18 April 2012

Wood Ducks, Wigeons, And Goose Eggs

IIII ) lllllllllllll Iimaohkominniiksiiniiksi (6Apr12)

1520 Sspopiikimi - I just can't stay away. This is my third visit in the last two days, and I'm excited to be here because, with the advent of the full moon following the equinox, the aapsspini are finally laying their eggs

1523 In addition to the advent of goose eggs, there is another event that always coincides with the full moon of Sa'aiki'somm, and that is the return of the male iimaohkominniiksiiniiksi (redwing-blackbirds). Even yesterday, they hadn't arrived yet. But earlier this morning, the wet-meadows were filled with their calls. Right now, with light snow falling, they are quiet again... but they are here

I come in at north-pond. The resident aapsspini and mi'ksikatsi couples are present, but neither has an egg cache yet, so far as I've been able to learn. For the mi'ksikatsi, this is normal. They won't lay their eggs until the leaves are starting to pop. But many of the other aapsspini have begun already. This couple have been coming and going the last couple days. Sometimes they're here on-site, other times they're away feeding (probably on the golf greens). They wouldn't go out of sight if they had eggs

1531 Even though I have no confidence in there being any eggs in the north yet, I think it best to at least check the wet-meadows on this end again. If there is a cache here, these aapsspini are doing a really good job not betraying it

While searching around, I can here the geese over at the big river island. I'm not going to check in on them this afternoon. I waded out and surveyed the whole island thoroughly yesterday. There were three nests already being incubated (the river aapsspini are always a few days ahead of those at the pond), two caches, and several divots prepared to accept eggs very soon. I suspect there will be fifteen or more nests established on this island when all is said and done. But I'll wait another day or so before going back out there

[Note: I returned to the river island the morning after these field notes were taken. At that point, there were four incubating nests, so I'd missed a cache during the first pass. However, one of these incubating nests had been completely ravished by ring-billed gulls. That couple will need to start over. There was also a new egg cache with just a single, exposed egg. I put some leaves over it to conceal it]

Another thing I notice while searching the north wet-meadows is that the big cattail patches are almost entirely out of the water. Last year, I was able to wade through these reeds and collect all the partially-eaten roots the beavers have left behind. This time around, I'll probably get far fewer, relying on those discarded at the pond's edge

1542 Since I'm thinking about it, I move to check the cattails at the pond's bank. There are quite a few roots floating about, as well as stems and shoots. The muskrats are taking advantage of the latter. They've gone around collecting the new green and pulled pieces up on a hummock a little ways out from shore. There are three of them there right now, eating from this collection

1554 My next stop is at the big bulberry brush. Focusing on the aapsspini entirely yesterday and this morning, I'd resisted checking my game cam (this even while registering a constant magpie presence in the brush both times I'd passed). Now I have a bit less of a strict agenda, so I seize the opportunity to crawl in. The camera trap has indeed captured several magpie images. But the most frequent visitor to the brush this week has been the male pheasant. There are two night visits by a porcupine, and a single appearance by a grey partridge (the first to pass my camera in the last year). I've never used the video function on this unit before. Since I know I'll be back around in two days or so, I decide to switch capture modes. There might be more to learn about their interest in this brush from seeing these animals in action

1558 Leaving the brush, I move quickly back down to the waterline at the ksisskstakioyis to check on an egg we saw this morning. It was set on the little island the beavers had made from trenching out in front of their main entrance. For some reason, this particular egg had rolled away from the tiny pile of reed pieces there (which I'm sure is covering a more substantial cache). One of the magpies spied it this morning while we were here, but the gander quickly chased it away. This afternoon, the egg appears to still be outside of the main cache, but unmolested. I'll confirm that it is not cracked when I get around to the west side of the pond and can use my binoculars to see it more clearly

Near to this position are the Gosling Couple, the elder aapsspini of Sspopiikimi, who I will not disturb this afternoon. They have chosen once again to nest on the wet meadows, a habit they got into two years ago when a flood covered the island they normally used. Despite their strong defenses, this puts their nest at considerable risk of coyote predation. I'm almost tempted to come out here in the evenings and help the gander stand sentry for the next month. That's how much I would like to see them succeed. They are getting older though, as far as birds go. They're still very tough, but the age is showing. Yesterday, when I came around, they rushed to defend their cache in the same manner they always have. But this morning, when Mahoney and I checked on them, we found the goose sitting (though not incubating) at the nest site. She had just two eggs, and we were within reach of her before the gander ran over to protect her. This was unusual for this couple, a sluggish response. Right now, the goose is still sitting at the cache, and the gander is eyeballing me closely. She may be egg-bound, given how long she's lingered at the site. I'm not going to walk over to her, best that I keep the scent trails to a minimum

In a strange but possibly related turn, the Subpond Couple have been absent altogether yesterday and today. The Gosling Couple are positioned rather nearer the subpond this year. And given their strength, they may have chased the Subpond geese away. But I suspect it's equally possible the Subpond Couple have chosen to cache their eggs in the nearby hawk nest, as they did two years ago. I will find out soon enough. Incubation, for all of these geese, cannot be more than a week away

1609 The only waterfowl in the subpond this afternoon are a single pair of mi'ksikatsi. Trying not to disturb them, I move on to the duck blind at the wide south pool. Yesterday, there were killdeer here, but this afternoon they're absent. Among those who are here at south-pond, there are twelve pairs of mi'ksikatsi, the single wigeon male (don't see the female today), and three pairs of aapsspini. Two of these goose couples have eggs already - those of the south-pond marsh and big island (both of whom we took from already). The odd ones are the couple claiming the smaller island at the mouth of the south pool. We did not see a cache on their island this morning, but I will glass it again from above when I get around to the west bank

1634 From the duck blind, I follow the levee around the south pool. But rather than continuing straight-away along the west length, I decide to detour off into the brushy coulee draw leading up to the coyote playground. I'm hoping that I will find the magpies nesting up here

It's a steep and arduous climb, bringing out the sweat. And once up on the first good ridge, a cold wind picks up and begins to chill me. There are no magpie nests in this draw that I can see, though it is hard to tell given how thick the brush is. The saskatoon in particular appears almost ready to flower, its buds beginning to separate and show white fuzz. There is one magpie who's come to observe me, flying by at eye level, then settling down on a high lookout branch of one of the cottonwoods below. From my vantage point, I can see most of the trees of the golf course. One, an evergreen, seems to have something nest-like in between its upper branches, but I'll have to hike back down to confirm

1649 The descent is so much easier than the climb, and I scare up a couple grey partridges on the way. In a few minutes, I'm down on the golf greens, dodging a labyrinth of active sprinklers to approach the aforementioned tree. There is indeed a magpie nest in there, and the remains of a second, older one as well. The only thing missing are the birds themselves, but I'll keep an eye on this one

1659 Not far away from the magpie nest tree, along the shale trail of the pond's west length, I check another of the golf course conifers and find a second magpie nest. There are probably thirty such trees planted around the course. Now I wonder how many of them house similar nests. For all I know, even the owls could be here

Turning my attention back to the pond, I confirm that the egg on the small island in front of the ksisskstakioyis is still fully intact. I also see that there are no eggs cached yet on the island at the mouth of the wide south pool. Curiously, the Subpond Couple seem to have returned to their waters. I wonder if perhaps their cache is back up in the hawk nest, as it was two years ago. The Gosling Mama is still sitting right at her nest. She only has two eggs and is not incubating yet, but has been sitting there all the same since this morning. Perhaps she's egg-bound. Or maybe she's trying a different strategy this go'round

1708 I return to my vehicle without further encounters or incidences. The only other thing I notice is that, like with the saskatoon, the cottonwood leaf buds appear ready to open. It's always amazing when the awaited day comes, and there is suddenly a leafy forest canopy

IIII ) llllllllllllllll Wigeons Return (9Apr12)

0853 Sspopiikimi - Heading out this blue-sky morning to do a quick round of the aapsspini nests. Though the air is still cooled from the recent night, it looks like it's going to be nice and warm later. We want to get an early start, before too many recreationally-oriented folks come out

Our first encounter occurs before we even get out of the car. Pulling in, there is a pair of mammia'tsikimiiksi in a small bit of brush along the drive to the parking lot. They have a smallish (by magpie standards) nest here, though I don't know that it is in use

The male aotahkaaokayiiksi are out in full force, scouring the earth alongside the entry trails for whatever insects they can find. We still haven't witnessed the arrival of any females yet, but they can't be too far behind now

Coming into view of north-pond, the resident aapsspini and mi'ksikatsi couples are here, both lingering near the big cattail patch toward midpond. Mi'sohpsski, one of the muskrats, is also present, floating in the middle of the pond, chewing on something he just retrieved from below

0900 Our first objective is to again survey the big river island, so we climb up on the levee and walk around the perimeter of the north wood, toward the river. In the forest canopy, there is some kind of downy woodpecker event underway. Four birds are chasing each other around, chattering. They don't seem to be fighting and, since I know they were here as couples all winter, it makes me wonder whether they practice a kind of 'swinging' mating orgy among the pairs, similar to what the coots do

Given the strength of the Oldman's current, and the fact that I'm the only one of us with chest-waders, Mahoney waits on the shore for me as I set out for the island

0926 Things are not going so well for these river geese. Making a thorough round, I find that only one of the four nests being incubated during my last visit (two days ago) is still holding, and this nest has now just two eggs and an egg-looking rock. The other three nests have been obliterated by the raiding ring-billed gulls who maintain a constant presence here. There is, however, a newly incubating nest. I'm not sure how many eggs are in it, I don't want to disturb the mama today, but it couldn't be more than three based on my last check of her cache. All the same, this particular couple is has always succeeded in warming their eggs to term, owing in large part to the fair aggressiveness of the gander. The toughest pair on the island are at the completely opposite end (probably for good reason), and I have a hard time imagining the gulls will have an easy time accessing their eggs, which are not yet being incubated. In addition, there are two new caches today that weren't here before, and one cache from the other day that's been raided and destroyed. In all three cases, the parents give far too much room to intruders, though bad things can happen to good geese as well. I take one egg from each of the two new caches, and I'll just hope that somehow the gulls miss the rest

It's clear now, looking at what is occurring on the river island, the wet meadows, and two other sites we're visiting for eggs this year, that something is going on this year. I think the most eggs I've seen in a nest over the past week of diligent monitoring is five. Yet five was the average a couple years ago at the same locations, and there were several nests with seven. This year's average, at least so far, seems to be just three or four eggs, and that's pretty low. Of course, we're still early in the game yet. Those couples whose nests were raided already will be going for it a second time, and perhaps then they will lay more

0941 Whatever the downy woodpeckers are up to, it's been going on for half an hour and continues as we again pass the north wood. Now I'm noticing, on the trail past the wood, that there are goldenbean shoots emerging. And walking the levee trail toward south-pond, passing the canopy of the forest main, we see that the cottonwood buds are showing red at their tips. Soon their flowering catkins will be dangling down, and then - if memory serves - we will get our warblers back

1013 When we get to south-pond, we go immediately to the aapsspini nest in the marsh. We collected one from this couple a few days ago. Today we are taking our second, and last. No more than two eggs from a nest, and only prior to incubation, that's our rule

From there, we move to the duck blind to look out at the wide pool. The two island aapsspini couples here are not sitting their nests yet. One of them doesn't even appear to have an egg cache. The duck presence in the pool is considerable this morning. Forty-four mallards and fourteen wigeons. Yep, the wigeons have finally returned. They're late, and I was almost giving up hope that the larger body of them would ever show, given that there has been a single couple here for at least two weeks

Behind the blind, on a snag poplar of the forest main, yet another phenological event is underway. There are three male flickers in the high branches, and they are carrying out their territorial jousting ritual. This involves a special song, tail displays, and touching of the beaks. They will sit quiet together for a few minutes, then break into song and display, perhaps give short chase to one another, and go quiet again. On and on this dance is played until finally one of them has proved the most worthy to claim that location in the forest

1034 Leaving the blind, we make our way toward south pond. No sooner do we near it, still on the forest side, when the gander of the Gosling Couple spots us and flies in to head us off. We are quite a distance from his wife's nest on the wet meadows, which is presently being incubated, but he is going to make us walk way around, giving his well-concealed mrs a fifty meter buffer on all sides. We do as we're told, and are almost at the ksisskstakioyis when Mahoney turns around just in time to see the gander is again bearing down at us, flying at our heads with his mouth open and tongue fiercely displayed. He lands just short of us, and only because I turned to look at him. He's not had a real scuffle with me, and doesn't want to, but he will if I push him. He's beat up Mahoney twice in the past

Though this particular aapsspini gander is known by ourselves and all birds of the pond to be a seriously protective husband, today's display goes even beyond what we're accustomed to with him. I would not want to be the magpie or gull that tries to muck with his wife's eggs. The way he flew at us just now, at such a considerable distance from the nest, he is treating us more like another goose couple, less like passing humans. In other words, he is not only guarding the nest from us, he's not even going to allow us within the nesting territory that he's keeping. If Mahoney had not sensed something, and looked back, and alerted me, he would have landed with considerable force on one of our backs and bit us as well he could

The north end of the gander's territory is defined by a small canal next to the ksisskstakioyis. Once on that side, we are watched, but we are safe. I climb the lodge to look at the island just in front of it. The same egg that was exposed there four days ago remains, and I can't tell whether there are any more cached under the little pile of reeds beside it

We then turn away from the pond and make our way toward the forest again, to the big bulberry patch at the meadow edge-zone. A few days ago, I turned my camera trap there on video mode for the first time, and I'm curious what footage it may have caught. Very interestingly, what I learn is that the magpies here, unlike many others in the region, are still gathering sticks for the first phase of their nest-building. Most of the other mammia'tsikimiiksi are done building at this point, and ready to begin laying eggs. Perhaps the shadow of the coulee that falls over the pond has kept things just cool enough that these birds are getting a later start, similar to the way the geese here are a bit behind those on the river island

1100 Having downloaded the footage from the bulberries - which also included visits from the pheasant rooster, a porcupine, and a deer mouse - we move back to the pond edge again to continue our survey northward

As we get into the cattails, I begin collecting roots that the beavers have dug up, gnawed at, then left floating. I did the same last year in this moon. The ksisskstaki dig hundreds of these roots, and never completely consume a single one. I take their leftovers home, mash them with rocks, douse them in water, and separate out the starchy flour for baking and soup-thickening

When we get to a certain point in the cattails, the north-pond aapaspini couple paddle over to meet us. Finally, they have selected a cache site. They direct us right to it, and we see they don't have any eggs as yet, but the shallow earth bowl is ready to receive them. The site, on a bit of a peninsula formed by mud the ksisskstaki have excavated to build one of their canals, is very wet to the touch, just thoroughly saturated. These geese will have to insulate it pretty good if they hope to have their nest succeed there

1135 With our nest survey complete, and hunger setting in, we're ready to call it a morning. But before we go back to the car, we stop at the extreme north end of the pond, where one of the mature cottonwoods was uprooted over the winter, by flooding related to the nearby horizontal drilling that routed sewage and runoff pipelines under the river. This tree was among the unfortunate sacrifices. It will, however, have one last hurrah as it's catkins open. In all likelihood, it will even seed. But Mahoney and I have been watching the buds with an interest in salvaging them to make what I'm calling a'siitsiksimmisaaam (poplar-medicine, a.k.a. Balm of Gilead)

With how near the buds of some of the trees are to opening, we figure it's now or never to gather what we want to use. So we stop at the tree and prune its sticky treasure for a bit, filling a brown paper lunch sack with enough buds to make about a liter and a half of the balm

IIII ) llllllllllllllllllllllll Wood Ducks In The Wide South Pool (17Apr12)

1715 Sspopiikimi - It's the end of Sa'aiki'somm, and the close of our goose egg harvest. The last we were here at the pond was almost a week ago. On that visit, I deposited nine eggs into incubating nests on the river island, nests I knew to be at the same stage of development as those I collected from. These relocated eggs would have otherwise been dipped in vegetable oil under federal permit to control the aapsspini population at a certain lakeside park in Sikoohkotoki, so that their families wouldn't take too great a toll on the nearby golf greens this summer. It's impossible for me to understand how anyone could excuse 'managing' wildlife in this manner, viewing these birds as 'pests' in need of extermination. To me, this practice seems to fundamentally contradict the very purpose of having a lakeside park or golf course in the first place. Fortunately, those involved are otherwise reasonable, and have been kind enough to allow Mahoney and I to make the best of a bad situation. In addition to the nine incubated eggs relocated, we've taken over a hundred cached eggs from the site, which we will use to feed attendees at our upcoming Beaver Bundle ceremony

1718 Coming within view of midpond, we count three mi'ksikatsi couples, all spaced widely apart from one another. Their nesting is the next to come. In fact, we found our first mallard egg of the year already, earlier this morning, deposited - strangely enough - in an aapsspini cache

From our position, we can also see across to the beaver canal in the cattails, where the northpond goose couple were preparing to nest. Things don't look good over there. The pair is nowhere to be seen, and one of the eggs is laying exposed at the water's edge. It will be interesting to learn how the nests here have fared this week. As is usual during the early incubation, the wolf cap snow storm (makoyisttsomo'ki) arrived. It was pretty tame compared to some years, but still potentially deadly for those who are exposed outside. The diligent mothers lay down on their nests and suffer the wet, sticky snow. But there are always some who abandon

1729 The nest situation doesn't look any better as we make our way along the west length. There's nothing going on any more on the small island outside the ksisskstakioyis, the Gosling Couple seems to have abandoned their nest on the wet-meadows (though they're still keeping near), and the two nest islands of the wide south pool are similarly lacking of incubating mothers. Perhaps the only one left will be in the marsh, we'll see. I suspect a combination of the makoyisttsomo'ki storm, lurking ring-billed gulls and, for the Gosling Couple, land-based predators have done them all in

Of course, there are plenty of magpies around as well, and this evening they're hunting the rocks along our shoreline. I walk down the cutbank to see if I can determine what they're eating, but don't see any particularly obvious insect event underway

While I'm trying to figure out what the magpies are so busy with, all the sa'aiksi of the wide south pool paddle away from me, toward the duck blind. Unlike the mi'ksikatsi at midpond, these couples here are not so widely spaced apart. I also notice at least one pair of wigeons remains. I might have bothered to count them all except that, to our surprise, there's also a wood duck couple among them. I have only seen a wood duck on one other occasion at Sspopiikimi, so it's a special event. They were, no doubt, prompted to land here by the recent storm. And while they could have departed safely by now, it seems they have decided to linger a while

1805 For the next half hour, we try in vain to get a close-up look at the wood ducks. First, we hustle along the levee path toward the forest main, and cut down to the duck blind. But all the sa'aiksi watch us as we move, and simply paddle back across the pool to the west shoreline again. Then Mahoney stays behind while I walk the levee to the other side again, figuring they'd return to below the blind. But they're completely onto our little ruse and decide to waddle ashore on the wet-meadows instead, about halfway between our two positions. Now we're giving up

While all of this is going on, we observe that there's nobody tending the aapsspini nest in the marsh either. This means every couple has failed at the pond. If we are to be graced with goslings this summer, they're either going to come from the river island, or from the second attempt that I'm sure at least some of these pairs will make in the weeks to come

All around us now there are pleasant calls coming from the redwings, flickers, robins, house finches, killdeer and pheasants. Those who've yet to arrive, but are expected by now, are the tree swallows and coots. I wonder what's delaying them

1836 Leaving the blind, we decide to hike out into the wet-meadows to survey the two abandoned nests that don't require wading to access. The first is that of the Gosling Couple, near the subpond. As suspected, it has been destroyed by predators. The downy feathers that had recently lined it are cast off to the side in a heap, and all that remains of the eggs are a few shell fragments

While Mahoney goes to check the situation at the Northpond Couple's nest by the cattails, I climb into the bulberry patch to download video clips off my camera trap. The footage is revealing. Coyotes have visited the wet-meadows several nights in a row this week. In the darkness, not even the Gosling Couple would attempt to fight them off. Indeed, the news from Mahoney of the second nest tells a similar (if not identical) story. The only difference is that, in addition to most of the eggs being missing save for a fragment or two, there's one egg at the water's edge that has obviously been eaten-out by gulls

1850 Having determined, as best we can, what caused the ruin that's occurred here in our absence, we walk north through the forest main and climb out to the cutbank overlooking the big river island. From our shore, only some of the nests are visible, and two of these are the ones into which I deposited eggs last week. Unfortunately, neither has survived. The gulls have got to them, and the aapsspini couples now stand away by twenty meters or so. There are other nests on the island, beyond our view, that might still be incubating. But I don't want to wade out and confirm it. There's been too much disturbance already

Before leaving the cutbank, a kingfisher flies past us, and a beaver swims up to the bank below us to gnaw the bark off a piece of willow. It's depressing to consider all the goslings we might have had at the pond this summer, now gone, and to see all the geese lingering lonely around the failed best sites. This happened last year too, and we ended up with just two families moved over from the river island after hatching. Thinking back though, this has always been the way of things here. Only two or three out of perhaps twenty local nests escape predation, if that