Seasonal Changes Are Constant: Summer and Fall Reflections from the Blackfoot Phenology for Farmers Course

Posted by Alex on October 25, 2022

Photo by Natasha

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 half of summer.


The latter part of summer was dry and warm with a long, drawn-out fall. There were lots of opportunities to harvest berries and the animals were harvesting a bounty of seeds. The end of this season is marked by leaves changing colour and the return of cold weather. 

“I love all this intentional observation for class, it reveals how seasonal changes are constant. Amongst all the subtle shifts, seed heads turning to fluff, leaves yellowing up, you can almost feel the earth revolving, bringing the next season closer.”

Fish CreekPhoto by Joanna

Pakkipistsi Otsitsi’tsspi 

This lunar cycle has a bounty of berries and seeds to harvest! Participants observed birds and squirrels making the most of what is available this year. 

“Noticing the squirrels being extra busy: they are dropping pine cones down from tree tops, and it’s so funny to listen and watch pine cones torpedo out of the sky! Saw a pile of split, empty acorn shells on the path: A feast! Lots of berries and nuts are ready for harvest: chokecherry, beaked hazelnut, acorns, and hawthorn. Spotted a bold white spider in my yard and they snagged a bumble bee on the blazing star! 3:1 size difference easily!”

“Another thing that we’ve noticed lately is that there are a lot of cones being cut by the squirrels. It’s really noticeable this year but I don’t know if I just haven’t noticed it in the past or if there is particularly more of it this year. Two reasons that there might be more squirrels packing away cones this year are that 1) there are relatively few berries around (last year in contrast there were a lot of mountain ash berries) and 2) This spring there was a lot of spruce pollen in the air (enough that it made the news on CBC). Perhaps more pollen means more cones and the squirrels are taking advantage of that? This also makes me wonder if squirrels will store food for multiple years – will they enjoy last year’s berries this winter and this year’s cones next winter?”

Spruce cones on the groundPhoto by Alex

The big event this lunar cycle is that the chokecherries ripen! Once they’re ready, chokecherries need to be harvested and processed to keep them all winter long. The berries and pits are pounded and then dried. This process removes the “choking” feeling of fresh berries and allows the cyanide present in the pits to evaporate. The end result is a tasty dried berry with lots of protein from the seed!

“It is Kisikwekewiku”s here(ripening time) and berries are everywhere. They are pin cherries and very tiny and the birds eat them all. However the blueberries are ripening early (usually ripening the first couple weeks of September) Also the blackberries are ripening. Often find partidgeberries growing with the blueberries if the field is not sprayed.”

“I see many mammal prints along the river bank, not many actual sightings. New flowers all the time. Tons of saskatoon berries and chokecherries seem to be ripening nicely.” 

“Some chokecherries are ripe, some not quite yet, so though they are ripening late in the lunar cycle, they are still ripening.  Dogbane pods are very long.  Canada thistle has mostly gone to seed, though not all of it.” 

Wild blueberriesPhoto by Margaret

Bird Activity 

During this lunar cycle participants noticed a lot of fledgling activity – birds learning to fly in anticipation of the approaching migration.   

“There are osprey babies testing their wings and looking ready to fledge. Lots of bald eagle and hawk sightings, I think they are mostly Swainsons hawks.” 

“On my walk today I came upon these three fuzzy grey baby birds asleep in their nest. Could be a type of wren as I didn’t see the parents.”

Baby wrens in nestPhoto by Margaret

“There have been two sets of Crow fledglings that have been nesting behind my house…For about 2-3 weeks Mom was doing flight training in my backyard so I had a front row seat. She started sessions about 5am and finished around 10:30pm, with long breaks during the day. She would sit on the eve over my bedroom window so there was no mistaking when they started.

If any of my family went out our back door Mom would get very aggravated but she wasn’t bothered by me so I would sit on the deck and keep my distance. Her signal when I came out was like the signal when Black birds were nearby, just three short squawks but when my husband or kids opened the door, she got loud and urgent and would stop as soon as they closed the door.

The fledgelings would fly between the trees and sit on the fence and rooftops and take breaks to eat in the yard, there is lots to forage, and they play for hours. Last year I tossed the shells of squash into the yard so they are hard and dry, full of bugs, they would toss these around like toys.

One day after watching for a while they settled on the fence and I went over and sat on the steps, then one flew straight from the fence to the ledge of the deck next to me. Mom was on the rooftop opposite us watching, I sat still waiting to see what she would do. Then the other one that was having more trouble and not too smooth yet took off to attempt the rooftop on the house next to Mom, he missed the eve and bounced, it felt like slow motion all the way down the side of the house trying to grab hold of something all the way down. He landed on the deck and Mom rushed over to that roof and checked on him. He sat for a bit then went back to the fence and then over to the lower roof just above me. Now I have both very close and I’m in the middle, I sat still waiting to see how Mom would react and after a bit she took off, she would come back occasionally but leave again.

The fledglings had a nap and I sat until my legs went numb. I checked in on the one that had been on the lower roof, he hung out there for a long time after the other had left and then I think Dad came over to sit with him and Mom joined later. I think he may have been injured from the fall but eventually they left together.

A couple days later the neighbourhood three-legged Bobcat got a baby rabbit on our driveway, I must have scared him away, so the Crows were able to feast on the rest of it. They had a good meal and have been off exploring most of the time, flight training must be done.”

Monarch butterfly caterpillarsPhoto by Margaret

Otsitaiapistsiixpitseksinaiks

This is a new moon for this year as compared to the moon cycles of previous years. We’re still in the summer part of the year but we’re slowly heading into fall. Plants are beginning to change colour and many birds have left on their migration. It’s exciting to notice changes that reflect the bounty and energy of summer as well as the winding down of fall.

“Baby leeches attached to a leaf caught in the current. Talk about impermanence! A first for me to see this!”

“It’s taken all spring and summer to spot the school of fish (I don’t know the kind) that live in the creek. They are so much bigger than last year. Were these introduced? Are they last year’s minnows grown bigger or a different species altogether?”

Dry forest in the fallPhoto by Natasha

“Noticed that while many balsam poplar leaves have yellowed, most of the trembling aspen leaves still appear green.  Ragwort have formed pappuses, most of the fireweed seeds have been strewn by the wind, though some remain clinging to the arcing flower stalks that cover the top third of the stalks, and the leaves are already brown and withered.  Anemone and Solomon’s Seal leaves have also turned brown. The creek is almost down to a trickle in some places. …Noticed a spot on the creek’s surface where there was a congregation of water striders.  Wondered what resources might be there to draw them.”  

“A nice site visit today with lots of bird activity. There was a decent sized flock of small, quick birds high up in the canopy that was accompanied by a few chickadees. We couldn’t figure out who they were but they must be passing through. I’ve noticed that the nuthatch, chickadee, downy woodpecker trio are starting to form again – they probably have lots to catch up about after spending the summer apart! I’ve also heard and seen geese flying high and it seemed to me that they were heading south. 

Lacewing eggsPhotos by Alex

An exciting find was two sets of lacewing eggs on old chokecherry stems! They’re quite remarkable. Other folks had seen them in Edmonton and we were excited to notice some as well.

While on our walk we sampled some chokecherries, dried saskatoons, and high bush cranberries. The weather continues to be dry and warm but temperatures are slowly dropping as we ease our way through fall.”

Goldenrod gallPhoto by Brenda

“I cut open a Goldenrod Gall to see what was happening inside.  I was so curious about what I might find. This may be the grub that Ryan talked about in his Okonokiisti Otsitsi’tsspi lecture – the interrelatedness of the midge who lays the egg on the Goldenrod stem, the Goldenrod reacts by creating the gall, the grub eating it’s way out of the gall, the wasp laying eggs in the hollow gall to overwinter and then the Downy Woodpeckers tap into the gall to feed on the wasp larvae. So exciting to learn about this relationship between Goldenrod, midge, wasps and Downy Woodpeckers.”

“…While I was absorbed looking at the chokecherries, a coyote almost bowled me over! I had heard crashing in the bushes behind me, and then there was one coyote chasing another almost right into me. The coyote noticed me at the last second and spun around back into the forest. I decided to back off for a time (realizing I was alone and these were two rather large coyotes!) but then when I came through that area later I saw them again. This time one of them was on its hind legs trying to bite at a tall stump. Couldn’t exactly see what it was doing but I guessed maybe there was a bird nest or something in the stump. Later I heard the coyotes yelping. I figured they must be a pair of teenagers because of their playfulness and seeming lack of awareness of their surroundings.

…Also want to note that while most shrubs and trees at our site have very low fruit yields this year, the high bush cranberries are loaded! One of the biggest years for them that we’ve seen. Interesting to see if/when the birds start focusing on them.”

Photo by Alex

Awakasiki’somm

The last moon of summer! Now is the time for slowing down and really preparing for winter – stores are filled and leaves are shed. It’s wonderful to notice the changes as the temperatures cool, colours change, and the days begin to shorten.

“Then I spent the rest of my visit observing seals that were sunning on rocks out in the water. Some of them were using rocks smaller than the seals bodies making them a funny shape and it took a while even with binoculars to confirm they were seals. I’m pretty sure they were grey seals.”

Seals on a rockPhoto by Robin

“Visited my site this afternoon.  Overcast sky, and first day I’ve felt a true autumn chill in the air. Leaf layer is thicker again.  Some mountain ash leaves have turned orange, others are still green.  Some chokecherries are bare, and now there are chokecherries with no leaves, but still full of ripe black chokecherries.  Hawthorns are also mostly bare of leaves, as well as Manitoba maples – the dried seed husks stand out on them.

Magpies continued to be active on the forest floor – I saw one with something oval and light brown in kin’s beak, and another with something somewhat smaller, white and oval.  I watched that one bring the snack to a log, and peck it into smaller pieces and eat them.”

Deer in forestPhotos by Joanna (left) and Brenda (right)

“Haven’t caught sight of the beavers for quite a while now, and the rivers is as low as its been so far this year – really clear. Not many mature fish visible. …

Oregon grape looking like its enjoying the colder weather, it didn’t produce much this year and didn’t look good over the summer. Chokecherry also had a great bloom but not a huge fruit set at this elevation. Yarrow, goldenrod, knapweed, gumweed all dried up. Common snowberry berries mostly eaten/grazed/dropped. Douglas maple, saskatoon, sumac and poison ivy all rocking fall colours. Some rabbitbrush still blooming, sage is super seedy. Current is changing colours – its my personal favourite plant colour palette right now. 

Lots of deer tracks, poop. Lots of bear scat. …End of milkweed blooming/expressing seeds. Easy to spot yellowing asparagus now. Still some seedy heads of nodding onion standing. Tons of cool grasses to meet/identify. Aspen haven’t turned yet. 

Noticed a few woodpeckers really active – hairy or downy? It might be time to get binos. Also noticed a ton of smaller birds in the pines pecking at the trunk and at cones – couldn’t get a picture of them as they’re too far away/shaded by trees. They seemed to move around a lot. 

Weather wise – consistent cooler nights and 20’s and sunny in the day. No frost yet – pretty long season around here. Usually when the season is late here (this wet lengthy spring), things catch up by mid-summer (for the fruit tree growers anyways) but this year things stayed behind. I don’t think I’ve ever picked peaches into the second week of September before. Primo apple temperatures now, so they should be extra good this year if they’ve recovered from last year’s intense heat. Never seen so many praying mantis around my house before!”

Kootenay riverPhoto by Natasha

“We saw wasps foraging (we think) in the shallows of the creek, which was interesting because later on in the visit we saw a hornet’s nest that had already been partially destroyed. Maybe the foraging wasps had no home any longer and were living out their last days? Or maybe their home had been overlooked thus far by the bird.” 

“Most of the leaves have fallen, although still quite a few for this time of the year. Haven’t noticed as much robin activity as we did in this moon last year. Also missed out on the fall rains that brought on mushroom flushes. I wonder if the squirrels are concerned, they seemed to use a lot of those mushrooms last year. We encountered wild liquorice for the first time in our site, and will be monitoring them for rodent activity.”

MullelinPhoto by Natasha

Thanks for following along as participants from the Blackfoot Phenology for Farmers course share their observations from this year. It’s been beautiful and inspiring to hear about what everyone has seen!

Want to read about what participants observed during the rest of the year? Check out the blog posts with initial reflections, winter reflections blog post, and early summer reflections.

SPONSORS

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

 

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