the other birds will stick around, and that we can relax a bit after noting the number of geese. As we pass by the canopy of the forest main, two small birds arrive to inspect one of the cavities where the flickers have nested during the past couple summers. It is a starling couple. One of them stays up in the high branches while the other pops into the old nest, then the two fly off together in a westerly direction. Soon we are in a better position to count the upriver flock. They total one-hundred and seventy five, and there are two common goldeneyes diving among them

0946 With the goose count complete for the most part (save for flocks that will no doubt pass overhead later in the morning), we cut back to explore the forest main. I'm not expecting to see anyone here. If we're lucky, we may encounter flickers or chickadees, perhaps a downy woodpecker or owl. In fact, walking this forest all the way back to the north end, we find nobody. Only when we come to the last of the trees do we meet up with two more magpies, calling back and forth to one another before gliding away

1002 While we walk the forest, many of the geese on the river take their leave. We can hear them honking the whole while, and several families pass overhead as we move. Back up on the levee and again heading toward south-pond, we find that at least half have departed, and the others - prompted by our appearance - are on their way. Our celebrity bird of the winter, Mrs. Kingfisher, makes her first appearance in about the same area as the starlings earlier, flying across our path and heading to the spring. As she passes, a family of twelve geese arrive from elsewhere, dropping down to land at the end of the crag almost directly below the high-level bridge

1018 We make our way around to sit above the spring and watch the kingfisher spectacle. She must be living in her old cutbank cavity along the river, because that's the direction she came from this morning. She's taking a huge risk wintering here. Aside from the open water of this spring, which is maybe eighteen or twenty meters squared, there's little chance she'd find enough food to survive. This bit of water is always open all season, but it's a good thing for her there's enough of a pike population to support her appetite. As we sit and wait for her to make her first catch of the day, a northern flicker comes diving into the forest main from somewhere in the owl wood. Another good bird to add to this morning's list of cold-weather residents

1103 It's almost an hour wait for Mrs Kingfisher to patiently resist coming to feed. Eventually though, she flies past us into the owl wood, to inspect us from behind, then glides to her usual perch where she can look down into the spring. Minutes later, she takes her first meal. All the while, as we waited, I hoped that perhaps an eagle would pass. We know they survey the river throughout the day, but none have come by yet

1159 Strategizing to maximize our count, Mahoney remains down by the pond while I climb the coulee slope in search of pheasants and partridge. I pass through the owl wood first, then ascend following the brush beneath the high-level bridge. About half way up, I come across three niipomakii (black-capped chickadees). They are flittering from branch to branch in some saskatoons. As I watch them, another magpie comes swooping up past me. I walk a little further, then peek over a short ridge. There are three mule deer on the other side, two bucks and a doe. I want to get a picture of them and see what they're eating, but my phone buzzes in my pocket. It is Mahoney. Down below, she has found a raccoon eating bulberries in the owl wood. Although we've seen a lot of raccoon sign over the years here, this is the first live animal we've come across. When I eventually break from the phone and peek over the ridge again, the bucks spot me. They move straight away down the slope to the owl wood. I give Mahoney a head's up, and when they get down there she backs away so as not to make them feel trapped. I climb further still, toward the voice of the magpie who passed. She's sitting in some brush, almost at the coulee rim, cycling through a repertoir of calls. When I come close, six pheasants erupt from near her. First three males, then three females. When they leave, the magpie begins mimicking their calls as well. I think she was trying to lead me to them, probably in hopes of a meal. I sit down to write these notes, with the magpie still close, and I can hear a raven below. Mahoney texts to say the raven just passed her

1237 I rendezvous with Mahoney at the bench above the peninsula. Descending the coulee slope was much faster than going up. Though I took a different draw, there were no other birds I came across. Meanwhile, Mahoney observed two more raven following the river, and surprisingly enough two mayflies. It's pretty warm for mid-winter

1303 After a breather on the bench, Mahoney and I head back toward the owl wood to see if the raccoon is still there. A man with some dogs passed by not too long ago, so our expectations are low. Indeed, the raccoon isn't in the berry bush any longer. But with a quick scan of the area we spot him hugging a branch and trying to conceal himself in a nearby poplar tree. He's a young animal, judging from his size, but extremely handsome, with clever eyes. He moves ever so slowly to hang off the opposite side of the branch, so that all but his face and one dangling hindleg are invisible to us. While we watch him, Mahoney runs a confirmation by sound on eight small birds that passed over her earlier - bohemian waxwings

1313 It's been a real pleasure being out here this morning to do our part for the count. Missed the eagles, owls, mallards and partridge who we also expected to see. But overall a pretty decent inventory of residents, and the raccoon - who Mahoney is naming Curl - made our day

1330 Pulling away from the pond, driving up the coulee slope, we catch sight of a large raptor surveying the grassy rim. It's a juvenile bald eagle. It makes a lot of sense. With the warmer days we've been having, a lot of the snow on the south-facing slopes has melted away. No doubt the white-tailed jackrabbits have been thrown unto stark relief, with their winter fur. Easy pickings for these large birds

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll Dual Coons (27Dec10)

0843 Sspopiikimi - another dawn at the pond. We arrived about a half hour ago, and have walked around to the southeast end in hopes of observing Mrs Aapohkinniyi taking her breakfast again. Today we've brought along a video camera and set it up at the water's edge, with a good view of that part of the spring where we've seen her catching all her fish. In doing so, we disturbed three mi'ksikatsi who spent the night here. The aapsspiniiksi are just starting to depart from the river, and with all their excited honks we're sure the kingfisher will be waking up soon. There are at least three goldeneyes on the Oldman with the geese this morning, and we heard the cricket-like calls of waxwings as we took our seats up here on the levee above the spring. No magpies yet this morning, but that could have something to do with the heavy chinook winds we're getting this morning. It'll be interesting to see how the kingfisher responds to these blustery conditions

0925 While Mahoney stays at the levee to watch out for the appearance of Mrs Aapohkinniyi, I take a hike on the ice along the river cutbank in search of her home. There are dozens of cavities here, most of them carved by bank swallows. I try to peek in the larger tunnels, the ones that might be created by kingfishers, but they're far too deep, and most take an upward bend... classic aapohkinniyi construction. I also look for droppings that might be evidence of occupation, but the only white-splash I find are around rooty perches. One thing I didn't expect to find but did were areas where the ksisskstaki had scraped into the bank to chew at roots. The appearance of these scrapings reminded me very much of petroglyphs we've seen on various rocks and sandstone cliffs. I walk the whole length of the steep cutbank, then return to Mahoney. The kingfisher still hasn't arrived, but then she hadn't woken up by this hour yesterday either

1004 With the video camera running, we decide to take a walk through the nearby owl wood to look for Curl the raccoon. Now that we've actually seen him, we're determined to see more of him, maybe even sleuth out where he sleeps. We're sure it must be somewhere nearby, so that he maintains access to drinking water at the spring. As we walk along, we find some of his tracks near a pile of deadwood, but no obvious entrance to wiggle in below. Just beyond this wood pile, there is a bulberry bush that still has some berries, and dining there are five simitsiim and an ever-curious niipomakii

1034 Walking away from the waxwings, our presence disturbs a great horned owl couple, those after whom we named this part of the forest. They glide silently across the wood to land in a more distant tree, and right away the magpies are swarming around them in alarm. With the owls thus occupied, suddenly the forest around us fills with activity. There are at least a dozen waxwings, several chickadees and a downy woodpecker, all keeping close to us and feeding as quick as they can in this brief window of safety. For our part, we move toward the owls. And as we approach their tree, Mahoney spots not one, but two raccoons feasting in a bulberry bush. I have moved now wide around to the raccoons' opposite flank so we can watch them from both angles to see where they go if they depart

1101 These raccoons have an excellent dead-man's pose they take up when they suspect they're in danger of being seen. In my movement, both of the animals spot me and hang kind of limp-like over the bulberry branches. I squat down and sit still myself and eventually they come out of the pose again. The one who is higher in the brush leisurely climbs down to the ground and walks toward the cutbank and out of my line of sight. The other one eats a few more berries, then becomes preoccupied looking in the other direction, which I assume is toward Mahoney. Not wanting to disturb them further, I stand up again and retrace my wide arch around their bush to meet back up with my lady. She tells me that the one who came down walked to an old, plywood bicycle ramp concealed as trash in the undergrowth below the owl tree. Apparently the animal climbed underneath it, either because it's a great hiding spot or because it's where they're living. While it did so, one of the owls watched it and seemed fairly distressed. Probably frustrated to see such a fat meal escape, and with us there the owls couldn't do much about it. Or perhaps the raccoons know their way around owls, why else would they feed so openly with the huge birds around?

1119 Hungry ourselves now, we've retrieved the video camera and are making our way back toward north-pond and the vehicle. No telling whether the camera caught the kingfisher at breakfast. I hope so. But if not, we can always repeat the exercise

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll The Raccoon Abode (28Dec10)

0914 Sspopiikimi - set up again to try and get the kingfisher shot. Yesterday, she dove for her meal just outside of the film frame. She should be here within the next hour... Mrs Aapohkiniiyi is not an early bird

0918 A little more of the spring is iced over this morning, just a thin sheet, but it effectively blocks off at least half of the kingfisher's substantially limited feeding opportunities. The aapsspiniiksi are lingering a bit longer at the river this morning, they're actually pretty quiet. But others are starting to move about. The starling couple have returned to inspect (early claim) their nest cavity again. The magpies are on the go. And when we first arrives at the spring there was a groggy flicker perched in the canopy above, and a downy woodpecker flitting around a neighboring tree. We can hear the waxwings awakening in the owl wood behind us

0949 We leave the camera running beside the spring and walk to make our survey of the owl wood. We start by walking a cutbank above the trees on the west edge. One tree is hosting a couple dozen waxwings, and may have been their roost for the night. There's also a downy woodpecker among them. We check the old, discarded bike ramp to see if there are any raccoons in it's hollow, but it doesn't appear so. As we near the river at the high-level bridge, a female pheasant flushes from some brush. The river too has a bit more ice this morning

1011 Having circled around behind the owl wood, we then cut in and start making our way to the bulberry bush where we saw the two raccoons yesterday. Still determined to find their house, we follow their trails from the bush, winding around the forest, and ultimately leading back to the bike ramp. This time I poke my head in and have a good look. Sure enough, the two are sleeping in there, deep in the shadows, and they have a pretty decent bulberry cache there as well

1058 With the humans starting to come out, we head back over to the spring and our camera. Aapohkinniyi is not here, and when she still doesn't show in a half hour's wait, we figure she's already taken her breakfast and gone. As we're sitting, Teresa and Doug Dolman stop by. Following from our reports, they too want to catch a peek at the anomalous bird. Doug tells me there have been the odd wintering kingfishers before, in previous years, in a stretch of the river downstream where some sewage empties, keeping the waters warm and open. When the Dolmans move on, we wait another ten minutes or so, then pack up to make our own leave. Really looking forward to receiving some fresh snow in the coming week. Having successfully tracked the raccoon to it's home, I'm looking forward to taking another shot at the coyote den

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllll Feeding Magpies (29Dec10)

1324 Sspopiikimi - wrestling with another virus, my sleep was thrown off last night, and I had no energy to get out here at dawn again. But the snow has been falling since last night as well, and I can't resist the urge to make use of at least some of the daylight

1340 Of course I want to go to the spring again, to check in on Mrs. Aapohkiniiyi, but today I take a roundabout route. When I crest the levee at north-pond, I drop down the other side into the forest, winding through the trees toward the river, then making my way south. I have a big beef liver in my pack to leave for Derrick's relatives, but the only birds in the north wood right now are chickadees. When I get into the forest main, there I finally encounter a magpie. I announce myself with a quick wok-wok, then we exchange calls back and forth, me mimicking as best I can the intonations of the bird. While calling, I set the beef liver out in display on a log. Then I walk away. Now they know who has brought then food in this snow

1410 I'm surprised to find no animal tracks at all in the forest main, not even anything from the mice and voles until I'm almost to the spring. My timing to arrive at the open water couldn't be better. The mi'ksikatsi drake is here, but vacates at my approach. I set up the video camera for aapohkiniiyi, and just after I tap "record" she begins trilling from her perch in the nearby poplar. She's poised to dive, and may have been waiting for the mallard to clear out so that the pike minnows would return

1450 The kingfisher waits patiently, perched in her tree, watching into the water. I wait to her left flank, perched on the levee, watching her. A magpie arrives and it waits on her right flank, perched in a neighboring tree, watching the both of us. All three - kingfisher, magpie, and myself, form a raised line in the forest east of this small pool. Eventually, the kingfisher spots her prey. She dives headfirst, but comes out empty. She hovers breifly above the spring, the returns to her perch. It is freezing, and we wait still

1514 After an hour of sitting still, the magpie is the first to give up the scene. I follow her lead. I'm freezing, and need to move. I leave the video camera running at the spring and drop down into the owl wood for a warm-up walk. Barely into the treeline, a whitetail buck stands up. It's so camouflaged, I might not have seen it if it hadn't moved. It stares at me for a few minutes, then runs with impossible silence through the snow, dead goldenrod stalks, and fallen leaves

1533 If the owls are here today, I can't find them. The only bird I encounter in the owl wood is a downy woodpecker. I can't help but stop by the raccoon residence on my way through, now that we know where they stay. Neither of the animals have been out since the snow began, judging by the lack of tracks. When I peek in through their door, they're both curled up tightly together in the shadows, looking fearlessly out at me

1547 I thought I heard the kingfisher trill while I was off in the woods. And she must have caught her fish, because when I return to the scene, she's no longer here. Packing up my gear, I too am heading off, back through the forest main

1558 Daylight is waning fast, and already the aapsspiniiksi are returning to their communal night roost along the open river crag. I've found the male great horned owl here in the forest main, set perfectly still and fairly low against the trunk of a tree. No sign of the large female yet though

1621 When I pass again by the log at the north end of the forest main, I see the magpies have made short work of the beef liver. One of the birds lingers still in a nearby cottonwood, and we call back and forth to one another. Perhaps this is the same magpie I met on my way in, and no doubt one of Derrick's blood relatives. Instead of climbing out of the forest, I short cut across the wet-meadows and out over the ice of north-pond. It's a very strange feeling to walk on these waters I know so well from the residents who live in it

1705 A winter meal with the kingfisher is far more worthy of my attention than any medium of entertainment, and almost all tools of education. This bird chose to stay here and brave the winter, rather than traveling south to warmer climes like all her relatives. Why? Was her decision motivated by the trauma the kingfishers and bank swallows experienced last summer, when the Oldman swelled and flooded their nests out? Is she in mourning, risking her life because she doesn't care anymore? I doubt it. My suspicion is that she feels so attached to this place, our pond, that she won't evacuate for anything. I think she was born here, and I'd bet hundreds of generations of her family have lived nested and raised their fledglings here. She loves this place, so much so that she would deny both her genetics and her training to stay. But will she survive the challenge of winter at the pond? I sit with her for an hour in -10 degree weather, and I start to freeze. None of the other birds have her patience. In order to survive this season, the kingfisher has to perch for as long as it takes for a fish to pass through a shallow pocket of open springwater no wider than my living room, fish that have a kilometer-long, ice-shielded pond to utilize. What are the chances they'll explore this small, shallow window in a season with no flying insects to draw them there? No matter the temperature, even if it gets forty below, the kingfisher has to catch at least a couple fish each day or she will starve, and won't have the energy she needs to stay warm. When a pike minnow does eventually expose itself, after having sat still in the freezing wind for an hour or more, the kingfisher must dive headfirst into the waters of the spring, catch the fish in her beak, fly out of the pond with the fish wiggling, make it back to her perch high in the forest canopy, and swallow it whole. If she drops it, and there's a magpie waiting, her meal is gone... and the kingfisher will have to go back to waiting for another fish, now sitting in the cold wind with wet feathers. She's a single woman at the pond until summer, no others of her kind to socialize with. She sleeps alone in an earthen tunnel she's dug into the river cutbank. This bird understands hardship unlike anything I or anyone I know has ever experienced. And yet, she couldn't be more content. She trills when she catches a fish, she trills when she misses one