06 September 2011

Tattered Wings And Starving Hawklings

I Tattered Wings (27Aug11)

1800 Sspopiikimi - much can change in a week at the pond, and it's been that long since our last visit. Walking in to take our seats on the west cutbank across from the Ksisskstakioyis, all is noticeably quiet. The sikohpoyitaipanikimm family appears to have moved on, there are far fewer butterflies, only the dragonflies and grigs remain, and the mi'ksikatsi families in the wide south pool

1835 As we wait for the ksisskstakiiksi to emerge, a single mourning dove alights on a perch formed from one of the sticks of their lodge, and warms itself in the final bit of direct sunlight before the shadow of the coulee envelops the pond. Once warmed, the dove flies down to the edge of the Ksisskstakioyis for a sip of water, then wings away. I begin wandering the west bank in search of insects. As during the walk in, I notice primarily grasshoppers and dragonflies, the wings of the variegated meadowhawks and pale snakeskins all tattered. I also see a green leaf-hopper, a cabbage white butterfly, and a pink-edged sulfur. The season is definitely winding-down

1908 After a full hour's wait, the first beaver finally makes an appearance... there are ripples in the water around the lodge, and soon it is floating out above the food cache area. Judging by its size, I figure it for a yearling. It floats quiet, then dips underwater and reappears again briefly just below us before again rolling under and out of sight

1921 As we wait to see if the beaver will return, I suddenly feel a twinge of itchy pain on my sandal-exposed toes. Looking down, it appears to be a bee, and I instinctively reach down and knock it away. My hasty response has critically injured the animal, and now I pick it up by one wing and see it is not a bee after all, but a deer fly. The itchy pain must have been the effect from when it sliced into my toe to get the juices flowing that it intended to feed on. Meanwhile, another beaver has emerged, swimming toward the midpond cattails

1937 With so little to note for presences, perhaps I should focus a bit on absence. Four that we've been accustomed to seeing and hearing, and who were certainly around last week but not evident this evening are the robins, tree swallows, nighthawks and catbirds. I've no doubt there's still some of them are still around, but they're sure not making themselves known. This time of year, we often get blue herons and yellowlegs at the pond. But the waters were high almost all summer, and have still not receded to a level that would make it profitable for the yellowlegs at least to stop by. I don't know that we will see wigeons here as the season closes either, for there are no coots around to dive and retrieve the milfoil they enjoy. And the milfoil itself, being so far submersed, never bloomed to our knowledge

2006 The merlin has come in for his evening meal, perching on the same pole he usually uses, at the edge of the golf course behind us. From this lookout, he spots dragonflies and quickly swoops down over the pond to grab them. On one such dive, going particularly low, the merlin startles a beaver into splashing. The ksisskstaki have been coming and going from their lodge, making runs to both north and south-pond. I'm kind of surprised that they're not bringing home any food for storage, after all the boughs and saplings we saw them towing over the last couple weeks

2029 The merlin makes several successful dragonfly grabs before it's dark enough that we feel compelled to leave. And just before we stand up, a yellow-jacket comes to lick raspberry tea off the rim of Mahoney's cup. We pack up and hike to the vehicle, with one of the beavers following us half-way, and as we pull out we find that the hawklings have not gone so far away after all. They are standing at the roadside of a ramp leading onto the highway, picking grasshoppers off the plants. This ramp is normally quite busy, but lucky for the hawklings there's construction on its route down the coulee slope, and it will be closed for some time to through-traffic

II Starving Redtail (28Aug11)

1109 Could be an interesting day... we're at breakfast with the family and have just been told the location of an injured hawk. So Mahoney and I will drop the kids downtown with some money and roll out to attempt a rescue

1330 I just caught the injured hawk... it was able to fly a very short distance, so its wing can’t be that bad... on our way to the Birds of Prey Center, with Mahoney holding it as we drive

1626 That's three for three successful rescues we've participated in this summer. That hawklet waited for assistance on the side of the road in this brutal heat for a full week. Can you imagine?

IIII Is It Appropriate To Save A Starving Hawk? (30Aug11)

Over the weekend, Mahoney and I were informed of a hawk that had been standing on the side of One Spot Road for at least a week, apparently injured. As soon as we heard this news, we drove out to help the animal. We found a fledgling who was weak and unable to fly, so we picked it up and drove it to the Birds Of Prey Centre in Coaldale, where they specialize in rehabilitating and caring for hawks, eagles, and owls. When we arrived at the Centre, workers there assessed the hawkling and told us that it was not injured or sick, but rather starving, and that they would fatten it up and see to its release. It surprised me that a young hawk would starve in this region that seems so rich in voles, mice, grasshoppers and the like. It made me wonder whether their food sources might be so diminished by our industries that parent hawks are finding it difficult to adequately nourish their young. So yesterday, I sent an email to Marie Winn, a nature writer from New York who is famous for her work with hawks and the wide network of experts and enthusiasts she’s brought together in dialog, to inquire as to whether she knew if fledgling starvation is normal, or if there is any indication that this is a growing trend. She forwarded the letter to John Blakeman of Ohio, who has expertise in the matter, and he responded as follows:

“This morbid occurrence is rather common in August and September, as hawks in their first summer are no longer being fed or guarded by their parents. Many have not yet learned and perfected sufficient hunting and killing skills to maintain weight. So yes, these birds are in the process of starving. And it’s common and normal. Only a fraction, between 20 to 40% (sometimes fewer) of [those] fledged ever survive their first year, and starvation in late summer and early fall is a prime lethal factor. Survival of the fittest is at work.”

This morning I relayed this information on Facebook, along with a suggestion that this is the kind of situation where we humans might make ourselves useful and assist the hawks. The question was raised though, if we were to do so would it be an irresponsible interference with nature? Inferring from the last sentence of Blakeman’s response above, there are folks out there, including some who devote their lives to learning from these animals, who believe just that. I observe that there are several ways people typically approach this ethical dilemma…

On one extreme, there is the “survival of the fittest” and/or non-interference approaches, which are anchored in many cultures, and basically espouse the same response: that humans should not mess with the natural flow, regardless of how cruel it may sometimes be. If we go out of our way to save starving hawklings, then we risk contributing to an unnatural over-population of these birds, and also a weakening of their species. Hawks fledglings who are not developing in time with their parents’ care, if helped along by humans, might in the future breed young who are equally maladapted.

On the other extreme, there are those who espouse the “stewards of the planet” approach. These folks generally believe that we humans were created by a higher power explicitly to be the caretakers of the nature on Earth, and that this nature was “given” to us. In other words, we are like terrestrial gods, and it is our responsibility to tend to all of these species that we have been charged to care for. In more secular circles, this approach translates as a discourse of management, and assumes that we can in fact understand the intricacies of biological systems to such a degree that our purposeful interferences can be carried out to their benefit.

In between these two extremes are found the more complex positions, and they are incredibly varied. Here is my opinion…

I do not espouse the non-interference survival of the fittest philosophy, because I believe it carries with it a fundamental misunderstanding of adaptation. To me, adaptation is about fitness within an eco-social matrix, not simply who lives or dies in the short-term, or whose genes get passed on to the next generations. In this eco-social schema, the most adapted species are those whose very lifestyles support the most expansive diversity of life.

Beavers, for example, are animals who I would consider to be among the most adaptive in our eco-social networks. Every major aspect of their way of life benefits others. Their homes and dams are microhabitats for a vast host of smaller life, insects and the like, who inhabit the mud and rotting wood. Many passerines frequent the beaver lodges and dams in search of these smaller critters to eat. Other animals – muskrats and geese for example – nest in the tops and sides of these lodges, and are in this manner more safe from predators than they might be elsewhere. When a beaver fells a tree or bush, or digs out a piece of bulrush or cattail root, it very often results in the plants responding by sending forth several new shoots, such that you end up with more willows, poplars, and reeds as a result. The water held back by their dams and channelled laterally by their canals create wetlands that thousands if not millions of species depend on for their very existence.

Now… the beaver may not purposely set out to assist all of these others, but their way of life supports this network naturally, and to me that is the epitome of high adaptation. I believe we have the tools to consciously shape our own human ways of life in similar synergic manner, such that everything we do could promote biodiversity. And in this, I am not talking about that extreme position of stewardship. I do not believe that our purpose here is to tend or manage other species or ecological systems. We are NOT intelligent enough to understand those systems in all their complexity, though there is a certain extent to which we can, and in my opinion that limitation resides in phenological studies. We are capable of recognizing the annual patterns of behaviors of plants and animals, as well as some of the relationships between any particular species and the others with which it is directly connected. When the complexity goes beyond this, however, when the effects of the life of one species carries through others in indirect ways, or when more than one species’ lives act in concert to produce a phenomenon, then we’re out of our league, the intricacies of the system are too much for us to fully appreciate. It is for this reason that I do not identify with stewardship and management discourses.

What we are capable of managing appropriately and responsibly is ourselves. Our activities. Our ways of life. This is the area where we can do applied work that will benefit others and may some day carry us to becoming a highly-adapted keystone species within wider (yet localized) eco-social systems. This is where phenological study becomes imperative, because in order to manage ourselves to the maximal benefit of others we need to be able to recognize both the normal patterns of behavior in order to seize opportunities where we might in some way assist (like with the starving hawklings), and also any dynamic changes to these patterns (like the ibis moving further north) so that we can assess whether our activities are prompting these changes (which in this case they are) and manage ourselves responsibly (which in this case we are not).

So to me, the important question is not whether we should interfere with nature to assist a starving hawkling. Perhaps consider this… when a beaver makes a dam, it is interfering with nature, and it is justified in doing so partly because that interference supports its life. The beaver creates that dam so that the waters will swell, forming a pond around its home, giving it protection from predators and safe access to lots of food. But if all the dam did was support the beaver’s life alone, would this trait have lasted the test of time? The beavers’ dam-work creates a habitat that supports the lives of thousands of non-beavers, and it is my opinion that nature selects for this kind of adaptation. The more benefit your species’ way of life brings to those who are not of your species, the more likely nature will keep you in the picture long-term, because then your life becomes integral to the vitality of the eco-social system. Like the beavers, we too are a part of nature and are justified in our interferences partly because they support our life. However, if we fail to manage our activities strategically, in ways that have a positive impact on biodiversity, do you think nature will keep us around?

Worst case scenario: We recognize that many hawk fledglings die of starvation, so we set out to assist any birds we find in this condition, and after several future generations it leads to the hawks having a greater dependence on us, and so we have to change our lives to suit the needs of the hawks… we have to become much more aware of them, we have to learn where all their nests are, we have to watch for those who are starving in the fledgling stage and ensure that they are fed adequately until they can catch their own food… in other words, we have to strengthen our relationship to the hawks, recognize that their existence is important for our own and for the life system, and utilize the gifts that we have as humans to support that mutuality… I’m not convinced this scenario is a bad thing

IIII ) llll Kakanottsstookiiksi Return To The Owl Wood (3Sept11)

1903 Sspopiikimi - and then comes a day when it's no longer warm enough for just shorts and a t-shirt, and a buff sleeve returns to warm the neck. The temperature dropped to just two degrees above zero last night, and we are here to walk, survey, and check in at the garter snake hibernaculum. We expect all the reptiles are moving home, having babies, settling down for the season

1918 Hiking in along the north cutbank, we see the mallard families are still here, feeding midpond. So too are the kingfishers, grasshoppers and dragonflies, especially the paddle-tailed darners. The remaining flowers are minimal, but there are hairy golden asters, tufted white prairie asters, goldenrod, showy aster, and a few rhombic-leaved sunflowers. The spiders, it seems, have some business at present. Many of them are crossing our path, several varieties of wolf spider and some harvestmen, and there are occupied funnel webs in the grass

1948 We try to move hastily to the hibernaculum, given that the shadow of the coulee rim has already crossed both the pond and river. Quickest route is via the shale trail on the levee. It's so quiet here now. The only birds we see in the forest main as we pass are a few western kingbirds, though doubtless there are others concealed in the still mostly-green canopy. Coming to the south end of the forest, high above, we witness a large group of hawks in migration. There are close to forty of them, by rough estimate, too high up to discern species, at least by our untrained eyes, but my understanding is that broad-winged hawks will travel in such close aggregations. Nearby, in the owl wood, we hear the begging calls of an immature great-horned. It is followed shortly by the typical call of one of its parents. I wonder if they have returned here at this time to eat the garter snakes who will be traveling this way in-route to their rocks. Or the owls might be keeping an eye on the chokecherry and bulberry bushes, all in fruit and attracting small birds, porcupines, raccoons, and deer mice. When we reach the hibernaculum, there is nobody around. Either they haven't started arriving yet or we're just a bit too late in the day

2023 We decide to try locating the owls, skirting around the perimeter of their wood. A whitetail doe crosses our path, but our efforts to find the birds are fruitless. They see us, we never catch sight of them, and by the time we get over to the area where we originally heard the begging calls, they strike up anew from over by the hibernaculum. The family has moved silently without our notice, and it's getting dark now. We head over to the wide south pool of the pond. There are swarms of male mosquitoes surrounding us, and a catbird crying from the currant thickets. Out on the water, we find one mallard family surface skimming for their evening meal, another already going to sleep on the big island

2048 We walk the west length, past the Ksisskstakioyis, to the parking lot. No merlin this evening. One of the beavers is out and upset about our trespass. He whacks the water with his tail a few times to demonstrate his frustration. If his family is caching their winter food, it hasn't crested the pond surface yet. We're expecting to see it taking shape soon though

IIII ) lllll First Rattler At The Hibernaculum (4Sept11)

1500 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - it's a warm day after a few nights of near freezing temperatures, and I've come down to check on whether the rattlesnakes are returning to their hibernaculum

1520 I hike straight down to the den without pause, wanting to look in on the snakes before anything else. But I've not failed to observe that the insects are enjoying the warm afternoon. Most of the activity is focused around the yellow blooms of gumweed and broomweed, with pollinators and predators galore. I also see that, along the sections of trail with some clear ground, both the black and green-morph cowpath tiger beetles are hunting. While the river-bottom below remains rather green, the grass and other foliage of the coulee slopes has dried and returned to more earthy tones

1552 Sure enough, the first snake has returned, heard but not seen rolling into the main entrance as I step near. The grass here, though dead and dry, has not been matted down by basking serpents yet. There is at least one here, the sound of a rattler scrambling to safety is unmistakable. My question for the season is whether any young will be born of the extended family who live here. Last year, there were only unexplained abortions. Unfortunately, while checking in on the third entrance to the den, I experienced another unmistakable and familiar sensation... that of a yellow-jacket wasp injecting venom into my flesh. It had crawled up and perhaps got stuck under the hem of my shorts, just above the knee. My hopes for a rare, sting-free summer have been dashed. The vengeance of the wasps and bees upon me continues, now thirty-three years since my childhood offense

1631 Leaving the hibernaculum behind, I hike down to the hawthorn brush at the edge of the floodplain to download the latest images from my game cam. Surprisingly, there've been no coyotes moving through this trail for at least a few weeks. Those I find photographed are the mule deer, porcupine, mountain cottontail, ring-necked pheasant, and my first shot here of a brown thrasher. While flipping through these photos on my little viewer, yet another wasp comes to bother me. There's something low, by my stomach, they're after. But their attention makes me uncomfortable. I'm in no mood for another sting today

1719 I start making my way back up the slope, popping on a macro lense and stringing my camera around my neck with the intent of taking lots of insect photos during the return hike. My first and last stop is at a large, fuzzy, light-brown caterpillar I've never seen before. It’s making a mad dash along the trail in front of me, and comes to rest eventually in a bit of rocky shade. The whole while I'm trying to take pictures of this caterpillar, another yellow-jacket is hovering around me. I'm glad to get off a couple decent shots, so I can walk away. But the wasp harassment doesn't end. They are landing on my hands, on my camera, hovering in front of my stomach. I decide finally to just put my camera back in my pack and march non-stop back up to the rim. In a way, it’s fortunate that I do. Just as I come over the last crest, I find Reg Ernst walking away from the parking lot, carrying a white bucket and a snake stick. He'd been brought out to relocate a rattlesnake that had wandered (rightly) into one of the new suburb developments nearby. I talk to Reg briefly, updating him on the one rattler who's returned to the natural hibernaculum, and reminding him of our discussions from last winter, that I would like to do some volunteer work with the snakes, whether it be research or relocation. If anything should ever happen to Reg, I’d like to be able to take over the work on their conservation here