03 May 2011

Pandemic Goose Nest Failure

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllll Aapatssaissksikaikimi (25Apr11)

1913 Aapatssaissksikaikimi - after a long and boring drive I've arrived at the big lake at Leduc, which Mahoney and I named after the grebes who nest here, and to my surprise the whole place is still almost completely frozen, save for a few open pools around the edges

1927 Given the conditions, it's not too surprising the grebes themselves have yet to arrive. Indeed, the coots aren't even here. There are however a few mallard couples, gulls, crows, many male redwing blackbirds, aapsspiniiksi incubating nests in the same cattails that the grebes and coots will use later and, to my delight, quite a few omahksaksiiksi or common grackles

1949 We never see grackles at the pond back home, but I have encountered them in the coulee at Omahka'kihtstakssin during the summer. Knowing little more than that about their seasonal routine, I'm excited to see that they're nest-building in the cattails here. Their broods must precede the redwings, who will eventually use the same areas

2013 I don't have much daylight to work with, but I use what I've got to take a short walk along the south shore to the boathouse. Along the way, I observe more mallard couples, robins of both sex, niipomakiiksi, muskrats trolling the cattails, and a magpie pair who are sticking close to their nest, probably just in anticipation of sleep. The nesting goose by the boardwalk where I parked is now taking her brief evening meal, guarded by her gander. I'm going to go find a few groceries myself, and head over to the hotel. Perhaps if I'm up early, I'll return for a longer walk in the morning. If not, I'm satisfied at having had at least a brief but revealing peek at the goings-on here

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll Pandemic Nest Failure (27Apr11)

1809 Sspopiikimi - came out to the pond to have our dinner this evening. Not being out here every day, we're missing a lot. Tonight we find the tree swallows have returned. Dozens of them soar and dive above us as we sit on the west bank midpond to have our sandwiches

1812 It's difficult to say for certain right away, because we're here a dinner time (for both ourselves and the geese), but from where we're sitting it doesn't look as though the Gosling and Big Island mothers are sitting their nests. There are seven aapsspini couples here midpond, and a couple more where it opens to the wide south pool. Interestingly, among the mallards, we're only seeing drakes. Could be the hens are already off caching. Our north-pond mallards were nowhere to be seen, but one of the two drakes midpond could easily be from that pair

1841 Something is really not right with the geese. As we finish our sandwiches, we wait for the Gosling Couple (our favorites) to return to their nest. They never do. Then we get up and walk around the wide south pool. We can see seven eggs sitting in plain view on the big island as we pass. When we go by the south marsh, we're pleased to see a couple preening at that nest. We suspect they've just finished dinner and that the goose will settle back in. But then another couple from a small island by the spring approaches, starts a fight, and chases the first pair away. They crash down by the big island, bothering a couple who are visiting there. A few minutes later, they fly back over, chase the small island couple away, and return to preening. By now we fear all three incubating nests have been abandoned, and I suspect it may be due to the overabundance of geese here this year. They are fighting over access to nesting sites, and in the process ruining each others chances

1858 The trees still haven't leafed-out, and we've yet to hear the house finches who are usually early arrivers. The dark-eyed juncos haven't departed yet, we saw them near the tick zone above the peninsula as we rounded the south pool. Otherwise, there are all the usual players - the magpies, starlings, robins, flickers. As we walk the levee past the river island, we can see that there's still plenty of incubating aapsspiniiksi out there. But then, when it comes to the river island, there's far less brawling. Plenty of room for everyone to nest successfully

1923 Already heading for our vehicle, chilled by an unexpected cold wind, we find that our drake's hen is back with him at north-pond. I'm pretty confident there's mallard caching going on, and intend to confirm within a few days. More though, our couple have a visitor, someone that neither Mahoney or I have seen at the pond before. It is a female hooded merganser, all-over grey, with rusty ears, yellow eyes, and a very distinctly long and round-tipped beak

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllll Initial Mi’ksikatsi Nest Survey (29Apr11)

1906 Sspopiikimi - it has been rough weather, heavy sleet overnight and into half the day, followed by rain. All is moist and cool out here, and though there's no precipitation at the moment, that could quickly change. There are clouds all around, but still I've come to begin my search for mi'ksikatsi caches with what little daylight remains

1911 The moisture has forced a lot of the mid-sized earthworms to the surface, though none of the large nightcrawlers or small red worms. Walking in at north-pond, I collect half a dozen of these earthworms to bring home for Derrick. The robins are loving it, hopping along the trails eating their fill. From the bat tree, out on the water I see that the female hooded merganser's still here, along with a lone coot. Looking toward midpond, I can see a second coot and a pair or mi'ksikatsi. And just now, waddling down the from the levee, come our north-pond mallard couple

1925 Taking the mallard couple's appearance on the levee as a cue, I first move to check the thick buckbrush around the honeysuckle at that end. Then, finding no evidence of a cache there, I continue on along the levee base, inspecting the other buckbrush patches where they've nested in previous years, as well as the willow and dogwood patches, all to no avail

1943 While it's their general strategy to position all nests out of obvious flood range, it is always the case that one or two mi'ksikatsi couples will elect to take their chances on the wet meadows. With this in mind, I move to survey the tall dogbane patch of the north. Again I am unrewarded. I also turn several of the old boardwalk beams that are near this patch, and am a little surprised to find no insects. This absence is probably the result of last summer's extensive flooding in this area

1953 Continuing along through the wet meadows, I wade in among the midpond cattails, disturbing as I do so a Ksisskstaki who swims casually away with a bulrush in tow. The beavers have prepared another batch of cattail roots, digging them up and gnawing off the select portions. I'll return with a bag at some point during the weekend to collect the leftovers, which are still rich in starch that can be rendered to flour

1959 At present, and throughout much of early summer, the contour of the coulee rim is such that the last bit of pond to fall under dusk's shadow is that surrounding the ksisskstakioyis. Such is the scene as I approach the subpond, where a single mallard drake floats nervously. I keep my distance from him, hoping that his mate will reveal herself from somewhere along the forest main edge zone. But she never does, and the drake eventually takes flight to avoid my gaze. While in the area, I walk over to look at the remains of the Gosling Couple's nest. It has been abandoned, and the remains of three eggs broken open in the manner or gull or corvid predation

2020 There is a lot of territory to cover at the edge of the forest main in search of mallard caches, but that will be best saved for tomorrow. With what little light remains, I move to make sense of the other abandoned aapsspini nests instead, beginning with the south marsh. Here I am absolutely certain that no four-legged predators could have been the cause, as far into the marsh as this nest is. There's no sign of eggs, but I suspect they were pushed into the water, and have perhaps floated some distance. My take is that the Marsh Mama, whose gander was never very protective, was ousted by the pair of the small island. And even as I contemplate this, both couples come splashing in and fight briefly over possession of the island itself. When they're done, I check the small island for egg caches, but find nothing yet. It will happen though. I've no doubt we'll see new nests developing within the next week. Whether they'll survive with the massive competition this year is another question. Also present around the south marsh this evening are two aiksikksksisi couples, a redhead gander, and a male hooded merganser. It's strange the other redheads haven't returned yet

2031 Next I drop my gear off on dry land and wade out to the big island in the middle of the wide south pool. Again the nest that was here has been abandoned. This time, I'm absolutely certain the cause has been violent competition between the geese. There are nine eggs here, the most I've ever seen on a single nest. None of these eggs have been molested by winged predators, which can only mean that the Big Island Mama either tired of the incubation ordeal and gave up (highly unlikely), or that her fellows at the pond pushed her off and kept her away long enough to ensure failure. The only other possibility, and I suppose it must be considered, is that the makoyisttsomo'kaan storm a couple weeks ago chilled the eggs to the core and compelled the mothers to give up. Since I witnessed the incubation ongoing in the wake of the storm, I consider this an unlikely scenario, but one that can't completely be eliminated

2048 Leaving the big island, I wade back to shore at the peninsula and begin hiking north along the shale trail toward my vehicle. The tree swallows, who had most of the evening been swooping low above the pond, have now settled in tight formation along a powerline off the side of the trail. They look cold, bunched up as they are. None of the redwing females or yellowheads have returned yet. A number of the male redwings, who had been out in the reeds earlier, are now sitting in trees along the trail. Also in these trees are a pair of Swainson hawks, perhaps the couple who bred here two years ago. It would be nice to see them repair their nest in the forest main and raise another brood here this summer

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllll Magpie Eggs (30Apr11)

1203 Sspopiikimi - Mahoney and I have come out to pass the afternoon in phenological study, and to continue scouring for mi'ksikatsi egg caches, which we strongly suspect are underway. It is a blue-sky day with a cool breeze, but warm enough the we find at least half a dozen painted turtles basking in the reeds as we circle north-pond on our way to the forest main edge-zone, where it meets the wet meadows. Along the way, we stop off to check the asparagus and observe that the new shoots are just breaking the surface. Perhaps as early as next week we'll be enjoying the fresh greens

1255 We sit on a log at the forest edge and have some of our lunch, then start our search of the wet meadows. Mahoney takes some of the dogbane patches while I move into the thick bulberry. Right away when I enter the brush, duck-walking through the narrow corridors, the resident magpie pair sets to screaming at me in alarm. All around the ground here are the scattered remains of goose eggs they've stolen and eaten. But what they're upset about is what's concealed inside their globe-shaped nest... four beautiful eggs of their own. The pair are very upset as I climb up to get a look, but I wait for them to come perch very close so they can see that I don't take anything. Then I climb back down and continue working through the tunnels in the brush. No mallard in it's right mind would try to nest here under magpie scrutiny. I find the remains of at least seven eaten goose eggs, but none from the mallards. That tells me at least that these magpies haven't found the caches either, and if anybody could it would be them. Perhaps the ducks still aren't laying. When I get out of the brush and go rendezvous with Mahoney at the edge of the forest again, she tells me that a redtail hawk had come by to see what the magpies were hollering about. It hovered low, apparently less than three meters above the brush, totally unbeknownst to me, then winged off toward the high-level bridge

1340 We continue surveying the edge zone to arrive eventually at south-pond with no greater success than having flushed a mi'ksikatsi pair from the subpond. I did, however, encounter and photograph a moth that I don't think I've seen before. It is about the size of a clover looper, but with a different coloration. Now at the wide south pool we find the redhead drake paddling about in the company of the female hooded merganser. There is a coot diving for milfoil near them, and another chucking from somewhere in the marsh. We've still yet to see or hear the coots do any of their mating chases yet, and no sign of either the yellowheaded blackbirds nor the redwing females

1414 Continuing on, we hike through the forest and climb the levee to go check on the garter snake hibernaculum. Just as we start in this direction, we see a large cranefly off the side of the trail. Before we reach the hibernaculum, a dark cumulous cloud rolls over the coulee rim and dumps first rain and then hail upon us. If there were any snakes basking, they slithered off for rock cover by the time we get there. So off we go to round the south pool, and right in the middle of the path we find dead a summer-brown ermine. We suspect it has been the victim of a hawk or owl, who must have been startled away from the meal, but not by our own approach... there is a beetle (with whose identity we're not familiar) already feeding at the carcass

1450 There appear to be more of the dark clouds coming, and Mahoney is tired, so we walk the shale trail along the west bank of the pond heading back to the vehicle. Stopping to rest at the south bench, we're witness to our first coot trist of the season, more a teaser than a full dance. Obviously it won't be long before they're back to all-out orgies though. A bit further along the trail still, a swainson hawk comes gliding noisily in from the river, but is quickly turned about and ushered off by a pair soaring down from the coulee rim. Our very last stop is at the thatching ant colony, but nothing much has changed there. We're looking forward to seeing the emergence of their mating swarm again

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Mourning Cloak Mating (1May11)

1117 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - another blue sky day with classic, light cumulous clouds, california gulls crying from high above, meadowlarks singing from the fenceposts, and moist earth from last night's rains

1131 I'm not even out of sight of the car, on my way down the coulee slope, when a swarm of male mosquitoes finds me. But there is something else near, a loud hum like that of thousands of bees. I can hear them, but when I move in the direction of their sound, all goes silent, and a quick survey of the area turns up nothing

1201 Unlike last week, the slope is now completely abloom with moss phlox, although I've yet to observe a single insect alight on these flowers. The latter absence could be owing to a large cloud that blocked the Sun for almost twenty minutes, only recently passing. Now that it is gone, there are flies coming to land in my hair, so I assume the bit of extra heat was needed to put them in motion, that or they were exercising precaution against potential rain. Similarly, it seems a bit cool yet for the snakes. Arriving at the rattlesnake hibernaculum, I find only one basking beauty, the bulger at the third entrance from last week, whose food load has moved much further down her body

1245 I climb nighthawk ridge above the hibernaculum, and hike down along it toward the floodplain forest below. In the more grassy and vegetated areas, I encounter several varieties of wolf and crab spider. And where the ground is more eroded and bare, there are small black wasps crawlking about the mud. Eventually I arrive at the sagebrush flats, and there along a draw inhabited by chokecherries and hawthorn, I check in at a magpie nest I'd located over the winter, while gathering saa'kssoyaa'tsis. Whatever couple owns this nest, they are not raising a brood here this year, and so I take the opportunity to collect a sample of the roots and stems they used in previous summers as the bed on which to incubate their eggs. This matwork is woven of slender material. I recognize the terminal, berry-load stems of chokecherry right away, but there are also several other species I'd like to try to identify

1311 Entering the forest, I move straight away toward the kakanottsstooki oyiiyis, straying only to check a large stump where one of the river geese sometimes nests. This year it is empty. Mama owl, however, has succeeded. High up in the canopy over the mid-forest meadow, she perches on her platform beside at least two fluffy owlets that I can see. All around the area, there is starling chatter, and the hoots of mourning doves. I check right below the nest to make sure there are no owl babies that have fallen (it would be impossible for the parents to protect them from predators if there were). All I find is whitewash and the brilliant, yellow-shafted feathers of one very unlucky flicker

1348 I next hike over to the riverbank proper, expecting to encounter amidst the sands and cobbles any number of insects. But aside from one tiger beetle that flies away before I even get a close look, I find the whole front completely quiet. The resident pair of aapsspini are here, as I expected they would be, but it appears their nesting has failed. There is also a muskrat hanging around, perhaps living in, the ksisskstakioyis that was abandoned last summer during the flood

1441 The most intense heat of the day is here now, and I sure wish I'd brought something cold to drink instead of the warm apple cider I started off with. In any case, I determine to start heading back by way of the oxbow. It begins at the farthest downstream end of the forest and winds along the treeline at the edge of the sagebrush flats. Here, as expected, I begin crossing paths with mourning cloak butterflies who use this corridor for their mating. There is also the occasional spring azure or clover looper, and at a dandelion bloom I find a single, small indigenous bee whose identity I have yet to master. I expect to find pools of water that will support the coming frog orgy, but what remains are the most shallow of puddles, and I imagine it won't be long before they evaporate. In the trees, there are flickers, starlings, robins, chickadees and mourning doves. I listen for the calls of sapsuckers returned, but hear nothing of the sort

1544 My hike back up the slope is arduous as ever, but punctuated by two stops that help me keep cool. The first is back at the snake den, where several more of the serpents are up, young ones still, including a yearling. My second stop is at a thatching ant event I encounter along the trail. About a dozen ants are converged on one of their own, who is dead. Having arrived late, I don't know whether the deceased was from another colony and attacked, or whether she was a compatriot. But in any case, the others work in an attempt to dismember her and, when a couple legs have been removed, begin hauling her away into the grass. And so concludes my visit for the day. Looking forward already to tomorrow