01 July 2011

The Long Rains Conclude

IIII ) lllllllllllllll Many Redwing Nests (17June11)

0915 Just saw some of those at-risk long-billed curlews on agricultural lands of the north end... you know, the ones who don't really nest here according to the oil and gas environmental impact surveys. Oh, but it's nesting season right now, isn't it? Must have just been a figment of my imagination, returning every year

1515 Sspopiikimi - the proverbial calm before the storm, I arrive under a warm bit of sunlight that glows as it only does when, as today, massive thunderstorms are about to ensue. No doubt I will be drenched by the deluge within a very short while. But with a packed couple of days ahead, I need the pond right now to get my mind back in order

1521 It's that season now when I feel compelled to start anew the project of learning to recognize all the different grass species here. The field guides available to assist in such endeavors are fairly unhelpful. None of them are flowering as yet, but I suspect they're close, and I take pictures of some of them as I make my way to the first stop on today's round, the big thatching ant hive. The fare this afternoon among these largest of local ants consists of sidewalk carabid beetles. When I arrive at the mound, the residents are in the midst of hauling three such beetles, kicking and fighting, up the side of the hive and into the passages. Perhaps unbeknownst to them, there is a running crab spider waiting in the grass nearby for any unlucky ants who stray out in her direction

1551 Once the thatchers have begun biting my sandaled feet, I move on to survey the north-pond cutbank. Here I find three large wandering garter snakes basking. They are definitely rodent eaters, these three, and one of them is so swollen she doesn't even move when I squat down to have a look at her. I know these snakes to be constrictors, though it's a disputed topic. I videotaped one working on a deer mouse two years ago, and it was clear that the rodent was dead from suffocation before the snake began feeding. During summer, I always check along this cutbank with the hopes of witnessing the same again. Today, I'm also checking to see if the absinthe spiders (my name) have begun wrapping their webs around the dry seed-heads of last years stalks. They haven't, but I expect that phenological event to happen at any time. There are, however, several butterflies - pearl crescents, inornate ringlets, and spring azules - whose wings are so damp from recent bouts of rain that they can't really fly. I reach down and pick up a spring azule, letting it crawl around on my fingers a bit before setting it back in the grass. Below me, on the pond, there are dozens of painted turtles basking on the floating planks of the old boardwalk. And where I sit down to make these notes, near the redwing nest at the north reeds, there are small orange ants (of a species I don't know) working to drag the tail of a damselfly into one of the flush-to-the-earth-surface entrances to their subterranean hive

1646 I check on the north-pond redwing nest as I pass, and find it is being incubated. Still the same four eggs as last week. About the time I enter the forest main - checking in on the large slave ant complex, where they are hauling leaf clippings around- the dark clouds roll overhead, bringing with them a wind. I'm pretty sure a deluge is near, and so I fairly hustle out to the wet meadows to drop my pack and wade out to the bulberry island where RYECAM02 is set up. It seems that, unlike the river, the depth of the pond's flooding has continued to increase over the week. It is now impossible to cross at the mere thigh-depth of last year. I hike my shorts up at the sides 70's style and wade across, but my crotch still gets wet. Inside the bulberries, there is no longer any exposed land at all. The water would still have to rise another couple feet to reach the height of my camera though. I download the SD card. There are over a hundred images collected, so I'll wait to check them out back at home tonight

1736 By the time I get back to the shore, it's apparent that the storm is skirting off toward the south, and that my likelihood of getting rain-soaked is minimal. During last week's visit, I found a giant water bug guarding her egg cache on a bit of floating wood along this shore. I figure today I'll walk the edge to the duck blind and see if I come across others doing the same. I don't have to go too far before getting results. Right below the swainson nest, where incubation continues, I find a small piece of floating log with a cluster of eggs. There's no giant water bug mama guarding them from atop, as before. But when I left the log, there she is. The bug drops and swims down to hide in the submerged foliage below. Continuing on, I come across another redwing nest near the waters edge, just past the hawk nest, in some buckbrush that will be easily remembered for the small honeysuckle tree flowering beside it. The nest has three new hatchlings. Similarly, when I arrive at the duck blind, I find these eggs have hatched as well, and there are three slightly larger babies within. The father redwing is, of course dive-bombing me. The mother perches off a distance with a mouthful of baby food that, through my camera lense, I can distinguish as comprised of two parts damselfly, one part green caterpillar. I have no idea where she found the caterpillar, but I'm curious to see if she'll find another. So I am backing off now, to observe from a distance

1819 Nothing doing. Papa redwing is totally onto my tactics, and it seems he's ordered mama not to bring her food to the nest, and betray it's position, even though he already saw that I located it. Mama gives little begging calls and flaps her wings at him like a fledgling, but somehow it's communicated to her that she must not. The only way I'm going to learn where she's gathering the green caterpillars, and by extension what they are, is to return another day and keep my distance from the start. So I pick up and head out Through the forest main, to the levee and shale trail, and follow this around the south pool and west length, back to my vehicle. Along the way, I pass the Four Square goose family (four adults, four goslings). The second family with the traditional two parents appear to have moved away from the pond, it's been a couple visits since I've seen them. The mallard mother, with her now six ducklings, remain in the big puddle surrounding the golf course pump-house. There's plenty of vegetation hide in here, as well as invertebrates and plants to eat. The chorus frogs are still singing from this same puddle and, to my surprise, there are turtles who have moved over as well. It always fascinates me how aquatic animals can sense new habitats developing beyond their line of sight

IIII ) llllllllllllllllll Fungi Day (20June11)

1317 Onion day turned out to be fungi day... we filled several bags fairy ring mushrooms and giant puffballs. Might go check out the onion situation at the confluence a bit later

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll Mosquito Swarms (22June11)

1225 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Off to a late start this morning, owing to a general lethargy, or maybe the sense of being overwhelmed. Happens every summer. This is solstice time, the long rains have subsided, and the world of the coulees is just absolutely buzzing with life. It's now or never to really stockpile a winter supply of botanic foods, but all I want to do is look around in amazement

1249 From rim to hibernaculum, my usual half-way-down stopping point, I note all the same plants and insects as recorded during my last visit, but everything is larger and now more abundant: a variety of vetches, the closely related yellow sweetclover and black medick, yarrow, onions, butte marigold and Colorado rubber plants, a host of all three predominant butterflies (spring azures, inornate ringlets, and pearl crescents), billions of blood-thirsty female mosquitoes, Hunt's and Nevada bumble bees, and the sounds of meadowlarks, flickers, clay-colored sparrows, mourning doves, and nighthawks. New to bloom this week are the blanket flowers, yellow umbrella plants, and wild morning glories. The berries on the skunkbrush are beginning to turn red, and already have a decent citric flavor. The thatching ants are tending to their aphid herds in the not-yet-flowered wavy-leaved thistles. And so many of the grasses I don't know by identification have flower spikes. I walk with my camera out, snapping photos of those who I'll later research

1340 If I thought the mosquitoes were rough on the hike down, those awaiting me in the meadow at the base of the slope comprised a force I was totally unprepared to deal with. They covered me, swarming no doubt to the scent of my sweat and breath. I hated to rush, there were glorious patches of onion in the meadow, but I had to quickly nab the photos off the game cam I keep in the brush here and head quickly to higher ground. Not too surprisingly, given the mosquito density, animal action at the game cam over the past week proved minimal... just one visit each by the coyote and porcupine, and a couple passes from the deer. I climbed the nearest rise to a hilltop overlooking the river confluence, and here, in the shortgrass, I decided to stop and dig up some ma's. Glad I did too. The ground is perfect for it, although the work is still slow-going, and while digging the first one I found an indigenous lady beetle I've never seen before. She's tiny and red, with two black spots on each wing cover, and black line where the wing covers meet, a Winter Lady Beetle

1417 What I wouldn't give for some strong winds right about now. Having uprooted a couple of the turnips, I mustered my courage and tolerance to head back into the meadow for onions. Of course, the mosquitoes approved the plan immediately, "Yes, please do that." In the few minutes it took me to dig perhaps a dozen onions, they had a royal feast, and I was prompted to flee again, this time up the ridge above the rattlesnake hibernaculum, intent to start making my way home. Maybe in a few days the winds would kick up, or the heat would overcome these buggers and send them to the shade of the wood. Right now, it is just too much to handle. On my way up the ridge, making my escape, I am forced to pass through a thick patch of sweetclover. The buzz of the honeybees working there was intense. When I again got into shortgrass, I could see that some of the ball cactus have begun to open their flowers, while the early yellow loco weed so dominant here a couple weeks ago has gone to seed

1448 Descending the ridge, I grab a handful of ninnaika'ksimi and use it like a horse's tail to switch the air in front of my face while I finish my climb to the rim. I've inhaled and gagged on far too many mosquitoes today. All the way up, I'm swarmed relentlessly. Brutal and miserable. After seven weeks of pretty much solid rain, the roots and berries are going to be awesome, but anyone who wants to take advantage of them is definitely going to need to sacrifice

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll Spider And Seeding Synchronicity (23June11)

1330 Sspopiikimi - ever the glutton for punishment, I've come out in the hottest part of a brutally warm day, braving the mosquito hordes, so that I might learn more about what insects are on what plants, and which of them the smaller birds are eating and feeding to their hatchlings

1343 Never ceases to amaze me how quickly weather conditions can shift here. When I arrive at the pond, it is sweltering hot with dead-calm air. Ten minutes later, ominous dark clouds slip over the rim of the coulee, and a wind kicks up, prompting the cottonwoods to release some of their seeds. It is a beautiful summer snow, and for now mosquito free in thanks to wind

1401 I walk my usual route in to midpond, passing first one then another of the thatcher highways that cross my trail. At each, there are colony members hauling grubs toward their hives... two different kinds of grub, neither of which I know by sight. I check also at the dome of each of these hives. During my last visit, I mistakenly noted the ants taking in sidewalk carabid beetles. On closer examination of my photos from that day, the "prey" turned out to be ant scarabs, who no doubt landed near the hive intentionally so that they would be brought in, where they could lay their eggs and feed on thatcher larvae. I wanted to get a better look at these new-to-me coleopterons, but there are none to be seen at present

1412 After checking the ant hives, I walk the north cutbank. No garter snakes today, perhaps they sense the pending storm. What is interesting, however, is that the absinthe spiders have begun to build their cocoon-like webs on the seed heads of the old stalks. I'd predicted this event would be coming soon, but I hadn't connected to the seeding of the cottonwoods. Now that I think back on it, we missed this synchronicity the few years of our study out here, not even noticing the spiders because of our presumption that they were merely bunches of the cottony seed, plucked from the air by the plants. Only last year were we finally able to SEE that almost all of these fibers in the absinthe tops were in fact spider webs. I think we did make the connection to the cottonwood seeding at that time, but I'd since forgotten it. I don't think it will be lost to me again

1422 When I get to the extreme north end of the pond, I take a seat on the ground to write out some of these notes. It is a good place to stop anyway, because here there are lots of floating logs from the old boardwalk which the redwing blackbirds, robins, and other hunt for food upon. They are doing so as I arrive, but quickly take wing. I notice, off hidden below the root of a tree along the cutbank, there are three mallard ducklings alone. No other siblings and no mama anywhere that I can see. We've observed this kind of thing before, at about the same stage of development... the mother abandoning her ducklings for a day, then returning again. I'll have to keep an eye out for these three in future visits. I'd like to stay put and wait for the small birds to resume their hunt, but the storm is going to dump rain on me at any moment, and the wind has become fierce. I need to find cover

1448 The best place I can think of is the duck blind at south-pond. Walking as quickly as I might, I move along the levee to the path that will take me to the blind. Here, I've set up a temporary shelter from the rain that is indeed presently falling. My umbrella is a meter square insect drop sheet made of canvas, which I'd brought so that I could shake some of the various bushes to learn what might be camouflaged within. The duck blind is an optimal place to weather the storm also in that it is very close to a redwing nest. In fact, the father has been scolding me the whole while as I've sat here, and the mother dropped by to show me that she's still feeding her hatchlings damselflies. I'm curious though to learn whether she is continuing to use the wolf spiders and green worms I saw her feeding them during my last visit, and I especially want to know where she is procuring those worms

1553 When the rain subsides, I get busy shaking some of the plants within feeding range of this redwing nest. I survey buckbrush, chokecherry, wolf willow, golden currant, and prickly rose. All of them have resident crab spiders, different species to each kind of bush. The buckbrush has the most tiny spider, as well as an unidentified winged yellow big, a green beetle, and small green worms. These may be the worms I noticed the redwings using last week, but they seem smaller. All I get from the chokecherry is a small grey spider. The silverberry has a tiny crab spider and a small black and red beetle. The golden currant (the most spidery) has four different kinds of crabs and one orb-weaver. And the prickly rose has two crab spiders, bluets, and an ambush bug

1625 Figuring that this redwing family had begrudgingly tolerated enough of my nonsense near their nest, I begin making my way north again, following the edge zone of the forest. At first, I continue to survey brush as I move. But finding nothing different, I soon put the gear away in trade for a more comfortable walk. When I come within sight of the swainson nest, I pull out binoculars to check for the incubating mama. From my vantage point so far below, I don't see her, but it doesn't mean she's not there. Indeed, when I come under the nest tree, both she and her husband burst out of the canopy to hover above and scream at me. Then, continuing on, I come to that part of the wet meadows where the big bulberry patch and one of my game cams is found. There is a beaver eating beside the bulberries when I arrive. When I set down my gear, it slides away. Now I must wade out to check my SD card and find out who's been visiting inside the bulberries the past few days

1703 Ducks, ducks, ducklings, and more ducklings. That's whose come around the camera. There may be a surprise or two when I get home and view the images on a regular monitor, but that's what I could make out on the hand-held. The flood waters here seem to have receded at least an inch or two. I didn't have to get my crotch wet as I waded across today. Also, the turtles are starting to take an interest in the area. I crossed paths with five of them on my way back and forth, and really had to watch my step so I didn't crutch any while they applied their primary defense strategy of swimming to the bottom, and hiding in the mud and plants

1543 Feeling a bit worn now that the blue skies and heat have returned, I decide to make my way out through the forest main, around north-pond and back to the vehicle. As I passed through the trees, I was thinking to myself about how I'd yet to come across any of the catbird, warbler, or kingbird nests I know must be here by now. Just as I was having this thought, I peeked into a thick bit of brush around the trunk of a cottonwood and low and behold, there was the most prefect catbird nest. Five eggs and a very upset mama crying at me to go away. Finally, I can go away confident that I'll have at least one catbird nest to try and learn from over the next several weeks

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Goose Molt (26June11)

0913 Coffee and corvids. Speaking of which, I observed three very different strategies being utilized yesterday by parent corvids when dealing with humans (myself) who pass near to their fledgling young, and an extension of one of these behaviors this morning in an entirely different scenario...

Magpie parents yesterday gave alarm calls that let the fledglings know there was potential danger when I approached. But given my magpie fluency, I was able to speak back and forth with them a bit, and soon they had fledglings down on the ground with them at a careful but close distance from me, and one of the parents even flew away from the scene to gather food elsewhere and bring it back for the young birds, leaving them in my presence all the while. With blue jays, it was a different story. There were no alarm calls at all. The fledglings were a bit younger, and the parents had to go out and search for food alone because the young birds would never be able to keep up. Though I stood even closer to the blue jay fledglings than I had with the magpies, the parents continued to come and go with no sign of trouble, save perhaps for their attempts to stay out of sight themselves. When they'd arrive with food, it would be with a swift and silent fly-in, concealed as much as possible by brush. The same went for their fly-out. Crows were by far the most upset with human presence. Mahoney and I had only to walk past the lot where the crows nest was set, hidden in a large evergreen, and the parents immediately came to meet us, perching in branches above our heads and cawing in alarm. We wouldn't have even known the fledglings were near if not for the parents' anxiety. Their young were about in the same stage of development as the blue jay fledglings, able to fly short distances, but sticking close to the nest (in fact they never left the natal tree). Our proximity to the young crows was about twice as distant as with the magpies, and four or five times as distant as I had been with the blue jays. The fledglings watched quietly as their parents scolded us, never once even making begging calls, as both the magpie and blue jay young did constantly

What to make of this? My initial hypothesis is that the behavioral difference between these otherwise very similar birds has to do with their differential history of treatment by humans. Of these three corvids, certainly the blue jay is least despised by people. Farmers might not like them much, but in urban and suburban settings, humans tend to have some affection for them simply because of their blue color (silly monkeys), and so have not consistently sought to harass or harm them. Perhaps for this reason, the blue jay parents don't find much to be alarmed about when there are humans near their fledglings. Magpies, on the other hand, while also somewhat attractive to people because of their distinct coloration and long, fancy tails, are considered to be too loud. They also have a history of being thought of as magical (hence the "mag" in magpie), and so evoke a bit of residual superstition not aided by their reputation for thievery. The English and their relatives in outlying colonies have made serious attempts to eradicate magpies altogether, and in some locales on their home island are still trying to do so. But here in North America, this English disdain for the birds has been put in check for the last few decades, and magpies - though still often despised - are tolerated. For all of this, the magpie has every reason to give alarm when humans come near their fledglings, but is aware that the chance of a purposeful attack is, for the time being, relatively slim. Best option is to simply keep a safe distance and carry on with life as normal. And then there are the crows... who have had the misfortune of being black of plumage. The English and their colony relatives do not like the color black. It is associated with bad and dangerous things in their culture. Crows have therefore been framed as the evil bird, magically evil, given their intelligence. And crows are loud, all the more call for hatred. As with magpies, there have been serious efforts made to eradicate crows, and all kinds of scare tactics utilized, including the regular construction and placement of life-sized human dolls to ward them off. Because the crow's call is easy to imitate, it is not rare that, even with the relative tolerance shown toward them in the last few decades, humans continue to actively harass them through mocking imitation. Of all the corvids, who are a class generally despised in the dominant European tradition, crows have got the worst rap and no doubt have the most trauma to remember. I would conjecture that this history is what evokes their seeming over-concern with human passers-by in the presence of fledglings

Interestingly, we had an opportunity to witness some crow behavior this morning, in an entirely different, but related scenario. Like every morning, Derrick and I went to spend some time in the back yard with the neighborhood crows and magpies, which I feed daily. All was going as usual, with both types of corvids coming in to get food, taking it from a rail that is no more than a meter from where I'm seated (the magpies have even come to eat from my hand when I've offered). Then Mahoney woke up and she came out holding Keira. The first crow to arrive after Mahoney came out flew in and stood on top of our neighbor's house, studied the scene intently for about three minutes, then gave a croaking call and flew away. It's mate came by about five minutes later, landed on the porch rail, and proceeded to eat, then suddenly realized that Mahoney was holding something that looked very much like another crow. It froze in place and looked carefully. Yes, she was holding a crow. Then it flew down to the fence rail and paced back and forth looking hard at the scene. Eventually, it gave a loud triple call - Aw! Aw! Aw! - and a few seconds later flew away. When neither crow returned after about five minutes, we went in. No sooner did we close the back door than one of the crows swooped in to feed. They had been watching us from a concealed position. Keira, for her part, went to sit by the window and watch them make visit after visit to collect all the kibble from the rail. They knew she was there, and made purposeful close passes at the window to look at her as they came and went, until all the food was gone

1259 Sspopiikimi - no particular agenda today, Mahoney and I are just out for a stroll and a lookabout

1313 We are moving counter-sunrise around the pond today, which means that before passing the ksisskstakioyis our path crosses three different thatcher highways. Not much of anything special appears to be going on at any of the associated hives, probably owing to the rainshowers that have been off and on all morning. The third hive is in disarray, probably victim of a flicker's attention. Far more interesting this afternoon is the state of the ksisskstakioyis, which appears to have collapsed on it's west end. Repairs have of course been made, but now the lodge has a significant bow on this side, where it was well above the floodwaters before

1338 Just past the beaver lodge, we have two welcome encounters. The first is with the Four Square aapsspini family, whose goslings appear to be developing quite well. This is the first time we've ever witnessed yearlings assisting their parents with new goslings. Right now, all four adults are undergoing their molt. Our path is strewn with large feathers, the best of which we collect. Many of them appear to have been crimped near the base and tugged out. Our other encounter is with a fledgling robin, hunting on the short grass of the golf green. It is now on it's own, without any parental guidance, and quite successfully locating it's fare. Like many fledglings though, it is not too concerned with the potential danger of humans, and it allows us to get very close before then running up even closer to snatch a grub

1421 We move unhaltingly around the wide south pool to the river bench by the high level bridge. There, we stop to collect yellow sweetclover flowers, which will be dried at home and converted into vanilla-tasting tea. While picking, I purposely made my way through the wandering garter snake hibernaculum. Sure enough, there are still some large pregnant females here, and I suspect they'll remain all summer. Toward the end of our picking session, high wind gusts kick up, prompting us to head through the forest main, down to the duck blind, to wait it out under cover of Mahoney's umbrella

1508 When the rain subsides, we start hiking north again through the forest main. In the wolf willow near the duck blind, a pair of catbirds were scolding up. A bit of searching turned up their nest, but no eggs yet. The same search also flushed out a fledgling mourning dove, still really awkward at wing. We left it alone, but while we poked around most of the birds around raised a fuss - catbirds, robins, and yellow warblers got into the act. Figuring we'd found the nest, we moved on, and didn't really stop again until the catbird nest on the north end of the forest. There, we found the same five eggs as were waiting a couple days ago, but no incubation underway and, more surprisingly, no scolding mama. I didn't touch the eggs to test for warmth, but perhaps she's just away getting a meal

1517 The rain returns again as we exit the forest, headed toward our vehicle. The showers are not too much of an inconvenience, but it would sure be more comfortable if we'd remember to pack the light ponchos that are always in the back of our car. In any case, despite the rain, we stop at the extreme end of north-pond to look at the basking turtles and a pair of spotted sandpipers. With that last stop, our visit to the pond concludes