About Sue

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

Sea-going Peregrines

A couple of Peregrine falcons rode with us down the Carolina coast for about 100 miles, using the ship’s air wake (if there is such a thing) to effortlessly coast back and forth along the lee side of the ship.  When they tired of that, they perched on the bowsprit mast.  This went on for several hours, and the birds gave us numerous opportunities to photograph them.

Juvenile Peregrine falcon on bowsprit of cruise ship

It turns out this was not a breeding pair, but an adult Peregrine and a juvenile (pictured here) bird.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcons perched on bowsprit of cruise ship

Adult falcon at the top, juvenile below on the bowsprit of our cruise ship.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon

The juvenile bird is browner than the adult, with vertical brown stripes on its breast, and less black on the face and head, but with the characteristic peregrine falcon black tear drop below its eyes.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon

Adult Peregrine Falcon

The adult Peregrine has horizontal black stripes on its breast and a much darker black head and face.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

The falcons rarely flapped, but maneuvered with the wind by altering the position of their wings for more lift.  Both birds continuously moved their heads, searching downward into the ocean, as well as looking toward the ship.

What were these falcons doing here, 100 miles or more off the Carolina coast, coasting back and forth along the side of the ship?  One passenger let me know that these birds catch fish, so they were probably fishing.  I told her they hunt birds almost exclusively, but then had to eat my words when I saw one of the falcons stoop on a flying fish that leaped out of the water to avoid the ship.  And it also turns out that we had picked up a few other avian free-loaders in our last port — there were a couple of catbirds (mockingbird relatives) and house sparrows flitting around the topmdecks of the ship.  So perhaps the falcons were checking them out as well.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Both falcons flew off right at sunset…

Most likely the falcons were migrating south for the winter, although this species is known to wander, and is probably the most wide-spread bird in the world, ranging from the tundra to the tropics, and absent only from New Zealand.  Bon voyage, sea-going Peregrines!

Beautiful Bar Harbor

Another cloudy day, but Mt. Desert island (pronounced “dessert”) did not disappoint.  The Acadia National Park service shuttles in the park had ceased operation 4 days ago, which made sight-seeing without a car difficult, but we found a 2 hour tour of park highlights that was all I could have wished for.  The fall color was spectacular everywhere, even through cloudy, rainy fog.

a few of the highlights of our tour…

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

View of Bar Harbor harbor area from the top of Cadillac Mt. 45 mph wind up here!

Lobster traps, Bar Harbor, ME

Lobster traps in the bay

Islands off Bar Harbor, ME

The sun came out just as we were leaving the area!

From steel mill spoils to prairie

What to do on a rainy day in Sydney, Nova Scotia, the biggest little city on Cape Breton Island?  Not enough time to drive all the way to Cape Breton Park, so we opted for a walk in Open Hearth Park, formerly a hazardous waste area created by runoff of coke sludge from the large steel manufacturing plant in Sydney.  The transformation completed in 2013 is impressive, with a clear, fresh water stream flowing through wide expanses of prairie grasses and forbs.

Muggah Creek in Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Muggah Creek was once clogged with tar pits that formed from the runoff of coke sludge from the steel mill.  Tailings of coal mines are still visible along the creek.

Sydney produced great quantities of steel for England bound convoys in both WW1 and WW2, but the steel mill finally ceased production in 2001.

Muggah Creek in Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Replanted evergreen, birch, and prairie plants has changed the landscape here dramatically.

New England aster at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Several species of aster were blooming in Open Hearth Park.

Prairie flowers at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Wildflowers at Open Hearth Park

Canada Geese in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Canada Geese where they belong…in Canada

Black Duck, Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Black Ducks are rarely seen in MN, but are common here.  They look like Mallards but have yellow instead of orange bills, and a black eye stripe.

Muggah Creek estuary, Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Muggah Creek is a tidal estuary, largely salt water here at its mouth on the Atlantic shore.

The island of Prince Edward

We aren’t seeing it at its best, on a cold, rainy, foggy day, but in 1864 tiny Prince Edward Island was the birthplace of the Confederation of Provinces that make up Canada.  It has the least amount of wild nature remaining of any of the provinces, and it grows 1/3 of the potato crop of Canada, but its primary claim to fame is as home to fictional Anne of Green Gables.  On a sunny day, biking through the pastoral landscape on the Confederation Trail would have been ideal.  Instead we tried to escape the rain by following a forest path through Victoria Park at the western end of Charlottetown.

Charlottetown. P.E.I. shoreline

The shoreline in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Charlottetown. P.E.I. shoreline

Not a lovely day at the shore, even the Herring Gulls look depressed.  So much fog, you can’t see across this small bay.

Victoria park, Charlottetown, P.E.I.

There is a mature beech, sugar maple, basswood forest in Victoria Park.

Large basswood tree, Victoria Park, Charlottetown. P.E.I.

An island surrounded by water has a moderated climate. The leaves haven’t started changing here yet, although the huge basswood has already dropped its leaves.

Black-capped Chickadee on Prince Edward Island are bigger than usual

Black-capped Chickadees on Prince Edward Island seem bigger than usual, by about 50%, more the size of a White-breasted Nuthatch.  In addition, they have pinky brown feathers below their wings.  Island races often differ from their mainland counterparts, developing in isolation over generations.

Fall harvest decoration, Prince Edward Island

Fall harvest decorations are also common in Charlottetown, like they were in Quebec City.

Colorful Quebec City

Even on a foggy day with intermittent drizzle, Quebec City shows off its colors with beautiful fall foliage, its festive shops, fall harvest decorations, and incredible fresco artistry on the sides of public buildings.

View from the upper town of Port Quebec

View from the upper town of the port in Quebec City. The walk up a steep cliff and hillside was worth it.  Quebec city’s iconic landmark, the Hotel Frontenac, towers over the rest of the skyline.

View across the St. Lawrence seaway from Quebec City

View across the St. Lawrence seaway from Quebec City shows a lot of fall color in the trees.

Lower town, Quebec City

Decorations on the doorsteps of shops in lower town, Quebec City

Halloween decorations in Quebec City

Halloween decorations in Quebec City were elaborate and found everywhere.

Halloween decorations in Quebec City

Hurluberlu = hullabaloo?  I’m not sure what these decorations in front of the Hotel D’Ville were for…

Wall murals on buildings in Quebec City

Frescos on the walls of buildings in Quebec City were incredibly life-like and tell a story.  You can’t tell where the building leaves off and the wall painting begins.

These frescoes have popped up just in the past 15 years and were commissioned to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the city’s founding by Samuel de Chaplain.  Most depict some features of the city’s history and its notable landmarks.

Wall frescoes on buildings in Quebec City

the beginning of the end…of summer

It’s down to the asters and goldenrods, among the last of the blooms for pollinators to visit before it’s too cold to visit anything.

Bumblebees sleeping in asters

A couple of very cold bumblebees must have spent the night in these asters. They were pretty comatose on this chilly morning.

Hoverflies on goldenrod

The yellow jacket mimicry of these very large hoverflies was so good, I almost walked away from this Stiff Goldenrod plant to avoid them.

Bumble bees on showy goldenrod

Later in the day, a hoard of bumblebees attacked the few remaining flowering stems of Showy Goldenrod. It’s a last chance to harvest nectar and pollen to store away for the winter.

All this work, and then what happens to these insects?

The bumblebee queen who founded her colony in the spring (the old queen) and all of the workers she produced will likely die in the first freezing weather of the winter.  All their work over the summer and fall was to ensure that new queens would be born and survive the winter to found new colonies the following spring.  New queens hatched during the summer feed voraciously on nectar and pollen in the fall to lay down fat stores that will carry them through the winter in their underground nest.

Bumblebees on dahlias

Dahlias keep producing their glorious blooms well into the fall until the first hard frost, another good source of nutrition for young queens.

Hoverflies (depending on the species) might overwinter as adults or as late-stage, fully grown larvae, by taking shelter in protected nooks and crannies of  tree roots or bark.  In Minnesota, they will have to withstand freezing solid, as temperatures drop well below zero.  Individuals that overwinter as adults (probably females) are the ones we see flying around in the spring looking for aphid-infested plants on which to lay their eggs before they die.  When the larvae hatch, they have a food source waiting for them. A second wave of hoverflies join the party after warmer temperatures have spurred them through the pupal stage to emerge as adults.

Hoverfly on New England aster

Hoverflies slurp up nectar from fall flowers to build up their fat reserves. Some of the fat will be used to produce a glycerol anti-freeze compound so that their cells can tolerate freezing without damage from ice crystal formation.

Fall harvest gone wild

This should be called the year of the fantastic nut crop: acorns by the ton, walnuts carpeting the lawn, and buckeyes remaining unharvested because there is a food surplus in the backyard like never before.

Ohio buckeye nuts

The Ohio Buckeye tree is loaded with nuts, which the squirrels should have harvested by now.

Why is this happening?  I don’t remember there being great spring weather; oh wait, I was in the UK during spring.  The summer was the usual blend of hot and humid interspersed with cold and rainy, so it must have been perfect for growing a huge nut crop.  But why have all the oak trees in the backyard gone crazy with acorn production?

Oak acorns

The forest floor has become crunchy with fallen acorns. This is just what the squirrels leave behind.

We are experiencing a “mast year” in oak tree production of acorns, which happens irregularly, every two to five to seven years.  And it’s happening in not just one species of oak, but simultaneously in the three most common Minnesota oak species — the northern pin oak, the northern red oak, and the bur oak.

Bucks eating acorns, photo by Charles Alsheimer

In a normal year of acorn production, animals consume or store most of the acorn crop, leaving little chance that the nuts could sprout into seedling oaks. Photo by Charles Alsheimer.

In a recent post (September 12), I discussed how trees “talk” to each other, and this synchronous boom production of acorns is a good example of the result of that communication, which can occur not only locally within a forest, but over broad distances.  Basically, mast production of acorns is the trees’ combined strategy of satiating the acorn consumers so that the leftovers can develop into seedlings.

The oaks must have been talking to the walnuts in the backyard as well, and the squirrels are just not able to keep up with the bounties of this fall harvest.

Gray squirrel husking a walnut

Bring all your friends, Mr. Squirrel, I’ve already raked up a garbage can full of walnuts.

The perfect response to this enormous fall bounty — “stop, I’m full already”.

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images.

What’s all the commotion?

I could hear two Red-shouldered hawks screeching at each other in the backyard, so I went out to investigate (with camera, of course).  As they flew back and forth between the tall oak trees, still vocalizing quite noisily, I caught a glimpse every now and then.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks have a distinctive call, more of a shrill scream, actually, “kee-yeear” uttered repeatedly with a downward inflection.

This commotion went on for about 15 minutes, and I have no idea what it was about, whether they were fighting over territory or a prey item or mobbing something I couldn’t see.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Both were adult birds, perhaps a breeding pair that used the way backyard forest and ponds to raise their young this summer.

Red-shouldered Hawks are a forest bird in eastern North America, and eastern-most Minnesota seems to be the western limit of their breeding range.  But they are not permanent residents here, where snow-cover limits their ability to find their favorite food — voles, chipmunks, frogs, toads, and crayfish, which are all dormant in the winter.

Red-shouldered Hawk

It’s easy to see why the scientific name of this bird is Buteo lineatus, with its finely striped, rusty-colored breast stripes.

Red-shouldered Hawk

One last pose among the branches before taking off…

Red-shouldered Hawk

A short history of apples

This is a rewrite of a post from September 2015, during the first fall harvest of my “apple orchard” (four dwarf trees).

This is apple harvest time in Minnesota, home of the Honeycrisp variety of apples, so loved by everyone who has tried one.

honeycrisp apples-

My honeycrisp apple trees are so loaded with apples, the branches are bending down to the ground.

It seems to be a Fall for bumper crops of all types of apples, from crabapples to honeycrisp, judging from the loaded branches of the apple trees on my street.

apple tree-loaded with fruit

An apple tree loaded with fruit awaits harvest. Squirrels take one bite and spoil a perfect apple, and the deer finish them off when they fall to the ground. 

Originally native to Kazakhstan, this highly productive forest tree has spread around the globe, even though the original progenitor was a small, sour, shriveled fruit that probably was more often used for a fermented beverage than eating.  After all, its genus name is Malus which is Latin for “bad”, as in bad-tasting.


Quote from Michael Pollan on the origin of apples in his book, The Botany of Desire

From Kazakhstan, the seeds of better-tasting and fleshier types of apples were dropped by traders along the Silk Road to Asia and to Europe, and eventually made their way to North America with the early colonists who planted apple orchards, spreading the apple genes throughout the northeast, and eventually throughout the U.S.

apple harvest-Kazakhstan

Apple harvest-Kazakhstan marketplace. At its center of origin, there are 56 species of the wild Malus species, only 30 of which have been semi- or wholly domesticated for apple production.

But apples, like humans, do not produce carbon copies of themselves in their seeds, so each seed in an apple is as different from another seed in that same apple or from another seed in an apple on the same tree, as children are different from each other and from their parents.  And this is where the human-apple tree mutualism becomes important in the spread of apples to every corner of the globe.

We humans perform much the same service that bees do in pollinating the apple’s flowers, by selective breeding for appealing varieties and then growing new trees of that variety from grafts merged onto hearty root stock.  In return, like the nectar and pollen the tree supplies to its pollinators, the apple tree repays its dispersers (animal and human alike) with crisp, sweet fruit that lasts several months when stored properly at cool temperatures.

What is it that makes apples so delicious and so appealing to us humans?

cross section of apple-

A cross section of a Honeycrisp apple (which I ate while writing this) shows the star-shaped endocarp housing the seeds. Each of the 5 chambers houses 1-2 seeds. The total number of seeds per apple (5-10) depends on the energy resources of the tree.

Around the star-shaped seed capsules are ten yellow-green dots that are the remnants of the flower stamens. The sepals (that surround the petals of the flower) are at one end of the apple, and the flower stem (now a fruit stem) is at the other. In between is the greatly expanded floral cup that grows up and around the ovary housing the soon-to-be seeds, and is filled with starch granules synthesized by the leaves over a summer’s worth of sunlight.  At the end of the summer as the skin takes on its rosy blush, those starch granules begin to break down to individual sugar molecules — and voila, sweet, juicy, crisp Fall apples are ready to be harvested.

honeycrisp apples

A sample of the harvest from just one of my dwarf honeycrisp trees. 

The Honeycrisp apple is an invention (!) of the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Experiment Station Horticulture Research Center (quite a mouthful — pun intended).  As an experimental variety, it was almost cast aside because the tree was not cold tolerant and couldn’t survive Minnesota winters.  But the fruit was exceptionally pleasant, with large cells with stiff cell walls that stored great quantities of starch and water and a relatively thin skin that made biting into its crisp sweetness a gustatory delight.  Moving a few genes around to introduce cold heartiness made the next version of the Honeycrisp a winner — to markets and palates everywhere.