About Sue

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

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…

Hummingbird extravaganza

We had lots of opportunities to photograph hummers in flight while we were in Arizona. I must have taken 1000 photos of them — with about 10% success. Here are a few examples. Click on any of the images to enlarge them so you can see the colors of the birds in more detail.

Anna’s Hummingbird, female or juvenile. The bright magenta hooded and throated males were very uncooperative in posing near flowers..
Another Anna’s hummingbird — I could stop the wing action in bright light with a shutter speed of 1/2000 second. These tiny sprites weigh about 4-4.5 grams (0.14-0.16 ounces).
Black-chinned Hummingbirds really do have black chins and an iridescent purple gorget to go along with their black throat. They are even smaller than Anna’s hummers — about 3 grams (0.11 ounces).

Broad-billed Hummingbirds are equally tiny, just 3.5 grams (0.12 ounces), and are vigorous defenders of flower patches and feeders. Their iridescent green and blue plumage shimmers in the light.
Even though the female Rivoli’s hummer is more than twice its size, Mr. Broad-billed hummer isn’t about to yield. Rivoli’s hummingbirds weigh 6-10 grams (0.2 – 0.35 ounces), about the same as Kinglets, BrownCreepers, or Red-breasted Nuthatches weigh.
The male Rivoli’s hummer is one of the most striking of this southeastern Arizona group: when the light catches it just right, those iridescent feathers on its throat flash a brilliant teal color, and the emerald green of its neck and back are equally stunning. This used to be called Magnificent hummingbird — for obvious reasons.

Ramsey Canyon — in an ecological crossroads

The whole of southeastern Arizona is really an ecological potpourri of fauna and flora where the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Mexico meet the southern Rockies of the U.S. and where the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts converge. The Huachuca mountains rise steeply from the desert floor (as discussed in the last post on Cave Creek Canyon), creating another “sky island” with a mix of species from all those varied habitats: like apache and chihuahuan pines (found in the Mexican deserts) and of course, my favorite — the Elegant Trogon along with several other unique endemics from Mexico described below.

Ramsey Canyon (a Nature Conservancy preserve) is an elongate creek bed lined with shady sycamores, oaks, and maples and steep hillsides lined with pines, cacti, and yucca. It has the added attraction of a very nice bed and breakfast right next door to the preserve.

Naturally, we took in the highlights of the unique flora and fauna here with a couple of hikes up the canyon from our B&B.

Photography buddy, Debbie, posed in front of one of the tiny cabins that are apparently still used by some of the owners that preceded the Nature Conservancy. Shade makes all the difference in this very warm, sunny place in the late spring.
Among the many local residents in Ramsey Canyon are the diminutive white-tailed deer subspecies, called Coues deer, found only in southwestern U.S. mountain ranges. They are less than 3 feet tall at the shoulder and usually weigh less than 100 pounds. Lush grass like this next to the creek sustain them in the spring but dry out quickly in the hot summer when they will retreat to higher elevations to find food.
One of the common, but locally endemic inhabitants of these canyons is Yarrow’s spiny lizard which is found only in the canyons of extreme southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, but is more commonly found in central Mexico. They are often referred to as “blue-bellies” from the blue stripes that run down their ventral surface.
As a year-round resident of the canyons of southeastern Arizona, these lizards face both hot and cold extremes, with a short period of “nice weather” during which they are active. Like other species of this genus (Sceloporus) that live in montane habitats, Yarrow’s spiny lizard are viviparous, giving birth to live young every couple of years.
Further up the trail we discovered several of the round, leafy nests of Plumbeous Vireos, in this case, with a bird sitting quietly in the nest while we walked by. These are common residents of the southeastern canyons of Arizona.
Another unique resident of the southwestern U.S. is the Arizona Woodpecker, the only one with brown plumage. These are primarily a Mexican species found only in this part of southeastern Arizona and extreme southwestern New Mexico.
Yellow-eyed Juncos, a different species from our common Slate-colored Juncos, are another primarily Mexican species that frequents just the southeastern Arizona canyons. That striking yellow eye makes them immediately recognizable. They can be found in montane areas in the spring and summer but move to lower elevations in the winter to find seed and water.

Chiracahua beauty

The Chiracahua mountains of southeastern Arizona offer a multitude of scenic vistas, as well as a bounty of incredible wildlife to see.

There are a lot of canyons formed by rivers running down from the peaks of these 6-8,000 foot mountains. This is the entrance to Cave Creek canyon, one of our favorite places to stay and explore.
Rock formations and cliff faces line the sides of the canyons. You can easily see the altitudinal changes in vegetation as you ascend to mountain peaks.

The Chiricahua Mountains rise more than 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them “islands in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along a gradient from hot, dry desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, which means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity. 

We found a giant meadow of blue flag iris at Rustler Park, up at 8200 feet. Lots of butterflies and Anna hummingbirds flitted around these flowers sipping their nectar.
I think this might be the Western Pygmy Blue butterfly on the iris. These are one of the smallest of the southwestern butterflies, only 1/2 to 3/4 inch across. They can be found right out on the desert floor, as well as in the canyons and mountains. The caterpillars manage to survive on a diet of desert saltbush in the most arid desert conditions — amazing!
On the other end of the size spectrum were these gigantic Two-tailed Swallowtail butterflies, with a wingspan ranging from 3-6 inches, making it the largest Swallowtail in western North America. This species is the state butterfly of Arizona.
Adults only live 7-14 days and feed only on nectar, but the caterpillars prefer chokecherry or poplar leaves, and are a striking orange color with a big eyespot on their rear end to deter predators.
The Swallowtail I was photographing suddenly took off — and here’s the reason why. An aggressive little male Anna’s hummingbird, about the same size as the swallowtail just buzzed in for a drink of iris nectar.

A day late and a dove short

I should have posted this composite image of White-winged Doves coming to and leaving a perch yesterday — when it was National Pigeon/Dove day. Oh well….hence, the title of the post.

White-winged Doves are one of the most numerous birds in the desert southwest, and they are especially attractive in flight with their black and white accents.
Dun-colored plumage matches the background of the desert floor, but how about those beautiful orange eyes with their blue eye shadow!

These doves are native to central America and Mexico, but expand northward into southern most CA, AZ, NM, and TX during their breeding season. They time their arrival with the blooming and fruiting of the saguaro cactus, feasting on its nectar, pollen, flowers, and seeds. In fact, the tiny seeds of the saguaro are the only ones the doves will consume, because they are so easy to pick out of the cup-shaped fruit.

The saguaro cacti were just beginning to bloom in late May in southeastern AZ. This particular cactus was about 12 feet tall, with 3-inch flowers only on its top. The nectar and pollen in the flowers attracts bats, birds, and insects, ensuring lots of pollination and fruit set.

Many dove species are particularly successful in hot, dry desert environments — they are the only birds that can pump or suck up water with their bills immersed so they can rehydrate quickly, and they are strong flyers that can search for waterholes within a wide radius of their nest. Once well hydrated doves can evaporatively cool themselves by panting, even at air temperatures in excess of 120 degrees F (50 degrees C). Amazing survivors!

Morning desert visitors

Our morning photography sessions in the Alan Murphy Arizona photography workshop began at 4:30 a.m. with a drive into a canyon in the foothills southeast of Green Valley, AZ. A short hike down a steep hill brought us to an almost flat spot where we set up our cameras in a tent blind while workshop leader Alan Murphy and assistant Dano Grayson “decorated” the site with branches, flowers, and perches and loaded them with bird treats.

Alan (left) and fellow participant Lee Anne put the finishing touches on a perch decorated with yellow flowers while Dano (right) straightened a tall ocotillo skeleton perch.
The camera blind was far enough away from the perches to encourage bird visitors, but close enough to allow us to get great close-ups of most of them.
The ocotillo perch was a favorite of the Acorn Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays, both attracted to the peanuts and nutty suet stuffed into the holes and cracks of the woody stems.
The Phainopepla male visited only briefly, but lined up on this branch with the sunrise light in the background for a lovely pastel glow.
There is no doubt that Hooded Orioles are one of the most striking birds in the Arizona desert landscape. They are a brilliant yellow in Arizona, but the birds in Texas and eastern Mexico are bright orange — I wonder if it’s their diet.
Black-headed Grosbeaks were easily the most common visitor to the feeders in this canyon. Many individuals looked like they hadn’t finished molting to their breeding plumage, and males far outnumbered the females which have a black and white striped head and less orange on their breast.
A favorite at both the morning and the afternoon blinds out in the desert floor was the Brown-crested Flycatcher. This bird is the western equivalent of our midwestern Great-crested Flycatcher — they look and sound almost identical to each other.
Tiny Lucy’s Warbler frequently swooped in to grab a bite of orange or suet. Their signature brown cap is just barely visible.
On the opposite side of the size spectrum from Lucy’s Warbler, Mexican Jays spent little time perching but immediately went to the suet or peanuts, grabbed something, and took off.
Nothing like a free meal…