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