down by the swamp…

With apologies to Raffi’s lyrics for Down by the Bay 

“Down by the swamp, where the water lilies bloom
I take my camera and my big zoom.
I edge up close, the birds won’t stay —
Did you ever see a duck, stand in the muck?

mallards at snail lake park

Ducks standing in the muck

Did you ever see a heron that didn’t like sharin’?

great egrets-snail lake park

Great Egrets (herons that don’t like sharin’)

Did you ever see a bird that didn’t say a word?

least flycatcher

a little bird that didn’t say a word (least flycatcher chasing bugs in the swamp)

Did you ever see a Snapper looking so dapper?

alligator snapping turtle

A dapper snapper sporting a coat of algae

Down by the swamp.”


Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

The little ditty above was inspired by this Great Egret who croaked and threatened every other egret that attempted to come into his foraging territory.

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

Neck stretched ready for the attack. How can it possibly see what is swimming around in that murky water?

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

Stab and grab …

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

Success! I watched this bird for 30-40 minutes and never saw it miss, judging by the swallowing that followed the stab and grab move.

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

Now here’s a different strategy, lean the head and neck way over to one side for better viewing of the prey in the water?

Great Egret at Snail Lake Park

That beak is a powerful weapon for all sizes of prey.  Usually birds cannot move their eyes around in the orbit like humans can, so how does this bird see what is swimming around beneath it while its eyes are projecting forward?

I don’t know what these egrets were catching, but they caught a lot of them.  According to a study done by H. Mincey in Georgia, Great Egrets catch something with 70% of their strikes, which makes this wait and strike strategy highly efficient. However, I was surprised to learn that the average size of prey taken by these birds was only 4-6 cm (1.5-2.5 in).  They must have to consume a huge number of such small items to meet their daily energy needs.

Like some other avian species, herons and egrets gather split visual field information from each eye. The upper part of the field provides a lateral monocular view of the landscape around the bird (useful for scanning for prey as well as other encroaching herons — or photographers), and the lower part of the visual field provides a binocular field of view of what is directly beneath the bird.  It’s like having four eyes instead of two! In tilting its head and neck to the side, the bird is probably using monocular vision to fix the position of the prey in the water while reducing glare from the angle of the sun on the water.

the life of the water lily

While taking photos of the orangutans at Como Zoo the other day, I noticed they had quite a nice exhibit of a variety of water lilies growing in the ponds in front of the building.

white water lily-como park

Pointing their fragrance-producing flowers upward to attract pollinators above the widespread leafy surface — these amazing White Water Lilies have some interesting adaptations for survival.

Admiring the floral display got me to wondering how a plant that has its roots deep in mucky sediment along with the lower surface of its leaves completely submersed in water gets enough oxygen to grow such huge leaves and large, elaborate flowers.

water lilly-como park-

The large, ovate leaves serve two purposes — trapping carbon dioxide to fix carbon into the structural sugars that build leaves and flowers AND sequestering and transporting oxygen through the upper surface down tubes in the leaf stem to the roots.

giant water lilly-como park

Leaves of the Giant Water Lily can be 4-6 feet across, and strong enough to support the weight of a mammal walking across them. Their undersides are ribbed to trap air that helps them float, and the ribs are adorned with thorns that discourages fish or insect herbivores from munching on them.

water lily-como park-

Flowers are ephemeral, lasting just a few days, but have a unique strategy for ensuring pollination.  Typically, they open only for a few hours in morning or evening hours and close the rest of the time.

Newly emerged flowers produce an enticing fragrance when they first open, attracting beetles, and some bees.  Only the female stigma is exposed at this time, and the insects crawling around on its surface looking for nectar leave pollen collected from other plants to fertilize that flower.  There might be so much fluid at the base of the flower, the pollen is actually washed off the insect onto the stigma.

But then the flower closes up, trapping insects left behind, and it remains closed while the flower’s anthers open and dump their pollen all over the trapped pollinators.  Nectar and fragrance production stops, motivating trapped pollinators to fly away when the flower re-opens.

water lilly-como park-

When flowers open again the next day, or a day later, pollinators freshly dusted with the flower’s own pollen fly off to seek out other, newly, opened lilies that have nectar.

Pollinated flowers close again, and are pulled down under the water while seeds develop.  Eventually the seed pod opens to disperse its ripe seeds to the mucky sediment, and the cycle begins all over again.

The life cycle of the Giant Water Lily is wonderfully described by David Attenborough in his video of The Private Lives of Plants — you can view a 4 minute clip from this by clicking on the link below (there may be a short, but annoying 5 second ad preceding the video).

More playing around

We humans with our superb color vision seem inordinately fond of bright, colorful images.  Nothing wrong with that, but sometimes the color tones in a multi-hued bright image almost distract from the message, and other times the colors are so monochromatic, the scene is almost monotonous instead of dramatic.  In these instances, sometimes conversion to black and white format is useful to keep the viewer’s eye focused on image content.

I thought the New Mexican landscapes were stunning and spectacular, but I didn’t feel the color version of my photos did justice to the drama of those scenes, so I played around with some of the images to see whether B&W conveyed the message any better.  What do you think?

chimney rock-Ghost Ranch-

This is the famous and frequently photographed Chimney Rock, viewed from the trail at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, NM.  With scenes like this shot at mid-day, the landscape gets flat and even highly sculpted rocks lack detail.

chimney rock-Ghost Ranch-

The same scene converted first to B&W using a red filter, and then with a sepia tone added.

red rocks-Ghost Ranch-

There are a lot of objects drawing viewer attention here — perhaps away from the cleaved rock in the foreground.  The purpose of the photo was to showcase this dramatic split rock standing alone among the shrubs in this grassy plain.

red rock-Ghost Ranch-

Does this version work better?

Mt. Pedernal-Ghost Ranch

Often photographed from this and other angles, Mt. Perdernal, a flat-topped mesa of chert in the background, was one of Georgia O’Keefe’s favorite landscape subjects.  Lake Abiquiu is remarkably high, due to recent monsooon rainstorms here.  In this case, I really like the contrast of the purple mountains in the background and the red rocks in the foreground in the color version.

georgia-okeeffe-lake abiquiu and pedernal peak

One of many landscapes of Pedernal Mountain painted by Georgia O’Keefe — this one from roughly the same vantage point as my photograph.

Mt. Pedernal-Ghost Ranch

I’m not sure the B&W conversion adds to this scene. What do you think?

Note added:  This is the 900th post on Backyard Biology!

Playing around…

I have been playing around a little too much recently to keep up with the blog, including spending a few days up on the north shore of Lake Superior near the Canadian border where we were completely off the grid with no services.  So that’s my lame excuse for not posting on the blog recently.

Now back home again, I hosted one grandson for a few days of fun, and took some animal photos during our trip to the Como Zoo this week.  I have been playing around with learning more about black and white photography recently, to see if I can make animal photos, in particular, a little more dramatic and create more viewer interest.  I would love your opinion on the effects I’ve tried to create below.  Click on any of the photos to get a full frame view. Thanks.

orangutan mom and baby

Primates are such good moms, carrying their little ones close to their bodies until they are old enough to fend for themselves. It helps that those babies have well-developed hands and arm muscles to hold on tightly when mom gets active.  I love the relaxed position of mom’s arms and hands in this scene — so reminiscent of the way we sometimes sit.

orangutan mom and baby-

A tighter crop emphasizing the faces of mom and baby in this B&W conversion. Does this speak to you more than the color version?

orangutan mom and baby-color

Having that youngster holding on by itself frees up mom’s hands for other tasks, like scratching…

orangutan mom and baby-

I’m trying to focus on those eyes and facial expressions. Does the B&W conversion make a difference here?

And last, the grandson that prompted this grand experiment.

gorilla statue and grandson

He really wanted his picture taken with the gorilla mom and baby statue. But I thought he deserved to be in color…


The Ghost Ranch bone bed

Red rocks at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico

Red rocks at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.  The oldest exposed rocks (striped gray and red at the cliff base) are the source of the Ghost Ranch fossil beds.

It’s hard to imagine these magnificent mesas as lake or sea bottoms, but the scenery 200 million years ago during the Triassic period at this location looked much different.

coelophysis dinosaurs from the Triassic period

A herd of small carnivorous Coelophysis dinosaurs patrols the shallow lake waters for fish, insects, and other small prey.  Mural at the Oklahoma Museum of Natural History by Karen Carr.

A bonanza of fossilized skeletons of this little dinosaur were discovered on Ghost Ranch property In the 1940s — dozens of immature Coelophysis along with other unique specimens from that period were buried together perhaps as the result of a flash flood.

Coelophysis fossil bone bed

Artist’s rendering of the intact Coelophysis skeletons in the fossil bone bed. From the New Mexico Natural History Museum.

Lake Abiquiu from Ghost Ranch

Rainfall flows quickly down the sides of the mesas, carrying large rocks and debris toward Lake Abiquiu in the distance. The area is prone to such flash floods today, and similar processes may have been responsible for the deposition of Triassic organisms.

Collared lizard

Lizards, like this Collared lizard, and snakes are the primary reptilian predators on the mesas today.

Red rocks at Ghost Ranch

Who knows what other incredible finds remain hidden in the more recent deposits on the vast mesas of the Ghost Ranch and nearby areas.  More recent deposits from the Jurassic period (white sandstone above the red Triassic layer)  have yet to be excavated.



are the views around the Ghost Ranch, about 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe.  This area of rocky vistas and broad valleys attracted many noted artists and literati, Georgia O’Keefe among them.  And I can see why.  Here is just a glimpse of what I saw today, to be continued tomorrow.

Red rocks of the Chinle formation near Abiquiu

Red rocks of the Chinle formation near Abiquiu

These banded rocks date to the Triassic period of geologic time, and are chock full of fossils.  Paleontological excavations have unearthed a diverse fauna.  More on that later.

Chimney rock was the goal of our hike today.

Chimney rock was the goal of our hike today.  The spectacular part was the view from the top!

Still climbing...

Still climbing…

It's a long way down!

It’s a long way down!  Almost 1000 feet.

View from Chimney Rock

View from Chimney Rock

In the hills above Santa Fe

New Mexico — land of enchantment, bright sun 340 days a year, and numerous photogenic sites everywhere.  We found a lovely retreat in the hills above Santa Fe, the Bishop’s Lodge, the original home of the southwestern diocese first archbishop. After being sold by the Catholic Church, the Pulitzer family (of prize fame) used it as a summer retreat from east coast heat, and later a wealthy mining executive from Denver created a family resort for all to enjoy.  And we did.

bishop's lodge, santa fe, new mexico-

A variety of wildlife cruise the grounds, like these mule deer that were feasting on fallen apples early one morning.

mule deer buck, bishop's lodge, santa fe, new mexico-

He’s just a little buck, but he certainly posed nicely for me.

There are plenty of wildflowers planted all around the grounds, and still quite a few summer wildflowers along the roads and trails in the hills above the lodge.

bishop's lodge, santa fe, new mexico-

On our hike we saw big patches of yellow-flowered Mullein still in bloom among the Pinyon Pines.

bishop's lodge, santa fe, new mexico-

Unseasonable amounts of rain have kept the wildflowers blooming even on steep, rocky slopes.  This really was the trail on the far left, although it was highly eroded from all the rain this summer.

bishop's lodge, santa fe, new mexico

The view from the top of the hill was less than I had hoped for, but the pinyon pines and junipers were tall enough to shade us from the mid-day heat.

bishop's lodge, santa fe, new mexico

Santa Fe is 7100 feet in elevation; the top of the ridge behind our lodge was almost 8000 ft. The hill sides below us were dotted with pinyon pine and juniper, with occasional clumps of flowers.

bishop's lodge, santa fe, new mexico

Gray-headed (yellow) and Prairie (brown) Coneflowers grew in clumps along the trail and road sides.

Mexican hat or Upright Prairie Coneflower

Sometimes called the Mexican Hat, for obvious reasons, this daisy relative grows well in disturbed areas. Indians used it as an emetic!

Backyard Visitors

I often see a couple of hen turkeys strolling through the backyard together, checking for spilled seed under the bird feeders or probing for goodies in the wildflower garden. But yesterday when I looked out in the backyard, there were a couple of very large turkeys that looked too big to be hens, just loafing and taking a break in the shade of the walnut tree.

wild turkey males

One was a little more timid than the other.

I would have thought these were females, but they appear to have remnants of red wattles, and a slight bluish cast to their neck skin.

wild turkey males

That bird (on the left) is either a hen on steroids, or a post-breeding season male.  It doesn’t have the typical beard hanging down its breast, though.

wild turkey males-

Usually females don’t have the assortment of colorful feathers the male does.

wild turkey male

And still this one rests in the shade while its partner pecks at this and that and then finally moseys down the hill to the neighbor’s backyard.

Does anyone know if tom turkeys lose their beard, wattles, and iridescent plumage in the non-breeding season?

Coming in to roost

There is a Great Egret nightly roosting spot on a lake down the street from me that doesn’t seem to attract any visitors but me.  Each evening right at sunset, a stream of large, white egrets fly in to roost in one particular set of oak trees bordering the lake.

great white egret-flock

The egrets circle the roost a couple of times before gliding into roost in the tops of the trees. With the early evening sun behind me, their white shapes stand out against the sky.

great white egret-flock

Flying into the sun as they circle the lake, the white shapes turn to dark ones.

great white egret

Some fly right over my head as they glide in for a landing.

great white egret-roost

Birds land in one spot but may scramble around for a few minutes trying to find just the perfect spot to spend the night.  There are a lot of croaking vocalizations among the crew as they settle down.

great white egret-roost

Sometimes there are disagreements about whose spot it is.  Erect neck feathers indicate the state of agitation in these two birds, as they threaten each other with those sharp beaks.

great white egret-

It’s rare to find an egret roosting in the open, free of branches and leaves.

great white egret-

Even rarer to get a shot of one framed by the last remnants of the sunset.

With their breeding season completed, these birds will probably stick around for a few more weeks, fattening up on the local frogs and fish in nearby lakes, before heading south for the winter.  When I see flocks of egrets like this flying around, I realize the number of summer days is quickly coming to an end…

Hidden treasures

Goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, selecting an entirely vegetable diet and only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect.” (says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — about the diet of the American Goldfinch.)  In fact, (the Cornell website suggests), cowbird chicks that hatch in a Goldfinch nest often starve presumably because they can’t digest the highly vegetable diet the parents bring to their own young.

I often observe Goldfinches foraging in the flowers of the Cup Plant, which form a 7-8 foot tall border on one side of my wildflower garden.  I always assumed they were harvesting seeds from the spent flower heads, but that was definitely not the case for one Goldfinch that I watched.

goldfinch foraging on cup plant

A male American Goldfinch spent many minutes probing the bases of unopened flower heads in the Cup Plants.

goldfinch foraging on cup plant

The bird examined the base of the unopened flowers closely.

goldfinch foraging on cup plant

Sometimes I could see tiny spiders or ants crawling around, perhaps trying to avoid being ingested by the bird.  It sure looks like this bird is about to ingest one.

goldfinch foraging on cup plant

The bird went to great lengths to check out those unopened flowers.

goldfinch foraging on cup plant

All this attention to this particular place on the flowering stem must mean there were some hidden treasures there.

So I pulled apart a few of those flower heads myself, and discovered a treasure trove of insect material.  Ants, spiders, tiny mites, and…a web of plant material covering a 1/2 inch long larva right at the base of the unopened flowers.  This might be unusual behavior for a Goldfinch to harvest insects in this way, but it would certainly be beneficial to provide a little animal protein for their rapidly growing offspring.  Perhaps, the “inadvertent swallowing of insects” isn’t really so inadvertent as was once assumed.