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.

A pretty pest

Looking for bees in the garden the other day, I came across an insect that looked a lot like a honeybee or small bumblebee, but something was not quite right.

Narcissus bulb fly on chive flowers

Right color, right hairy abdomen and thorax, expanded upper segment of rear legs where pollen baskets are located — but is this a bee?

It’s the eyes — they’re too large and round, and the antennae are too short.  It must be a bee mimic fly.

Honeybee, NPR science news, June 7 2018, photo by don Farrall/Getty images,

A honeybee, for comparison, has a triangular rather than round head, and ovoid eyes.  Photo from an article on NPR science news, June 7, 2018, by Don Farrall, Getty images.

I think my bee mimicking fly is a Narcissus bulb fly, and if so, my iris, lillies, and chives are in trouble. Adults feed on the nectar and pollen of a wide variety of flowers.

Narcissus bulb fly on chive flowers

A male Narcissus bulb fly dips its proboscis deep into the chive flowers. The two eyes touch at the center of the head of the male, but are separated by a small space in females.

But their larvae infest the soft tissues of the bulbs of these perennials.  Females lay from 40 to 100 eggs at the base of a leaf of bulb-forming plants, and the larvae crawl down into the soil and burrow into the bulb, eventually hollowing it out completely as they feed and mature to pupal stage.  Lillies, iris, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths, etc, are all susceptible to infestation.

Narcissus bulb fly on chive flowers

There doesn’t seem to be a good way to control these pests, introduced from Europe, probably along with bulbs, in the late 1800s. Their strong bee mimicry makes most insect predators leave them alone.  Apparently, if you grow bulb-bearing plants in your garden, you’re very likely to have these destructive pests present.

Pollinators, large and small

The purple flowers are blooming in my garden: spiderwort, weedy creeping charley, iris, bellflower, mountain cornflower, and lovely blue wild indigo. And there are a few bees around, doing their best on the limited amount of nectar and pollen available so early in the summer.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

This queen(?) common eastern bumblebee approaching a flower of the false wild indigo is faced with the task of getting to the nectar at the base of the flower through what appears to be closed “doors” (lateral petals) of the flower.  She is really too big to fit.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

Her weight is sufficient to separate the wings (lateral petals) of the flower, so she can poke her head (and tongue) deep into the base of the flower where there is nectar.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

The two halves of the keel petals at the bottom of the flower also separate under her weight, exposing the anther pollen and the bright, orange-yellow, three-pronged stigma (female receptive surface). Pollen she carries on her legs and body from another flower will stick to the stigma and travel down its tube to fertile ovules in the flower ovary to make seeds.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

Pulling away from the flower before flying to the next one, you can see the contact between bee and pollen.

Lady Bumble made the rounds of the newer flowers at the top of the raceme, working her way from oldest at the bottom to newest opened at the top, and then on to a different spike of flowers.  But the small solitary bee working these flowers had an entirely different strategy.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

You can see how tiny this little bee is in comparison to the flower.  It preferred visiting the older flowers, whose petals were drooping and not fitting as closely together as in the younger flowers. 

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Now, how to get inside the flower to reach the pollen? Squeeze through the tiny crack between petals.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Crawling inside finally, the bee disappears for a few minutes before crawling out and making its way to another, older flower.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Older flowers may not produce much nectar, But smaller bees don’t require as much as large bumblebees anyway. And perhaps pollen collection was of more interest to this tiny bee.

eye level

My neighbor called to tell me there was a big snapping turtle on his patio, so I went over to make friends.  It was indeed a big one, maybe a female looking for a soft garden spot to lay some eggs.  I decided to get down on turtle level to take some photos.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles often come up into our yards from the lake across the street. Sometimes they bring a collection of algae on their shells, but this turtle is remarkably clean.

They are called snapping turtles for a good reason. Those toothless jaws can produce a powerful pinch, strong enough to tear flesh.  And if they can’t nail you with a vicious bite, snappers will put a nasty gouge in your skin with those long, sharp toenails.  Beware of picking one of these up!

Snapping turtle

That’s eye level, for sure. Look at all that loose skin under the head, which allows them to stretch their head far out of the shell and take a good bite of something.  They can extend their neck and flex it perpendicular to their body, latching their jaws onto whatever is nearby.  I was a little surprised not to see leeches or some other ectoparasites clinging to the turtle’s skin.

Once the turtle got tired of watching me, it moved off the patio toward the garden, raising itself up on its toes to step over a hose. How does a beast whose eyes are at the top of its head know where it’s feet are in relation to an obstacle on the ground?  Obviously, snapping turtles have a wider visual field than you might think.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtle walks over kinked hose by rising up on its toes!

Birds, and more birds, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland

Iceland may have an impoverished bird fauna, compared to what one can see in the U.K. or Europe, but it more than makes up for it with great numbers of the species that are present.  For the bird photographer, this makes it easier to get some good photos.

A really good place to see seabirds is at the cliffs at Arnarstapi on the southern side of the Snaefellsness peninsula.

Shag on a nest, Arnarstapi cliffs, Iceland

Shags weren’t very common here, but a couple of them had carved out some space low on the cliffs.

Kittiwake gull, Arnarstapi cliffs, Iceland

Kittiwakes are the only gull that nest on cliffs. They were typically found in great numbers lower on the cliff than the fulmars, which are bigger birds and are more aggressive toward everything that approaches their space.

Down on the shoreline below the cliffs were several species of shorebirds, foraging in the sand and rocks right at the edge of the water.

Iceland Gulls, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Iceland Gulls are rather small, with pink feet, and bright yellow bills. They actually don’t breed in Iceland, but instead in Greenland and arctic parts of Canada.  Apparently they are still fattening up for spring breeding before migrating.

Knots, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

A lot of Knots. These small birds look like every other shorebird in the winter, but have bright chestnut back and breast in their breeding plumage, which is why some call them “red knots”.  It’s another arctic breeder in Canada, Europe, and Russia.

Also foraging along the shoreline at other points along the Iceland coast were Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Ringed Plovers, and Red Shanks.  These species were exploring the seaweed that had washed up on shore, and the crevices between rocks along the shore, turning things over or probing into sand to find small invertebrates there.  They will all fly on from here to their arctic breeding sites in Europe and Russia.

Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstone foraging at Akranes beach, Iceland

Sanderlings and a Ruddy Turnstone foraging at Akranes beach, Iceland

Purple Sandpipers, Akranes beach, Iceland

Purple Sandpipers, Akranes beach, Iceland

Ringed Plover, Akranes beach, Iceland

Ringed Plover, Akranes beach, Iceland

Red Shank, Budir, Iceland

Red Shanks are well named, as their red legs make them easy to spot.

Arctic Tern with fish

Arctic terms were flying overhead at Arnarstapi above the grassy meadows, some carrying fish.  This species is the longest distance migrator among all animals, flying from its Antarctic home in our winter to breed in the Arctic in our summer, and then back again, a round trip of about 44,000 miles.

Harlequin duck pair, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Harlequin ducks are at home in the open ocean, but they breed in cold, fast moving streams in northern North America, Iceland, and Greenland.  The outlandish color pattern of the breeding male gives the duck its name.

Harlequin duck pair, Iceland

Unfortunately, numbers of these handsome ducks are declining rapidly in North America, due to loss of habitat on cold, northern rivers and oil spills. I hope they fare better in Iceland.

The highlights of our bird sightings was finding a breeding pair of Red-throated Loons and Horned Grebe on some of the small lakes that dot the Iceland landscape.  Brilliant colors of these birds light up the infamously gray, cloudy, rainy landscape here.

Red-throated Diver (Loon), Iceland

A pair of Red-throated Divers (Loon) at rest on a small pond

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, Iceland

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, photo by Debbie Reynolds.

Birds, birds, everywhere

so many birds, so many photos…

Springtime in Iceland is a mecca for bird photographers, as arctic breeding species return to find a mate, build a nest, and perpetuate their species. The road next to our river hotel in Hella is particularly rich with Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Oystercatchers, and Golden Plover.  The bird fauna here is dominated by shorebirds, with few representatives of other orders, like the songbirds (passerines).

Snipe, Iceland

Snipe stand on hummocks of grass or even on fence posts, chirping their monotonous two tone beeps, then take off flying overhead in a display flight, complete with tail feather whirring noises.  They are so common here, we see one about every 50 feet.

Black-tailed Godwit, Iceland

Black-tailed Godwit are another commonly seen species. They are really handsome birds in their breeding plumage, with their chestnut heads and speckled bodies. A male showing off for his lady, hoping for her acceptance of his advances…

Black-tailed Godwit, Iceland

Black-tailed Godwits use that long slender bill to probe for insects and worms in the soil in these fields, but can also be found on inland marshes and estuaries in the U.K., on migration.

Whimbrel, Iceland

Whimbrels are common in the fields, too, sometimes in small flocks, sometimes alone, hunting for the same worms and soil insects.

Redshank, Iceland

We’ve only seen Redshank along sandbanks and coastal shores in the U.K., but here they are commonly found in grassy fields.

Redwing, Iceland

Redwings are the dominant thrush in Iceland. We see them everywhere, in the fields, in the brush near water, in small trees, lustily singing their warbling thrush melody.

Golden Plover, Iceland

Golden Plovers are solitary in these fields, but are seen fairly often.

Meadow pipit, Iceland

Meadow Pipits seem to be the one of the few small passerine birds around. There are no small finches or small insectivores, like warblers or titmice, probably because there is limited food for those types of feeders.

Meadow pipit, Iceland

Fence posts are popular perches in this flat, monotonous grass landscape. Pipits seem to get by in this sparse landscape by eating tiny insects as well as seeds of a variety of plants.

White Wagtail

The friendly little White Wagtail is another common passerine that breeds in far northern latitudes. It is a widespread species in the summer throughout Europe and Asia but migrates to warmer overwintering sites as far south as Northern Africa.  They feed on a variety of small aquatic and grassland insects, flitting and darting around as they track their prey.

Seabirds on Scottish sea cliffs

Handa Island off the northwestern coast of Scotland has some of the most beautiful sea cliffs.  Their base is 3 billion year old gneiss rock, on top of which are layers of sandstone, and finally quartz.  They have weathered and eroded just enough for seabirds to find niches for their nest sites.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

These cliffs get enough rainfall to support some vegetation (mosses, grasses, and a few flowering herbs), a surface very different from the bare rock of the breeding colonies at Bass Rock on the east coast of Scotland.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

The needle rock, magnified from the photo above.  The ranger at Handa Island told us that more people have visited the moon than have successfully climbed this needle.  Sea birds seem to find it easy enough to colonize though.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

Layers of Seabirds stack themselves on the ledges of the seacliffs: shags and cormorants at the bottom, guillemots and razorbill auks above them, fulmars above them just below the top, and puffins in the grassy areas on top.

Rows of Guillemots at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

No one seems to know why Guillemots line up like this with their backs to the sea.

Fulmars at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

Fulmars seem to be less tolerant of others near their nest site, unlike the Guillemots.

Fulmars at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

And three is definitely a crowd for Fulmars.

Puffins at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

As usual, Puffins are the birds everyone wants photos of. There weren’t many of them here yet, it’s still early in the breeding season.

Puffins at Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

This little Puffin had been busily excavating a burrow and had a dirty face to show for it. So far it was single, waiting for a mate to approve the nest construction.

Handa Island seacliffs, near Scourie, Scotland

A beautiful area for exploration of both seacliffs and seabirds. Some of the visitors got off the marked path and way too close to the edge!

 

Handa Island’s great nemesis

Just off the coast from Scourie, on the northwest corner of Scotland, Handa Island presents some prodigious cliff faces that are very attractive to breeding sea birds.  A small boat dropped us off on the island, volunteers from the Scottish Wildlife Trust met us to explain the rules for navigating the island trails, and we set off on a 4 mile loop hike.

Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Most of the reserve has well marked trails and boardwalks to protect nesting birds from human feet!

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Because it’s quite easy to literally stumble upon a Great Skua just sitting on a mound of vegetation just a few feet from the trail.

The Great Skuas were not at all shy, and one sat completely still while at least 6 of us passed by at close range.

Photographing Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

Could we get any closer?

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

It’s not a particular pretty bird, and it has a hooked beak, and some wicked looking talons at the ends of its webbed feet.

Skuas are about the size of a large Herring Gull, but with a larger breast, long tapered wings, and powerful and speedy forward flight.  This bird is an intimidator, using its size and aggressive behavior to harass other sea birds into dropping their catch of fish.  They are the breeding sea birds’ nemesis!

Great Skua on Handa Island Wildlife Reserve, Scourie, Scotland

We watched a Great Skua chase a flock of Kittiwakes and suddenly turn and ram full speed into a juvenile Great Black-backed Gull flying above it, (a bird it’s own size!) pulling it down into the ocean. The Skua proceeded to bite and thrash the Gull to death, plucked it, and then pecked off bits of Gull flesh for its dinner.

Great Skuas will probably not make anyone’s top 10 favorite list because they have some rather unpleasant habits:  robbing other birds of their prey, grabbing the wings of sea birds and pulling them out of the air, harassing penguins into deserting their carefully protected egg or chick and then killing and eating them, even invading sea bird colonies at night to prey on roosting adults.