10 March 2011

Kakanottsstookii Incubates

II Kakanottsstookii Incubates (4Mar11)

1058 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Heading down to the floodplain in this cold and snow with just a few flexible items of agenda. First, I want to return to the log that paahpakssksisii showed me a few weeks back, where all the delicious borer larva live. Then I want to check on the owl nest and see if anything's shaking yet. And finally, I'll walk the brush of the oxbow drainage and maybe come home at the end of the day with a porcupine or rabbit

1021 Pretty certain now that the moon we've arrived at is Piitaiki'somm, and that the one we've just passed was Saommitsiki'somm. I was fully expecting a rapid thaw at the end, that the owls would start nesting, and the swans return. It never happened. Instead, the deep freeze returned, and so my figuring is that it was the deceptive moon that comes around every four years or so. However, by my records, the last Saommitsiki'somm we had was three winters ago, right at the end, pushing Matsiyikkapisaiki'somm into summer (as it will be this round). One of my phenology students reported the other week seeing that the bald eagle nest on the west Buttes held a single egg. But the egg disappeared before his next visit. So at least that pair of eagles were giving it a try. Perhaps they then realized that the weather would not be favorable, an are waiting to start over this moon

1116 The hike down the slope is fairly uneventful. Everything is covered in blinding-white, fresh snow, that's still falling. With the exception of one set of recent coyote tracks, I've been squinting my eyes, observing very little, and just focusing on maintaining my footing

1151 At the tree-line, where coulee slope meets the upstream end of the floodplain, I come across two porcupines. As I might have expected, given all the snow, they are high in the cottonwood, munching on bark. Within sight of them is my grub log, and I set to work trenching into the rotten wood with a strong knife. Not long into my search, I hear the familiar tappings of a hoary woodpecker. A female had come out to join me in the search for borer larva. But unlike myself, she is searching high on the cottonwood trunks... and is probably having greater success

1234 After forty minutes of digging, I've found only one borer larva, plus a hibernating caterpillar and beetle. But I can't give up, I know they are here. It was a mistake to leave my crowbar up at the vehicle. A hunting knife just isn't very conducive to tearing apart frozen logs. All the while that I work, the taps of the woodpecker and the gnawing sounds of the porcupine eating bark remind me that I'm not alone, just inept

1334 Another hour of gouging with the knife turns up only three more borer larva, plus another caterpillar and a centipede. I photograph the latter together with the previous caterpillar and beetle, hoping eventually to learn more about the many insects who utilize these logs. They are no doubt indebted to the borer larva who weaken and bring down these trees in the first place. I'd like to continue my search, but it is slow going for minimal reward. The best technique I've learned so far is to simply watch the hoary woodpeckers and break open the logs immediately where they're feeding. Next time I return, it will be with the crowbar. For now, I want to check on the owls before ascending the slope again

1423 The snow has ceased, the Sun is out, and nesting season has officially begun at Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko!! Mother kakanottsstooki is incubating on the same canopy platform above the forest meadow that she uses every year. I scout around a bit for the father as well, but can't seem to find him. All the same, I'm excited. I wait all winter for this day - the surest sign that, no matter how cold it is, the summer is approaching, and the owls know it

III Flatheaded Borer Larva (5Mar11)

1308 Heading to Sspopiikimi soon, to check on whether there's any nesting activity in the owl wood. Looking forward to seeing all the newborns to come, emerging into a world comprised of the bodies of their ancestors. I am sometimes very aware of this reality at the pond. When death touches us, it is traumatic, so too for all the animals. Our current way of negotiating this trauma, us humans in North America, is to experience the loss, shed our tears, and then give some strangers a lot of money to manipulate and eventually hide the body. I won't get into details, because it's sick and depressing, and we all know the few legal options we are allowed. But what I see at the pond is something of a beauty that generates out of the trauma. When an animal passes away, there is very little the family can do other than mourn over the deceased, as Mahoney and I have witnessed on occasion. Take for instance the beavers. They normally die of old age or accident rather than predation. After the mourning, their bodies may sit in the water for a season or more, with family members passing by every day. Eventually, little by little, their bodies become the water and the other animals who live there. Everything in the beaver's world is made up in part from it's ancestors, and the ancestors of all the other creatures who reside there. It is the same for us, except that our world has been robbed of all the recent ancestors, their bodies crypted, contained, disallowed to become us. When I walk around at the pond, I see that all the death is becoming life. There's something about this phenomenon that's so powerful, I can't even find words to describe it

1427 Sspopiikimi - bitter cold, with a freezing breeze, the kind of day I'd as soon stay indoors, were it not for my curiosity about whether the kakanottsstooki couple of the owl wood are nesting. I've just walked the shale trail of the west bank, passing signs of recent human, dog, coyote, deer mouse and vole activity

1506 Aside from a lone coyote trail and a ring-necked pheasant rooster who takes wing as soon as I drop into the owl wood, there is no recent sign of animal presence here at all, not even that of mice. The latter might explain why a thorough search from one end of the wood to the other, and back again, turns up no owls either. I look especially carefully at both nesting platforms, but the birds are nowhere to be found and, as such, I can only assume that they've opted to nest elsewhere, as they did last year. They could be farther upstream, or on the other side of the river. Perhaps we'll be lucky though, and find that they've set up in the old hawk nest above the wet meadows. That will be the next site I check

1523 When I rise out of the owl wood onto the levee walk, I see that the open water crag on the Oldman River has shrunk considerably. This brought my thoughts immediately to the south-pond spring. So before heading into the forest main, I go to investigate. As predicted, the open water of the spring has shrunk as well. It is now only a foot square at most. There's no way our wintering kingfisher could be hunting here now. Her only option might be to hover on the wing over the open river crag, but I very much doubt she'd have the energy to do so in this freeze. The scenario does not bode well for her. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find her deceased in one of the cutbank cavities

1601 It was a nice thought, that the owls might take up in the old hawk nest... but they have not, and I know of no other platforms around Sspopiikimi that would be large enough for them. I suspect they are still near, perhaps just across the river. With that ticked off my list of possibilities, I next turn to deciding whether to look for the kingfisher in her cutbank chambers, or whether to open up an interesting looking log that has lots of borer holes. I choose the latter, and for the next while dig through layers of wood and borer waste. I find no poplar borer grubs, but I do come across another, larger, unidentified beetle larva, very alien in appearance - with a large, flat head and long white body

1626 Not wanting to entirely dismiss the issue with the kingfisher, I decide eventually to walk away from the log and go check the cutbank. I'm glad I do, because what I find is that the bit of open water that one of the magpies showed me some time back, which I assume would have resealed, has actually extended to span a good distance along the cutbank where I'm sure the kingfisher lives. In other words, as the spring and mid-river crag grew smaller and smaller, the bit of open, running water along the sharp cutbank has grown. Why it has done so, I cannot explain, but I'm sure the kingfisher's still alive as a result. I make a cursory check of some of the cavity nests in an attempt to find her, but leave those directly above the running water alone, not wanting to fall in

1745 After the cutbank, I return to work on the log, finding another of the same unidentified beetle larva, as well as a fully pupate (though very dead, judging by it's hollow feel) adult poplar borer. As I work, dusk begins to take over the coulee, and with frozen toes I determine finally to make my way back to the car and depart

Note: Upon returning home, I did some internet research and found that the longer larvae I saw today belong to the flatheaded or metallic poplar borer. This is the beetle that I’ve simply been calling “poplar borer” all along, and the one we see in adult form quite often at Sspopiikimi. The beetle that actually carries this abbreviated name, and that which the hoary woodpecker showed me the larvae of at Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko, is a longhorn. We’ve never seen the adult form of that one, but obviously it too is around

IIII Reading The Signs, Working The Surface (6Mar11)

1303 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - beautiful day, cold but not too cold, and sunny. We had planned to go to the pond, Mahoney and I. But she hasn't been feeling well lately, and so I'm by my lonesome again, heading down the big slope at the confluence

1325 Only half-way down from the coulee rim, and already I can feel my energy quickly draining away. I won't be looking forward to climbing back up again later. For now though, I need to push those thoughts aside. As I descend, I'm noting all the tracks: white-tailed jackrabbit, coyote, mule deer, vole, deer mouse. Figure today might be good for trying to follow some of these to the coyote den location. If I find a really fresh trail, I might just give it a shot

1348 The only fresh tracks I find (i.e. those made after the snow ceased this morning) are from a porcupine. I pick them up in the sagebrush flats and follow them right to the treeline. The animal is sitting in the same cottonwood where I saw her two days ago. The other one who was down here, on a neighboring tree, has vacated, and his trail covered over. I do want to follow the flood canal this afternoon, in search of other residents of this forest. But I can't help stopping off for now at the main grub log. Digging through these few old logs the last couple weeks is like treasure hunting. I can't even guess what hibernating insects and larva I might find today. Each session is teaching me more and more about the variety of life that depends on these borer-felled trees. There are hundreds if not thousands of such logs in this old floodplain

1506 My very first stab at the log brings out something I'd hoped to find, after yesterday's revalation that there's a distinction to be made between the poplar borer and the flatheaded or metallic borer. I had only ever seen the former in it's adulthood, and so was intrigued that the boring larvae here at Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko differed from that at Sspopiikimi. It seems the poplar borer is a long-horned beetle I've never really encountered. But today, right off to bat, I find on in it's pupating chamber, dead and dry just like the metallic one I found at Sspopiikimi yesterday. In any case, the confirmation of this beetle's presence keeps me digging deeper and deeper into the bore chambers at one end of the log, and before I know it an hour has passed in which I've found only several hibernating centipedes and a fly... though I must say, I was pleased with the fly, something new. I was beginning to feel like a gambling addict, continuing to pour my energies toward to very occasional pay-off when, almost ready to leave, I decided to break off some wood at a different spot on the log. Immediately, I found two large borer larva within an inch of the surface. This made sense. The woodpeckers never worked as deep as I have been. I would think that a borer in the latter, fatter stages of it's larva youth would tend toward the surface, where it could easily escape after pupating. Now I want to check more of this near-surface region to test the hypothesis

1544 Yes, this is indeed one of the keys... sticking close to the surface and moving only over that part of the log featuring the most borer holes (and not incidentally that with wood more easily plied, but not yet eaten to dust), I was able to find five more fat borer grubs in no time at all. I also found adult pupates of both species, lending some credence to the notion that this near-surface is where the older larva migrate to. I am satisfied now, and ready to move on, perhaps testing this technique on other logs elsewhere

1638 The Sun is low on the horizon, painting everything in the coulee gold on one side, casting long shadows on the other. I have been walking the oxbow canal, thick brush full of sikaaatsisttaiksi, with the occasional kai'skaahp gnawing bark in the canopy above. As I've gone along, I've kept an eye out for more logs with signs or borer and recent woodpecker activity. There has been a downy woodpecker following me, and each time I stop to survey a log it laughs mockingly. I'm currently experiencing some auditory hallucinations, a very subtle chorus of the summers past, crickets and other insects, birds who haven't returned yet. It's almost ghostly. Two sounds that are not hallucinated though are the honks of geese following the Oldman River, and the triple-call of a nearby magpie. Is the magpie tattling to me about the presence of some nearby animal? Or is he telling another predator about me?

1721 I follow the magpie's voice, but it flies away at my approach. All the same, I leave a few strips of bacon that I've been carrying in my pocket for these, my favorite of birds. I set the bacon exposed on a stump and head out of the forest, toward the coulee cliffs. Just as I'm about to ascend, I see one last log with all the signs - borer lines and holes, and recent woodpecker digging. I use the surface scour technique and move along the most visibly active side of the log, and quickly turn up half a dozen more grubs, one of them the flat-headed variety. Unfortunately, at one point I also break through to a hollow center, or not so much hollow as filled to the brim with nesting material of a deer mouse, mostly the cottony heads of Canada thistle. Checking the end of the log, I now see where it's entrance is, and I feel bad about having broke through it's wall... although it is a very long chamber, six feet at least, so I'm sure the mouse family will get by

1759 The hike back up to the coulee rim is every bit as wearisome as anticipated, but one foot over the other eventually delivers me to the top, and I'm glad I decided to come out, because - as with almost every visit I've ever made - the place has taught me something today