About Sue

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

A conservation success story

The bird show at the Minnesota Zoo is always a kid pleaser (for adults too, for that matter), with some very showy birds trained to fly very close to the audience’s heads.  Watching the birds perform is educational for those who know little about the unique abilities of our feathered friends, but there is often a deeper story attached to some of the individuals — as was the case for the Blue-throated Macaw that made a dramatic entrance to the stage from a hidden crevice.

Blue-throated Macaw-MN Zoo

Here it comes, flying in toward the audience, a blur of turquoise above and coppery orange below.

Blue-throated Macaw-MN Zoo

With an impressive wingspan of 3 feet and weighing 2-2.5 lb, this is one of the largest parrots in South America. 

Blue-throated Macaw-MN Zoo

The particular pattern of stripes in front of the eye is unique to each bird, making them individually recognizable. Eye color changes with age, from brown in juveniles to gray, then white, and finally yellow in mature adults, making it possible to age the birds as well.

Like the much larger Hyacinth Macaw, the largest parrot in the world, these macaws have very long tail feathers, which makes their total body length from top of the head to tip of their tail a little over 3 feet.

Blue-throated Macaw-MN Zoo

Long tail feathers are a hazard in forest-dwelling birds. Perfect feathers like the ones on this bird are a testament to the excellent husbandry of these captive birds at the Zoo.

You might expect that exotic tail feathers like these would get noticed, even coveted, for some special ceremonial practices among indigenous people.  And that in fact, is one of the reasons that these very large parrots have become so rare in the wild, as they were once killed to make the fancy headdresses used in rituals and festive gatherings.  One headdress made from 30 of the longest tail feathers of the macaws (usually only the two central tail feathers are used) would require killing 15 macaws.

Indio-Paresi - Rodrigo Ono-

Ceremonial headdresses like this one most likely made from parrot feathers are common in indigenous groups throughout the Amazon basin and its tributaries.  Photo by Rodrigo Ono.

Like a variety of other tropical species, Blue-throated Macaw populations have suffered drastically from habitat loss, especially of their favorite nesting trees as well as the fruit and nuts they depended on for food, and from collection of young birds for the pet trade.  In fact, there are many more of these birds in captivity today than are living in the wild in remote locations in Bolivia where they are critically endangered.

However, trapping of Blue-throated Macaws has been illegal since 1986, and recent efforts to provide additional nest sites with artificial boxes has helped the small population of a hundred or so birds to recover slightly.  The most important conservation measure may be the promotion of the use of life-like, artificial feathers in the construction of native headdresses.  Not only does this save the birds, but it has become a great attraction for tourists, who want an authentic headdress to take home with them.

headpiece-Moxeno Indians_wendy_willis

A Moxeno Indian headdress made from artificial feathers. Photo by Wendy Willis.

headpiece-Moxeno Indians_wendy_willis

Better to see those beautiful tail feathers on the bird than on the headdress.

Jumping for joy?

When visiting the Minnesota Zoo with the grandkids the other day, I was fascinated with what was going on in the Dhole (pronounced with a silent “h”), or Asiatic wild dog pen. What I think might have been the male Dhole was doing a jump-dance step in one corner of his circuit around his pen.  It looked like this, but had no vocalization with it.

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

The jump-dance step was repeated several times, so it might have been part of a display for the female in the pen, or it might have been some type of aberrant displacement behavior, an artifact of being bored in its captive environment.

Dhole, Asian dog

Was he showing off for his mate?

Dhole (Cuon alpinus) are native to central, south, and Southeast Asia, but are not members of the familiar Canis genus that includes domesticated dogs, coyotes, wolves, African jackals, and even Australian dingoes.  They have shorter legs, different dentition, and differences in skull anatomy that distinguish them from members of the dog genus.

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole are highly social animals, living in large clans of related individuals, but they lack the strong social hierarchy of wolves. They are typically diurnal hunters, going after medium and large-sized hoofed mammals and their young. Small groups of 3-5 individuals hunt cooperatively to bring down their much larger prey, much like African hunting dogs do. Although Dhole seem docile and non-aggressive in their clan in the wild, efforts to tame them have failed, as captive youngsters have remained shy or become vicious to handlers.  Dhole — an interesting dog “cousin”.


Wolves doing what they do best at the Minnesota Zoo…enhanced for dramatic effect with a little photo editing.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

My attempt to make this very handsome gray wolf in its semi-natural Zoo enclosure look every bit of the dominant animal that it is.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

Wolffish greeting. I didn’t realize that wolves have such long thin legs, more apparent in their summer fur.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

The social hierarchy seems to be well established in this small pack: subordinate animals lower their heads in the presence of more dominant animals.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

the “leader of the pack”…

Continue reading

Roadside gardens

Quite a few years ago now, the city decided our street needed a walking trail, not just a mere sidewalk, along the roadside.  As a consequence, residences lost 10-20 feet of their front yards, and some embellishments like granite boulders or brick walls were added to separate hillsides from walking trails.  Somehow this spurred a roadside gardening movement, and the result is a long boulevard of very attractive gardens which have become a mecca for bees and butterflies.

Roadside garden

Monarch butterfly on Shasta daisy

A female monarch butterfly visiting a patch of Shasta daisy, but there is milkweed nearby as well.

Roadside garden

Daylillies of all colors brighten up the roadside.

Roadside garden

A profusion of pink and purple…

Roadside garden

Hoverflies love the pollen of these Asiatic lillies

Roadside garden

Thank you roadside gardeners for brightening up my morning walk!

New camera, new subjects

Now and then I get in a rut.  Time to try something new, with the added bonus of trying out the latest camera technology (a mirrorless camera) and a chance to reduce the weight of camera plus telephoto lens package.  What better time for experimentation than a parade down a local street for the “Slice of Shoreview” celebration.  Here are the results of the experiment, using the newly released Sony a7iii model with a Canon 24-105 mm lens.

Drummers in the parade

I like the way the camera handles the extreme contrast of light and shadow.

Bagpiper in the parade

The colors are vibrant, and the images are sharp without using photo editing software.

Gymnasts in the parade

There was a little of everything in the parade: gymnasts, dancers, bagpipers, tractors, politicians running for office, horses…

Dancers in the parade

Tractors in the parade

Bagpipers in the parade

Horses in the parade

Girl in the parade

Kids passing out balloons and candy

haunted house monsters in the parade

Even some bona fide scary monsters from the fright farm…

Wow, Sony’s focusing system is fast and accurate; there are lots of features to assist the process, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what the camera has to offer.  So, I’ve got new motivation to get out in the backyard for more photo shoots with the new system.

Chameleon spider

When I was out picking raspberries the other day the other day, I found a pretty little white spider waving its long front legs at me.

Flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

This little crab spider waving its front legs should look like a tempting morsel to a bird.

Getting closer, I see that this is a crab spider, an ambush predator that sits and waits for prey to come near and then reaches out to snare them with its long front legs.

Flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

Crab spider in ambush mode with front appendages spread to snare unsuspecting prey.

Flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

Spines or spurs at the ends of those long appendages help snare the unsuspecting prey.  Maybe a Japanese beetle will land close by;  there are plenty of them on these raspberry plants.

Japanese beetles eating raspberry leaves

There are plenty of these little beasts chewing up my raspberry bushes, but I don’t know if the spider is even interested in them.

I’m intrigued by the strawberry colored marking on the sides of this little spider, which should make it easy to identify.

Flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

A Google image search suggests this is a flower crab spider, or goldenrod crab spider.

Usually, these flower crab spiders are well camouflaged by matching the color of the flower, yellow or white, on which they are sitting.  The white-flowered raspberries have finished blooming, however, so this crab spider stands out against green leaves and red fruit.  Time for it to move to the back yard and start hunting on the yellow oxeye, black-eyed susans, and yellow coneflowers.

Goldenrod crab spider capturing a wasp.  From Wikimedia Commons

Goldenrod crab spider capturing a wasp. From Wikimedia Commons.

In its yellow form, the crab spider blends perfectly with its background on the flower, but how does a white spider turn yellow?  By secreting yellow pigment from the top layer of cells in its outer covering into the white, pigment-containing cells below, flower crab spiders can be chameleon-like, changing gradually over a period of 10-20 days from white to yellow.  Yellow spiders that move to white flowers excrete their yellow pigment and transform into white spiders in a mere 6 days.

Flower crab spider, white morph, Photo from Wikipedia

Flower crab spider, Photo from Wikipedia, by Luc Viatour, https://lucnix.be/

Visual input is highly important in stimulating and achieving the spider’s color matching to its background; spiders whose “eyes” were painted over lost the ability to change color.

Apparently, only the females are the chameleons of this species; males which are a small fraction of the size of the females, are yellow-brown and cannot change color.

Mid-summer scenes

Mid-summer, it’s the time when fruits are ripening, profusions of flowers light up backyards and prairies, and we see lots of birds, butterflies, and bees everywhere.  It might be hot and sticky, but this is the time we’ve been thinking about on those cold winter days.

Monarch butterfly on Shasta daisy

Monarchs have made it to Minnesota by July, and begin laying the generation of butterflies that may be the ones to migrate south in a couple of months.

Lake water warms up, and mats of water lilies and duck weed clog the shorelines.

Fish lake, Cedar Creek nature preserve, MN

Warm summer days, scenic Minnesota lakes, one of the more than 10,000.

Butterfly weed with Monarch and Fritillary butterflies

Butterfly milkweed is in full bloom, attracting butterflies and bees.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes may have chicks following them around through the prairie meadows, and occasionally you see and hear them fly overhead.

Fruiting smooth sumac

Fruiting heads of smooth sumac light up the green forest of sumac shrubs. Did you know that the seed heads are high in vitamin C? Crush them in water to make sumac-ade!

Black morph, Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

The black morph of the Tiger Swallowtail butterfly has been visiting the backyard garden this week. It must be relatively newly emerged, with no bites in its wings yet.

Minnesota backyard in summer

What’s not to love about mid-summer days in the Minnesota backyard?

Morning visitors

It’s that time of the year again, when the bugs and the deer discover all the tasty plants in my garden.  While the Japanese beetles ravage the leaves of the apple trees and raspberries, the deer fawns chow down on the wildflowers.  I don’t mind them, though, they are pretty cute, and very shy.

White-tailed deer fawns

Breakfast at the wildflower garden buffet

White-tailed deer fawns

The twin is completely hidden underneath the giant cup plants.

White-tailed deer fawn

Hyssop must not taste good to deer; they left it for the bumblebees.

This time, last year: a foxy morning

The usual suspects have returned to the back yard this summer, but one of my favorites is still missing, the pretty little red foxes.  So, here’s a glimpse of their visit to the backyard last year.

June 30, 2017:  What a delight to see my favorite canids lounging in my Minnesota backyard this morning.

red fox-

In addition to brief, one minute naps, there was quite a lot of scratching and grooming going on.

red fox-

And when they stopped digging at their own fleas or whatever was itchy, they groomed each other.

red fox-

must be some good stuff inside the other fox’s ear…

I watched these two foxes for several minutes, but can’t figure out if they are a male-female pair, or two youngsters, or what.  Male foxes are usually noticeably bigger then females, and these two seem to be identical in size. They do seem a bit small and skinny, so maybe they are younger, but this year’s kits would not be this big yet, having been born in late March, and just out of their den in early May.  It’s a mystery.

red fox-

Shot through the not very clean porch window at 500 mm —

Building a nest

This is a tale of “if at first you don’t succeed”, keep trying.   Mr. and Mrs. Robin decided to build a nest above a light fixture on our garage.

Male American Robin

Mr. Robin: “this looks like a great place for a nest”

It’s a very unstable platform, and every stick added seemed to fall between the lights to the ground.

Robin with nest material

Incoming: bring more nest material…

Robin getting nest material

Outgoing: get more nest material…

But gradually, after a few sticks held in place, and with the addition of some critical flexible, long leafy material, a platform began to take shape, and the nest cup was added on top.

Robin with nest material

It’s a busy two or three days of flying back and forth adding to the nest structure.

Robin nest on exterior lights

Well, at least this nest is well protected from the rain…

I hope it’s strong enough to hold the weight of several growing chicks.