after the blue hour…

the city comes alive with lights while the backyard goes to sleep, or at least some creatures in the backyard sleep after the blue hour.

In preparation for photographing the lights of the holiday season and the Christmas markets of Europe, a friend and I tried to capture the transition from Blue Hour to night from the Stone Arch bridge looking toward the Minneapolis skyline.

Dodging pedestrians, runners, and bicycles on the bridge, here is what we saw.

A foggy day an hour or two before sunset on the Stone Arch bridge.

Capturing the city bathed in sunset lights was an impossibility on this foggy day, so there was early onset of monochromatic blue after official sunset time (4:40 p.m.).  It’s only 5:20 p.m.

The city begins to light up, as the skyline floors of the IDS building come on. It’s 5:48 p.m.

Building lights and signs begin to illuminate the cityscape as the light begins to dim more quickly.  It’s 5:55 p.m.

Less than two hours after official sunset time, the buildings are outlined with lights  that cast a yellow-pink glow in the sky above.  It’s 6:18 p.m.  And now it was so dark, I had to use the side railing of the bridge to stabilize my monopod for the 1 second exposure.

There was some biology observed before the photo session began.  Just as we stepped on the bridge, Debbie spotted a hawk perched in a tree right next to the bridge railing.  Apparently, having just finished a meal, it looked at us, wiped its beak, pooped, and flew off.

Possibly a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk, not happy to see us focusing our cameras on it. 


a remarkable display

There are many amazingly beautiful and colorful birds in the world, but the one with the most remarkable and distinctive display (imho) is the South American Sunbittern. How many birds go from very cryptic to wildly flashy by just spreading their wings?

The vivid colors of the eyespots on the wings of the Sunbittern contrast with its otherwise cryptic black and white plumage. (Click on the image to enlarge and appreciate those colors!)

And having such an unusual plumage display isn’t the only thing that is distinctive about this bird.  It is the only member of its family, and its closest relative is the plain gray Kagu that lives in the mountainous regions of New Caledonia (east of Australia in the Pacific Ocean), almost 9000 miles away from Sunbitterns that range from Guatemala to southern Brazil.

How is that possible, you ask?  Because until about 180 million years ago South America was part of a huge southern continent called Gondwanaland that included Africa, Madagascar, India, Antarctica, and Australia, plus many islands in the South Pacific.  Close relatives were isolated from each other when the supercontinent split up into the land masses we recognize today.

In its usual swamp habitat, Sunbitterns consume a wide variety of aquatic prey — insects, dragonfly larvae, water beetles, moths, spider, crabs, shrimp, and earthworms. They may even hunt small fish, eels, and tadpoles.

Sunbittern stalking…using the slow stealthy approach.  But when they want to cover ground quickly, they thrust their head and long neck out, and trot to catch their body up to their head.  It’s a bit comical (see the video link below).

Sunbitterns are one of just 12 species of birds in 5 different families that have been observed to use baits or lures to attract prey.  Typically, birds drop the lure in the water in front of them and then wait to see what swims over to investigate, and then — zap, the prey is gobbled up.

The Sunbittern’s flashy display is meant to startle — which certainly works well on photographers with an itchy finger anxious to follow it in flight.

An award-winning photograph by Debbie Reynolds of a Sunbittern in flight shows off the colorful flight feathers.  (First place in the Birds of South America photo contest by Birds Eye App)

Flashing the eyespots on its wings on landing…photo by Debbie Reynolds.  The pattern almost looks like a Native American design.

But Sunbitterns also perform displays with the wings positioned straight out, or on either side of their head that are meant to attract mates, or as threats to potential competitors.  Check out the video below to see some Sunbittern displays…

And so it begins…

It’s snowing as we run the lawnmowers dry and fill the snowblowers today.  It’s time to swap the places these two pieces of seasonal machinery occupy in the garage.

The leaves have been raked up (again!) in the backyard, and the grass has been mowed for a final time this year.

It’s just a light dusting of snow, and it won’t be heavy enough to keep the leaves in the far backyard from blowing onto the lawn. Darn!

I think in all the years we have lived in Minnesota, it has usually snowed for the first time, right about now.  And I’m not particularly happy to see it.  You can take the girl out of California, but you can’t take California (weather) out of the girl…

So, instead, how about a last look at some fall color we enjoyed on a family hike through the woods at our campground at Peninsula State Park in Door Co., Wisconsin last month.

Walking through crunchy leaves in golden light…

Daughter and granddaughter share a story on the trail…

Sights along the trail — crooked tree and beautiful birch.

Sights along the trail — a healthy population of decomposers at work.

Scenic campsite, wonderful evening campfires, with of course, s’mores for dessert.

Canada Geese flocking up in preparation for fall migration to somewhere.

Very skittish Geese, which apparently don’t tolerate humans within 100 yards of them.

Sunset in the Porkies

On a whirlwind tour to see Fall color this past weekend, we arrived at Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mts, MI, on the south shore of Lake Superior right at sunset.  We were just in time to see the Golden Hour change to the Blue Hour after sunset.  The color was a little past prime, but still spectacular.

Just a tiny reflection of the brilliant color in the woods above the lake.

Golden hour at the Lake of the Clouds

It truly is a lake that reflects the clouds.

Blue hour (well, really minutes) at the end of the day’s light.

Brazilian (bird) beauties

We saw more than 275 bird species on our excursion to the Pantanal and Cerrado of Brazil, and they are all beautiful in their element, but of course some — are just a little more beautiful.  Here are my top 12 Brazilian (bird) beauties, not necessarily in any order.

Toco Toucan, one of the signature birds of the region. (Photo by Debbie Reynolds*)

This may not be the most photogenic shot of the Cocoi Heron, but the scene was beautiful.

The Chestnut-eared Araçari, a bird of many colors, is most closely related to Toucans.

Brazil is full of Hummingbirds, and the Glittering-throated Emerald is one of the beauties.

Peach-fronted Parakeets are just one of the many handsome species of parakeets in Brazil.

An Agami Heron in all its iridescent teal and purple splendor.  This is the bird that people ask about… “did you see the Agami Heron?”

Striking blue and gold colors make the aptly named Blue and Yellow Macaw a standout.  They are rather noisy though.

Tiny, but beautiful, the American Pygmy Kingfisher in green and chestnut brown colors is the smallest kingfisher in the Americas.

Male Band-tailed Manakins are striking in red and gold, with a distinctive white eye.

We only saw the Blue-headed Trogon once and from far away, but it really stood out in the dark leaves.

Rufous-tailed Jacamars look like they might be related to hummingbirds, but they are more closely related to woodpeckers.

Of all the birds we saw, the Sunbittern might be the most unusual and striking.  It really deserves its own blog post…(Photo by Debbie Reynolds*)

(*Fellow travel and bird photographer enthusiast, Debbie Reynolds, often takes better photos than I do, so I asked her to contribute to this post.)

Now here’s an amazing (coevolutionary) story…

Yellow-rumped Caciques (members of the blackbird family) enjoy a love-hate relationship with Giant Cowbirds in the Pantanal of southern Brazil.

The players in this story:

Yellow-rumped Cacique

A couple of Yellow-rumped Caciques near their woven nest, in a Cacique apartment house.  Caciques are highly social birds and nest together in high density, each individual female weaving multiple nests (to confuse the predators) in close proximity to her neighbors.  Males help defend the nests from intruders, but they are too busy attracting more females to their apartment house to help with the nest building.

The multiple, hanging, woven nests of the Yellow-rumped Cacique form a huge complex in tall trees in the Pantanal of Brazil.  There may be as many as 200 nest structures in one large “apartment house”.  Note the presence of a wasp nest in the middle of the image — looking like a gray loaf of bread.

Giant Cowbird

Giant Cowbirds, like other cowbirds, are obligate nest parasites, using many other (and smaller) bird species as hosts for their offspring. Female Cowbirds furtively explore potential nests when owners are absent, and then quickly lay an egg and leave. The chick is usually larger than the host chick and grows more quickly, outcompeting the host chick for food delivered by the female.

Well, it’s not exactly love between Caciques and Cowbirds, but the Caciques exhibit a great degree of tolerance for the presence of female Cowbirds who deposit an egg in Cacique nests, forcing the single mothers to raise their {adopted} large, greedy chicks along with their own.  BUT the benefit of this relationship is that the Cowbird chicks have a great fondness for botfly larvae that are ever-present in bird nests, and will pick them off themselves and the Cacique chicks as well, for a little extra nourishment.  In the end, Cacique nests with high degrees of botfly parasitism and Cowbird chicks in the nest actually fledged more offspring.

Yellow-rumped Caciques only lay two eggs in their long, hanging nest, but usually are only able to fledge one chick.  Between botfly parasitism and nest predation by larger birds or monkeys, there is low fledging success in this species in much of its range.

But that’s not the end of the story.  There is another player:  Polistine wasps, medium-sized wasps related to yellow jackets that build a large, papery nest, are aggressive hunters of flying insects, like botflies.

Caciques seek out trees with wasp nests, leaving a respectful distance between their nests and the wasp nest to avoid arousing the insects.  Wasp arousal, however, IS triggered by monkeys and larger-bodied chick predators like Toucans, Caracaras, or Great Black Hawks that move the branches and nests in their search, and most often, the predators are driven away by the wasps.

Yellow-rumped Caciques aren’t always so lax in allowing Giant Cowbird females access to their nest.  In fact, if the nest apartment house is built near a wasp nest, the wasps act like botfly exterminators, and with less risk of botfly larvae debilitating their chicks, the Caciques actively defend their nests against Giant Cowbirds.  The wasps have also been observed to drive away monkeys who try to raid the Cacique nests. So, there is a double benefit of nesting near wasps.

And there is still more to the story.

Yellow-rumped Caciques also seek out big trees on islands in their riparian habitat to build their apartment houses, because Caimans or Giant Otters in the rivers will attack and eat anything that tries to cross the river onto the island, such as snakes that are adept at climbing trees with an appetite for chicks.  In these situations, Caciques will also be intolerant of Giant Cowbirds presence.  Female Caciques stay close to their apartment house, foraging individually rather than in a group, so that there are always large numbers of them present to mob predators and Cowbirds and drive them off.

Adolescent Yellow-rumped Cacique females may not breed until they are three years of age, but stand guard at the nest apartment house ready to drive away predators and Cowbirds.

An adaptable breeding strategy, coupled with their high degree of sociality for nest defense, helps the Yellow-rumped Cacique survive in a world full of predators and parasites.

Scenes from the Cerrado — Savanna raptors

Open savanna with nearby cropland should be a mecca for invertebrates and small herbivorous vertebrates and the raptors that feed on them.  The Brazilian Cerrado is home to at least six species of small mice and rats and four species of small marsupials, as well as a variety of snakes, lizards, small songbirds, and a host of small and large invertebrates that frequently show up in the diets of the local raptors: Roadside Hawks, Savanna Hawks, White-tailed Hawks, and Great Black Hawks, as well as the Aplomado Falcon, the Long-winged Harrier,  two species of Caracara, and the Burrowing Owls.

That seems like a LOT of different raptors all competing for the same sorts of prey in the Cerrado.  Our northern grasslands have far fewer raptor species patrolling them.  How do all these southern species coexist?

Roadside Hawks are the smallest of the hawks in the Cerrado, about 12-16 inches long and weighing about 8 oz.  They tend to eat more insects than the other hawks.

Savanna Hawks resemble Red-tailed Hawks in size, almost double the length of the Roadside Hawk, but weigh less than 1000 g (2 lb).  Their large wing area makes them well-suited to soar over the Cerrado on the lookout for small mammals, reptiles, or large insects.

White-tailed Hawks are stocky, heavy birds, roughly the same length as Savanna Hawks, but much heavier (up to 2.5 lb).  They are often seen near recently burned areas (like that above) where prey stand out against blackened soil or recently emerging grasses and forbs.  They tend to eat more small birds than the other hawks.

Great Black Hawks are the largest hawks in the Cerrado, measuring up to 25 inches in length and more than 2.5 lb in weight.  They dine on snakes, small mammals, and large insects, often hunted on foot in the Cerrado.

Aplomado Falcons are the size of a small Peregrine, and like other small falcons, hunt small birds in the grassy parts of the Cerrado.  They may follow Maned Wolves and attack the small songbirds the wolves scare up, but they may also feed heavily on insects flying around at dusk, catching and eating them while flying.

A rare sight, an Aplomado Falcon perched on a low shrub in the Cerrado.  These falcons have been observed to hunt cooperatively, with some individuals flushing the prey while others attack.

Caracaras are members of the falcon family and are strong flyers, but do not exhibit the aerial attack strategies of the true falcons.  Most Caracaras are ground feeders, scavenging left-overs, raiding the nests of ground-nesting birds, eating live insect or small vertebrate prey.

The Southern Crested Caracara is the largest member of the Falcon family, a stocky bird with long legs and a strong beak.

This juvenile bird, not quite as good-looking as the adult, is less than half the weight and about 1/3 the length of its larger cousin, the Crested Caracara. It too, is an omnivore, feeding on carrion, fruits, small invertebrates, and amphibian and reptiles it encounters on the ground.  It has also been called “tick bird” for its habit of picking insects off large mammals, like the capybaras.

Last in this long list of Cerrado raptorial predators is the little Burrowing Owl, which definitely gets the cuteness award.

Unlike most owls, Burrowing Owls are somewhat diurnal, extending their hunting into the evening hours.  Although they catch their prey on the ground, they usually hunt from a favorite perch — a bush, a tree, a fence post, or even a termite mound.

Less than a foot high, and weighing less than 1/2 pound, these diminutive hunters of the savanna look for small invertebrates, lizards, and small rodents moving about in the sparse grasses.

A pair of Burrowing Owls, near a nest cavity, taken over from armadillos. Rattlesnakes also prefer these holes, and the little owls have been known to hiss like a snake at a potential predator that comes near the nest entrance.

So many predators in this ecosystem, sustained by the variety of small mammals and marsupials, ground-nesting songbirds, lizards, snakes, toads, and a huge variety of invertebrate prey, all sustained in turn by the immense variety of Cerrado plant species, both annual and perennial, that turnover rapidly in this fire-maintained system.

the love life of the Greater Rhea

At least one species of large flightless (ratite) bird inhabits each of the major southern continents: the ostrich in Africa, the emu in Australia, and the Rhea in South America.  All probably followed a parallel evolutionary path of flightlessness and gigantism from their flighted ancestors, once their continents had broken away from the southern supercontinent of Gondwanaland during the Cretaceous period.

Evolution of flightless (ratite) birds, from

While traveling through the Cerrado of Brazil, we spotted Rheas many times, as they foraged in agricultural fields and grassy, open areas of the Cerrado.

Question: How do flightless birds get over a fence?

Answer: they go under it!

Rheas stand over 5 feet tall, supporting their elongated neck and football-shaped body on long legs.  They are not particularly attractive, with their loosely feathered plumage that usually looks disarrayed and scraggly.

Three large, wide-spaced toes and long, sturdy legs support this 80 pound, giant omnivorous bird.

They do have pretty brown eyes, though.

Rheas spend a lot of their time, head down, walking slowly through open grassland or crop fields hunting for tidbits of grain, grass, insects, perhaps small nestling birds, or anything else edible to pick up and toss back into their gullet.

During the non-breeding season, they may be shy, and run from perceived threats. This bird is moving at a fast trot, but Rheas can run almost 40 mph, using their outstretched wings as rudders to steer right and left.

Other than being large and flightless, Rheas seem mostly unremarkable.  But not when it comes to their love life.

Males engage in chest-bumping and neck thrashing to establish their nesting territory.

Two male Rheas are duking it out, pushing against each other breast to breast while beaking each other.

Once they have established who is top dog in a particular area, a male actively courts and copulates with a number of females.  Then he builds a nest by trampling and scraping out a grassy disk, pushing dirt away from the center until he has built up a mound three feet across and 30 inches deep and invites his courted harem of females to lay their eggs within.  Before he begins incubating his clutch of eggs, there may be somewhere between a dozen to 50 eggs in his nest mound.  Incubation takes about a month, and the eggs hatch within hours of each other.  The chicks are protected by the male for up to six months.  So each male is making about a 7 month investment in his offspring.

Male Rhea and chicks (photo from

Meanwhile, in a complete reversal of the usual female role in nurturing their offspring, the females have wandered off, looking for other, likely males with whom to mate, and deposit more of their eggs in another nest, leaving that male to incubate and rear their chicks.  They will have nothing further to do with the rearing of their chicks.

This complicated “romantic” breeding strategy has the fancy name polygynandric, which simply means males breed with more than one female (like Red-winged Blackbirds) and females breed with more than one male (like many shorebird species).

Footlose, and fancy free, a female Rhea, can just lay her eggs, and then walk off.

So, does this peculiar breeding strategy work?  As you might imagine, incubating such a large number of eggs might be disadvantageous, and in fact, only about 3/4 of such large clutches actually hatch.  Worse yet, territorial males sometimes give up incubating duties to another male so that they can go collect another harem at another nest site.  And 65% of the males were found to desert their nests in the middle of incubation, either because of disturbance from predators, livestock, or humans, or for no apparent reason.  In one study of 34 Rhea nests, only 20% hatched any chicks at all.

With this low reproductive success, Rheas in South America are a near-threatened species, especially with more of their Cerrado habitat being converted to agriculture.

Scenes from the Cerrado – plants and their pollinators

Although we visited the Cerrado in the dry season, there were many shrubs and trees putting out new leaves and flowers, even in the absence of any trace of rainfall for the past 6 months.  Extensive underground aquifers that fill during the rainy season are tapped by deep roots of most of these plants, ensuring that they can flower and produce seeds when their pollinators and seed dispersers are present.

One of these small shrub/trees was quite common, and was particularly noticeable because of its huge displays of large, white flowers.

This is the Pequi tree, (Caryocar brasiliense), whose large white flowers produce copious nectar and pollen.  It blooms only during the dry season — July to September.

The leaves of Pequi trees are leathery, an adaptation to living in an arid environment. The flowers are rather large (bee in the top flower provides size comparison) and white with lots of yellow stamens.  They produce copious nectar throughout the night, which is higher in sugar concentration in the morning than the evening.

Artistic view of the Pequi flowerhead

If there were a single plant species whose absence would markedly affect insect, bird, mammal, even human populations in the Cerrado, the Pequi would be it.

Pollination is done mainly by bats at night, but the plant is also visited by nocturnal moths, wasps, and ants, all feeding on the nectar produced by the flowers.  In the daytime, no nectar is produced, but bees and wasps visit the flowers to feed on pollen.

Hummingbirds may be found on the flowers at dusk and in early morning, cashing in on that last sweetened formula of nectar the flowers put out.  Guira, White-lined, Palm, and Siaca Tanagers along with Curl-crested Jays also frequent the flowers at dusk as well:

Colorful Guira Tanagers sip the nectar, eat the flowers, and munch on the seeds of the Pequi.  Photo by Dario Sanches.

Curl-crested Jays hang around the Pequi trees in the very early morning hours, perhaps to feast on the insects that are attracted to the flowers. (Photo by Debbie Reynolds)

Glittering bellied Emerald hummingbirds are one of many hummingbird species that depend heavily on the nectar provided by flowering trees.

But that’s not the only role that Pequi plays in the Cerrado.  Well-pollinated flowers produce a bounty of nuts, eaten by animals and especially favored by indigenous people of the Cerrado.

Pequi seeds in Cuiaba, Brazil market (Photo by Mateus Hidalgo).

The pulp surrounding the seeds has been described as aromatic, fruity, and cheesy, and can be eaten raw or used to flavor other dishes.  The seeds (with spines removed) are roasted and eaten like peanuts, or crushed to extract their oil, so the whole fruit has great commercial value.  Pequi trees are typically planted around villages for residents to harvest the tree’s bounty.