Wildlife vs. hurricanes

The devastation caused by two back-to-back hurricanes in the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. has been tragic for the people that live(d) in these areas, but we haven’t really heard much about the impact of Harvey and Irma on the wildlife there. The massive deforestation caused by record high winds and extensive flooding in low-lying areas leaves little habitat and forage for resident wildlife, and will certainly prove challenging for the migratory birds that make their way south through these areas this fall.

virginislands_hurricane Irma damage-2017

What was green tropical vegetation before the arrival of Irma on September 7 has turned to brown as leaves were stripped from trees and ocean water flooded the Virgin islands.  Photos from The Verge, September 11, 2017.

High winds and storm surge swamped the Florida Keys as well, where the diminutive Key Deer live.  These pint-sized relatives of the very common White-tailed Deer are endemic to the island chain, but exist there in relatively low numbers (700-1000 animals) on the Key Deer reserves on Big Pine and Little Torch Keys.

key-deer

Key Deer are about half the size of their full-grown White-tailed relative, and have adapted nicely to forage on a wide variety of wild and garden plants on the lower key islands in the Florida Keys.

You would think their small size might make them vulnerable to being swept away in hurricane winds and/or floods, but the Key Deer have inhabited these islands for the past 13,000 years and have somehow survived the worst of inclement weather there.  A story today in the Washington Post reports a sighting of 4 Key Deer crossing a local road, so at least some of the population has survived.  Low population numbers is a long-term concern, however, since increased inbreeding can lead to an accumulation of detrimental recessive genes, and result in reduced fitness and resilience to cope with weather disasters like the recent hurricanes there.

losing their spots

Signs of fall are beginning to appear as a few maple trees show some red and gold color in their leaves, the squirrels are busy collecting nuts off the trees, Canada Geese fly in V-formation overhead, and a few of the wildlife start growing their winter coats.  I first noticed the latter when the fawns suddenly appeared in the backyard without their spots.

White=tailed fawns-fall molt-

Just a trace of spots linger on the flanks of one of the twin fawns that have ravaged my wildflower garden all summer long.

White-tailed fawn - winter molt

The tawny brown coat with white spots is slowly being overgrown by the longer gray brown winter fur, which provides the deer with much needed insulation to survive the cold.

White-tailed fawns - winter molt

Not all of the fawns have started growing their winter coat, though.  It’s interesting that in these twins, one is clearly well ahead of the other in development of the winter fur — which lends further proof to the observation that twin fawns are usually fraternal, not identical.

What this tells me is that there have been at least two sets of twin fawns that have been eating up the backyard garden — and I thought it was just one hungry pair that had been doing all the damage.

butterfly “bushes”

Late summer flowers are attracting an abundance of bees and butterflies to residential gardens now, but by far the most attractive flowers seem to be those of the succulent Stonecrop (Sedum species) and Violet butterfly bush (Buddleya species).  Late summer generations of American Painted Lady are passing through the area in great numbers, probably on their way south to warmer winter climates.

american painted lady-

A Painted Lady delicately inserts its proboscis into each open flower on a gigantic blooming head of Stonecrop.  They are easily recognized by the owl eyes on the underside of their hindwings and orange and white splotches of color on the topside of their forewings.  Newly emerged butterflies are brightly colored with entire margins of their wings intact. 

american painted lady-

Apparently they like the nectar of Zinnia flowers as well.

But it’s the butterfly bush (Buddleya species) that is the most popular with the butterflies.  The large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails have a size advantage and might try to monopolize a flower spike,

eastern tiger swallowtail-

This female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail looks a little beaten up with frayed hind wings. The eggs she will lay or has already laid will develop through the caterpillar stage and into pupae that overwinter as a chrysalis. These butterflies don’t migrate.

but the fast-darting American Painted Ladies just skip around and beneath them to feed.  You can tell this is a butterfly flower from the flatenned floral disk with a thin, elongate flower tube that likely has a nectar reward at its base.

eastern tiger swallowtail-feeding on butterfly bush (Buddleya species)

The swallowtail has inserted its proboscis deep into one of the flowers (I colored light blue) of the flower spike.  Long, thin floral tubes like this would exclude almost all of the bees and flies and are probably much too narrow for hummingbirds to utilize.  Thus — an exclusive butterfly resource.

silver spotted skipper-

A Silver-spotted Skipper tried to feed on the butterfly bush along with the other butterfly species, but seemed to be excluded or chased off. So, it settled for whatever the Hosta flowers had to offer.

a beautiful riverside wildflower garden

What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail.  A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

There were hundreds of individual Cardinal flower stems growing here in the semi shade and moist forest soil along the St. Croix river.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower-1

Shot earlier in my backyard wildflower garden, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do love this plant.

white cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis

Among the hundreds of individual plants, there was one genetic mutant, a white form of the Cardinal flower.

White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.

Blue Lobelia - Lobelia siphilitica-

Another Lobelia species, the Blue Lobelia, was also growing in the riverside wildflower garden, although in much lower density.

Obedient plant - Physostegia virginiana-

I spotted just a few individuals of Obedient plant in this “garden”, although this plant is usually an aggresive colonist of open spaces in my backyard wildflower garden.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Prairie Ironweed seems to like the wet river bottomland as well as it does the open prarie habitat. It’s large flowerheads were particularly attractive to honeybees.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.

a different look

This is the time of year we begin to see birds migrating back to their southerly winter homes, but many of them look very different than they did when they arrived here in the spring ready to breed.  Most birds have two outfits in their wardrobe:  a non-breeding basic plumage that may be drab but serviceable for all-around activities, like migration and over-wintering; and a brightly colored (in the case of males) alternate plumage that is meant just to show off their stuff in the breeding season.  In some cases, bills, skin around the eyes, feet, etc. may also be brightly colored, only during the breeding season.

Here’s a look at how this works in a small diving “duck” (not really a duck) called the Pied-billed Grebe, whose basic, non-breeding plumage gives no trace of the pied bill.

pied-billed grebe-basic, non-breeding plumage

Pied-billed Grebes were diving among the lily pads looking for small fish or crayfish lurking there.

pied-billed grebe-basic, non-breeding plumage

No trace of that characteristic marker of the broad black stripe on the bill though.  The one at the bottom of the image still has the faint head stripes of juvenile plumage.

pied-billed grebe juvenile

Typical juvenile plumage in the Pied-billed Grebe

pied-billed-grebe-breeding adult

A few months earlier adults looked like this, with a more definite black stripe through the pale, silver bill.

Pied-billed_Grebe_and young-Audubon

Earlier in the breeding season, both adults and youngsters looked quite a bit different than they will during the non-breeding season. Photo from Audubon field guide.

Of course seasonal changes in the grebes are far more subtle than those in some of the warbler species that take on completely different colors and color combinations between basic and alternate (breeding) plumages.  For example, gorgeous red Scarlet Tanagers molt to a green-gold plumage in the non-breeding season, making them look like a completely different species.

scarlet tanager plumage molts

good morning, little blue bird

Indigo Bunting

His tail looks a little worse for wear, but he has maintained the deep blue color of his body feathers throughout the summer.

I was barely out of my car at the Old Cedar Road parking lot when a beautiful Indigo Bunting hopped up on a tree nearby, posing briefly in the bright sunlight before flitting off into the forest.  What a nice treat for the first bird of the morning.

Indigo Bunting

In fact, he is a surprisingly uniform blue.

In the next few weeks, this colorful male will molt into its winter plumage and become drab brown, like the female, before migrating to its winter home in Central America. Indigo Buntings, like most other bird species, replace their feathers twice a year, but these brightly colored males take at least two years to become completely blue.

the not-so-secretive Sora

Soras are a type of marsh bird that I rarely see because they are usually tucked away deep in the vegetation, obscured by tall stems and leafy plumes.  But this morning, a couple of Soras ventured out into the open water on the edges of the Mississippi marshes to forage, seemingly oblivious of the much larger ducks and geese around them.

Sora

Soras are a type of rail related to coots, moorhens, and gallinules.  They have a distinctive triangular shape, yellow bill, black mask, red eyes, yellow green legs with long toes, and usually carry their short tail feathers straight up in the air.

Sora

Mottled, rich brown feathers on their back help them blend into the edge of the marsh where they forage and nest.

Soras typically grab insects or seeds from the top of the water, occasionally probe into soft mud, walking quickly through the water and vegetation.  The adventurous Soras I watched this morning walked right up to and around resting ducks, paying no attention to their greater bulk, as they searched for hidden food items.

Sora and molting Wood Duck

The molting male Wood Duck seemed wary of the Sora though.

Sora and molting Wood Duck

Sora

Sora, just passing through…ducks don’t care

Sora

Long toes, with webbing between them, help Soras cruise through muddy muck of the marsh.

During the breeding season, we often hear the high-pitched descending notes of the Sora’s whinny call, but rarely seen them.  They are busy producing a lot of little Soras in a nest that might hold as many as 18 eggs, stacked in rows on top of each other.  Since the Soras start incubating before all the eggs have been laid, they hatch asynchronously, and the first youngsters to hatch jump out of the nest join one of the parents while the other parent continues to incubate.

Rumble.com produced an excellent video of Sora and Virginia Rails in their native habitat:

What it takes to be a giant

On a walk around the San Jose neighborhood, I encountered a single absolutely giant sunflower in a sidewalk garden.

giant sunflower

I admired the size of the flower head, which was about 16 inches across and probably weighed 10 pounds, wondering how many seeds must be packed in so very tightly and mathematically precisely (see an earlier post on “how many seeds in a sunflower seed head?”).

giant sunflower

Seeds are precisely arranged in spiral rows to maximize packing.

But then I got to thinking about what it takes to produce that giant flower head and develop all those seeds.  Supported by enhanced woody fibers in the stalk and fed by photosynthetic machinery in huge, oversized leaves and an elongated, deep taproot reaching deep into the soil for water and nutrients, the enormous reproductive output of this plant has the potential to be record-breaking.

But alas, a quick google search confirmed that Hans-Peter Schaffer holds the Guinness record for sunflower height (30 feet, 1 inch), mine was probably just over 8 feet. The giant Mongolian sunflowers routinely grow to 16-18 feet and sport 18-24 inch flower disks, so my giant wasn’t really record breaking at all.  Still impressive for an herbaceous plant, though!

Tired is a state of mind

Hiking at high altitude is hard work. Carrying a pack more than 1/4 of your body weight at high altitude is seriously hard work. Hiking uphill with said pack on your back at high altitude is not recommended unless you have a deep desire for hurt. So, when engaging in this unthinkable activity, I have to believe that feeling tired is just a state of mind…

Tired hikers

which can be relieved in a number of ways when that tired feeling hits during a long, hard uphill climb.

Camping at high altitude

Each day there is a new and beautiful place to sleep and rejuvenate.

High Sierras, Hoover Wilderness

We are alone in this vast wilderness…at least it feels like it. I love that feeling of smallness in this vast expanse.

High Sierras, Hoover Wilderness

There is a new vista to explore around every corner.

Family hike, High Sierras

Below 9000 feet, we can have campfires. What a difference in your mood a campfire makes! (That’s me on the far right)

Family hike, High Sierras

The pains of a hard hike are shared, and we keep each other going.

Family hike, High Sierras

Remembering these antics around the fire keeps me going all the next day.

Family hike, High Sierras

We made it! Shoes got wet, but we crossed another rushing river.

photos by Becky Chaplin-Kramer

Natural Wonders

Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.

Fireweed

Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.

Pinedrops

You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail.  The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.