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