28 May 2011

Coyote, Rattler, And Thunder

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllll Coyote, Rattler, and Thunder (28May11)

1000 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - today is the annual May species count for the city of Lethbridge, and I have been asked to participate by generating a list of all the birds, mammals, insects, herps, and plants in bloom that I observe along my usual survey at the confluence

1012 It has been raining non-stop for more than a week now, so I don't know how many insects will be encountered, and it's very unlikely I'll be able to log rattlesnakes on the list this year, but with the aid of a flashlight and a willingness to peek into holes, we'll see what happens

1034 I begin my count from the moment I walk out my door, where there are magpies and crows visiting our back yard. On the short one kilometer drive from my door to the coulee rim above the confluence, I observe rock doves landing in a stubble field, brewers blackbirds searching for seeds in the same fields, mallard ducks, northern pintails, blue-winged teals and northern shovelers inhabiting prairie potholes, a whimbrel walking the shoreline of one of the potholes, American robins hunting worms on the gravel road, and a western meadowlark singing from atop a powerline. With the window of my vehicle open, I also hear boreal chorus frogs and killdeer

1113 Arriving at the coulee rim, I hear other meadowlarks, as well as Canada geese in the distance. A grey partridge flushes from the grass, and a lone tree swallow flies by at close range. My attention, however, is mainly focused on the ground, taking in the flowering plant species as I start my way down the slope. In the short distance between the parking lot and the bench overlooking the flooded coulee, there are dandelions, two species of musineon, yellow prairie violets, blue penstemon, yellow pucoon, early yellow locoweed, Missouri milkvetch, a ground-hugging purple vetch, narrow-leaved milkvetch, prairie onion, moss phlox (with flowers playing out), goldenbean, butte marigold, colorado rubber plant (with flowers open but no petals yet), bastard toadflax, and tiny spikerushes. Some of the yarrow have buds, but they're not yet open. Pollinating almost every dandelion flower are tiny (photographed) two-winged flies

1155 From the coulee rim to the rattlesnake hibernaculum situated about half way down the slope, I observe more of the same plants as noted above, the only additions being a tiny yellow mustard with a slender stalk growing from a basal rosette of spatula-shaped leaves (possibly small-seeded false flax), plus skunkbrush sumac and cushion milkvetch, both of the latter nearing the end of their flowering cycle. The prairie groundsel is almost in flower, but not opening quite yet. There are several animals to add to the list: a clay-colored sparrow (heard but not seen), a ring-necked pheasant (heard but not seen), a seven spot lady beetle, whitetail deer and northern flickers on the slope, a herd of mule deer along the tree-line below, and a beautiful black widow spider inhabiting the third entrance to the rattler den. The widow not only has the classic hour-glass on her belly, but also yellow and red designs in a line up her back. Really amazing. Unfortunately no snakes though

1301 From the hibernaculum on down to the sagebrush flats and the trail through the brush where I keep my game-cam, the count feels to slows down considerably. I repeatedly observe all the same species as higher up. However, at the transition to the floodplain, there are some new flowers to note: golden currants, saskatoons, saline shootingstar, prairie smoke, white pussytoes, the first-flowering black medick, and a scant few yellowbells that haven't shifted to seed. All the prairie crocus are gone already. There are pink-rimmed sulphur butterflies moving around on the meadows of the sagebrush flat. At the base of the coulee slope, thick with goldenbean, there are Hunt's bumble bees pollinating. I find the larger Nevada bumble bees dormant in the grass, and a very few thatching ants out on the hive. Also nearby, among the dandelions, I see a second two-winged fly (one of the "flower-loving flies" I think) pollinating and find a running crab spider that blends in with the dry grass, waiting in ambush beside one of the flowering heads. As I watch, the spider takes out an unfortunate visiting insect, something like a small leaf-hopper

1340 The game cam had recorded visits by porcupines, coyotes, and several deer over the past week, none of which I suppose can be counted on my species list for today unless I see them myself, even though they have a permanent presence. After resetting the camera, I drop down to the river proper. The Oldman is so swollen, there are enormous trees floating by and the water is breaching the forest. I look around to see what other plants and animals I can add from this micro-environment. There are the leafy spurge, in flower and being pollinated by more flower-loving flies and hover flies. There are cabbage white butterflies flitting about. The trees themselves are in flower: balsam poplar, western cottonwood, narrow-leaf cottonwood. The Sun has come out briefly, and the birds are singing from the forest canopy. I hear and see yellow-rumped warblers, starlings, robin's, redwing blackbirds, and mourning doves. A few mosquitoes are about, not much of a bother, and I see some of the crane flies who are hunting them in the grass. I survey all the trees surrounding the mid-forest meadow, hoping to log the great horned owl family, but they are elsewhere this afternoon, probably perching somewhere along the flooded oxbow where they can take advantage of fleeing rodents. I can hear the approach of a bird that I'm sure nobody else will officially note today. It is Ksiistsikommiipi'kssi, the Thunderbird. No doubt there will be a drenching on the way, so I figure I might as well head back up to the sagebrush flats, and from there make my ascent of the coulee slope

1404 I emerge from the forest at the old cottonwood I call Grampa Tree. It's ancient and massive, with branches drooping to the ground that are larger than most mature trees in the forest. Just as I come into the sagebrush flat, a coyote begins howling and barking in greeting from nearby, low on the slope. I squat down and call back to animal, and it continues it's greeting. I stand up to walk closer, take two steps and stop. My next step would have come down right beside a dark, yearling prairie rattlesnake. It is basking on some grass beside a hole that it has chosen for it's summer den. I crouch down again beside the snake, who is perfectly calm. The whole scene is bringing a lump to my throat. The coyote continues to call at me, the snake rests peacefully within arms distance, and the Thunderbird is now roaring right overhead

1425 When the heavy raindrops begin, I walk. The coyote follows me, stopping now an then to call after me. I return the howls and yips. By the time I reach the path that will take me up the slope, the rain has turned to hail, and there's lightning clashes. I fairly march up to the coulee rim, looking arouforgery little. One final flowering species grows beside the trail in a wet pocket near the top. It is field pennycress. I take a few leaves to munch as I finish the climb, and soon reach my vehicle very pleased with the close of this visit

1427 This world is so beautiful, I've just got a lump in my throat. Twenty minutes ago, I was crouched down in the sagebrush flats at the bottom of the coulee, a coyote calling to me in greeting from low on the slope beside me, a perfectly calm rattlesnake literally within arms reach, and the thunder roaring overhead. It doesn't get better

Birds [22 species]: Black-Billed Magpie, American Crow, Rock Dove, Northern Pintail, Mallard Duck, Western Meadowlark, Brewer's Blackbird, Blue-Winged Teal, Whimbrel, American Robin, Killdeer, Canada Goose, Tree Swallow, Clay-Colored Sparrow, Grey Partridge, Northern Flicker, Ring-Necked Pheasant, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Mourning Dove, Starling, Redwing Blackbird, Ksiistsikomiipi'kssi (Thunderbird)

Mammals [4 species]: Mule Deer, Whitetail Deer, Mountain Cottontail, Coyote

Herps [2 species]: Boreal Chorus Frog, Prairie Rattlesnake

Plants In Bloom [32 species]: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), two Musineon species (one with extremely segemented parsley leaves, the other with far fewer segments, both described as Musineon divaricatim), Tiny Spikerush (species unknown), Missouri Milkvetch (Astragalus missouriensis), Wild Vetch (Vicia americana), Narrow-Leaved Milkvetch (Astragalus pectinatus), Early Yellow Locoweed (Oxytropis monticola), Prairie Onion (Allium textile), Blue Penstemon (Penstemon nitidus), Yellow Pucoon (Lithospermum incisum), Goldenbean (Thermopsis rhombifolia), Butte Marigold (Taxacum officinale), Colorado Rubber Plant (Hymenoxys richardsonii), Bastard Toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Yellow Prairie Violet (Viola nuttallii), Moss Phlox (Phlox hoodii), Cushion Milkvetch (Astragalus gilviflorus), Skunkbrush Sumac (Rhus trilobata), tiny yellow mustard that might be Small-Seeded False Flax (Camelina microcarpa), Golden Currant (Ribes aureum), Saskatoon (Amelanchier alnifolia), Saline Shootingstar (Dodecatheon pulchellum), Yellowbell (Fritillaria pudica), Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), White Pussytoes (binominal unknown), Black Medick (Medicago lupulina), Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula), Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera), Narrow-Leaf Cottonwood (Populus angustifolia), Western Cottonwood (Populus deltoides), Pennycress (Thlaspi arvense)

Insects/ Arachnids [12 species]: Unidentified Tiny Two-Winged Fly (pollinating dandelion), Seven Spot Lady Beetle, Black Widow Spider, Hunt's Bumble Bee, Nevada Bumble Bee, Flower-Loving Fly, Running Crab Spider, Western Thatching Ant, Cabbage White Butterfly, Mosquito, Crane Fly, Hover Fly