09 May 2011

Bee And Wasp Emergence

I Observing Mi'ksikatsiiksi (2May11)

1551 Sspopiikimi - arrived to find our mi'ksikatsi couple present at north-pond, and initially accompanied by the female hooded merganser (who takes wing as we approach). There are coots in sight at midpond as well, and moving this way. Mahoney and I are going to sit still for a bit on the cutbank and see what we can learn

1635 Forty minutes pass with minor activity to note. Turtles bask, a chorus frog croaks, a redwing alights near us and begins to chip. For a while, the mallards seem to doze. Then the female briefly preens and moves away down a beaver canal out of sight. A few minutes later, she emerges again, and the pair paddle over to the edge of the levee, where the female feeds while the male watches. Meanwhile, a second mi'ksikatsi couple approaches from midpond. When they get as far as the dogbane patch on the wet meadows, the female occupies herself feeding by the shoreline while the drake paddles over to confront the couple we've been watching. He makes little grunting noises as the approaches. The other couple are visibly nervous and on the move. When the drake gets fairly close, he charges, pursuing the couple out over the river before returning to land quacking beside his mate. The raucous seems to have drawn on the curiosity of a swainson hawk, who arrives immediately after the drake lands, and circles north-pond several times in inspection before gliding off upriver

1653 For the next twenty minutes, the new mi'ksikatsi couple feed at the entrance of one of the beaver canals, turning upside-down, fannies in the air. A lone aiksikksksisi makes it's way over from midpond. It goes right up to the ducks, who seem mildly annoyed and purposely moves a meter or so away. But as soon as the mallards return to feeding, the coot sneaks up and pecks the female in the bum. She and her husband look at the coot, move a little further away still, and then all three of them feed, with the coot taking shallow dives for milfoil. At one point, the female hooded merganser flies in, makes a very awkward landing beside the others, then flies immediately back to midpond. She must not have expected us to still be here

1722 Another half hour goes by. Our mallards and coot continue feeding at the shoreline, and eventually the mallards climb up onto the grass of the wet-meadows and preen for a period. When they're ready, the two of them plunge back into the water and paddle with purpose across the pond to our side, where they begin feeding just south of the bat tree. It's interesting to watch them come, neither one of them stopping to eat at all, as if they'd discussed the plan beforehand. Suddenly, the drake takes wing and flies way out to the subpond, where another mallard couple are attempting to land, but quickly decide to retreat. This is surprising. Why would this drake feel the need to defend such a massive area, practically the whole pond?

1748 When the drake returns and the pair go back to feeding, we decide to pack it up. Mahoney is getting chilled with evening coming on, but I think we'll have to spend way more time with this pair if we ever want to be able to read mallard behavior at a glance, as we can with the geese. Our first real summer with the geese, we were here with them for a few hours almost every day. Anyway, we pick up and make our way toward the vehicle, stopping off just once to check in on the thatching ants. They are continuing to bring in grass culms. But there is something else going on here this evening too. In the ten minutes or so we are with them, we notice several ants carrying what appears to be a white husk of some kind. I take a few macro photos to study at home, but with the naked eye we don't recognize the material. We also see a black, squarish, perhaps scarab beetle climb swiftly up into the dome of the hive and push it's way into one of the entrances. This all happened to quickly for me to photograph, so I'll have to keep an eye out for these beetles in the future. We wait for a few minutes to see whether it will reappear. When it doesn't, we figure it is in there hunting for eggs. If all it wanted were the ants themselves, it would have been easy enough to gather them on the surface. And if it is the case that these beetles can fall prey to the ants, we don't think it would have gone into the hive of it's own will

IIII ) ll Bee And Wasp Emergence (7May11)

1015 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - arriving at the cusp of the day's warmth, under a sky nearly covered with whispy stratus clouds and dense cumulous patches. But there is blue in between and sunshine in the coulee at present, as I begin my hike down the slope

1024 In addition to the meadowlarks who greet me on the rim, today there is a merlin atop one of the fence-posts. The same phlox are blooming as last week, but there is now far more musineon and dandelions, and the buffalo beans are very near to flower, so I will be looking for pollinators. The redwing clickhoppers are out, so that's a significant change. Not far along in my descent, a fuzzy caterpillar of unknown species crosses the trail. I've never seen a caterpillar move so quickly as this one. I would stop to follow if I didn't feel in such a rush myself, anxious to get down at least as far as the rattlesnake hibernaculum before I slow things down. It's not good technique, I know, and I won't let such an opportunity pass again

1108 True to that vow, I make three stops before reaching the hibernaculum. The first is to record a few of the meadowlark song variations, because I know that they have Blackfoot phrases corresponding to their melodies that are part of traditional phenology, though I need to refresh my memory on what these phrases are, and of their significance. My second stop is to observe a bland-colored, coenus stink bug positioned beside a tiny ant hill. I wonder if the bug is hunting ants, but if so it does not take any while I watch. Then a bit further down the path, I come to a thatching ant event. There are a dozen or so all clusted around, and moving in and out of, a perfect little hole in the earth. When I look closely, I see that one of the ants is carrying away a minuscule beetle of metallic salmon coloration. The beetle is one I've never noticed before, a bit furry, like a carpet beetle. I don't know whether it was retrieved from the hole, but there is another of its kind outside of the hole, observing as I am. Within three minutes or so, the ants - with their single beetle catch - retreat into the grass at the edge of the trail. I scope around for a thatcher hive, but none are apparent in the near vicinity

1128 It is early yet at the rattlesnake den. As I survey the hibernaculum, I find only one young snake basking in the main entrance. I am, however, thrilled to learn that the first black-widow of the season has returned, and that she's beginning to position her tangled web in the third entrance. From the ridge above, I can hear the voice of a frog or (possibly) toad. Perhaps I'll attempt to locate it

1150 I walk to where it sounds as though I'm five or six meters directly under the frog, and then of course it ceases to sing. This is the way it is with them, I know, so I stand still and wait. Then a cabbage white butterfly flutters past, and I can't help but pursue it for a photo. It eventually settles in the grass and allows me to snap away. While I work with the butterfly, the frog remains silent. I climb the ridge in another location and try sitting above where I heard it. Still no sound. I figure it for a boreal chorus frog, though it's creaking voice is lower and slower than most. I'll keep an ear out for others as I continue on

1312 I take my time coming down off the ridge. I've brought a game cam to install today, and I'm considering the ridge as a possible location. I want to see who's all moving around this coulee, who I might fail to see because of their nocturnal or otherwise elusive nature. Ultimately, I decide to set it up in some brush, in a draw at the base of the ridge and nearer the river, where I see lots of signs of animal activity along a well-concealed trail. Between the ridgetop and this lower location, there are of course other things to observe. I see, for instance, my first Hunt's bumblebees of the season. They are stopping at the phlox flowers, and climbing deep into the white blooms of cushion milkvetch. I also see several small, orange-red bees, like miniature andrenids, who I remember from this time last year. They are exploring crags in some of the heavily eroded soils, possibly bringing pollen to nest sites. Elsewhere, as the slope transitions to meadow, I see the yellowbells are in bloom. These have edible roots, but it's best not to collect them unless you find a large patch, as they are becoming ever more rare. I may keep my eye on them over the weeks to come, and collect some seeds to try growing them at home

1444 I don't even bother with the forest today. There's so much happening on the coulee slope itself, I feel like I should continue to focus there. And so I do, beginning again my ascent. If I had taken my time coming down, now it's even slower going. The Sun is hot on the earth, and the insects are responding predictably. I notice, near the bottom of the slope, there are buffalo beans and even a few skunkbrush in bloom. These draw more of the Hunt's bumblebees, as well as several small indigenous bees whose names I've yet to learn. I know one of them, metallic green in color, is a sweat bee, but can't peg the exact species. I see none of the orange-red bees as I move up from there. However, in their place on the eroded soil, I now find a slender black and red thread-waisted wasp species. Further up still, the tiger beetles are mating. I see both color morphs of the cowpath, as well as oblique and black-bellied species. Then, toward the coulee rim, another thatching ant event. Again it is a hunting party, and this time they've taken some tiny ant of another colony. At this point, I notice also that I'm carrying a passenger, my first wood tick of the season. Ah yes, it will be tick checks upon return home from here on out

1820 Sspopiikimi - not often we get to visit both our favorite sites in one day. Bit we've still got a couple hours before dusk, so Mahoney and I figured we'd at least walk off our dinner and see what's new

1832 We take the sunwise route that starts off rounding north-pond, and right away we see that the mi'ksikatsi drake is alone... which no doubt means that his wife is sitting on eggs, and that once again the mallard caches have eluded us. It's no wonder they're such an ubiquitous species. We are glad, on the other hand, to learn that our asparagus shoots are perfect for the picking, nice thick and juicy culms that we quickly pop off, and many more still to come. With our north-end asparagus in tote, we move to climb the levy, and there encounter two white-crowned sparrows pecking around in the leaf litter beside the shale trail

1856 All the green is coming out. The cottonwoods of the forest main now have their flowering panicles, most of them just dense red cones yet, but a few already dangling. The prickly roses are vibrant with yellow thorns contrasted against their red flesh, and light green leaves unfurling. The buckbrush have their leaves now too. Soon we shall hear the return of the warblers

1919 About half-way through the forest main, from the vantage of the levee-walk, we see one of the descendants of the porcupines The Blonde and Peekaboo. This one also has long, blonde hair, but a more slender build than it's parents. There are mourning doves, robins, and redwing males singing from the canopy. We hike down to the blind to look out over the wide south pool. Nothing. Not a duck, or coot, or even a goose. Perhaps all the aapsspiniiksi are up feeding on the neighboring golf greens, like those of the river island we've seen passing overhead

1945 We stick around the blind for a bit, gathering more asparagus along the cutbank. All the while, there's a snipe whistle-winging in display high above us, and I hear a single coot chucking from the marsh. Oddly enough, the tree sparrows are soaring at similar height as the snipe, so that when I look to catch a glimpse of the display, my eyes are just as likely to settle on one of the sparrows gliding by

2014 As we round the south pool, the aapsspiniiksi return to the pond. There are six couples now within view from the south bench. Along with these geese, a redhead couple comes in for a landing. It's not Scabby though, we've still yet to see her this season. Someone we're very surprised to encounter on this end is Peekaboo porcupine himself, eating in the cottonwoods. It's been at least a year since we last sighted him, but his face is unmistakable, as too his mannerisms. In classic Peekaboo form, he hides his eyes behind a slender branch as we stand near, then ever so slowly peeks out

2034 Our hike back to the vehicle along the shale trail is fairly quiet, save for all the robins hunting in the grass, and the robotic calls of the yellow-headed blackbird males newly returned. It would have been nice to see what was happening out here in the heat of the day. I'm glad it's becoming flower time, always lots to watch there

IIII ) lll Vesper Sparrows (8May11)

1030 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - with only a couple hours to work with, owing to the scheduling of an afternoon social engagement in recognition of another ecologically-removed, commercially compelled holiday, I've arrived again among the meadowlarks of the coulee rim again, hoping to make it down and up the slope to at least check the game cam positioned yesterday

1133 It's early yet for the insects, so while some there are some redwing clickhoppers, naamooyiksi, and of course ants around, the majority are still sitting dormant, waiting for the afternoon heat. There are vesper sparrows singing from some of the sagebrush and skunkbrush tops as I make my way down, and voices of the occasional chorus frog hidden somewhere on the slope. Given how quiet the insects are this morning, I'm surprised to find four rattlers basking at the hibernaculum, including (finally) one of the large, older females. She's not so happy to see me though. While the younger, smaller males quietly watch and taste me as I pass, she immediately takes up a threatening pose and rattles

1209 The orange-red bees are out again on the eroded soil area of the lower slope, though none are yet willing to reveal (at least to me) what it is they're up to. I'm then disappointed when I reach the draw at the bottom of the slope and find that not a single animal, with exception of myself, has triggered the game cam I've hidden along a trail in the brush. I would have thought at least a pheasant or partridge would wander by. But then again, since they live here full-time, the sudden appearance of some new object might be a bit unnerving. Perhaps in another few days they'll test the safety of passing by it

1250 With no time left to spare, I march back up the side of the coulee, making only one stop near the base of the slope, where I spot a little trail of buffalo bean flower bud clippings leading under a large boulder. I get my flashlight out and lay prone to peek inside. There's no mouse present, but it's definitely a cache that someone's been working on for a while. There's a nice chamber under the boulder, and it's packed to the hilt with flower buds. While I'm laying here, I begin to hear the same swarming buzz that I did when I first arrived last weekend. This time though, the source is obvious. It's a tight mating swarm of midges (exact species unknown). I see one couple, entwined, crash briefly on the ground, then quickly return airborne