About Sue

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

Playtime in the backyard

Just as the daylight was fading in the backyard, I spied a young fox chasing a very immature, small rabbit around the backyard. This young fox wasn’t interested in eating the rabbit, but certainly seemed to enjoy the chase. All the better to hone its predatory skills. The rabbit did what prey instinctively do when threatened — sat as still as a stone, until the fox turned its head, at which point the rabbit tried to escape. It was quite comical to watch!

Half-grown fox dares the bunny to hop while it is spread-eagled next to it.
Maybe if I poke the bunny…”
“Maybe I’ll just ignore the bunny…”
C’mon, let’s play chase…”

Dive-bombed

I didn’t start the confrontation, but my husband and I both wound up in the middle of it. Here’s what happened.

I heard a Broad-winged Hawk screeching it’s piercingly high two-note call in the backyard and went out to investigate. Since the backyard is surrounded by tall trees, it was difficult at first to tell where the sound was coming from, but I eventually found the hawk that was doing the calling. Then it was joined by a second hawk, its mate I assume, and the two of them proceeded to move from tree to tree, swooping over my head and right by one ear. When my husband joined me to see what was goIng on, they dive-bombed him too. I assume the hawks must have a nest or perhaps fledged chicks somewhere close by. This made for some great photo opportunities, but rather difficult when the birds fly right at you!

One of the pair sat in a tree on the south side of the backyard while it’s mate screeched at me from a tree on the north side of the backyard.
Looks pretty aggressive, right?
Hawk on the north side taking off to dive-bomb me as it flies to the south side, calling as it flew.
Hawk in a tall spruce tree on the south side flying right at me! I ducked out of the way!
Even though the hawks were calling frequently, they can be difficult to spot among the leaves high up in the trees.

Broadwinged Hawks are one of the most common raptors in North America. They are notable because they migrate together in huge numbers (tens of thousands of birds) in the fall at high altitudes over mountain ridges from northern North America to South America. They fill the daytime Barred Owl niche in the forest by preying on frogs and lizards, small rodents, and occasionally small birds. You might not even realize they are hunting in your backyard unless you hear their piercing screeches.

Color me green!

When I went out to pick raspberries this morning, I found something much more delightful than a bunch of mating Japanese beetles (the scourge of the berry patch!) — a couple of 1-inch Gray Treefrogs hiding in plain sight on the green leaves of the raspberries.

From the side, this little one with its dark facial markings and dark lateral stripe was more obvious.

Although this species is named the Gray Treefrog, because they are quite gray with a dark blotchy pattern sometimes, in bright sunlight on a green background, they are well camouflaged as they match their background. In fact, this frog even matches the particular shade of green of the raspberry leaf on which it rests.

I wonder if they eat Japanese beetles? There are plenty of other insects resting on the raspberry leaves for these little guys to dine on. But these frogs are really only active at night, and usually seek shaded vegetation for their daytime rest.
The color matching camouflage is impressive in both the shade (this photo) and the sun (photo above).
How exactly does a gray treefrog become green?
Looking more like the gray treefrog, I photographed this maxi-sized (2.5-inch) adult in the early morning while it was sitting under an evergreen in the leaf litter.

Frog skin contains a stack of color-producing cells called chromatophores, and many frog species like the Gray Treefrog, have 3 sets of them: a deep layer called melanophores that contain a black/brown pigment called melanin, an intermediate layer called iridophores that lack pigment but contain particles that can reflect blue light, and an upper (most superficial) layer called xanthophores that contain yellow pigment.

Now, it should be more obvious how a Gray Treefrog can transform quickly from its gray color that is produced by the dispersion of deep-lying melanin pigment to a bright green color, produced by the interaction of blue-reflected light from the iridophores passing through the yellow pigment of the xanthiphores (i.e., blue plus yellow equals green to our eyes).

The dispersion of pigment in frog skin is controlled by nerves and hormones, which act on the chromatophores to aggregate (condense) or disperse pigment. Physiologically, in a matter of seconds, when melanophores aggregate their pigment to uncover the iridophores and xanthophores disperse their pigment, a gray frog turns green!

Color changes can even happen while frogs are sitting in the dark in my covered water tank. It just depends on their physiological state, the temperature of their environment, and the amount of hormonal or nerve stimulus they are experiencing.

Blooms in the backyard

In the Minnesota backyard, some of the summer blooms are in their full glory, particularly the purple coneflower. Butterflies and bees are drawn to these flowers…

A Great Spangled Fritillary stopped by…
And examined each of the disk flowers in the flower head intensively.
I caught the approach of one of the honeybees buzzing the coneflowers.
And was able to zero in on the bee when it landed.
Even the Goldfinches were checking on the flower heads, I suppose to see if they had made any seed yet. But these flowers have just opened up in the last few days.

at the beach

It seems like when we’re not in the mountains, we’re at the beach. That’s the wonderful thing about California — the variety of places to explore. This time it was the beautiful sands of Pajaro Dunes, where the gently sloping shore allows you to walk far out into the waves and not even get your knees wet.

The grandkids enjoyed the ocean and the bird life, and especially skipping rope with a giant piece of brown kelp.

Running with the Ring-billed Gulls
This is good practice for jumping creeks in the Sierras later this summer.
Brown Pelicans catching an updraft from the wave action.
Digging for clams — it was fun finding them, but this was strictly catch and release.
As soon as the clam was placed back on the sand, its muscular foot began digging it back under the surface again.
In just a few moments, the clam had almost completely required itself (note sand spray from its “foot” at the bottom of the image).
Grassy vegetation on the dunes holds some of the sand in place. These dunes were a lot taller than they appear, and the sand was quite deep. A single stand of brown kelp provided many minutes of entertainment…

Ghost ship

One of the landmarks of the Santa Cruz coastal area in California is the wreck of the concrete ship at Seacliff beach. When we visited the beach in the early morning fog, the ship appeared ghostly and mysterious, except for the hundreds of birds that have made the deteriorating framework their roosting area.

The ship is broken in half and sinking into the bay here, but there are ample structures above water for roosting Brown Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants, Ring-billed Gulls, and lots of Pigeons.
Hundreds of birds perch on exposed rebar from the deteriorating concrete.
Cormorants and Pelicans fly to and from the ship on hunting trips for fish, but they almost disappear in the fog.
It’s a ghostly sight as it disappears into the thick fog layer on the beach on this particular morning.

The cement ship, SS Palo Alto, (weird construction material for a ship!) was commissioned to be built as an oil tanker in WW1 in 1919, but the war ended before it made its maiden voyage. It was then towed to this area along the Monterey Bay coastline in 1929 and served as an amusement park/entertainment center, with a casino, dance hall, arcades, etc., until its owners went broke during the Depression in the 1930s.

Both the ship and the pier it once attached to are rotting away, but their remains make for some interesting photography.
On this foggy morning, the sky and the sea blend into one another. Few people are out on the beach to “enjoy” the sights.

Jewel of the Sierra

It’s either the “flame of the forest” or “gleaming jewel of the mountains”, but there is no doubt that the Western Tanager male is a stand-out of brilliant color in its forest environment.

Male Western Tanagers sing a pretty little song as they dart around their territory, flitting from tree to tree.

Western Tanagers, which are members of the Cardinal family (not the tanager family), range as far north as southwestern Alaska and western-most Canada south to Baja California during their breeding season, sticking primarily to western coniferous forests or mixed coniferous and deciduous vegetation. They build a nest in the open canopy and raise their brood of 3-5 chicks on a variety of insects, from wasps and ants to caterpillars and dragonflies. But in the fall and winter, they become fruit specialists in their neotropical wintering areas, like other tanagers there. In fact, they were considered to be serious pests of cherry orchards in the late 1800s.

The handsome male derives his rich red feathers from an insect pigment called rhodoxanthin, unlike other orange to red colored birds which must consume the carotenoids that color their feathers from plants.

it’s always a treat to see one of these bright, flame-colored birds, especially close-up!


Family time

While walking along the road down to Fallen Leaf lake from the cabin, we came across a mama White-headed Woodpecker feeding her babies. Her nest was right on the road, just 10 feet off the ground in a broken stump of a Jeffrey pine.

There were several holes in this stump, so perhaps it had been used as a nest site before. In this species, the male chooses the nest site, but females get to choose whether they like his location or not. Both male and female excavate the nest hole which is usually about 8 inches deep.
The chicks were quite vocal, peeping almost continuously, and you would think a predator might cue in on that. The chicks seem large enough to be near fledging at this point. Reddish feathers on this chick’s head indicate this nestling is a male.
Some juicy green insect material being delivered to the nestling…
Open wide, down it goes. White-headed Woodpeckers are actually pine nut specialists, and pick the seeds from the cones, then fly to the trunk of the pine, wedge the seed in a crack and proceed to hammer on it until they break the seed apart. However, the chicks get fed an insect diet.
These woodpeckers are year-round residents of pine forests in the western-most U.S. states from Washington and Idaho south to central California Sierras. The pair share egg incubation duties (rather rare in birds) and communicate with each other all year by drumming.
And she’s off again to find some more tasty morsels for her brood.
Uh oh, someone else is checking out this stump for a nest site…a male Hairy Woodpecker.
Mr. Hairy peeks in for a few moments but leaves the nestlings alone.

A hike in a Sierra meadow

There are lots of trails to explore in the Lake Tahoe basin, and we took the grandkids on a “walk” from their cabin on Fallen Leaf lake all the way to a swimming beach on Lake Tahoe — an almost 7 mile hike. Naturally, there were a number of stops to rest and swim at places along the way, and there was a promise of ice cream at the end of the hike, and that’s all it took to get the kids there.

The water of Fallen Leaf lake is as clear as that of Lake Tahoe, but right now the water near shore is more of a greenish color due to all the pine pollen accumulating there. If the glaciers that created it had continued to carve their path from the Glen Alpine valley, this lake would simply be a bay of Lake Tahoe.
The trail along the east side of the lake wanders through countless meadows and stands of Jeffrey pine (the one that has a scent of vanilla wafting from the cracks in its bark). The tall meadow lupine was in full bloom.
Another blue-purple flower that I thought was forget-me-not turned out to be Pacific Hound’s Tongue, so named for the shape of its basal leaves that resemble a dog’s tongue. The flowers were loaded with small Two-banded Checkered Skipper butterflies feasting on nectar.
Juncos are already far along in their nesting cycle, feeding their rapidly growing chicks.
A Red-breasted Sapsucker checked us out as we walked under him on our trek by the salmon run on Taylor Creek. I wonder if this is the same bird we saw here in April at this spot?
White-headed Woodpeckers are somewhat common in the pine forest here in the Tahoe basin. This female was feeding chicks in the nest (on her left) and not at all shy about us walking near her.

High mountain lakes

We took a drive from our campsite in the Ruby Mountain foothills up to Angel Lake about 2000 feet above. The saturated colors of green meadows, bushes, and grass, and deep blue color of the water were stunning.

Climbing the steep grade to the lake we could look down on our campsite below.
The view on the other side of the road featured some crop circles near the town of Wells, Nevada.
View of Lake Angel from the waterfall that cascades down the Ruby mountain cliffs.
Grandkids taking in the view…