28 November 2011

Dialogs With Deer And Sparrow

II Northern Saw-Whet (25Nov11)

0929 Sspopiikimi - I've arrived this morning to confirm, as expected, that the big pipeline trenching has begun, making access to the pond even more difficult. I've parked off the side of the lane merging east onto Hwy 3, and from here will attempt to hike in and gain access via the river or levee-walk. No telling whether this will be possible though. I may very well need to drive around and park among the residences on the coulee rim, and drop down from there instead

0941 Despite the obstacles, I am able to access the levee and follow it to north-pond. Now I just have to hope my car doesn't get crunched by a bulldozer or dump truck, or alternatively towed by the city. Anyway, we've recently experienced two days of heavy chinook winds that came through in excess of a hundred kilometers an hour, eating all the remaining snow as it passed. This was followed by yesterday's calm and relative warmth, at one degree above zero. Today it's supposed to be even warmer, but the wind has picked back up, and it doesn't feel comfortable at all. At north-pond, all the waters are frozen tight, even where the flooding from the construction, which continues still, is entering in

0947 With the pond frozen-over, most of the wildlife action will probably be taking place along the Oldman. I walk over to the high cutbank overlooking the big river island to scope things out. All is much as it was last week. The main stream is still just a little ways after the high-level bridge, and down past my position, though the oxbow that moves along this side of the big island is mostly solid now. Upstream, nearer the bridge, I can see five aapsspini standing on the ice. I'll make my way over to them eventually, but might as well head to my game-cam on the wet-meadows first

1006 As I drop down into the forest main to start my way toward the wet-meadows, I'm reminding myself not to rush anything this morning. My last couple visits to the pond, though each turning up new birds we'd never seen here before, felt hasty. The pond, river, and forests all seemed too quiet. But I know that even in the worst of winter, when it feels like life has abandoned this place, and that nothing at all is happening, it's only because I've failed to concentrate and expand my perceptions. There's always something interesting happening here, one just has to have the right eyes to see it. No sooner does this reminder cross my mind, then I scan the forest canopy and notice a large porcupine, sitting high on a heavy branch near the cathedral. To get a better look, I reroute and climb back up the levee. I think this porcupine may be the one we call The Blonde. She's mature and pale enough. Noting my presence, she turns her head to give me a bored glance, then - in classic porcupine fashion - repositions her body on the branch so that her back is turned my way. Nearby, I can hear the pine grosbeaks. They're still working seeds off the same green ash that I found them eating a week ago

1012 The grosbeaks allow me to sit very near to them (a trait they are known for). There is one male and eight females, plus others I can hear calling from the forest main. As I watch them, a downy woodpecker arrives, perhaps interested in gaining my attention. It picks around in the cottonwood bark on the nearest tree-trunks. Then a magpie soars in, landing somewhere in the brush near the river cutbank, and all of the sudden the other birds burst into the air in a tight group that sweeps away into the forest main. Could the magpie have provoked such a stir? No... there is a small falcon, a merlin or kestrel, gliding out across the river, being pursued by the magpie. I just catch glimpses of the predator between the trees as it departs. It could have very easily have been perched here the whole while. It's a good reminder: whenever a magpie comes nosing around, there's always a good reason. Find that reason

1023 I remain seated under the ash tree. The bulk of the grosbeaks have not returned yet, though there are two females back here feeding now, and the songs of the others in the forest main are picking up and moving closer. But while I've been waiting, I've noticed a couple other birds. Off in the distance, I occasionally hear the unmistakable chatter of a kingfisher. This is exciting, because it suggests a winter holdout, just like last year. I also observed a smallish waterbird landing near the shore of the river opposite me. I suspect it is a goldeneye, and will move to confirm this, just as soon as I check the status of the south-pond spring, and whether or not the kingfisher is feeding there

1044 The sight of a small bird perched on a limb overhanging the river cutbank prompts me to reroute again. Sure enough, it is the kingfisher, and on my approach he/she flies chattering away downstream. Peeking over the edge of the cutbank myself, I find - just below the kingfisher's perch - three common goldeneyes, two males and one female. The males whistle-wing upstream immediately, while the female cranes her neck trying to figure out what the threat might be. Eventually she too spots me and moves to join her companions. Must be a good spot for minnows. Just as the female departs, a trio of mallards in the same distribution (two drakes, one duck) come flying in from an unknown direction and pass over the forest main, as though heading to the pond. I myself find a deer trail to follow along the cutbank and walk south, with an aim to eventually reach the owl wood. Along the way, I pass willows whose bark has been shredded (earlier in the season), no doubt by the young whitetail buck who'd been visiting my wet-meadows game-cam. I also come across three unidentified scats, too large for deer, too small for coyote, too un-uniform for porcupine of beaver. They are red in color, and when broken apart seen to be comprised entirely of plant material, a uniform paste, perhaps bark mixed with bulberry. My best guess is a porcupine with a slightly troubled stomach

1100 There definitely won't be much action observed at the south-pond spring this winter. When I come up from the river cutbank to cross over into the owl wood, I see the spring is all but iced completely over. The opening now is hardly twelve inches in diameter. The river water that had, through all the years we've known, passed underground to resurface here, currently are not. I sit down at the bench above the now-abandoned gartersnake hibernaculum to smoke a cigarette, and down below I can see a female mallard at the edge of the river ice, as well as the three previously-noted goldeneyes, distant enough to feel secure, diving for minnows. Above, a mature bald eagle comes soaring in from the east coulee rim, reaches the river, and turns to glide upstream. Now to check the owl wood

1120 The owl wood is, as usual, deceptively quiet. As I walk through, I occasionally pull a bit of bark off some of the cottonwood snags. I miss the insect presence in winter, and the under-bark is one of the places where there are some to be found. At the same time, I don't like to pull too much of the bark, because each piece I remove is a bit of potential habitat destruction. So I don't pull much of it this morning, and what I do exposes no insects... just an old chrysalis shell and a small cache of bulberries, five or six of the fruits stashed by a magpie or mouse. At the south end of the wood, I check the old, rotting bike jump in the brush that last year served as a den for raccoons. There is no sign of them using it this winter. No scat, no berry store. Not surprising, given that the usual bulberry crop is practically non-existent this round. At least in this manner, I look forward to snow days ahead, and the opportunity for tracking the whereabouts of some of the invisible mammals. There's no better chance to actually see raccoons at the pond than in the winter. But it takes a carefully, as with many other opportunities here. And as though to emphasize this point of thought, I am almost back out of the owl wood, preparing to climb the levee over to south pond again, when I pass the favorite roosting tree of the resident kakanottsstookiiksi, and almost miss seeing the male owl entirely. He is so camouflaged. If I did not already know how much they like this particular small tree, I would never had spotted him... even though he's perched at almost eye-level and very close to my trail. His mate, who is also undoubtedly present somewhere near, has watched me move through the wood completely oblivious

1136 Leaving the great-horned owl, I cross over the levee to explore the bulberry and currant thickets above the peninsula on the southwest end of the pond. In addition to the expected mountain cottontails scurrying through the brush here, I'm surprised to find three house finches sticking it out in the cold. There could even be more. The three I see, two of whom wear male red plumage, flitter away up one of the brushier coulee draws. I also come across an amazing little warbler nest, set low in some bulberries, and packed to the rim with warm fuzzies... deer hair, the little cottony floats off some kind of flying seed, perhaps Canada thistle (what are those downy parts called?). I snake a finger into the nest and find it definitely body-heat warm, though I roust no mice, nor do I sense the flesh of any pinky newborns. Perhaps the resident departed unseen as I approached. I'll have to keep an eye on this one

1157 I next wind my way around the edge of south-pond an onto the wet-meadows, where I begin flipping planks from the old boardwalk. I'm not expecting much, considering the lengthy flooding of the wet-meadows that occurred this summer, but I have to know for sure how it may or may not have affected the insects. Sure enough, there are hardly any wolf spider egg sacks, not to mention centipedes and live-frozen beetles. I do come across one hibernating saltmarsh moth larva, which is curious (I usually find them under logs along the forest paths). Eventually, I come to the big bulberry patch where I keep RyeCam02, and here there is a welcome reward. In addition to several passes by coyotes, magpies, a lone pheasant and a whitetail doe, there is a perfect night-shot of a bird I've never seen before - at Sspopiikimi or elsewhere - outside of captivity. In one of the frames, there is an unmistakable northern saw-whet owl perched right in front of the camera. Brilliant. This kind of (for me) rarity is exactly why I've bothered setting up game-cams in the first place

1214 Moving back into the forest main, I go to take a seat on a log under the arching bows of the cathedral. I want to see if the oriole nest by-chance blew down in the recent strong winds. But no... For a couple years now, I've monitored the oriole nests in winter, hoping that one of them will fall from snow weight or high winds. They never do. Now my mind is back on the saw-whet. Could it be that this small owl is residing here somewhere this year? What are the odds it would just happen to stop-by in the bulberries on the wet-meadows? Finding an owl of that size in daylight, without the aid of calls to guide me, and given that they're prone to inhabiting tree cavities, seems unlikely. Yet, no chance I'm going to neglect an at least an attempt. As I rise to get the search underway, I can hear the grosbeaks nearby, and the bald eagle passes again overhead

1251 I hike first back to the extreme end of south-pond, near the spring, so I can conduct my survey of the forest main a couple steps at a time, moving north, with the sun at my back. I scan every tree for the odd bump, using my binoculars to peer at suspect shapes and into dark cavities. No luck on the saw-whet. But I do scare up the whitetail doe, and about half-way through I cross paths with three male grosbeaks perched on low bulberry scrub, but reaching down to pluck what I suspect are buckbrush berries, though I'm not able to confirm this before they flitter away. Now at the far end of the forest, I'll cross the levee again and continue my survey through the north wood

1317 If the saw-whet is here, which it very well could be, I'm not finding it. The bird could be living in the forest on the other side of the river for all I know. Hopefully there'll be another game-cam image soon to let me know it's still here. In either case, the north-wood offers me only niipomakiiksi and a second fallen hornet nest (the other having been found in the cathedral of the forest main several weeks ago). There's no underbrush in the north wood to speak of, owing to the more extreme flooding that occurs here regularly. Though I can't find the site where the hornet nest was connected, it could only have been up in the trees. This means that both hornet colonies this year placed situated their nests high. Normally, I find these nests low, even in the buckbrush. Now I wonder whether the wasps predicted the floods, or whether the high waters were already in place before they began construction. Another puzzle past and future. Now I'm back at the highway edge, within sight of my awaiting car. It's been a good visit

III Dialogs With Deer And Sparrow (26Nov11)

0949 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - it's been a couple weeks since my last visit to the river confluence, and as I drive the couple kilometers to this coulee rim from my house, I pass the classic winter aapsspini activity. There are approximately one-hundred and fifty geese feeding on waste grain in the stubble fields. Today, I intend to make a sunwise loop down the coulee slope, and then following the dry oxbow canal to the far upstream end of the forest, where I can collect the most recent images off my game-cam before hiking back up

1010 I'm almost down to the sagebrush flats already, my route taking me (purposely) past the lower rattlesnake hibernaculum, where all is as ghostly quiet as should be. All along the deer trails I follow, there are prickly pear fruits with their seed pods scattered around them, each with a little hole where the mice have extracted the seed. I've heard not a peep from any smaller birds, but overhead another sixty-three aapsspini have made their way to the rim, all coming from some unknown site upstream

1059 When I get to the bottom of the slope, I cross the sagebrush flats, enter the forest, and immediately sit down to listen. All is quiet. I wait. There is a faint rustle in the brush nearby, and soon I hear the unmistakable contrived sneeze of a whitetail deer in distress. I'm not the only one who notices it. Immediately there comes an inquisitive "Wok?" from a magpie a little ways out in the forest. The magpie call is followed by the rise and fall of a few twitters of unseen (and unknown) small birds in the distance. Again the deer blows, and now the magpie has to come find out what's going on. It gives a double call before swooping just close enough to get a decent look at the scene, then moves to a perch neither too near nor far to follow whatever might unfold. The deer blows again. Now I stand to show myself, and to see who exactly I'm dealing with. She is a whitetail doe, concealed well in the thick of a chokecherry patch. I squat back down to learn what she'll do, now that she's seen me plainly. The doe remains. She sneezes a couple more times, then goes briefly quiet. I wonder if she has silently departed, so I stand again. But she is still there, and lets loose another blow. This time, I mimic as best I can and blow back. Immediately she becomes visibly alert and gives an even longer blow. Again I mimic, and a third time she extends the call. I give my interpretation a third time as well and then squat down to wait quietly. The magpie conducts another fly-by. The deer has had enough of my antics. She begins quietly, but hurriedly moving through the thick brush that grows along this edge of the oxbow canal. I wait until she's gone a ways and quiet, then follow the same narrow trails, not so much as to pursue her, but more because this route was my intention all along. In all of this coulee, there is no better a place to find animals than along the edge of this canal. It comprises a semi-open corridor, flanked by high banks on two sides that are thick with bulberries, chokecherries, saskatoons, dogwood, and buckbrush. It is perfect to conceal travel from one end of this section of coulee to the other, and offers more food opportunities than anywhere else in the forest

1135 I don't go too far, perhaps fifty meters or so, before I sit down again to type up my notes about the deer. While writing, I hear the call of a ring-necked pheasant coming from the direction I'm headed, perhaps bothered by the doe who is traveling ahead of me. Then a downy woodpecker comes to tap at a nearby cottonwood, and soon a single tree sparrow arrives, tseeping and picking through the leaf litter beneath some diamond willows in the corridor. I whistle one of the tree sparrow songs, and the bird gets excited, flying back and forth in front of me, and landing near, among the chokecherries, to check me out. Every time I whistle the song, the sparrow responds with a quick flight past me. But after four or five repetitions, both of us have had enough. I stop whistling and the sparrow flutters away. The magpie, for its part, has remained near, and continues to give single calls from nearer the canopy every few minutes. Whenever I look to see what it's up to, I find the corvid poking around in the tight intersections of branches, probably looking for its own or others' caches

1218 I never come across the pheasant, who I suspect hunkered down when I passed. But I do re-encounter the whitetail doe, about half-way through the forest, and this time she makes a good run to set some distance between us. I also find, close to where I see the deer, a large cottonwood that has recently fallen. Its cambium is dry, and there are significant sections of bark missing from both the top and bottom, a victim of borer beetles. But it kept a wide belt of bark that is still tight to the trunk. At the edges, I'm able to peel off a couple small pieces. Underneath, I find several saltmarsh moth larvae, one beginning to coccoon, a number of live-frozen two-spot and seven-spot lady beetles, and half a dozen brown eggs of unknown origin. I take two of the eggs, which I'll hatch at home. While I inspect the fallen tree, which has split half-way up the trunk at the site of a flicker cavity, a porcupine eats away the terminal bark on the branch of a still-standing neighboring tree

1255 Somewhere between the fallen tree and the river on the upstream end of the coulee, my magpie tail finally found something more interesting to do and left me. As at the pond, the main flow at the confluence is still wide open, but the water is slushy, at least on its surface. The wind has now picked up, and is making my hike far less comfortable. Above the river, in a draw of hawthorn brush, is where I'm keeping RyeCam01. I'm disappointed today to find that my batteries ran out of juice almost a week ago, and as a result I've missed whatever may have passed by most recently, though there are images of mule deer (including a large buck), pheasants, and coyotes caught prior to the shut-off. I'll have to make a trip down again in the next few days to power this unit back up. As I reshoulder my pack now to begin my march back up the slope, there is an adult bald eagle soaring fairly low, following the river

24 November 2011

Grosbeaks And Sick Bay

IIII ) llllllllllllll Quiet Coulee (11Nov11)

1030 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - taking advantage of the lull in the wind this morning to hike down into the coulee, take a bit of a phenology survey, gather kinii (rose hips), and download the latest images off my game-cam

1115 It takes me a while to get half-way down the slope, to the hibernaculum, because I'm collecting kinii all along the route. The rattlers have long gone underground but, after witnessing painted turtles diving beside the ice last week, I can't help checking to be sure. There's definitely a winter feel to the coulee now, everything quiet, dry, and seeding. It seems the tree sparrows may be gone, I've neither heard nor seen any of them in the skunkbrush

1143 When I get down to the sagebrush flats, and the little hawthorn draw where I keep the game-cam, I find the area has been visited routinely almost every night by mountain cottontails, but not at all by the deer. Other than the rabbits, there are images of pheasants, magpies, coyotes, and a porcupine. Nothing new. I'm looking forward to changing this camera's location once its year emplacement has been met

1215 Dropping down off the sagebrush and into the forest, I begin scanning the trees for owls... the resident great horneds should be back now. I can't seem to find them, which only means they're in some other part of the forest, but I do encounter a couple magpies, who quickly wing away, and a family of six black-capped chickadees, who conduct their usual close inspection of me while feigning to hunt insects off the nearest tree. I also startle a mule buck, who takes a few hops to get out of my line of vision. Eventually, I wind my way to the shoreline beaver lodge, where I sit for a break. Their food cache is still anchored directly to the lodge wall. While I rest, one of the residents appears out in the still completely open Oldman River. It swims back and forth, head held high above the water, sniffing the air for my scent. I watch the beaver and listen to a couple ring-necked pheasants calling from somewhere in the distance

1245 From the lodge, I hike through the willow thickets and back into the forest, following a trail that I know will lead me to a large patch of prickly rose by the edge of the sagebrush flats. But it seems the birds must have beaten me to the kinii here this year... probably the pheasants, or perhaps a porcupine. I see only a handful of berries in the patch that usually produces several hundred. So I continue on, climbing the coulee slope, now on the downriver side of this floodplain

1305 The march up is uneventful. Summer birds and insects gone, winter fowl yet to really settle in. I'm looking forward to snow days down here, and some more thorough explorations of the forest

IIII ) lllllllllllllllll Less At Mookoan (14Nov11)

1129 Out at Mookoan Reservoir, seemingly unable to find the fish here. On the lake there are about a thousand snow geese, a couple thousand mallards, about fifty Canada geese, and a smattering of shovelers, green-wing teals, western grebes, and Ross's geese. Far fewer birds here this season than in any previous year since I’ve been monitoring. Every time the birds move in-mass, a rough-legged hawk comes soaring over the dam to check it out

IIII ) llllllllllllllllll Sick Bay (15Nov11)

1206 Out at Tyrrell Lake, scouting the scene for tomorrow's phenology fieldtrip. Appears to be far fewer snow geese here today as compared to a week ago, but no telling how many might be off feeding in the stubble fields. Every few minutes, a huge flock will arrive, many of the birds performing fancy dives and rolls just prior to landing among the main raft of perhaps ten-thousand. I'm no longer seeing swans or pied-billed grebes, but there are still mallards, scaups, and no doubt others. Now the goldeneyes have begun coming down for the winter

1505 While scouting Tyrrell today, I couldn't help but swing by the area where I first encountered Eva. Believe it or not, there was another injured juvenile snow goose there, with a broken right leg. This time, I did not rescue the bird, for two reasons... First, he was out on thin ice that had formed further into the lake than existed during my last visit. Secondly, his mom and one sibling were floating just a few meters away, keeping a vigil with him. So I guess maybe that south spur of the lake, so isolated from the larger collective, and with its ice platform, is sick bay for the geese. It also seems to be that the first-year goslings are at special risk for breaking their legs during their initial migration. I'm going back out tomorrow afternoon with my students, and will obviously be checking sick bay again

[Note: Eva was a juvenile snow goose I recently rescued, and who Mahoney and I rehabilitated and released. While on a birding fieldtrip led by Lloyd Bennett of the Lethbridge Naturalists Society on the 5th of November, we stopped at Tyrrell Lake to observe the snow geese. As we drove to the far south end of the lake, a crippled juvenile was noticed alone on the ice. When the fieldtrip concluded, I returned to see about the injured goose. By that time, she was bedding in the grass and allowed me to walk over and pick her up without resistance. I thought she might be shot, as there were hunters out there that day, in which case I would have eaten her. But after inspecting her body, I could find no open wounds. Instead, it appeared she had a broken leg and injured wing. I brought her home and decided I would try to help her. In Blackfoot tradition, people have received important gifts from animals they’ve assisted in times of need. She was treated with a regimen of quiet and warm rest at night, with bathtub floating periods twice a day, and back-yard rest during most of the daylight hours. She wasn’t interested in eating much of the food we offered (corn, wheat, and grass), and by the second day her stool was becoming more liquid, so we supplemented by tube-feeding her high-protein (chicken-based puppy-kibble shakes). After eight nights, Eva still had a bit of a limp (we never did splint the leg), but was otherwise very strong, and she flew off to rejoin her kind. Had she not done so, I’d already contacted the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Society, and they were prepared to receive her]

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllll Ice Over (16Nov11)

1718 Dramatic changes at Tyrrell Lake today, as compared to yesterday's scouting expedition. Arrived this afternoon with my phenology crew to find the entire lake iced-over. This is not a small body of water, we're talking serious systemic icing. The snow geese were still there, though I figure they'll depart very soon, probably tonight. On the extreme south end, a.k.a. sick bay, the predators have moved in. We saw one dead bird on the ice (probably the broken-leg juvenile from yesterday) being eaten by a ring-billed gull, with three already-full bald eagles sitting nearby, and coyotes pacing the shoreline and thicker ice in frustration

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll Grosbeaks (17Nov11)

1510 Sspopiikimi - The drainage development project in the coulee draw leading down toward the north end of the pond is rapidly becoming problematic, in terms of inhibiting access. I've arrived this afternoon to find the road to the parking lot completely cordoned-off, both by the usual construction barriers, and by two massive pipe assemblages that lead a good ways up the draw and out toward the levee. Surely they will soon be excavating a deep trench to lay these pipes in, and that will mean hiking an alternate route down off the rim to access the pond later in winter. For now, I park a short distance away and try to be quick and inconspicuous as I climb over the pipe works and cross the construction zone to enter at my usual trail

1517 I figure on taking a sunwise route around the now entirely frozen-over pond, but don't get far before I encounter a new marsh. I have no idea where the water is coming from, but it obviously has something to do with the construction, because they've set-up hay bales along the sides of the trail in a failed attempt to sandbag the flow, which I can see is pouring into the extreme end of north-pond, where the old boardwalk timber has collected - a site known by the birds for easy access to aquatic invertebrates, and by the turtles as a basking area. No animals are there today, that I can see, though it offers a bit of open water, owing to the continual flow. I hope this drainage into the pond is not some form of contaminated waste water. In any case, I have not worn gum-boots, and so for the sake of comfort must turn around and take a counter-sunwise route instead

1541 I walk the whole of the west length with few encounters... save for a magpie that glides from the forest main to the golf greens, a mountain cottontail who bravely continues munching grass by the currant and bulberry brush of south-pond as I pass, and a small group of niipomakiiksi searching the bark of poplars for frozen insects at the edge of the owl wood

1553 One item on my agenda of things to do here today is to look carefully at the area surrounding the south-pond spring. Last year, we had a female kingfisher wintering and making daily use of the open pool of water filtering in under the levee. But this go round, I highly doubt we'll see a repeat event. In fact, I find the spring nearly iced-over already, with just a one-meter diameter open pool. This is strange. It hasn't been too many degrees below zero yet, and even during the coldest days of previous years we never saw this much ice in the spring. All I can think is that, for some reason, the river water isn't seeping through like it used to

1629 Since I can't move around north-pond without sludging through the new drainage swamp, I decide to walk the levee to the north end of the forest main, then cut down into the trees and onto the wet-meadows to collect this week's game-cam pics, before returning the way I'd come to my car. In a sense, the circumstances set me up for a stroke of good luck, because half-way along the levee I first hear and the see a family of pine grosbeaks. Like the mixed-morph fox sparrow encountered last week, I've never come across grosbeaks at the pond. Today they are eating seeds from an unfamiliar tree, one with thick clusters of pods at its branch-tip, each pod about an inch and a half long, narrow, and enclosing a seed in a flattened papery sheath. There are only two such small trees at Sspopiikimi, and I take them for escaped ornamentals, not unlike the couple of Russian olives that can be found here. I watch the birds munch the seeds from this tree for some time. They allow me to stand very close-by. There is one male with bright red plumage and four females with yellowish crowns. When they leave, I pop a few of the unknown seed pods in my mouth and attempt to separate them as the grosbeaks had done. I can't seem to find an actual seed worth speaking of, at least with my mouth

[Note: I again relied on lifetime naturalist Gus Yaki to assist me in identifying the mystery tree as a green ash, confirming it as an ornamental brought in from eastern North America, but very much known to be in favor with the grosbeaks]

1700 Dusk came over the coulee as I watched the grosbeaks, and when I move on it is at a fairly quick pace, down through the quiet forest main to the wet meadows. There I find that few animals had visited the big bulberry patch. There were less than ten images on my game-cam. One was a passing coyote, and the others remain unknown... either they are very small mammals, too tiny to appear clearly in the image, or they were fast-passing (like magpies), too quick for the camera to capture. Significantly, there were no visits from either the whitetail doe or buck who've who near-constants during awakaasiiki'somm. After downloading these images, I march swiftly south through the forest, around that end of the pond, and again along the west length and over the pipeworks to arrive at my waiting vehicle without another encounter or note to speak of

10 November 2011

Simitsiim And The Fox Sparrow

IIII ) l Simitsiim Eat Bulberries (29Oct11)

1000 Sspopiikimi - pulled in to find access to the parking lot has been purposely blocked with a large pipe that weighs so much I can't even budge it. I don't know if they expect the people who regularly visit this place to just back off for the winter while they carry out their drainage development or what. I'll be walking in no matter, just as I am this morning

1043 When I come within sight of north-pond, there are nine mi'ksikatsi on the scene, all turned on end, dipping for food. I decide to come sit on the unsightly plastic dock in the north reeds, to just be quiet and listen for a bit. The ducks, seeing me here, begin paddling south and are soon beyond the oxbow bend. I hear the occasional "wok" of a magpie, and the drone of traffic in the distance. A muskrat surfaces not far away and floats, munching on something that it retrieves from diving. I can't see what it is that's being eaten. After a bit, I make some sucking squeak noises that calls the muskrat to investigate. It approaches underwater and surfaces on a flank that I'm not watching at the moment. When I glance that way, it makes a splashing dive and is not seen again

1101 Just as I'm about to give up on this position, because there's nothing happening, four mi'ksikatsi return, three of them drakes. As they return to dipping, a coyote starts howling from somewhere on the coulee slope behind the golf greens. I glass the area and find him sitting on his haunches in some grass below the ledge that we call Coyote Playground. I watch him for a few minutes, then become distracted by the sudden appearances nearby of both a kingfisher and a magpie. The kingfisher wastes no time diving for a minnow, then flies away toward the river chattering. The magpie moves into the forest main. And when I look back toward where the coyote was, he is gone. I suspect, in the absence of other human visitors, that he is making his way down to hunt the forest. The magpies, who are now giving repetitive calls from the same woods, might be getting excited about the prospect

1159 I decide to leave the dock and head into the forest myself, following the magpie calls, thinking that if I move quiet enough I might be rewarded with a coyote encounter. But the forest today is full of bohemian waxwings, who are cleaning up the few bulberries that are available. Regardless of how quiet I step, when coming upon a feeding scene, the waxwings take to the treetops and give their cricket-sounding trills. I figure this alone may very well reveal my presence to other residents accustomed to paying attention to such alarm. As I move south through the trees, the magpies ahead of me seem to do the same. Then I hear human voices coming from behind me, and I squat down in silence and watch as two women pass completely unaware. The women remind me of how clumsy and detached we humans are out here. Just as easy as it is for me to avoid their recognition, so too I'm sure for the majority of animals as I pass through trying to be stealthy. As though to reinforce this thought, I glance up above me and immediately spot an oriole nest, exposed now that the leaves have fallen. We must have passed below this nest a hundred times last summer, and yet only caught the occasional glimpse of one of these birds early in the season as they flew through the trees. I look up on the opposite side of my trail, into the area we call the Forest Cathedral, and there see an exposed hornet nest, now abandoned and falling apart. Again, Mahoney and I sat facing this nest on many occasions, yet never noticed it. We are so easy to hide from. Continuing on, even more careful than before, I catch a flash of white in my peripheral vision. There is a bird gliding over the wide south pool, and it could be the caspian tern we've seen here in prior years. I move quick to get over to the duck blind that overlooks this area. The bird is not a tern, but a ring-billed gull. It lands on a small island in the middle of the pool. There are ten mi'ksikatsi here as well, spaced out in groups of six and four, feeding near the reeds. And the magpies are here, four of them, scouring the shallows and island edges, talking away and picking at this or that. I wait and watch. The eventually enters the water and seems content just floating around. The magpies continue to explore. And the bohemian waxwings keep tabs on everything from the treetops, dropping down in small parties to raid the berries while others keep sentry

1238 Leaving the blind, I climb the levee and walk to the river cutbank by the owl wood to check on the garter snake hibernaculum. Again there is no snake presence. They must have moved away. At the edge of the owl wood though, there is some activity underway. Here is where the bushes most full of bulberries are located, and I find both magpies and waxwings plucking away at them. Then, rounding the south bend to start my way back along the west side of the pond, I pass flickers and robins in the single cottonwood that stands amidst the currant and bulberry brambles. In the wide south pool, the ring-billed gull is still paddling around, the mallards dipping, and a single muskrat is seen swimming north

1300 I follow the muskrat, who eventually makes a short dive to gather something (milfoil I suspect), then climbs out on an old beam to munch. When it's done with that batch, the muskrat dives again, and I see the wake of a pike zooming away. The rest of my walk back to the vehicle is fairly uneventful. I do spot a lingering pink-edged sulphur butterfly. Tommorow I'll go check in on things at the river confluence

IIII ) llllll Fox Sparrow (3Nov11)

1400 Sspopiikimi - It's a warm day, that or I'm getting my winter acclimatization in order already, because I'm out with just a long-sleeve t-shirt and very comfortable. But there's no doubt that on some level it's actually very cold. The surface of the pond is almost entirely frozen over. From where I enter, at north-pond, I can only see a couple of open pockets, no more than a meter in diameter. All else is covered with a thin sheet of ice

1421 I want to see if the entire pond is iced, so I walk the counter-sunwise route that takes me along the west length first. As I expected, there's a significant pool that the ksisskstaki have kept open on the south side of their lodge, and moving through the subpond canal. There's also some open water in the wide south pool along both the east and west banks. I stop at the bench near the peninsula, and below me are all the mi'ksikatsi, twenty-one in total, and all but five of them are drakes. Also, to my somewhat surprise, there are turtles out. They are feeding in the milfoil under the ice, occasionally surfacing to float at the edge of the open water strip. Hardy reptiles we have in these parts

1452 While sitting on the bench, I hear a bird call that I don't recognize. This is what keeps me stationary long enough to witness the turtles, as I wait to hear the call again. It never comes. But I do start hearing individual "tseep" calls coming from the bulberry and currant patch, so finally I give up on the odd sound and go to check out who's "tseeping" at me. My quest to find the source of the call flushes two robins, and all the while I can see bohemian waxwings in the treetops of the nearby owl wood... they flutter off from their perches, calling in their cricket chirp voice, fly in a little circle and come to perch again. When I do find the actual "tseeper" (who is not the robins of course), my first thought is that it's a yellow-rumped warbler in drab winter plumage. The sight of this little brown bird brings me immediately back to a couple years ago this season, when again the pond got its first coat of ice. The warblers were dancing along the edges of the banks, nipping frozen insects off the blades of burr-reed that crested the pond's surface. At the time, I didn't recognize them as yellow-rumps, not in their drab brown suits, and I ultimately had to seek assistance in their identification. Today's "tseeper" would prove equally challenging. I photographed her and moved on, figuring I'd confirm her warbler identity later

Note: When I compared the image of this bird with that of the winter-garbed yellow-rumps from a couple years ago, they were entirely different. The beak was all wrong, the breast to chin wasn't light enough, it just wasn't a warbler at all. I paged through bird manuals looking for a new match, and the closest was a "sooty" fox sparrow. I then forwarded the image to Gus Yaki, the same lifetime naturalist who helped me with the warbler call a couple years back, and he also figured the "tseeper" for some variation of fox sparrow. Gus in turn passed it to Jocelyn Hudon of the Royal Alberta Museum, and she confirmed it as a cross between the red and slate-colored subspecies, "An interesting bird"

1514 With the "tseeper" photographed, I continue walking west instead of rounding south-pond, moving along the edge zone between the owl wood and the coulee cliffs. I want to see if I can spot the kakanottsstookiiksi who I'm certain are back now for the winter. I walk until I'm within close sight of the last trees along this path, then cut down into the owl wood proper, following a deer trail and winding my way crunchily through the trees, over their bed of fallen leaves, until reaching the river. There I check the garter snake hibernaculum before crossing the levee to the forest main. Still no snakes... they've opted to winter elsewhere. Soon I'm approaching the duck blind, where the forest meets the shallows of the wide south pool, and there I see a large, dark bird winging heavily over the mallards, who are agitated. At first I think it's a raven, whose throaty voice I'd heard in the distance earlier, but not noted. But looking more closely, it's mohkammii, the great blue heron, another surprise. The heron was probably startled by the leaf crunch of my approach, and is winging its way toward north pond

1530 I don't stay long in the blind, just briefly so that I can check the little islands and shoreline here for rusty blackbirds, who I'm used to seeing in this season. None so far this year. From the blind, I walk the edge zone between the forest main and the wet-meadows, until reaching the big male bulberry patch. There I hear a load crashing in the brush. I never see the source of this sound, but it is almost certainly either a whitetail doe or ring-necked pheasants. Here in the brush is where I hide one of my game-cams and, when I check the images from the past week or so, I see this area has been regularly visited by the doe and pheasants, as well as magpies and a coyote. One magpie flies by overhead as I download the images, probably trying to learn what it is I do in here

1546 From the bulberries, I continue north through the forest main, looking for the owls, until I reach north-pond. I never do see the kakanottsstookiiksi, who are likely hiding in plain sight. But I do observe a muskrat in a small ice-free opening at north-pond, floating and munching on milfoil. This muskrat is the last animal I encounter before arriving back at the parking lot. Though my visit was short, it has been fairly productive. I'll be interested in watching how things shift as the real cold takes anchor

IIII ) lllllll Geese At Dusk (4Nov11)

1821 I'm sitting on a cliff above the river, in the coulee by my house, enjoying the late-dusk. All the goose clans are coming in from the stubble fields, thousands of birds, to sleep in huge flocks on the shoreline. One of the clans, who just splashed down below me, made a fancy entrance, it's members tucking, and turning, and performing all kinds of flourishes, even flying upside-down in ways you might not imagine capable of geese. Part of the effect is the creation of dramatic noises as the wind moves over their wings in various ways. There's a beaver lodge right below me, and one of its residents is gnawing noisily on his dinner. At another lodge on the opposite shore and just downriver, a beaver is splapping its tail in annoyance at one of the goose families. A coyote a short distance away is exchanging greeting yips and howls with me. Dusk at the river is just all-over awesome