Delighted by Colour and Sound: Winter Reflections from the Blackfoot Phenology for Farmers Course

Posted by Rachel Spruston on May 30, 2022

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

As part of the Blackfoot Phenology for Farmers course, a group of farmers, growers, and food lovers across many Indigenous territories and ecosystems have committed to one year of active ecological observation based on the Blackfoot lunar calendar. Students pick a study site in their area and visit it often in order to recognize and learn from the patterns, relationships, and cycles they observe. Here are some of their reflections from the second part of winter.


The past few moon cycles have been rich with change. We have passed through both the winter solstice and the spring equinox. From the long nights and frozen rivers of December to the rapidly lengthening days and ice-free rivers of April, there has been lots to observe and learn from. 

“These last months as the cold has set in, I’ve been delighted by colour and sound. I’ve always thought of winter as a white, grey, and brown blur… I have always cherished the long nights and the time they inspire us to spend in company, but the days always seemed to run into one another. Each day the same as the last. The observations I’ve made, however, have opened my eyes to the diversity of each winter day. The differences in the timbre of bird voices on warmer days versus colder days. The flash of bird shape, sound, and colour more stark and clear without the competition of leaf, insect, and flower. The way subtlety becomes more pronounced in the infinite hues of brown, grey, white, deep green, fiery orange, and burgundy. I’ve been feeling so grateful for the delight and joy these observations have brought me.” 

Photo by Joanna Tschudy 

MISAMIKO’KOMIAATO’S

We begin in the third winter moon, Misamiko’komiaato’s (Long Nights Moon), which contains the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. 

“A moon of musings. Visited & witnessed the sweet site in its many forms, high water, high temperatures, after snow. Loved the way the leaves have fallen from the cottonwoods to expose buds that seem to be ready for spring already.” 

“We’re passing through the darkest part of the year right now and it’s feeling extra cozy because of all the snow we’ve been getting. Snow was falling during our site visit today and the forest was quiet and peaceful. A few chickadees and nuthatches were about and we saw a squirrel briefly poke its head out of a tree cavity. We enjoyed looking at the snow caught in every nook and cranny of the trees and breathing in the fresh winter air.”  

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

“Walking through the trees, and the wind was speaking: clackity sounds of dry branches bucking against bark, and then… the abrupt puffs of snow on high tree top branches, gusted up in the air, dancing and settling in the most gentle way.” 

The Longest Nights

“[This] is the highest moon of the year and lasts the longest, a total of 16 hours and 20 minutes. Truly a great moon and I thank it for lighting my way last night.” 

“A fuzzy waxing gibbous moon was showing through a sparse layer of cloud that was continuing to disperse itself gently in the form of light precipitation as I embarked on my journey. I was pleasantly surprised by the degree of illumination – it’s been a while since I was out at night during a full moon. Remaining clusters of mountain ash berries supported incredibly tall accumulations of snow, so that they looked like bright red faces wearing those really tall baker’s hats. Occasional clouds of snow particles would waft down after being dislodged from tree branches, presumably by ephemeral gusts of wind. Temperatures were very low again, and the stillness was noticeably thicker than it was during my daytime visit (thick doesn’t quite cut it, but English adjectives fail me for the quality of presence that made itself felt).” 

Photo by Melisa Z.

“Longest night has passed, this spot has kept my spirits up, my lungs full of clean, fresh air, my senses engaged. Grey days try to weigh me down, keep me inside. Grateful to push into the cold and see ‘who’ else is meandering the river.” 

Hints in the Snow

In the winter months, the snow acts as a canvas on which we can observe the activity of animals, even when the animals keep themselves hidden. Frost around small openings in the snow may indicate a den, where an animal’s breath has frozen and crystallized in the cold. 

Photo by Alex Pulwicki 

Tracks in the snow offer clues about the relationships (and sometimes skirmishes) between animals, as they hunt and forage for food.

“We noticed a fox family with a pup this past fall, as winter arrived, and people started to go away they came out more. We had a period of about 3 weeks with a few fresh snowfalls that the only footprints were ours, so we were able to track them all over the area and see where they travelled. They were very active during this time.” 

“Found some animal tracks in my area today. Amazing they are still out at -25C! One of my favourite things about winter is walking in cold crunchy snow.”  

“At my site, I immediately came upon a set of fresh tracks, which I believe were coyote tracks. After following one set for a few meters, I came across another set. There appeared to be three individuals in total roaming around and weaving among each other throughout the site and I was able to follow them from where they entered on one side of the river, across the site, and into the forest on the other side of the river. At one point it looked like they caught sight of a mouse as there were signs of commotion as well as small specks of blood, but as far as I could tell the mouse managed to get away underneath the snow layer.” 

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

KA’TOYI

The fourth winter moon is Ka’toyi (Hunger) moon, when fresh food is limited and food stores are dwindling. 

“The cold and snowy weather continues. The forest is laden with snow that seems to pile in ways that defy gravity. I wonder if there is something about cold snow that allows it to stick together more strongly… Not many tracks in the snow so I guess everyone is hunkering down. I did hear the usual hardy birds though – chickadees, downy woodpecker, and magpies. The creak of swaying trees sounds especially precarious in the frigid temperatures.” 

This moon is a time when animals turn most of their energy to survival. Surviving the winter is so critical that Blackfoot measure age not in years, but in how many winters one has lived through. 

Braving the Cold

“It’s incredibly icy and treacherous these days. I walked around my usual route, slowly, watching my feet for much of the time, but did hear plenty of blue jays, both the rusty gate sounds, and the keer vocalizations… the ice is teaching me to slow down and sit still.”

Photo by Alex Pulwicki 

“There are still a lot of animals active in the dead of winter… The mice are the big surprise. I didn’t think they’d keep going all winter!” 

“I enjoyed watching three chickadees take snow baths in the sun. I wondered whether the snow actually helped clean them, or whether it was just a pleasant thing to do!” 

“We found a squirrel drey [nest] that looked like it was made mostly of moss. This is particularly impressive because this forest does not have a lot of moss so it required quite a bit of foraging to build this cozy looking home!”

Photo by Alex Pulwicki ​​

Surprise Appearances

In this period of the year, animals that are normally less active during the day, such as coyotes, will sometimes be spotted in broad daylight as they must spend more time hunting for food. 

“I visited my site and was quietly watching four Awatoyi Whitetails [Deer]… I was almost ready to head back when something caught my eye. An Aapi’si Coyote zigzagged across the river and right between the deer and me. It must’ve known I was there, stopping and coming closer a couple times but showing no sign that it sensed me. It shook the snow off its fur, sniffed towards the deer and kept going across the field.” 

Photo by Robin Johnston 

“The freeze-thaw cycle continues here and there was ice in so many different forms at my site yesterday.” 

“I spent a few hours along the river and noticed so much.  Either my observation skills are evolving or there is just a lot of activity lately. I always think I won’t see much and am consistently amazed.” 

Preparing to Nest

Many birds will show indications that they are preparing to mate and nest during this lunar cycle. Geese will break off from their larger flocks into smaller family groups, and scope out nesting sites for the summer. Owls will start to become more vocal, as they approach mating season and stake out their nesting trees. 

Photo by Natasha Danenhower

“I’ve been wondering why some birds stick around during the winter when most leave? Is this a choice in some sense? Did they miss the migration time accidentally and get left behind? This has then led me to wonder about migration more in general. How is the need to migrate triggered? Some combination of temperature and light? How is this process impacted by significant temperature swings? Do they feel like it’s time to migrate one day and not the next? If so, what is their experience of this uncertainty? I know as a human I find it more challenging to listen to my intuitive wisdom during times of uncertainty – when it is arguably most useful – do our animal kin experience a sense of unease with temperature swings?”

PIITAIKI’SOMM

Following Ka’toyi is Piitaiki’somm (Eagle Moon). The defining phenological events in this lunar cycle are the mating and nesting of eagles and owls, who are the first birds to lay their eggs in this northern climate, a harbinger of spring.  

“I stepped around a shrub to get a better look but instead of my eyes finding the magpie, they fell on a still and silent Great Horned Owl. I was in awe. I had been trying to spot an owl for well over a year now, even before starting this course and here one was, accidentally stumbled across in the forest while chasing coyotes and ravens.” 

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

Longer, Warmer Days

During Piitaiki’somm, the days get noticeably longer as we approach the spring equinox. Warmer periods are possible during Piitaiki’somm as well, which means the ice on rivers and lakes often begins to thaw and break up. 

“The temperature has been swinging massively, from +10 to -25 and it will be +10 again this weekend. I saw the mallards and mergansers were back and wonder if they will make it through this cold snap.” 

“A few things starting to bud out, lots more vibrant bird activity, a river mostly free of ice.”

Photo by Travis Lee 

“Sunday really felt like the first day of spring! Bright, sunny, clear and +3 degrees. Today, winter has returned with a bout of new flurries, but while it was “spring” for a day, the animals were out and about and enjoying the warm weather and looking for food as it became exposed by the melting snow.” 

Insect Emergence

With periods of warmer temperatures, insects often emerge as well. Fresh holes drilled in trees by woodpeckers are a telltale sign of freshly hatched insect larvae. 

“I noticed downy woodpeckers concentrating their pecking on smaller branches rather than the main trunks of aspens. I’m not sure how uncommon this is, but I wonder whether different insects live in branches vs main trunks and are more readily available at certain points of the year.”

“Today I watched a hairy woodpecker chip away at bark looking for food. I never really thought much about how much force it would take to chip holes in wood as they do, but watching it today I was surprised at how forcefully they throw their heads at the bark.”

Photo by Brenda Bohmer 

Birdsong & Blurred Boundaries

Magpies will also begin to build or repair their nests during Piitaiki’somm, although most will not mate and lay eggs until later in the spring. Increased bird activity was a noticeable theme in this lunar cycle in general, and students observed jays, chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, owls, eagles, magpies, waxwings, ravens, and many more! 

“Today I saw what must have been a thousand waxwings in a few poplars. They all took up suddenly and I could feel the wind from their collective wings! They are exhilarating to watch.” 

“I walked through my site and got to listen to birds chirping for the first time in a long time. I found where they were and stood still and soon I had a whole group (around 15) chickadees hopping around me, chirping and bobbing. It made my morning feel so much less heavy than mornings have been feeling! Very grateful.”

Photo by Joanna Tschudy 

“As I came near, I saw over 50 simitsiim [waxwing] in two poplars (which sit within the park boundary of my site), taking turns flying across the street to the Mountain Ash in the front yard of a nearby house… Watching them cross the street to feast, it was such a clear demonstration of the fallacy of a separation between humanity and nature. The boundary of my site, though made real by paved roads, is permeable, mammals and birds alike (including humans) passing in and out… Such perceived boundary transgressions have always fascinated me, the way we imagine difference and barrier where there, in fact, is none. Each time I witness the blurring of what seems in some ways a very clear boundary, my attention perks up because it feels like an opportunity to come closer, to reach across the created distance between “me” and something else, and pull.” 

SAOMMITSKIKI’SOMM 

This year, the sixth winter moon was Saommitskiki’somm (Deceptive Moon), which acts as a “leap moon”, only occurring once every few years in Blackfoot tradition. Typically Piitaiki’somm (Eagle Moon) is followed by Sa’aiki’somm (Duck Moon). The presence of a Deceptive Moon is determined by the timing of the full moon of Sa’aiki’somm (Duck Moon) with relation to the equinox, as well as the nesting behaviours of eagles, owls, and waterfowl. Consistent with this lunar cycle progression, students observed a gap in between the mating of eagles and owls and the nesting of waterfowl. 

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

“I still haven’t found any eagle nests and haven’t seen any more sightings of eagles picking up sticks or any eagle sightings at all in the last week to 10 days which makes me think they are now likely sitting on the nests.” 

“I followed my ear yesterday, and eventually ended up standing on a little path in between two owls calling to each other from different trees, both in sight as it slowly got dark!… The initiating caller was really going for it, and the responder was sometimes being aloof, not responding to every call.” 

“From now on, I will be watching Great Horned Owls with greater interest as I have learned the significance of their nesting habits with respect to the lunar cycles and deceptive moons.”

Photo by Natasha Danenhower

Embracing the Unknown

During Saommitskiki’somm, students witnessed a blend of phenological events typical of the lunar cycles before and after it. This lunar cycle was a chance to explore the interconnectedness of solar and lunar cycles, as well as the more localized effects of weather and climate on different sites. 

“Rather than approaching this as a scientific survey where answers are the goal… I am learning to come as an inquisitive visitor who simply observes and asks questions where the experience and process is the goal, reserving the answers for down the road.” 

“The warmest afternoon of the year so far (10C!), and there was a lot of bird activity. Early on a couple of loud blue jays alerted us to the presence of a barred owl in a spruce tree!… We also saw a pileated woodpecker pecking away at what was definitely a live aspen! It made me smile because it reminded me of our conversation during our last call. Was the woodpecker killing the tree, or was the tree already dying?” 

“Lots of bird activity, the downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees all seem to get along really well. Tough little winter birds band together! River still frozen enough to walk on in some parts. I found 2 more beaver lodges/cache spots on the far side of the river that I hadn’t seen before. Poplar sap seems to be moving, frozen this morning but will probably be gooey by lunchtime.”  

This was also the lunar cycle in which we passed through the equinox, and the days became longer than the nights. 

Photo by Scott Gillespie 

Signs of Spring

“Spotted some more signs of spring. The coltsfoot are still flowering, I think they have a particularly warm spot because they are in the stairs used to access the beach and protected from the wind. I also spotted two other plants germinating, one is a yellow mustard and the other is known as sea spinach… There have often been ducks (mallards, black ducks, possibly eider ducks) at my site but I don’t know if they are nesting yet, I usually see them in the water. I have noticed a lot of duck activity in general and I am mostly seeing pairs now… As well there are often Canada geese out in the water but they mostly seem to still be in groups although I’ve noticed pairs flying over where I live. I’m not sure who will end up nesting at my site…” 

“More variety and volume in the birdsong has me tuned in and ice-turned-to-mud makes the smell of seasons changing fill me right up!”

“I’ve been enjoying the birdsong and sunlight the last week! Lots of chickadees and nuthatches around, and this last visit I saw a bunch of ravens and heard an owl! I never did find him though. The bushes are starting to change colour a bit, like they’re brightening up for spring. And there’s lots of fresh beaver sticks in the water around the lodge! I still haven’t seen any beaver tracks though, but I’m hoping I’ll see the beavers out and about soon.”

SA’AIKI’SOMM

Following Saommitskiki’somm, we enter the last winter moon, Sa’aiki’somm (Duck Moon). This is the moon in which waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, lay their eggs.

“Spotted the first (and usually only) mallard pair in the urban creek today!” 

Photo by Alexis Jones

“I understood this month previous why it’s called the duck moon. So much waterfowl and bird life has returned in such a short span of time! In the past month I have seen robins return, heaps of flickers, common mergansers, tons of gulls, nuthatches and many pairs of geese laying eggs… The magpies are building their nests. I waded across the river today and found 16 pairs of geese on only one half of an island – I reckon there are at least another 4-5 pairs on the other side… All were incubating… I have seen a huge increase in beaver activity as well – almost every time I go out I see at least one beaver doing its thing.” 

“A pair of merlins has been hanging out in some tall willow trees along the edge of the pond… The smaller one (turned out to be the male) had killed a small songbird and was standing on it on a branch and calling. The larger female swooped up, landed beside the male and grabbed the gift. The male immediately flew away. The female then proceeded to eat the songbird, slowly and methodically. After a time, the male flew back, mated with her, and flew away to a nearby branch. The female continued on eating as if nothing had happened.”

Exciting Sightings

“4 baby owls spotted in the ravine.”

“First goslings of the season!”

This is also the lunar cycle in which many migratory birds return to their summer sites.

“It’s magical how the arrival of the birds is so uplifting.” 

Photo by Brenda Bohmer

“House finches, robins and swallows also returned during this time, and the Northern Flicker activity exploded. There are so many in this local area that they honestly become quite irritating, with their shrill call! But they are a good indicator of spring.” 

“I’ve been hearing the Northern Flickers for quite a while and I’ve had a hard time distinguishing their call from the Merlins in the past. Yesterday I heard a Merlin for the first time this season and I could tell it wasn’t a Flicker. I think that making an effort to listen with more attention has enabled me to recognize the difference, which is a great thing to experience.” 

An Uneven Transition

Students also observed lots of plants starting to bud and leaf out, although the transition out of winter was tumultuous and uneven in some places.

Photo by Alex Pulwicki 

“I am glad the rivers are swelling and the ground isn’t quite so dry. Even with the white stuff and cold temperatures plants and animals find sunny spots and Spring slowly unfolds.” 

“Drip, drip, drip. Melt is slowly coming here, it’s been consistently cold at night so most of the water has been absorbed by the ground (which is good for the trees after last year) rather than building up into flows and running off…” 

“Noticed the aspens and poplars budding out. Have been hearing merlins and finches in the morning..”

“Today the saskatoons decided to go for it… visible bud swell on the buffaloberry and prickly rose.”

“Plenty of insects, flies, spiders and butterflies today, and signs of new grass.” 

“The saskatoons broke bud while the temperatures were dropping and the sky was greying, and the ground was refreezing… shortly after the full moon they all opened a crack.” 

Photo by Natasha Danenhower

“Spiders, of all kinds, are everywhere. When I look back at sun dappled trees I see lines of web catching the sun. There is plenty of insect activity on these warm, sunny afternoons!”

Looking Ahead

During this lunar cycle, some students got a sneak peak of things to come in the next lunar cycle (and the first summer moon!), which is Maatsiiyikapisaiki’somm (Frog Moon).

“I went for a walk after dark last night and was serenaded by the spring peepers [frogs]. They are nocturnal and small (about 3/4 of an inch) but their chorus is unmistakable and a sign of spring in the east.” 

“These past weeks the Pacific Green Frog gents have been presenting us with a nightly concert.  A lovely soundtrack to accompany the brightening of the moon and stars in the sky.  A lament to the fading sun’s light.”

As we say goodbye to winter and enter the summer moons, we are again reminded of how much there is to learn from the plants, animals, and fungi around us. 

“Using lunar time helped me connect to what was happening in the natural world in a more meaningful manner.”

“This practice remains such a gift. This week I caught myself identifying lichen and thought ‘heck ya!’” 

We are grateful, as always, to the students for slowing down, tuning in, and showing up with their insights, photos, and observations. 

Photo by Joanna Tschudy 

Learn more about the Blackfoot Phenology for Farmers course.

Read more from Blackfoot Phenology students in our initial reflections blog post.

SPONSORS

Thank you to Alberta Ecotrust Foundation for their support of this program!

 

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