31 October 2011


I A New Rattlesnake Hibernaculum (25Sept11)

1043 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - starting off down the slope along a different route this morning, hoping to come across a rattlesnake hibernaculum that I suspect to be situated somewhere along the downstream end of this stretch of coulee. It's been warm, and the yellow jackets are already harassing me. Hopefully it won't be another painful visit
1147 It doesn't take long to find exactly what I'd hoped for. Though the general area where rattlesnakes will den is pretty predictable, finding one is not a simple matter. Both the snakes and their hibernaculum entrances are usually well concealed in this season, and they generally won't alert a person to their position until you’re within a couple strides proximity. This is the case here. I've suspected the location for a couple of years now, given the early summer movement of young snakes observed in this area. Also, about four or five years ago, I came across a stone cairn here in the resemblance of a rattlesnake. I have searched ever since, but have never come across the den, nor even the cairn again... until today. Now I will never lose it. The site has all the perfect features. But unlike the other hibernaculum upstream, the entrances here are mostly small rodent holes. There is one badger burrow with a snake beside it, but the others who have arrived thus far are occupying very inconspicuous entrances, and I feel a bit vulnerable not knowing where all of them are. At this point, the snakes have sensed my nervousness and gone underground, so I'll leave it for today and return again in a week or so for another survey. Now down to the floodplain

1228 Flickers announce my arrival as I cross the sagebrush flats at the base of the coulee slope and enter the floodplain forest. Like at the pond, most everything here is drying and yellowing. It's almost getting me excited for the cold weather to come, and the hunts that can be carried out in the absence of wasps and flies. Though I scan around for deer, who should be starting their rut soon, I’m not really intent on focusing on the forest today. I'm only passing through as a means to get to a particular spot on the river, where the beavers keep a large shore lodge. I'm wondering if I'll find, as with the other four lodges I've surveyed over the past week, that this family is caching it's winter store right up against the lodge walls. Indeed, when I emerge from the thick willow patch that runs between the forest and river, this is exactly what I find. The family has been collecting sandbar willow and cottonwood saplings, and the clipped base of all these plants has been anchored straight into the mud of the lodge wall, forming a big green wreath around their home, where it meets the water. Again, this is not how this family usually stores their food, which is rather anchored in the river bottom and piled up in a deep pool a few meters in front of the lodge. All of these beavers must know there's going to be something different about the winter to come

1306 From the beaver lodge, I follow the riverbed upstream, past a couple guys panning for gold, to the black cliffs... wait. Did I say there were guys panning for gold on the Oldman River? Sure enough. First time I've seen it here, but I'd recognize it anywhere: the ongoing hominoid quest for shiny things. Futile here, I suspect. But I have to give them credit for not sitting at home watching sports or fights, hockey season is starting. Anyway, at the black cliffs I head back through the trees and up the draw to where I keep my hidden game-cam. I read several papers earlier this week about the benefits of eating hawthorn berries for the heart and arteries. Figure while I'm checking my camera, I might as well pick some of these fruits to get Mahoney and I started on them

1411 I don't gather too many of the hawthorns. Most are already shriveled or have been half eaten by birds, who pick off the flesh, leaving just enough to hold the seeds to the plant. There is also the issue of abundant wasps, who are all too interested in what I'm doing there. Hawthorns are like rose hips, they will stick around as a winter berry, though a bit more dry. In any case, I can return when the wasps are less pesky. I gather enough berries to last through to my next visit, then download the images off my camera - all cottontails, porcupines, and strange dancing lights - and start making my way back up to the coulee rim. Along the route, I stop by the downstream rattlesnake hibernaculum, my old familiar. There are piles of snakes in each of the den entrances as expected, but none basking outside. I can barely see them in the holes through the thick surrounding grass, so I use a stick to push this vegetation aside. Surprisingly, the snakes aren't bothered by this at all. They don't rattle, they don't move, and I am very close to them. I'm glad the rattlers at the new upstream den weren't like this today, or there could have been an accident. It makes me wonder whether maybe these downstream ones might be birthing today. It would explain why at least the females might not be overly focused on the danger of my presence. But then I would expect the males to still be alert. Maybe the strong wind is throwing them off. Without any snakes above ground to watch, I decide to continue on up the slope. I march the route, noticing only the grigs hopping out of the path as I pass, and am soon back at the car

IIII ) llllll Garter Snakes Still Out (4Oct11)

1001 With nothing pressing for the next couple hours, I'm heading down to the pond

1031 I arrive today to find there is construction underway in the northwest section of the absinthe field, which comprises part of the mallard nesting area. They are clearing ground with a bulldozer and there are huge, black pvc pipes piled nearby. I take this to be an extension of the drainage work being done in the coulee draw above, where there has been considerable flooding over the access road during the past couple years. I will be interested to watch what kind of floral reclaimation takes place in this disturbed area next summer. At the pond proper, I’m taking the counter-sunwise route, and am looking particularly for non-mallard waterfowl this morning. At the north end, I observe three kingfishers. One of them is perched and hunting, the other two are chasing one another. I wonder if any will attempt to winter again and feed at the spring. Coming toward the ksisskstakioyis, there is a lone mallard, and more who I can see further up in the wide south pool

1036 At the ksisskstakioyis itself, their food cache is looking a bit more as it had in previous years, taking on a large mound-like appearance. It is still closer to the lodge and more connected than we’ve ever seen, but not quite as extreme in this sense as the caches of the shoreline families along the river, who have their caches anchored right into the walls of their lodges. Curious to learn what this means for the winter to come. There are still a few blooms of hairy golden aster along the trail, but not much else, and wind gusts this morning are starting to bring down the poplar and cottonwood leaves

1042 When I reach the wide south pool, I count eighteen mallards in two loose groupings. I suspect these are mainly of the two families who raised broods here this summer, though five out of the eighteen birds are drakes. In the buckbrush along the trail, I’ve spotted a few skimmer dragonflies and some dark-colored damselflies, even a couple cabbage white butterflies. Overall though, the insect presence is way down from what it was even a week ago. There are barely any grigs around to speak of

1058 In addition (and perhaps related) to the drop in insects, there is an absence of small birds here. Usually I would encounter waxwings, tree sparrows, and dark-eyed juncos in the currant and bulberry patches while rounding south pond this time of year. Today there are none. Part of this absence, I believe, can be sourced in the minimal berry crops produced this year. There are hardly any chokecherries remaining, the few currants and saskatoons that did fruit have long since been plucked, even the bulberries are scant. While I walk over to the garter snake hibernaculum, a single magpie passes overhead. This is the only bird I’ve seen today aside from the mallards and kingfishers. I thought for sure the garter snakes would be here by now, but I explore the area thoroughly, peeking in all the crannies under the boulders along that area of the river cutbank where they normally winter, and find nothing. It is not unusual for these snakes to take their time returning to the den, given the degree of cold they can tolerate. But this seems to be getting beyond their usual habit, and almost makes me wonder whether they haven’t decided on an alternate site to use this year. It’s been a strange summer for the garters more generally. There were far fewer inhabiting the north cutbank where we used to see them. Of course, this changed might be attributed to the late-summer mow along the path edges that shredded several snakes last year at the north cutbank… others may have hesitated to return there this summer

1132 Before heading into the forest main, I stroll through the owl wood. I want to learn whether either the kakanottsstookiiksi or the raccoons have returned yet. Neither make an appearance. I check the old bike jump buried in the wood, where the raccoons denned last winter, and see no sign of recent activity. There’s just not many bulberries here this year, so it’s hard to say what kind of animal presence we’ll be left with at the pond this winter. Once I’ve made my round of the owl wood, I go over the levee and drop into the forest main, walking the edge-zone along the wet-meadows, where there are a lot of matted grass paths where the beavers have dragged their cottonwood saplings down into the subpond and out along the canals to their cache. My game cam in the big bulberry patch captured fewer images this week. A single whitetail doe has been visiting regularly. No sign of the young buck who’d been coming through. The only other visitor was a lone coyote who passed through just once

1155 I decide to go out on the wet meadows and climb up the ksisskstakioyis to get a closer look at their cache. It appears to contain all the usual foods they collect, in generally the same ratio we’ve noted in previous years: mainly bulrush stems, along with quite a few willow and poplar saplings, and then smaller amounts of cattail and prickly rose, all weighted down with logs that have already had the bark eaten off. After this inspection, I follow one of the dry beaver canals that the deer have been using as a trail, taking me back to north-pond. It feels like the visit is over for today, but as I’m walking the trail past the north cutbank, there’s a wandering garter crossing. It appears to be hunting, and I’ve spotted it from enough of a distance that my presence hasn’t seemed to register. So I wait and watch for a bit, hoping to see it catch a vole so I can again observe its method of constriction. I have film from a previous episode of garter snake constriction that I think proves the behavior is practiced, although some believe they are only holding their prey so as to get at it properly, head first. I know this is not the case. The vole I observed and filmed being eaten was certainly dead before the snake began its slow swallowing activity. Unfortunately, I don’t get to see it again today. The snake eventually leaves my path, heading into the grass, and when I walk to where it entered, it’s nowhere to be seen

1447 Just wrapped a wonderful photo session with the leucistic magpie of ULeth. Walked around on the lawn with her for about thirty minutes, and she never flew away. Many university students passed by, eyeing me as you might if you noticed someone shooting serious pictures of a blank wall. Why on earth is he photographing a magpie? No doubt this bird has been here several months, since the nesting season, if not longer. And I suspect that few to none of these passing young knowledge seekers, perhaps not even any of their professors, have registered anything unique about a light-grey magpie in their midst

IIII ) llllllllllll Mohkammii And Reed Camouflage (10Oct11)

1657 Sspopiikimi - arrived at the pond to find the construction they were setting up for in the absinthe field along the access road is now well underway, with a huge trench dug to contain the large pipes that will soon be buried here, routing flood drainage into the river

1720 Walking the west length, we encounter a wider variety of animals than I'd anticipated, all apparently taking advantage of the semi-warmth this day has offered. There are a couple pink-edged sulphur butterflies about still, but no longer any grigs or dragonflies, at least that we've noted. In addition to the usual assortment of twenty or so mallards on the water, today there is also a female merganser. She paddles along with her face underwater and occasionally dives in pursuit of pike. In the buckbrush directly across from the ksisskstakioyis, I hear and then see a single dark-eyed junco. There are kingfishers chattering and hunting in both north- and south-pond. And surprisingly enough there's even a turtle basking in the wide south pool, despite the matter of this end already being cloaked in the coulee's shadow

1748 Rounding the wide south pool, we see magpies, robins, and flickers, all in and around the lone cottonwood tree in the currant and bulberry brush. We then make our standard stop-in at the garter snake hibernaculum, but once again find nobody home. They're really taking their time returning to the site this year

1820 Dropping down into the forest main, we head to the duck blind. The great blue heron is here, in the shallows just below us, hunting with extreme patience and muscle control. We watch closely for at least twenty minutes as the heron moves almost imperceptibly through water that is up to the top of its legs. I realize now that the heron's legs are designed not only for the wading itself, but such that they must appear very much like bulrush stems to the passing fish. At one point, the heron seems to spot something. It slowly stoops its neck down so it's head is just above the waterline. At the last moment the fish must have caught on and darted away, because the heron lifts its head suddenly and snaps at a nearby reed in frustration. It then moves on a few meters further and slows down once more

1904 Leaving the duck blind, Mahoney climbs up to sit on a bench on the levee walk overlooking the river, while I move through the forest and out onto the wet-meadows to check my game cam. It has taken only two pictures this week, one of the whitetail doe and the other of a passing coyote. I figure this lull in activity is related to the nearby pipeline construction. It is dark now, and walking back through the forest to rendezvous with Mahoney, we can both hear a great-horned owl couple calling, and we silently text back and forth to one another about it. I figure them to be in the area we call the cathedral, so I head in that direction. Sure enough, the owls soon register my approach and I see them move to a different part of the forest, over by the ayinnimaoyiiyis. Once there, they return to singing, and I continue on to find Mahoney

1919 Several families of geese came in honking as we walked through the dark, back to the car. I think they may be passing their nights on the big river island. In the not too distant future, it will be the open water crags where they again assemble

IIII ) lllllllllllll Rattlers On The Slither (11Oct11)

1724 After miscalculating the location of my morning meeting by about a hundred kilometers, and then learning that practically every one of my traditional foods students had different instructions about when or whether we were getting together today, I gave up and went to Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko, where the agenda is less threatened by confusion or distraction

I hiked straight down to the rattlesnake hibernaculum, past all of the dry plants of summer, and the relatively few crickets, grasshoppers, greenbottle flies, and grounded black blister beetles who remain. The wind was intense, so there's no telling what other insects might have been around if the conditions were calmer... just imagine what the wind might be to a creature as small and weightless as an insect. My greater interest though was in the snakes. I've still not encountered any newborns for this year and, since I'll be away on business for the next week or so, I knew there might not be another opportunity to visit

When I arrived at the hibernaculum, I fully expected to find all the rattlers piled up around the den entrances, basking in what little heat was available. A few did drop down into the main den as I walked up, suggesting they were huddled near the rim. But as I continued on toward the other entrances, I began to encounter snakes on-the-move. Away from their safe zones, these rattlers reared at me, prepared to strike if necessary, and backed away in this posture toward whatever den entrance was closest. One of them had a telling bulge down by her tail, suggesting that she was close to delivering new snakes into this world

The combination of high winds and wandering, defensive snakes put me on edge just slightly. Even those with the loudest rattles could barely be heard over the gusts and the buzzing seed-pods of various vetch. Rather than remain in the danger zone with both myself and the snakes on edge, I decided to leave for awhile, hike down to the bottom of the coulee and check my game-cam. For the third week in a row, there were no coyote pictures in the lot. Those who did pass by were the regulars - deer, porcupine, and ring-necked pheasant. I'm already scouting for the next location to situate this camera after the year I promised to leave it at this location is up

Before leaving the floodplain, I picked some of the hawthorns that had not already been partially eaten by birds or become host to insect larva. Mahoney has begun to use these berries as a medicine for when she feels her blood pressure is too high. I then hiked back up the slope and almost passed by the hibernaculum again without stopping. I didn't want to cause stress for any of the mothers who might be near to delivering their babies. But then the thought occurred that perhaps I could walk up to within view of them and watch from outside without too much disturbance. So this is what I did. For the next forty minutes, I stood still in a safe, shortgrass area about three meters out from the main den entrance. Immediately I could see that this registered as an appropriate distance for the snakes, who certainly knew I was there, and yet never took a defensive posture, but rather carried out their business as they had been doing before I arrived and bothered them during my earlier pass. From what I could see, they were moving between the five den entrances. When one snake would arrive at a den, another would leave. Sometimes three or four would leave, one right after the other, following the same paths. They didn't use the deer and rabbit trails that wind through the hibernaculum area. They stuck instead to the tall grass, and I could only catch glimpses of them as they passed through narrow clearings, or as they entered or left their grass cover. I observed one snake move from the main den toward me, again using the grass to conceal himself, and I suspect he came near and watched me for a while (other rattlers at the hibernaculum have done this with me in the past more visibly). In the end, I could not detect the purpose of their rotations between the entrances, whether it was a result of the wind bothering them, or if they were hunting, or anything else. In prior years, I've observed a single, large snake engaged in similar activity, moving from entrance to entrance on circuit that took about an hour to complete, and approaching to inspect me whenever it passed. But today it seemed the majority of the snakes were involved in something of this manner. How I'd love to have x-ray eyes so I could see through the grass, and perhaps a week to do nothing else but sit with them

Eventually I left the hibernaculum and climbed the rest of the way up the slope. At the rim, I met up with Reg Ernst, coordinator for the rattlesnake project in Lethbridge that has been relocating snakes from around the city to a man-made hibernaculum in this coulee. Reg was busy with two colleagues, but stopped me to inquire about what the situation was like at the natural hibernaculum he knew I'd just visited. I shared briefly what I'd seen, which unfortunately did not include an accurate count of the number of snakes there. I did comment about how I'd seen no babies yet. Reg had seen some at the man-made hibernaculum, but not elsewhere. We also chatted briefly about conservation strategies, and specifically about non-interference with the snakes when they're at the hibernacula. Reg fears that too many encounters with humans at the dens might prompt the snakes to move to a different and perhaps more dangerous location, jeopardizing their persistence, and referred to an occasion when he'd been involved in a project capturing snakes at a den and tagging them with radio-monitoring chips as a time he felt particularly uncomfortable. It was a soft way of admonishing me for my visits, and I suspect that ultimately he's right... too many human encounters would indeed cause the snakes to think twice about returning to the same site again. On the other hand, I've been visiting this particular den for several years now, stopping by perhaps once a week while the snakes are present, and I don't think it has impacted the population here at all. In fact, I believe that the hibernacula represent extended families who have wintered at each site for millennia. I suspect that almost all the snakes I saw today were born at this site, some of them I must have met as babies, and that it would take a lot more than the occasional visit by a now-familiar, hands-off human to coax a relocation. If the truth were otherwise, the idea of successfully moving snakes from other parts of the city to a foreign, man-made hibernaculum in this coulee with the hope that they would remain here would be absolutely absurd. But it's working, snakes are returning to the new site and bearing young there. The real threats to the persistence of rattlers here are not intrusions by naturalists, biologists, conservationists and the like. They are loss of habitat resulting from urban development and industry, motor vehicles, and the deeply embedded cultural fear and hatred aimed toward these ancient ones

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllll HyperAwareness (20Oct11)

2114 Many, many strategies for living have-been and can-be learned from observing non-human animals. Consider, for example, the question of what to do when one suspects and/or confirms the approach of danger. Animals do not generally sit there and accept the presence of a predator closing in on them, unless of course they have ample defenses at their ready. They do not say to themselves, "Today, I'm going to meditate on all the blessings I have, and pay no attention to dangers in my world." That kind of thinking would be tremendously risky. Attached as they are to daily and seasonal realities, most animals are constantlu hyper-aware, both sensitive and curious about EVERYTHING in their environment. For this reason, it is considerably difficult for a predator to advance within killing range of its prey without either using special technologies (silent feathers, camouflage, etc) or targeting a particular weakness (the tendency not to look straight up, rate of speed, fatigue, etc). Faced with the shield of hyper-awareness most animals habitually raise, predators far more often have to feed off helpless babies, or prey that are distracted by injury, illness, starvation, and the like. This alone constitutes a valuable lesson: desperation equates with vulnerability for those who deem the service of immediate desires to be more important than maintaining appropriate minimal levels of sensitivity, curiosity, and caution. In my estimation, no matter what physical powers of evasion one might possess, hyper-awareness is the survivor's greatest tool. It is possible for an animal to sustain considerable injury, and yet continue to stay alive in the presence of predators, so long as that awareness is maintained, and threats are accurately assessed and responded to. Returning to the original question then, what are the options for response? In some cases, the best strategy is to sit very still and unnoticed while the danger passes. In others, it's best to increase distance, or to seek shelter, or to herd or flock. Among the more social animals, one of the most common strategies is to mob the predator. When a magpie spots danger lurking, it issues an alarm call that soon draws other birds to the scene. All who arrive assess the situation, and if they agree that there's a threat, they too will cry in alarm. Once a critical mass is reached, the magpies will begin swooping the potential predator. At best, this strategy succeeds in chasing the danger away. At worst, it alerts everyone to the presence of threat. When eggs or hatchlings (i.e. the future generation) are at risk, parents and/or colony members become even more bold in their protests. Maintaining hyper-awareness, vocalizing alarm, and assembling to ward off danger are all crucial strategies that have helped some species survive for millions of years. For those who are concerned about our own well-being, and that of our children and grandchildren, as we face an industrial empire that threatens the life-system as a whole, any suggestion that we should intentionally decrease our awareness so as to focus on the happy rainbows, or quiet down about the issues at hand, or limit our actions to private individual responses when we there are opportunities to mobilize as groups... any such suggestions may not be too wise

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllllllll Mi’ksikatsiiksi (23Oct11)

1540 Sspopiikimi - this is our last visit for the summer lunar season, a relatively warm day (sweaters and toques), and we are making the counter-sunwise stroll, passing twenty-five mi'ksikatsi (sixteen drakes) midpond, on our way toward the wide south pool

1554 The south end holds no great reward as far as we can tell at first survey, four more mi'ksikatsi (one drake). No sign of any herons yet, nor the kingfishers. The sspopiiksi are no longer basking, though they may have been earlier. There are three of them under the bench where we're sitting, swimming and feeding within the milfoil. Along the path, Mahoney and I saw two pink-edged sulphur butterflies. And on the ground at our feet presently, a harvestman spider. The leaves have really been falling since our last visit two weeks ago. Most of the trees in the forest main and owl wood are already bare

1618 We hike around the south bend to the Oldman River, gazing into the owl wood as we passed. With the leaves gone, the locations of nests we'd not found over the summer are being revealed, some even within a meter or so from the edge of our normal path. Once again, we find the garter snake hibernaculum absent of activity. No birds on either the river's waters or shores along this stretch. Very quiet today

1707 From the hibernaculum, we drop down through the forest main to the duck blind above the south marsh... nothing. Then Mahoney climbs back up the levee to sit on the river bench while I walk past the subpond and out into the bulberries on the wet-meadows to check my game cam. The device has captured a couple of very nice sequences this round, including a bedding doe, magpies leading a coyote through, a late-night porcupine visit, and a pass by the young whitetail buck who hasn't been around for the last month or so. While I squat in the bush to download these images, I can hear a magpie giving double-calls from the forest main, the only non-mallard bird we've encountered today

1725 I rendezvous with Mahoney at the bench and show her the game cam images. Then we walk the levee out to north pond and hike back to our vehicle. Still no sight or sound of the kingfishers, and I can only guess that they've now departed. From the way things are lining up, I'm predicting a very lonely winter at the pond