24 April 2011

Rattlers Awaken To Tiger Beetle Mating

IIII ) llllllllllllllll Claiming Mi’ksikatsi Teachers (21Apr11)

0901 This morning's story about the negligent killing of the whooping crane by an adolescent, who perceived it as nothing more important than a big, white, feathery target was a strong reminder of how flawed our public and popular education systems are. Our children go through so many years of useless exposure to "educators" who, for the most part, can hardly be considered exemplary thinkers or worthy role-models. Under such guidance, they are forcibly subject to countless exercises of short-term memory - training in the ability to read, comprehend, and recite on cue incredible amounts of trivial garbage that they will never need in subsequent years, and that in no way helps them appreciate or realize their potential as human beings embedded in local ecological systems. We're living in an era when university graduates with biology degrees can speak at length about cell structures and replication processes, but can't identify, and usually don't even see, the birds who visit their backyards. Is it any wonder we're facing so many environmental crises?

1523 Sspopiikimi - a nice afternoon for a pond visit, cloud-covered but warm. Mahoney and I walk in at north-pond and take the counter-sunwise route along the shale trail, stopping along the way to check on the thatching ants, who continue collecting short sections of grass stalks and hauling them down the entrances to their hive

1538 The Mid-pond aapsspini couple whose nest was found ruined a few days ago are still lingering near it, and today there are seven couples keeping close to the ksisskstakioyis. Our favorite Gosling Couple at the mouth of the subpond canal are incubating safely. In the south pool, there are five aapsspini couples, in addition to the incubating Big Island and South Marsh nesters. There are also more coots here now, at least three that we've seen, enough for the orgies to begin. Some of the redheads too have finally returned, two drakes and a duck. We're too far away from them to tell if the duck is the one we call Scabby

1553 We're currently sitting on the south-pond bench. All but the nesting geese have moved off toward the ksisskstakioyis. But now mi'sohpsski

is here, feeding on milfoil right in the middle of the wide south pool

1612 We hike over to the next bench, by the river, moving along the levee-walk and passing the owl wood. A pair of flickers move together through the trees. There's a different quality to the air today. Mahoney senses it, and I agree. It feels like winter's gone. Soon, we expect, the forest canopy will erupt in leaf

1700 Our walk north along the levee, following the forest main, is quiet. There are a few female robins around, and a redwing male chipping from high in the canopy, but little else to note before north-pond. Here, we have the resident mi'ksikatsi couple, the ones we've observed acting territorial over the past week. Mahoney and I have decided this pair are going to be our teachers over the next couple months. The mallards are so skittish and elusive here at the pond, it's been difficult for us to learn much about them. But perhaps if we focus on spending time with this specific couple...

1724 We pass about half an hour with the mi'ksikatsi this evening, watching them paddle around north-pond skim-feeding. The female seems to be the lead, determining where they will go. At one point, she dives underwater, something we don't see mallards do very often. It makes us wonder whether she might be a hybrid, or if this is just the way mallards normally bathe. While we watch, an aapsspini couple arrives. They too begin paddling around, dipping to taste this and that. Another goose couple shows up and are immediately chased away. Once gone, the initial couple make their way into the reeds and the female waddles up on a bulrush tuft to check on what we presume may be another cache. She scopes it out quickly, and then the two paddle away from shore again

1737 As we round north-pond to leave, the mallard couple follows us. A second pair is making their way in from the south, and when our drake sees them he takes off in flight to chase them off, pursing far out over the river before turning to come back. Meanwhile, his wife hides in the reeds and waits for him to land. When he does, she begins giving a quacking call to let him know where she's hidden, and he paddles over to meet her

IIII ) lllllllllllllllll Ant Dramas By The Bat Tree (22Apr11)

1204 Sspopiikimi - it's a warm, blue sky day. Mahoney and I have walked in to sit by the bat tree at north-pond and check on our mi'ksikatsi couple. The resident pair are far over this afternoon, feeding near the midpond cattail stand, but we expect they'll come back this way

1209 From where we're sitting, we can see a large painted turtle basking in the north reeds. There's a hawk of some kind, gliding on thermals at an impossible altitude above us. And right beside our seat on the cutbank is a thatching ant colony whose hive is deeply punctured in several places from flicker raids

1240 The flickers aren't the only predators to this thatcher hive. As I watch one of the entrances nearest me, I notice a fight is underway with a single intruder of another species. Ultimately, this raider wins the battle, slays his enemy, and drags his carcass away, right past all the other thatchers. I follow, and the victor leads me about a meter further down the cutbank. Here there is a colony of his own kind. Their hive is not at all conspicuous. Even their entrances seem nothing more than tiny, natural fissures in the earth. It is into one of these crags that the slain thatcher is taken. Other of this second species are hauling in small winged insects, midges of some kind. While I observe this, a hungry female flicker comes to land on a branch of the bat tree. She inspects us briefly, then flies away

1301 We have lost track of our mi'ksikatsi couple, who never returned from the midpond cattails. So we decide to walk, today taking the sunwise route. We stop off briefly at the extreme end of north-pond, where one of the older asparagus plants lives. None of the new shoots are up yet, but we clear away the old tumbleweed stems in preparation for their arrival. From there we climb up on the levee-walk, where we can get a bird's eye view of the beaver canals leading from north-pond to the midpond cattails. There are several turtles basking along this stretch, and we catch a brief glimpse of a muskrat, but still no sign of the sneaky mallards. Strangely, Mahoney has found a giant water beetle floundering around on the levee. How or why it got up here, we haven't a clue

1320 Since we can't see the mallards anywhere, I decide to cut down through the forest main to the wet meadows to scope things out, while Mahoney continues along the levee. Just before we separate, we find a green-morph cowpath tiger beetle hunting the open shale gravel of the levee. The sight of this beetle, compounded with the presence of basking turtles, has me itching to go visit the rattlesnake hibernaculum. They are associations I have with the snakes awakening

1400 Down at the edge zone between forest and wet meadow, I make a cursory inspection of the thick buckbrush where the north end mallards usually nest. There's no indication yet, as far as I can tell, that they're caching. While moving along, I notice two things. The first is that there are now fire-rim tortoise-shell butterflies around. The second is that there's a pair of mamia'tsikimiiksi lingering around the old nest in the big bulberry patch. I can't help but go check on them, as thorny as this exercise is. But what I find is that the old nest has been re-twitted in such a way as to be absolutely impenetrable. What very little opening there is to the globe has been situated facing the forest, and there's no way to climb up and peek in without bringing the supporting bushes down. The only way I will know when or if these magpies actually use it will be when they start incubating and the female flushes

1434 Mahoney and I rendezvous again at the trail leading to the south-pond duck blind, and we hike down that way together. From this point above the wide south pool, we can see that the three incubating aapsspini nests have survived another night. For the Marsh Couple, they're about half way through the ordeal. In two weeks or so, we should see all the waterfowl congregate to greet their new, yellow goslings. Normally, this Easter weekend would be the first opportunity for us to locate caches. But this has been an odd winter, with Saommitsiki'somm, and so in spite of the Gregorian calendar, which doesn't account for the occasional thirteenth moon in it's tokenized twelve month system, the geese are right on schedule

1501 Rather than continue around the west side of the pond, we figure we'll turn back and retrace the same route back. Most of what we could see from the other shore are the geese, coots, and ducks we've already been able to check on from this side. Before turning back though, we hike a bit further south to peek in at the garter snake hibernaculum by the owl wood. No surprise, these late sleepers are still a no-show. I've no doubt the rattlers are basking this afternoon though. Perhaps tomorrow I'll have a chance to confirm

1527 We're both tired at this point and, not having bothered with breakfast, hunger is becoming a distraction. All the same, we do make several stops along our walk back north, coming across mourning cloak butterflies, clover looper moths, and noting the emergence of buffalo bean shoots. When we arrive again at north-pond, the turtles are still basking, but our mi'ksikatsi couple have not returned. Strange that they should be gone so long after we've observed them on several occasions defend the site. Why would they spend their midday elsewhere?

IIII ) llllllllllllllllll Rattlers Awaken At Tiger Beetle Mating (23Apr11)

1218 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - it is with much anticipation that I arrive at the coulee rim above the confluence on this blue sky afternoon, greeted by the songs of meadowlarks, and ready to hike down the slope to the little shelf where I expect to find my rattlesnake friends awakened

1243 There's still a few hard-packed snow drifts yet to melt in the shadows of the coulee rim, and all of the grass is flattened toward the earth. At close range, there appears to be very little green emerging. No flowering phlox, no pale, feathery leaves of musineon. Just a few shoots of new grass, no more than an inch or two high. But when I cast my sights wide, taking into view the coulee slopes as a whole, I can see where there is more moisture, and a green that is swelling beneath the dry winter yellows

1324 This summer, I would like to begin a phenological sketch journal of some of the designs and patterns nature has created here in my back yard. I am stopped for this purpose to study the very young leaves of a thistle plant, just beginning to climb above the flattened, grey-dead foliage returning to earth from the previous year, when close by a coyote begins barking and howling. I look over and see that it is sitting on a grassy shelf a little ways below me. Sitting down, I wait and watch the dog. It cries and howls for a bit toward the forest below, perhaps expecting a partner to return. But when no others respond or come to meet it, the coyote begins slowly moving away along the rim of the shelf. I follow, and it leads me past the hibernaculum, then up and over the ridge where the nighthawks nest. As the coyote passes over the ridge, I lose sight of it. And when I myself crest the ridge, the animal finally sees me, and quickly trots off over a large hill in the distance. I will never catch up to the dog now, but on the side of the hill that it has passed over, I believe I see what could be a den. Perhaps after checking in with my slithering friends, I will hike over there and have a peek

1423 For the next hour, I am with my snakes. They are indeed awake, as anticipated, or at least some of them are, the prime adults, neither senior nor juvenile. Our visit is calm, relaxing even... and reassuring. There is no anxiety, no tail shaking or neck-curving as I walk among them. At the main entrance, several of the reptiles bask, and the one on top of the pile casually moves through the grass to approach me, raising his head to lick the air from a couple feet away, tasting my presence, before just as calmly returning to the basking ball to find a new, warm position in the bed. At the far entrance, there is just one snake, lumpy with a vole-full belly. She allows me to move up and stand right beside her, never once becoming tense. I view them as such delicate neighbors, and I worry for their safety. But every time I see these snakes emerge after surviving another prolonged winter underground, or when they return at the end of their summer wanderings to have babies, it gives me hope

1528 Departing from the hibernacula, I again climb the ridge that the coyote led me up earlier, and begin hiking toward the potential den site on the other side of this drainage. The area is all natural shortgrass prairie, and here I find that there are a few phlox flowers beginning to bloom, as well as a white, ground-hugging townsendia. There are also new green vetch and violet leaves. When I eventually reach the suspected den, it turns out to be a shallow and dry spring below some chokecherries. There is a thatching ant nest nearby, a dome, but it's not the common species. These ones are all black with a single silver stripe. They look more like those that we observed raiding thatchers at the pond yesterday. Eventually, I hope to recognize all the ant species here

1612 Since I'm already on the far side of the drainage, I decide to continue on over the hill in the direction the coyote took. This brings me ultimately to the grey ammonite cliffs, and though I still can't seem to locate the coyote den, this is territory I don't cover very often and there are events underway here that are worth witnessing. Here, the musineon is out and starting to bloom. On several occasions, I see stink beetles scurrying about on the exposed earth cliffs. And their are field crickets in the same areas, inhabiting shallow tunnels. The main event, however, is the mating of the cowpath tiger beetle. Everywhere along the trail I come upon them, couples of both the green and black morph varieties, the female held tight in the gripping embrace of the male's mandibles. I had wanted to check in on the owl nest in the forest, but with so much insect action underway I think I'll continue following these ridges instead

1704 My shadow is growing long already. It's hard to believe how quickly the day slips by out here. I continue following the cliff edge toward the confluence, and then hike downhill toward the path that will take be back past the hibernacula to my vehicle. I'm starving hungry. On my way down the hill I encounter many more tiger beetle couples. There's one here I've never seen before, all black with no striping at all. On the same hill, I also find in bloom kippiaapi, prairie crocus flowers. And pollinating them are the first honeybees of the season

1719 Reaching the trail, I march fairly non-stop up to the coulee rim. By brow is beading with sweat when I reach the top. Surprisingly, given that there's still a couple hours of daylight remaining, I encountered very few insects along the way, and those I did see were more of the same. About halfway up I heard the distinct call of a chorus frog coming from the slope above me. I stopped walking, and the frog stopped singing. Soon it will be Matsiyikapisaiki'somm, and the frogs will be making their way down to the floodplain, gathering by the hundreds and thousands in the shallow oxbow still-waters on the downstream end of the forest, for their own mating celebrations