06 January 2012

Jumping Mice, Chickadee Food, And Two-Winged Flies

III Western Jumping Mouse (24Dec11)

1046 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - We've had several consecutive days of heavy winds, continuing at present, and the temperature is six degrees above. Obviously, there's no snow on the ground except in the most shadowed cold spots. I'm heading toward the confluence to check my camera traps and, hopefully, to make some progress on my study of winter leaf litter insects

1106 There's no geese here on the river this morning, and the ice shelf that had been building along the banks has receded significantly. On the downstream stretch, the river is almost entirely open. Only when I'm half-way to the oxbox willow grove, marking the start of the confluence floodplain, does the ice on the water reach out toward midstream. Right where it does so is one of the boulders that I tried unsuccessfully to fish from the other week. I'd reminded myself to bring along a small plastic container today, so I could gather up and store the three fishing kits I'd concealed under rocks. Even in the short time that's elapsed since my last visit, I've forgotten which rock I hid this first kit under, and so I conduct a brief search. I turn ten or twelve rocks. Under one of them, I find a vivid metallic ground beetle frozen beside an apparently deceased sow bug, lying on its back, legs up. When I eventually do find the rock with the fishing kit under it, and observing that the river continues to remain fairly open, I decide to just leave the it where it is. If the warm weather keeps up, I may try throwing the lines in again one of these days soon. Best that I stop relocate all three kits this afternoon though, so I can at least be reminded of which rocks they're cached under

1139 A bit further upstream, it takes even more effort to relocate the second of my fishing kits. This time I lift closer to twenty rocks, none of which had any insects under them, before finding the cache. Then, moving on from there, I make my way along the willow patch and climb the nearby sandstone cliff to where RyeCam03 was set to capture images of what I suspected would be bushy-tailed woodrats. Instead, the reward was a series of nocturnal images of what I'm pretty sure are western jumping mice and a few passing cottontails. So the jumping mice are the ones collecting gumweed, while the cottontails are probably responsible for the larger size droppings I had attributed hypothetically to woodrats

1211 I pack up the camera trap, figuring it best to take it along on my walk through the forest today, in case any new mysteries arise. Back down in the willow patch, I set a couple of rabbit snares, just in case I might catch one while down here today. I also move my box trap up onto the meadow in the willow round, where I figure there'll be a better chance of it being visited by pheasants and partridges, and not inadvertently catching beavers. Even though it's Christmas Eve, and I know it's unlikely I'll be back tomorrow, I go ahead and set the mechanism for the box trap, but leave it unbaited. At latest, I'll be coming around again in two nights

1232 With my snares all ready, I move off into the forest do a bit of sampling in the leaf litter while making my way to the other side of the floodplain, where I keep RyeCam01. As it turns out though, the potential for me to carry out the intended insect study here is unlikely. The owl wood and north wood of Sspopiikimi are far more conducive to it. Here at the confluence, there is a lot of brome and buckbrush growing on the forest flood. And while there are plenty of leaves, to be sure, they do not form the same kind of thick mats that they do in those areas where heavy flooding is more routine. So relenting from that part of my agenda, I begin instead to simply look around for the next interesting opportunity. There is a small family of mule deer here this afternoon, including a decent sized buck. Unfortunately, the crunching sound of my footsteps as I approach is enough to send them running out of the forest and off toward the coulee slope. Just beyond where these deer had been when I roused them, I came to a tree with an interesting, elongated hollow. This cavity had several old mushrooms growing out of it's walls, as well as two bird nests. One of the nests is little more than a platform of grass, and probably belonged to mourning doves. The other is a classic little grass bowl, and it is filled to the rim with some unidentified, brownish, granular substance. I pull this nest out to have a better look at the contents. But aside from several bits of insect exoskeleton, I can't make sense of what the bulk of this rodent nest or larder. The material appears to be vegetable, but I can't be sure. Ultimately, I decide to just put the bird nest back in the cavity and keep my eyes open for others of its type that are similarly filled

1311 I must not be very alert today, probably owing to the very few hours of sleep I got last night. All the way through the rest of the forest to the black cliffs upstream at the confluence proper, I find not a single thing worth stopping to look at. I do drop by my little shelter and position four more logs along the walls. In a small poplar near the shelter, a hornet nest has been revealed. It's remained surprisingly in-tact. Soon I am up in the coulee draw amidst the hawthorns, where I keep RyeCam01. It's been a couple weeks since I last checked on this camera, and it turns out to be filled with images. Almost all of them are nocturnal shots of mountain cottontails, with a few deer passings, one coyote, one porcupine, and about five daylight visits by magpies. I'm surprised that, in almost a year now, I've not caught pictures of any weasels, or for that matter even jackrabbits. But I suppose that's what this experiment is about, to show what's actually coming round. And in the hawthorns, who's here is predominantly mountain cottontails

1338 For the route back downstream, I opt to follow the riverbank. Partway along, I hear a rustle of leaves near a big pile of old drift-logs, and follow the sound to its cottontail source. No shortage of rabbits in this floodplain. Past that, I come to the ksisskstakioyis. Here, where the water is deep and slow-moving, all is iced over, from shore to shore. But it's not a long swim, for a beaver anyway, to arrive again at open water out toward the willow round. Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that the ksisskstaki are still coming ashore at night to gather willows. Not too tough a winter for the river beaver

1356 Since I found no inspiration for intrigue in the forest during my hike, when I arrive back at the oxbow willow patch, I again climb the sandstone cliff and place RyeCam03 at the same boulder overhang where it's been during the last week or so. As I do this, there is magpie chatter close by, at the edge of the forest. I should probably go see what they're excited about, but I'm too tired and I know my family would appreciate for me to come home

1437 The last thing I do before hiking back to my vehicle is check and disassemble the snares. Nothing has been caught, but I will set up perhaps a dozen more after Christmas and get us stocked on rabbit meat. The return hike along the cliffs is entirely uneventful. There are still no geese on the river, which means no coyotes or eagles as well. Must be up on the stubble-fields above the coulee rim. I really wish we'd get some serious snow

IIII ) l Search For Chickadee Food (26Dec11)

1344 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - the winds continue, a few degrees colder now at just four above, but still comfortable enough for the acclimatized. No thermals necessary in the middle of this abnormal winter. I'm just out for a brief walk today, making sure there's nobody stuck in my box trap. But one of the Christmas gifts I received yesterday is a powerful little flashlight, and I do want to take this earliest opportunity to give it a test run

1411 As with my last visit, which was also during a relatively warm but windy afternoon, there are no geese down here and the river is open. While I hike along the base of the cliffs, I stop at each easily accessible crag, rock overhang, or burrow I see. At first, I'm counting the stops. But soon I give up on that, and by the time I reach the oxbow willow grove, I've checked probably two dozen nooks frequented by rodents. All of them contain plant materials, usually comprised of just a single species. There are three plants the rodents have been gathering: wild licorice, gumweed, and russian thistle. Which plant is stored in which nook seems to me determined by proximity. In all cases, it is the seed the rodents are after, and so only the once-flowered tip of the plant is gathered. For several weeks, I have been referring to these collections as larders or caches, but looking more closely now I can see that all of the seeds have already been removed. In other words, these nooks are not being used for storage at all, but merely as protected areas that the rodents can retreat to while working out the seed extraction. Since my camera trap (RyeCam03) already confirmed that the gumweed eater is most likely the western jumping mouse, and as all of these eating stations follow a similar pattern, I'd conjecture the same species is involved. There is just one oddball nook, containing both russian thistle and long-leaved sage. There is sage in proximity of some of the other nooks, but no similar evidence of collection. Perhaps in this case, a sagebrush vole is also involved, as the camera trap caught images of one of them at its earlier cliffside location. Whatever the case, it's clearly very helpful to have a little flashlight on hand, something I haven't enjoyed since discovering hibernating drone flies in the bank swallow cavities last winter

1430 I'm glad to find there are no animals in my box trap, given that I'd left if for two nights unattended. Since I plan to be back again by morning, I go ahead and reset my two rabbit snares. I'd like to get away from snaring though, because even with frequent checks it's often the case that coyotes will get called to the scene (probably by magpies) before I do. Instead, I have in mind building a few more live traps, much like the box I already have, but using the deadwood that's already out here, lashed together, rather than hauling in another alien-looking chicken wire monstrosity

1444 I've now made my way, along the oxbow corridor, into the floodplain forest in search of rose hips to bait my box trap with. There are three magpies calling excitedly nearby, and when I follow their calls it leads me to the same small family of mule deer I encountered during my last visit. Today they are bedded in the chokecherry brush, but on my approach run out of the forest, onto the sagebrush flats, heading again toward the coulee slope. As the deer depart, so too do the magpies, but within seconds a downy woodpecker glides into view, landing on a nearby cottonwood. Observing the woodpecker I notice that, like the chickadees who are often companions of the downys, it is not extracting its food from inside of the wood, but merely gleaning from the tree's surface. This I recognize as an opportunity to learn something... what insects could it possibly find in this manner during the middle of winter?

1533 For almost an hour, I go to work again with the flashlight, this time closely inspecting the furrows of cottonwood bark. I select three trees. Two of them are larger, with trunks at least two feet in diameter. The other three is smaller, with a trunk diameter of about thirteen or fourteen inches. Of course, the larger trees have deeper furrows, and predictably more insects to offer. My survey area comprises about two verticle feet, at my eye-level, around the circumference of each tree. What I find are plenty of exoskeletons, already-hatched spider eggs, and something else... the small, bark-colored coccoons of what I suspect is case-bearing moth species, lots of them. Surely this can't be all the available food on these trees, but it's a start to a survey I can readily continue with while visiting this forest

1552 With a couple dozen rose-hips in hand, I return to the box trap and drop them in through the chicken wire. As I do, a flock of twenty-one aapsspini fly high overhead, moving from my side of the coulee to somewhere across the river and over the opposite rim. I then move into the willow thicket to pass the rabbit snares once more before I leave. I also want to check RyeCam03 up on the cliff above, and as I begin to climb a juvenile bald eagle circles overhead. This bird's presence was probably the impetus for the geese shifting over to the other side of the river

1624 It turns out the camera trap has collected just four nocturnal images over the past couple nights, all of them confirming again that it is the western jumping mouse who predominantly inhabits this particular site. With these images downloaded, I make my way back downstream to my vehicle without any other encounters. The Sun has gone down and dusk's shadows are upon the coulee

IIII ) ll Glimpse Of Mallards (27Dec11)

0949 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Making a quick run this morning to check my snares and collect a couple samples of the case-bearer moth larva shells that I found yesterday in the deep bark furrows of the cottonwoods. I have some errands to attend to in town this morning, so I can't stay long. The high winds continue, and the temperature has dropped another couple degrees, but it's still above freezing and expected to warm up over the next couple days

1009 I thought perhaps I'd be early enough to find geese lingering on the small ice shelves remaining at the river's edge, but there are none. Instead, today there is a family of seven mallard ducks, who depart as soon as I notice them. As I hike along, following the base of the cliffs, I begin to wonder whether the geese are even sleeping here this year. Without our usual ice-over, and the open crags here, they really have no particular reason to stay along this stretch. There are other places with islands surrounded by open water that would offer far better protection from land-based predators

1014 While I consider the geese, and as I approach the oxbow willow thickets, I hear the unmistakable stuccato whistling sound of a goldeneye taking flight from somewhere upstream. Looking in that direction, I see there's a coyote hunting along the gravel bar on the bank opposite me. The coyote and eye meet one another's gaze, and she immediately turns and trots off around the riverbend

1030 As I enter the willows to check my snares, I hear the calls of a ring-necked pheasant up on the adjacent meadow. It gives me hope that I may find it caught in my box trap. The snares themselves are empty, but each has been visited - one of them pulled into a burrow, where the rabbit managed to slip it off, the other simply thrown to the side. I reset both of them, confident that success won't be long away. The box trap, when I climb up to the meadow to check it, is empty. I add corn kernels to the rose hips within as bait. If I had time today, I'd build another live trap of this sort from the abundant deadwood in the area. Perhaps tomorrow

1059 Following the oxbow, I breach the edge of the forest, and there set to work surveying the bark of cottonwood trees in the same manner as yesterday. Today I select four trees, three of them being older, with deeper furrows. They are situated in the same kind of floral environment as the three I inspected yesterday, surrounded by chokecherry, buckbrush, brome and canada thistle. Almost immediately, I begin finding the little case-bearer pods, though overall fewer than before, and no other insects to speak of. While I work, a downy woodpecker flies in and hops around above, picking at something in the canopy. I select two of the larger, most promising moth cases as samples to open at home

Note: Neither of these cases turn out to have anything in them. They are simply the shell remains that housed and protected the larvae during a transformation earlier in the season. Back to the drawing board regarding available woodpecker and chickadee food to be found on the surface of these trees

1111 With my moth cases in hand, I hurry back out of the forest, through the willows, and out along the base of the sandstone cliffs. In the short time I've been gone, a flock of thirty-one geese have silently arrived, and are standing on the thin ice shelf against the opposite shore. They must have gone up over the rim earlier, fed on the stubble-fields until full, and returned to rest. So much for my hypothesis that they're rejecting this area due to the open river. On the other hand though, they are behaving differently. They're safe enough (given that I carry no rifle) on the opposite shore, yet they quickly take wing when I come parallel to them. A few weeks ago, when it was colder and they were conserving energy, they were not this skittish

1129 I make two brief stops before reaching my vehicle. The first is at one of my fishing kits. Given the predictions of warmer weather the next couple days, and the absence of almost all shoreline ice at this particular station, I decide to go ahead and throw my line in again. I also stop off at a patch of tall goldenrods. Almost all of the stems have the spherical galls, produced from a chemical reaction to the saliva of goldenrod gall fly larva as they eat into the pith of the stems. I have heard that a good many insects may make use of these galls during winter, so I decide to take three of them home as samples

Note: Cutting open the goldenrod galls, I find in each case only the larva of the gall fly. All of them have excavated their escape tunnels already, and are waiting out the winter, preparing to pupate when we again transition to summer

IIII ) lll The Young Porcupine (28Dec11)

1013 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Back for another morning round, to attend my traps and perhaps explore the forest. My thermometer reads at seven degrees above zero, but owing to the continuing high winds it doesn't actually feel any warmer than yesterday

1029 I walk my usual route along the base of the cliffs at the river's edge. I notice up ahead there's something in the water near the one fishing kit where I have my line out. Moving closer, I can see it is a lone goose, and it's adopting a posture I recognize from the nesting season as an attempt to conceal it's presence, holding it's head and neck horizontal on the water's surface. At first I consider the possibility that this bird might be hooked or otherwise tangled on my line, but then it paddles across to the other side of the river and drifts stealthily with current downstream. I check the line just to make sure, and all is intact. It must be that this goose has a broken wing or some other debilitating injury that has forced it to remain at the river while all the others have gone to feed at the stubble-fields. With a river between us, I may never know for sure. Not likely I'll feel compelled enough to wade out into the icy water, and even if I did the goose could easily evade me. I'll just have to keep an eye out for this one during future visits

1048 I make my way to the oxbow willow grove, and there find my two cottontail snares in the same condition as yesterday - one has been pulled into a burrow, but the animal got loose, the other is flung off to the side. It may just be that positioning them at the den entrances is not going to work, and that I'll need to go back to snaring only along the runs. But I figure it's worth one more attempt, and so I reset them again in the same positions

1102 Next I climb onto the willow-round meadow and check my box trap. It has caught another porcupine or, judging by the size of it, the same yearling as last week. I open the box door and sit down a short distance away to smoke and consider my options. It is the opportunity for this animal to make an escape because, having now caught her twice, and given that even at her size she still has far more meat than a cottontail, I don't have many reservations about eating her this time. I smoke and wait for her to depart. When she doesn't go, I take up a strong stick, coax her out, and brain her

1208 I carry the porcupine out into the meadow away from the trap, and for the next hour or so process her. It might not have taken me so long, but my knife isn't as sharp as it should be, and she's pretty fatty. I leave her guts in the meadow for the coyotes to find, hang the heart and lungs on a branch of a nearby tree as an offering to the magpies, and pack all the meat along with the liver and kidneys

1230 There is only the matter of the porcupine hide to deal with. I don't want to leave it where the coyotes or corvids will find it, because the quills are too dangerous. So I bring it along as I head back to the cliffs. At a certain draw, I know of a sheltered little sandstone nook visited only by mice and voles. This is where I place the hide. The flesh and fat will be eaten away, and I can return later and collect the discarded quills

1245 The injured goose is nowhere to be seen on my route back. Chances are its gone even further downstream. I will look for it again when I return in the morning. No hike in the forest today, just the mixed emotions of an omnivore who doesn't like killing animals, yet detests absolutely his dependence on the commercial food industry, and hopes eventually to escape all participation in it

IIII ) llll The Old Porcupine (29Dec11)

0931 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Wind, wind, and completely exposed earth. There were rainstorms upstream yesterday. Thunder was heard. I keep thinking about the river beavers, how they secured their food caches directly to the walls of their lodge. And the garter snakes, how they elected not to den in their usual cutbank hibernaculum. How did these changes relate to the (non)winter we're having? What's to come? I'm expecting a deluge of rain at the season's close, floods, early flowering, and another summer without berries. We'll see...

0948 I hike along the bank of the river, the base of the sandstone cliffs. There's a raven calling from somewhere near the opposite coulee rim, but I can't spot it. A lone male goldeneye takes wing upstream at my approach. I stop at my fishing line, pull it in, and find it untouched. It's baited with a piece if porcupine liver, something I'd think would be irresistible. What was the goldeneye eating anyway, if not fish? I toss the line back in and continue on

1000 Soon I'm at the site of the two cottontail snares I have set-up, in what would be the banks of a river oxbow, were it not dry. Like the fishing line, neither snare has been visited

1022 From there, I climb up onto the willow-rounds meadow to check my box trap. I can see it through the bulberry and hawthorn brush as I near. The door is down, someone's inside. When I reach the trap itself, I'm met with another porcupine, this one an older male, large and muscled. I haul the box out into the open meadow, and carry along the same club I used before. When I open the door, the porcupine runs, but I close the gap in just a few bounds, and he stops for a second to take a defensive posture. Soon, but not nearly soon enough, he's dead. A minute or two stretches on and on. The resilience of life amazes me. People who never struggle to bring death to another mammal with their own hands, and their own strength, who never have to be the immediate cause of it, and look it in the eye, maybe they don't deserve to eat any meat

1110 I've brought a slightly smaller, sharper knife today, but the process still takes me some time. I work patiently, but still manage to get two quills in my hand and slice open one of my fingers. The raven who was calling before (I presume) crosses the river and lands up above me on the cliffs, waiting its turn. A magpie flies from the forest into the nearby willows, silent, also waiting. I don't bother placing the heart and lungs up on the tree branch today, given that the birds are right here, and will come down to take their share as soon as I leave. I wonder how many others are observing me from concealed positions in the distance. All of the guts from yesterday have been cleaned up. I'm sure these ones will be too. When I've packed what I'm taking away, I again carry the dangerous hide off to the cliffs, and deposit it in the same sandstone nook as yesterday's

1138 As I hike back along the cliffs, I get little whiffs of the male porcupine musk I'm wearing. I stop just once, to wash the blood off my hands in the river. When I'm almost back to the car, there's a couple with a big red dog walking toward me on the trail. We exchange greetings, but then the dog gets my scent and I can see the fear take over. It takes some effort for the man to hold their dog back from attacking me. And by the way they both react, I can tell they don't understand the motivation for its behavioral shift. I just keep moving

IIII ) lllll Chickadee Food Continued (30Dec11)

1013 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Finally, a day with relatively no wind. According to my thermometer, and verified by the appearance of the nimbostratus clouds above, we are at the freezing point this morning, zero degrees. Upstream, where I'm headed, there is a flock of perhaps thirty aapsspini dropping down toward the river

1031 When I reach the river and begin hiking along the base of the cliffs, the aapsspini take wing again. Likely they are being disturbed by a coyote, as I don't see any eagles around. What I am noticing though, hugging the sand by my feet, are flying insects. They a few, and at first I think they might be hallucinations, but eventually one of them lands just long enough for me to recognize it as a small two-winged fly. Unfortunately, it's gone again just as quickly as it arrived. By the time I make it to the half-way point along the cliffs, where I have a fishing line in the water, I've caught glimpses of six of these flies. None are willing to sit still for a macro photo. Overnight, my fishing line has become trapped in some new ice. I'll have to wait for a thaw before I can pull it in to shore again

1044 As I near the oxbow willows, it occurs to me that I haven't brought my knife. I took out of my pack at home to wash it, and never put it back. Fortunately, it turns out nobody has worked their way into any of my traps, and so I have no need for the knife today anyway. There are a few magpies already gathering around as I make my way through, checking the snares and such. When I inspect yesterday's kill site, I find they have eaten everything except the porcupine's stomach and a short section of intestines. Other parts of the intestine have been carefully stripped away, leaving behind the woody droppings that had been forming within

1124 For a little while, I walk around in the willow-round meadow, searching for an optimal site to build a live pheasant trap. I find a couple possibilities, but am also thinking it might be better to check the mid-forest meadow as well, something I can save for another visit. Right now I'm more interested in working on my phenology studies. I move back through the willows and climb the sandstone cliff, up to where I have RyeCam03 set up by a large boulder and rodent feeding station. Once again, it has captured a set of nocturnal images of the western jumping mice. I'm going to take the camera with me into the forest to look for a new mystery worth directing its lens toward

1205 On my way to the forest, I collect my two cottontail snares and reposition them away from the den entrances, where they don't seem to be working, into the dense thickets, where they've been successful in the past. I then follow the oxbow corridor into the trees. At first, I consider aiming the camera trap down the corridor itself, which I know serves as a highway for the animals. But not only would such positioning put the camera at risk for theft by humans who might follow the well-trodden trail, but its also not such a big question for me, which animals use this corridor. Instead, I find an large snag poplar up in the woodline above the oxbow cutbank that is appears to be especially favored by the woodpeckers. One aspect of this snag in particular raises my curiosity, and that is a large rectangular-shaped cavity. The known woodpecker residents of this floodplain in winter are the downy, hairy, and northern flicker, none of whom carve cavities of this shape or size. To me, although the cavity probably is just a widened flicker hole, it looks very much like the work of a pilleated woodpecker. Hopefully, the game-cam will settle the matter

1230 Down below the woodpecker snag, lying half-into the oxbow corridor itself, is a recently fallen cottonwood tree. I recognize it as probably the best opportunity I'm going to get for searching the canopy for potential chickadee and downy woodpecker food. I know these birds glean from the tree surface, but my inspections of several trunks hasn't turned up any insects. So I work my way from the terminal budding ends of this fallen giant, all the way down to that part of the trunk's base where it split. I pay special attention to what I figure would be the most likely places to find eggs or overwintering larvae - at the buds themselves, in the little hollows where twigs meet branches or branches meet trunk, under the loose bark by the diplodia galls, and in deep bark furrows. To my disappointment, I don't find anything. The only thing I am able to sleuth out is how the tree came to fall. There is a place on the trunk where a large branch once broke away, creating a wound that never completely healed over. And given the high winds we've had, leveraged against this weak spot, the wood gave way. It is very possible that any insects the tree did harbor were shaken loose from the impact of the fall

1253 I start making my way back out again, and get as far as the willow thickets, when I begin hearing the chirps and songs of chickadees. Following the sound, I come upon a group of five birds hunting in three young poplars. I get as close as they will allow and watch through binoculars as they survey these trees for food. For the most part, they don't appear to be coming up with much, if anything, from their search. Just two or three times do I observe activity that looks like they might have been successful. The chickadees hop quickly from one spot to another on the branches, looking but rarely testing with their beaks. Where they do really poke around is in the nooks at the base of the branches and branchlets, and under some bark that has been loosened by porcupines. It takes them only ten minutes or so to survey these three juvenile trees before they flitter off to hunt elsewhere. But watching them has given me confidence at least that my methods of searching for their food sources are on the right track

1313 On my way back along the cliff base, following the river downstream, I catch glimpses of two or three more of the small flies. Again, they come and go from my sight so fast that I don't have a chance to take any pictures, and so will not be able to identify them by species later. Perhaps they'll be out again tomorrow and I'll get my shot. I also come across a group of seven goldeneyes, who immediately take wing and fly whistling upstream. It is odd to see even this many goldeneyes together on the river. I'm used to only finding two or three in one place at most. I wonder if perhaps they're already getting the urge to migrate north again. Then, when almost back to my vehicle, a mature bald eagle passes low, directly overhead, moving in the same direction as the goldeneyes had, back toward the area I'd just come from. There seems to me to be fewer eagles surveying the river this winter, probably owing to the lack of ice and cold that would keep more of the geese down here throughout the day

IIII ) llllll Hibernating Anthomyiids (31Dec11)

1055 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Our second relatively windless morning, and this visit begins much the way that yesterday's concluded, with niipomakiiksi. As I walk in, I first observe a male pheasant flying to land near the opposite shore of the river, and then hear the chirps of nearby chickadees. Following the sound, I find them scouring a couple cottonwood trees. Soon, however, they flitter down, one after the next, into a large patch of bulberries below. There are still some shriveled fruits to be found on these bushes, and though I don't witness it with my own eyes, I figure there's a good change the chickadees are eating at least some of these, along with any insects they might find. I take a look at the branches of a couple of these bushes, and find no obvious insect presence. But then, I still haven't figured out what they might be eating from the cottonwoods either

1135 While I follow the niipomakiiksi, another event begins to unfold on the river. At least a thousand aapsspini arrive from fields above the coulee rim. The scene is much like that which occurs at dusk, with flock after flock descending, most of them landing on the ice shelf of the opposite shore. They are pursued by a juvenile bald eagle who, upon seeing me there, turns about and glides downstream. The geese are safe for the moment, but I wouldn't be surprised if the coyotes show up soon. I hike a ways along the base of the cliffs, then climb up and find a good boulder to sit next to while I wait and watch

1156 When the geese begin to depart again despite the absence of coyotes, I move on. I've not seen any of the flies along the cliffs that were out yesterday. When I get to the oxbow and willow-rounds meadow, I find my box trap empty again, but this time empty also of the corn I'd dropped in as bait. Since the trap hasn't been tripped, I can only assume its been raided by someone too small to bump the trigger stick, probably mice. I haven't brought any more corn with me, so perhaps I'll use this as an opportunity to plan a break for tomorrow

1216 Next I check on the rabbit snares. They too are empty, but one has been nudged off to the side. I pull both of them so that I won't have to be concerned about tomorrow. Then I follow the oxbow further, into the forest, and download the memory card of RyeCam03, at the woodpecker tree. No animals have passed by as yet

1254 Not quite sure what to take on from here, I consider hiking to the other end of the floodplain to check RyeCam01. But then I remember the tree hollow from last week, the one with mushrooms and an old bird's nest that had been filled to the rim with some as-yet unifentified material. I decide to take a second run at it. After relocating the tree, I again remove the next. This time, however, I almost immediately notice something I'd completely overlooked before... the outside of the nest, where it pressed against the wood of the tree, is sheltering hibernating anthomyiid flies. They are somewhat alert. When I touch them, however lightly, they shuffle to reposition themselves. Turning to inspect the inside of the nest, I find it is mud-lined, once home to a robin. The bowl is filled with a lot of small particles. Some of them are woody, like porcupine or beaver droppings that had disintegrated. There are also identifiable mouse turds, some small seeds, and reddish egg casings from an unknown insect. Overtop of this assorted collection, someone (presumably a deer mouse) has packed a bed of dry grass leaves. I return the nest to its little shelf in the hollow, which appears to be a site where a large branch once broke off, leaving the tree to attempt healing. Below the hollow, there is yellowish sap leaking out of the bark of the trunk. It's dripping down to the ground, but presently iced over. When I rub it with my finger, it liquifies. There is no stickiness to it, and it doesn't have a noticeable smell

1324 Moving on, I search part of the forest for other trees with similar features. In total I locate four more good-sized hollows created by large branches that had dropped off. Two of them have robin nests, and of these I'm only able to extract one (the other is too glued in by mud). There are no hibernating flies under the nest I remove. The tree that houses it has a wide, dark stain under the hollow, as though it had bled a similar sap previously. I also saw sap running and freezing beneath the hollow of a non-nest tree, and in both of the non-nest hollows there was accumulations of the crumbly, woody material similar to that found in the first nest, as well as the red-colored insect egg casings. From one of these trees, where the healing wasn't as extensive, I could see under the bark that the crumbly material was remnant from the work of poplar borer beetles, something I should have recognized straight away

1338 My arrival back at the river incites panicked responses from several birds. First, a male pheasant, perhaps the same one from earlier, flies noisily up a draw when I pass close to him. Then, at the cutbank, a group of six goldeneyes whistle-wing downstream, and their reaction startles a small group of aapsspini into crossing the river. There are still about fifty geese lingering down here, in families of between five to seven birds, spaced out from one another along the shoreline

1353 The goldeneyes have landed about a hundred meters downstream from me and are drifting ahead as I walk. Their movement seems to be at about the same pace as mine. As I pass each aapsspini family, the sentinel males issue their usual grunts, "Be aware. Everyone be aware." Soon I am closing in on the car

IIII ) llllllllll Bluebottles And Wolf Spiders (4Jan12)

0941 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - It's the last day of my winter break, and another fairly warm one out here. I need to make my way to the oxbow willows to remove the rabbit snares and close up the box trap, and I'll be heading into the forest to collect the images off both my game-cams

I've made brief runs out over the past couple mornings, just to check on things. The snares, four of them in total at this point, hadn't been touched. The box trap had been raided each night for its bait (corn and peanut butter), but whoever's been eating it is small and delicate enough that they haven't budged the trip-stick

0941 Just as during the previous two mornings, there are some aapsspini on the river this morning. As I pass along the base of the sandstone cliffs, a flock of twenty-one geese paddle across to the opposite shore, and there they take to the air as two groups of ten and eleven members respectively. When I get to the floodplain and check the box trap, I find my bait has been removed againburns still nobody is in there, yet this time the trigger stick has been moved and the door is closed. I suppose a magpie might be able to work its way out between the mesh but, given that there's not a single feather to show for it, I think it more likely the work of mice

1016 There's a magpie who follows me through the oxbow willows to check my snares, none of which have seen any rabbits. It's not really surprising to me that the snares haven't been successful. The rule of thumb is that you should put up at least ten, and for most of the break I only used two. This was owing to my not being very enthusiastic about snare use to begin with, since the coyotes often beat me to the kill. In any case, I reel up the four that I have and stow them in the bush for the future, then continue on along the oxbow to RyeCam03. I've had this camera directed at an old snag that shows extensive woodpecker use, including a rectangular cavity entrance that is unusual for the species most often residing here. When I download the memory card, it shows the camera has taken more than four-hundred photos over the past three nights. Scanning through them in my viewer, it seems that all of these images were triggered by the movement of clematis vines swinging in the wind. There is no way to get around this problem without cutting the clematis down, and since new growth will issue from these old vines I don't want to do that. Best just to take the camera with me and find a new subject to direct it toward

1041 The quickest route to the upstream end of this floodplain and RyeCam01 is through the sagebrush flats, so that's the path I take. Walking along, I have to unzip my jacket and remove my touque. It's so warm today, I'm almost tempted to climb the coulee slope and check in on the rattlesnakes. It would be totally bizarre if I were to find them basking in this moon. There's pressing demands at home today though, so I decide to trudge on. When I get to hawthorns, I learn that activity has carried on here as usual for the past couple weeks. Most of the images are of mountain cottontails, though there are also magpies and pheasants. Curiously, the coyote and mule deer only make a single appearance each

1104 For my return route across the floodplain, I opt for the forest. I need to decide on a new subject for RyeCam03. I'm lonely for Sspopiikimi, so don't plan to come back here aain for at least a week or more. The new camera position must be somewhere fairly secluded, so that if anybody does come through in the meantime they're not likely to spot it. I have in mind to find a good log to aim it at. A lot of times during my winter walks, if I'm trailing coyotes through the snow, I've noticed that they use long logs as runs. I'm interested to see whether this is something they only do during snow cover, or if it is a more general strategy for navigating the forest. There are several logs along my path that would work for this experiment, but I eventually decide on one that's a bit different. Rather than being flush to the ground, the log I select is from a tree that has split vertically at the base and is bent over, forming a shallow arch that, at its greatest height, is about six feet off the forest floor. There's evidence of porcupine use on the log/tree, the trunk of which is thick enough for me to walk along from one end to the other, but it might be fun to see if anyone else uses this as a path or perch. I set the camera against the trunk of a neighboring tree, facing north so that the lens isn't pointed at the sun. This provides a perfect view of the length of the horizontal trunk

1120 Continuing through the forest, I scare up two whitetail does who are bedded down not far off my path. Just after they bound from view, and in the direction they ran, I hear a voice that sounds very much like a raccoon. When I look for the source though, I only see a magpie. The bird is watching me, an has probably been following me most of the day, as I've heard one or more magpies over my shoulder ever since moving through the oxbow willow. But if this bird made the strange raccoon noise, it is nothing like I've ever heard from them before. Certainly not out of the realm of possibility though, my magpie friend at home speaks several sentences in clear English. Yet, when I get back to the sandstone cliffs, I notice a print in the sand that makes me doubt it's the bird. There is a clear line of raccoon tracks. Fairly fresh, or I'd have noticed them before. It's not often I see raccoons down here. These are not like the bold urban coons who have no qualms revealing themselves. Our raccoons are masters of stealth and camouflage. The only way I've ever located them at will was with the aid of snow-fall

1138 The last stretch of my hike, back along the cliffs again, holds a nice surprise. There are not just a handful, but hundreds of the two-winged flies I'd spotted only glimpses of a few days back. This time, they are so abundant that I have no problem getting pictures, and I think they are bluebottles (though they lack the sheen I've seen in other seasons). And it's not only these flies, there are also hundreds of a particular species of wolf spider, who I imagine are feasting on the bluebottles. This is turning out to be a very strange winter indeed. So concludes the first holidy break I've ever had with the earth exposed and river wide open