About Sue

I am a retired biology professor who has taken up photography to showcase the wonders of nature in my own backyard.

Spring is in the air

Snow or not, the birds are “springing” into action. Decked out in their newly refurbished plumage, males are returning from “down south” to establish territories and are advertising their stuff to potential mates.

Let the pairing begin — although these spectacular looking male males will only briefly copulate with a given female and then move on to find other mates.
Hen mallard checking out this fine-looking specimen.
Mallards are so common we take them for granted, but the males can dazzle with their iridescent blue-green heads and tawny feathers. How about that nice streak of blue down his back?

And if this attractive male does everything right, with appropriate attention and head bobbing, etc., he may be acceptable to the female.

Head bobbing in both partners is a signal that the female may be receptive to this male.
Elsewhere on this stretch of open water, Wood Duck males were courting a few females.
Males outnumbered the females here, so the lucky males (with interested females) usually stick very close to their potential mates to ward off challengers.

Glorious green on St. Paddy’s Day

In celebration of what is to come in the not too distant future…a shock of green to help you think “spring!”

The verdant California oak savannah, in all its spring glory.
Fern fronds are one of the first to unfurl in the spring.
Gray Tree Frogs (that can also turn green) love to sit on the leaves of my raspberries where they can find all sorts of pollinators coming to the flowers.
Green Iguanas (which can be green, gray, and orange-brown as they control the dispersal of pigment in their chromatophores) are very common in Mexico and Central America — so common that they are hunted and “taste like chicken”.
Many members of the parrot family sport green feathers. But there is no green pigment, so how is the color produced in the bird’s plumage?

In elementary school we learned that to get green color you mixed yellow and blue — and that’s just what birds do. There is no blue pigment in birds’ feathers either, but incoming light scattered off air pockets in the feather structures can be reflected to our eyes and appear blue. By adding this reflected light to the yellow light reflected from underlying (carotenoid) pigments in the feathers, the birds are doing just what we did in mixing our paints. This is illustrated below by a Broad-billed hummingbird as it approaches a feeder.

The light angle changes as the hummer approaches the feeder, so that we first see mostly the blue reflected light from structural elements of the feather, and then a mix of the yellow light reflected from carotenoid pigments plus the blue reflected light, which makes the sitting hummer look green.
Many insects, both predators and prey, are green, which is usually good camouflage, but in the case of this praying mantis completely misses the mark.
But this is what we are really waiting for — the first multicolor blooms of spring, like this wild columbine from the backyard.

As they say in Eire-land

“May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow. And may trouble avoid you wherever you go.” –Irish Blessing

Golden oldies

Another drab day, raining/sleeting instead of snowing (later), which is good I guess, but colorless as usual. So here are some golden sunsets from the past to perk up our spirits!

Starting with sunset in the backyard in December.
A summer sunset on White Bear Lake in the Twin Cites, MN
More spectacular color on a different lake in the Twin Cities, MN
Sonoran desert sunset in Tucson, AZ
Sunset color in Mobile Bay, AL in October
Sunset with swans on Cloud Lake in the Porcupine Mts. of Michigan
Sandhill cranes at Bosque del Apache near Socorro, NM
A glorious sunset in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of CA.
Grandkids enjoyed a sunset hike in Arches National Park, UT four years ago

Spring fling?

The birdies seem to think it’s spring — cardinals and chickadees are singing in the backyard. A pair of Cardinals were courting on the tree outside my porch window yesterday morning, even while it was snowing.

Usually, Mr. Cardinal would be offering his mate a food morsel, but Mrs. Cardinal seems to be busy with a seed already. So, it looks like he’s offering her a drink (in the form of snow) to wash down the seed.
She doesn’t look at all interested in his gift.
So, he ate it himself.
Ho hum, waiting to see what he brings next…

Meanwhile…the backyard still looks like this

The bird feeder stands above my head in the summer, but right now its at chest height. Sooooo much snow. When will it end?

White on white

The last stop on our 2023 tour of the southwest was White Sands National Park just northeast of Las Cruces, where the huge expanse of shifting sand poses tremendous challenges for life.

Puffy white clouds hang over the white expanse of the “white sands” of New Mexico.

The immensity of this landscape is impressive. The National Park itself is 115 square miles, but the entire dune field is 275 square miles including acres of tall, stark dunes that look like the Sahara desert, inter-dune playas of plants interspersed in a sandy matrix, and even a lake and some small ponds!

The highest dunes are about 60 feet, and the depth of the sand is about 30 feet, and the sand is always moving. In fact, plants here are adapted to growing quickly through the sand that blows over them.

This yucca has an elongate base, where normally the upright leaves would be at ground level. At one point the sand must have covered the plant, causing it to grow above the sand level. Then the direction of the wind must have changed, blown the sand away from the base of the plant, and up the dune where it has started to cover other yuccas growing there.
In an inter-dune playa on the windward side of a tall dune, a tall cottonwood stands alone, the only tree in a very large expanse.
How could a cottonwood possibly survive in this sea of sand? Sand has apparently blown away from its roots, and moved up the dune, partially burying some of the plants there.

Cottonwoods are the types of trees one usually finds near sources of water, along streams and rivers, not in the middle of a desert. But this is not your typical sandy desert. The White Sands of New Mexico are a field of fine-grained gypsum, composed of calcium and sulfate grains, which can hold 60% more water than quartz sand.

The answer to how a cottonwood could survive here is that water absorptive property of gypsum. Winter snowmelt forms streams that feed the basin in which the dune field sits, and late summer rains add to the groundwater that is held in an aquifer only 12-36 inches below the surface. “Wet” dunes thus provide a reachable source of water for plants.

But gypsum lacks the carbon and nitrogen that plants need, so how do plants get the nutrients they need to grow in this desert?

Wind action leaves ripples in the sand surface, but the dune fields are interspersed with playas of plant communities. How do plants get established in this sterile field of gypsum containing just calcium and sulfate?

Occasionally abundant rainfall can form a lens or puddle of fresh water in a bowl-shaped area, forming shallow ponds for a short period. Microorganisms can colonize the brackish pools and form a mat or crust on the surface as the water evaporates.

Microbial mats form a shallow crust on the surface, and are important for holding the dune in place. The microbes and fungi that are part of the crust contain the carbon and nitrogen that support both plant and animal life, making these areas into tiny micro-ecosystems that recycle nutrients for each other.

In other areas of the national park, high dunes dominate the landscape over a vast space. The road here has to be plowed to keep it relatively free of sand.

What a fascinating place to visit — especially on a bright, sunny winter day with white clouds over the white sand in an amazing landscape.

“A Wonderland of Rocks”

It was a short drive from viewing Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw over to the eastern edge of the Sulphuric Springs valley and up the northwestern face of the Chiricahua Mountains to the Chiricahua National Monument — which features more weird rock formations than any other place we have visited.

We drove to the end of the road and started to hike into Echo Canyon to see the Grotto. It was windy and chilly at almost 7,000 feet and threatening to rain or snow.

The formations here are the result of some intense volcanic activity about 27 million years ago that deposited a thick sheet of ash that hardened into rhyolitic tuff which subsequently has been eroding over time into strange and unusual formations.

An excellent narrow trail wound through the rock formations, allowing us to marvel at precariously balanced rocks and wonder what keeps them from falling.

This area of Arizona was the home of the Chiricahua Apache, who first settled here in the 1400s. They were fierce warriors, and adapted well to hunting (and terrorizing other tribes and settlers) from horseback after they relieved the Spanish of some of their horses in the mid-1500s. Apaches were nomadic people, following game from the valleys in the winter to the higher elevations in the Chiricahua and other mountains in the summer.

Balancing rocks could be seen at every turn in the trail.

These weathered columns might be more than 100 feet high, but look like the hoodoos that kids make of rocks on stony beaches.

About a mile down the trail we found the grotto, which looked like it had been carved by water running through the channel between rocks.

The Grotto trail is just one of many to explore in this unique national monument. This place is definitely worth a return trip for more exploration!

Wildlife extravaganza at Whitewater Draw

Northeast of the copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona and west of the Chiricahua mountains in the southeastern corner of the state is the Sulphur Springs valley, which has recently become a birding hotspot because of the huge numbers of overwintering cranes, geese, ducks, waterbirds of all kinds, and assorted other small passerines.

Looking toward the western mountains, Snow Geese rested on a small pond.

Originally this area was a cattle ranch with springs and runoff from a part of the Chiricahua mountains that run through the middle of the valley and eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico. But since the late 1990s, the land has been managed by Arizona Fish and Game and is designated a state wildlife IBA (important birding area). Tens of thousands of Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese spend the winter here foraging in nearby crop fields and wading in the 1500 acres of streams, marshes, and ponds.

Looking toward the south, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were flying in to join others resting in a crop field.
Cranes were doing a lot of flying on this day — back and forth from field to marsh, providing numerous opportunities to photograph them in flight.
I almost think the amount of flying, often in formation, might be their “practice runs” to get in shape for spring migration. Migration is kind of like a marathon race for birds, and they must build muscle strength and endurance just like human long-distance runners do before setting off to the north.
Despite the long wingspan, which is great for gliding, these birds are powerful flyers with deep wing strokes, and they can power by you very quickly. They average 25-35 mph during migration, but can fly up to 50 mph, and can cover 300-500 miles per day during migration.
Coming in for a landing, lowering the landing gear (legs), as they glide to a stop.
Motionless gliding…
The same two birds as above, just about to land.

You can see some variation in the amount of red on the forehead of the cranes. The forehead is actually bald, devoid of feathers, and the red color is due to blood flow in this area. In territorial disputes or during courtship, the forehead may be flushed with blood and be a much bigger area with brighter color.

Getting a drink of muddy water, after all that flying around.

The Snow Geese were unusually quiet on this morning, resting on a small pond, rarely making a sound, and just sitting or sleeping. Perhaps they were digesting their early morning meal.

The darker morph of the Snow Goose used to be considered a different species (the Blue Goose), but in fact is just a rare color variant.
A pair of American Widgeons swam by. The male has a striking white stripe down his forehead (which looks like it might be a bald spot—but isn’t), and a bright green-bronze patch of feathers above his eyes.
A pair of Gadwall were also in the same pond. The male looks plain until you see the beautiful steel gray pattern of feathers on his breast.
I saw many male Shoveler ducks but rarely any females who might have been foraging elsewhere.
American Coots on the bank — this one showing off his lobed toes which are great for propelling the bird through water. But on land, coots walk like humans do when they are wearing snorkel fins, with exaggerated lifting of their feet in order to step forward.
A beautiful little Vermillion Flycatcher was hunting bugs in the weeds next to the pond.

What an incredible morning of birding. It was amazing to see how many people knew about this place and were walking slowly around admiring the birds.

Raptors, antelope, deer, and ducks at the Mexican border

We’re on the road again, sadly on our way back to Minnesota, where I’m hearing winter weather is raging. We’ve decided to try to visit as many new places as possible on the trip east.

Running from the Mexican border to the tiny burg of Arivaca in south central Arizona is a 117,000 acre grassland preserve — the Buenos Aires national wildlife refuge, where the deer and the antelope definitely roam in numbers. An occasional jaguar has even been sighted here. And it also seems to be a haven for wintering raptors.

Pronghorn Antelope leisurely crossed the road right in front of us. It looks like the male is wearing a radio collar. Pronghorn were reintroduced here, and are now considered to be a desert subspecies.

Buenos Aires NWR is a grassy, semi-desert landscape, but has some woodland features along the creeks and in draws. It supports quite a variety of large mammals (deer and antelope), and a great diversity of bird life that is attracted to the various water landscapes.

At another location on the refuge we discovered a much bigger herd of over a dozen antelope. I’m not sure if this group is composed of one male (antlered) and a harem of females, or the other antelope just haven’t regrown their horns yet.
I got too close to the antelope and they began to run away, Note the mule deer in the background that look like they’re wondering what all the fuss is about.
Buenos Aires has both White-tailed deer and Mule deer, shown here. They are easily recognized by their over-sized ears. These two were coming down from the wood thickets to drink at a pond.
Much of the refuge is a huge expanse of grass permeated by mesquite trees (now leafless), with an occasional cactus to remind us that this is a semi-desert area. This landscape will be even more beautiful when the trees leaf out and new grass is growing.
The most numerous raptor on the refuge is the Red-tailed Hawk, and most of the ones we saw were juveniles with light eyes and brown (not red) tails. The birds were amazingly tolerant of our presence, and let us drive right up next to them on the road.
The next most common raptor we saw were Northern Harriers, but all of them were females (brown plumage). The gray plumaged males may have been elsewhere on the refuge, or perhaps they don’t overwinter here at all.
In one of the wetland ponds, we found a few Green-winged teal (females) and a Sora foraging on the vegetation in the shallow water.
The male Green-winged Teal showed off his gorgeous head, lit up nicely in the morning sun.
This was the least shy Sora I have ever seen —usually I get only a glimpse of their body as they scuttle through waist high weeds. This one was out in the open, intent on finding something in the shallow water.
Loggerhead Shrikes were also seen frequently near the road. I have no idea what they could find to eat at this time of year when most insects and reptiles are dormant. Perhaps they can catch the small finches that forage for seeds by the side of the road.
A beautiful landscape, made more attractive by the absence of humans here.

The green hills of California

Rain has transformed the hills of the coastal range mountains in Northern California.

Winter rains transform the landscape in California — what a welcome sight for those of us suffering from lack of color in the winter scenery!

it was time for a hike in the Oakland hills, but we didn’t count on the amount of mud we were going to find on the trails — thanks to the roaming local cattle and recent torrential rains.

This part of the hike wasn’t too bad, but at the bottom of the hills, mucky pools of sloppy mud added several inches to our shoe soles..
And slipping in the mud was hard to avoid…
But the view was worth it! The reservoirs even looked full!
I haven’t seen one of these amazing little salamanders since I was in college. This is the California Newt, a highly toxic meal for any predator because its skin is full of tetrodotoxin, a highly potent neurotoxin! This is the time of year these slow-moving little amphibians are looking for mates and pools of water in which to breed. Why it was on the top of a high ridge in the grasslands was puzzling — the water was pretty far away.
There was even a beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay from the hilltop — all the grandkids keep getting so much taller!

Hidden gems

Amidst the vast expanse of California’s breadbasket of agricultural production in its Central Valley there are numerous “refugia” for wildlife. I was surprised to find that there are dozens of wildlife refuges scattered near the main artery of Interstate-5 in the Central Valley. We made a brief stop at one of these, the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, on our way north to the Bay Area, two weeks ago.

It was a very overcast day, and windy and cool as well. But the wildlife was abundant here, especially water birds of all sorts. A couple of hawks rested in the tree surveying for potential prey below them.

Kern NWR is at the south end of what was once a huge (at least 625,000 acres) wetland complex in the Tulare Lake Basin that was inhabited by hundreds (if not thousands) of migratory water birds during the winter. Today, 11,250 acres are protected in this area just north of Bakersfield, and visitors can drive a loop road around much of the open wetland areas.

A juvenile (light eye color) Red-tailed Hawk sat quietly while we drove past it.
Northern Shoveler ducks were one of the most common ducks here. This male is ready already decked out in his beautiful breeding plumage.
A little Pied-billed Grebe dived in the pond in front of us.
I think these were Violet-green Swallows, diving and swooping en masse over the surface of the water. Perhaps there was an insect swarm there.
A flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows were finding some luscious seeds among the early spring grasses.
This Western Meadowlark male was digging around in a litter pile, and finally found a grub of some sort.

But the most exciting find of the morning was the male Northern Harrier that we found coursing over the tops of some orchard trees along the roadside. We followed it along the road for quite a way, and I got several shots of the bird in flight.

What a beautiful little oasis among the crop fields. I would come back here (on a sunnier day)!