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