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…”

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.

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.

Pine Ridge hills of Nebraska

Cutting a slice through the northwest corner of Nebraska is a ridge of sedimentary rocks that jut upward from the prairie flatland. Ponderosa Pine are the primary colonists of this ridge, which makes it a very scenic contrast to the rolling grasslands below.

The pine ridge cuts a 100 mile swath through northwestern Nebraska, but may be only 4 miles wide at some points. Its almost like a mountain island in a sea of prairie.
Crumbling rock formations at the summit of the pine-covered hills are composed of shale, limestone, sand and gravel as well as some volcanic ash.
But the hills are quite steep and more rugged than you might think when viewed up close.

This area is atypical of the rest of Nebraska, and its ecology resembles the flora and fauna of the Black Hills in South Dakota. It is also an important site in American history, as it was the setting of the end of the Lakota Indian Wars in the 1860s.

This is a great place to find Mountain Bluebirds perching on low pine branches while hunting for their next meal.
Showy male Bluebirds stand out in the pine vegetation; females blend in for protection from predation.
Pygmy Nuthatches are also very fond of Ponderosa Pines as a good place to nest and find food. These tiny little bundles of energy are very social — they forage in small flocks, they use helpers at the nest to raise a brood of chicks, and they huddle together on cold nights to save energy.
Out on the prairie flats, one can find bison, elk, and mule deer. The Pine Ridge hills are one of two places in Nebraska where Bighorn Sheep can be found.
Eastern Meadowlarks were abundant in the grasslands.
As were Red-winged Blackbirds, in some of the wetter areas.

Springtime (?) in Wyoming

Continuing our journey east in early May, back to what we hoped would be lovely Spring weather in Minnesota, we drove through southern Wyoming to stop at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge near Green River. On the way we passed a little wildlife, posing by the side of the road.

Pronghorn Antelope love the sage brush-grasslands of Wyoming, and there were quite a few of them clustered in small groups on the backroads near Kemmerer.
This antelope didn’t even move when we slowed down to photograph it as it walked along the railroad track.
Pronghorn are North America’s only living antelope-like mammal (they are in their own family, unrelated to African antelope species).

As a species, they survived the Pleistocene glaciations (ice ages), the massive extinction of North American land mammals 10-15,000 years ago, and so far, the habitat and climate changes that have occurred with settlement of the western prairies. This unique ungulate (four-footed herbivore) can run 60+ miles per hour (fastest of any land mammal in North America), but it can’t jump, so it must crawl under fences.

We got a quick look at a couple of moose hiding in the tall vegetation near the river, but they went into a hasty retreat to disappear from view.
On a cold, windy day, Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge was an uncomfortable environment to go looking for Sharp-tailed Grouse. There were only a few ducks on the Green River, and just a few songbirds in the grassy areas.
A Redhead Duck (left) and his mate (foreground) paddled along with a pair of Greater Scaup in one area of the river, but this was not the mecca of migratory waterfowl that we had expected. Spring had definitely not come to this area yet.
Horned Larks foraged for wind-dispersed seed in the gravel parking lot. This is a species you can always count on finding under the most harsh conditions: hot, cold, dry, rocky, high altitude– they are tough little birds that actually prefer sparsely vegetated, dry, barren areas.
Juncos are common throughout North America, but this one was special — it’s the “pink-sided” race of Dark-eyed Junco, distinguished by its lighter gray head, dark area in front of the eyes, and pinkish-tan plumage on its sides and flanks. It’s found in the Rocky Mountains from Alberta to southern Wyoming, and may disperse north or higher in altitude from its winter range to summer breeding areas.
Another new encounter was a couple of White-tailed Prairie Dogs, a different species than the common Black-tailed Prairie Dog seen in the grasslands and prairies east of the Rockies. The white-tailed species is much paler in color, has a much smaller range (Wyoming and parts of eastern Utah and western Colorado) and occurs only in higher altitude grasslands (5-10,000 feet)

Was it just the weather on this day in early May, or is Wyoming a really cold, desolate place in the Spring?

Climbing the South Pass road over the Rockies at the southern end of the Wind River range was a trip back to winter, with snow covered hills and deep drifts of snow in the ravines. South Pass is notable because it is the lowest place (7400 feet) to cross the Rocky Mountains, making it a key destination along the Oregon Trail during the westward expansion of the U.S.
Coming down from South Pass, the climate wasn’t much better on the eastern side of the mountains, and it looked like Spring weather was at least a few weeks off.

Springtime in Wyoming — definitely not in May this year.

on Antelope Island

I’ve always wanted to visit this 42 square mile Utah state park that is connected to Salt Lake City by a long isthmus. And we hit a magnificent, sunny day with dramatic clouds over the lofty Wasatch mountains to drive around it.

Antelope Island is the largest of 10 islands in the Great Salt Lake. The first non-natives to visit were John C. Fremont and Kit Carson in their exploration of the area in 1845, and they named it for the large number of Pronghorn Antelope they saw there. Native Americans had probably been living in the area for 10,000 or more years.
The 15 mile-long Island consists has extensive, shallow mudflats leading into the hyper saline lake, with sagebrush and short grass prairie above the shoreline. The most common birds we saw along the coast were California Gulls, the Utah state bird.
A central mountain ridge runs the length of the island, providing a variety of habitats for wildlife at different elevations. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the montane area. Maybe next time….
The Fielding Garr ranch on the south end of the island was established in 1848, and the homestead was operated by the LDS church to raise money to bring Mormon immigrants from Europe to settle in Utah. The home still stands, and the presence of fresh water and orchard trees at the ranch attract a number of migratory and resident birds.
Bison were introduced in the 1890s, and they do very well on the island’s native grassland. Some of the herd have been used to stock other parks with native grazers.
We saw small herds of what were probably bison cows and youngsters, but the huge bulls were usually by themselves, and very sedentary.
A Pronghorn Antelope buck rested under a bush while his harem of females grazed nearby.
These usually skittish animals that typically run from photographers who see them from a distance along busy highways, were uncommonly calm and allowed us to get within 100 feet of them.
What a pleasure to see (and hear) so many Western Meadowlarks calling from the short grass prairie. They seemed to be staking out territories about every 50 feet or so.
We had hoped to see a lot of shorebirds here, but they were far, far in the distance. However the mountain reflections in the tidal flats were nice
There are some incredible landscapes with views of mountains, an intensely blue salt lake, clouds, and weather on Antelope Island in Salt Lake City, UT!

Mountain-scapes

Ah, the mountains — there’s no place quite so peaceful, yet inspiring as the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. I guess I’ll always be a California girl at heart. We had just a short stay at Lake Tahoe but still managed to see some dramatic scenery and new bird species.

Lily Lake in South Lake Tahoe is one of our favorite trailheads for entering the incredibly scenic Desolation Valley Wilderness Area.
Run-off from snow melt was exiting the lake via a fast-moving river to a waterfall below that we could hear from the parking lot.
We had never seen this before — it must be a spring-only occurrence because there is nothing but a tiny creek here when we visit in late summer.
From the waterfall to another rushing creek, as water heads down to Fallen Leaf lake and then into Lake Tahoe. This photo should be captioned “how do trees survive” growing out of a chiseled rock face with torrents of water washing over their exposed roots?

Visiting Lake Tahoe gave us a chance to add a few more montane birds to our growing list of species seen on the cross-country adventure. In addition to the Mountain Chickadee and Black-billed Magpie featured in the last post, here are a few other cool climate, high altitude, pine forest specialists.

Diminutive Pygmy Nuthatches, smaller than a chickadee, hang out in Ponderosa Pines, hunting for insects and seeds. They are gregarious little birds and utilize previous years’ chicks as “helpers” at the nest to keep their current crop of nestlings fed.
The bird you’re supposed to see in the mountains — a Mountain Bluebird (one of which decided to overwinter in St. Paul this winter and survived a week of double digit negative temperatures). Bluebirds add “cerulean sparkle” (says Cornell’s All About Birds website) to the mountain landscape. With brilliant blue backs and breasts, the Mountain species of Bluebird is easily distinguished from its eastern and western cousins. With good nest sites at a premium for this species, the female seems to be more interested in the quality of the nest site and nest hole than in how much her mate sparkles or sings. That’s different from most birds!
A mid-elevation campsite wouldn’t be the same without a couple of noisy Steller’s Jays around. This is a truly western bird, found in montane coniferous forests from Alaska to Central America. Monogamous pairs patrol campgrounds making their presence known to other Jays, but they normally are omnivorous and forage on insects, seeds, berries, etc. Unfortunately, like other Jay species, they also have a reputation for raiding other birds’ nests to prey on nestlings.