The fox and the dog

Remember that line we all practiced when first learning to type — “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog”?  Well, in my neighbor’s backyard, the quick red fox doesn’t come near the dog but is surprisingly brave when the dog is around.

I was quite surprised to see the red fox taking a nap in broad daylight the other day, but the sun was brightly shining, the snow had melted on the hillside, and the breeze was practically non-existent.  So, a perfect warm afternoon for a snooze.

red fox napping in the sun on a winter day

Periodically, I scan this hillside to see if the fox is moving around up there, but this posture really surprised me.


Then, out with a loud “woof” bounds Riley for her afternoon romp in the remaining snow banks.

The quick response of the fox was to dash into the underbrush.

red fox-hiding from a dog

Can that dog see me here? 

red fox-

Moving off while watching where the dog is going. Amazingly, the dog never smelled or saw the fox but it stayed quite still while watching every move the dog made.

red fox-taking a nap

Riley decided to snooze on a bare patch of ground near her back door, so the fox climbed up the hill, found a warm spot at the base of a tree and continued its nap. Amazing tolerance of the dog’s presence.  You can just barely see it curled up with its muzzle between its paws.

My progress report

The Backyard Biology blog seems to have taken a back seat lately, so I’ll try to bring it up to date in the next couple of days.  I’ve been busy playing catch-up with the rest of the cohort of Arcanum apprentices, trying to get ready for my first photo critique with my master photographer, Les Imgrund (click here to see some of the spectacular photos he has taken).   I took readers’ advice from the survey on February 3 blog post and submitted the fox, the hummingbird, the swan, and the prairie farm for his critique, after modifying them somewhat.  The photo below was the best of the bunch, getting an almost perfect score from Les.  The others had slight problems that needed fixing.

prairie farmhouse-re-edit

Now, my goals are to improve my composition of landscape photos and to learn how to do some of the post-processing steps (in Lightroom 5) that selectively enhance elements of the photo. Illustrations are below with some explanations.  Please click on each of the photos to see them in full screen mode.

island in Lake Superior near Split Rock lighthouse

This photo was shot on a totally gray day when there was just no color in the landscape at all. I added a color gradient to the sky, lightened the island overall, and created a more interesting foreground that in the original image. I guess this would be called making something of nothing.

Split Rock lighthouse

Split Rock Lighthouse is a really photogenic place but not on this dreary gray day. So, I colorized the lighthouse and buildings, added some depth to the sky and to the foreground water with the gradient and saturation tools in Lightroom to make it more presentable.

forest path

This is the walking path at one of the local reservoirs. The tall pines typically shade this path quite well, so I lightened it up considerably and removed a green stake in front of one of the trees. 

Lake Superior north shore rocks and trees

Selective sharpening is a powerful tool, allowing one to emphasize certain parts of the photograph over others. I like the texture of the rocks and trees in this photo from the Gooseberry Falls trail in Lake Superior national forest. Selective sharpening really brings them out.

Now I’ll wait for my cohort and then Les to comment on my latest set of photos, before moving on to the next level.  At this point I am about half way through the foundation level.

The hunt

A red fox looked like it was hunting mice over in the neighbor’s yard this afternoon.

red fox hunting

Can he smell mice through the snow?

I tried to open the window to get a better shot without window glass reflection, but the fox heard me, and immediately raised its head and looked like it would run off.

red fox

I was probably 300 feet from the fox, but obviously my muted squeaky window was quite loud to the fox.

Although the fox turned and looked like it would run back into the woods, it suddenly paused, turned back toward my backyard and started creeping up the hill between our two yards. There were two gray squirrels nosing around for seeds beneath the bird feeders, but I don’t see how the fox could have seen them because it was downhill from them.

red fox-lying in wait for squirrels

And here is where the fox remained, squinting into the sun for about five minutes while the squirrels frisked about the bird feeders.

red fox lying in wait for squirrel

Oh, how I wish I could open the window (despite the -5 F temperature) to get a cleaner shot, but this will have to do.

And then…one of the squirrels made a move to visit another bird feeder, heading straight toward the fox.  And the fox made its move.

red fox-stalking a squirrel

Amazing how fast that fox closed on the unsuspecting squirrel. 

red fox-stalking a squirrel

Two giant leaps and he was on it.  Finally the squirrel took evasive action, but it was too little too late.

red fox-hunting squirrel

But of course the collision between fox and squirrel took place exactly where I had no window view. However, I was able to verify that the fox ran off up the neighbor’s hill with a big lump of squirrel in its jaws.


At first I was glad to see that the squirrel population was reduced by one because the backyard is overrun with them.   But if squirrels are what bring foxes to my backyard, then I should be happy the pesky squirrels are so numerous.


Swans in the mist

It has been clear and bitterly cold this week, but the Mississippi River is completely open in Monticello, Minnesota where hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Trumpeter Swans overwinter. The cold dry air was sucking up moisture from the river creating dense fog at the water level.  Swan heads were just barely visible through the mist.

trumpeter swans in a foggy mist over the Mississippi River

trumpeter swans in the mist

trumpeter swans at monticello minnesota

Courting pairs were evident everywhere, doing their head bob and parallel swims.


trumpeter swans flying

Young birds (like the lead bird in this photo) are still hanging around the adults — or perhaps they are getting chased off so the adults can concentrate on bringing up the next batch of chicks.

What a bird!

I went looking for the nesting Great Horned Owls at Silverwood Park the other day, but found only the one owl (female?) sitting in the nest box with just the tips of her “horns) showing.  Not much to photograph there.  However, there was quite an amazing “bird” elsewhere in the park.

An eagle (?) metal sculpture prominently displayed in the middle of a snowy field surrounded by oaks.

An eagle (?) metal sculpture prominently displayed in the middle of a snowy field in the park.  For scale, this sculpture probably stood about 5 feet high and about 6 feet long.

Since I used to teach comparative anatomy, I was intrigued by the parts the sculptor used to represent parts of the bird’s anatomy.

The magnificent head of this regal eagle. One eye was bright yellow, the other was bright red.

The magnificent head of this regal eagle. One eye was bright yellow, the other was bright red. The lower beak looks like a broken garden implement perfectly juxtaposed against the very large top beak.  A shovel blade and car fenders complete the top part of the bird.  Does anyone know what was used to form the back of the head and throat area?

The shoulder joint is formed from a circular saw blade and fender.  A staggered array of golf club handles make up the primary flight feathers.  I'm not sure what it is that forms the outer edge of the wing with that row of bolts.  The blade of a shovel forms the scapular feathers of the back.

The shoulder joint is formed from a circular saw blade and car fender. A staggered array of golf club handles make up the primary flight feathers. I’m not sure what it is that forms the outer edge of the wing with that row of bolts.  The tip of a downhill ski forms the trailing edge of the wing.  The blade of a shovel forms the scapular feathers of the back.

Sturdy legs formed from ornate metal table legs

Sturdy legs formed from ornate metal table legs and talons made of circular coils rest on the pronged structure that supports the entire sculpture.  The tips of a pair of crutches make up the longest primary feathers in the wings, and metal rods trail down the back to form the tail.

What a bird!

NOTE ADDED:  The artist of this piece is Al Wadzinski.  “Wadzinski creates zoomorphic assemblages using found objects of every material – valuable, mundane, cast-offs, delicate or impermeable, reclaimed from salvage yards, garage sales and alleys.”  Find more Wadzinski artwork here.

Return of the fox

I wasn’t happy to wake up to -20 F on my first morning back in Minnesota.  That’s a 90 degree difference between the balmy weather I left in California and the frigid cold I returned to!   But my first visitor of the morning made it worth it.

red fox

The fox didn’t sit still long in this frigid weather. Activity helps keep a body warm on days like these.

red fox

I think the red foxes have a new den, hopefully far removed from the dogs wandering through the wetland in the way backyard. Occasionally, however they stop in to visit — hoping for a stray rodent to surface through the snow.

Big black bee

I noticed Anna’s Hummingbirds flitting about the Jasmine flowers in the California backyard, but they didn’t really look like they were foraging on them.  However, gigantic black bees were definitely probing the flowers in a consistent manner, flying from clump to clump, staying longer at some before moving on.

California carpenter bee

They seem to be larger than our queen bumblebees, emitting a definite low-pitched thrumming hum as they moved about the Jasmine flowers.

These large carpenter bees can be mistaken for bumblebees, but most have shiny black abdomens while bumblebee butts are usually covered with dense hair.

California carpenter bee

The Jasmine flowers are about 1.5 inches across, so you can judge how large the bee is.

Carpenter bees often forage on open flowers like poppies, but these flowers have a 1/2 inch long corolla with a smidge of nectar at the base.  Rather than insert its head into the flower and mop up the scanty nectar with its tongue, it seems that the bee is slitting the corolla of the flower at its base to go directly to the source.

California carpenter bee

Light amber colored wings beat furiously as the bee hovers over a flower, rejecting some and probing deeply into others.  Notice how the bee is actually perched above the opening of the flower to reach to the end of the corolla where it joins the flower stem.

They get their name from their habit of burrowing into decaying wood to create nest chambers, carving the holes by vibrating their bodies while rasping away at the wood with their mandibles.  It sounds like a long, tedious process.  Typically a single female creates just her own brood chamber, but multiple females may nest gregariously together in the same wooden structure.

California carpenter bee

The intensity of their foraging on these flowers ensures good pollination for them, and enough nectar and pollen resource for the bee to provision its nest chambers.

Birds and branches

There are a lot of little birds flitting through the dormant fruit trees in the California backyard. Even though the trees are bare of leaves at this time of year, the birds find ways to hide behind numerous buds and branches, teasing me to try to photograph them.

Anna Hummingbird

A little Anna Hummingbird screeched his tinny song, displaying some attitude with its erected crest feathers.


Meanwhile an equally tiny Bushtit (pint-sized relative of chickadees) whistled a few high notes to get its buddies to come on over.  I’ve never seen a bird show the “whites of its eyes” before.

scrub jay

Even the much larger Scrub Jay hid behind branches while squawking at me.

It seems they all know I’m a visitor here, and are shy about posing for photos.

Rainy weather and spring flowers

Apparently we brought the gray gloomy, stormy weather with us to California.  It’s been raining off and on since we arrived, which is great for the natives here, but not for people who have been immersed in the gray gloom all winter.  But, the rain has brought spring with it, so it is green, green, green, with lots of flowering trees in full bloom in the northern California backyards.

flowering tree

yellow flowering shrub

A massive yellow bloom on this flowering shrub. And ripe oranges await picking in my mother-in-law’s backyard

The magnolia in the front yard has almost finished blooming

The magnolia in the front yard has almost finished blooming