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