19 March 2012

Concluding Piitaiki'somm

IIII ) llllllllllllllll Early Mourning Cloak (10Mar12)

0827 Sspopiikimi - Woke up this morning just itching to survey the pond

I was here two days ago, shortly after dawn, for a filming session with a couple guys from the National Film Board who are working on a water documentary. Tatsikiistamik advised them to interview me, and I figured Sspopiikimi would be the best site for it, since this is where I do most of my learning. Unfortunately, we were pressed for time, because I had another meeting to attend, so I didn't get to take them along on a full round. We taped in front of the ksisskstakioyis, and I told them the story of how Mahoney and I began our phenology studies, through the challenge to collect waterfowl eggs. The geese, for their part, cooperated perfectly. At one point, the guys wanted to shoot me walking along the shale trail of the west length. As I did so, one of the geese followed, waddling north on the ice for the entire stretch, keeping parallel with me, and as close as she could get without coming ashore. This bird has probably known me her whole life, and if I were there under different conditions, I would have shown her serious attention. So that was one point of frustration for me. A second point came as I was making my way out. With only ten minutes to spare before my scheduled meeting, I stopped in the parking lot to talk with naturalist Ken Orich, who was just pulling in. As we exchanged some quick notes, I spotted a long-tailed weasel leaping into some nearby absinthe scrub. I pointed out the spot to Ken, so he could search it out, but I had to run, and this was the first long-tailed weasel I've ever seen at the pond

Needless to say, I've been dying to return, and this morning is the first opportunity. The temperature right now is right around zero, but things will be warming up soon

0832 As I come within view of pond, it's clear that the big melt-off is underway. There are now significant open pools all the way along. In the pool where I'm at, in north-pond, there are presently three aapsspini couples, as well as three mi'ksikatsi (one drake with two ducks). Further south, at midpond, I can see another mi'ksikatsi couple in a pool by the ksisskstakioyis, and two more aapsspini pairs on the wet-meadows nearby

0845 I start off hiking the shale trail along thewest length, passing a magpie who's sitting with five or six starlings in one of the large cottonwoods on the golf greens. I've noticed that the starlings of Sikoohkotoki are especially fond of singing wigeon calls, and as I listen to them this morning I'm reminded that the wigeons should be passing through at Sspopiikimi any day now. We usually have a group that stops here. I recognize them as the same clan every year because they have one eurasian member with them. They don't stick around, but they're usually here at least a week or so before moving on

Coming to south-pond, I find five more aapsspini couples grazing on the wet-meadows. There are more islands exposed in the wide pool now than in the two previous years, so I'm predicting more aapsspini couples will be nesting here than usual. The bigger question this time around will be whether misamssootaa, the long rains, continue to be extended beyond their norm. I was told that they have always lasted between four and fourteen days. But last year, they went on for something more like six weeks, completely submerging the islands as well as the entire wet-meadows through most of the summer. I also think this is why we had so few berries, as the flowers had just started blooming when the rains began. The change, I suspect, is related to the global warming trend and climate shift

I stop off at the south-pond bench to scan the wide pool and see if there's anything else to note. Nothing phenological that grabs my eye. There is, however, a new feature here. Attached to the metal wall of the nearby trash bin, I notice a wide, shallow box wrapped almost completely in black duct tape, with just a small rectangular window revealing the tin beneath. My curiosity immediately kicks in. Mahoney and I turned a log once in the forest main and found a geocache hidden beneath. I'm wondering if this box is not something similar. It comes off the trash bin fairly easily, having been held in place by magnets. Someone went through a lot of trouble to fashion it for this place. In order to open it though, I have to remove some of the black tape. Before doing so, I give it a little shake. Nothing moves inside, it feels light and empty. Confident that I'm not dealing with a bomb, I remove the tape from three edges of the lid and open it up to reveal... the box is a home-made pinhole camera. The only thing inside is a sheet of photo-paper, taped to the bottom, and revealing a long exposed shot of the Sun's path through the sky. Now I feel stupid and inconsiderate. Had I looked more closely at the little window, I would have seen the pinhole and figured it out. For me, it is a reminder of our cultural compulsion to seek quick answers through intrusive means. I close the lid again, tape it back up, return the box to its place on the trash bin, and hope I haven't caused too much damage. I need to take this as a lesson, and avoid jumping so quickly to intrusive methods in the future. I need to be patient and willing to exhaust potentials for careful observation and consideration of the consequences first

0917 From the south-pond bench, I can hear familiar voices. There's a pheasant somewhere near the duck blind, across the wide pool from me, and another in the owl wood. More interesting though are the voices I hear coming from the coulee slope behind the golf greens. House finches, I'm sure of it

Since the course isn't open yet, I decide to trespass across the greens and climb up alongside the brush-filled draw below the flat I call the coyote playground. This brush is where the voices are coming from, and sure enough they're house finches, about two dozen of them newly returned from migration. There are also niipomakii here, and I see a single male robin. I'm not the only one attracted to the sounds of these birds. A white coyote approaches the brush just as I do, but from the opposite side of the draw. She's close enough that I figure she could maneuver her way to me in a matter of very few seconds. When she notices that I'm there too, she stops in her tracks and looks behind her, then back at me. Then, surprisingly enough, she sits calmly down on her haunches, so I follow her lead and do the same. The two of us sit like this for about five minutes, watching the birds together. Then she stands, looks over her shoulder again, and turns to climb the ridge behind her, soon disappearing from sight

0935 Moving on, I descend the slope again and hike over to the owl wood, where I can hear calls from mi'kaniki'soyi, the flicker. It's warming up nicely, and I have to remove my wool hat and thin gloves. The owls aren't here, they're nesting elsewhere, same as last year. By the sounds of it though, the starlings are getting an early start. I can hear them calling from inside one of the flicker cavities, the kind of calls I associate with mating

0957 In the owl wood, I begin to come across active insects... first a scout honeybee, then a greenbottle fly. I continue to see the same two species when I go over the levee and into the forest main. Their presence has me excited both about the season ahead, and about who I might find under the wet-meadow logs today

Fairly hurrying out onto the meadow, and turning one of the larger logs on the south end, I'm not disappointed. There are far fewer insects under this log than in previous years, owing I think to the floods of last summer. A really conspicuous absence is the lack of various beetle species who normally winter here - the rove beetles, sidewalk and granulated carabids. But who I am greeted with is the first butterfly of the year, a mourning cloak. She's gripping the log and keeping her wings closed, probably having only recently pupated. In addition, there are several fuzzy moth larvae here. They're about the same size as saltmarsh moth larvae, but darker in fur. I'll have to try again to dig-up a solid identification

1020 I lift a few more boards and logs as I move toward the bulberry patch. None of them have anything so exciting as an emerging butterfly, but I do find a pair of water striders and a large cocoon. I haven't brought any containers with me, or I'd take the cocoon home to see who comes out of it

Once at the bulberries, I set down my bag and climb in through a coyote-height tunnel. My camera trap here hasn't been checked for a couple weeks, and I wish I'd gotten to it sooner. In one of the early frames, a porcupine can be seen walking straight toward the lens. In the next three shots, it climbs right over top of the camera, shifting its focus away from the trail completely. After the porcupine, I have several pictures of thick brush, with who knows what passing behind

Rather than simply shifting the lens back in the right direction, I decide to move the camera entirely, setting it up in a different part of the bulberries, where it looks like the animals have cleared a sizable chamber. I then hike out through the forest main toward the levee, flushing a whitetail deer along the way

1045 I move on to the river where, for the first time in quite a while, there are no aapsspini to be seen around the big island. I can see one pair downstream, by the highway bridge, and several others upstream at the high-level bridge, but none on the island at all. Also absent are the eagles, ravens, and goldeneyes who've been fairly constant all winter. There are a few mallards on the water when I first come into view, but they quickly take wing. I walk down to the shoreline by the edge of the north wood, expecting to find insects scurrying among the cobbles. There are none, not even the isocapnia stoneflies I've been expecting to appear

1055 From the river, I hike through the north wood, over the levee, and through what remains of the absinthe field post pipeline construction. I am half hoping to encounter the weasel I'd spotted on my way out the other day. It was still bright winter white, but I can feel the season closing, and the new life ready to burst forth. There will be more and more residents emerging everyday now from here out

IIII ) lllllllllllllllll Diving Beetle Emergence (11Mar12)

1437 Sspopiikimi - Back again, with heavier winds, but still very comfortable temperatures, and a few tentative agenda items to attend. I'd like to check on the ant hives, for instance, to see who's all awake. I may try to locate this year's owl and magpie nests. Also... and I don't know how realistic this would be... I've been imagining following one of the honeybee scouts, to ascertain their nest location, and thereby avoid any interference with it through the season to come

1449 Of course, when seeking to learn unobtrusively from nature, all agendas must be kept loose at best. Coming within sight of north-pond, which is almost entirely ice-free, I'm ready to discard all my plans. There's more important things going on that I should direct my attention to. The water here is filled with aapsspini, thirty-five of them, almost all separated as couples. There's also two mi'ksikatsi pairs, and a lone female American wigeon. All are feeding or simply floating. More interestingly though, the mamia'tsikimiiksi are here, three of them, paying a lot of attention to the mud banks at the pond's edge. It's a bit too early for them to be shaping the mud bowls for their nests. Right now, most that I’ve been monitoring are still gathering sticks. It must be they're eating some newly emerged insect, and I'm going to have to check it out

1459 Yes, leave it to the magpies to tip me off to the latest phenological event. The muddy banks of the pond are teeming with mid-sized diving beetles, some of which shuttle off into the water at my approach, others opting to take flight. It is indeed nearing the time of year when I often find these beetles slowly dragging themselves along the ground at various distances from water. I don’t know enough about their natural history to understand why they would bother leaving the pond, but I suppose their travels keep the genetic pool mixed-up nicely. The adults are, as the magpies attest, edible. And though I haven’t mustered the courage to try any of them myself, similar predacious diving beetles are – like the giant water bug, which I also haven’t tasted – eaten by members of several cultures around the world

Leaving the beetles to their doings, I climb back up the bank and directly to one of the larger thatching ant hives. There are some active and outside, just as I’d suspected there would be. As I’m checking on them, two scout bees conduct exploratory fly-bys of my body. They zoom off at such a rate that I relinquish any notions of my ability to follow them

1523 The mamia’tsikimiiksi, who had taken off when I went to investigate the shoreline, are encountered again at the extreme end of north-pond, where they are again munching diving beetles. Noting my scrutiny, they fly up over the levee and drop into the north wood, and I follow, still on the lookout for any of their new nests or the location of the owls. I find neither, and end up eventually at the river cutbank on the other side of the wood, looking out over the big island. Surprisingly, there are just two pairs of aapsspini on the island today. Everyone else, it seems, is back at the pond

1545 From the river, I drop down into the forest main and make my way toward the wet meadows, stopping along the way to check the slave ant hives. No action there. Then, once out on the meadows proper, I turn a few logs, not finding much. There are several fast-moving little spiders, and I take the cocoon that I’d spotted yesterday

At the bulberry brush, I decide to go ahead and check the camera again, though it’s only been a day set up at the slightly new location. There are a number of images already, all of them showing magpies. It makes me wonder if they’re going to try to use the old nest from last year, even though the bush that it’s attached to is fallen over, leaving the nest just a few feet off the ground

1554 Continuing on with my wet-meadow log-turning, I soon come across one of the most splendid mouse houses I’ve ever seen… a cozy bundle of moss, grass, and cottony seeds, its entrance perfectly lined with cottontail fur. I peek inside with my flashlight, but there’s nobody home. Back behind this house, under the same log, and separated by a small burm of soil, is the mouse’s washroom space, with a good collection of droppings attesting to how long the period of occupancy has been

Setting the log back in its place and moving another fifty meters or so, I come across a large shed whitetail antler. This I take back and place close to the mouse log as an offering. I’m sure the little guy would love to nibble at this antler within diving distance of sure safety

1612 Arriving at the duck blind, the wide south pool looks much like north-pond in terms of activity. There are, by my count, twenty aapsspini here, most of them in pairs, and eight mi’ksikatsi

1635 While at the south end, I decide to walk around the perimeter of the owl wood, surveying again for the nests of kakanottsstookiiksi and mi’ksikatsiiksi. It is no use. I don’t know where the owls have gone but, as for the magpies, I suspect they’re building in the dense chokecherry stands along some of the coulee draws

Coming full circle again to the wide south pool, there’s a bit of goose tension. A family of seven members are, for some unknown reason, purposely stirring things up. They are swimming up to each couple occupying the islands and bullying their way across. This doesn’t play out well at the island nearest the mouth of the pool, whose occupants are, I believe, the Gosling Couple. This is the most aggressive pair of aapsspini on the pond, and they stand their ground just fine even against seven. In fact, they send the intruders scrambling

1643 Just about back to the vehicle now. The wind has picked up, and there are now far fewer insects around than there were earlier. I have no further encounters to report. But I did notice, coming through the bulberry patch above the peninsula, that the flower buds now have that vivid, lively look to them. If we have a few more warm days, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them start opening already

IIII ) lllllllllllllllllllll The Unfortunate Snagging Of A Muskrat (15Mar12)

1230 Sspopiikimi - Bit of a traumatic morning. I went out to the pond after dropping Mahoney off at work, hoping to get a jump on the apaksskioomiiksi (northern pike). I want to get a good supply of fish over the summer, and can't think of a more beneficial way to do it than in catching some of the larger predators at Sspopiikimi before the goslings and ducklings are born

With the ice having melted, the aapsspiniiksi are already very near to caching eggs. I'll have to monitor them closely from here out. Today, there were twelve pairs on the pond, and plenty of islands to go around. Still, the territorial battles have begun. I witnessed several fights between ganders while attending to the fish. There are also four or five mi'ksikatsi couples hanging around the pond, but they're more skittish, and fly away when I'm around

Unfortunately, just as during this transition between seasons last year, it doesn't seem the apaksskioomiiksi are all to interested in eating. I walked along the shoreline tossing and reeling-in the spoons they rarely resist, and didn't get even one strike. Then, along the shore of the wide south pool, I noticed a dead turtle tucked up in a little inlet to one of the muskrat burrows. I pulled the turtle out, and examined it. The shell had already been gnawed through in several places, and all the appendages (head, legs, and tail) had been eaten out, but there was still some flesh and organs deep inside. I though that maybe, if the apaksskioomiiksi were too dormant yet to chase after spoons, a drifting bit of rancid turtle meat might do the trick

I quickly set myself up, sapping spoon for hook, putting just a tiny weight near on the line, to sink the meat. Since I didn't have a bobber with me, I rigged up a natural float using a couple inches of cattail stem. Ready to go, I cast the bait out a ways, waited patiently as it drifted back in with the wind. Cast again, waited. Cast a third time, and suddenly a muskrat surfaced near my line. It swam straight to and over top of my bit of reed float. When I didn't see the cattail appear again in its wake, I slowly started to reel things in. Sure enough, the hook had caught in the muskrat's hind foot, and now I had a squirming mammal at the end of my line

Because it did not break away immediately, I though maybe we'd end up eating barbecued muskrat tonight. I held the pole and dug into my backpack for a small crowbar I could use to inflict the necessary crack on the head. I didn't really want to kill the muskrat, nor did I want to inflict a serious injury and just leave the animal to suffer. With crowbar in hand, I slowly guided the muskrat toward the shore at my feet. Then, just as things were about to get brutal, the muskrat dove into the same little inlet I'd taken the turtle from, and climbed up into a burrow with my hook still securely attached. I don't know how my line remained intact through the pulling and thrashing, but it did

Crouched beside the burrow entrance, I kept things tight and waited. When the muskrat refused to come back out, I held the line with one hand and started digging toward the animal with the other. Soon I had an exposed tail, and then the leg. The hook had gone through part of the muskrat's foot, and the damage looked to be no worse than a piercing. But how to get the hook out without either causing more damage or being bitten? I had no idea. Finally, I just grabbed the hook and pulled it down, away from the wound. At the same time, the muskrat made its own move, tore free and dove out past me. I hope it has enough self-doctoring instinct to ensure the puncture doesn't become infected and debilitating. I guess next time I'll react differently to start... If a muskrat appears to be going after your fishing bait, it probably is. Get the hook back to shore and out of reach as quick as possible, or prepare to eat muskrat for dinner

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Isocapnia… Finally (18Mar12)

1406 Sspopiikimi - We're heading toward the close of Piitaiki'somm, and recently the temperatures have cooled. This afternoon it's just above freezing. Still, for the acclimatized, it's comfortable. I'm out with just a sweater, sandals, and buff. No need for a toque

Yesterday, we had the first of our end-of-winter snow flurries... wet, sticky snow attempting to be Makoyisttsomo'ki (the Wolf Cap). We've had such a warm winter, most of it melted as soon as it touched down. A second round is coming this evening, the clouds already beginning to meld into grey stratus

It appears as though the pipeline construction has been completed, at least down here. They've sprayed that (practically neon) green seed paint all over the areas where soil was disturbed, including along parts of the shale trail by north-pond. I suppose it'll be monocrop brome in those places now

1409 Not wanting to disturb any migrating ducks who might be around, having dropped in from last night's snow, I don't raise my head up over the cutbank until I get to the farthest end of north-pond. There's nobody unexpected on the water: seven pairs of aapsspini, plus a yearling, and one mi'ksikatsi couple with an oddball (likely young) drake. There's also a muskrat swimming near the old shore lodge of the ksisskstaki, and a lot more ice than there was only a few days ago

Among the waterfowl, two aapsspini couple seem more staked-out for nesting territories than the others. There's no islands here for them, but I suspect they'll use the wet meadows, as in past years. Hopefully they don't try nesting on the plastic dock that was installed last summer. I can't express how tempted I am to pull that eyesore apart and get it out of here

1430 From north-pond, I climb over the levee and out to the river. There are four aapsspini couples laying claim to nesting territories on the big island here, though I suspect at least triple as many once things really get underway. The big news though is that the awaited Isocapnia stone flies are finally making their appearance on the shoreline rocks, and there are both magpies and downy woodpeckers there to feast on them. If I don't see anything else of phenological interest today, these stoneflies will have made the visit well worthwhile. For me, their appearance is a measure of personal success. I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me, but it's always rewarding to have confirmation when I can successfully predict at least one more event in the annual cycle

1443 Leaving the river, I pass through the forest main and out onto the wet meadows to check my camera trap in the bulberry brush. Unfortunately, it seems to have run out of batteries a few days ago. The images it did catch show a heavy mamia'tsikimi (long-tail or magpie) presence, and indeed there is a small base of sticks near one of the old orbs to suggest they're building a new nest. There have also been repeated visits from a male aotahkaaokayis (orange-breast or robin), a sign of the season

Out on the wet-meadows nearby, there is a pair of aapsspini conspicuously standing their ground, and so I approach them after finishing my work the bulberries. The couple do move out onto the water, which means they haven't begun caching eggs yet. The surest sign of such activity is when they will stay near, despite the threat I present

There is also an aapsspini couple standing fairly firm on the little island the ksisskstakiiksi created in front of their lodge. With the water so low, the beavers have had to trench out the bottom of the pond near their entrance, and all the mud and stone is piled up (and likely scented) nearby. This aapsspini pair are going to nest on the little island, I'm sure of it. Mahoney and I are familiar with this couple, and they usually use the bulrush flotilla left behind from the ksisskstaki winter food cache. But given that it's an unanchored flotilla (this year having already been pushed against the shoreline by the wind), their nest almost always fails. Not this year. Finally they will have a firm and fairly unreachable platform

1451 Moving south from the ksisskstakioyis, I encounter two aapsspini couples on the wet-meadows near the subpond canal (now dry), a third pair in the subpond proper, and five more couples in the wide south pool. Also in south-pond today are two mi'ksikatsi pairs, plus six drakes who are traveling as partnered couples, and the lone female wigeon. I don't know what's happened to the flock of wigeons who usually stop here. It's unlikely I could have missed them completely. If they don't return here this year, I can only assume something happened to them. I don't think they could have all been taken by hunters. More likely, in that event, to conjecture they've fallen victim to an industrial massacre of some sort... oil spill, frack fluid leak, Walmart parking lot, what have you

1455 I stop for a break at the duck blind. Everything is still fairly peaceful here. The big aapsspini battles haven't begun as yet. I'm looking forward to observing the behaviors of one pair in particular, those we call the Gosling Couple. It appears they have reoccupied the little island where they nested five years ago (that had been sunk in more recent years), right at the mouth of the wide south pool. Of all the animals at Sspopiikimi, this pair of geese have been our greatest teachers. They are the elders of the pond, and the goose herself the current matriarch of the Sspopiikimi matrilocal goose clan. Judging by behavioral nuances, Mahoney and I believe the 'husbands' are recruited in. Their behaviors range widely, while their wives have far more in common

The Gosling Couple are special for many reasons, not least of which being that they are the only pair who are absolutely safe from the egg predation we commit for our ceremonies. Both the goose and gander are absolutely willing to trade their lives for the protection of their eggs. And for that reason, five years ago, they were the only successful nesters (hence their name). That year, Mahoney and I sat on the banks and monitored them almost every evening throughout the incubation. When the hatching began, all the waterfowl and aquatic mammals gathered around the island to witness the occasion. It was the one and only time the gander allowed them near, and the first to pip faced us directly for a full day

We lost track of the first little yellow fluff-ball born that year, but the gosling couple never forgot about us. Ever since, the gander has used us blatantly as a component of his nest defense. Whenever we are near during the incubation period, he strategically positions himself to chase potential threats toward us. Often, they are so preoccupied with his violent charge that they don't even see us until the last second, and then they go into complete panic. This gives the gander exactly the edge he needs to convince them that passing by his nesting area is a very, very bad idea

1517 The 'ki-ki-ki' calls of male mi'kaniki'soyiiksi (red-wing-feathers or flickers) call me away from the duck blind. I've not seen or heard any of the territorial jousts of these birds this year, but they must be underway. I walk the perimeter of the owl wood, where one of the flickers is calling from. I can't help but glass the old nest and roosting tree of the kakanottsstooki (meager-ears or great horned owl) couple, even though I know they won't be here

When I get to the west end of the owl wood, I hike up one of the brush-lined coulee draws to check for mamia'tsikimi oyiiyiistsi. I know this year's magpie nests are being worked on here somewhere. It frustrates me that I haven't confirmed the locations. The draw I climb has the most bulberry bushes, and so is a likely magpie location. But my search of the brush produces nothing

I decide to climb the next ridge north, so that I can descent through another draw to continue my search. Along the way, I notice a smattering of emerging green... there are sporadic grass shoots, the first leaves of absinthe, and basal rosettes of sooyaiaiihtsi (three-flowered avens). Still no musineon, crocus, or moss phlox flowers though. But then again, they're not really expected yet, I'm just anxious

1528 The next draw north holds a ribbon of chokecherry and saskatoon, but still no magpie nests. They're probably one more draw over, below the coyote playground. My climbing legs are too shot to check today. With the melt of yesterday's snow, the slopes are incredibly slick. Believe it or not, the mud gives me more traction than the grass. I have several near-falls on my way down, and kind of tweek my knee as a result. Best practice is to go with the fall rather than resist it, but nobody ever does that, and I'm no exception

1546 Once at the base of the slope again, I continue down onto the peninsula. The kingfisher's here, the one who over-wintered. He flies off chattering in his usual fashion at my intrusion. I've brought my telescoping fishing rod with me, in one of the pockets of my backpack, and I take it out to give a few casts. The pike aren't eating yet, but for both dietary and phenological reasons I really want to know when they start. I'll continue to test for them every visit from here out

1555 The hike back along the shale trail to my car is without further event. It'll probably be another four days or so before I can return, but I'm glad to have seen the stoneflies before the moon disappears