23 January 2012

Scout Bee And Magpie Bath

IIII ) llllllllllllll Ksikkihkini (8Jan12)

0847 Coffee and Corvids, where I see that one of the "wild" magpies has somehow managed to break off all its tailfeathers. This happens to Derrick during the winter, as a result of repeated crash-landings sourced to his clipped wings. I've never seen it happen with any of the other magpies though, but here it is. The wind gusts are extremely strong this morning, and yet the magpie with the missing tail (who I'll try to photograph tomorrow) seems to have no problem at all navigating by wing, and landing perfectly on target at the rock where I've offered them food

I've often wondered about the long tail of the magpies, what its functions might be. I've seen it used in social displays of three different sorts: 1) when a bird is coming to land among others at a food source and wants to frighten them, it fans its wings and tail wide at the last moment; 2) when a bird is approaching another on certain occasions, which I do not completely understand but that seem assertive, there is a most complex song used, which produces a sound of two or more birds, and the tail is held horizontally at a ninety-degree angle, forming a V of body and tail, the open end of which is brought toward the recipient, perhaps in a manner of making him/her feel surrounded; and 3) when a bird is making a certain display, the purpose of which I do not fully understand, but that has something to do with calling attention to itself, it will perch, hold the tail straight up, and flick it in time to a particular chirp. Of the three, this last social display may be the most primal, because Derrick does it, though I doubt he learned it from the others. He always uses it when he wants to get someone's attention, and usually right before he launches into a related (but separate) display of toughness by attacking some non-living object with his beak [note: this tail-up display exposes the genital region, and I suspect, but have never confirmed, that it may be put to use in a mating dance]

I have also noticed that the long tail can be used in landing more generally, as a kind of cushion against the impact. But seeing this magpie today with no tail, yet still very coordinated of flight, invites speculation for yet another function... that the long tailfeathers can serve in defense against predators in a manner similar to the long detachable tails of some other animals. The longer the tail-to-body ratio, the more likely a predator will grab/attack the tail, and this may afford the magpie just what it needs to escape relatively unharmed

1346 Sspopiikimi - It's another warm winter day on the high plains, two degrees above with heavy winds and of course no snow cover. Focused as I've been recently at the river confluence, this is my first visit to the pond in over two weeks

1353 Because it's Sunday, I'm able to easily maneuver around the ongoing pipeline project in the absinthe field. When midpond comes into view, I can see there's open water near the ksisskstakioyis, and a family of seven aapsspini occupying it. I hike sunwise around north-pond, where there is another patch of open water derived from the construction flooding that continues to pour in. How the pond has not risen significantly after months of this continuous flow, I have no idea

1412 Climbing the levee, I can see down into the north wood, and there - poking around on the forest floor - is a male ring-necked pheasant. I can't imagine what he might be eating, unless he's after insects in the leaf litter. My understanding is that the pheasants eat mostly grains and berries, but this north wood is regularly flooded at the beginning of summer and really doesn't have many plants at ground level, save for some thin patches of brome. Even without the cover of brush though, I have only to take my eyes away long enough to fetch my binoculars and the pheasant disappears. He is a master of camouflage and stealth. I glass the forest floor and fail to find him again. Then I walk slowly down the levee and through the wood in attempt to track him, and only manage to catch sight of the pheasant again when I'm almost to the river, and a jogger with a large dog runs up along the cutbank and flushes the bird

1416 The jogger, seeing me, stops to ask whether I am taking pictures. When I explain that I was tracking the pheasant he just flushed, the man dismisses it and points me instead upstream, where there is an adult bald eagle perched on a limb overhanging our side of the river. He doesn't consider that the pheasant might be just as interesting to me as the eagle, and I head that way in any case, because trying to relocate the pheasant again would probably be futile now. The river is wide open, just a little bit of ice here and there, and the eagle is perched above the steepest cutbank, where the river is deep. I figure it's there to catch fish, but the eagle's presence also might explain why the aapsspini family is hanging out at the pond rather than here. Of course the eagle spots my approach right away, and though it had allowed the jogger to pass right by it along the levee trail, it takes wing when I make eye contact from a wide distance, and flies off into the forest on the other side of the river

1436 Continuing on, I drop down into the forest main and make my way out to the bulberry patch in the wet meadows, where I keep RyeCam02. Surprisingly, given my two week absence, there are relatively few images on the camera. I download them quickly and move back into the forest in search of a good log to sit on while I view them. I want to sit in the forest cathedral, but the log we usually use there has, almost directly above it, a heavy cottonwood branch that is in the process of breaking off where it meets the tree trunk, and seeing it sway in the heavy winds I decide to look elsewhere. I find an appropriate seat not far away, and there check out the images on a portable viewer I carry. While there weren't many pictures, the ones that had been captured showed me that the bulrush patch has been regularly visited by magpies, coyotes, male pheasants, and whitetail deer. Among the latter, there is at least one doe and two bucks. The younger buck has been injured, perhaps in a fight with the older one. His left antler is broken off near the base, and that side of his face is swollen

1448 I hike through the rest of the forest main toward south-pond fairly quickly and, as a result, with little to note. When I come to the duck blind, I see that the wide south pool is still entirely iced-over, but not with anything thick enough to walk on. In fact, there are large puddles on top of the ice again, being blown across the surface by the wind. The spring at the extreme southeast end of the pond is finally open again to its normal state. I wonder if this means that the river, which feeds it, has risen

1458 I next make a quick round of the owl wood to see if either the kakanottsstookiiksi or raccoons are in their normal winter haunts. Neither are, and soon I'm out by the high-level bridge, following the cutbank north again. Out on the gravel island by the bridge, there is a second aapsspini family with eight members. A bit further downstream, there are two male common mergansers hunting together. When they see me looking at them, they fly away upstream

1508 I'm back on the levee again and just starting to think about how odd it is that I haven't come across any magpies yet, when I begin to hear calls from my favorite corvids a little ways ahead. A few more paces along the trail, and I understand why they've been so scarce... the eagle is back again, and the attention of the magpies is consumed by it. This time, I pretend not to notice the huge bird perched above the river. I look at it only through my peripheral vision and keep moving along the trail. As I close the gap between us, the eagle leans over to keep an eye on me from between the branches. Just like the jogger from earlier, I am able to pass right by it, even snap a few pictures, and it doesn't fly away. All I can think is that the eagle has become accustomed to having mostly oblivious humans pass along this trail, and while it watches with caution it isn't prompted to retreat unless the human demonstrates more awareness

1516 One of the magpies stationed around the eagle follows me to north-pond, and there sets to singing a song for me that I've never heard before (and I know my magpie calls). Though impossible to render in writing, it sounds a bit like, "Wee-Wakee, Wee-Wakee, Wee-Wee-Wakee... Wee-Wakee, Wee-Wakee, Wee-Wee-Wakee." While listening to the song, my mind lingers partially back with the eagle. And by the time the singing is concluded, and the magpie flies off again, I decide not to let the opportunity pass, that I must return to the eagle to try to watch it hunt

1530 The idea is short-lived. I follow the trail again, the one that the eagle's used to seeing humans travel on. There's a bench not far from the perch, and I reason that perhaps the eagle has witnessed some of us sitting there too. So I go to the bench and take a seat, never looking directly at the bird. But I'm only at the bench for thirty seconds before it's had enough, and wings away again across the river. I then re-shoulder my pack and hike back to my vehicle, without another encounter to report

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Thoughts On Forest (18Jan12)

1058 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - Over the last couple of days, we've finally received a touch of winter, a bit of snowfall and a sharp drop in temperature. This morning it is thirty-four below. I struggled to decide whether to come here, to the confluence, or to visit Sspopiikimi. I've been waiting for snow at the pond, so that I could trail the raccoons and find out where they're sleeping this year. The decision was made when I reminded myself that the coons don't come out in this kind of cold anyway, so best direct my attention elsewhere

1105 Worried that my car won't be able to climb back out if I drive into the floodplain downstream, I begin my hike at the coulee rim. Right away, there are tracks crossing and following the trail: a coyote, several white-tailed jackrabbits, and what I'm pretty sure is a deer mouse (though the field guides to mammal tracks that I own are worthless for settling the matter). The latter tracks lead in good distance, following an open trail, from beneath a concrete slab near the parking area, out about fifty meters to some entrances into the subnivian zone, and back again. I do not see anywhere that the mouse has stopped to access food

1121 I'm tempted to follow the coyote tracks, as I have every winter, but I'm very curious about what the western jumping mouse tracks will look like, down on the cliffs above the oxbow willows. So I hike the most direct route straight to the floodplain, my fingers absolutely freezing despite the fact that I'm wearing fishing gloves inside of ski gloves. On my way down, I pass the mule deer, eleven of them grazing low on the coulee slope. They are all does (or does and first-years), thirteen of them divided into families of four, four, and five. This is far fewer issikotoyi than I'm accustomed to seeing along this stretch in the cold season

1136 Once down at the sagebrush flats, I follow the treeline of the forest downstream, passing a porcupine who's eating bark high in a cottonwood tree, and a mountain cottontail sitting still atop a log pile in the chokecherries. Now my hands are warming up, and I'm able to move all of my fingers again. Eventually, I arrive at the cliff area where I had RyeCam03 set-up over the holiday. But to my surprise, there are no small rodent tracks around that I can find. None at the boulder feeding station where I know the jumping mouse to live, and none elsewhere on the cliff that I discover. Perhaps like the raccoons, they too have their limit for cold tolerance. I do, however, spot another cottontail. This one is sitting next to the entrance of a crag between two boulders that I know to be a regularly used shelter. Between this rabbit and the last, it seems clear the sikaaatsisttaa are compelled to be out during daylight in these conditions, feeding just around the entrances of their shelters to keep up their energy

1153 I move off the cliffs and follow the oxbow corridor into the forest, where the only sounds are those of the trees, some of whose branches are cracking explosively in the freeze. There are only deer tracks here, no others, and yet I'm very much immersed in a diverse pool of life. I'm conscious of the very different reality of the plants, large and small, surrounding me. Despite what poets might attempt, there is no analogy to draw between our animal familiarities and theirs, though my mind struggles to do so. The closest I can come is to say that what I see and recognize as "trees" are, crackling around me, are like a cross between the flowery antenna of a nymph and our arms, stripped of all muscle, tendon, and bone. They are circulatory in season, feelers sent toward the light and heat, in part to capture radiance, in part to shed waste. Wood is the shit of the living organism that is a tree. And the true forest is that which fills the earth beneath my feet

1213 A couple weeks ago, I positioned RyeCam03 looking out over a cottonwood that had split at its base and arched softly over a deer path. My hope was to learn what animals might make use of this scenario. I envisioned owls perched on the fallen trunk, awaiting rodents who might follow the clearing of the trail. As I arrive at this site today, a magpie passes above the forest canopy, and I can see no prints in the snow that would indicate anyone had walked or perched here. Aware that I myself am within the camera's range, I quickly shed my backpack and walk out along the tree trunk to download images off the camera trap. It has caught several over the past couple weeks, but because of the cold I'm unable to review them on-site. In these conditions, my portable viewer will download off the SD card, but doesn't have enough battery power to actually pull the images up on its screen

Note: The camera caught several night images of subjects that were out of range. The only animal to use the bent-over tree was the singular indigenous primate to this region... a human being, myself

1232 Continuing my way through the trees upstream, I arrive at the mid-forest meadow. Here, there is bit of activity. First, I roust two whitetail does, who run across the meadow toward the river. Then I hear and see a hairy woodpecker. Her chirps and movements are frantic, as she searches for morsels in the bark of the canopy. There are also two more porcupines here, one of them older and large, spaced far apart, high in cottonwood trees edging the meadow. Both porcupines are sitting upright and very still on their respective branches. I take out my camera to photograph the younger one, and when my nose, which is slowly seeping, touches the camera frame, it immediately freezes and must be torn free. It is certainly cold outside today, I can feel frost on my cheeks. But the human body, large as it is, can easily tolerate these temperatures (given the proper attire). One must either remain in a warmed shelter, or one must move. Once moving, it is not necessary or safe to build up a sweating heat. All it takes is to keep the heart pumping a bit faster than its standing rate

1259 Before leaving the forest, I hear the muted calls of aapsspini, who sound as though they're just passing by, but I check the river just in case. Sure enough, there are at least fifty geese here, just downstream from the confluence itself, lined up along both ice shelves. The river is far more frozen-over today than it has been all winter, but there's still a pretty much unbroken center stream. Before my presence disturbs the geese too much, I climb out onto the sagebrush flats, and enter the hawthorn brush where I keep RyeCam01. Again, I'm able to download, but viewing is out of the question. All I see in the snow around the camera are the tracks of cottontails and pheasants

Note: RyeCam01 caught images of cottontails, female pheasants, magpies, and a raccoon. This is the first passing of a raccoon by this camera in almost a year

1335 I hike up the coulee slope at a shallow grade, following an old service road that is now impassible, washed out in several locations. Usually in winter snow conditions, I would find lots of rodent trails along this route. Today, there are none. My suspicion is that the cold has come so suddenly and severely that they aren't chancing it, but staying warm in their burrows and waiting for the return of relative warmth that is not long to come

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllllllll Last Of Misamiko’komiaato’s (21Jan12)

1139 Sspopiikimi - It is the last day of Misamiko'komiaato's, and it seems our serious (and brief) freeze is over, at least for the next while. The temperature today is six degrees above zero, without significant wind. Mahoney and I starting along the west, passing deer, coyote, and vole tracks in the snow along the shale trail, making our way south so that we can have the Sun at our backs when we enter the forested areas

1153 The pond is frozen over solid, without a single open pocket, for perhaps the first time this winter. As usual, there are many coyote tracks moving across the surface, particularly around the impenetrable ksisskstakioyis (can't blame them for trying). All of the vole tracks we see along the trail are leading between one entrance and another of the subnivian zone, with no apparent stops at food sources between. Now at the south bench, we can see lots of cottontail runs in the currant and bulberry thickets above the peninsula. We've heard (but not seen) a single raven and a few magpies, all rather distant, somewhere upstream and near the coulee rim

1213 We loop down through the owl wood on our way to the river. This bit of forest is particularly quiet today, even the resident downy woodpecker couple seem absent. On the ground, we continue to see coyote and deer tracks in the snow. But we find no evidence of raccoons or rodents, and not surprisingly (given this) the owls remain elsewhere. When we do eventually reach sight of the river, we find it too is more frozen than it has been all season, though there's still a narrow open stream running almost the entire visible length. There are no goldeneyes in this open stream, and no mergansers. I'm very curious as to whether we'll continue to see goldeneyes on the river this winter, after I observed them gathering in larger groups a week or so ago. As we conduct this quick river survey, a flock of ten geese arrive from the stubble field feeding grounds. They land at their usual protective site below the high-level bridge. There is also a single goose couple standing together at the edge of the river stream by the big nesting island. This is the first individual couple we've seen, and as we're moving into the Ka'toyi moon their timing of this behavior is right on schedule. No eagles that we can see today

1241 From there, we drop into the forest main and begin hiking north. The spring is closed over completely again, due to the recent freeze. A little ways into the forest, we begin to encounter chickadees. They are hunting along the cottonwood branches high up in the canopy. Interestingly, they are spaced at fair distances from one another, where usually we find them working in fairly tight groups. Here in the forest main, we are again seeing rodent trails leading between subnivian access points, but still no sign of raccoons or even porcupines. This is not too surprising, I suppose, given the failure of almost all the berries here last summer. The absence of this fruit has meant that several species we're accustomed to finding here in winter are also gone

1300 A couple of magpies fly west over the forest canopy and, as we near the wet-meadows, we hear a pheasant erupt in clucks. It sounds like the pheasant might be in the big bulberry patch where I keep RyeCam02, but when I climb in it's nowhere to be seen. The camera, however, confirms that a male pheasant has been frequenting this brush, passing by almost daily. There is also record of regular visits by magpies, a single pass by a whitetail deer, and a coyote who came on one of the coldest nights. Outside of the brush, on the wet-meadow proper, I find places where coyotes have dug through the snow and moss to expose rodent tunnels, which they no doubt fed from

1320 Between the wet-meadows and our vehicle, we see that the flooding has ceased at north-pond, and we discuss wanting to collect the balsam buds off the large tree that was uprooted by these floods, before the city moves in with their chainsaws to clear it off the path. It sounds as though the magpies we'd seen flying above the forest were in route to something out on the golf course, though we can't see what it is. Perhaps we'll return tomorrow to have another look around

I Scout Bee And Magpie Bath (22Jan12)

1354 Sspopiikimi - It is the first day of the moon cycle Ka'toyi, so Mahoney and I are back at the pond again, excited to walk another round, to look for things we may have missed yesterday, or that have changed since. It's a few degrees colder this afternoon, and the wind has picked up. We're at three degrees above zero, but it feels like maybe ten below

1409 The most immediate and obvious change to note is the degree of snow melt that has occurred. Where we were able to observe all kinds of animal tracks yesterday, the shale trail and most of the grass on either side of it is now completely exposed. The snow has melted off the surface of north-pond to, where there's less hours of shade from the shadow of the coulee. But from the ksisskstakioyis on, the pond remains covered. Some melting has occurred here all the same, so that the coyote and deer tracks observable yesterday are now less defined, round hollows. It appears the coyotes visited overnight too, because there are a couple sets of tracks that are fresh and well-defined. As we near the wide south pool, a magpie in one of the cottonwoods on the golf greens chats back and forth with Mahoney. When it departs, we walk down the peninsula to have a closer look at the fresh coyote tracks, and are currently following them across the pond surface, below the cutbank of the currant and bulberry thickets

1417 Still walking on the pond, winding around the south pool toward the marsh, Mahoney makes a great discovery... there's a honey bee frozen on top of the snow. Since the snow only fell a few days ago, when out temperatures were around thirty below, this bee could have only come out from the hive in the relative (six degree) heat of yesterday. She was probably scouting the bulberry brush to ascertain whether there were flowers yet, but we are still three moons away from that happening. It definitely says something for the kind of winter we're having that the bees would already be sacrificing scouts on the off chance of learning that there are already flowers

[Note: We picked up the bee and brought her home on the off chance that she might not be frozen dead, but had no luck in reviving her]

1431 Passing the spring, which is still frozen over, we climb the levee to look out on the river. There are twelve aapsspini in their usual spot below the high-level bridge. No sign today of any lone couples, nor any eagles or ravens

1457 Our hike north through the forest main is uneventful today, no chickadees, woodpeckers, flickers, or anyone else. Mahoney is curious to learn whether there are any new pictures on the game-cam in the wet-meadows, so I head out that way while she waits on a log back by the forest edge. As I approach the big bulberry patch, a magpie calls out from within. The bird retreats as soon as I enter the brush, but not before calling again, revealing its more precise location at the nest they've used during the past couple seasons. The camera has just one image, that of the magpie taken earlier today. When I crawl through to the nest location, I find that the bulberry bush it's built in has split near the base of heart-rot, and is now bent over at such an angle that the nest itself (though still rather inaccessible due to the thorny branches) is only about three feet off the ground. This will not due. The couple will have to invest the six weeks or more of work to build a new home this year

1511 I rendezvous with Mahoney at the log to share the news about the magpie nest, and from there we walk out of the forest and up on the levee, to the cutbank overlooking the big river island. Out in the open stream on the other side of the island, there are three goldeneyes diving for minnows, two males and one female. While we watch them through binoculars, the kingfisher arrives, flying in chattering from across the river to land on a perch overlooking the very small open crag under the cutbank where they normally nest

1530 I approach the kingfisher with my camera, hoping to settle the matter of it's gender. It is not the same bird as last winter, this one's a male. He doesn't let me anywhere near though. The closer I come toward him, the further he moves away, until finally he flies up over the levee and into the forest main. I figure the game is up, so I turn to start walking away. As I do, the kingfisher flies right up to me, landing on the nearest branch, and scolds me harshly, then repositions himself above the open crag again. Now a second bird soars in from the forest main, and at first I think it might be another kingfisher, but it is a magpie, and it promptly chases the fisher back across the river. Now I think there's nothing left to see, and so I rejoin Mahoney a little ways downriver (where we first spotted the kingfisher in flight), and together we head toward the north wood. But no sooner do we reach the edge of the treeline than we hear the magpie back at the crag start calling, and this prompts three other magpies to fly immediately out of the north wood to meet it. The call is also responded to by two magpies across the river, who glide over to join the aggregation, and all six of them sound off with stuccato calls. They're not alarms, we're fluent enough in magpie to know that, but they do register excitement. Mahoney and I suspect we must have missed some other animal hidden over there, so we turn around and rush back. To our surprise, we arrive at the cutbank directly above the birds just in time to witness their communal bath. The magpies have selected a spot on the downriver end of the open crag which affords them an ice foothold under a few inches of river water. One by one, they take turns hopping in for a splash. For us, it's a beautiful sight, and it makes so much sense. Our magpie Derrick at home, who is consanguineally related to these birds, also likes to bathe in the evening, and demands our company to do so. What better time to cleanse than after a day of rummaging around for food, especially if you've been ripping and tearing at a carcass somewhere

1544 When the magpies finish their bath and disperse again in different directions, we head off toward our vehicle. As we walk, a family of coyotes erupts in yelps and howls up on the coulee rim. Between the scout honeybee and the communally bathing corvids, this has been the most interesting and satisfying visit to the pond this winter. I'm very glad we came