01 June 2012


I Return Of The Thrasher (19May12)

1801 Sspopiikimi - It's the first day of Aapistsisskitsaato'si, the Flower Moon, and though I don't have long before the light is gone, I want to at least get in a quick survey

Off the side of the highway, as I was descending the coulee on the way here, I caught a flicker of bright white wings in the grass, which turned out to belong to a completely albino magpie. Oh how I wished it was safe to pull over on the spot. I'm very tempted now to hike the kilometer or so back up the road to get a better look. But on the other hand, I really do need to find out what's shaking down here phenologically, and since I now know the general vicinity of the rare bird's territory, I can always go back and have a look around at a future date. Best I stay put

1814 The first thing I notice, stepping out of my car, is the sound of chorus frogs and a snipe in display overhead. I don't know why it is, but the frogs are always very late here at Sspopiikimi, and it seems this year is no exception

Then, coming into view of north-pond, I see redwing blackbirds, spotted sandpipers, an eastern kingbird, and bank swallows. The latter two are new arrivals since last week. I also notice a black bird on the opposite shore, and my hopes rise that it is a coot, that they've finally returned. I glass in that direction and find that it is actually a mi'ksikatsi drake. And sitting beside the drake are two blue-winged teal drakes and a female. They are completely camouflaged, such that I can barely see them with my naked eye, even knowing exactly where they are

1830 Still very curious about whether or not the coots have returned, I opt to walk the west length first. Between north-pond and the ksisskstakioyis, I note that the yellow-headed blackbirds have finally joined the red-wings in the cattails, and I see that the magpies are collecting insects to feed their hatchlings in the evergreen trees on the golf course. The aapsspini family are feeding on the wet-meadows directly behind the ksisskstakioyis, and it looks like they're down one gosling. Last week, I was pretty sure that one of their six was adopted. I wonder if its birth parents finally coaxed it back to their side

1849 At the wide south pool, the surface of the pond is swarming with swallows. They're flying just high enough not to touch the water. I walk down to sit on the peninsula and watch them for a few minutes, but can't really tell what they're eating. Then Naato'si peeks through the clouds, and the bright light enables me to pick out midges fluttering short distances just above the surface

There are more yellow-headed blackbirds here, in the cattails of the marsh. There's also another mallard drake (the females must be nesting), and two more pairs of blue-winged teals. To my great surprise, the wood duck couple is here as well. We only saw them the once, several weeks ago. But they're here, and I wouldn't doubt that they've been coming here off and on, nor that they will likely remain here this summer, given how long they've now stuck around. But I don't see another goose couple with a lone gosling, and the coots are definitely still absent. The latter case is incredibly strange. Usually, by now, they would have already had their mating dances and it would be time to build nests

1910 As I watch the swallows and survey the ducks, someone begins singing from the currant brush behind me. Whoever it is knows a huge number of songs. I quickly pack-up to go find the source. There are a lot of small birds in the brush here. I see tree swallows, yellow-rumped warblers, then a catbird, first one this season. But the singer isn't the catbird. It's another, a reddish-brown bird perched on the only cottonwood growing amidst this brush. A brown thrasher! Our local mockingbird. This evening is full of surprises. And because my visits have only been weekly, I feel extremely out of touch

1950 I really wasn't planning to hike the wet-meadows or forest main this evening. But then, while enjoying the thrasher's repertoire, I notice one of the older beavers come ashore near the duck blind, and waddle back into the forest. Off I go immediately to try and get around the south pool in time to learn what the beaver is harvesting. No luck though. It reurns to the pond before I'm half way there. By this point, I figure I might as well continue the round. When I get to the duck blind area, I try to retrace the beaver's track, but again come up with nothing

My next real stop is the big bulberry brush to download footage from my camera trap. Along the way, I pass below the hawk nest. Nobody's home, though I did see one of them brining new sticks to it last week. I also pass lots of redwing families. Some of them probably have nests started by now, though I'm not finding any. My camera trap has been incorporated as a crucial anchor for a funnel-web of some sort. The spider, if she's around, isn't showing herself. I try to do as little damage as I can to open the camera and retrieve my memory card. It's full of images and video of a whitetail deer and several night visits from coyotes. There's probably more to see as well, when I get home and can look through them carefully

2015 Walking through the forest main to make my way out, I'm thinking of how much I'd enjoy to have a day here very soon when I could really look around closely to identify those nests that're already underway, so that Mahoney and I could follow the stories of these families. Just then, while passing a fallen poplar tree, a mourning dove flushed from close to my side. I knew immediately that she must have a nest there, and sure enough there are two white eggs on a little grass platform. For a mourning dove, that's a full clutch. And for me, that's one nest now to watch

III ) ll Beginning The May Count (24May12)

1033 Sspopiikimi - This coming weekend is the 'May Count' of flowering plants, hosted annually by Nature Alberta. Last year was the first I'd participated, and I had a good experience involving the simultaneous encounter of a rattlesnake, coyote, and thunder. I was glad to receive an invite to have at it again this go'round

The official count-week doesn't begin until tomorrow, but this was the day I set aside to stay back from the office, so my contribution to the count begins now, and I'm hoping it will be accepted. After all, it's not likely there will be a major change in the flowering stage of any particular species in the next twenty-four hours

My observations begin at the parking lot, where there are several representatives of the humble yet ubiquitous dandelion. Here, they have not only completed a flowering cycle, but for the most part have already dropped their seeds. Off in the distance, somewhere near the forest main, I can hear a flicker and yellow-rumped warbler

1038 Arriving at north-pond, I find yellow puccoon, the plant we call ponokaowahsin (elk food), in full bloom. The asparagus has started flowering, but isn't too far into its cycle yet, in contrast to the golden currant, which has completely played-out

Noting my appearance on the scene, one of the swainson's hawks, who had been sitting on the established nest quite a ways from my position, takes wing. Out on the water, I can see one mi'ksikatsi drake (whose wife is no doubt nesting nearby), two pairs of aapsspini, and five redhead ducks (male-heavy). There are about seven or eight bank swallows passing over the pond's surface in search of insects, and I count three redwing males across the way on the wet-meadows, though I'll wait to get over there before recording their numbers

1045 Moving to the far end of north-pond, I see that, like the currants, the saskatoon flowers are done, and the chokecherries are just beginning to play out. Also here, there is leafy spurge, tartarian honeysuckle, goldenbean, and star-flowered Solomon's seal, all in full bloom, with flixweed just coming into flower

Adding to the bird list from this position, I can see three more redwings, a robin, another flicker, and a grackle

1054 Climbing over the levee so I can drop into the north wood, a raven flies past. Right at the top of the levee, there is a very short mustard, almost like peppergrass, but with individual (rather than clustered) stems. I don't know this plant's identity, but have taken a picture of it with my phone, hoping someone will be able to tell me what its name is when I submit my count. It's still in bloom, but many of the early flowers have already developed into seed pods

Down in the north wood proper, the sandbar willow is in full bloom. I can hear three or four yellow-rumped warblers in the canopy, and a couple yellow warblers. There are two robins poking around in the leaf-litter of the forest floor, and a least flycatcher moving from tree to tree away from me below the canopy. The latter is probably the same bird who nested right in this area last year

1104 Proceeding through the north wood and out to the riverbank, I come across a second least flycatcher, as well as a house wren. I can hear a clay-colored sparrow nearby. There are two pairs of aapsspini out on the big island, another three bank swallows cruising over the river, and (oddly) a single American white pelican, feeding by itself. The red osier dogwood is in full bloom here

1114 Crossing the levee once again, moving to the forest main, I head right away to check on the morning dove nest that's hidden beneath leaf-coverage on the trunk of a fallen tree. She's still incubating diligently, and I make sure not to scare her off. The rain is coming down pretty good now, definitely not the most comfortable day to be walking around out here, or to be sitting on eggs

Not far from mama dove, there are three more grackles, all up in a cottonwood tree, and I can hear another yellow-rumped warbler somewhere above as well

1131 Since I'm already drenched, I figure it won't hurt to wade through the sopping brush a little bit, in search of new nests. I start at the buckbrush and dogwood patches at the far north end of the forest main. I'm kind of expecting to find the female mallard, since she's nested here in prior years, but no luck. The only ones I turn up are a single robin and a gray catbird

Then, out onto the wet-meadows, I expect to find redwing nests. There are, I can now accurately count, four established couples here, between north-pond and the ksisskstakioyis. There are no plural marriages here this year, from what I can tell. There is also a yellow-headed blackbird couple in the taller stand of cattails midpond. None of them seem to have built nests yet

1142 Leaving the wet-meadows, where none of the plants save sandbar willows are yet in flower, I move into the middle of the forest main. Here, the canopy is absolutely alive with the voices of yellow-rumped and yellow warblers. I couldn't accurately say how many are up there, but I would guess a dozen members of each species. I also hear, and then see, four house finches, as well as pair of mourning doves, a catbird, another five robins, and two more least flycatchers

1157 Zagging back toward the wet-meadows once again, at the subpond, I'm greeted by an eastern kingbird (I know there are more of them here) and a female yellow warbler. There are two more established redwing couples at the subpond proper, as well as a pair of aapsspini. From what I can see already at the wide south pool, there are six mi'ksikatsi present, as well as the five redheads already counted

I'm expecting to come across some snipes eventually, as well as spotted sandpipers and killdeer. I was also hoping to count the wood duck couple, but they appear to be absent today. Too bad... they would have been a rare addition to our local count

1209 At the duck blind, I can see more of the wide south pool. My duck count from the subpond was accurate, but I need to add a blue-winged teal couple who are dabbling by the spring. There's at least one snipe here. It flew out from the shallows below my position when I arrived. There are also several more redwing couples, I would say at least eight spread throughout the marsh and probably two more by the peninsula. I've been hearing the crows of a ring-necked pheasant nearby, saw another yellow warbler, and there are three brown-headed cowbirds perched in a nearby cottonwood.

I've finally come across a flowering plant not already mentioned, awned sedge. It's growing at the bank of the shallows below me and is in full bloom

1215 Climbing out of the forest and up onto the levee, to walk around to the west side of the pond, I pass by the owl wood canopy, where I can hear yet more yellow and yellow-rumped warblers, as well as a least flycatcher. Five more robins make appearances. From this height, I can also survey the entire marsh. This enables me to identify a second blue-winged teal couple, and the first long-awaited American coot, singing the song for their mating dance all alone. The coots are incredibly late this year, two lunar cycles off their normal return. I think something happened to them, wherever those who spend their summers here are wintering. I'm surprised, at this point, to learn that at least one of them has survived

1225 Checking the brush above the peninsula, I find two more catbirds, two more yellow warblers, and a magpie. Somewhere on the coulee slope above, I can hear a savannah sparrow. The black and red currants here are in the same post-flowering stage as their golden relatives who I noted at north-pond. Hound's tongue is just coming into bloom, the first of its red flowers beginning to open. The mustard plants are most prevalent here. There's lens-podded hoary cress and pennycress, both in full bloom. There's also a small and spindly yellow mustard with its flowers fully open. I don't know this species. It looks like a miniature version of the larger wild mustard that's usually found right here by this moon. Oddly, I don't see any of these larger plants at all, flowered or not

1233 Walking the shale trail along the west length takes me between the pond and golf course. There are five aapsspini couples grazing on the greens today, including the pair who have five goslings. These babies sure are growing quick, they already have their grey coat. Also on the greens is another magpie. I know there are at least a dozen more of these corvids nested around the pond, most of them in the thick evergreens of the golf course this year. They must be taking cover from the rain. Out over the pond's surface, at least two dozen tree swallows are now gliding about

1240 Back again at the parking lot, I find three more aapsspini couples feeding on the new grass atop the area that had been pipeline construction over the winter. And one final species to note, I flush a pair of grey partridge from the tall grass beside my car

That's about it for Sspopiikimi today, at least for me. There were several birds I thought I'd see, who I didn't, probably because of the rain. Most of the plants seem to be on their usual schedule, from what I've observed here over the last six years or so. The only events really out of synch that I register are the lack of redwing nests as yet, and the almost complete absence of coots (as previously noted), who have usually been among the most conspicuous of summer residents here

End Note: Mahoney and I returned to Sspopiikimi seven days later (31May12), at the end of count-week, to ensure no significant changes has occurred since this round was a day early. All of the flowering plants and birds noted above were present, in the same state of development and/or about the same numbers. However, there had been some warm days throughout the week, and as a result there were a few additional presences to note, such as boreal bluet damselflies, pink-edged sulfur butterflies, painted turtles, wandering garter snakes, plus wild vetch and yellow salsify in bloom. There were also two pairs of gadwalls who hadn't been around before (we normally don't get gadwalls at the pond), a shoveler duck couple, and one of the female mallards made an appearance in the wide south pool with her team of about eight newborn ducklings. In the owl wood and forest main, we noticed a few tree swallow, starling, and house wren couples are reusing the same nest cavities they occupied last year. The magpies, starlings, and house wrens were all bringing insect food to their hatchlings while we watched

III ) llllllll Concluding May Count (30May12)

1526 Pitsiiksiinaikawaahko - I was all set to relax after a long day at the office, but there were a couple little nagging reminders playing at my thoughts. The first said, "Hey, you've been sitting in chairs all day. You sat down to drive the two-hour round trip to work, and you sat in front of a computer most of the time in between. A lot of daylight has been wasted in this stasis. You need to go out and stretch those legs." The second reminder told me, "Tomorrow is the last day of the official Spring Count of flowering plants and birds for Alberta. Get off your butt." So here I am

1824 I begin by making a thorough survey of plants on the coulee rim. Actually, I'm hoping to encounter a rattlesnake, since I logged one on the count last year, but there's a bit of a chilly wind, and none turn up. There are many other presences to note though

For starters, the rim is alive with the songs of meadowlarks and field crickets. Somewhere far below, I can also hear a chorus frog. As at Sspopiikimi, the dandelions here are in seed, or have already dispersed them. Prairie parsley and both local varieties of musineon are near to seed as well, with the flowers of narrow-leaf milkvetch, early yellow locoweed, and goldenbean all beginning to fade. In full bloom are a wild vetch, butte marigold, and prairie groundsel, with prairie onion nearly there as well. The marigolds in particular are being visited by pearl crescent butterflies, and I see several inornate ringlets clinging to the grass. Still other plants are just beginning to open flowers, including bastard toadflax, yarrow, two-grooved milkvetch, and Drummond's milkvetch. The two-grooved milkvetch is being pollinated by large Nevada bumblebees

1858 Moving down the slope, as far as the rattlesnake hibernaculum (about half way to the river-bottom), I see more of the same plant complex. The only additions, in terms of new bloomers, are black medick, Colorado rubber plant, and blue penstemon. In contrast to those on the rim, the yarrow down here are in almost full flower, which is similar to how the goldenbean works (the growth rate of these plants must depend more on water than sunlight). The wavy-leaved thistle has flower buds, but is not yet opening. All along the way, I scare starlings up out of the grass, maybe six or seven in all. And at the hibernaculum proper, I encounter a single cold and docile snake, all the others have disbursed for the season

1923 I don't think it's necessary to go all the way down to the floodplain, as most of the plants and birds there are the same found at Sspopiikimi. However, I will say (without need of verification) that the prairie crocus and yellowbell flowers are played out. I know this, because I observed them two weeks ago at this site, and actually collected seeds of the latter

Just above the rattlesnake hibernaculum is a long, sloping ridge, and I figure it best to include this area in my survey, to maintain consistency with last year. On the ridge and its slopes, I find blanketflower, flixweed, Indian breadroot (or prairie turnip), and scarlet gaura, all with flower buds. There is a very small yellow mustard in full bloom here, a plant I noted for the count last year as well, but have never identified to my satisfaction. The early yellow locoweed and goldenbean here are quite a bit further along in their cycle than those of the rim above. Here, they both have their seed pods, and the locoweed in particular are already drying and starting to rattle in the wind. Just before I'm back on the main trail to begin my ascent, a common yellowthroat flies past

1945 The hike back up the coulee slope is without further event, but I do keep my eyes open for morning glories, moss phlox, and yellow violets, finding none. The morning glories have not emerged yet, to my knowledge, though they're usually flowering in this moon. The yellow violets may have already played-out, which is a bit early. Overall, compared to last year's survey here - which was conducted very near to the same time in both the solar and lunar sequences - many of the plants seem to be further along in their development this go'round. This is especially the case with dandelion, early yellow locoweed, and goldenbean, all of which were in full bloom last year, and are at present mostly seeding