11 April 2011

Gathering Eggs

IIII ) llll Aapsspiniiksi Nesting (9Apr11)

0746 Sspopiikimi - second day back from Scotland and it's dawn at the pond for me, with full expectations that the aapsspini will by now be establishing egg caches, if not incubating. I can only hope for the former, as we will require some of these for our upcoming beaver ceremonies, and once they're sitting on them it's far too late. Even driving in, I'm seeing lots of gulls, the appearance of these raiders is a sure sign of nesting season. I'm certain there've been many developments in our two weeks absence, and I'll need to work hard the next few days to get up to speed. Unfortunately, Mahoney is recovering still from all the pavement pounding we did, so for now I'm on my own

0751 The big question right off is where to start. As I walk in at midpond, there are two aapsspini couples on the water, spaced out from each other by about fifty meters. This is a good sign for us, because obviously they're not incubating yet. There's also a goldeneye couple here, so the winter birds have not departed. But I can hear robins singing in the forest main and, as I walk the cutbank toward the river - planning to conduct an initial survey of the island - I come across mohkammii, a great blue heron. It is standing still in the reeds at north-pond, near where one of the coot families usually nest, with a mi'ksikatsi couple feeding nearby

0826 I make my way up over the levee-walk and out to the river cutbank, where I count at least eight aapsspini couples as well as several gulls. None of the geese seem to be incubating, but I've no doubt they have egg caches. However, the Oldman doesn't look like it's going to grant me easy access this year. The water is high and brown from the melt of last week's blizzard, which was probably makoyisttsomo'kaan. I make an attempt at crossing anyway, but when I get waist-deep before even nearing the trench that runs along the island perimeter, I know the only way to get out there will be either to swim (not a good idea with all my equipment in tow) or to bring my raft before sunrise tomorrow. I'll opt for the latter

0834 Back up on the levee above north-pond again, and just in time to witness a revealing event. The heron has been slowly walking toward midpond. As it comes to the dogbane area before the cattail stand, two of the midpond geese fly over to meet it, and usher the larger bird away from shore, out into the bulrush tufts. Again, this is a good sign that they have an egg cache somewhere near that dogbane, so I'll drop down there now to find out

0857 I'm moving slowly through the wet meadows now, which are really living up to their name, having retained quite a bit of the flood waters from last summer. As it turns out, there's no cache yet near the dogbane. Both the heron and the aapsspini couple give way at my approach. If there were any eggs here at all, the geese would stay near. I bend down to inspect the ground in several places, an act that normally produces an anxious response in the aapsspini if they're caching, but it's just not happening yet, or at least not where I'm looking. Interestingly, the mi'ksikatsi couple of this end are also starting to act territorial. They give a looping chase to another couple who happen to fly low over north-pond. The female returns to the water first, while the drake continues his charge for a bit. I know they won't be caching their eggs until after the geese are sitting their nests, so no need to scour the forest brush quite yet

0938 Seeing as how the caching's obviously not in full swing yet, I'd like to scout around for insects. But I realize things may be a bit different toward south-pond, where the Gosling Couple and several generations of their daughters and sons-in-law rule. So I continue on, carefully inspecting the shoreline. The beavers' bulrush flotilla (the remains of their winter food store) has already floated to shore, as it does each year. And this time around nobody has tried to set eggs there. I'm always surprised that none of the couples attempt to nest atop the ksisskstakioyis itself. A little beyond the lodge though, at the entrance to the subpond canal, is Gosling Couple territory. And sure enough, they are defending a cache! As I arrive, the pair comes noisily ashore. Mama goes to stand right on the cache, which is concealed with a pile of grass. Her brave gander, without straying too far from his wife, approaches to fight me. Five other aapsspini couples paddle over to watch, these being likely their descendants. Mahoney and I have known this couple for four years, and they are so strong. Unlike most of their kind, the Gosling Couple will definitely lay down their lives to protect their eggs. There's no way I'll even be able to make a count, none-the-less steal an egg from them. They're too strong. If I reach down into the grass to check what they have, someone is going to get injured... maybe me, maybe the gander as I try to protect myself. It'll be bad news. This pair and their children have taught us so much, I'm not willing to risk the offense, nor the danger to them or myself, for the sake of the single egg that I might profit

1006 Leaving the Gosling Couple, I follow the canal back toward the subpond, where there are two other pairs residing. The first of these who I encounter are also caching eggs, as they tell me right away by coming ashore when I approach. It's quite a search for me to locate their cache, hidden very carefully under a padding of grass plucked from the immediate area. While defensive, they are nothing like the Gosling Couple. I am able to secure one of the three eggs they've stashed without incident, other than a bit of scolding. And when I cover the two back up and walk away, they come to check on things are don't seem upset that one is missing. My hope is that they will replace it to make their full clutch before incubation. Given that there are only three yet, this is indeed the optimum window during which to gather in order to minimize my impact on them

1021 The second couple of the subpond have no eggs as yet. As I approach, they move off over land to the wide south pool, which is where I'm heading as well. Like last year, there are just far too many aapsspini residing here for the number of island nest sites available. Many of them will have to either use inferior sites on the main shoreline (as is already happening), or wait their turn to use islands and risk being flooded out before their eggs hatch. This is even more the case this year, with the high waters already covering most of the south pool islands. On the other hand though, the added water in the wet meadows may help them in using the beaver canals as boundaries to protect them from at least the raccoons. Coyotes and humans can still get around these canals fairly easy, and of course the nests are all vulnerable to crows, magpies, gulls and herons

1055 Aside from the egg caches, the other big news at south-pond, thus far anyways, is the emergence of mourning cloak butterflies and the return of aiksikksksisi, the first pair of coots. I still have a lot of area to cover in search of more goose nests, but I've been sitting out on the wet meadows waiting for a couple birders to pass in their casual, individual tours of the south-pond perimeter. While I wait, I lift a few boards in search of insects, and find only a couple of the usual suspects - paederus rove beetles and sidewalk carabids

1116 I may be in for a considerably long wait. One of the birders has taken a seat on shore near the south pond spring. Not far from him, in the thick reeds, I can see a mother goose incubating a nest that she's positioned on a self-crafted island of bulrush stems. I want to at least get a count of her eggs so that we can follow her family's story this season, but I dare not approach while this person is around. Many naturalists and birders subscribe to the dead conservation approach to our relationship with animals. They insist that we should be hands-off, simply observers. My take on things is that, to the contrary, it is our disengagement with the lives of plants and animals that puts them and us in considerable danger. Egg-gathering for the beaver ceremonies is a practice that has helped to maintain an active awareness of our interdependence for thousands of years. And I suspect similar egg-gathering practices have an ancient history worldwide. This is the reason why Easter involves an egg hunt, and to me it's sacrality extends beyond the equinox. In order to successfully gather cached eggs, one must come to know waterfowl intimately, both as species and as individual birds. Anyone engaged in this practice cannot help but care deeply for these and many other animals, and act on that awareness in ways that are mutually beneficial to ourselves and non-humans alike

1214 With nothing to do but wait, I drop down into the owl wood and root around in an old log to see what insects I can find. The log appears to have at least at one time played host to some of the poplar borers, but digging in I find another kind of larvae altogether, a very small orange beetle grub. I also find a red and black click beetle who, though encountered before, I'm not all that familiar with. Finally, there is a single red egg sack and a colony if wood ants. The owls are absent altogether, which tells me with certainty now that they've decided to nest elsewhere this year. And when I eventually return to south-pond the birder has departed and I'm able to wade out to the one visible nest. The goose, very likely the same lady who sat a late nest here in the reeds last summer, and who was flooded out as a result, this season is the first to incubate at Sspopiikimi. She has five eggs set upon a muskrat lodge far from shore, and I think it's very likely she will succeed in hatching them

1244 The Sun is high now, and the dog-walkers are beginning to traffic the area. I make my way back along the shale trail to north-pond and my awaiting vehicle. On the way, I pass a bit of flicker raucous, and find that the females have returned. It's courtship season for them. So much will be unfolding here over the next couple moons, daily changes in the race to successfully raise young during the short period of warmth that summer provides. I'm very excited to be a part of it

IIII ) lllll Crows Nest-Building (10Apr11)

0724 Sspopiikimi - I've set out at dawn again, this morning without my camera pack, but toting a raft instead. I've just finished floating across the silty runoff waters to the river island, and here am intending to survey the aapsspini nesting situation, get a good count of those being established this year, how many eggs each one has, and hopefully acquire a few for our ceremony as well

0807 Okay, it's taken me about half an hour to survey the island and get back to the main shore. Walking south to north I found nine nests in total. Five of these were already being incubated, so we're just a bit late in our gathering efforts with these geese. However, I was able to acquire one egg from each of the four non-incubating caches. With the one I got yesterday by the subpond, we're just under halfway to having enough for our ceremony. There are still several nests to come at the pond itself, judging by the number of resident couples there. The reason the river geese are so far along is that these waters opened sooner. Each of the nine nests/caches on the island had the following number of eggs, from south to north: 4, 3, 1, 5, 5, 5, 4, 3, 3. While all of those with five were being incubated, it's interesting that the remaining two each only had three eggs. The fours were all caches. I've seen as many as seven eggs in a goose nest. Five seems to be the optimal number

1332 Parked by the Safeway gas bar, watching a pair of crows build their nest

1355 What a treat! I noticed this pair flying across busy University Drive yesterday with sticks in their beaks. I knew that if I checked the conifers that the Safeway landscapers had planted, I'd find them. And sure enough, they're building in a tree in a corner of the parking lot near the gas bar where few people ever park. In fact, there's still a big pile of snow here now blocking up most of the spaces. Anyway, the pair is traveling together into the neighborhoods on the other side of University Drive to get their materials. In the half hour I've been watching, they've made four runs, and seem to be using all sorts of different resources, from sturdy twigs, to long vines, to something that looks like wet grass. They are busy, busy... and I'd be happy just to sit here all day watching them. But I also want to get some more phenology work in at the pond

1414 Sspopiikimi - back again for my second visit today, third this weekend. Still trying to catch up phenologically with what's underway here. Yesterday I needed to focus on the waterfowl nesting situation. This afternoon, I'm hoping to concentrate more on insects

1424 I figure a good place to start is with checking on the thatching ants, those that build the massive, dome-shaped lodges above ground in the grass and low brush. There's a couple colonies on my way in to midpond that I know of, and as I suspected they're awake now and busy as ever. I know very little about the lives of these or any of the other ants who reside here... only that they and their larvae are favored food sources for mi'kaniki'soyi, the northern flicker, and perhaps a delicacy I might try sometime. I also know that a generation with wings hatches at some point, and I've observed these colonies on marches across the shale trail and cleaning up the grig carcasses at the end of summer. But I'd like to look in on them during my visits throughout the season this year and see if I can learn more. So at present, as I watch, I'm trying to sort out what those above ground are up to. I see lots of them coming and going along routes through the surrounding grass. Here and there, one will return dragging a piece of grass stem maybe two inches long. These stems are hauled nearer and nearer to one of the many entrances on the dome, and at these gateways there are ants working to push and pull the grass stems below ground, often having to bring them back up, resituate, and try again several times before succeeding in getting them all the way under. What becomes of the stems from there, I have no clue

1447 Leaving the thatchers, I walk the shale trail to south-pond, passing several aapsspini and mi'ksikatsi couples as I go. The Gosling mama is not sitting her eggs yet, but it looks like the Big Island goose (whose nest I couldn't get to yesterday) might be. If so, she'd be the second incubator, the other being the South Marsh mama. It won't be long before I need to start checking the thick brush along the edge-zone of the forest main for mallard caches. Mahoney and I usually wait too long to do so. Hopefully we won't make the same mistake this year

1511 By my estimation, we should still have a few weeks before any of the reptiles emerge from hibernation. All the same, when I get to the wide south pool, I walk down to check the turtle nursery near the peninsula. The bank doesn't look as though any of the hatchlings from the end of last summer have crawled out of their subterranean nests yet. As I survey this nursery, I notice that there are small water beetles out now, though for all I know they may have been active all winter. The bulberries above the peninsula are not yet blooming, therefore no bees. One of the coots is lingering alone in the little pool here, which makes me wonder where it's mate is. And I can see across the pond, by the wet meadows, a single goldeneye drake

1558 Up over the levee-walk from the peninsula, I drop into the owl wood. Here I find there are hatchings underway. The wood is filled with greenbottle flies and micro-moths. I also find single both a baby lygus bug and a tiny wasp that I suspect has emerged from out of one of the many goldenrod galls down here

1627 The wind has picked up, and leaving the owl wood I recognize how tired I've become. My ability to pay close attention to my surroundings and pursue even the basic question (what are they doing?) is waning. It's time to make my way home. I cross the levee again and walk north through the forest main. The niipomaki are singing their "Here Sweetie" song, and I notice in passing that the lone mohkammii from yesterday is still here, hunting in the subpond

0031 Night comprises the shadows or spirits of ourselves and everything in our environment, entangled