05 December 2011

Small Wolf Cap

IIII ) lll Small Wolf Cap (30Nov11)

1015 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - it is possibly makoyisttsomo'ki (wolf cap) day, or what may pass for it this year. Woke up to high winds and sticky, wet snow that greased the roads so quickly I had to cancel my lecture at the college this morning and stay home. Figured it's a good opportunity to hike down at the confluence and change my dead batteries out of RyeCam01. I also picked up a third game cam, and will be looking for someplace appropriate to situate it. We're not really supposed to go outside hiking around during makoyisttsomo'ki. In the past, this kind of wet snow, sticking to anything vertical, was considered the most dangerous of winter storms, both innaugerating and closing the season. Today, with gum boots and snow suits, it's not quite so much of a threat for the person on foot. We're overdue to receive ours this season, and what's happening today is relatively minor compared to many such storms I've been in. Nonetheless, I'm still glad to be off the road

1031 I'm already down to the sagebrush flats, having taken the straightest route to the bottom of the slope today. About two-thirds of the way down, I encountered a whitetail doe who was bedded down in the grass. As I approached, she stood up and ran down, across the flats, and into the forest. I myself followed almost the same path, and am now walking the edge-zone of the treeline, moving east toward the sandstone cliffs that meet the river at the downstream end of this floodplain

1048 I've now passed the end of the forest, and am walking between sandstone cliffs and a wide patch of rabbit (or sandbar) willow that grows at the start of the oxbow corridor. Here I have to strip off a bit of clothing. As cold as it felt in the exposed winds at the rim of the coulee a half hour ago, I'm now sweating. The standing temperature, to begin with, is not terrible at one degree below zero. I've overdressed, wearing a light thermal onesy, snow pants, a sweater, jacket, gum boots, mask, ski gloves, and touque. Of course, it's better find oneself needing to remove clothes than to come down here inadequately prepared, which is a lesson I learned the hard way one time, when the muscles of my legs threatened to quit working at thirty below. I stop, remove the sweater and let my upper body cool down for a bit before replacing my jacket. I also take off the ski gloves and exchange them for relatively light fishing gloves that are without fingertips for the thumb and first two digits (I'd packed these along for just such a need). While I go through this down-dressing, a small flock of fourteen aapsspini take off from the river, flying a loose circle around the floodplain, looking for another river site to land at. When they first take wing, a magpie in the forest gives a four-call. I'm still too far away from the river myself to be responsible for having provoked the geese. There's probably a coyote or eagle out that way. I'll be there soon

1110 As I near the river, three more small flocks take to the air, numbering 18, 18, and 24 in members. All three wing away upstream. Again, I don't think that my approach is what frightened them. In fact, when I reach sight of the river itself, there are four more groups - numbering 17, 17, 25, and 14 - who do not take wing at all, even when I begin walking along the narrow bit of earth and rock between the base of the sandstone cliffs and the river, heading in their direction. Rather, a single member from the larges group begins issuing a grunt call every ten seconds or so that I recognize as their "be aware, be ready" signal. At the same time, the two smaller flocks upstream use the currant to float as rafts toward the larger group, while the smaller flock downstream paddles in single file along the shoreline toward the same body. There are also other small flocks further downstream that I can see, and after climbing up a draw leading to an overlooking cliff, I watch a couple of these other groups join the larger collective as well. Once they are all joined, the excited signal to fly is issued, and the big flock moves upstream together. It is fairly unusual to find even this relatively small number of geese at the river midday in winter. Normally they would be up on the stubble-fields above the coulee rim. I can only presume that the weather is what's kept them at the water today. They probably know, as I do, that though the snowfall seems fairly light, its particular quality makes it dangerous. This is what the wolf cap is all about

1120 The cliff that I'm standing on is one that I've come to visit several times at dusk throughout the past few winters. Where the river meets these cliffs, there is a bend, and I don't know if it's something about the water right here, or if it's the shelter of the cliffs themselves, but even on the coldest nights there will always be an open crag in the ice. At sundown, when the shadow is just getting so dark that our human eyes can't see clearly, the aapsspini will come here, flock after flock, until there are two or three thousand crowded around. There are other such spots along the river I know of, and the same thing happens at these. During the night, as the coyotes move, so too do the large collectives shift among sites. I like this cliff in particular because it is the perfect saaamissapi, or lookout-point, from which to witness the event. It would be equally perfect as such for taloned hunters, and I've witnessed many eagles pass close - at eye level - from this site. This is where I intend to situate RyeCam03. There is a perfect perch, a large sandstone rock, dangling out over the cliff edge. And not far from this, there is a nice little weathered-away crevasse that I can wedge the camera into. Hopefully, from this setting, I will capture images not only of the birds who visit, but also of the small rodents who use the shelter of the crevasse as a protected passageway

1202 Before leaving the cliff, I had a magpie fly-by. And now, about half way through the forest heading upriver through the oxbow corridor, I've just had another. They're keeping an eye on me, I suppose. All the way along, I've been scanning the trees for owls, porcupines and the like, as well as listening for chickadees, woodpeckers, tree sparrows, and others. I find none of them, only a mule doe and a whitetail doe, spaced about a hundred meters apart, each having been bedded down in the chokecherry brush that lines the corridor. Otherwise, the forest is quiet and most who are here remain hunkered down... again, I believe, as a response to the weather. The snow, for the moment at least, has ceased. Now, far from the cliffs or coulee slope, the wind is stronger

1215 A couple years ago, one of the trees skirting the mid-forest meadow broke about eight feet up its trunk and fell in such a manner as to create the perfect frame against which to build a comfortable shelter. Since then, when I pass this area, I sometimes add a log or two to the structure, with the intention of eventually having a research station of a sort. Usually, when I do this, it kindles a daydreaming process, and today is no exception. The first thought that comes is I start thinking about how I really would like to set a couple days aside to do nothing but invest myself in the project, to ready it at least for overnight occupations. Then I begin imagining what it could be if enhanced by stucco made of the grey clay that seeps out of the sandstone cliffs, mixed with the dry brome of the meadow. And this possibility, far from fantastic, leads me down a trail of thought about which of our contemporary technologies actually do support life as a human, and all the rest that are nothing but unnecessary luxury and entertainment. I mean, if I was to live in this coulee, what would I want to bring with me, or have access to, from our mainstream technology set? Right away, I know I would want to be able to keep steel - as in having access to acquire, when needed, steel pots, bottles, and blades (knives, machetes). And it would be very helpful to have wool clothing and blanketing available. But beyond wool textiles and steel, then it really seems we branch off into the extraneous and unnecessary. I consider such things as I hike further through the forest, and it dawns on me that in spite of the fact that today's snow is wet, sticky, and dangerous, if I were living down here, I'd be celebrating its arrival, because with the snow comes easy access to clean water... and water, in this environ, especially with how grossly polluted our rivers are (even though we're close enough as to be within sight of their source), would be key. Hunger can be assuaged for a bit. Thirst really cannot

1241 I daydream my way through the remainder of the forest upstream, still seeing and hearing nothing other than my own footprints in the snow, and there follow the hawthorn draw to where I keep RyeCam01. Sure enough, new batteries brings the unit back to life. Unfortunately, I've missed capturing images of some small animal today, perhaps even a weasel, given the size and spacing of the tracks. In any case, I revive the camera and sit for a smoke, before starting my climb back up the slope. As I relax, three small aapsspini flocks pass by, following the river upstream. Their size is comparable those of the other flocks I've witnessed today, roughly fifteen members each

1325 When I've marched about two-thirds of the way up, I notice suddenly a large mule buck on a bench of land a bit below me. He is walking along swinging his antlers at the grass as if in mock-battle. Immediately, I drop to the ground and move on my stomach until I can see him again. Now the buck has ceased his play, and I notice also a second large buck following him, and a doe short distance below them both. All are feeding on the plants of the slope, though on what exactly I don't know. As I watch, the second buck turns around and drops down to meet the doe, who has turned her back on him. He pauses long to look at her back-side, and I expect to see him mount, but he never does. Instead, he eventually walks along beside her and begins to eat. I continue watching for another ten minutes or so, but when there are no significant changes in activity I continue my ascent. It would have been nice to come upon them before the bit of antler display that I witnessed, to have caught more of the communications between the two bucks. Now I am back at the car though, and ready to go find some cold water to drink

IIII ) lllll Gathering Kinii (2Dec11)

1016 Sspopiikimi - I've arrived this morning to find that the trenching which blocked access to the parking area last week has been filled-in, and assumedly the pipe laid. However, when I get out of my car, a backhoe driver pulls up beside me to suggest I park back off the side of the road again, since they would be fitting other pipes together and likely block me in. I recognize that this was my opportunity to ask some of the questions I've had about the purpose of all this work. But in the moment, I wasn't thinking, and simply attended to the recommended relocation. Now I'm walking along the highway on-ramp toward the levee to begin my hike and survey. There is no wind today. It's a comfortable one degree below zero

1043 Rather than walking the levee itself, I decide to begin the way I ended last week, by exploring the owl wood. In particular, I move south following the tree-line that runs parallel to the river. About half-way through, my approach frightens a bird. I see it fly across the river, and I know approximately where it landed, but I can't seem to pick it out with my binoculars. The impression I got, in the few seconds I had to watch it, was that this was probably the same "small falcon" I observed fleeing in similar manner last week. Today, however, it strikes me as less falconish of wing, and I am optimistically hypothesizing that it is not a merlin or kestrel at all, but the elusive northern saw-whet owl who not so long ago visited the brush where my game-cam is hidden. If so, I've twice encountered it in the treeline along the river, though a bit further upstream last week. Next time I visit, I will have to be exceptionally stealthy in my movement along this line, and hopefully spot this bird before it notices or at least flies away from me

1122 When I come to the end of the north wood, I continue to follow the river cutbank until entering the next treeline. The Oldman is even more open today than during my last visit, even the oxbow on my side is running. Before re-entering the trees, I can see a kingfisher perched above this oxbow, but it is backlit, so I can't confirm whether it is a female, and therefore perhaps the same bird who wintered here last year. By the time I get to the other side of her perch, she's gone. All the way along through the trees, I collect kinii from the prickly roses. I pocket most of the berries I gather, but am never without one in my mouth. A pair of magpies follow me, curious about my berry collecting perhaps. I also notice that the grosbeaks have completely cleaned the seeds off their green ash tree, and are no longer present themselves. At the south end of this treeline, I sit down on a bench above the abandoned garter snake hibernaculum. There are two male goldeneyes diving for minnows in the river, four aapsspini standing on ice below the nearby high-level bridge, and a raven calling from somewhere upstream. No sign of any eagles

1151 Continuing on, I maintain my course along the river cutbank, continuing to pick, pocket, and eat rose hips along the way. A female downy woodpecker flies in close and lands on a bulberry push, which she explores briefly before exploding in chatter and subsequently departing. When I come near to the high-level bridge, I change direction and head north into the owl wood. There's still a bit of snow on the ground, and as I move between the trees I see tracks of coyote, deer, and deer mice, but definitely not raccoon. Today the kakanottsstookiiksi are absent as well, even from their favorite tree. Soon I am through to south-pond, where I again sit for a break above the wide pool. All is iced-over at the pond. There are large milky areas where I can tell the snow of two days ago melted in, and other spots so clear as to look deceptively like open water. All is thin

1225 Followed by a watchful magpie, I round the wide south pool and drop into the forest main, where now, instead of kinii, I eat aapssi, or silver berries, as I walk along. Like with the owl wood, there is evidence that the coyotes and deer have been following the same paths I'm using. But when I eventually reach RyeCam02 in the large bulberry brush of the wet-meadows, neither animal appears in any of the images. Nor has the saw-whet returned. The only passers-by this week have been the magpies and pheasants

1259 I am on my way to the vehicle, having just climbed out of the forest and back onto the levee, when some event transpires with the geese. From over the coulee rim, several flocks descend, until there are between four and five hundred aapsspini. I try to get into the north wood before they arrive, but am not quick enough. I believe they'd intended to land around the big river island. But seeing me near, they circled around a few times and then decided to move to a different location downriver. As the geese depart, a trio of magpies swoop down, landing near to me, and begin picking around in the leaf litter at the base of a certain tree. I'm sure they are checking a cache, and I'd like to know what they have there. When my gaze becomes too apparent, the three fly further into the wood. I then check the leaf litter myself at the same spot, but find nothing. I doubt the magpies have gone far. In fact, I suspect they are watching me. If so, they're not the only ones. While I search for the cache, a group of five niipomakii arrive. Most of them pretend to hunt for insects in the crevices of tree bark, but I know they're mainly interested in me. One of them even comes down to pick around in the leaf litter with me, hardly an arm's length away. Neither of us find anything though, and soon we both give up. As the chickadees move off, traveling from tree to tree, I walk north, passing again the magpie trio, who now watch me from the canopy, and continue to my car

IIII ) llllll Song Succession (3Dec11)

1337 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - getting kind of a late start to my hike this afternoon, but the temperature is above zero with only a slight wind, so no complaints from me. There are about fifty aapsspini in the stubble-field above the coulee rim when I pull up, and no flocks that I can immediately see down on the river, but of course that's quite a ways. I want to follow the same route here as I did a few days ago. Anticipation of images from the new game-cam (RyeCam03) has been eating at me. At the very least, I want to be confident that the unit is functioning before I leave it alone for a week or more

1405 Though my general trajectory and specific destinations remain, I find myself drawn to taking a slightly different route down the slope, one that brings me through some badland fossil beds. I never know what might be emerging from the earth here, where fragments of ancient crocodile bones and turtle shells litter the tables created by one of the more resilient sedimentary layers. Nothing too exciting in this regard reveals itself today. However, I do notice some tiny, white objects embedded in one of the drainage draws. At first I assume they are fossilized shells. But when I look closer, I recognize them as prickly pear seed husks. They have been flushed by drainage out of some rodent dens above. Using the torch on my iPhone, I attempt to look inside these small caverns. In them, I see caches of rhombic-leaved sunflower heads. These cavities go back a ways though. It would be fun to explore them with an inspection scope

1445 Time seems to disappear as I complete the rest of my descent and begin walking the edge-zone between forest and sagebrush flats, and then forest and sandstone cliff, and then willow thickets and sandstone cliff, and finally river and sandstone cliff. Just as I arrive at the first of these transitions, there is a sudden burst of brush-crashing sound. Three mule deer and two whitetail deer (all female), scramble to depart, each species using its own particular strategies - the mules hopping up a draw in the cliff to get above me, the whitetails running deeper into the cover of forest. At the next transition, between willow and cliff, I find mountain cottontails, many of them. I spot at least five, owing to their tendency to flee when I step close. But I'm sure there are many others here as well. This is the site where I sometimes set out rabbit snares in winter. The population is large here not only because there are extensive patches of mature, close growing sandbar willow, but also because muskrats and beavers have excavated excellent shelters all along the banks of the oxbow canal in years of flooding, which the cottontails are happy to claim as their homes. I'm considering taking a different approach to any snaring I might do here this year. The coyotes and their magpie allies know this place too. In fact, there is a pair of magpies waiting here right now. They are all too apt at securing any cottontails I snare before even half the day has passed, and I move to check the run

1525 After the willows, I am quickly up and down the cliff to check the new game-cam, then back past the rabbits and on along the deer trails in the oxbow corridor leading through the forest. The camera is definitely functioning. There are several images on the memory card, most of them of myself moving away from and back to the site, but also some night shots that include just a partial shot of what I think is a rodent. It is really difficult to make out. I figure I'll leave it going in the same position a few more days, and then decide whether or not to resituate for more clarity

1541 Dusk is not long away now, and I am moving faster than I should be. Much faster. It takes the chatter of a downy woodpecker to break me of the speed. She is high in the canopy and, when I look up in her direction, I notice there are a few other birds perched high as well. They appear, from a distance, to be starlings, but I take out my binoculars just to make sure. When I aim the glass in their direction, a larger bird, which I hadn't even noticed before, take wing from beneath them and glides silently past another dozen trees before finding a perch. It is a great-horned owl, one half of the couple who nest within a hundred meters of here, in a tree at the edge of the mid-forest meadow

1641 I stop in the mid-forest meadow as usual, to throw a couple more logs on the shelter. For how many times I've done this, I sometimes wonder whether another visitor might have the opposite ritual, taking a few down on each pass. While I'm doing this, the geese return to the river from their stubble-field feeding grounds. And by the time I get out of the forest and over to my other game-cam, the kakanottsstooki couple are singing their serenade duet. The second camera has lots of images - all mountain cottontails, porcupines, and coyotes. As I look over the images, I can hear another bird calling from below, a juvenile great-horned owl, still using his begging pleas

1714 Last to sing are the coyotes, their greeting howls and yips sounding from families spaces all over the coulee. I march my way up the slope, and again at about two-thirds of the way to the rim see a trio of mule deer on a shelf below me. The three look up. It's too dark for me to tell whether it might be the same couple bucks and doe from the other day

IIII ) lllllll Oriole Nest (4Dec11)

0953 Sspopiikimi - it's colder today, seven below, and for a few hours last night we got another little blast of wolf cap snow, leaving some of the roads a bit icy this morning. For this reason, as well as one other, I've elected to park on the coulee rim rather than drive down the slope. Not that the road would be that terrible, but it's not worth the tension. And besides, I know where there's a huge patch of saa'ksoyaa'tsis (stinging nettle) up here, and this is a good season to gather lots of it for twining without interrupting its reproductive cycle. That'll wait for my climb back up at the end of my hike. The main reason I'm here today is to search the forests slowly and thoroughly for the saw-whet owl. Christmas Bird Counts are coming up, and I would love to be able to find this particular bird when the time comes. More than this though, I just want to confirm my suspicion that it's still here

1000 The route I take down the coulee slope passes directly under the high-level bridge, where the saa'ksoyaa'tsis grows. I'm surprised to find, in the same area, several bushes loaded with bulberries. We hardly had any berries at the pond this year, and I hadn't suspected these bushes would have any either, so I never checked. But it makes some sense to me. One of my hypotheses about why the berries failed was that misamssootaa, the long-rains, were too extensive this time around. There were four or five weeks of fairly steady rain that arrived just as the flowers on the berry bushes were blooming. By the time the rains subsided, the flowers were played out, and I doubt many pollinators had an opportunity to visit them. But up here, the bridge may have shielded the bushes from at least some of the intense soaking

1011 Before I'm completely down off the slope, I stop on a ridge looking out over the owl wood, and now my search begins. I carefully glass every branch within view for birds. There are four magpies in the wood, and they're already aware of me, looking up and giving four-calls. I don't see any owls though

1029 I move a bit further down the slope and glass the owl wood again. While I'm searching, a flock of thirteen aapsspini rise off the river and pass overhead. When they're almost out of view, the four magpies emerge, flying up into some brush on the ridge I've just descended, curious about what I'm up to. I continue on, and move to the south end of the owl wood, where it meets the river. There are no geese on the ice under the high-level bridge at present, nor any goldeneyes on the open water that I can see

1131 The magpies follow me at a distance into the owl wood, where I begin moving very slowly, just a couple steps at a time, and thoroughly surveying every tree. About half-way through, a downy woodpecker couple came to meet me, calling and chattering. The two seemed very pleased to have me in their territory. They followed me closely until I was near the north end of the wood, and at that point the male moved ahead and led me to the tree cavity they've excavated and are occupying. Along the way, I see no owls, not even the kakanottsstookiiksi. From this, I must assume the usual couple are not roosting here this year. If they were, I would have seen them. The small great-horned I came across a couple weeks ago must not have been the male of the pair, but was probably one of their juveniles, and it must have found somewhere else to stay. What I do find, however, is something beautiful that I've been trying to get my hands on for the last couple years... an oriole nest. It is not either of the nests I've been keeping my eyes on, those high in the canopy that haven't been shaken loose by even the strongest winds and (in the one case) heaviest snows. It's a third nest I hadn't come across before, and it is woven to a branch low enough that, with the assistance of another very long branch, I'm able to bring it down, anchorage and all. What a treat, this finely woven little bag. I can't wait to inspect it closely at home and decipher each of the kinds of fibers used in its construction

1217 After the owl wood, I travel just as carefully through the trees along the river cutbank. The magpies are still keeping an eye on me, as well as others... yes, there are others. The regular parking area must be open now, and I've seen two joggers, one very unfortunately with a canine companion who barked. This alone might foil my hopes for a saw-whet sighting. There are three male common goldeneyes on the river now that I can see. While entering the south end of the treeline, an immature bald eagle soared in tight circles overhead, moving slowly upriver. Now at the north end of this treeline, I've encountered a northern flicker. No owls yet. I have only the north wood and forest main left to survey

1254 I begin my search of the north-wood by following the tree-line along the river, where I had a possible saw-whet sighting two days ago. Today, however, there are no birds other than the five magpies whose territory this is, and now they are following me south again through the heart of the wood. The construction flooding that began here a couple days ago has continued, and now there is a considerable puddle extending below the trees. Strange it's not iced over. I'm starting to lose hope in ever getting a confirmed sighting of this little owl. It's reminding me of the long-eared owl at the confluence a few winters back. After one very close encounter and a couple distant sightings, I searched the floodplain forest day after day for a week or more to no avail. Of course, the benefit of taking the time to conduct a search for a bird who's not even supposed to be here (and probably isn't any longer), is that I get to see more of the other residents who are present. It pays to move slowly and alertly like a grazing deer through the forest

1328 My last encounter of the north wood is with the black-capped chickadees. There are four of them, and they must feel cold, because today they have no time for me in their busy search for food. I then climb over the levee and enter the forest main, my last chance for the sighting I've come for. I hike about half-way through, moving a bit faster now, then cut over to the wet-meadows and bulberry brush where I keep RyeCam02. Just as I come within view of the brush, a whitetail doe bursts out and runs to the forest. Then, following the trail into the brush, there are pheasant tracks. I'm sure the game-cam will have caught images of both these animals. But when I download the memory card into my photo viewer, there is only one picture, and it is a magpie. I must remember to bring a package of meat down here with me during my next visit. These magpies are, after all, Derrick's consanguineal kin, and I owe them for the joy they've brought to my life. I know they're fine on their own in summer. But when the freeze comes on, they often have to resort to eating coyote scat in order to get any energy. I should be bringing them gifts

1353 Leaving the wet-meadows, I continue my survey of the forest main. Though this may be the happening place in summer, during this season it is extremely quiet. I come across another flicker. I'm aware of the magpies watching me. Toward the south end of the forest, there is a cottonwood tree with a hollow where a large branch once broke off. The hollow is too high for me to see clearly into, but with my binoculars it looks very much like there's an animal in there. I take a couple shots with my 500mm lens and move on

[Note: The images by no means help me confirm anything, but it does appear to me that there's an eye looking out of the darkness at me. Could this be the winter roost of the saw-whet?]

1434 I exit the forest main at its south end tired and defeated. My search today has lasted more than four hours. I retrieve the oriole nest, which I'd stashed in some chokecherries by the owl wood, and climb the coulee slope once more. I'm feeling so drained, I don't even think I'm going to gather any of the nettle that had been half my rationale for parking up on the rim in the first place. But then something exciting occurs. As I come below the high-level bridge, a raven flies into view. I call out to him in my best throaty raven impression, and in response he immediately lands on the bridge to look me over. I give a couple more calls, then he offers one that's far more authentic and takes wing again. As he does so, a flock of thirteen rock doves explode from nearby and the raven swoops uncommittedly at them. Now I'm dropping my pack and trying to retrieve my camera in case he actually takes out a pigeon, but the raven calls once more and disappears across the river. Now it dawns on my why the eagles always survey the bridge so closely as they pass. I'd known there were pigeons here, but never put two and two together. This little event alone serves as a sufficient pick-me-up, and I do stop to gather is sizable bundle of saa'ksoyaa'tsis before hiking the last leg to my car. It's been a good day, a good few days. Tomorrow I'm back in the office, but the winter holidays are approaching, and I'm already planning my coulee agenda, given all I've experienced these last few hikes