16 May 2012


II Rattlesnakes Rising (21Apr12)

1449 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - It's a warm day, probably about sixteen degrees, the skies in motion with cumulus clouds. We've just arrived at Matsiyikkapisaiki'somm, the frog moon, so I suspect my slithering friends are awake, and I'm looking forward to visiting them. I also want to see whether the plants I expected to emerge weeks ago are doing so yet. Already, at the coulee rim, I'm observing musineon near to flower and moss phlox in white bloom. They are, in my estimation, just a bit late this year. Normally, I find them in this state, and even a bit further along, by the end of Sa'aiki'somm. But then, it's probably nearing two weeks since I last walked here, so they may not be far off

1503 I take my usual route down the coulee slope, noticing a great insect presence along the way. Lots of cowpath tiger beetles and ants of various species, as well as a few redwing clickhoppers, and even a Hunt's bumblebee

About two thirds of the way down to the hibernaculum, while on a stretch of trail that follows a wide ledge, I encounter my first rattler of the day. It's a young snake, probably just two or three years old. What bewilders me is why it should be here on the trail, so far from the hibernaculum. We're still weeks away from their normal departure from the den

The snake is nervous, and when it's pretty sure I'm not intent on attack, it begins to retreat off the trail into some deep grass. I follow, curious where it will lead me. Together, we move about five meters, right to the edge of the shelf, where the coulee slope becomes steep again. Here, there is an old badger hole, and the rattler moves into it. Immediately, my thinking is that this one actually wintered here, separated from the rest (I don't see any others around). That, to me, is the only logical explanation for its positioning on the trail, out of the high grass, where it could bask. And looking at the situation now, it makes sense. These snakes always winter on wide shelves of the coulee slope, preferring especially those shelves that rise in a kind-of single horn feature before the land falls again. This creates something like a terrestrial bowl on the slope. And if badgers have dug in there previously, then the snakes inherit a perfect den, relatively sheltered by rising land on two sides, and trenched below the frost line

1529 When I reach the main hibernaculum, I find exactly what I'd expected, a heap of basking rattlers at the main entrance. There are at least seven or eight of them, judging by heads, but I suspect several more. I'm not bothering to get an actual count today, and I don't think I'll walk around to the other entrances either. I'm just happy to be in their presence again after the long winter separation. They're such beautiful animals, and one of my metrics for whether or not we're in serious trouble. So long as the rattlesnakes continue to return to the hibernaculum, I feel secure

1554 Now leaving the den. Not once did I cause a stir, even though, little by little, I made my way within near-touching distance of the basking ancients. I feel so privileged to be one of a small minority of humans who not only respect these snakes, but know them well enough to approach closely and safely. In my experience, they usually mirror whatver it is we're feeling. And if it involves fear, then they'll return exactly that

1619 I make my way down to the sagebrush flat. Here, as expected, the yellow bells are in bloom. There are also lots of otsiikini flowered down here already, which is fairly normal, perhaps a touch early. The otsiikini are, as usual, being visited by naamoo, the so-called Hunt's bumblebee. I'm pretty certain I'll find kippiaapii (prairie crocus) growing on the rise above the black cliffs, overlooking the river confluence. I'll check to confirm, but only after giving some attention to a certain fly I've been noticing on the ground by my feet

1639 These flies are pretty mysterious. There are lots of them swarming around a long patch of a certain (unknown) species of grass that always falls flat during winter. At first, I expect to learn that the flies are mating here. And perhaps they are. But if so, their mating ritual is peculiar. I focus my attention on one of the flies and follow it around. It seem to be searching the new, green grass for something. It will start near the base of one such grass stem and work its way up to the end of the highest blade, then go find another stem and repeat the process. I walk a few paces away, turn my attention toward another fly, and find it doing the same thing. I see nothing on the grass itself that they might be interest (at least nothing discernible to a human eye), and they don't seem to be pausing anywhere as though they'd found what they were looking for. I take some macro shots of these flies, hoping to at least secure an identity. Perhaps in the future I'll learn what business they have with this grass

1652 Eventually I make my way to the rise where the kippiaapii grow. They are indeed present, but most of them are only beginning to come into flower. By next week they should be in full bloom. I look out from atop the black cliffs at the river confluence and am a bit surprised to still see a female goldeneye here. Most have moved north already. There is also a pair of mi'ksikatsi and an aapsspini couple who either couldn't nest or had their clutch hit by predators

1713 From the cliffs, I move back down and crawl into the hawthorn brush to download images off the camera trap I have set up here. Over the last couple weeks, the hollows in this brush have been visited by all the usual characters... porcupine, cottontails, and deer mice by night, magpies and chickadees during the day. I've set the camera to video mode now, to find out what behaviors I can capture between now and my next visit

1740 Coming out of the brush, I find a hornet inspecting my backpack. They're out now too. I wait for the wasp to depart, then reshoulder the pack and march back up the coulee slope. About halfway, I begin to encounter meadowlarks on the buckbrush. They're a dominant (obvious) presence all the way to the rim

III Mi’ksikatsi Territoriality (22Apr12)

1719 Sspopiikimi - Tonight is our first evening sit-and-watch session for the season... far preferable to perching in front of the television. It's nice and comfortable-warm outside, as many of the basking turtles agree

We've just hiked in along the west length and set up our chairs on the grassy cutbank about halfway between the ksisskstakioyis and the wide south pool, above the Gosling Couple, who are still guarding this territory. The Beaver Lodge and Northpond couples are sticking to their respective nest areas too, even though all have failed their first attempt. But there are another eight pairs in the wide south pool who aren't behaving territorial at all

A few days ago, the mi'ksikatsi couples at mid- and northpond were widely spaced far apart from one another, while those in the south pool were more groupish. Today, there are two drakes together at midpond, while the southpond couples (eight of them) have adopted the distant spacing

 It doesn't look like the wigeons are around anymore, nor the wood duck pair. But we've only initially glassed those observable from our position. No telling who will emerge as the evening goes on

1804 Almost an hour in and not too much to note. Many of the aapsspini came up our cutbank to go eat grass on the golf greens, but were eventually chased back to the water by a greens-keeper in a golf cart. There've been several squabbles between ganders, all of which seemed protective of their mates, but not territorial. Also, among the mi'ksikatsi, I witnessed a drake chase a female away from another drake, who he then returned to and fed beside

The redwings and killdeer are picking in the mud at the edge of the wet-meadows. Some robins have already begun to sing their dusk song from the forest main. And where we're sitting the lens-podded hoary cress is starting to come up

1846 Feeling unwelcome on the golf greens, most of the aapsspini have moved out onto the wet-meadows to feed. The mi'ksikatsi, ever a mystery, are alternately dip-feeding in the shallows, sleeping on the islands, or flying away to the river

I decide to take a little walk for relief over to the currant and bulberry patch above the peninsula. Along the way, I come across an adult painted turtle in the grass beside the path. It's dead, unfortunately. But what's the cause? Both of its front hands have been torn off, right at the wrist, and there's a little bit of chipping around the edges of the shell. I suspect it was caught and gnawed on by a coyote at first, then set upon by gulls or magpies and, while trying to push the latter away, lost its hands. Now the poor turtle is ant food

Returning to Mahoney and my seat, I get a quick update on the geese and ducks... who moved where, and why. It's clear we've seen most of what we're going to tonight, in terms of phenological events. I suggest we head'er home, and Mahoney agrees

III ) lllllll Asparagus Harvest (29Apr12)

1348 Sspopiikimi - It's a relatively warm day, warm enough to feel comfortable in just shorts and a t-shirt anyway. I'm out to conduct my usual survey, but I'm particularly interested to see how the asparagus is coming along, and to harvest if it's ready. We've had a few days of rain recently, and usually when we get these first good stretches of rain it means the asparagus will shoot up

1351 North-pond is pretty busy this afternoon. I'm counting six pairs of aapsspini, four mi'ksikatsi couples, three mi'ksikatsi drakes, and a wigeon drake. As I make this count, the drake of one of the mi'ksikatsi pairs comes paddling out from where he and his wife were on the opposite shore. He makes some quacking sounds and is headed straight toward another couple in what I interpret as an aggressive approach. Sure enough, within moments his is giving chase to them, pursuing them out toward the river before returning again to land near his wife. She must have an egg cache somewhere on the wet-meadows

1415 As I'd suspected, the asparagus is rising. In fact, many of the shoots, at least at the established plant of north-pond, are already developing their first branches and becoming woody. It's now or never for harvesting. I pick all the younger shoots and leave the more developed ones to reproduce. Also, I'm seeing lots of red variable darners in the area, and note that the okonoki is in full bloom. It seems to me a bit early for these saskatoons to flower. Aapistsisskitsaato's, when they usually bloom full, is still a few weeks away

1422 There's a stark contrast between conditions at the pond and those just over the levee at the river. The pond is quite shallow and clear today. I can easily see the bottom, and the dormant milfoil is almost touching the surface. The river, by comparison, is swollen and murky. The rocky area downstream from the big island, where one of the aapsspini nests was recently raided by gulls, is now completely submerged. It wouldn't have made it even if the gulls had left it alone

1459 Leaving the river cutbank, I drop down in the forest main and move out onto the wet-meadows to check my camera trap. Along the way, I notice that some of the migratory female passerines have begun to arrive, the robins and redwings in particular. Now that they're here, nesting should commence soon

The videos on my camera trap show pretty much the usual players of the big bulberry patch. There is a lot of footage of the pheasant rooster, as well as several visits by magpies, and passings of a coyote and porcupine at night

Continuing south in the meadow, I come across a mi'ksikatsi couple in the subpond. They're behaving with particular boldness, fighting the urge to retreat when I walk by. I suspect they too have a nearby egg cache, and I'll bet it's in the buckbrush at the forest edge, though I'm not able to find anything when I peek around a bit

1525 The sandy soil near the duck blind overlooking the wide south pool is always good for asparagus gathering. Certainly it doesn't let me down today. But as at north-pond, many of the shoots here are already too tall and woody. I leave about half of them alone for this reason

In the wide pool itself, there are two more aapsspini couples and three mi'ksikatsi pairs at present. Like the okonoki, the golden currant are all abloom here. The chokecherry, for its part, is just beginning to leaf out. In the trees along the forest edge-zone here, I note another new arrival, the yellow-rumped warbler, always the first warbler to return

1538 In hopes of finding more asparagus, I decide to continue hiking south, following the river cutbank, rather than making my usual turn back around to the west length of the pond. When I come within sight of the river, I stop to sit on a bench near what used to be the garter snake hibernaculum. A crane fly moves past among the remains of last-years leafy spurge, hunting for insect prey. Then two honey bees arrive, one after the other, with full pollen sacks. They land in the grass near my feet, disappear momentarily, then fly away when I crouch to check on them. Seems odd they'd stop here, unless there's a nest. This is very close to where we encountered the swarm last summer, but they had moved up toward the coulee slope. Perhaps their old nest is here somewhere. Would they have a reason to revisit it?

As I'm dealing with the bees, a raven is flying along below the rim of the high-level bridge, searching for pigeons. It is calling out to its [unseen] partner as it does so. Moments later, a man emerges below the bridge, in the park on the other side of the river. He's accompanied by two women, and I don't know why, maybe his pecker is too small, but right away he begins loudly mimicking the corvid's call in a tone purposely much more obnoxious. The raven, for its part, decides it's time to fly away. I don't blame the bird. Some people...

1603 From the owl wood, all the way along the cliffs upstream to the next floodplain, I find no asparagus. I do however encounter a number of insects. There are mourning cloak and cabbage white butterflies, a few wasps, and a huge wolf spider carrying an egg sack below and behind her abdomen

I figure, since I'm already in the upstream forest, I might as well continue looking around a bit more for my precious shoots. Some years ago, I lived right above this floodplain and walked through this forest many times. I don't recall there being any asparagus. But then again, I hadn't even know that these escaped plants lived along the Oldman until a few years ago, so I probably wouldn't have recognized them if I came across a mature patch

1658 Pretty disappointing. I check the whole floodplain upstream and am unable to find a single asparagus plant. Most of the forest here has been converted into an obstacle course for mountain and dirt bikes, the entire understory cleared of vegetation, and the soil landscaped to create dips and jumps. I did, however, spot my first fire-rimmed tortoise butterfly of the season, and I've managed to locate a couple asparagus plants now on my way back toward the high-level bridge, following a trail about half-way up the coulee slope

1724 Soon I am walking the west length of the pond, back to my vehicle, and here there is good news. One of the geese is sitting a nest on the little island in front of the ksisskstakioyis. She might be a week into the incubation, hard to tell, but I really hope she makes it. Our summer would be rather depressing without goslings on the pond

III ) llllllllllllllllll Redheads Return (10May12)

1334 Sspopiikimi - Woke up to sleet again this morning, but the clouds have broke now, and it looks like it could be a sunny afternoon. We've been having warm stretches broken up every four or five days by brief, cold storms like this coming down from the north. I've just pulled in, and already I can see there are some exciting things underway

The magpie nest, in the brush by the parking lot, seems to be doing very well. The parents are still tending to it, and I'm sure they have hatchlings by now. I can't confirm that though, because it's too high to reach without potentially causing damage. The greatest danger period for the nest itself is over though. The chokecherry brush that it's set in has leafed-out, and all is well-concealed. The next big challenge will be keeping the fledglings from being bumped on the road when they're initially out of the nest. Luckily, the main artery that keep traffic passing near is closed for the summer. All we'll have to worry about are golfers and visitors to the pond

The same pipeline project that has closed the road coming down into the coulee is complete here at the river-bottom. The large area affected in the absinthe field was sprayed with brome seed a couple months ago, and the new grass is just beginning to grow. This has not gone unnoticed by the geese, and presently there are three aapsspini couples taking advantage of the opportunity. As I watch them feeding, I notice another large bird approaching. It is one of the swainson hawks, and it's carrying a long branch in its talons. The hawk passes low by me and the geese, and wings its way somewhat awkwardly to the old nest at the edge of the forest main. Yes! We will definitely have hawk babies again this year

1343 The big news for the day (I'm already declaring) is that we have goslings. I see them as soon as I come within sight of north-pond, an aapsspini family with six babies. They could have come from the little island in front of the ksisskstakioyis, but from where I stand it appears to be now submerged. Or they might have been born on the big river island. Hard to say, I haven't followed closely enough this round. But now that they're here, it's cause for celebration as far as I'm concerned. We would have an incredibly lonely summer if there were no goslings

There are others to note here at north-pond as well... three additional pairs of aapsspini (one of them rather close to the new family), as well as tree swallows swooping past. Looking toward midpond, I can see two more aapsspini couples and a pair of mi'ksikatsi. No coots at this end though. I was sure I'd see coots today. They should have been here weeks ago

1439 I'd asked my in-law, Myles, to meet me down here this afternoon. I need his help. There's a log in the north-wood, part of one of the beaver-fell cottonwood trees from last summer, that I've been scoping-out for a project. I tried to cut-out the six-foot section I want with a camp-saw last week, but it was just the wrong tool for the job. Myles is a chainsaw guru in the making, and I figured he'd make quick work of it

Before I moved away from north-pond, he and his wife Chelsea arrived. I showed him the tree, and the section I wanted to take. Sure enough, he cut it out pretty hastle-free. But getting it back to the parking lot was another thing entirely. I'd imagined him doing the cut for me, and then carrying it back on my shoulder later, after I'd done my round. Thankfully, Myles offered to help me carry it too. The log must weight close to two-hundred pounds, a bit more than me at least. I could maneuver the log, pick it up, turn it on end, etc. But there was no way I could haul it back to the parking lot on my shoulder as envisioned. Myles considered doing the same at first, but even he, a great deal stronger than me, realized it was a two man job. Unfortunately, one of the two of us is an aging smoker, and not used to heavy lifting. It took five rests to get the log approximately three-hundred meters and over a levee to where my car is parked, and the last leg was all Myles, showing-off his Scottish ancestry (apparently stronger than mine) and hauling solo

1447 One of the last things Myles says, before we part ways, is very keen, "Those beavers are genius. They don't need any gas, or oil, or steel, and yet they can take down a whole tree"

Seriously winded from the log ordeal, I shoulder my camera pack again and head out sunwise, stopping soon to rest at a bench overlooking the big river island. It appears as though the more aggressive couple are still nested out there. If so, they'll likely bring their brood to the pond as well. I wonder though, how the goose population can continue to grow when so very many of their nests are raided by predators. In our best year at the pond, we've had three groups of goslings to follow. A far cry from the twenty or so couples who initially establish nests

1506 Leaving the river, I drop down through the forest main and out onto the wet meadows, to download videos and images off my camera trap in the big bulberry patch. As it turns out, some small bird, from the looks of it a blackbird, has been killed right in front of the camera, but too low for the lense to pick-up. I suspect it was a coyote's doing, seeing as how he's the only predator that has passed. But it could have been a weasel that just stayed out of range. Over the past couple weeks, there have been visits by magpies, robins, pheasants, coyotes, and porcupines. But the most dominant presence has been a whitetail doe, and in several bits of footage, a second deer's head can be seen laying low in the background. I suspect it's a fawn, but it seems a bit early, and at one point the doe lays down and no fawn comes to rest with her

1519 The whole time I wait in the bulberries, downloading film footage from the last couple weeks, a snipe can be heard in display somewhere above me, and a pheasant rooster crows from very near. He can probably see me, but I'm blind to him

When finally I'm able to leave the brush, I head out to the ksisskstakioyis. The little island that was in front of it, and being nested upon, is submerged so deep now that I can't even see it. I do, however, hear and see a couple male flickers in a tree on the opposite shore, still jousting for territory

Then, moving on toward the subpond, I find the canals full of water, and the swainson hawk perched near the old nest above. There's a pair of mallards here, just as there was two weeks ago, and again they're reluctant to depart, even at my approach. They must have a cache nearby

1537 The subpond mallard couple does eventually take flight as I get even closer, but they merely circle the area until I've walked away. I'm sure they must have eggs, and so from the subpond to the duck blind at the wide south pool, I check around in the most dense buckbrush patches. No success. These mi'ksikatsi are really exceptional at the art of camouflage and deception. It's no wonder they're the world's most prolific duck species

There are two more mallard couples in the south pool, along with three redhead couples. All are near the opposite shore at present, so I can't tell if Scabby, our favorite female redhead, is present

One thing I can now say with confidence is that the coots haven't arrived. That's absolutely bizarre. They're usually here by the end of sa'aiki'somm, and now we're almost a full lunar cycle beyond that. A second conspicuous absence are the yellow-headed blackbirds. They're not quite as late as the coots, but definitely running a close second

1557 I linger in the duck blind for a short time, during which a large caspian tern arrives and makes a few failed dives for pike. It's been a while, maybe even two years, since I've seen a caspian visit these waters

When the tern departs, I walk the shoreline along the wide south pool. It's sleeting now again, the skies darkening with stratus. On my route, a flush a few grey partridges and yellow-rumped warblers from currant bushes I pass. I also find several semi-mummified painted turtles. My guess is that the ring-billed gulls have been pulling them up on shore, traumatizing them to death, and then leaving the carcasses mostly uneaten. One of the turtles I find has a really pretty belly-shield, as well as an armpit full of carrion beetles. I knock the bugs off and pack the turtle away in my camera bag, to take home and make use of its shell

1603 I encounter the new goose family again at midpond, as I make my way toward the parking lot. There is a second aapsspini couple following them closely, with their necks and heads held down close to the pond surface. We've seen this kind of behavior before, Mahoney and I, and what it tells me is that not all six goslings are siblings. An adoption has taken place, as often does if there is a single child born to a goose couple. The parents of the adoptee are experiencing some emotional pain. They don't want to let go, even though it's safer if their child merges with the larger family. I wish we had followed closely enough to see which nests these birds came from. Given the behavior, I would guess the adoption occurred within the last twenty-four hours, if not immediately preceding my arrival. I feel for the heart-torn parents. But overall, I'm glad there are goslings here to follow this summer, and the behavioral betrayal of their background story will help us understand what's going on in future visits

III ) lllllllllllllllllllllll The Rattle-Less Snake (15May12)

1000 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - We've had a week of warm weather, but today the heat is going to get serious. Tomorrow, I have plans to go survey a potential site for gathering traditional foods near the mountains, and one of the things I'd like to do is set up a camera trap out there, to see what animals are around. But in order to do that, I need to fetch my camera from the coulee bottom here at the confluence

The snakes should be moving away from their hibernacula by now, and I've decided to try something new as a measure of added protection against accidental bites. Cleaning out my basement a few days ago, I found a pair of large, sand-filled ankle weights. I figure, if I wear them when I'm hiking up and down this coulee, not only will they give me an extra five inches or so protection above my boots, but a nice leg work-out as well

1022 One of the first things I notice, right up on the coulee rim, is all the dandelions in bloom. They're being visited by several kinds of pollinating insects - a black micromoth with white stripes, a tiny green sweat bee, some fire-rimmed tortoise shell butterflies. There are also a lot of black wasps (of a species I do not recognize) around. The wasps are behaving much as the large, black flies were on the sagebrush flats during my last visit, i.e. scouring the length of grass stems in search of something, pheromones perhaps

I'm busy photographing the activities of all these insects when something appears in my peripheral vision that triggers my mind to call for my attention. It is a large rattlesnake, quite mature, stretched out in the grass, entirely camouflaged, and missing its rattle. At the end of its tail, there is but a scabbed-over stub. It must have been attacked by some predator. But the snake is still very much alive, hunting for its next meal, so I'm assuming the predator didn't fare well. And for me, there could be no better confirmation of the wisdom of my choice to start wearing ankle weights here, than this encounter with a rattle-less viper

1045 Slow going today, I'm taking my time, and in twenty minutes move less than a quarter way down the coulee slope. For most of that distance, I'm following a vesper sparrow who's moving ahead of me on the trail. The sparrow will hop a ways, picking up a little bit of this and that on the trail, then stop for a minute or so and sing a few verses of its song. I'm also seeing more butterflies, mostly inornate ringlets I believe, though none of them are pausing long enough to confirm

1108 A bit further down the slope, I come across several varieties of flowering plants in bloom. In addition to more dandelions, there is cushion milkvetch, wild (purple) vetch, early yellow locoweed, and otsiikini or goldenbean. Among these flowers, the butterflies are far easier to identify. The orange ones I've been seeing are indeed inornate ringlets. There are also spring azures visiting the locoweed, a black butterfly I'm unfamiliar with at the otsiikini, and both pearl crescents and cabbage whites in the air

1119 I get off the trail down by the rattlesnake hibernaculum. During every summer previous, there's always been one younger snake who stays back a few weeks at the site. I'm not seeing this sentry today, but it could be underground at the moment. Unfortunately, all four access burrows into the hibernaculum are fairly grown over this year. I'm probably not going to get to witness the reproductive cycle of the black widows like I usually do, unless I find a clear badger hole elsewhere in the coulee

1137 Coming down onto the sagebrush flats, I note right away that the yellowbells are done flowering. Curiously though, I have real difficulty finding any of their seed pods. It seems some animal, I suspect a mouse, has been running around clipping off just these pods. The leaves and flower stem remain, and I figure larger herbavores would have munched these as well, and birds would have left remains of the pod casings, so the seed gatherer must be a small mammal

1213 Continuing on, and coming to the hawthorn brush, I can hear the insect buzz of a clay-colored sparrow. I also hear the loud hum of real insects, a huge swarm of several kinds of bees visiting the hawthorn flowers. Curiously, none are honey bees, all are indigenous. Given my history with bees and wasps, it is with some paranoia that I crawl into the brush amidst this swarm and retrieve my game cam. And since I'm taking it with me today, I don't bother reviewing the images

From there, I walk down to the river and take a quick dip. The water's really cold still, but it's going to be a hot hike back up to the rim. In the cottonwood canopy above the site where I swim, there are yellow-rumped warblers singing. And below them, there's a robin building her nest

1248 My return hike to the coulee rim is usually fairly uneventful, if I've been diligent in surveying what's new on the way down. So today, I decide to try something new. I pick up a river cobble of maybe ten pounds weight and practice tossing and catching it as I march up the slope. It's good exercise, but I also make sure to keep paying attention. In the end, the only phenological note I have to add, that did not register on the way down, is the presence already of road-duster grasshoppers. Seems to me a bit early for them