Buffalo — up close

Our first stop on this cross-country adventure was Cross Ranch in central North Dakota, a 5600 acre Nature Conservancy preserve.  Originally a large cattle ranch, this landscape of rolling hills and flat valley grasslands is being used to raise about 250 buffalo, along with supporting a diversity of prairie plants and animals. Bison at Cross Ranch, Washburn, North Dakota We saw Sage Grouse, a coyote, and an assortment of songbirds, but we came to see the big bruisers that cruise the ridge lines looking for the sweetest new sprouts to munch. I thought seeing a big herd from a distance was a thrill, but wasn’t prepared to meet them from just a few feet away, as our intrepid tour guide maneuvered his 4-wheel drive right up next to the herd. Hardly needed a telephoto for these shots. Bison at Cross Ranch, Washburn. North Dakota As is the case for many species of hoofed animals, buffalo females and their offspring (males only up to 2-3 yrs of age) make up the herd. Bulls hang out alone or in small stag groups and only join the herd during the rut, once a year. These calves were only about 2 months old. Bison at Cross Ranch, Washburn, North Dakota That’s not a brand on this female’s back — those are scars left by the feet of the male when he mounts her. Bison at Cross Ranch. Washburn, North Dakota They shed their heavy winter coat from the rear forward, but retain the dense fur around the neck and head into the summer, making them look even larger.

An update on Photography 101

I’ve been working my way through Level 2 of the Arcanum online photography course, focusing especially on mastering the fundamentals of shooting good landscapes.  Since there might be a bit of a hiatus in blog posts for the next couple of weeks, I thought I would share some of my latest landscape efforts with readers.

Our most recent challenge is to capture your attention by utilizing certain devices to lure you in:  specifically — color, value (contrast), symmetry or asymmetry, balance or imbalance, perspective, leading lines, drama, energy, calm, clarity or simplicity — as elements of good composition.

To make this presentation a little more interesting, I’ll let you decide which of those devices I am utilizing in the following photos.  Brief definitions might help you decide what it is that is drawing your eyes to the photo.

  • A spot of color in an otherwise bland image immediately draws your eye there, but we also gravitate to images showing a variety of rich, deep colors.
  • The brightness and/or variety of color intensities gives an image its color value — think what it would look like in black and white to emphasize stark contrasts between the various shades of color.
  • Because we humans love order, we appreciate symmetrical forms in a photo, but sometimes things that are just off kilter, or asymmetrical, are intriguing because they defy order.
  • We find a balance of subjects in a photo if they share the space and complement each other in some way.  Often this is best done by placing them on either side of the center, one in front of the other, offset in some way.  But sometimes, it is the imbalance of a subject in a photo that makes it intriguing and causes you to stare at it longer.
  • Leading lines come from a corner and take your eye through the image to some other point of interest.  Where that point lies in the far distance gives us a sense of perspective.
  • Drama and energy might be conveyed by highly contrasting warm or cool colors or shapes or motion, or implied motion — intended to make the viewer feel a bit agitated.  In contrast, calm scenes project still subjects, in cool colors, and lack implied or actual activity and give us a sense of serenity or peace.
  • Simplicity — is simple.

NOTE:  there may be more than one right answer!

balance-park bench couple at sunset

The beach at sunset:  Is it Symmetry, Balance, Perspective, or Energy?

cle of rocks Pinnacles trail-

The Pinnacles rock formations:  Is it Symmetry, Balance, Value, or Perspective?

drama-thunderstrom prelude

Thunderheads over the lake before a big storm:  Which term best describes this one?

balance-syrphid flies on peony pollen

Hoverflies feeding on peony pollen:  What terms best describe this one?

An experiment

I’m going camping with friends and family for the next 2 weeks and may try to post a few photos from my phone.  So, I’ve downloaded the WordPress app and hope for the best. 

A trial run with the clouds we’ve been enjoying lately.  (Unedited, with the phone camera)



It would be nice to be able to edit these, so the flowers would show up.  This was taken the day before the hail storm that destroyed all the potted plants on my daughter’s deck.

Bugs in the garden

I haven’t seen any Monarch butterflies yet this year, and the milkweeds are just about to flower.  But the Milkweed Leaf Beetles are more abundant than ever.  They just love the pink-flowered swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata).  Last week I found adults crawling all over the tops of the plants near the unopened flowers (which they also devour in addition to the leaves).

milkweed leaf beetles mating on swamp milkweed-

These milkweed leaf specialists look a little like ladybird beetles but are much larger (about twice the size), and have larger black spots.

milkweed leaf beetle mating on swamp milkweed-

Males follow or ride on females as she munches on flowers or leaves. He guards the female from other potential suitors, until she lays a batch of eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves.  Then he may wander off to find another female.  Both sexes may mate many times during their short summer lifespan, which ensures a lot of gene flow in a population.

After seeing adults in the garden for several days now, I examined the underside of the milkweed leaves this morning to see if there were any larvae present, and sure enough all stages of larval development were present.

labidomera larva-just hatched-

A small clutch of milkweed leaf beetle eggs had just hatched (egg cases still remaining).  This is the first of four instars of larval development before pupation.

The eggs are orange, which is warning coloration that should deter egg-sucking predators.  But they are often attacked by syprhid (hoverfly) larvae, who apparently tolerate the milkweed poisons (cardiac glycosides) just fine.

Larvae may cannibalize each other at this stage, so that only a few survive to mature.  In fact, female milkweed leaf beetles may also cannibalize the offspring of other females, perhaps to reduce the competition for their own progeny on that plant.

milkweed leaf beetle larva-small size-

I found only solitary individuals of milkweed leaf beetle larvae on the plants. This was one of the smallest — probably a second instar larva. Compare its size with that of the unopened flower to gauge how small it is.

labidomera larva-mid size

A doubling of size occurs at each larval instar stage. This individual might be a third larval instar, with its much more ovoid abdoment, and more prominent head and thorax segments (compared to the individual in the previous photo).

milkweed leaf beetle larva-pre-pupa-

This individual was almost as big as an adult and is probably a fourth instar, almost ready to drop to the ground and pupate in the soil or litter near the roots of the milkweed plant.

milkweed leaf beetle larva-pre-pupa-

A fourth instar milkweed beetle larva is still mobile enough to turn the corner at the tip of a very pointed milkweed leaf.

There are reports on the web of milkweed leaf beetle infestations that completely denude their milkweed hosts of leaves and flowers, although this seems to occur primarily in a climate where milkweeds grow year-round.  The population of these beetles has definitely increased from a rare sighting of one individual several years ago, to finding many individuals in the backyard almost any day.  I hope this doesn’t mean I’ll have to manually remove beetles at some point — I already get enough practice doing that with Japanese Beetles.

Another bee mimic

Flower gardens are in bloom up and down the street, so I took a stroll to see what insects I could find on the rich diversity of flowers available right now.  There should be lots of bees gathering nectar and pollen from those flowers, right?

robber fly-bumblebee mimic

robber fly-

Is this a bumblebee?  Hmm… doesn’t look quite right.


Well, let’s compare these two bumblebees on a dahlia with that “bee” above.

The bumblebee pretender has only one pair of wings, big bug eyes, no pollen baskets on those big hind legs, funny looking feet (not bee-like), and a big proboscis that sticks straight out from its head rather than straight down, like a bee’s would.  It looks like a bee, flies like a bee, even hums like a bee — but it’s a fly!  More specifically a robber fly, a predator of bees and other flying and crawling insects.

robber fly-bumblebee mimic

A closer look at this robber fly-bumblebee mimic nicely shows off his predatory apparatus.  Robber flies dart out and catch prey with their spiny legs, then ram their proboscis right into an unsuspecting insect, inject some salivary enzymes into the prey via the proboscis, and slurp back the digested material.

Laphria-Myrmecos blog-Alexander Wild

A bee-mimicking Robber Fly (Laphria species) attacks and consumes a honeybee. Photo by Alexander Wild.

There were only a couple of bees in the garden today — many fewer than I would have expected.  But there were lots of bee mimics, hoverflies, robber flies, and others.  Where are all the bees?  Do you see bees in your garden?  Look closely, what you’re seeing could be bee mimics.

Red Fox redux — or why I miss the foxes in my backyard

The Red Fox kits seem to be thriving well in the Minneapolis backyard.  The Minneapolis paper ran an article on foxes in urban backyards the same day I published their photos on this blog!  Some city residents appreciate seeing “wild” creatures come into their backyards — others abhor nature and shoot foxes, even within the city limits.  So sad.

The following set of photos was kindly forwarded by a friend who lives quite near the fox den where we took the first set of pictures, and it illustrates very well why I (and some others) enjoy having foxes patrol the backyard and keep the rodent/rabbit population under control.

red fox kit with rabbit

Got that rabbit!  One of the red fox kits makes a kill.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds

red fox kit with rabbit-

Shake it up, make sure it’s dead.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds

red fox kit with rabbit-

Enjoying a delicious meal!  Photo by Debbie Reynolds

As I look out my porch window on the backyard this evening, here is why I miss the foxes in my backyard.  We haven’t seen rabbits here for the last few years; either the Great Horned Owls or the foxes were taking care of them.  Now I see that the rabbits have quite enjoyed the herb garden, polishing off most of the cilantro and the dill and have now started in on the cardinal flower and other tender shoots in the wildflower garden.

rabbits in the garden-

They look like pretty easy targets to me, even with their big, widely spaced eyes trained on what’s around them.

eastern cottontail rabbit eating garden wildflowers-

Well, help yourself to a few of my flowers, then.

eastern cottontail rabbit-

Did you know that the placement of the eyes on a rabbit’s head enables them to see almost 360 degrees around their head, as well as above and below their head? They have about 30 degrees of binocular vision in front, 10 degrees of binocular vision behind their head!, and almost 180 degrees of lateral monocular vision from each eye. No wonder they are so hard to sneak up on.

Fledging Day

There’s always something interesting going on in the backyard.  Today was Fledging Day for the House Wren family.  It’s kind of like graduation from toddler pre-school, as the fledglings take their first flight from the safety of their home nest box.

house wren fledgling-

Two of the fledglings flew as far as the fence around the garden (about 25 feet) and sat there for a while to recover from all that exertion.  These little ones flew like a butterfly, flapping erratically on unsteady wings a few feet before landing in the grass or bushes.

house wren nestling-

This one could not be enticed from the nest box no matter how much encouragement it got from its parents.

house wren

But my presence near the nest box really set the parents on edge, and they chattered at me continuously using their best scolding calls, which I decided sounded sort of like a slower version of the rattle of a rattlesnake.

house wren

The House Wren parents have been pretty busy the last 2 weeks bringing food to their clutch of chicks.  Now they will have to show them where to find it for themselves.

the urban fox

The red fox family that occasionally visits my backyard has moved on apparently, but a friend reported a fox family with three kits in her Minneapolis neighborhood, so I went over to investigate.

red fox kit emerging from its den

Sure enough, at least one of the kits was still sleeping in the den when we arrive at 6:30 a.m. This was actually shot quite a ways away across a pond with my 400 mm lens.

Red Foxes are seen more frequently in urban environments these days, as are a variety of other predators — e.g., Great horned Owls, coyotes, and Sharp-shinned Hawks (that specialize on birds coming to feeders).  The urban environment offers a plethora of hiding places, a variety of freshly discarded garbage (and foxes are quite omnivorous), and a human population that usually tolerates their presence, or perhaps even cultivates it.  Even the presence of dogs fails to drive foxes away, but they are definitely wary of their canine relatives.

urban red fox-

The fox den (at bottom right of the brown scrape in the hillside) is hidden from the view of pedestrians and their canine friends on this particular hillside overlooking the pond. The fox is alert, ready to dash back down the front door of its den, but there is no need for that when dogs are on leashes.

red fox kit

So, I’ll just sit here and wait to see if mom or dad shows up this morning.”

red fox adult-

One of the adults was checking for treats at the houses across the street from the den. It stopped on the driveway to check us out.

Unlike many species, red foxes can survive quite nicely in the fragmented habitat of the urban ecosystem, where parks and woods are interspersed with houses.  Even without the greater acreage of the local park, foxes find plenty of squirrels, mice, and rabbits in our backyards, and do us a service by reducing the numbers of those wildflower-consuming herbivores.  In fact, because of their flexible diet and adaptable hunting behavior, foxes are one of the best rodent population controls we have in the urban environment, and they don’t kill small songbirds like house cats do.

red fox adult and kit-

I’m not sure what this greeting by the adult meant, but notice the submissive (head down, ears back) posture of the kit as it approaches.

These kits (I think there three of them in this family) were probably born in this or another nearby den in March or early April.  They mature quickly, are ready to hunt with their parents by mid-May, and will stay with the family unit until they reach reproductive readiness this winter.

red fox and kit-

Ah– a family portrait. Maybe I’ll be able to see the rest of the family on a return trip sometime.

feasting on pollen

Back in Minnesota, the peonies have just about finished blooming.  Their fragrance and color make them a hit in my garden, but the bees and flies seem to love their pollen.

syrphid fly eating peony pollen

Very small hoverflies, not much bigger than the anthers of the peony, crawled around on them searching for some pollen to eat.

syrphid fly eating peony pollen-

Their eyes almost match the color of the peony petals.

bee pollinating peony-

What looked like small bumblebees were gathering pollen on their enlarged back legs

bee pollinating peony-

And then there was this strange bee mimicking fly…

Another species of hoverfly, perhaps an Eristalis species, hovered around the flowers and sat on the leaves.  It looks just like a small bumble bee, except for those very large eyes (bees are smaller with space between them on the top of their head) and the very short antennae (bees are longer and project diagonally outward from the head, rather than forward like these do).

Another species of hoverfly, perhaps an Eristalis species, hovered around the flowers and sat on the leaves. It looks just like a small bumble bee, except for those very large eyes (bees are smaller with space between them on the top of their head) and the very short antennae (bees are longer and project diagonally outward from the head, rather than forward like these do).  And of course, this one is obviously not collecting pollen on its rear legs.

It’s amazing what you see when you look closely on and inside of these beautiful flowers.


the hike

I wasn’t sure if I was up to it — 6 miles, in the heat of the day (and it was hot!), 3000 feet elevation change (up and down), narrow, twisting staircases at elevation, and of course, not enough water.  But the old lady made it, with energy to spare.

Pinnacles National Park, near Hollister, CA

It doesn’t look challenging from here, but wait until you see what comes next.

The Pinnacles are the eroded remnants of an extinct volcano that has been sheared in half by the movement of the San Andreas fault.  Its other half is located 150 miles to the south, in the desert of southern California, while the part we climbed now resides within the coast range bordering the Salinas Valley.  The area is composed primarily of  exposed lava flows, paler volcanic rocks called rhyolite, and a type of conglomerate rock (breccia) that looks like you threw rock chunks into cement and then stood the mass up on end to weather.  Actually the breccia here was probably formed in the same volcano that spewed out all the lava.

lava flow at Pinnacles National Park

Lava flow (on the left) and breccia conglomerate (on the right) are typical scenes in Pinnacles NP.

Breccia at Pinnacles NP

Close-up of breccia showing the large fragments of broken rock that were cemented together in the volcano and then extruded down its sides as the lava emerged.  These are the youngest rocks in this area — probably 23 million years old.

the Pinnacles at Pinnacles National Park

Columns of breccia slowly erode leaving the spiked pinnacles. The vegetation is sparse on top of the High Ridge where just a few pines survive to offer weary hikers a little shade.  Low chaparral shrubs cover most of the hills that have some soil.

The Pinnacles are home to 30+ California Condors, whose home range encompasses not only this park, but much of the coast range from the Pinnacles south to Santa Barbara.  We looked closely at every Turkey Vulture we saw, just to make sure it wasn’t something a little more spectacular.  Prairie Falcons nest on the cliffs on the High Ridge trail, and we did see lots of whitewash on some of the rocky ledges, but no falcons stooping on luckless prey.

old lava flow at Pinnacles NP

A scene like this (from the Raptor Research Foundation webpage) would have been the highlight of the hike.

The view from the top of the High Ridge Trail at Pinnacles National Park

The view near the top of the HIgh Ridge trail gave us a glimpse of what we could expect on the hike down — a long, exposed stretch with no shade.

Climbing the staircase on the High Ridge Trail at Pinnacles NP

At one point, the High Ridge trail takes a detour over one of the massive columns of  breccia rock. Someone thankfully placed a handrail and chiseled steps into the rock face.

Staircase down on the High Ridge Trail, Pinnacles NP

What goes up, must come down.  A better look at those footholds placed in the rock face for hikers to traverse the steep side.

old lava flow at Pinnacles NP

Darker lava rocks that were extruded from the volcano cooled in huge clumps producing grotesque shapes. Turkey Vultures soared around the tops of the cliffs over our heads.

the Pinnacles of Pinnacles NP

More of the strangely shaped breccia rocks, eroding in place at the top of the High Ridge trail.

And, as they say, it was all down hill from there – the biggest incentive to hurry along being our lack of water.  Next time, maybe we’ll heed the warnings of the park personnel.