18 May 2011

Phenology As The River Rises

IIII ) lllll Mystery Signal For Thatchers (10May11)

1750 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - it's ridiculously nice outside, blue skies, no wind. Though weary from a long day of meetings, I can't resist heading out into the coulee for a bit. The slopes are far more green now than yellow. If only the poplars on the floodplain below would let loose their leaves, it would truly feel like summer

1812 A meadowlark sings me down to the hibernaculum, where I'm a bit surprised to find only two rattlesnakes basking. One of them is a yearling, the other I'm guessing an older male, judging by the considerable number of buttons he carries on his relatively slender body. Not even the black widow is in view this evening

1826 Like the snakes, most of the insects seem to have already gone dormant for the day. I do see a couple cabbage white butterflies and naamooyiksi stopping off at the goldenbean blooms. I also notice redwing clickhoppers and the occasional ant on the path. But compared to my noontime visits, it is exceptionally quiet.

1836 I make it all the way down to where I've set RyeCam01 in the bush. It's been here two nights since I last checked in on it. Sure enough, there are two dozen images captured, including photos of mountain cottontails, porcupines, and deer. There are at least six or seven images where I can't see the animal on my little viewer, so I'm anxious to get these on a computer monitor later and search for small birds and rodents

1915 Before turning back, I decide to hike up one of the ridges I haven't much explored. A couple of my rock-hound buddies told me they've been finding scorpions when digging into the soil along the black cliffs. I figure if I turn over a few rocks on the ridge above, maybe I'll find some there as well. So I head up, and I turn probably a dozen flat rocks that look like they might have potential, but all I end up accomplishing is the disturbance of a few any colonies. I do, however, come across two tiny, brown beetles I've never seen before. And I also find, on the peak of the ridge, an ancient stone effigy of some sort. It's a rectangular box of stones about five feet long by a meter wide, with what appear to be a couple lines coming off, in an order I can't make sense of. Could be an animal effigy, could be a vision quest sight, or it could be a grave. Hard to tell. In any case, it's situated to provide a really nice view of the river confluence

1953 Before leaving the ridge, I register some movement in my periphery, and look over just in time to see a bald eagle make a few heavy wing beats moving between somewhere on the black cliffs upstream and the nearby forest. Then I start heading back, down the ridge and up the coulee slope to my vehicle. A redtail hawk soars high above, circling and circling, moving downriver. Toward the top of my climb, I come across another thatching ant event - a dozen or so ants all crowded around something on the trail. I'm sure it will be another insect of some kind, but when I kneel down to look, I can't make any sense of it. They seem very attracted to a little plant sprout and a tiny hole beside it. I figure it's a scent thing, but I don't know if it's a signal left by one of their own, because they don't leave. Their attention keeps them on the site. Then I figure maybe something's just below the surface. I take out my knife and pry up the soil at the point of their interest. The ants immediately rush into the small crater I've made, search around, and after a couple minutes scatter, never having found whatever it was they were after

IIII ) lllllll Suspected Fish Run (12May11)

1725 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Came out to survey before the rains hit. It's been a very warm day and though a bit windy and overcast now, there's still a lot of insects out. I've hiked about halfway down the slope, almost to the hibernaculum, spotting among the new goldenbean blooms a sulphur butterfly (probably pink-rimmed) and a second naamoo species, the Nevada bumblebee, both of whom immediately depart as I approach. But I'm going to keep an eye on these flowers as I continue. The big news, however, is that I didn't need to go all the way to the hibernaculum before encountering my first rattler of the day. Apparently they are now on the move, as I just came upon a very nervous older male making his way uphill. I wouldn't have even known he was there, several meters away and well off the trail, if he hadn't notified me. And he continued to buzz anxiously as I climbed up to greet him

1743 Without even picking up my backpack, I decide to take a few steps off the trail downslope to look for pollinators among a goldenbean patch here, and immediately I come across another snake. This is a young one, so gender's difficult to determine at a glance. But I've startled this one, and it has found a makeshift escape down a rodent hole that's really far too small. The snake can't get the end of it's tail in. I've backed away a couple meters to sit on a boulder, watch for insects, and wait for the rattler to regain it's composure and pull out

1811 The snake must have found a chamber wide enough to begin turning around in, because it's tail eventually disappeared down the hole. Tiring of the wait, and fairly certain the snake would not consent to my following when it reappears, I make my way to the hibernaculum itself. Not surprisingly, it's empty. The residents have departed. Presently, I am atop the ridge overlooking the hibernaculum, and from here I can see there are at least fifty pelicans down at the river confluence. About half of them are resting on a small river island, while the others hunt for fish. They drift downstream in one large body, and when they get to a certain point fly back upstream and begin again. Obviously, there is a fish run underway. I'm going to hike over to the nearby cliff above the river for a better view

1847 On the way to the cliff, I stop several at several rocks where I know there to be ant colonies of two different species. Both are very small, with larvae far larger than their bodies. The one species keeps it's larvae clinging to the underside of the rock, while it's eggs (of the same orange color) are kept in a chamber below. The other species does not have it's larvae cling to the rock, but rather in tunnels right below it. In both cases, I wonder if the rocks themselves are being utilized purposely to keep the eggs and babies warm. Of course, when I get to the cliff after making these ant stops, those pelicans who were actively hunting are nowhere to be seen. The remaining birds are sticking to the island. There are several mallards just off-shore of them as well. And directly below me, laying on the riverbank, is a Canada goose. Strangely, it's partner lays on the bank of the opposite shore

1930 Coming back down off the cliff, I notice a relatively small thatching ant colony off the side of the trail. Looking closely, I see that some of them are busy maneuvering a caterpillar they've caught, trying to bring it into their hive through one of their entrances. I've seen thatchers collect this same kind of caterpillar before. Then, at the base of the coulee slope where I start climbing again, the goldenbeans that had been earliest to flower now comprise a significant patch of yellow blooms, and they are buzzing loud with naamooyiksi - both Hunt's and Nevada species. The Nevada's behavior is very different from the Hunt's. They make a hasty retreat when they see me paying attention to them, even if it's from a distance. The Hunt's bumbles, on the other hand, almost always make an attempt to chase me off with loud fly-bys toward my face

1953 The meadowlarks sing me back up to the coulee rim. Beyond their voices, and a hops of a vesper sparrow who scouts ahead of me up the last part of the trail, my ascent is quiet, literally and figuratively. No further rattlesnake encounters, no presence that I haven't already reported for this evening. I can see, when I reach the top, that I've narrowly escaped a shower. There is rain pouring down from heavy clouds to the east of me, and a thick rainbow

IIII ) llllllll Coots Nesting And Thatchers Swarming (13May11)

1128 Sspopiikimi - out to collect matoyaan (a.k.a. Nebraska sedge) for our sweat this afternoon. Unfortunately, I don't have time to really visit. But as I fairly march toward the south marsh, I'm noticing that the same cabbage white and sulphur butterflies are present here as at the river confluence. Also, I can't help but stop at the thatching ant nest, and I find there that the mating swarm has begun, the winged generation are crowding the grass tips, preparing to fly off and find one another again elsewhere to start new colonies

1154 Arriving at the southeast end of the pond, I find (as was fully expected) that, like the rattlesnakes, the wandering garters are also leaving their hibernaculum. In the marsh below where they winter, mi'sohpsski has done all the work for me in terms of gathering grass. There are several large flotillas they've constructed as feeding stations, and I don't have to impact them very much to quickly take all the matoyaan I need. From my perspective, this is preferable to pulling the sedge myself. The part that the muskrats eat, and will continue to eat, are the portion of stem at the very base of the plant. The rest just gets piled up, but is completely sufficient for my needs

1213 Since I'm already here in my waders, the temptation to survey the marsh for coot nests is too much to resist. I take a quick stroll around. Dozens of turtles, basking on dead cattails, dive as I pass. The reeds are alive with pike, frantically swimming away from me. And at the western edge of the marsh, I find what I'm looking for, a coot incubating seven eggs. This is a small clutch for the coots, and I'm curious to learn how many eggs the others here at the pond have this year, but I need to leave now

1238 My hike out along the levee walk is swift and purposeful. It kills me to be in such a rush, but nothing I can do about it in this instance. The only stop I make in returning to the car is to wait on a robin who is carrying a caterpillar and thrashing it around. Finally it swallows the meal, and the both of us go our separate ways

IIII ) llllllllllll The River Rises (17May11)

1315 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - On a whim this morning, I grabbed a handful of young dandelion greens from our front yard and ate them. They provided not only a slightly bitter breakfast, but also a strong reminder that NOW is the opportunity to seize the season and really make the shift to a natural foods diet. I feel motivated. So today I am walking this coulee not only as a lifetime student of phenology, but also as the omnivore I was born to be. They say there is a food shortage. Ha! The food is everywhere

1342 Given this renewed orientation, it takes me a bit longer than usual to get even halfway down the coulee slope, to the area of the hibernaculum. All the way along, I gather yellow prairie violets, almost filling one large cargo pocket on my thigh. These plants offer one of the more tasty greens. I don't over-harvest, just pick every third or fourth plant I come across in the line I hike. And I figure I'll take slightly different routes down and up from here out, so that I'm not gathering from the same area every time. I also see lots of musineon along the way, particularly up nearer the coulee rim. Musineon is a good starch root. I like to dig the larger, older plants. All the ones I've seen so far today are relatively small. Phenology-wise, there are some changes to note since my last decent survey. First of all, the goldenbeans are now flowered all the way to the top of the coulee. It's fairly windy today, so not too many insects, but those I've observed visiting the buffalo bean are still the Hunt's and Nevada bumblebee species I noted last week. On the dandelions, there are tiny sphaerophoria flower flies, excellent bee mimics. Some of the blue penstemon are starting to bloom, as also the early yellow locoweed

1436 It takes me even longer to get the rest of the way down the coulee to the floodplain, and the brush where RyeCam01 is set up. The reason for my delay is that now I'm digging roots, yellowbells and musineon, the former a kind of lily, the latter a parsley. There are also saline shooting stars in bloom here. I don't take many of the yellowbells, just a few, well aware not only of their struggle to survive habitat loss and botanic colonization, but also of the fact that Mahoney and Sheen will need to be picked up from work soon. While digging the roots, I notice that the onions are about to come into flower

1446 When eventually I arrive at the game-cam, I find that it's a good thing I'd come, the small SD card it holds is almost full with images. In the ten days since I left this camera out here, it has been visited by deer, coyotes, porcupines, rabbits, magpies, robins, and perhaps others (there were several mystery images where I couldn't spot whatever animal had passed)

1532 It has been a while since I've had an opportunity to visit the forest, and now I'll need to wait still longer. But before I begin my ascent back toward the rim, I hike at least down to the river. Among the potential foods I've yet to try are the freshwater clams and minnows. Today I brought along a bit if mosquito netting and some water shoes, envisioning walking along the rocky shallows in search of clams, scooping up any minnow schools that came my way. I know the latter have some interesting parasitic worms to be aware of, but I still hope to experiment with them, as I often see buckets of dry minnows in Asian markets. Today I find the river has risen quite high, resulting from snow melt in the mountains. It's silty brown, and there's no chance I'll spot either of my intended food sources. That experiment will have to wait. So I turn around and begin my climb, traveling a part of the slope I rarely visit, picking more violets along the way. When I near the hibernaculum area again, I spot a giant black widow in a badger hole. This is one of the largest widows I've ever seen, and I'm sitting with her now. When one learns to recognize the black widow's web, it becomes apparent that they have a huge population in this coulee. Practically every decent badger hole houses one

1601 A barely perceivable coyote and deer trail takes me up along the side of the slope to the coulee rim. As I pass the hibernaculum, I see there's still at least one rattler left at the main den entrance. This is not too surprising, because last year there was one who stuck around quite a while after the others departed. Further up the slope, I startle first a flicker, then a small flock of perhaps a dozen brewer's blackbirds, all of them insect hunting. These birds are the last encounter I have. I'm already looking forward to my next visit