19 December 2011

Ravens And Leaf Litter

IIII ) lllllllllll Positioning The Box Trap (8Dec11)

1142 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - I've driven to the floodplain at a point a little ways downstream from my usual stomping grounds. Toward the end of last winter, I built an old-fashioned box-trap suitable for catching small mammals and grouse-like birds live. It's a bit heavy, this box, and I've been waiting for the river to freeze over so I can easily drag it by sled to the confluence. When I woke up this morning and found we were at sixteen below, I figured that at least a decent swath of the river along the shoreline would be frozen now, and so I set out to haul the trap. Unfortunately, I've overestimated the power of this brief shot of real cold, and the strip of ice along the river shore is hardly much wider than the box itself. All the same, having already brought it this far, I'm determined to pull it upstream anyway

1206 It's a slow progression from where I park to get the sled and trap down to the bank, and then to navigate it by rope along the little strip of ice. There are about a hundred aapsspini down on the river when I arrive, and of course they soon move out after witnessing this unpredictable human thing going on. Once the geese are gone, the work has me moving ahead of or beside the sled, depending on the obstacles faced, and pulling it along bit by bit, while the ice makes all kinds of twanging and crackling sounds. By the time I reach the beginning of the sandstone cliffs, I'm already hot. I have to stop and remove my ski-gloves and mask

1243 It takes me another forty minutes to maneuver the sled along the ice below the cliffs, upstream to the next floodplain. Now I've removed my jacket too, and am exploring the willow thickets looking for a good place to set-up. The tracks I'm seeing are all mountain cottontail, coyote, and magpie. There are also some fairly recent signs of porcupine visits. I'm not seeing any pheasant or partridge tracks, but then this snow only fell yesterday, so it could just be they haven't been down here since. Now comes the hard part, maneuvering my box through the tight willow maze. Once it's in place, I'll have a bite of lunch, and then there are a couple other things I want to attend to. I'd like to look around for last summer's nests in the willows, and try to find out which birds are preferring use of this area for breeding. I also need to climb the sandstone cliff to check RyeCam03. I passed the site of this game-cam on the way, and was tempted to climb up at that point, but I figure it's best to get my trap off the ice in case some other hiker happens to come along

1314 Negotiating the willows with the sled turns out to be easier than expected. I follow an old beaver canal straight from the shoreline, and deep into the thickets. Here I find a secluded place to set everything up, baited with corn in hopes of drawing pheasants or partridges, and stashed the sled a ways off where it might come in handy for moving the box into the forest later in the season, before the floods submerse these thickets. I've left my pack and jacket back at the trap site, and have brought my coffee and sandwich back to the river cutbank for a lunch break. With the waters still so open, the beavers are continuing to gather food still. From drags in the snow, I can see they were here even last night

1343 I sit down at the riverside to eat lunch, with my legs dangling off the cutbank. Upstream a short distance, there's a flock of about a dozen aapsspini on my shore. Just as I finish all I'm going to eat of my sandwich, and light up a cigarette, I hear the geese start giving their "be aware" grunts. Looking over, they're starting to paddle across to the opposite shore, and I can see why. There's a large coyote pacing back and forth on the bank, trying to figure out how to get to them. The coyote's coat is unusually orange, almost like a red fox. But this is definitely no fox. Moving quietly, I head back into the thickets to retrieve a video camera from my pack. When I return to the cutbank, the coyote's still there, but a bit out of range for any good footage. So I again move, this time upstream and out of eye-shot of the animal. But of course coyote doesn't really rely so much on eyes anyway, and when I take another peek to see if I'm close enough, he is gone. The geese are all the way over to the opposite shore now. I'll hang tight a bit to see what happens. One thing I know... if you want to know where all the action is during winter, go find the geese

1409 Nothing further transpires with the geese while I watch, and soon I'm off to survey part of the willow thickets for nests. I find a couple old nests, probably from a couple years back, and then finally one that looks more recent. This latter nest is woven primarily of thin strands of some kind of reddish root I recognize from the river shores. It may be willow, or poplar, or wild licorice. What's interesting about this nest is that it's not anchored to any branches, but just squeezed between a cluster and, given the root it's made of and it's non-uniform shape, the nest could very easily be confused with one of the many clots of flotsam found in the willows, comprised of the same materials. I have no idea what bird makes this nest, but when I come back in a day or so, I'll look for others of the same type, and hopefully sleuth-out the constructor this summer

1444 Next, I'm off to climb the cliff and check RyeCam03. As I kind of suspected, it needs to be relocated. High winds had shaken the camera loose from where I'd wedged it under a rock overhang, and it fell face down. For the night before it fell, there are two images, neither of which reveals the passer-by. I think I'm trying to do too many things at once here. My main objective in the camera's placement was to catch rodent activity, but I also aimed it at cliff-side lookout so that it might catch eagles and others as well. I take the camera and find a nice crag between some boulders where I imagine rodents will pass, and resituate the unit there. But I wouldn't want to commit to a year in this position, as I have with my other game-cams that are focused on larger animal trails. Thinking about it now, perhaps RyeCam03 should be designated a short-term mystery-solving tool. I know from previous, more snow laden winters, that there are several kinds of rodent living in these cliffs. My goal right now is to identify them. But there are plenty of other mysteries this camera might help out with... like which of these rodents is it who clips the seed heads off the wild licorice along the shoreline, or who are the ones that make their nests in the wood-work of the beaver lodge, etc. Yes, I think this camera would be better re-purposed to assist in solving some of these little mysteries

1506 So I'm now almost back to the car, with no further encounters along the way. I did, however, find a good patch of wild licorice being worked for seeds by the rodents, as well as several of their cliff-side lairs, which have licorice burrs spilling out of them. Perhaps this will be where I situate RyeCam03 next, when there's not a weekend approaching, and therefore less chance of human traffic. In any case, given that the box-trap is set, I'll be back here to check on things very soon

IIII ) lllllllllllll O’takaotsipiiyssko (10Dec11)

0923 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - with only a couple hours to work with this morning, I've again driven into the coulee-bottom downstream from the confluence floodplain and have set about to walk in along the river's edge to check on my box trap. It's been two nights since I set it out here, and I don't really expect that any of the animals will have entered it as yet, being as how it's a foreign addition to their environment

0925 There's a lot of aapsspini activity going on here this morning. I saw a flock of about fifteen up on the stubble-field above the coulee rim, then another five or six flocks of similar size lifting off the river as I drove down. Now, down by the water, there are four more flocks, with members numbering between fourteen and twenty four, spaced out from one another on both shores. I have to walk right past them to get where I'm going. As I approach, they use the same strategy as I noted last week, with certain members issuing grunts that tell the others to be alert, and the flocks on my side entering the water and drifting to join up together in a larger body with a group downstream

0948 I've barely started rock-hopping my way past the sandstone cliffs when, from somewhere across the river, I hear a call that sounds like a pig being butchered. It reminds me a bit of an electronic distress call used to attract predators. I drop my pack and start glassing the coulee slopes in that direction. Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way up, nestled in some brush, I spot a hunter... or rather a sociopathic killer. He's trying to lure coyotes, and I doubt he's planning to eat what he kills. It's really frustrating to think that this kind of wasteful killing of a supposed "pest" animal is perfectly legal, while much of the subsistence hunting, trapping, and even plant gathering I engage in are considered criminal. What a bad joke. I'm happy to see that the geese are bothered by the call and evacuating. Where the geese go, the coyotes go. If this guy had sat patiently, he wouldn't have had to wait long before one or more coyotes came around to check on the birds. With the geese conspicuously departing, this guy may have just blown his shot

0955 I continue a short distance upriver and stop at a big boulder jutting out into the river. Seeing the waters open down here during my last few visits got me to thinking it might be worth trying to set some fishing lines in the water. So this morning I've brought heavy line, hooks, weights, and prawns as bait. I anchor my line to the base of a shoreline willow, measure out enough to reach beyond the ice shelf, rig up the prawn and toss it in. My plan is to return on my way back to check on it, then again later this evening, and a third time tomorrow morning before pulling it back in for the coming work-week. Eventually, I'd like to cache a good fishing kit down here to use during my visits

1010 Moving on, I'm soon climbing a draw up the sandstone cliffs to the rocks that I resituated RyeCam03 to two nights ago, in chasing an answer to the first mystery I've assigned this camera to... namely, what rodents inhabit these cliffs? When I reach the camera and download its memory card to my portable image viewer, it is apparent that the last couple nights have been successful. The rodent visits come at all hours, but especially about three hours after dusk and three hours before the dawn. It is in one of the near dawn shots from just this morning that I get a decent image of what I'm relatively confident is a sagebrush vole. So at least part of the mystery is solved. But this vole is certainly not the only species inhabiting these cliffs, and the work to sleuth out who else is here will have to continue. I'm especially looking forward to snow-covered nights ahead too, so I can learn to match rodent species with their particular tracks

1020 A pair of ravens pass overhead as I descend from the cliff and make my way into the willow thickets at the mouth of the confluence floodplain. My box trap is not too far in, and I'm actually relieved to learn its caught nothing. Because I'd left it two nights, I worried a little that there might be an animal penned inside for this extended period. But I also recognized that most animals would avoid something so foreign for maybe a week or two before daring to investigate. In any case, none have approached the trap, that I can tell. Looking at it now, I think it needs to be camouflaged better. Perhaps I should weave some thin willows through its chickenwire sides so that it looks at least a little more familiar. That's something I may do tomorrow. For now I want to toss a couple more fishing lines in the river, and then head home to drive Mahoney on her errands

1045 I throw my next line in a little ways upriver, and figure I'll put a third one in somewhere between the other two. As I start making my way back. I decide to follow the edge of the willow thickets surrounding a small meadow. This kind of landscape feature is known as o'takaotsipiiyssko, or willow-rounds. There are several places in Blackfoot territory that bear this name. Walking the inner perimeter, I can see why people paid attention to these sites in the past. From the tracks around me - deer, coyote, cottontail, and pheasant - it's clear that this secluded little meadow is visited quite frequently. And it makes sense. Any herbivore could come eat in here, hidden from predators hunting outside the willow round, yet be able to immediately see any who entered the circle, and the willow thicket itself provides a thousand quick escape routes. It would be a good spot for ambush hunting and pheasant snaring

1119 I put one more fishing line in along the sandstone cliffs, and check on the first line, but no luck. I'm feeling the frustration of this morning's hurry. There are all kinds of exploring I'd like to do around these cliffs. One of the questions I have pertains to what insect species may be wintering or incubating here. I need to spend some serious time rock-turning and crevice-peeking. And of course there are the rodents. I'm very curious to learn whether, as I suspect, there might be bushy-tailed woodrats here. If so, they would have some decent caches hidden away, and I should be able to find them. These are some interests I'll pursue over the winter. For now, I'm nearly back to the car, an will try to return briefly before sundown...

1550 ...I've returned to check my fishing lines. Rock-hopping below the sandstone cliffs, I pass by the first line and move to retrieve the second. Not too surprisingly, it's stuck somewhere in the rocks and, maneuver as I might, it's not coming up. Eventually I pull the line slow and steady, until the tension disappears, and I've lost the hook and sinker. No good. I rig it back up with a new hook and prawn and toss it back in the river. While doing so, a pair of bald eagles circles downstream, hunting the floodplain where I've parked

1610 Moving on, I check the box trap in the willows, empty, and then attempt to retrieve the upstream fishing line. This one comes back to the surface with no resistance, until (predictably) the hook and it's in-tact prawn reach the ledge of the river ice, where they get caught fast. Again I pull until the line breaks free, and now there is a tasty and tempting prawn visible to birds at the edge of the ice, with a hook hidden inside. And I can't get out to it myself, because the ice is too thin. Clearly this fishing endeavor was not a good idea, at least not using metal hooks and lead weights. It was irresponsible. I can only hope that it will be a magpie who finds this morsel first, and not a raven. I'm certain it will be one of the two, and at least the magpie would pin the prawn down and pull it apart while eating, thus avoiding the hook. But the whole assemblage is small enough for a raven to swallow whole. I do not set this line up again for a second toss. Rather, I wrap it round and round my hand until it's all gathered, then hide it away under a rock from which I will retrieve it to reuse in a more forgiving season. Damn

1634 The last line to check, the one closest to where I've parked, also becomes hung-up on the ice ledge. How could I have imagined it would go otherwise? This time though, when I give my pull, it actually straightens the hook and enables me to bring it in. Again, I store this line securely under a rock for later. Within the week, I'll bring a container down here to keep these lines in, and find better hiding places for them out of flood range. I still have the one re-set line to deal with in the morning

1651 Just as I begin hiking away from the last line, I notice a crag in one of the lower shelves of the cliff that has licorice burrs spilling out of it. This is part of a rodent larder that continues into the crag itself, and it no doubt belongs to the same creature who snips off the tops of the licorice and eats many seeds on-site. The identity of this rodent has been a mystery to me for years, but not much longer. I put my pack down below the fissure, so I can easily find it again, then quickly walk back upstream and climb the cliff to retrieve RyeCam03. It is now set-up at the licorice larder. Hopefully the identity mystery will be resolved by first light tomorrow morning

IIII ) llllllllllllll Cliff Survey (11Dec11)

0956 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Taking the same route as my last few visits. As I arrive at the river-bottom this morning, I am greeted by a pair of magpies, who call from a cottonwood tree before flying off across the river. There are perhaps three hundred aapsspini in their usual clan-sized flocks, some of these in the air, but the majority spaced out from one another by fifty meters or more along both sides of the river. At my approach, those flocks along my shore take to the water, grunting alertness and drifting downstream to coalesce with others

1006 There are a few items on my agenda today, the first of which being to check the results of last night's game-cam images, in my attempt to learn the identity of the rodent who clips and caches wild licorice burrs, to consume the seeds within. When I get to the camera, it has recorded several shots. Most of them do not capture the animal who triggered the infrared sensors, but there are two taken back-to-back that do. Unfortunately, this mouse or vole is, in both images, turned away from the lens, hunched over, eating. I don't think I'll be able to identify it from these bum shots alone

1023 My next order of business is at a boulder that juts out into the river upstream. Here I am to retrieve the last of my three fishing lines thrown in yesterday. Not surprisingly, this line has become locked-in by surface ice. But with a bit of chipping away with my handy crowbar, I'm able to successfully extricate it - hook, sinkers, and all. This line, that would have been invisible underwater when I began the experiment, had overnight become a point of crystallization for the cold water, and when I brought it up I had a six-foot, inch thick snake of ice that I had to crush with my boot against the boulder before winding the clean line around my hand and finding a good rock to stash it under. Next time I visit, I'll bring a small container of some kind to put all three fishing kits into, and cache them somewhere accessible, but out of flood range

1036 Continuing my hike upstream, I enter the willow thickets to check on my box trap. Sure enough, overnight I managed to catch a porcupine. I'm not at all adverse to eating them, but having worked a few porcupine carcasses last winter I can now look past the appearance of largess created by a thick pelt, to judge the maturity of the animal beneath. This one is too young, probably a yearling, and I have the luxury of being able to hold out for an adult animal. So with a bit of coaxing by a tickle of its foot with my finger, followed by a few soft prods with a small stick, I'm able to convince the porcupine to shift from defense to flee mode and make its way back out into the life world

1110 Since I plan to be around for the next couple hours, I go ahead and reset the box trap. I also quickly fashion a couple rabbit snares and situate them at the entrances of two dens that I know are in use. These dens were initially dug by muskrats during flood periods, when the oxbow where the willows grow fills with water. This is where the chorus frogs and mourning cloak butterflies conduct their maiting ceremonies and deposit their eggs during the last moon of winter and the first of summer. If the high waters remain longer than that, beavers and muskrats move in, and both excavate shoreline dens to use while they feast safely on the easily accessible willows. When the waters recede again, the beaver lodges are adopted as shelters for porcupines, who are basically land-beavers, and the muskrat dens are taken over by mountain cottontails

1116 While I'm fashioning the rabbit snares, a pair of magpies at the edge of the nearby forest canopy begin issuing excited calls. I believe they're responding to what I'm doing. They continue to call once the snares are ready, as I climb up the side of the cliff overhead, until reaching a comfortable, grassy bench to set my pack on and rest. There are a lot of boulders, crevices, small caves, washouts, etc. up here. My plan is to find a new place to set up the game-cam for the next few nights, while also surveying underneath rocks to learn whether there are any obvious insect species who either themselves winter or incubate their eggs over the season on these cliffs

1138 As I begin my work on the cliff, the magpie excitement is joined by chatter from black-capped chickadees, and then the sporadic single calls of a northern flicker. Down in the meadow ringed by willow thickets, I can see a porcupine climbing a young poplar tree, probably the same animal I recently released. So far, the larger boulders are looking promising for a new location of the game-cam. I'm still pursuing further more knowledge about what species occupy these cliffs. So far, I have identified the sagebrush voles, but I know there are others. Rather than just setting up in areas that seem obvious as potential shelters for many rodents, I'm beginning to appreciate that a more helpful approach will be to find dens, larders, plant harvest areas, and other such features that can help me not only identify the species who are here, but also the particular signs of each species' activities. Around some of the large boulders I'm surveying today, I've observed den entrances and droppings that are too large to belong to mice or voles, but smaller than those left behind by rabbits. I'm thinking they may belong to bushy-tailed woodrats, but I'd like to confirm that suspicion. I've also found an area between the boulders, on a bit of badland erosion, where the russian thistles are being harvested. Without enough snow on the ground to leave tracks though, I'm not sure how recent this harvest was being made. So for now, the boulders are looking best. But there's a good drainage draw to investigate first, before I make any decisions

1150 As I move along, I turn over a couple dozen rocks in search of wintering insects, and find nothing. I know they're here somewhere... most likely burrowed deep underground, using narrow fissures in the eroded soil, or old rodent dens. If I want to increase my knowledge of the ecology of these cliffs, I might as well catalog some of the plants that grow here, and that are still recognizable to me in winter. I see pricklypear cactus, broomweed, blue-gramma, ricegrass, gumweed, sagebrush, skunkbrush sumac, moss phlox, double bladderpod, evening-star, pasture sagewort, long-leaved sage, what I think is slender wheatgrass (though I'm still not great with grass species), and rhombic-leaved sunflower. There is also some kind of vetch and a few other plants I don't recognize and probably won't be able to learn until they bloom in summer

1159 Following the drainage draw, I come to a good stretch where the heads of almost all the rhombic-leaved sunflowers have been methodically removed. It could be the work of rodents. On the other hand, it could also be the mule deer. In fact, the trail I'm following has become well-defined by mule deer passage. One of the things I'd like to do is collect samples of deer and rodent droppings from each moon cycle and plant them to find out which seeds grow. Though I won't get started on that endeavor today, I suspect some of the deer droppings up this trail would produce sunflowers

1220 I think I've settled on the new site for RyeCam03, at least for the next three or four nights. It's back at one of the first boulders I surveyed. There are two den entrances there, one on either flank. On the downhill side, there is a wind-excavated patio sheltered above by overhanging rock, and in front by some skunkbrush cover. On this patio, there are some gumweed heads that have been brought in, all the surrounding grass has been clipped to its base, and there are a few of the larger turds that I suspect were left by a woodrat. I can't see far enough into the den entrances to confirm whether they're occupied, but the presence of the gumweed heads suggests so

1252 It's no easy matter to set up at the boulder. In order to get the angle of the patio I want, and the focus distance, I have to hike down into the forest, find an adequate log to anchor the camera to, and haul it back up the cliff. Hopefully we don't get any winds strong enough to shake this log loose, but it seems pretty steady for the time being. It's starting to snow pretty heavily now, which means it might get difficult for me to drive up from the downstream floodplain. I'd best pack up my traps and get moving

1314 As I start descending the cliff, a flicker lands atop some skunkbrush above me, gives a single call, then wings away up over the next ridge. Toward the base of the slope, I check another large boulder that is split such that, from one side, a little cave has formed. This cave has been further excavated and lengthened by a cottontail who is present when I peek inside. It sits with its back exposed. I'm barely able to reach in and tickle its fur with a thin sunflower stalk, and this prompts it to shuffle and turn around. When it sees me looking in, it spins again and offers me its back. I could go through the effort of extricating this rabbit, but it would probably require harrassment and bruising that I'm not interested in committing. Better to snare them clean. Unfortunately, down at the old muskrat burrows, there's been no action. Probably most of the cottontails are sleeping off their dawn rounds right now. I collect the two snares, put them into my box trap, and disengage the trap itself. Chances are, I won't be able to return here for a few days. Besides, most of this trap and snare work has been warm-up for my soon-to-come winter break. Then I'll get serious

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll Ravens And Leaf Litter (17Dec11)

0855 It's warm and wet outside today, eight degrees above zero currently, and just four days before solstice. The rivers here are still wide open, even though the moon when they are supposed to freeze over is waning now. And at this point I'm thinking these waters will remain at least somewhat open all winter. While in the short-term this may be a glorious season as far as beaver, muskrats, geese, owls, magpies, chickadees, humans, and other fully-active and consistently-colored permanent residents are concerned, I doubt all's well among the snow-white jackrabbits and weasels, presently very conspicuous. I also suspect it's going to be a difficult haul for those who are accustomed to passing most of the winter in full torpor, or those who rely on processes of super-cooling. For these ones, every flip-flop between sharp temperature rises above the freezing point of water (such as we're experiencing today) and subsequent drops below (as we will no doubt return to shortly) requires significant energy expenditures. I would imagine that too many such fluctuations without additional food intake would equate with death. Any significant population loss in this respect, compounded with earlier end of winter thaws and longer periods of transitional rain, will have serious impacts on the timing and availability of food for both migrant and permanent summer species. Ever wonder why almost all the berries failed this year? Add to this predictable population explosions among parasites like pine beetles, who would normally be reduced homeostatically to manageable numbers over the winter...

Observe what's happening from this perspective, and the comfortable conditions we register today - as we go merrily about our annual Christmas assault on life - bring into relief the very real and dangerous systemic shift that is not of the future, but already underway. Our elder world speaks to us, yet we do not respond

1147 Sspopiikimi - A warm but windy day, eight degrees above zero, with what little snow we've had now melted except in the shadows. Having focused most of my recent attention on rodent studies at the confluence, it's been two weeks since I last walked a round here, and I'm looking forward to seeing what's new. I would have preferred a fresh snow cover. One of my favorite aspects of winter is the opportunity to try and read events written in the tracks on snow. Yet I'm sure there will be other types of learning opportunities granted today. There always are

1201 I begin by walking the west length, which I haven't bothered doing for a while, owing to the north-end pipeline construction that usually blocks me from making a full circuit. Today, however, the workers are away, and so I am able to cross their zone, hop their pipes, and set out on a complete round. As I move along, I notice a few pockets along the base of the cutbank where it's apparent the beavers have endeavored to maintain small, open pools. Even these have a thin layer of ice over them today, but both the ice and the surrounding area host a litter of bulrush stems left behind by the beavers after they'd eaten the tender bases and starchy roots. There is considerable melting underway at the pond, overall, with large puddles of water atop the ice, trenching down today as the winds ripple them across the frozen surface

1219 As I pass slowly by the bulberry and current thickets above the peninsula of the wide sout pool, I can hear chirps of a group of chickadees and the voice of a single magpie, both seeming to come from somewhere on the coulee slope. I also hear the call of a Canada goose, more clearly sourced at the base of the high-level bridge. But I don't encounter any animals at all until I drop down into the owl wood. Almost as soon as I enter, a female flicker comes to alight on a branch of the canopy above, obviously curious about me. I note her presence and continue along. Now, halfway through my round of the owl wood and not having come across any other animals, I think myself foolish for not sitting down on the spot with the flicker. Perhaps she would have continued her business in the forest, and I might have learned from something from observing her. This is a reminder to keep myself inquisitive. It's all too easy to walk through the forest, especially in winter, and really see nothing at all, though the life world is everywhere prevalent

1223 I continue through the owl wood and then up to the bench on the levee, above the abandoned garter snake hibernaculum and overlooking the river. From here, I can see there is not one goose below the high-level bridge, but thirty. I scan the skies and treeline of the opposite shore for eagles. Nothing. But this conditioned association for me of the river, geese, and eagles is today suggesting a rationale - one which probably should have been obvious before - for why I so often find geese under the bridge during the daytime. With all its mesh of steel girders, the high-level bridge offers excellent protection from predators above.

1230 As this little insight sinks in, I first hear and then see a raven exploring some of the girders above the geese. I know from my last visit that the ravens hunt pigeons who roost under the bridge, but they are generally further up, where the coulee slope meets the rail platform proper. I've never noticed pigeons down here on the girders above the river. What's more, as I watch the raven I notice there's a magpie following it... not closely, but definitely moving to inspect any area the raven has shown attention to. Not wanting to repeat my mistake with the flicker, I'm going to walk over there and try to learn what it is the raven's up to

1314 I walk the river cutbank to where I too am under the high-level bridge, and both the raven and magpie are still here, but not for long. As soon as I sit down in the tall grass to observe, the raven flies up to a girder where it can peek through some gaps in the steel lattice-work at me, and then hops up to a position that's out of my line of sight. The magpie then begins gliding from girder to girder, moving ever closer to me, stopping at each available point to look. When it is close, it wings an arch past me, still inspecting, and off into the owl wood. I search again for the raven with no success, then climb partway up the coulee slope and sit at the anchor of one of the trestle columns. I figure the raven is still around somewhere, and in any case it's always worthwhile to stay near the geese, if one hopes to witness some winter action. A few of the geese are laying down. Others are pecking around at who knows what on the ice. I don't have to wait too long before the raven again reveals itself. It is in the exact same place as I last saw it hopping toward before, a big joint in the bridge where it could easily conceal itself. It wings off into the air and joins a second raven, its partner, who has probably also been near all along. They soar in tight circles, moving away from me, but following the line of the bridge. Eventually though, they are out of sight. I determine to wait for them, and a thought occurs to me that perhaps they are here to take advantage of something that happens when a train passes. So I sit and wait for the next train. After about twenty minutes more, a train does come, passing slowly but noisily overhead. There is no appearance of the ravens. I could wait longer, suspecting as I do that they have an interest to pursue here, but I also realize that their absence is a response to my foolishness. I should have kept a good distance from the trestle, observed through binoculars, been smarter about my surveillance. My cover is blown for today, that much is clear, so I suppose it's better to move on

1344 I retrace my route along the river cutbank, back up over the levee and past the bench, down into the forest main. When I stop again, it is at the tree with the hollow where, during my last visit, I thought I might have glimpsed the elusive (more likely long gone) saw-whet owl. Today the hollow appears empty. I pick up a branch about as thick as a baseball bat, but longer, and whack a few times on the trunk to see if anyone will come out. Nobody does, but I suppose that doesn't mean it's an empty house. I don't like that I'm hitting the tree, or making loud noises. And I don't know that it would be any less obnoxious to climb up and peek in, though that's really not an option given the height and lack of supporting branches. More accessible and just as interesting is a log at the base of this tree. It is riddled with woodpecker cavities, each one filled to the brim with mouse goods. I might attempt to excavate and explore the contents of one of these nests, were I not already feeling guilty of inappropriate intrusion after my whacking of the tree. I fix the mouse log in my memory for a future visit and move on instead to my game-cam, tucked into the big bulberry brush of the wet meadow. There are not too many images on RyeCam02, considering the two week stretch since my last download. The brush has been visited intermittently by pheasants and magpies. But there is another as well, one who I thought might have moved on, having seen no sign of his presence since last year. And that is the raccoon. If only we had decent snow, I might be able to search out his winter den

1358 Leaving the wet meadow, I finish my round of the quiet forest main, then climb the levee and move toward the cutbank over the big river island, where I hope to spot the wintering kingfisher. Sure enough, she is there. My approach disturbs her. My approach disturbs her, and she goes chattering off to a different perch upstream. Actually, I haven't determined whether the bird is male or female. Last year's wintering kingfisher was female, and for now I'm just assuming she's the same. But the literature describes the males as the more likely winter candidates in northern regions, sticking around to keep dibs on their breeding territories. I can still see our kingfisher here, even on the more distant perch. But as usual, I'm looking southward at her, with the sunglare in my eyes, and she has her back turned toward me, so I can't see her breast to determine sex. In any case, I've begun to hear magpie calls from the north wood, so I might as well go see what that's about

1424 The magpie is gone, or at least gone silent, by the time I enter the north wood. All is quiet here. Only skeletal trees, leaf litter, and the frozen puddles of flooding remaining from the construction work of the other day. Ahhh... but the leaf litter. Now here is something I have not yet made a study of. Surely there is much to learn in and of the life world that exists beneath this blanket. The birds, for their part, are not ignorant of it. During my last few visits, I myself have witnessed magpies, chickadees, and flickers all exploring the forest floor. The magpies appeared, at that time, to be visiting caches near the bases of trees. But what if in fact they were hunting at the most likely places to find food? I select three trees and, with the aid of a branch, pry back the leaves immediately around the base of each one. Even with how warm it is today, I'm amazed. There are spiders scurrying everywhere, two species that I see, but one whose members are especially abundant. The leaf litter itself seems comprised of at least two layers - those leaves that have fallen recently, this season, loosely packed, and a more dense wall of old rotting leaves beneath. Because this north wood is a major flood zone, the trees all have trenches several inches deep, carved out by the flowing waters and ringing the base of their trunks. This seems indeed to be where the life is most dense. Out beyond the trench, the lower, denser packing of leaves hardly exists. When I get actually to the ground level, there are more than spiders. I find a frozen worm, a small ground beetle of a species I don't recognize (with a slightly metallic green sheen to the head, and brown wing-covers), a slightly larger sidewalk carabid beetle, and a true bug I don't recognize. All of these, the spiders, insects, and worm, I locate in hardly more than ten or fifteen minutes haphazardly raking back the leaves. Yes, in addition to further observations of raven activities at the high-level bridge, I think this study of winter life in the leaf-litter would make a good project for the season

1435 Pleased with my simple discoveries, I climb out of the woods, over the levee, and down to north-pond, so I can make my way back to my car. On the route, I find that one of the largest cottonwoods at the extreme end of north-pond has toppled, a victim of the construction flooding that has been ceaselessly flowing across/under the soil that secured its roots and trunk. Several other trees, its family, are in similar danger. The city, as I now understand it, is not only routing drainage with the new pipelines being laid, but also horizontal drilling and piping for sewage to be moved east across the coulee, underneath the river, to a treatment facility downstream. I suppose the loss of a few good trees in the process is not considered to be problematic

05 December 2011

Small Wolf Cap

IIII ) lll Small Wolf Cap (30Nov11)

1015 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - it is possibly makoyisttsomo'ki (wolf cap) day, or what may pass for it this year. Woke up to high winds and sticky, wet snow that greased the roads so quickly I had to cancel my lecture at the college this morning and stay home. Figured it's a good opportunity to hike down at the confluence and change my dead batteries out of RyeCam01. I also picked up a third game cam, and will be looking for someplace appropriate to situate it. We're not really supposed to go outside hiking around during makoyisttsomo'ki. In the past, this kind of wet snow, sticking to anything vertical, was considered the most dangerous of winter storms, both innaugerating and closing the season. Today, with gum boots and snow suits, it's not quite so much of a threat for the person on foot. We're overdue to receive ours this season, and what's happening today is relatively minor compared to many such storms I've been in. Nonetheless, I'm still glad to be off the road

1031 I'm already down to the sagebrush flats, having taken the straightest route to the bottom of the slope today. About two-thirds of the way down, I encountered a whitetail doe who was bedded down in the grass. As I approached, she stood up and ran down, across the flats, and into the forest. I myself followed almost the same path, and am now walking the edge-zone of the treeline, moving east toward the sandstone cliffs that meet the river at the downstream end of this floodplain

1048 I've now passed the end of the forest, and am walking between sandstone cliffs and a wide patch of rabbit (or sandbar) willow that grows at the start of the oxbow corridor. Here I have to strip off a bit of clothing. As cold as it felt in the exposed winds at the rim of the coulee a half hour ago, I'm now sweating. The standing temperature, to begin with, is not terrible at one degree below zero. I've overdressed, wearing a light thermal onesy, snow pants, a sweater, jacket, gum boots, mask, ski gloves, and touque. Of course, it's better find oneself needing to remove clothes than to come down here inadequately prepared, which is a lesson I learned the hard way one time, when the muscles of my legs threatened to quit working at thirty below. I stop, remove the sweater and let my upper body cool down for a bit before replacing my jacket. I also take off the ski gloves and exchange them for relatively light fishing gloves that are without fingertips for the thumb and first two digits (I'd packed these along for just such a need). While I go through this down-dressing, a small flock of fourteen aapsspini take off from the river, flying a loose circle around the floodplain, looking for another river site to land at. When they first take wing, a magpie in the forest gives a four-call. I'm still too far away from the river myself to be responsible for having provoked the geese. There's probably a coyote or eagle out that way. I'll be there soon

1110 As I near the river, three more small flocks take to the air, numbering 18, 18, and 24 in members. All three wing away upstream. Again, I don't think that my approach is what frightened them. In fact, when I reach sight of the river itself, there are four more groups - numbering 17, 17, 25, and 14 - who do not take wing at all, even when I begin walking along the narrow bit of earth and rock between the base of the sandstone cliffs and the river, heading in their direction. Rather, a single member from the larges group begins issuing a grunt call every ten seconds or so that I recognize as their "be aware, be ready" signal. At the same time, the two smaller flocks upstream use the currant to float as rafts toward the larger group, while the smaller flock downstream paddles in single file along the shoreline toward the same body. There are also other small flocks further downstream that I can see, and after climbing up a draw leading to an overlooking cliff, I watch a couple of these other groups join the larger collective as well. Once they are all joined, the excited signal to fly is issued, and the big flock moves upstream together. It is fairly unusual to find even this relatively small number of geese at the river midday in winter. Normally they would be up on the stubble-fields above the coulee rim. I can only presume that the weather is what's kept them at the water today. They probably know, as I do, that though the snowfall seems fairly light, its particular quality makes it dangerous. This is what the wolf cap is all about

1120 The cliff that I'm standing on is one that I've come to visit several times at dusk throughout the past few winters. Where the river meets these cliffs, there is a bend, and I don't know if it's something about the water right here, or if it's the shelter of the cliffs themselves, but even on the coldest nights there will always be an open crag in the ice. At sundown, when the shadow is just getting so dark that our human eyes can't see clearly, the aapsspini will come here, flock after flock, until there are two or three thousand crowded around. There are other such spots along the river I know of, and the same thing happens at these. During the night, as the coyotes move, so too do the large collectives shift among sites. I like this cliff in particular because it is the perfect saaamissapi, or lookout-point, from which to witness the event. It would be equally perfect as such for taloned hunters, and I've witnessed many eagles pass close - at eye level - from this site. This is where I intend to situate RyeCam03. There is a perfect perch, a large sandstone rock, dangling out over the cliff edge. And not far from this, there is a nice little weathered-away crevasse that I can wedge the camera into. Hopefully, from this setting, I will capture images not only of the birds who visit, but also of the small rodents who use the shelter of the crevasse as a protected passageway

1202 Before leaving the cliff, I had a magpie fly-by. And now, about half way through the forest heading upriver through the oxbow corridor, I've just had another. They're keeping an eye on me, I suppose. All the way along, I've been scanning the trees for owls, porcupines and the like, as well as listening for chickadees, woodpeckers, tree sparrows, and others. I find none of them, only a mule doe and a whitetail doe, spaced about a hundred meters apart, each having been bedded down in the chokecherry brush that lines the corridor. Otherwise, the forest is quiet and most who are here remain hunkered down... again, I believe, as a response to the weather. The snow, for the moment at least, has ceased. Now, far from the cliffs or coulee slope, the wind is stronger

1215 A couple years ago, one of the trees skirting the mid-forest meadow broke about eight feet up its trunk and fell in such a manner as to create the perfect frame against which to build a comfortable shelter. Since then, when I pass this area, I sometimes add a log or two to the structure, with the intention of eventually having a research station of a sort. Usually, when I do this, it kindles a daydreaming process, and today is no exception. The first thought that comes is I start thinking about how I really would like to set a couple days aside to do nothing but invest myself in the project, to ready it at least for overnight occupations. Then I begin imagining what it could be if enhanced by stucco made of the grey clay that seeps out of the sandstone cliffs, mixed with the dry brome of the meadow. And this possibility, far from fantastic, leads me down a trail of thought about which of our contemporary technologies actually do support life as a human, and all the rest that are nothing but unnecessary luxury and entertainment. I mean, if I was to live in this coulee, what would I want to bring with me, or have access to, from our mainstream technology set? Right away, I know I would want to be able to keep steel - as in having access to acquire, when needed, steel pots, bottles, and blades (knives, machetes). And it would be very helpful to have wool clothing and blanketing available. But beyond wool textiles and steel, then it really seems we branch off into the extraneous and unnecessary. I consider such things as I hike further through the forest, and it dawns on me that in spite of the fact that today's snow is wet, sticky, and dangerous, if I were living down here, I'd be celebrating its arrival, because with the snow comes easy access to clean water... and water, in this environ, especially with how grossly polluted our rivers are (even though we're close enough as to be within sight of their source), would be key. Hunger can be assuaged for a bit. Thirst really cannot

1241 I daydream my way through the remainder of the forest upstream, still seeing and hearing nothing other than my own footprints in the snow, and there follow the hawthorn draw to where I keep RyeCam01. Sure enough, new batteries brings the unit back to life. Unfortunately, I've missed capturing images of some small animal today, perhaps even a weasel, given the size and spacing of the tracks. In any case, I revive the camera and sit for a smoke, before starting my climb back up the slope. As I relax, three small aapsspini flocks pass by, following the river upstream. Their size is comparable those of the other flocks I've witnessed today, roughly fifteen members each

1325 When I've marched about two-thirds of the way up, I notice suddenly a large mule buck on a bench of land a bit below me. He is walking along swinging his antlers at the grass as if in mock-battle. Immediately, I drop to the ground and move on my stomach until I can see him again. Now the buck has ceased his play, and I notice also a second large buck following him, and a doe short distance below them both. All are feeding on the plants of the slope, though on what exactly I don't know. As I watch, the second buck turns around and drops down to meet the doe, who has turned her back on him. He pauses long to look at her back-side, and I expect to see him mount, but he never does. Instead, he eventually walks along beside her and begins to eat. I continue watching for another ten minutes or so, but when there are no significant changes in activity I continue my ascent. It would have been nice to come upon them before the bit of antler display that I witnessed, to have caught more of the communications between the two bucks. Now I am back at the car though, and ready to go find some cold water to drink

IIII ) lllll Gathering Kinii (2Dec11)

1016 Sspopiikimi - I've arrived this morning to find that the trenching which blocked access to the parking area last week has been filled-in, and assumedly the pipe laid. However, when I get out of my car, a backhoe driver pulls up beside me to suggest I park back off the side of the road again, since they would be fitting other pipes together and likely block me in. I recognize that this was my opportunity to ask some of the questions I've had about the purpose of all this work. But in the moment, I wasn't thinking, and simply attended to the recommended relocation. Now I'm walking along the highway on-ramp toward the levee to begin my hike and survey. There is no wind today. It's a comfortable one degree below zero

1043 Rather than walking the levee itself, I decide to begin the way I ended last week, by exploring the owl wood. In particular, I move south following the tree-line that runs parallel to the river. About half-way through, my approach frightens a bird. I see it fly across the river, and I know approximately where it landed, but I can't seem to pick it out with my binoculars. The impression I got, in the few seconds I had to watch it, was that this was probably the same "small falcon" I observed fleeing in similar manner last week. Today, however, it strikes me as less falconish of wing, and I am optimistically hypothesizing that it is not a merlin or kestrel at all, but the elusive northern saw-whet owl who not so long ago visited the brush where my game-cam is hidden. If so, I've twice encountered it in the treeline along the river, though a bit further upstream last week. Next time I visit, I will have to be exceptionally stealthy in my movement along this line, and hopefully spot this bird before it notices or at least flies away from me

1122 When I come to the end of the north wood, I continue to follow the river cutbank until entering the next treeline. The Oldman is even more open today than during my last visit, even the oxbow on my side is running. Before re-entering the trees, I can see a kingfisher perched above this oxbow, but it is backlit, so I can't confirm whether it is a female, and therefore perhaps the same bird who wintered here last year. By the time I get to the other side of her perch, she's gone. All the way along through the trees, I collect kinii from the prickly roses. I pocket most of the berries I gather, but am never without one in my mouth. A pair of magpies follow me, curious about my berry collecting perhaps. I also notice that the grosbeaks have completely cleaned the seeds off their green ash tree, and are no longer present themselves. At the south end of this treeline, I sit down on a bench above the abandoned garter snake hibernaculum. There are two male goldeneyes diving for minnows in the river, four aapsspini standing on ice below the nearby high-level bridge, and a raven calling from somewhere upstream. No sign of any eagles

1151 Continuing on, I maintain my course along the river cutbank, continuing to pick, pocket, and eat rose hips along the way. A female downy woodpecker flies in close and lands on a bulberry push, which she explores briefly before exploding in chatter and subsequently departing. When I come near to the high-level bridge, I change direction and head north into the owl wood. There's still a bit of snow on the ground, and as I move between the trees I see tracks of coyote, deer, and deer mice, but definitely not raccoon. Today the kakanottsstookiiksi are absent as well, even from their favorite tree. Soon I am through to south-pond, where I again sit for a break above the wide pool. All is iced-over at the pond. There are large milky areas where I can tell the snow of two days ago melted in, and other spots so clear as to look deceptively like open water. All is thin

1225 Followed by a watchful magpie, I round the wide south pool and drop into the forest main, where now, instead of kinii, I eat aapssi, or silver berries, as I walk along. Like with the owl wood, there is evidence that the coyotes and deer have been following the same paths I'm using. But when I eventually reach RyeCam02 in the large bulberry brush of the wet-meadows, neither animal appears in any of the images. Nor has the saw-whet returned. The only passers-by this week have been the magpies and pheasants

1259 I am on my way to the vehicle, having just climbed out of the forest and back onto the levee, when some event transpires with the geese. From over the coulee rim, several flocks descend, until there are between four and five hundred aapsspini. I try to get into the north wood before they arrive, but am not quick enough. I believe they'd intended to land around the big river island. But seeing me near, they circled around a few times and then decided to move to a different location downriver. As the geese depart, a trio of magpies swoop down, landing near to me, and begin picking around in the leaf litter at the base of a certain tree. I'm sure they are checking a cache, and I'd like to know what they have there. When my gaze becomes too apparent, the three fly further into the wood. I then check the leaf litter myself at the same spot, but find nothing. I doubt the magpies have gone far. In fact, I suspect they are watching me. If so, they're not the only ones. While I search for the cache, a group of five niipomakii arrive. Most of them pretend to hunt for insects in the crevices of tree bark, but I know they're mainly interested in me. One of them even comes down to pick around in the leaf litter with me, hardly an arm's length away. Neither of us find anything though, and soon we both give up. As the chickadees move off, traveling from tree to tree, I walk north, passing again the magpie trio, who now watch me from the canopy, and continue to my car

IIII ) llllll Song Succession (3Dec11)

1337 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - getting kind of a late start to my hike this afternoon, but the temperature is above zero with only a slight wind, so no complaints from me. There are about fifty aapsspini in the stubble-field above the coulee rim when I pull up, and no flocks that I can immediately see down on the river, but of course that's quite a ways. I want to follow the same route here as I did a few days ago. Anticipation of images from the new game-cam (RyeCam03) has been eating at me. At the very least, I want to be confident that the unit is functioning before I leave it alone for a week or more

1405 Though my general trajectory and specific destinations remain, I find myself drawn to taking a slightly different route down the slope, one that brings me through some badland fossil beds. I never know what might be emerging from the earth here, where fragments of ancient crocodile bones and turtle shells litter the tables created by one of the more resilient sedimentary layers. Nothing too exciting in this regard reveals itself today. However, I do notice some tiny, white objects embedded in one of the drainage draws. At first I assume they are fossilized shells. But when I look closer, I recognize them as prickly pear seed husks. They have been flushed by drainage out of some rodent dens above. Using the torch on my iPhone, I attempt to look inside these small caverns. In them, I see caches of rhombic-leaved sunflower heads. These cavities go back a ways though. It would be fun to explore them with an inspection scope

1445 Time seems to disappear as I complete the rest of my descent and begin walking the edge-zone between forest and sagebrush flats, and then forest and sandstone cliff, and then willow thickets and sandstone cliff, and finally river and sandstone cliff. Just as I arrive at the first of these transitions, there is a sudden burst of brush-crashing sound. Three mule deer and two whitetail deer (all female), scramble to depart, each species using its own particular strategies - the mules hopping up a draw in the cliff to get above me, the whitetails running deeper into the cover of forest. At the next transition, between willow and cliff, I find mountain cottontails, many of them. I spot at least five, owing to their tendency to flee when I step close. But I'm sure there are many others here as well. This is the site where I sometimes set out rabbit snares in winter. The population is large here not only because there are extensive patches of mature, close growing sandbar willow, but also because muskrats and beavers have excavated excellent shelters all along the banks of the oxbow canal in years of flooding, which the cottontails are happy to claim as their homes. I'm considering taking a different approach to any snaring I might do here this year. The coyotes and their magpie allies know this place too. In fact, there is a pair of magpies waiting here right now. They are all too apt at securing any cottontails I snare before even half the day has passed, and I move to check the run

1525 After the willows, I am quickly up and down the cliff to check the new game-cam, then back past the rabbits and on along the deer trails in the oxbow corridor leading through the forest. The camera is definitely functioning. There are several images on the memory card, most of them of myself moving away from and back to the site, but also some night shots that include just a partial shot of what I think is a rodent. It is really difficult to make out. I figure I'll leave it going in the same position a few more days, and then decide whether or not to resituate for more clarity

1541 Dusk is not long away now, and I am moving faster than I should be. Much faster. It takes the chatter of a downy woodpecker to break me of the speed. She is high in the canopy and, when I look up in her direction, I notice there are a few other birds perched high as well. They appear, from a distance, to be starlings, but I take out my binoculars just to make sure. When I aim the glass in their direction, a larger bird, which I hadn't even noticed before, take wing from beneath them and glides silently past another dozen trees before finding a perch. It is a great-horned owl, one half of the couple who nest within a hundred meters of here, in a tree at the edge of the mid-forest meadow

1641 I stop in the mid-forest meadow as usual, to throw a couple more logs on the shelter. For how many times I've done this, I sometimes wonder whether another visitor might have the opposite ritual, taking a few down on each pass. While I'm doing this, the geese return to the river from their stubble-field feeding grounds. And by the time I get out of the forest and over to my other game-cam, the kakanottsstooki couple are singing their serenade duet. The second camera has lots of images - all mountain cottontails, porcupines, and coyotes. As I look over the images, I can hear another bird calling from below, a juvenile great-horned owl, still using his begging pleas

1714 Last to sing are the coyotes, their greeting howls and yips sounding from families spaces all over the coulee. I march my way up the slope, and again at about two-thirds of the way to the rim see a trio of mule deer on a shelf below me. The three look up. It's too dark for me to tell whether it might be the same couple bucks and doe from the other day

IIII ) lllllll Oriole Nest (4Dec11)

0953 Sspopiikimi - it's colder today, seven below, and for a few hours last night we got another little blast of wolf cap snow, leaving some of the roads a bit icy this morning. For this reason, as well as one other, I've elected to park on the coulee rim rather than drive down the slope. Not that the road would be that terrible, but it's not worth the tension. And besides, I know where there's a huge patch of saa'ksoyaa'tsis (stinging nettle) up here, and this is a good season to gather lots of it for twining without interrupting its reproductive cycle. That'll wait for my climb back up at the end of my hike. The main reason I'm here today is to search the forests slowly and thoroughly for the saw-whet owl. Christmas Bird Counts are coming up, and I would love to be able to find this particular bird when the time comes. More than this though, I just want to confirm my suspicion that it's still here

1000 The route I take down the coulee slope passes directly under the high-level bridge, where the saa'ksoyaa'tsis grows. I'm surprised to find, in the same area, several bushes loaded with bulberries. We hardly had any berries at the pond this year, and I hadn't suspected these bushes would have any either, so I never checked. But it makes some sense to me. One of my hypotheses about why the berries failed was that misamssootaa, the long-rains, were too extensive this time around. There were four or five weeks of fairly steady rain that arrived just as the flowers on the berry bushes were blooming. By the time the rains subsided, the flowers were played out, and I doubt many pollinators had an opportunity to visit them. But up here, the bridge may have shielded the bushes from at least some of the intense soaking

1011 Before I'm completely down off the slope, I stop on a ridge looking out over the owl wood, and now my search begins. I carefully glass every branch within view for birds. There are four magpies in the wood, and they're already aware of me, looking up and giving four-calls. I don't see any owls though

1029 I move a bit further down the slope and glass the owl wood again. While I'm searching, a flock of thirteen aapsspini rise off the river and pass overhead. When they're almost out of view, the four magpies emerge, flying up into some brush on the ridge I've just descended, curious about what I'm up to. I continue on, and move to the south end of the owl wood, where it meets the river. There are no geese on the ice under the high-level bridge at present, nor any goldeneyes on the open water that I can see

1131 The magpies follow me at a distance into the owl wood, where I begin moving very slowly, just a couple steps at a time, and thoroughly surveying every tree. About half-way through, a downy woodpecker couple came to meet me, calling and chattering. The two seemed very pleased to have me in their territory. They followed me closely until I was near the north end of the wood, and at that point the male moved ahead and led me to the tree cavity they've excavated and are occupying. Along the way, I see no owls, not even the kakanottsstookiiksi. From this, I must assume the usual couple are not roosting here this year. If they were, I would have seen them. The small great-horned I came across a couple weeks ago must not have been the male of the pair, but was probably one of their juveniles, and it must have found somewhere else to stay. What I do find, however, is something beautiful that I've been trying to get my hands on for the last couple years... an oriole nest. It is not either of the nests I've been keeping my eyes on, those high in the canopy that haven't been shaken loose by even the strongest winds and (in the one case) heaviest snows. It's a third nest I hadn't come across before, and it is woven to a branch low enough that, with the assistance of another very long branch, I'm able to bring it down, anchorage and all. What a treat, this finely woven little bag. I can't wait to inspect it closely at home and decipher each of the kinds of fibers used in its construction

1217 After the owl wood, I travel just as carefully through the trees along the river cutbank. The magpies are still keeping an eye on me, as well as others... yes, there are others. The regular parking area must be open now, and I've seen two joggers, one very unfortunately with a canine companion who barked. This alone might foil my hopes for a saw-whet sighting. There are three male common goldeneyes on the river now that I can see. While entering the south end of the treeline, an immature bald eagle soared in tight circles overhead, moving slowly upriver. Now at the north end of this treeline, I've encountered a northern flicker. No owls yet. I have only the north wood and forest main left to survey

1254 I begin my search of the north-wood by following the tree-line along the river, where I had a possible saw-whet sighting two days ago. Today, however, there are no birds other than the five magpies whose territory this is, and now they are following me south again through the heart of the wood. The construction flooding that began here a couple days ago has continued, and now there is a considerable puddle extending below the trees. Strange it's not iced over. I'm starting to lose hope in ever getting a confirmed sighting of this little owl. It's reminding me of the long-eared owl at the confluence a few winters back. After one very close encounter and a couple distant sightings, I searched the floodplain forest day after day for a week or more to no avail. Of course, the benefit of taking the time to conduct a search for a bird who's not even supposed to be here (and probably isn't any longer), is that I get to see more of the other residents who are present. It pays to move slowly and alertly like a grazing deer through the forest

1328 My last encounter of the north wood is with the black-capped chickadees. There are four of them, and they must feel cold, because today they have no time for me in their busy search for food. I then climb over the levee and enter the forest main, my last chance for the sighting I've come for. I hike about half-way through, moving a bit faster now, then cut over to the wet-meadows and bulberry brush where I keep RyeCam02. Just as I come within view of the brush, a whitetail doe bursts out and runs to the forest. Then, following the trail into the brush, there are pheasant tracks. I'm sure the game-cam will have caught images of both these animals. But when I download the memory card into my photo viewer, there is only one picture, and it is a magpie. I must remember to bring a package of meat down here with me during my next visit. These magpies are, after all, Derrick's consanguineal kin, and I owe them for the joy they've brought to my life. I know they're fine on their own in summer. But when the freeze comes on, they often have to resort to eating coyote scat in order to get any energy. I should be bringing them gifts

1353 Leaving the wet-meadows, I continue my survey of the forest main. Though this may be the happening place in summer, during this season it is extremely quiet. I come across another flicker. I'm aware of the magpies watching me. Toward the south end of the forest, there is a cottonwood tree with a hollow where a large branch once broke off. The hollow is too high for me to see clearly into, but with my binoculars it looks very much like there's an animal in there. I take a couple shots with my 500mm lens and move on

[Note: The images by no means help me confirm anything, but it does appear to me that there's an eye looking out of the darkness at me. Could this be the winter roost of the saw-whet?]

1434 I exit the forest main at its south end tired and defeated. My search today has lasted more than four hours. I retrieve the oriole nest, which I'd stashed in some chokecherries by the owl wood, and climb the coulee slope once more. I'm feeling so drained, I don't even think I'm going to gather any of the nettle that had been half my rationale for parking up on the rim in the first place. But then something exciting occurs. As I come below the high-level bridge, a raven flies into view. I call out to him in my best throaty raven impression, and in response he immediately lands on the bridge to look me over. I give a couple more calls, then he offers one that's far more authentic and takes wing again. As he does so, a flock of thirteen rock doves explode from nearby and the raven swoops uncommittedly at them. Now I'm dropping my pack and trying to retrieve my camera in case he actually takes out a pigeon, but the raven calls once more and disappears across the river. Now it dawns on my why the eagles always survey the bridge so closely as they pass. I'd known there were pigeons here, but never put two and two together. This little event alone serves as a sufficient pick-me-up, and I do stop to gather is sizable bundle of saa'ksoyaa'tsis before hiking the last leg to my car. It's been a good day, a good few days. Tomorrow I'm back in the office, but the winter holidays are approaching, and I'm already planning my coulee agenda, given all I've experienced these last few hikes

28 November 2011

Dialogs With Deer And Sparrow

II Northern Saw-Whet (25Nov11)

0929 Sspopiikimi - I've arrived this morning to confirm, as expected, that the big pipeline trenching has begun, making access to the pond even more difficult. I've parked off the side of the lane merging east onto Hwy 3, and from here will attempt to hike in and gain access via the river or levee-walk. No telling whether this will be possible though. I may very well need to drive around and park among the residences on the coulee rim, and drop down from there instead

0941 Despite the obstacles, I am able to access the levee and follow it to north-pond. Now I just have to hope my car doesn't get crunched by a bulldozer or dump truck, or alternatively towed by the city. Anyway, we've recently experienced two days of heavy chinook winds that came through in excess of a hundred kilometers an hour, eating all the remaining snow as it passed. This was followed by yesterday's calm and relative warmth, at one degree above zero. Today it's supposed to be even warmer, but the wind has picked back up, and it doesn't feel comfortable at all. At north-pond, all the waters are frozen tight, even where the flooding from the construction, which continues still, is entering in

0947 With the pond frozen-over, most of the wildlife action will probably be taking place along the Oldman. I walk over to the high cutbank overlooking the big river island to scope things out. All is much as it was last week. The main stream is still just a little ways after the high-level bridge, and down past my position, though the oxbow that moves along this side of the big island is mostly solid now. Upstream, nearer the bridge, I can see five aapsspini standing on the ice. I'll make my way over to them eventually, but might as well head to my game-cam on the wet-meadows first

1006 As I drop down into the forest main to start my way toward the wet-meadows, I'm reminding myself not to rush anything this morning. My last couple visits to the pond, though each turning up new birds we'd never seen here before, felt hasty. The pond, river, and forests all seemed too quiet. But I know that even in the worst of winter, when it feels like life has abandoned this place, and that nothing at all is happening, it's only because I've failed to concentrate and expand my perceptions. There's always something interesting happening here, one just has to have the right eyes to see it. No sooner does this reminder cross my mind, then I scan the forest canopy and notice a large porcupine, sitting high on a heavy branch near the cathedral. To get a better look, I reroute and climb back up the levee. I think this porcupine may be the one we call The Blonde. She's mature and pale enough. Noting my presence, she turns her head to give me a bored glance, then - in classic porcupine fashion - repositions her body on the branch so that her back is turned my way. Nearby, I can hear the pine grosbeaks. They're still working seeds off the same green ash that I found them eating a week ago

1012 The grosbeaks allow me to sit very near to them (a trait they are known for). There is one male and eight females, plus others I can hear calling from the forest main. As I watch them, a downy woodpecker arrives, perhaps interested in gaining my attention. It picks around in the cottonwood bark on the nearest tree-trunks. Then a magpie soars in, landing somewhere in the brush near the river cutbank, and all of the sudden the other birds burst into the air in a tight group that sweeps away into the forest main. Could the magpie have provoked such a stir? No... there is a small falcon, a merlin or kestrel, gliding out across the river, being pursued by the magpie. I just catch glimpses of the predator between the trees as it departs. It could have very easily have been perched here the whole while. It's a good reminder: whenever a magpie comes nosing around, there's always a good reason. Find that reason

1023 I remain seated under the ash tree. The bulk of the grosbeaks have not returned yet, though there are two females back here feeding now, and the songs of the others in the forest main are picking up and moving closer. But while I've been waiting, I've noticed a couple other birds. Off in the distance, I occasionally hear the unmistakable chatter of a kingfisher. This is exciting, because it suggests a winter holdout, just like last year. I also observed a smallish waterbird landing near the shore of the river opposite me. I suspect it is a goldeneye, and will move to confirm this, just as soon as I check the status of the south-pond spring, and whether or not the kingfisher is feeding there

1044 The sight of a small bird perched on a limb overhanging the river cutbank prompts me to reroute again. Sure enough, it is the kingfisher, and on my approach he/she flies chattering away downstream. Peeking over the edge of the cutbank myself, I find - just below the kingfisher's perch - three common goldeneyes, two males and one female. The males whistle-wing upstream immediately, while the female cranes her neck trying to figure out what the threat might be. Eventually she too spots me and moves to join her companions. Must be a good spot for minnows. Just as the female departs, a trio of mallards in the same distribution (two drakes, one duck) come flying in from an unknown direction and pass over the forest main, as though heading to the pond. I myself find a deer trail to follow along the cutbank and walk south, with an aim to eventually reach the owl wood. Along the way, I pass willows whose bark has been shredded (earlier in the season), no doubt by the young whitetail buck who'd been visiting my wet-meadows game-cam. I also come across three unidentified scats, too large for deer, too small for coyote, too un-uniform for porcupine of beaver. They are red in color, and when broken apart seen to be comprised entirely of plant material, a uniform paste, perhaps bark mixed with bulberry. My best guess is a porcupine with a slightly troubled stomach

1100 There definitely won't be much action observed at the south-pond spring this winter. When I come up from the river cutbank to cross over into the owl wood, I see the spring is all but iced completely over. The opening now is hardly twelve inches in diameter. The river water that had, through all the years we've known, passed underground to resurface here, currently are not. I sit down at the bench above the now-abandoned gartersnake hibernaculum to smoke a cigarette, and down below I can see a female mallard at the edge of the river ice, as well as the three previously-noted goldeneyes, distant enough to feel secure, diving for minnows. Above, a mature bald eagle comes soaring in from the east coulee rim, reaches the river, and turns to glide upstream. Now to check the owl wood

1120 The owl wood is, as usual, deceptively quiet. As I walk through, I occasionally pull a bit of bark off some of the cottonwood snags. I miss the insect presence in winter, and the under-bark is one of the places where there are some to be found. At the same time, I don't like to pull too much of the bark, because each piece I remove is a bit of potential habitat destruction. So I don't pull much of it this morning, and what I do exposes no insects... just an old chrysalis shell and a small cache of bulberries, five or six of the fruits stashed by a magpie or mouse. At the south end of the wood, I check the old, rotting bike jump in the brush that last year served as a den for raccoons. There is no sign of them using it this winter. No scat, no berry store. Not surprising, given that the usual bulberry crop is practically non-existent this round. At least in this manner, I look forward to snow days ahead, and the opportunity for tracking the whereabouts of some of the invisible mammals. There's no better chance to actually see raccoons at the pond than in the winter. But it takes a carefully, as with many other opportunities here. And as though to emphasize this point of thought, I am almost back out of the owl wood, preparing to climb the levee over to south pond again, when I pass the favorite roosting tree of the resident kakanottsstookiiksi, and almost miss seeing the male owl entirely. He is so camouflaged. If I did not already know how much they like this particular small tree, I would never had spotted him... even though he's perched at almost eye-level and very close to my trail. His mate, who is also undoubtedly present somewhere near, has watched me move through the wood completely oblivious

1136 Leaving the great-horned owl, I cross over the levee to explore the bulberry and currant thickets above the peninsula on the southwest end of the pond. In addition to the expected mountain cottontails scurrying through the brush here, I'm surprised to find three house finches sticking it out in the cold. There could even be more. The three I see, two of whom wear male red plumage, flitter away up one of the brushier coulee draws. I also come across an amazing little warbler nest, set low in some bulberries, and packed to the rim with warm fuzzies... deer hair, the little cottony floats off some kind of flying seed, perhaps Canada thistle (what are those downy parts called?). I snake a finger into the nest and find it definitely body-heat warm, though I roust no mice, nor do I sense the flesh of any pinky newborns. Perhaps the resident departed unseen as I approached. I'll have to keep an eye on this one

1157 I next wind my way around the edge of south-pond an onto the wet-meadows, where I begin flipping planks from the old boardwalk. I'm not expecting much, considering the lengthy flooding of the wet-meadows that occurred this summer, but I have to know for sure how it may or may not have affected the insects. Sure enough, there are hardly any wolf spider egg sacks, not to mention centipedes and live-frozen beetles. I do come across one hibernating saltmarsh moth larva, which is curious (I usually find them under logs along the forest paths). Eventually, I come to the big bulberry patch where I keep RyeCam02, and here there is a welcome reward. In addition to several passes by coyotes, magpies, a lone pheasant and a whitetail doe, there is a perfect night-shot of a bird I've never seen before - at Sspopiikimi or elsewhere - outside of captivity. In one of the frames, there is an unmistakable northern saw-whet owl perched right in front of the camera. Brilliant. This kind of (for me) rarity is exactly why I've bothered setting up game-cams in the first place

1214 Moving back into the forest main, I go to take a seat on a log under the arching bows of the cathedral. I want to see if the oriole nest by-chance blew down in the recent strong winds. But no... For a couple years now, I've monitored the oriole nests in winter, hoping that one of them will fall from snow weight or high winds. They never do. Now my mind is back on the saw-whet. Could it be that this small owl is residing here somewhere this year? What are the odds it would just happen to stop-by in the bulberries on the wet-meadows? Finding an owl of that size in daylight, without the aid of calls to guide me, and given that they're prone to inhabiting tree cavities, seems unlikely. Yet, no chance I'm going to neglect an at least an attempt. As I rise to get the search underway, I can hear the grosbeaks nearby, and the bald eagle passes again overhead

1251 I hike first back to the extreme end of south-pond, near the spring, so I can conduct my survey of the forest main a couple steps at a time, moving north, with the sun at my back. I scan every tree for the odd bump, using my binoculars to peer at suspect shapes and into dark cavities. No luck on the saw-whet. But I do scare up the whitetail doe, and about half-way through I cross paths with three male grosbeaks perched on low bulberry scrub, but reaching down to pluck what I suspect are buckbrush berries, though I'm not able to confirm this before they flitter away. Now at the far end of the forest, I'll cross the levee again and continue my survey through the north wood

1317 If the saw-whet is here, which it very well could be, I'm not finding it. The bird could be living in the forest on the other side of the river for all I know. Hopefully there'll be another game-cam image soon to let me know it's still here. In either case, the north-wood offers me only niipomakiiksi and a second fallen hornet nest (the other having been found in the cathedral of the forest main several weeks ago). There's no underbrush in the north wood to speak of, owing to the more extreme flooding that occurs here regularly. Though I can't find the site where the hornet nest was connected, it could only have been up in the trees. This means that both hornet colonies this year placed situated their nests high. Normally, I find these nests low, even in the buckbrush. Now I wonder whether the wasps predicted the floods, or whether the high waters were already in place before they began construction. Another puzzle past and future. Now I'm back at the highway edge, within sight of my awaiting car. It's been a good visit

III Dialogs With Deer And Sparrow (26Nov11)

0949 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - it's been a couple weeks since my last visit to the river confluence, and as I drive the couple kilometers to this coulee rim from my house, I pass the classic winter aapsspini activity. There are approximately one-hundred and fifty geese feeding on waste grain in the stubble fields. Today, I intend to make a sunwise loop down the coulee slope, and then following the dry oxbow canal to the far upstream end of the forest, where I can collect the most recent images off my game-cam before hiking back up

1010 I'm almost down to the sagebrush flats already, my route taking me (purposely) past the lower rattlesnake hibernaculum, where all is as ghostly quiet as should be. All along the deer trails I follow, there are prickly pear fruits with their seed pods scattered around them, each with a little hole where the mice have extracted the seed. I've heard not a peep from any smaller birds, but overhead another sixty-three aapsspini have made their way to the rim, all coming from some unknown site upstream

1059 When I get to the bottom of the slope, I cross the sagebrush flats, enter the forest, and immediately sit down to listen. All is quiet. I wait. There is a faint rustle in the brush nearby, and soon I hear the unmistakable contrived sneeze of a whitetail deer in distress. I'm not the only one who notices it. Immediately there comes an inquisitive "Wok?" from a magpie a little ways out in the forest. The magpie call is followed by the rise and fall of a few twitters of unseen (and unknown) small birds in the distance. Again the deer blows, and now the magpie has to come find out what's going on. It gives a double call before swooping just close enough to get a decent look at the scene, then moves to a perch neither too near nor far to follow whatever might unfold. The deer blows again. Now I stand to show myself, and to see who exactly I'm dealing with. She is a whitetail doe, concealed well in the thick of a chokecherry patch. I squat back down to learn what she'll do, now that she's seen me plainly. The doe remains. She sneezes a couple more times, then goes briefly quiet. I wonder if she has silently departed, so I stand again. But she is still there, and lets loose another blow. This time, I mimic as best I can and blow back. Immediately she becomes visibly alert and gives an even longer blow. Again I mimic, and a third time she extends the call. I give my interpretation a third time as well and then squat down to wait quietly. The magpie conducts another fly-by. The deer has had enough of my antics. She begins quietly, but hurriedly moving through the thick brush that grows along this edge of the oxbow canal. I wait until she's gone a ways and quiet, then follow the same narrow trails, not so much as to pursue her, but more because this route was my intention all along. In all of this coulee, there is no better a place to find animals than along the edge of this canal. It comprises a semi-open corridor, flanked by high banks on two sides that are thick with bulberries, chokecherries, saskatoons, dogwood, and buckbrush. It is perfect to conceal travel from one end of this section of coulee to the other, and offers more food opportunities than anywhere else in the forest

1135 I don't go too far, perhaps fifty meters or so, before I sit down again to type up my notes about the deer. While writing, I hear the call of a ring-necked pheasant coming from the direction I'm headed, perhaps bothered by the doe who is traveling ahead of me. Then a downy woodpecker comes to tap at a nearby cottonwood, and soon a single tree sparrow arrives, tseeping and picking through the leaf litter beneath some diamond willows in the corridor. I whistle one of the tree sparrow songs, and the bird gets excited, flying back and forth in front of me, and landing near, among the chokecherries, to check me out. Every time I whistle the song, the sparrow responds with a quick flight past me. But after four or five repetitions, both of us have had enough. I stop whistling and the sparrow flutters away. The magpie, for its part, has remained near, and continues to give single calls from nearer the canopy every few minutes. Whenever I look to see what it's up to, I find the corvid poking around in the tight intersections of branches, probably looking for its own or others' caches

1218 I never come across the pheasant, who I suspect hunkered down when I passed. But I do re-encounter the whitetail doe, about half-way through the forest, and this time she makes a good run to set some distance between us. I also find, close to where I see the deer, a large cottonwood that has recently fallen. Its cambium is dry, and there are significant sections of bark missing from both the top and bottom, a victim of borer beetles. But it kept a wide belt of bark that is still tight to the trunk. At the edges, I'm able to peel off a couple small pieces. Underneath, I find several saltmarsh moth larvae, one beginning to coccoon, a number of live-frozen two-spot and seven-spot lady beetles, and half a dozen brown eggs of unknown origin. I take two of the eggs, which I'll hatch at home. While I inspect the fallen tree, which has split half-way up the trunk at the site of a flicker cavity, a porcupine eats away the terminal bark on the branch of a still-standing neighboring tree

1255 Somewhere between the fallen tree and the river on the upstream end of the coulee, my magpie tail finally found something more interesting to do and left me. As at the pond, the main flow at the confluence is still wide open, but the water is slushy, at least on its surface. The wind has now picked up, and is making my hike far less comfortable. Above the river, in a draw of hawthorn brush, is where I'm keeping RyeCam01. I'm disappointed today to find that my batteries ran out of juice almost a week ago, and as a result I've missed whatever may have passed by most recently, though there are images of mule deer (including a large buck), pheasants, and coyotes caught prior to the shut-off. I'll have to make a trip down again in the next few days to power this unit back up. As I reshoulder my pack now to begin my march back up the slope, there is an adult bald eagle soaring fairly low, following the river