03 April 2012

Sa'aiki'somm Begins

II Kaayii (22Mar12)

1130 Sspopiikimi - First visit of Sa'aiki'somm, the Duck Moon. The temperature has dropped again This morning we woke up to snow, but none of it has stuck. Mahoney and I are out to make a round and check on the nesting progress of the aapsspiniiksi

1138 North-pond is a bit more quiet than it has been recently. There are three aapsspini couples here, plus a yearling. There's also two 'pairs' of mi'ksikatsi drakes. I've not really paid attention to the mallards behaving like this in prior years. I'm used to seeing groups of drakes a bit later in the season, but not obvious coupled partnerships like I'm observing now. Everything I've ever witnessed among the mi'ksikatsi leads me to believe they are the most complexly cultured of the ducks

1144 Moving up the levee and out to the river cutbank, we spot only three aapsspini couples out on the big island. It's possible that they're already caching eggs. For some reason I've never sorted out, the geese on the river are always several days or more ahead of those at the neighboring pond. Could be as simple a matter as having more exposure to sunlight. The wide south pool, where most of them nest on the pond, is under coulee shadow most of the day. It makes sense, and yet I don't trust this answer. Each nesting area I follow in the region keeps a predictably different start time, though all are within a matter of weeks of each other

Also at the river is a lone mi'ksikatsi drake, drifting nervously (because of our presence) in the oxbow stream on our side of the big island. We've seen several magpies stopping along the shorelines. All have departed now, and I wasn't able to discriminate whether they were gathering mud for their nest bowls, or picking recently emerged stoneflies off the rocks

1158 Rather than cutting straight into the forest main, as usual, we decide to walk the levee out to the duck blind and wide south pool. Like north-pond, the scene here has changed. Today, there are just two aapsspini couples in the pool, and a third in the subpond. Most of the birds here are mi'ksikatsiiksi... three couples in the pool, one in the subpond, and eight drakes paired off. A male wigeon has finally arrived to join the female who's been here the last week or so. Still no sign of the larger wigeon group who always stopped off in prior years

1211 While we scope out the wide pool, I hear two familiar voices in the air, coming from upstream near the high level bridge. One is that of a raven, who's probably following the train tracks with a partner. The other, a lone ring-billed gull, appears and passes far overhead. This is the first gull I've seen at the pond for this season, and it serves as a reminder to me... if there were egg caches on the big river island, there would be more of these ring-bills around. Like with so many events this winter, I'm early and anxious. It's been so warm, I expect the animals and plants to respond sooner too, but they're not. In the years we've been monitoring, it never fails that Easter (the first full moon after the equinox) is when most of the geese are laying eggs. That's still a couple weeks away

1224 Before leaving the duck blind, we see a group of seven mamia'tsikimiiksi glide down from one of the coulee draws to land on the peninsula. There's something there they're eating, and we'll definitely check it out, but first we want to survey a bit on the wet meadows

By now, the status of the geese is pretty obvious. My biggest question at this point is why there are so few here today. We walk past the subpond couple, just to confirm. They're not leaving, which means the egg caching isn't far away. But they also give us enough distance that it's clear there are no eggs yet

We make our way to the ksisskstakioyis too, and I'm surprised to see the two island couples who've been a constant here the last few visits are absent. They'll return, I'm sure. Probably out feeding on stubble fields  somewhere. Maybe they too recognized that, with the early thaw, they were jumping the gun a bit

1253 We stop by the big bulberry patch on our way off the wet meadows, to change the batteries in my camera trap. Then, as we hike south again through the forest main, the wind kicks up, and snow begins to fall

We continue to the end of the forest, around the south pool, and down onto the peninsula to learn what the magpies have been eating here. It turns out to be a cottontail. Hard to say how it came to be dead here. The front end of the carcass is missing, and if coyotes had caught it they usually eat the back end first. Yet the dead rabbit would be hard to explain otherwise. Perhaps it was victim to a coyote with eclectic tastes

1304 We make our way out along the shale trail of the west length, with increasing wind and snow in our faces. Toward midpond, we notice the mamia'tsikimi group amassed at another position, right beside the trail. This time, when we arrive at the location, it's difficult to tell what they were after. Our suspicion is that they stopped to eat some canine droppings, which says something about the amount of food available right now. These magpies are our final encounter before reaching the car

IIII ) llll Scavenging Water Beetle (28Mar12)

1446 Sspopiikimi - Pulled in about an hour ago, and just wrapped a very quick survey. This morning I woke up in Medicine Hat, having given a presentation for the Grasslands Naturalists last night. After breakfast, I drove straight back to Sikoohkotoki, and felt I needed to stop at the pond before going home. I'm really anxious for the aapsspini nesting to begin, almost paranoid that I'm going to somehow be late for the egg caches, even though I know they're not usually there until the full moon following the equinox. But like an obsessive-compulsive, I have to go look anyway

Thus, over the last hour or so, I've made a thorough search of six definitely goose-claimed nest sites. All the couples are here, some sticking more tightly to their plots than others. None, however, have begun caching. I did not wade out to the big river island, though I was prepared to, because there are still only three couples settled out there, and I expect five-times as many when the eggs are actually being laid

We seem to have our established body of mallards at this point. There are six mi'ksikatsi couples on the pond today (about average for nesters here), plus a few drake partners, and two more breeding pairs near the river island. The single wigeon couple are also still lingering at south pond, but no sign yet of any other waterfowl arrivals, not even mohkammii (the great blue herons) who I saw yesterday at the Fincastle Reservoir rookery

The big phenological events of the day for Sspopiikimi - or the most obvious, given how quickly I made my round - is the presence of kaayiiksi (ring-billed gulls) at the wide south pool, and thousands of tiny scavenging water beetles in the air around north-pond. They're about the same size as a ladybug, but without the bad taste. I know, because the male robins tipped me off to a little puddle where a lot of these beetles were landing, then wading back out to dry their wings, and it made for easy plucking and munching. In addition to the ones I ate on site, I collected about two-dozen for Derrick and Keira (homecoming gifts). I saw these same beetles at Fincastle yesterday, so it's fairly safe to assume they're out in abundance right now all over the region, and definitely around lakes and ponds

IIII ) llllllll Mourning Doves, Tiger Beetles, And Loopers (1Apr12)

1337 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - After yesterday's calm summer-like warmth, the temperature dropped and strong winds arrived overnight. These winds have continued into this afternoon, and it's just uncomfortable enough that I almost didn't come out. To avoid some of the struggle, I've parked in the riverbottom downstream from the floodplain I want to survey. As strong as the gusts are down here, they're at least twice as brutal on the coulee rim. I'm not feeling up to the challenge of climbing in these conditions today, but I do want to see what's new out here

1358 Making my way toward the river confluence, I hike along the base of the sandstone cliffs where, not long ago, I'd been surveying the activities of sagebrush voles and western jumping mice. One of the last times I walked this route, on a relatively warm day during the moon Ka'toyi, I'd observed the early emergence of bluebottle flies, and the thin-legged wolf spiders who were hunting them. Both species are still here today, seven weeks or so later, behaving the same as when I'd seen them last, as if not a day had been lost in between

There is a raven flying near-to and following the coulee rim, probably searching for the rock doves who inhabit these cliffs in small numbers. Out on the river, where it bends sharp at the old beaver lodge, there are two ring-billed gulls floating over a shallow gravel bed. I suspect they're looking for crawdads and freshwater clams, though both retreat upstream before I can confirm

1411 When I reach the riverbend and the mouth of the (dry) oxbow, I follow the edge zone between sandbar willows and the sandstone cliff, and here I begin to encounter some of the insects that always emerge during this moon. The first is the black-morph cowpath tiger beetle, who I expect to see mating already. They probably got a start on it yesterday, but today's winds might pose an obstacle. Several of them lift off the ground in retreat as I walk along. Then, closer to where the willows meet the forest treeline, I see my first clover looper moth of the year. In another week or so, they should become abundant

1426 Continuing to follow the oxbow corridor through the forest, I at first hear only the familiar voices of starlings, flickers, and black-capped chickadees. But then a pair of mourning doves appear. They are picking around in the chokecherries. And as I stop to watch them, a mourning cloak butterfly flutters close to my face. I saw my first mourning cloak of the season a couple weeks ago, but that was under different conditions. I had been turning logs on the wet-meadows of Sspopiikimi, and just happened to find one of the butterflies newly transformed. It's antenna weren't even out yet. This one fluttering by today marks the real emergence

1457 The rest of the way through the forest, upstream to the confluence, I'm scanning the trees for this year's owl nest. The resident kakanottsstooki couple has really eluded me this time around, abandoning the old hawk nest by the mid-forest meadow

At one point as I'm walking, I notice that the deer trails have all shifted to the other side of the oxbow corridor. It seems strange, because there aren't any obstacles on my side, like fallen trees or jams of driftlogs. Just as I'm considering this, and still scanning high for owl nests, I catch sight of something below me in my peripheral vision. It's a huge bald-faced hornet nest from last summer, anchored to a small bit of buckbrush, and almost sitting on the ground. This is obviously why the deer chose to go around

Coming to the end of the forest, I climb up through a thick stand of chokecherries, where I know there to be a well-established magpie nest. It's still looking good, but the resident couple are nowhere around, and so I suspect they too have rebuilt elsewhere this year

Not far from the chokecherries is the little strip of hawthorn along a draw where I keep one of my camera traps. It's been about three weeks since I last downloaded images off it, and in that time it's taken about five hundred pictures. The vast majority are nocturnal shots of cottontails and deer mice, but there are also some daytime images of coyotes, magpies, pheasants and robins. Nobody unexpected. I've kept a camera at this location for almost a year now. It may be time to think about moving it to a completely new site... perhaps even across the river, to the older forests less accessible to recreational hikers

1543 Just before crawling back out of the hawthorns, I'm visited by an insect I did not expect to see. It's a new one for me, tiny, delicate, mantis-like, and orange... a damsel bug [according to my research later in the evening]

Then I make my return journey through the forest, this time taking an alternate route nearer the river proper, and again scanning the trees for owl nests. I don't find any. However, the walk is not without its rewards. At one point, I come upon a juvenile bald eagle, perched in one of the cottonwoods overlooking the willows and river. And just beyond the eagle, there are two porcupines, both sleeping soundly in the branches of the forest canopy

1601 The river itself is a bit more exciting on my return along the sandstone cliffs. When I initially arrive, I can hear the calls of soyottakska, a killdeer, on the wide gravel bar of the opposite shore. This is the first to return to either of my sites for the season. There's a pair of geese on that other shore as well, a bit downstream. And further beyond them, a lone miisa'ai drake

There's also forest on the opposite bank from the cliffs, and as I walk along I glass the trees for nests. There is one large nest that would be perfect for the kakanottsstookiiksi, but they're not there. While I'm conducting this survey, gliding along the coulee rim just above me (and making an extra pass to see what I'm about) is a gorgeous redtail hawk

1632 Finally I arrive back at my vehicle. Just as I'm loading my pack into the truck, and preparing to climb behind the wheel myself, I could swear I hear the songs of a meadowlark. Others have already spotted the first meadowlarks of the season at their sites, but not me. I start up the car and drive out of the coulee, then follow a fenceline along the rim in search of the song's source, but no luck. Could be the bird was down a bit lower on some skunkbrush. Oh well, something to look forward to for my next visit