19 December 2011

Ravens And Leaf Litter

IIII ) lllllllllll Positioning The Box Trap (8Dec11)

1142 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - I've driven to the floodplain at a point a little ways downstream from my usual stomping grounds. Toward the end of last winter, I built an old-fashioned box-trap suitable for catching small mammals and grouse-like birds live. It's a bit heavy, this box, and I've been waiting for the river to freeze over so I can easily drag it by sled to the confluence. When I woke up this morning and found we were at sixteen below, I figured that at least a decent swath of the river along the shoreline would be frozen now, and so I set out to haul the trap. Unfortunately, I've overestimated the power of this brief shot of real cold, and the strip of ice along the river shore is hardly much wider than the box itself. All the same, having already brought it this far, I'm determined to pull it upstream anyway

1206 It's a slow progression from where I park to get the sled and trap down to the bank, and then to navigate it by rope along the little strip of ice. There are about a hundred aapsspini down on the river when I arrive, and of course they soon move out after witnessing this unpredictable human thing going on. Once the geese are gone, the work has me moving ahead of or beside the sled, depending on the obstacles faced, and pulling it along bit by bit, while the ice makes all kinds of twanging and crackling sounds. By the time I reach the beginning of the sandstone cliffs, I'm already hot. I have to stop and remove my ski-gloves and mask

1243 It takes me another forty minutes to maneuver the sled along the ice below the cliffs, upstream to the next floodplain. Now I've removed my jacket too, and am exploring the willow thickets looking for a good place to set-up. The tracks I'm seeing are all mountain cottontail, coyote, and magpie. There are also some fairly recent signs of porcupine visits. I'm not seeing any pheasant or partridge tracks, but then this snow only fell yesterday, so it could just be they haven't been down here since. Now comes the hard part, maneuvering my box through the tight willow maze. Once it's in place, I'll have a bite of lunch, and then there are a couple other things I want to attend to. I'd like to look around for last summer's nests in the willows, and try to find out which birds are preferring use of this area for breeding. I also need to climb the sandstone cliff to check RyeCam03. I passed the site of this game-cam on the way, and was tempted to climb up at that point, but I figure it's best to get my trap off the ice in case some other hiker happens to come along

1314 Negotiating the willows with the sled turns out to be easier than expected. I follow an old beaver canal straight from the shoreline, and deep into the thickets. Here I find a secluded place to set everything up, baited with corn in hopes of drawing pheasants or partridges, and stashed the sled a ways off where it might come in handy for moving the box into the forest later in the season, before the floods submerse these thickets. I've left my pack and jacket back at the trap site, and have brought my coffee and sandwich back to the river cutbank for a lunch break. With the waters still so open, the beavers are continuing to gather food still. From drags in the snow, I can see they were here even last night

1343 I sit down at the riverside to eat lunch, with my legs dangling off the cutbank. Upstream a short distance, there's a flock of about a dozen aapsspini on my shore. Just as I finish all I'm going to eat of my sandwich, and light up a cigarette, I hear the geese start giving their "be aware" grunts. Looking over, they're starting to paddle across to the opposite shore, and I can see why. There's a large coyote pacing back and forth on the bank, trying to figure out how to get to them. The coyote's coat is unusually orange, almost like a red fox. But this is definitely no fox. Moving quietly, I head back into the thickets to retrieve a video camera from my pack. When I return to the cutbank, the coyote's still there, but a bit out of range for any good footage. So I again move, this time upstream and out of eye-shot of the animal. But of course coyote doesn't really rely so much on eyes anyway, and when I take another peek to see if I'm close enough, he is gone. The geese are all the way over to the opposite shore now. I'll hang tight a bit to see what happens. One thing I know... if you want to know where all the action is during winter, go find the geese

1409 Nothing further transpires with the geese while I watch, and soon I'm off to survey part of the willow thickets for nests. I find a couple old nests, probably from a couple years back, and then finally one that looks more recent. This latter nest is woven primarily of thin strands of some kind of reddish root I recognize from the river shores. It may be willow, or poplar, or wild licorice. What's interesting about this nest is that it's not anchored to any branches, but just squeezed between a cluster and, given the root it's made of and it's non-uniform shape, the nest could very easily be confused with one of the many clots of flotsam found in the willows, comprised of the same materials. I have no idea what bird makes this nest, but when I come back in a day or so, I'll look for others of the same type, and hopefully sleuth-out the constructor this summer

1444 Next, I'm off to climb the cliff and check RyeCam03. As I kind of suspected, it needs to be relocated. High winds had shaken the camera loose from where I'd wedged it under a rock overhang, and it fell face down. For the night before it fell, there are two images, neither of which reveals the passer-by. I think I'm trying to do too many things at once here. My main objective in the camera's placement was to catch rodent activity, but I also aimed it at cliff-side lookout so that it might catch eagles and others as well. I take the camera and find a nice crag between some boulders where I imagine rodents will pass, and resituate the unit there. But I wouldn't want to commit to a year in this position, as I have with my other game-cams that are focused on larger animal trails. Thinking about it now, perhaps RyeCam03 should be designated a short-term mystery-solving tool. I know from previous, more snow laden winters, that there are several kinds of rodent living in these cliffs. My goal right now is to identify them. But there are plenty of other mysteries this camera might help out with... like which of these rodents is it who clips the seed heads off the wild licorice along the shoreline, or who are the ones that make their nests in the wood-work of the beaver lodge, etc. Yes, I think this camera would be better re-purposed to assist in solving some of these little mysteries

1506 So I'm now almost back to the car, with no further encounters along the way. I did, however, find a good patch of wild licorice being worked for seeds by the rodents, as well as several of their cliff-side lairs, which have licorice burrs spilling out of them. Perhaps this will be where I situate RyeCam03 next, when there's not a weekend approaching, and therefore less chance of human traffic. In any case, given that the box-trap is set, I'll be back here to check on things very soon

IIII ) lllllllllllll O’takaotsipiiyssko (10Dec11)

0923 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - with only a couple hours to work with this morning, I've again driven into the coulee-bottom downstream from the confluence floodplain and have set about to walk in along the river's edge to check on my box trap. It's been two nights since I set it out here, and I don't really expect that any of the animals will have entered it as yet, being as how it's a foreign addition to their environment

0925 There's a lot of aapsspini activity going on here this morning. I saw a flock of about fifteen up on the stubble-field above the coulee rim, then another five or six flocks of similar size lifting off the river as I drove down. Now, down by the water, there are four more flocks, with members numbering between fourteen and twenty four, spaced out from one another on both shores. I have to walk right past them to get where I'm going. As I approach, they use the same strategy as I noted last week, with certain members issuing grunts that tell the others to be alert, and the flocks on my side entering the water and drifting to join up together in a larger body with a group downstream

0948 I've barely started rock-hopping my way past the sandstone cliffs when, from somewhere across the river, I hear a call that sounds like a pig being butchered. It reminds me a bit of an electronic distress call used to attract predators. I drop my pack and start glassing the coulee slopes in that direction. Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way up, nestled in some brush, I spot a hunter... or rather a sociopathic killer. He's trying to lure coyotes, and I doubt he's planning to eat what he kills. It's really frustrating to think that this kind of wasteful killing of a supposed "pest" animal is perfectly legal, while much of the subsistence hunting, trapping, and even plant gathering I engage in are considered criminal. What a bad joke. I'm happy to see that the geese are bothered by the call and evacuating. Where the geese go, the coyotes go. If this guy had sat patiently, he wouldn't have had to wait long before one or more coyotes came around to check on the birds. With the geese conspicuously departing, this guy may have just blown his shot

0955 I continue a short distance upriver and stop at a big boulder jutting out into the river. Seeing the waters open down here during my last few visits got me to thinking it might be worth trying to set some fishing lines in the water. So this morning I've brought heavy line, hooks, weights, and prawns as bait. I anchor my line to the base of a shoreline willow, measure out enough to reach beyond the ice shelf, rig up the prawn and toss it in. My plan is to return on my way back to check on it, then again later this evening, and a third time tomorrow morning before pulling it back in for the coming work-week. Eventually, I'd like to cache a good fishing kit down here to use during my visits

1010 Moving on, I'm soon climbing a draw up the sandstone cliffs to the rocks that I resituated RyeCam03 to two nights ago, in chasing an answer to the first mystery I've assigned this camera to... namely, what rodents inhabit these cliffs? When I reach the camera and download its memory card to my portable image viewer, it is apparent that the last couple nights have been successful. The rodent visits come at all hours, but especially about three hours after dusk and three hours before the dawn. It is in one of the near dawn shots from just this morning that I get a decent image of what I'm relatively confident is a sagebrush vole. So at least part of the mystery is solved. But this vole is certainly not the only species inhabiting these cliffs, and the work to sleuth out who else is here will have to continue. I'm especially looking forward to snow-covered nights ahead too, so I can learn to match rodent species with their particular tracks

1020 A pair of ravens pass overhead as I descend from the cliff and make my way into the willow thickets at the mouth of the confluence floodplain. My box trap is not too far in, and I'm actually relieved to learn its caught nothing. Because I'd left it two nights, I worried a little that there might be an animal penned inside for this extended period. But I also recognized that most animals would avoid something so foreign for maybe a week or two before daring to investigate. In any case, none have approached the trap, that I can tell. Looking at it now, I think it needs to be camouflaged better. Perhaps I should weave some thin willows through its chickenwire sides so that it looks at least a little more familiar. That's something I may do tomorrow. For now I want to toss a couple more fishing lines in the river, and then head home to drive Mahoney on her errands

1045 I throw my next line in a little ways upriver, and figure I'll put a third one in somewhere between the other two. As I start making my way back. I decide to follow the edge of the willow thickets surrounding a small meadow. This kind of landscape feature is known as o'takaotsipiiyssko, or willow-rounds. There are several places in Blackfoot territory that bear this name. Walking the inner perimeter, I can see why people paid attention to these sites in the past. From the tracks around me - deer, coyote, cottontail, and pheasant - it's clear that this secluded little meadow is visited quite frequently. And it makes sense. Any herbivore could come eat in here, hidden from predators hunting outside the willow round, yet be able to immediately see any who entered the circle, and the willow thicket itself provides a thousand quick escape routes. It would be a good spot for ambush hunting and pheasant snaring

1119 I put one more fishing line in along the sandstone cliffs, and check on the first line, but no luck. I'm feeling the frustration of this morning's hurry. There are all kinds of exploring I'd like to do around these cliffs. One of the questions I have pertains to what insect species may be wintering or incubating here. I need to spend some serious time rock-turning and crevice-peeking. And of course there are the rodents. I'm very curious to learn whether, as I suspect, there might be bushy-tailed woodrats here. If so, they would have some decent caches hidden away, and I should be able to find them. These are some interests I'll pursue over the winter. For now, I'm nearly back to the car, an will try to return briefly before sundown...

1550 ...I've returned to check my fishing lines. Rock-hopping below the sandstone cliffs, I pass by the first line and move to retrieve the second. Not too surprisingly, it's stuck somewhere in the rocks and, maneuver as I might, it's not coming up. Eventually I pull the line slow and steady, until the tension disappears, and I've lost the hook and sinker. No good. I rig it back up with a new hook and prawn and toss it back in the river. While doing so, a pair of bald eagles circles downstream, hunting the floodplain where I've parked

1610 Moving on, I check the box trap in the willows, empty, and then attempt to retrieve the upstream fishing line. This one comes back to the surface with no resistance, until (predictably) the hook and it's in-tact prawn reach the ledge of the river ice, where they get caught fast. Again I pull until the line breaks free, and now there is a tasty and tempting prawn visible to birds at the edge of the ice, with a hook hidden inside. And I can't get out to it myself, because the ice is too thin. Clearly this fishing endeavor was not a good idea, at least not using metal hooks and lead weights. It was irresponsible. I can only hope that it will be a magpie who finds this morsel first, and not a raven. I'm certain it will be one of the two, and at least the magpie would pin the prawn down and pull it apart while eating, thus avoiding the hook. But the whole assemblage is small enough for a raven to swallow whole. I do not set this line up again for a second toss. Rather, I wrap it round and round my hand until it's all gathered, then hide it away under a rock from which I will retrieve it to reuse in a more forgiving season. Damn

1634 The last line to check, the one closest to where I've parked, also becomes hung-up on the ice ledge. How could I have imagined it would go otherwise? This time though, when I give my pull, it actually straightens the hook and enables me to bring it in. Again, I store this line securely under a rock for later. Within the week, I'll bring a container down here to keep these lines in, and find better hiding places for them out of flood range. I still have the one re-set line to deal with in the morning

1651 Just as I begin hiking away from the last line, I notice a crag in one of the lower shelves of the cliff that has licorice burrs spilling out of it. This is part of a rodent larder that continues into the crag itself, and it no doubt belongs to the same creature who snips off the tops of the licorice and eats many seeds on-site. The identity of this rodent has been a mystery to me for years, but not much longer. I put my pack down below the fissure, so I can easily find it again, then quickly walk back upstream and climb the cliff to retrieve RyeCam03. It is now set-up at the licorice larder. Hopefully the identity mystery will be resolved by first light tomorrow morning

IIII ) llllllllllllll Cliff Survey (11Dec11)

0956 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Taking the same route as my last few visits. As I arrive at the river-bottom this morning, I am greeted by a pair of magpies, who call from a cottonwood tree before flying off across the river. There are perhaps three hundred aapsspini in their usual clan-sized flocks, some of these in the air, but the majority spaced out from one another by fifty meters or more along both sides of the river. At my approach, those flocks along my shore take to the water, grunting alertness and drifting downstream to coalesce with others

1006 There are a few items on my agenda today, the first of which being to check the results of last night's game-cam images, in my attempt to learn the identity of the rodent who clips and caches wild licorice burrs, to consume the seeds within. When I get to the camera, it has recorded several shots. Most of them do not capture the animal who triggered the infrared sensors, but there are two taken back-to-back that do. Unfortunately, this mouse or vole is, in both images, turned away from the lens, hunched over, eating. I don't think I'll be able to identify it from these bum shots alone

1023 My next order of business is at a boulder that juts out into the river upstream. Here I am to retrieve the last of my three fishing lines thrown in yesterday. Not surprisingly, this line has become locked-in by surface ice. But with a bit of chipping away with my handy crowbar, I'm able to successfully extricate it - hook, sinkers, and all. This line, that would have been invisible underwater when I began the experiment, had overnight become a point of crystallization for the cold water, and when I brought it up I had a six-foot, inch thick snake of ice that I had to crush with my boot against the boulder before winding the clean line around my hand and finding a good rock to stash it under. Next time I visit, I'll bring a small container of some kind to put all three fishing kits into, and cache them somewhere accessible, but out of flood range

1036 Continuing my hike upstream, I enter the willow thickets to check on my box trap. Sure enough, overnight I managed to catch a porcupine. I'm not at all adverse to eating them, but having worked a few porcupine carcasses last winter I can now look past the appearance of largess created by a thick pelt, to judge the maturity of the animal beneath. This one is too young, probably a yearling, and I have the luxury of being able to hold out for an adult animal. So with a bit of coaxing by a tickle of its foot with my finger, followed by a few soft prods with a small stick, I'm able to convince the porcupine to shift from defense to flee mode and make its way back out into the life world

1110 Since I plan to be around for the next couple hours, I go ahead and reset the box trap. I also quickly fashion a couple rabbit snares and situate them at the entrances of two dens that I know are in use. These dens were initially dug by muskrats during flood periods, when the oxbow where the willows grow fills with water. This is where the chorus frogs and mourning cloak butterflies conduct their maiting ceremonies and deposit their eggs during the last moon of winter and the first of summer. If the high waters remain longer than that, beavers and muskrats move in, and both excavate shoreline dens to use while they feast safely on the easily accessible willows. When the waters recede again, the beaver lodges are adopted as shelters for porcupines, who are basically land-beavers, and the muskrat dens are taken over by mountain cottontails

1116 While I'm fashioning the rabbit snares, a pair of magpies at the edge of the nearby forest canopy begin issuing excited calls. I believe they're responding to what I'm doing. They continue to call once the snares are ready, as I climb up the side of the cliff overhead, until reaching a comfortable, grassy bench to set my pack on and rest. There are a lot of boulders, crevices, small caves, washouts, etc. up here. My plan is to find a new place to set up the game-cam for the next few nights, while also surveying underneath rocks to learn whether there are any obvious insect species who either themselves winter or incubate their eggs over the season on these cliffs

1138 As I begin my work on the cliff, the magpie excitement is joined by chatter from black-capped chickadees, and then the sporadic single calls of a northern flicker. Down in the meadow ringed by willow thickets, I can see a porcupine climbing a young poplar tree, probably the same animal I recently released. So far, the larger boulders are looking promising for a new location of the game-cam. I'm still pursuing further more knowledge about what species occupy these cliffs. So far, I have identified the sagebrush voles, but I know there are others. Rather than just setting up in areas that seem obvious as potential shelters for many rodents, I'm beginning to appreciate that a more helpful approach will be to find dens, larders, plant harvest areas, and other such features that can help me not only identify the species who are here, but also the particular signs of each species' activities. Around some of the large boulders I'm surveying today, I've observed den entrances and droppings that are too large to belong to mice or voles, but smaller than those left behind by rabbits. I'm thinking they may belong to bushy-tailed woodrats, but I'd like to confirm that suspicion. I've also found an area between the boulders, on a bit of badland erosion, where the russian thistles are being harvested. Without enough snow on the ground to leave tracks though, I'm not sure how recent this harvest was being made. So for now, the boulders are looking best. But there's a good drainage draw to investigate first, before I make any decisions

1150 As I move along, I turn over a couple dozen rocks in search of wintering insects, and find nothing. I know they're here somewhere... most likely burrowed deep underground, using narrow fissures in the eroded soil, or old rodent dens. If I want to increase my knowledge of the ecology of these cliffs, I might as well catalog some of the plants that grow here, and that are still recognizable to me in winter. I see pricklypear cactus, broomweed, blue-gramma, ricegrass, gumweed, sagebrush, skunkbrush sumac, moss phlox, double bladderpod, evening-star, pasture sagewort, long-leaved sage, what I think is slender wheatgrass (though I'm still not great with grass species), and rhombic-leaved sunflower. There is also some kind of vetch and a few other plants I don't recognize and probably won't be able to learn until they bloom in summer

1159 Following the drainage draw, I come to a good stretch where the heads of almost all the rhombic-leaved sunflowers have been methodically removed. It could be the work of rodents. On the other hand, it could also be the mule deer. In fact, the trail I'm following has become well-defined by mule deer passage. One of the things I'd like to do is collect samples of deer and rodent droppings from each moon cycle and plant them to find out which seeds grow. Though I won't get started on that endeavor today, I suspect some of the deer droppings up this trail would produce sunflowers

1220 I think I've settled on the new site for RyeCam03, at least for the next three or four nights. It's back at one of the first boulders I surveyed. There are two den entrances there, one on either flank. On the downhill side, there is a wind-excavated patio sheltered above by overhanging rock, and in front by some skunkbrush cover. On this patio, there are some gumweed heads that have been brought in, all the surrounding grass has been clipped to its base, and there are a few of the larger turds that I suspect were left by a woodrat. I can't see far enough into the den entrances to confirm whether they're occupied, but the presence of the gumweed heads suggests so

1252 It's no easy matter to set up at the boulder. In order to get the angle of the patio I want, and the focus distance, I have to hike down into the forest, find an adequate log to anchor the camera to, and haul it back up the cliff. Hopefully we don't get any winds strong enough to shake this log loose, but it seems pretty steady for the time being. It's starting to snow pretty heavily now, which means it might get difficult for me to drive up from the downstream floodplain. I'd best pack up my traps and get moving

1314 As I start descending the cliff, a flicker lands atop some skunkbrush above me, gives a single call, then wings away up over the next ridge. Toward the base of the slope, I check another large boulder that is split such that, from one side, a little cave has formed. This cave has been further excavated and lengthened by a cottontail who is present when I peek inside. It sits with its back exposed. I'm barely able to reach in and tickle its fur with a thin sunflower stalk, and this prompts it to shuffle and turn around. When it sees me looking in, it spins again and offers me its back. I could go through the effort of extricating this rabbit, but it would probably require harrassment and bruising that I'm not interested in committing. Better to snare them clean. Unfortunately, down at the old muskrat burrows, there's been no action. Probably most of the cottontails are sleeping off their dawn rounds right now. I collect the two snares, put them into my box trap, and disengage the trap itself. Chances are, I won't be able to return here for a few days. Besides, most of this trap and snare work has been warm-up for my soon-to-come winter break. Then I'll get serious

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllll Ravens And Leaf Litter (17Dec11)

0855 It's warm and wet outside today, eight degrees above zero currently, and just four days before solstice. The rivers here are still wide open, even though the moon when they are supposed to freeze over is waning now. And at this point I'm thinking these waters will remain at least somewhat open all winter. While in the short-term this may be a glorious season as far as beaver, muskrats, geese, owls, magpies, chickadees, humans, and other fully-active and consistently-colored permanent residents are concerned, I doubt all's well among the snow-white jackrabbits and weasels, presently very conspicuous. I also suspect it's going to be a difficult haul for those who are accustomed to passing most of the winter in full torpor, or those who rely on processes of super-cooling. For these ones, every flip-flop between sharp temperature rises above the freezing point of water (such as we're experiencing today) and subsequent drops below (as we will no doubt return to shortly) requires significant energy expenditures. I would imagine that too many such fluctuations without additional food intake would equate with death. Any significant population loss in this respect, compounded with earlier end of winter thaws and longer periods of transitional rain, will have serious impacts on the timing and availability of food for both migrant and permanent summer species. Ever wonder why almost all the berries failed this year? Add to this predictable population explosions among parasites like pine beetles, who would normally be reduced homeostatically to manageable numbers over the winter...

Observe what's happening from this perspective, and the comfortable conditions we register today - as we go merrily about our annual Christmas assault on life - bring into relief the very real and dangerous systemic shift that is not of the future, but already underway. Our elder world speaks to us, yet we do not respond

1147 Sspopiikimi - A warm but windy day, eight degrees above zero, with what little snow we've had now melted except in the shadows. Having focused most of my recent attention on rodent studies at the confluence, it's been two weeks since I last walked a round here, and I'm looking forward to seeing what's new. I would have preferred a fresh snow cover. One of my favorite aspects of winter is the opportunity to try and read events written in the tracks on snow. Yet I'm sure there will be other types of learning opportunities granted today. There always are

1201 I begin by walking the west length, which I haven't bothered doing for a while, owing to the north-end pipeline construction that usually blocks me from making a full circuit. Today, however, the workers are away, and so I am able to cross their zone, hop their pipes, and set out on a complete round. As I move along, I notice a few pockets along the base of the cutbank where it's apparent the beavers have endeavored to maintain small, open pools. Even these have a thin layer of ice over them today, but both the ice and the surrounding area host a litter of bulrush stems left behind by the beavers after they'd eaten the tender bases and starchy roots. There is considerable melting underway at the pond, overall, with large puddles of water atop the ice, trenching down today as the winds ripple them across the frozen surface

1219 As I pass slowly by the bulberry and current thickets above the peninsula of the wide sout pool, I can hear chirps of a group of chickadees and the voice of a single magpie, both seeming to come from somewhere on the coulee slope. I also hear the call of a Canada goose, more clearly sourced at the base of the high-level bridge. But I don't encounter any animals at all until I drop down into the owl wood. Almost as soon as I enter, a female flicker comes to alight on a branch of the canopy above, obviously curious about me. I note her presence and continue along. Now, halfway through my round of the owl wood and not having come across any other animals, I think myself foolish for not sitting down on the spot with the flicker. Perhaps she would have continued her business in the forest, and I might have learned from something from observing her. This is a reminder to keep myself inquisitive. It's all too easy to walk through the forest, especially in winter, and really see nothing at all, though the life world is everywhere prevalent

1223 I continue through the owl wood and then up to the bench on the levee, above the abandoned garter snake hibernaculum and overlooking the river. From here, I can see there is not one goose below the high-level bridge, but thirty. I scan the skies and treeline of the opposite shore for eagles. Nothing. But this conditioned association for me of the river, geese, and eagles is today suggesting a rationale - one which probably should have been obvious before - for why I so often find geese under the bridge during the daytime. With all its mesh of steel girders, the high-level bridge offers excellent protection from predators above.

1230 As this little insight sinks in, I first hear and then see a raven exploring some of the girders above the geese. I know from my last visit that the ravens hunt pigeons who roost under the bridge, but they are generally further up, where the coulee slope meets the rail platform proper. I've never noticed pigeons down here on the girders above the river. What's more, as I watch the raven I notice there's a magpie following it... not closely, but definitely moving to inspect any area the raven has shown attention to. Not wanting to repeat my mistake with the flicker, I'm going to walk over there and try to learn what it is the raven's up to

1314 I walk the river cutbank to where I too am under the high-level bridge, and both the raven and magpie are still here, but not for long. As soon as I sit down in the tall grass to observe, the raven flies up to a girder where it can peek through some gaps in the steel lattice-work at me, and then hops up to a position that's out of my line of sight. The magpie then begins gliding from girder to girder, moving ever closer to me, stopping at each available point to look. When it is close, it wings an arch past me, still inspecting, and off into the owl wood. I search again for the raven with no success, then climb partway up the coulee slope and sit at the anchor of one of the trestle columns. I figure the raven is still around somewhere, and in any case it's always worthwhile to stay near the geese, if one hopes to witness some winter action. A few of the geese are laying down. Others are pecking around at who knows what on the ice. I don't have to wait too long before the raven again reveals itself. It is in the exact same place as I last saw it hopping toward before, a big joint in the bridge where it could easily conceal itself. It wings off into the air and joins a second raven, its partner, who has probably also been near all along. They soar in tight circles, moving away from me, but following the line of the bridge. Eventually though, they are out of sight. I determine to wait for them, and a thought occurs to me that perhaps they are here to take advantage of something that happens when a train passes. So I sit and wait for the next train. After about twenty minutes more, a train does come, passing slowly but noisily overhead. There is no appearance of the ravens. I could wait longer, suspecting as I do that they have an interest to pursue here, but I also realize that their absence is a response to my foolishness. I should have kept a good distance from the trestle, observed through binoculars, been smarter about my surveillance. My cover is blown for today, that much is clear, so I suppose it's better to move on

1344 I retrace my route along the river cutbank, back up over the levee and past the bench, down into the forest main. When I stop again, it is at the tree with the hollow where, during my last visit, I thought I might have glimpsed the elusive (more likely long gone) saw-whet owl. Today the hollow appears empty. I pick up a branch about as thick as a baseball bat, but longer, and whack a few times on the trunk to see if anyone will come out. Nobody does, but I suppose that doesn't mean it's an empty house. I don't like that I'm hitting the tree, or making loud noises. And I don't know that it would be any less obnoxious to climb up and peek in, though that's really not an option given the height and lack of supporting branches. More accessible and just as interesting is a log at the base of this tree. It is riddled with woodpecker cavities, each one filled to the brim with mouse goods. I might attempt to excavate and explore the contents of one of these nests, were I not already feeling guilty of inappropriate intrusion after my whacking of the tree. I fix the mouse log in my memory for a future visit and move on instead to my game-cam, tucked into the big bulberry brush of the wet meadow. There are not too many images on RyeCam02, considering the two week stretch since my last download. The brush has been visited intermittently by pheasants and magpies. But there is another as well, one who I thought might have moved on, having seen no sign of his presence since last year. And that is the raccoon. If only we had decent snow, I might be able to search out his winter den

1358 Leaving the wet meadow, I finish my round of the quiet forest main, then climb the levee and move toward the cutbank over the big river island, where I hope to spot the wintering kingfisher. Sure enough, she is there. My approach disturbs her. My approach disturbs her, and she goes chattering off to a different perch upstream. Actually, I haven't determined whether the bird is male or female. Last year's wintering kingfisher was female, and for now I'm just assuming she's the same. But the literature describes the males as the more likely winter candidates in northern regions, sticking around to keep dibs on their breeding territories. I can still see our kingfisher here, even on the more distant perch. But as usual, I'm looking southward at her, with the sunglare in my eyes, and she has her back turned toward me, so I can't see her breast to determine sex. In any case, I've begun to hear magpie calls from the north wood, so I might as well go see what that's about

1424 The magpie is gone, or at least gone silent, by the time I enter the north wood. All is quiet here. Only skeletal trees, leaf litter, and the frozen puddles of flooding remaining from the construction work of the other day. Ahhh... but the leaf litter. Now here is something I have not yet made a study of. Surely there is much to learn in and of the life world that exists beneath this blanket. The birds, for their part, are not ignorant of it. During my last few visits, I myself have witnessed magpies, chickadees, and flickers all exploring the forest floor. The magpies appeared, at that time, to be visiting caches near the bases of trees. But what if in fact they were hunting at the most likely places to find food? I select three trees and, with the aid of a branch, pry back the leaves immediately around the base of each one. Even with how warm it is today, I'm amazed. There are spiders scurrying everywhere, two species that I see, but one whose members are especially abundant. The leaf litter itself seems comprised of at least two layers - those leaves that have fallen recently, this season, loosely packed, and a more dense wall of old rotting leaves beneath. Because this north wood is a major flood zone, the trees all have trenches several inches deep, carved out by the flowing waters and ringing the base of their trunks. This seems indeed to be where the life is most dense. Out beyond the trench, the lower, denser packing of leaves hardly exists. When I get actually to the ground level, there are more than spiders. I find a frozen worm, a small ground beetle of a species I don't recognize (with a slightly metallic green sheen to the head, and brown wing-covers), a slightly larger sidewalk carabid beetle, and a true bug I don't recognize. All of these, the spiders, insects, and worm, I locate in hardly more than ten or fifteen minutes haphazardly raking back the leaves. Yes, in addition to further observations of raven activities at the high-level bridge, I think this study of winter life in the leaf-litter would make a good project for the season

1435 Pleased with my simple discoveries, I climb out of the woods, over the levee, and down to north-pond, so I can make my way back to my car. On the route, I find that one of the largest cottonwoods at the extreme end of north-pond has toppled, a victim of the construction flooding that has been ceaselessly flowing across/under the soil that secured its roots and trunk. Several other trees, its family, are in similar danger. The city, as I now understand it, is not only routing drainage with the new pipelines being laid, but also horizontal drilling and piping for sewage to be moved east across the coulee, underneath the river, to a treatment facility downstream. I suppose the loss of a few good trees in the process is not considered to be problematic