Eat and/or be eaten

Sometimes you’re the predator, sometimes you’re the prey…

I walked around a small reconstructed cabin at Fort Ridgley state park wanting to peer in the windows at the back and see what the interior looked like.

A nice old log cabin — but what’s of interest here?

In the process I almost stepped on a leopard frog sitting in the grass near the sidewalk. The frog jumped to the base of the cabin, scaring a grasshopper (that I presume had been sitting on the sidewalk) to jump higher on the wall to avoid the frog.

It’s doubtful that the leopard frog will be able to grab this grasshopper for a meal now — sorry.

But then I noticed a “pack” of garter snakes creeping toward the corner of the cabin near the frog.

The snakes emerged from cracks between the stones at the base of the cabin.
Garter snake on the prowl — can it “taste” the frog waiting around the corner with those special receptors at the end of their tongues?

Local Minnesota photographer Paul Sundberg captured just such an event on a recent canoe trip in the Boundary Waters when he spied a garter snake engulfing an American Toad. Once consumed, the toad made quite a large bulge in the snake’s body.

Sometimes you’re the predator — sometimes you’re the meal! And so on up the food chain.

Red-shouldered Hawk chowing down on a snake, from the Everglades FL. Photo from the NPS

Winter preparation

It’s too early for us (humans) to start thinking about winter with its short days, cold temperatures, and blah landscapes. But not too early for the 13-lined ground squirrels that live out on the short grass meadows and prairies near Fort Ridgley state park. For them, it’s a race to eat enough to fatten up so they can hibernate in their deep burrows before cold weather arrives and the grasses dry up and their seeds disperse.

These small seed-eating rodents scurry around the meadows in late summer, scarfing up as much seed as they can find. Most will be consumed and turned into body fat, and some may be stored in their burrows for an early spring snack.

These ground squirrels are aptly named for the 13 dark brown and white stripes that line their backs. They can be found anywhere there are grassy meadows in the central part of the North America from Texas to southern Canada. But you’ll only find them above ground for about six months of the year. The rest of the time they are hibernating (deep sleep) in a deep burrow beneath the prairie plants.

I think these might have been young of the year — they were quite slim and small. Adults typically fatten up and go into hibernation long before their offspring do.

The coloration is apparently good camouflage for them as they run through blotchy patterns of grasses heavy with dark stripes of seed heads, and the striped pattern may help reduce their visibility to their number one predator – the Northern Harrier.

Rodents, like the ground squirrels, are one of the favorite prey in the diet of Northern Harriers. These long-winged raptors fly back and forth across grassy fields listening (not necessarily looking) for movements of small mammals as they fly. They are easily identified by the white rump patch in both the brown plumaged females and the grey plumaged males.
Northern Harriers have a round facial disk, similar to owls, that helps collect sound and transmit it to their asymmetrically placed ears so they can localize exactly where the sounds are coming from. (Photo by the Missouri Department of Conservation)
13-lined Ground Squirrels don’t seem particularly social; their burrows are not placed near each other, and they live and forage individually, unlike prairie dogs. These little squirrels seemed particularly naive and tolerated me approaching on foot, so they might well wind up in a Harrier’s gut sometime if they aren’t cautious.
It was interesting to watch how they handled the grass stems with their forepaws to harvest the seed.

Sometime in October all the ground squirrels will disappear underground to sleep away the winter cold in a state of torpor in which respiration is profoundly depressed from 100-200 breaths per minute during activity to one breath every 5 minutes in deep torpor. In addition, they usually do not eat or drink for almost all of the hibernation period, but survive in a very low metabolic state by oxidizing their fat stores.

the Monarch magnet

Meadow Blazing Star attracts butterflies like catnip attracts cats. They stay on the plants for hours, flying around the flowers, dipping into them, chasing each other, and just generally hanging out by the vibrant purple blooms. I highly recommend it for your garden.

Monarch butterflies are especially fond of this tall (about 5 feet) spike of purple-pink blooms that are so highly visible and last such a long time in the garden.
The individual flowers of meadow blazing star are densely packed on a very long stem. I don’t know if this species of Liatris has more nectar than other blazing star species, but there are so many flowers and such a long blooming time, it provides a stable nectar resource for all sorts of insects.
An occasional bumblebee might try to land on these flowers, but the Monarchs usually chase them off.
We found an isolated stand of meadow blazing star in a prairie area at Fort Ridgely State Park on the Minnesota River near New Ulm, and this stand too, was a magnet for the Monarch butterflies with more than a dozen of them flying around the flowers continuously.

These Monarchs are most likely the final generation of the summer — the individuals that will fatten up on rich nectar resources from blazing star and other flowers and then begin a 2-3,000 mile journey to their overwintering sites in montane forest areas of central Mexico. Flying about 50-100 miles a day, it will take them more than two months to complete their migration. They depend on finding more nectar resources as they travel south through the American midwest, then south to Texas, and on through northern Mexico — an amazing feat of stamina and navigation in order to return to their overwintering site.

the skies above

Sometimes the most dramatic thing about a landscape are the skies above it. Below are a few scenes from our travels this year.

the Green River valley in Utah near Dinosaur National Monument
Sunset on lake L’Homme Dieu in Alexandria MN
Sunset lights up stratus clouds on Hilton Head SC island
Giant cumulonimbus cloud hanging over the highway in Minneapolis MN
Puffy stratocumulus clouds hanging over Dauphin Island, Alabama
Cloudy skies on the plains of Spain in Extremadura province

Blog break — photos I wish I had taken

Backyard Biology is on a break until the end of August, but I highly recommend you visit the following website to enjoy the amazing photography of Grand Marais, MN photographer Paul Sundberg, as he chronicles life in a Robin’s nest from egg to fledging. What a treat!

https://www.paulsundbergphotography.com/Photo-of-the-Week/Photo-of-the-Week-2022/August-21-2022/

As the worm turns…into baby birds.

Road trip adventure conclusion — Utah and eastward

From Great Basin National Park in Nevada through central Utah’s magnificent canyons and mountains, we drove on to Dinosaur National Monument at the Utah-Colorado border.

The lake bed sediments that make up the hills here date back about 150 million years ago, to the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era. Dinosaurs trapped in lake or river beds became entombed in rock that was later uplifted and tilted by mountain-building tectonic forces.
A beautiful campground on the banks of the Green River provides spectacular views of these dinosaur fossil-rich rocks.
We found a colony of Cliff Swallows nesting on the underside of some of the steep cliffs along the river.

Paleontologists from the Carnegie museum discovered the fossil remains of huge sauropods here early in the 1900s, and the site was quickly designated a national monument in 1915 to preserve it for more exploration. Thousands of fossils of the giant herbivores (like Apatosaurus) and carnivores (like Allosaurus) were excavated and shipped back to the Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh.

A huge enclosure over the original fossil bed quarry gives visitors a glimpse of what the early paleontologists might have seen as they excavated fossils. Hundreds of bones of different species sitting in close proximity to each other, with some having large portions of their skeletons almost completely intact.
The Utah Field House of Natural History in Vernal, Utah (near the monument) provided more information on the animals that roamed this area over 100 million years ago, and the boys enjoyed the “dinosaur garden” with life-sized replicas of the Jurassic beasts. Nothing better than a selfie with T.rex.

The next day driving along the Yampa river, we saw hundreds of little black blobs crossing the highway. I thought they were rocks but the boys saw them moving, so we stopped to look.

One of the thousands of Mormon Crickets swarming the highway. The long protuberance on the rear of this individual is an ovipositor, which she will use to deposit her eggs in the soil.

These are the insects that decimated the crops of early Mormon settlers in Utah. They are not really crickets, but are related to katydids. As shown in the photo, they are flightless, but move quite quickly on the ground. Although these insects usually exist in low density, occasionally huge numbers are produced in the spring. As they develop into adults over the summer, they form a swarm (with densities of hundreds of individuals per square meter) that migrates over the land, consuming everything in its path to find new areas to colonize.

You know you’re entering the Midwest when you cross the Continental Divide, which we did several times as we descended the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, driving through some of the prettiest and greenest mountain meadows I’ve ever seen.

Yes, there really are “rabbit ears”- like rocks overlooking the pass, but we had to really search for them.
Driving on northeast toward Wyoming, we encountered this weird cloud formation near Cheyenne.
The day’s destination was Scottsbluff, Nebraska, making this a five state journey on this day! The bluff and the town was named for Hiram Scott, a clerk for the Rocky Mountain fur company who died here. It’s interesting that the misspelling of the bluff (without an apostrophe) was carried forward to the county and the city name without correction,

Scotts Bluff stands high above the surrounding plains and was a visible landmark for early travelers of the Mormon and Oregon trails. Later the Oregon trail went right through this pass, adding over 200,000 travelers to the westward expansion.

It may not look it from this angle but Scotts Bluff is over 800 feet high. The boys didn’t think traveling by wagon train would be very comfortable, and in fact, there was no place to ride inside the wagons because they were piled high with provisions.

The next two days were simply a push for home, through the sand hills of Nebraska, which were surprisingly green and wet, then through the unending landscapes of corn and soybean fields of Iowa, and finally into the Minnesota river valley and home.

Road trip adventures part 2 — eastern Nevada’s fabulous cave

Great Basin national park in east-central Nevada near the Utah border is a relatively new member (established in 1986) of the national park system. Named for its unique hydrology as a collection bowl that only drains internally: i.e., water flows into the Great Basin, pools briefly, then drains through the crust or evaporates, with no flow leaving the basin.

The bowl of the Great Basin extends from the Sierra Nevada range in the west to the Wasatch range of Western Utah in the east. Tectonic activities throughout the 200,000+ square mile area have created a series of low mountain ranges that have been likened to a “group of caterpillars crawling toward Mexico”. Great Basin national park is located just below the “a” of Great Basin on the map.
Among its exceptional features this park includes 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak and it’s assorted granite-lined valleys and alpine lakes, groves of the world’s oldest living trees — Bristlecone pines, and the amazing and varied formations of Lehman Caves.
While we waited for our cave tour to start, we drove up near Wheeler peak summit for a 3 mile hike through some alpine lakes. It was breath-taking! (Literally) scenery, and nice to hike without a pack.
There is a definite tree line on these steep mountains. Lack of water and cold temperatures create a very short growing season for these conifers, such as spruce, bristlecone, and limber pine.

But, Lehman cave was what we came to this park to see. The cave was discovered in the 1880s, was privately owned for a while, made into a national monument in 1922, and then incorporated into the much larger national park. Some of the most unique of all cave formations are found in abundance here —

Lehman Caves has such familiar cave formations as stalactitesstalagmitescolumnsdraperiesflowstone and soda straws. There are also some rarities such as shields, which consist of two roughly circular plates fastened together like fattened clam shells, often with graceful stalactites and draperies hanging from their lower plate. Lehman Caves is most famous for its abundance of shields. A shield called the Parachute and other formations make touring Lehman Caves an unusual and rewarding experience. Delicate helictites, small branching formations that defy gravity, and anthodites, small needle-like crystals of aragonite, are also found throughout the caves. Cave popcorn resembling the edible variety, adorns many walls.” (https://www.desertusa.com/grb/lehman.html)

Not just a stalactite meeting a stalagmite, but thick columns of calcium carbonate run floor to ceiling through the cavern.
Popcorn additions to cave structures are calcite or aragonite deposits.
An entire room full of fantastic shapes created by the slowly percolating, calcium-carbonate seepages through porous rock.
Delicate spires cover underlying mounds of calcium rich rock, creating unique shapes.
Rarely seen in most caves, there are numerous “shields” in Lehman cave that form from two halves that grow together to fit like a clam shell.

No flash photography is allowed in the cave, but the formations are well lit so that a camera phone can capture their beauty. Passageways are very narrow, with delicate formations right in the middle of the path that we had to carefully walk around without touching. The formations are wet, and water drips continuously from the ceiling, so the path is slippery in some places. Needless to say, our visit here was one of the highlights of the “road trip-2022”.

And next it’s on to the dinosaurs of Utah!

Road trip adventures 2022 – Nevada

The two youngest grandsons accompanied us from California back to Minnesota at the conclusion of the annual Sierra backpacking trip. Of course, it’s standard practice to stop at various geographic and geological wonders along the way to educate and entertain the youngsters (both teen-agers now). This sometimes results in ”misadventures” instead of just adventures, but there were no flat tires on this trip, unlike the previous summer’s trifecta of blown rubber.

Once again over the crest of the Sierras, we traveled on Hwy 50 (“the loneliest road in America”) across Nevada. Although most people avoid driving this road because of its supposedly monotonous features, we always find plenty to look at.

First stop was the hill we have always called “Wonderstone Mountain”, 10 miles southeast of Fallon. Although the location is just north of the highway, the myriad of roads that people drive through the desert makes it hard to find the right route. The boys quickly climbed the hill and began to look for the curiously marked “wonderstones”.
Colorful rocks and pebbles were probably formed as gaseous vents spewed minerals through the clay sediments of lake beds in this area millions of years ago.
The next stop was Ichthyosaur state park, where a 55 foot replica of the largest reptile of Mesozoic seas is mounted outside the museum. These creatures were the top marine predators of their time— air-breathing “whales” of the ancient oceans.
The museum houses the skeletons of at least six ichthyosaurs, still encased in stone. Scientists believe the huge animals may have beached themselves in shallow mud and died there, but their bones became separated and jumbled together when the area was buried in mudslides and subjected to uplift in several mountain building events.

The park is located near the once-booming, mining town of Berlin, 20 miles east of Gabbs, NV, in the foothills of the Shoshone Mountains. More than a ton of gold was mined here,- valued at $850,000 in 1890 prices ($20/ounce). The thriving town of about 300 miners, merchants, etc. was deserted when the ore vein ran out, but it never burned, so many of the original buildings and some of the equipment used still remain.

Nearby, Ione was an even more prosperous town in the mid 1800s when it attracted a population of 600. But failing mines caused people to drift away, so that by the 1890s, just a skeleton crew remained. However, unlike Berlin, the few that remained in Ione kept the town alive until the post office closed in the 1950s. Now, the town sees just a few tourists, fond of visiting the ghost towns of Nevada.

Sierra hike 2022 – the way down

Continued from the previous post: what a treat to spend a day hiking between lakes without a heavy backpack, and through gorgeous green meadows lined with red fir trees on a fairly level trail!

Off we go for a morning hike, with lunches to eat at Lake Lois…
I never get tired of these gorgeous meadows, and using the Merlin bird app, we were able to figure out which birds were doing all the singing.
Back at the Lake Doris campsite in late afternoon, it was time to pack up and head over Rockbound Pass down to Lake Maud. My granddaughters wanted to rename this set of lakes to something less old-fashioned sounding. We climbed up a little ways to the low part of the pass, only losing the trail a couple of times in the snowfields.
The other side of Rockbound Pass is well-named — you must hike a long ways down a jumble of rocks, often separated by big steps down. This was one of the few places there was a “nice” trail.
And sometimes the trail looked like this — and you ask yourself, ”where is the trail”?
Our destination is in the distance, but it’s already early evening, and we’re still 2 miles away!
Surprisingly, the lower part of this dry, rocky trail was flush with beautiful wildflowers in full bloom.
Two, tired grandparents rolled into camp, downed a quick bite of food, and collapsed in the tent at sunset.
The next morning everyone felt perky again, but sad to leave the mountains.
Grandpa led the three oldest grandsons down the trail showing them how to identify the various trees and flowers, and then launching into a longer history of early California.
Leaving the wilderness —it’s only another mile or two to our cars. And thats the end of Sierra hike 2022.

Sierra hike 2022 – the way up

Across the country again – this time for the annual Sierra Nevada backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. It’s been 34 years since we made the first backpacking foray into the Sierras and we have rarely missed a year since then. This year all 12 family members participated, although not all from the same starting point, but we all met up at Lake Doris, had a welcome day off from packing gear to yet another destination, and celebrated with a day hike sans backpack! That was more or less the end of the way up…

The view from Echo peak of the mountains behind Lake Aloha —our first destination.
Looking the other direction toward Lake Tahoe and little Fallen Leaf lake —the starting point of this group’s hike.
Hiking the trail up from Echo Lake (my group’s starting point), we remembered how black the sky was during the Caldor fire last year when we hiked here.
We met up with the first group and arrived at a lovely campsite on the southern shore of Lake Aloha for the first night.
The next day we said farewell to Lake Aloha, hiked over Mosquito Pass and down to Clyde Lake — a typical example of the granite-surrounded high lakes in the Desolation Wilderness.

One of the attractions of the Desolation Wilderness area is its glacially carved, clear lakes at the base of rugged granite peaks. Exceptionally clear water makes them excellent swimming holes, but at this time of year, it’s like swimming in melting ice water.

Here’s a 360 degree panorama of the scenery at Clyde Lake. Wind off the snowbanks and cold lake water made it somewhat chilly standing in the shade.
Flowering plants are dwarfed here — too cold and too dry.
We had two resident Yellow-bellied marmots in camp. The kids nick-named this one Buck and his friend, Chuck. It seems that marmots like to chew on the handles of hiking poles — especially the sweaty handholds. Mine got chewed on at this campsite, thanks to Buck or Chuck.
We squeezed the tent between a rock and a tree, which turned out to be helpful to keep it from blowing away without us in it.
Conference at breakfast the next morning over the next section of the hike that will take us down 1000 feet to China Flat and then back up 1000 feet to the north side of Rockbound Pass at Lake Doris.
And finally we met up with the third group of family members, as they made their way down from Rockbound Pass to our campsite at Lake Doris.

to be continued…