24 January 2011

Pike Misfortune

IIII ) lllllllllll Sick Coyote (16Jan11)

0926 Sspopiikimi - finally feeling well enough for a walk at the pond, after almost two weeks absence. Doubtful over this frozen period that very much has changed. Certainly the magpies who greet us at the north end have not. They must be relying heavily on food caches and coyote dung in this cold

0939 We're too late to see the geese this morning. They've already left the open water crag on the river, and the crag itself has closed up considerably since our last visit. As we climb the levee by north-pond, about thirty simitsiim pass low overhead, moving downstream. Several minutes later, they pass again in the opposite direction, and higher above the forest canopy

0949 As we approach south-pond and the high-level bridge, still walking the levee, we spot a coyote down on the river ice. It must have either heard us, or smelled us, or even just sensed our sudden attention, because without looking at us it stood up and began to trot across to the opposite shore. It was followed by another, then another, then another... five coyotes in all, an entire pack cross the ice and disappear into the forest on the other side of the Oldman

1009 Like with the river crag, were presently we see one goldeneye, the spring at south-pond is more closed than before, and here there is a mallard drake. The duck departs at our approach on the levee. The coyote pack we saw were evidently hunting the forest main. We may follow their tracks in a bit. First we want to check the owl wood. But there is interesting things even in the short bit of coyote trail we see. When we followed them a couple weeks ago, we found a very brown patch of urine. Today, one of the urine patches on the levee has red blood in it. Also, we find part of a dung pile, the other pieces having been stolen by magpies, whose footprints tell the story. I try to set my video camera up to catch the kingfisher breakfast at the spring, but unfortunately we left our gear in the truck overnight, and it's too frozen now to function

1030 The owl wood is alive with the crickety chatter of waxwings. A congregation of about a hundred of them are perched high in a cottonwood near the last remaining bulberries. Surveying the wood, all other patches of these berries have been cleaned out. All that remains is an occasional prickly rose hip. No sign of the great horned owl couple, they may be staying mostly in the forest main. The two raccoons are still hibernating away in their house. The only other sign we see are the tracks of deer

1117 Leaving the owl wood, we climb the levee again and drop into the forest main. There are pike rippling the surface of the spring as we pass. The coyote pack has woven paths all through the forest, from one side to the other, hunting apparently for voles. We find places where they've dug into the subnivian zone. From their dung, it's apparent they've recently eaten a deer... there are a lot of the hollow, grey hairs mixed in, and much of their dung is heavy with calcium from chewing the bones

1135 Considerably frozen, we climb back up the levee again at the north end of the forest main and make our way back around to the truck. My thoughts are on food, and I'm reminded of how much I've been slacking in our project to secure nourishment from these places, rather than the grocery stores. A big pike would go down pretty good right about now

IIII ) lllllllllllllllll Pike Death (22Jan11)

0157 Sspopiikimi - out for an afternoon walk on this relatively warm day. The chinook has eaten a lot of the snow, leaving the pond ice glaring and exposed. And we are greeted right away by a pair of niipomakii hunting in the silverberry and two ravens gliding overhead

1417 We take our usual route sunwise around north-pond and up on the levee to the cubank overlooking the Oldman. Out on the downriver side of the island there's a family of five aapsspini. They're right at re site where the Island Couple nested last year, and we suspect it is them with their goslings from summer. There's no open water near them, so they can only be laying early reclaim to their old nest site. This is the first hint of such behavior we've seen yet this winter, but it's to be expected. All will have to claim their nests in the next moon

1442 We sit briefly on the levee bench looking out over the river forest. A little ways upstream, there's a magpie giving rapid triple and quad calls from a bush on the edge of the cutbank. These calls, I recognize, are directed at us. There's something over there the bird wants to draw our attention to. So while Mahoney continues along the levee, I drop down into the river forest and toward the magpie. As I approach, it flies up to a tree branch to watch me. I'm expecting just about anything - a pheasant, rabbit, porcupine, some kind of animal that the magpie wants me to kill. What I find, however, is down on the river, just below the perch from where the magpie was calling, there is a new crag of open water against the cutbank. There are signs in the snow all around this bit of water that the pheasants, deer ad coyote have been stopping off there to drink. As I look down upon this scene, the magpie departs. I've seen what it wanted us to notice, what would be a perfect ambush site were we allowed to hunt here

1450 For once we are over-dressed, and just the walk through the brush and deep snow is enough to make me start sweating. I don't want to sweat. I've been too sick lately to risk evaporative cooling. So I climb back up the levee and we immediately take another break at the river bench. There, we find a coyote dropping that is comprised completely of grass. We wonder if it is the same animal with the kidney issues that has had blood in it's urine

1506 Something terrible has occurred in the pond. When we leave the river bench, before entering the owl wood, we believe we see dead fish in the south-pond spring. He hike around to take the easier route through the forest main and past the duck blind. When we arrive at the scene, we find eleven pike floating dead in the open water of the spring, which is no larger than our living room at home. They range in size from about ten inches to two feet in length. There's no telling how many others might be dead under the ice of the pond, possibly thousands if this was a pond-wide phenomenon. The remains do not look to be extremely recent, they may have died as much as a week ago. One had been almost entirely consumed by what I assume were the pike minnows, just a backbone with a tail. Off in the owl wood, the kingfisher is chattering, annoyed, waiting for us to leave

1520 It's possible that these fish got iced in at the small spring when it was twenty below last week. During our visit last weekend, I did note the water in the spring rippling from fish when I followed the coyote tracks down there. This seems more likely than a pond-wide kill, given that the water there is very shallow and that we had a good stretch of cold. Probably these large pike starved to death, confined in this small area

1540 Leaving Mrs Aapohkinniyi to her work, Mahoney returns to sit at the river bench, while I move into the owl wood to check on whether, with this chinook, the raccoons have risen. I don't have to go far into the trees before I find confirmation in the affirmative, a maze of raccoon, coyote and deer tracks that had to have been set down in the last day or so. Still, I want to peek in the coon house. As I go along, I purposely swing past the trees where I've been waiting all winter for an oriole nest to drop. It's hanging in there still. No sign of the resident owl couple. Soon I'm at the raccoon house, and inside I find just one still sleeping away. It's the larger one. It's partner, Curl, must be the one who's on the move. Perhaps she'll find the dead pike

1614 Mahoney meets me at the other side of the owl wood. She has walked above, scanning the treeline, but no sightings of Curl. The dusk shadow has crept over us, and the geese are already starting to return, so we'll begin to make our way out. To go easy on her knees, Mahoney is taking the levee while I hike north through the forest main. I stop at the spring again, and this time fish one of the giant pike out of the water, so that Derrick's magpie relatives can feast (if they aren't superseded by coyotes). Again I hear the chatter of the kingfisher as I linger at the water's edge

1629 About half-way through the forest main, I encounter one of the mule bucks. It still has it's antlers. I imagine the other two it travels with are bedded down just beyond where it stands, at the edge-zone to the wet meadows. Other than this deer, the forest is quiet. I reconnect with Mahoney at north-pond. We are planning to visit again at dawn tomorrow

IIII ) llllllllllllllllll Mallard Increase (23Jan11)

0828 Sspopiikimi - dawn patrol under heavy, cold winds, the aapsspini families struggling to make their way up to the stubblefields on the coulee rim

0843 We quickly make our way around the end of north-pond and up to the cutbank above the river. The Sun is just cresting the horizon and the geese have already all departed, a sure sign that the coyotes are near. I'm sharing this thought with Mahoney, and just the she points upstream. A pair of coyotes are running our way along the ice. We sit down to watch them. They keep looking back behind them like something has frightened them. When the pair get directly in front of us, they cut into the forest on the opposite side of the river and disappear. A few minutes later, a jogger appears on the levee walk, probably completely unaware of the disturbance he's caused

0900 We hike the levee ourselves toward south-pond. I'm curious to see what has become of the massive pike I dragged out of the spring yesterday. As we near the area, we can already see magpies diving in that direction from various trees in the forest main. But as we come within sight of the spring, it's clear that I'll have to hold off on my fish investigation. There are ten mi'ksikatsi in the spring, more than we've seen here at any one time this winter. Eight drakes and two hens, and we don't want to disturb them. We'll go sit on the river bench for a break, and then head into the owl wood instead

0931 The owl wood is much the same as it was yesterday afternoon, a maze of deer, coyote, and raccoon tracks. We find evidence at one bulberry bush, ringed around and considerably stomped down with tracks, that Curl was able to find some fruit during her excursion yesterday. This morning she is back in the coon house with the larger animal who's most likely her sister. At one point in our walk through the wood, we also encounter a white-tail doe. She stands silently staring at us until we glance away, then hurries all too quietly through the trees away from us. Our only clue to her whereabouts comes from a magpie following her and giving triple calls for our attention

0957 We walk back along the river cutbank toward south-pond again, and the spring. The kingfisher is here, trilling from the canopy of the owl wood, waiting for the mallards to depart so she can take breakfast. We decide to set up on our log seats above the spring to watch, and our presence quickly convinces the mi'ksikatsi to leave. Soon, hopefully, Mrs Aapohkinniyi will come over and make her dive among the floating pike carcasses

1024 When the kingfisher refuses to come out of the owl wood after a half hour, we give up on waiting. Conditions are not ideal with the high winds, and we need to stay warm. We decide to do the same as yesterday... Mahoney will walk the levee back to north-pond, and I'll take the forest main

1036 The forest is as absent of any noticeable animal activity as it was yesterday. But before I walk through it, I stop down at the spring to look at the large pike I dragged out during our previous visit. It's still relatively untouched, though the magpies have definitely visited it. They took only their favorite morsel, the eyeball

04 January 2011

The Hibernating Drones

I Magpie Plea (2Jan11)

1237 Sspopiikimi - first visit of the new moon Ka'toyi, after passing three days indoors with a miserable flu. It snowed for two of those days, and yesterday was high winds. This morning brought more snow, so we should be able to easily determine the freshness of any tracks. At present all is calm, the skies as white as the earth

1250 We take a sunwise route around north-pond, up the levee, and out to the river. There are two mammia'tsikimi taking note of us as we walk, perhaps expecting another beef liver. I salute them with the customary wok-wok double-call, but neither responds in kind. They fly off, one and then the other toward the north. Shortly afterward, a crow wings past in the opposite direction, giving a triple-call. By that time, we are sitting on a log in the forest main, having already looked out over the quiet and empty open-water crag on the Oldman

1307 Sitting on our log, we break out the warm panini sandwiches we've brought. While we eat, a pair of niipomaki come flittering through the forest canopy, ever curious. They are singing the song that the sound of both their English and Blackfoot names are based on

1331 Almost immediately after we stand up to continue down the trail, we see a whitetail doe and buck in some bulberry brush just a ways off. Our trail would take us right past them, but we know they'll run if we proceed. So instead, we cut back and move toward the wet meadows, to take an alternate path south along the forest edge zone. The deer still know we're here, of course, but we're giving them space, and we hope they're read it as a sign that we are, if not friendly, at least not trying to kill them. The magpies have a different idea though. As far as they're concerned, we should be hunting these deer. Soon they are landing in the branches above the pair, giving fast triple-calls to alert us of the deer's whereabouts. This spooks the whitetails, who go on the move south, and the magpies follow them, tattling the whole way. Meanwhile, we've also found a very fresh set of coyote tracks along our route, and are following them. Everything eventually converges in a semi-open area of the forest. The deer pass near us, the magpies know for sure that we have seen them, and when we sit down to merely watch the birds fly away in frustration. We're not living out our human role here, and in fact can't do so if we want to avoid legal repercussions. I'm surprised by now the birds haven't completely given up on us. The coyote tracks continue on, and so do we

1411 When we get to the duck blind by south pond, Mahoney stops for another break. The uneven contours of the drifted, melted, and repowdered snow is hard on her ankles. She's going to need to take it slow the rest of the way. I'm excited about the potential of these fresh coyote tracks to lead me to their den. So I continue at a fast pace alone, following the coyote trail out over the ice of south pond, past the spring, up and over the levee, down and through the owl wood, onto the river ice, and upstream of the high-level bridge. Here, the tracks converge with those of a coyote mate, and both dogs move on together. Unfortunately for my hopes, they travel across the river, and my suspicion is that their den is somewhere along the coulee slope on that side. My main interest is in the family who lives on this side, the ones I can visit without trying to traverse the Oldman in it's various seasons. Foiled again, I sit down to catch my breath, then begin making my way back to find Mahoney

1436 Mahoney is waiting on the bench by the owl wood, watching a goldeneye drake dive in the open river crag. I walk the ice back toward her, then move to climb the cutbank where I see the deer have been doing so. It's slippery just at the river's edge, and here I take my second fall of the winter, coming down hard on my knee against a sharp rock protruding above the ice. It's going to leave a nice deep-tissue bruise

1451 We take the easy levee-walk north to return to the truck, and stop off at the river bench about half-way along. Here, there is a lone aapsspini down by the crag. It's extremely out of character for this bird to be here alone, and in such daylight. I don't know if we missed it on our initial survey of the river earlier, but we suspect there's something wrong with it. Perhaps the goose is injured in some fashion. It's late enough in the afternoon that it won't have too much longer to wait for it's family and the larger clan to return for the night. But it can't keep on like this without becoming eagle or coyote food sooner or later

1512 One of the magpies is back at the north wood when we get there. It's the last animal we encounter today. I again give the salute, and though it doesn't call back, it does get nervous about my degree of magpie knowledge. In it's paranoia, it flies down near to us, among some bulberry brush, to check a cache that it's keeping in an old yellow warbler nest. Confident again that we haven't raided it's stash, the magpie flies back up to it's tree perch. Now I'm curious and want to know what it's keeping in there, but Mahoney suggests I check into it later, on my next visit, if the magpie is away from the area, so that it won't get upset with us

II Hibernating Drone Flies (3Jan11)

0945 Sspopiikimi - out here shortly after sunrise to make another attempt at filming our wintering kingfisher at breakfast. Took the most direct route to the spring, walking on the surface of the pond and skirting the wet-meadows, hurrying to get the camera set before Mrs Aapohkiniiyi wakes up. The Sun has risen and the skies are blue, but there's still a sizeable flock of geese on the open river crag. Along with them, the usual goldeneyes

1009 I don't want to stray too far this morning. My energy is low from a rough night's sleep due to coughing fits. Definitely won't be climbing the coulee slope in search of coyote dens today, but I have to keep moving at least enough to stay warm. So I decide to get a closer look at the geese. The lingering behavior of this flock is peculiar, and it reminds me right away of the solitary goose who was here yesterday afternoon. I wonder if his/her relatives are lingering as long as they can this morning so that the time it will have to pass alone this afternoon is minimized. It's all conjecture, of course. But if the flock happens to depart and the one is left again, I'd hazard to upgrade to idea to hypothesis. When I come down on the river ice, they begin honking and moving. Two waves of birds enter the water and paddle off to other sections of the ice, where they resume sitting. In effect, there are now three small flocks here instead of one large one. The goldeneyes associate with the most distant of these, true to their wary nature

1047 With the geese keeping pretty still, apparently not in any rush to eat today, I figure I'll make another inspection of the potential kingfisher nest cavities along the cutbank. There are dozens of holes to check. Most of them are clearly bank swallow size, but between them lots that look more like Aapohkiniiyi dug them. Last time I went through here, it was cursory. I was looking for obvious signs of use, like recent white spatter. The cavities themselves are too long and dark to see into with the naked eye. Today though, I've dug out my pelican light, something like a mini-mag, and I can see all the way to their back walls. I check about six of then when I come across an awesome find. Way in the back wall of one of the small bank swallow cavities, there are six hibernating insects. They look to me like drone flies, but I don't know, they could be something else. They definitely have a bee-ish character, and I'm going to do what I can to juggle flashlight and camera to get a decent picture of them that I can use for identification

1125 As I systematically check each cavity, I find three such swallow nests occupied by the mystery insect species. One of the dens is particularly dense with them, they coat the back wall seemlessly. I see that there is one that has fallen off the wall, possibly dead, but probably not. In any case, I find a long, crooked root and carefully fish it out. They are drone flies, identity mystery solved. I am giddy like a twelve-year old boy who's just gone spelunking and found a treasure

1142 I've checked all the bank cavities, and I'm hearing human voices, a couple people moving along the levee-walk. It's hard to trust people these days. With my video camera and tripod sitting very exposed by the spring, I repack my gear and head up there to make sure nothing gets stolen. When I reach the levee, the couple are already quite a ways north. I quickly check on the camera, and find it unmolested. I can feel the sand in my teeth and on my lips from peering into the nest cavities, and I must have inhaled quite a bit too, because I break out in a coughing fit. When I do, it startles the kingfisher, who I hadn't even noticed perched there in her tree above the spring. She flies quickly off into the forest. I'm very curious now where she's staying, if not in the cutbank. Could she be occupying a woodpecker cavity in the forest main? I don't know if my coughing is the reason, but the geese are now taking off as well, so I'll walk back and check to see if the loner was left behind again. The niipomakiiksi are in the owl wood at present, singing their "here sweetie" song

1216 When the kingfisher doesn't return after ten or fifteen minutes, I decide to take a walk. I start by returning to the river to see if the lone goose is there. It's not. Everyone has gone, so goes that story. I then drop down into the owl wood to check in on the raccoons. When I get to their house, the two of them are curled up fast asleep, with no sign in the snow that they've been out for days. This makes me think they must partially hibernate, coming out to feed only when we get especially warm periods, as it was when we originally saw them the day after Christmas

1238 When I return to find the kingfisher still absent from the spring, I can only assume she'd succeeded in catching her breakfast before my cough chased her away. My footage will tell the story. In any case, I need to begin making my way back. As I walk down to collect the camera, I notice the surface of the spring suddenly rippling in places. There are pike down here, and they've seen me approaching. Some of these fish must be sizable, judging by the wake they leave. I wonder if they are hunting the kingfisher in turn, or others who come to this bit of open water for a drink

1304 My hike back through the forest main and around north-pond is exceedingly quiet. In the forest, my only encounter is a brief glimpse of a downy woodpecker. Then, coming out onto the levee, there are two magpies in the north wood, ever guarding whatever it is they're caching there. I haven't the energy left this afternoon to check the nest they indicated as a cache site yesterday, nor to look around at the other nests which they may be using similarly. Perhaps that will be my focus for next time out