Unseen places — Montana ranches

We passed through a portion of south central Montana on our drive back to Minnesota, and stopped to drive around a beautiful ranch southwest of Bozeman.  Off the beaten track, it turned out to be a great place to see wildlife.

Looking up the canyon divide where the ranch property begins at Gallatin Gateway, Montana.

Turner Enterprises owns the 100,000 acre Flying D ranch, a haven for wildlife and for bison production.

The ranch runs between the Gallatin and Madison Rivers. I imagine there is some good fishing there.  Not a bad place to live either.

A couple of Sandhill Cranes called to us as we drove by.  The wildflowers were in bloom in the prairie areas.

A Hoary Marmot (relative of the woodchuck) called to us from atop his rock next to the road.

I’m not sure which grouse species this is, but this little hen really didn’t want to get off the road in front of our car.

From a high viewpoint on the ranch, we could just make out a scattered buffalo herd in the distance.  Was this what it looked like 150 or more years ago, when Native Americans scouted for buffalo?

Turner Enterprises conducts annual bison round-ups to select animals to harvest for the market. There are probably 5000 animals scattered through the ranch.

Elsewhere on Montana byways, along another ranch road, we watched a Red-tailed Hawk buzz a Bald Eagle sitting on a fence post.

The hawk (far upper right corner) made a couple of dives at the Eagle, but then circled overhead and left it alone.

This bird might have been sickly, because it’s feathers look shabby and it never moved while we drove right up next to it. Lead poisoning is not uncommon in raptors here, if birds scavenge deer or elk carcasses with lead shot fragments embedded in the flesh.

a wildflower experiment

I got tired of trying to grow vegetables in my backyard garden space year after year, only to have them wilt with insect infestations, or get some virus that turned the leaves brown.  And finally at summer’s end near optimal harvest time, the garden was shaded by 2 p.m., because the maximum altitude of the sun’s arc in the sky in late August was below the tops of the trees.

So I converted my vegetable garden to a wildflower garden, with a wildflower mix from a company that promised lots of native plants from my region.  I dispersed the seed generously, watered it faithfully, and waited for weeks while it looked like I was growing nothing but weeds.  As an added bonus, I thought a bevy of flowers would attract more butterflies and bees to my backyard (which is what the wildflower packet promised).

Finally, the wildflower seed mix is starting to bloom behind the giant hyssop.

It’s a lush mix of quite a variety of plants, and there probably are a good number of my native weeds  in there too.

But unfortunately, I don’t recognize many of the flowers in this mix, which leads me to wonder if they are really from this region of the country.  For example, a few  California Poppies have appeared, and I’m sure they are not native to MN.

I would love to see golden poppies every year in my garden, but I doubt they can withstand the Minnesota winter.

They are quite pretty, but I’m disappointed that these flowers seem to be non-natives that will not attract the insects that my bird friends depend on during the summer.

What is this? It’s like nothing I’ve seen around here before.

Or this? A green sweat bee made a brief stop on this flower, looking for pollen perhaps.

What might this be, some kind of pink wallflower relative?

Or these, pretty little blue and white flowers? No insects anywhere around them.

I’m going to call this a failed experiment, an important failure because it highlights something that should be an on-going concern of all avid gardeners.  And that is this:  if we continue to replace the native vegetation in our yards with non-native species, insects that depend on native perennial and annual vegetation will face a food desert.  They don’t have the biochemistry to cope with the plant defenses of introduced non-natives, so they produce fewer or no offspring in a garden of non-native plants.  And the birds that depend on those insects to feed their own young similarly suffer the consequences of the food desert.

So, plant more native species and keep those insects happy!

Monarch butterflies love our native Swamp Milkweed for its nectar as well as a source of food for their larvae.

Ants on the move

Whether it’s spring house cleaning or just colonizing new territory, the ants in my back yard are on the move.  After laying waste to large patches of lawn last summer…

Bare areas are evidence of ant nest destruction of back yard lawn in multiple locations.  The camera bag is a reference for size of old nests.

they have relocated to a shady hillside to do their nest building this summer, with predictable effects on the green sward I have been trying to cultivate.

Newly constructed ant nest on a hillside has multiple entrances to tunnels being dug out by the industrious swarm.

It’s fascinating to watch while minuscule creatures continuously bring up chunks of dirt and wood as they excavate.  I can only imagine how far into the hillside these tunnels go.

Black garden ant carrying a chunk of wood.  The ants are about 1/4 inch long.

These garden ants specialize in colonizing turf, leaving a small mounds of excavated dirt over the grass which then dies.  They consume seeds, grass roots, soil insects, nectar, fungi, and probably parts of our houses.

Some ants carry small pebbles…

and some carry relatively large boulders, probably up a long narrow tunnel to the surface where it is deposited right outside the hole.

Workers may be different sizes, but they do the same work, hour after hour, day after day without stopping.

Workers are essential to the health and maintenance of the nest, but their lifespan of weeks to months may be determined by food abundance.  In contrast queens can live for years, laying thousands of eggs over their lifetime.

It is truly impressive how much ants can excavate and how much they can carry, to say nothing of the organization it takes to perform such whole-scale nest engineering.  The wonders of the “hive mind” convert single individuals into a super-organism to build an elaborate system of tunnels and side chambers that ultimately forms a highly integrated city.

To demonstrate how complex the construction of an ant nest can be, a mammoth-sized leaf cutter ant nest was infiltrated with 10 tons of cement and excavated in Brazil. Scientists estimated that the millions of ants in the nest moved 40 tons of dirt in an area of 500 square feet that was excavated to a depth of 26 feet below the surface, as the video below shows.

Back in April

The great migration of songbirds is mostly over, and the “pretty birds” have moved on to their northern breeding grounds.  Several people have commented on what an amazing spring it was this year, with so many migrants congregating in backyards everywhere.

Swainson’s Thrush was almost a common backyard bird as they stopped off to search through the fallen leaf litter for something to eat.

Apparently the extreme cold weather and snow we had back in April stalled the migration, with birds piling up just south of us, waiting for better weather and northerly winds.  Elsewhere the migration stalled where extreme flooding occurred in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska.

As we returned north from Texas through the Plaines states in late April, we just missed the massive concentration of waterfowl that had briefly taken up residence in Loess Bluffs wildlife refuge in northwestern Missouri.  It wasn’t easy to get to the refuge because there was flooding with road closures all around it.  The refuge itself was also flooded, but we could still drive part way around it.

Redbuds were in bloom. Flooded pools that were full of migratory waterfowl two weeks earlier in the background.

Extensive wetlands attract a variety of waterfowl, especially Snow Geese.

May Apples were just about to bloom in the forests on the Loess Hills.

A month earlier, the refuge had an enormous population of Snow Geese stopover for refueling on their northward migration.  The Kansas City Star newspaper reported that on March 5, there were about 20 Snow Geese on the refuge, and a week later there were 1.3 MIllion!  Imagine the mess 1.3 million Geese would leave behind.  Maybe it’s a good thing the water levels were so high.

The scene on the refuge on March 15, 2019. Photo from the Kansas City Star.

There were still quite a few Snow Geese on the refuge (far away across the water in the background) in late April.  But what is of interest in this shot is the horde of Tree Swallows (small black dots on the cattails in the middle of the pond) spending a few nights in the marshes fattening up on insects.

We made a sunset drive through the refuge and spotted a few of the residents.

Lots of Great Blue Herons

Another GBH

Another GBH, in a scene looking like abstract art.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes moseying along the bank.

Turkey Vultures were congregated at the outlet of this large pond, where there was a bunch of stinky, dead fish.  The last golden rays of the setting sun almost made this bird attractive…

After reveling in the spring weather of northern Missouri, we headed home to MN, where the leaves were still in buds on the trees.

Breakfast toad

Filet of toad, a delicacy for a Red-Shouldered Hawk, was on the menu for one hawk that swooped down about 30 feet from me while I was photographing a couple of Redstarts (featured in the last post).

I saw the bird land silently and immediately spread its wings over its prey. This “mantling” behavior is done to conceal their kill from the eyes of others.

I thought the bird might have a mouse in its beak.  This is a juvenile bird, probably from last year’s brood.  You can just barely see the red shoulder patch, but it hasn’t acquired all of the adult’s distinctive barred striping on the breast.

Red-shouldered Hawks are forest or forest-edge birds, unlike their more open country counterparts, the Red-tailed Hawks.  These are usually the birds that we hear screaming at roosting owls in the forest in the daytime — owls that are likely to nab one of the hawk’s chicks right out of its nest.

Cropping in a little tighter, the supposed mouse does look like an amphibian with its webbed feet, most likely a toad, since frogs don’t usually venture this far from water.

Red-shouldered Hawks have a varied diet of small mammals, amphibians, snakes, as well as nestling birds.  They typically sit quietly in a tree just below the forest canopy, near water, and wait until something moves that looks edible, and then pounce, just as this bird did. Their phenomenal eyesight helps them detect the smallest quiver of grass or leaves that indicates a prey item.

The click of my camera’s shutter must have alerted the bird to my presence, because it suddenly turned, looked straight at me, and took off, flying straight toward my head and then over it.  I was too stunned to raise the camera and get a photo of it coming at me though.

I wonder if this was one of the offspring from the pair of Red-shouldered Hawks I photographed in my neighbor’s backyard last year, as they were being mobbed by crows.

The pair settling in to their nesting territory in early spring last year.

Later in the summer, I photographed the pair again, when they were defending their nest (and chicks) perhaps from an owl perched nearby.

Warblers in the woods

What a week it has been!  Rain, wind, cold weather, all combined to keep the migratory warblers hunting low in the vegetation.  And they were so frantic to find something to eat, they pretty much ignored the photographer stalking them.  Here are a few of the ones I saw in the back yard this week.

Dozens of female Redstarts flitted through the vegetation, barely pausing for a second to pose.  The yellow spots on the tail that are flicked often as the bird moves, makes her easy to spot.

Probably the most common birds seen in the backyard this week, male and female American Redstarts.

The second-most common Warbler in the backyard this week, the Chestnut-sided Warbler has a bright gold cap, and chestnut sides! They were everywhere, including the front lawn.

Chestnut-sided Warbler perched on a twig on the lawn, on the lookout for insects.

American Redstarts and Chestnut-sided Warblers may stay around this area to breed, or might move north to southern Canada, nesting in the deciduous forests in northern and northeastern U.S.

But others will be on the move much farther north. And since the early bird gets the best nesting spot, they will have to fuel up quickly on this stopover and continue north soon. Magnolia Warblers and Canada Warblers, like the Tennessee Warblers in the last post, migrate to the coniferous forests in northern Canada to nest.

It was really challenging to photograph this Magnolia Warbler who was on a mission to find something to eat, darting from branch to branch, in and out of the sun, never stopping.

Taking time out to sing, the Canada Warbler looks somewhat like a Magnolia Warbler but has a necklace of black without stripes down its breast and a beautiful yellow eye ring.

Wilson’s Warblers prefer the stream and forest edges in far northern Canada or mountainous areas of the U.S. and nest in low vegetation, unlike most of their warbler cousins. They are so ubiquitous across northern Canada in the summer that they are probably viewed migrating through almost all of the lower 48 states.

Wilson’s Warbler has a black cap on its yellow head, and moves much more slowly than Magnolia!

The great migration is about over, and spring wildflowers are finally on the way in greater numbers.  It’s been a cold start to the summer this year.

I wanted a photo of yellow birds on the yellow violets in the back yard, but it was not to be…

the nectar thief

Each year, the Ohio Buckeye tree outside my porch window puts out a prodigious number of flower spikes, which reliably attract a few pollinators and one clever nectar thief.

Pollination of these flowers is sufficient for the tree to produce copious quantities of nuts, which are harvested by the squirrels in the fall.

Hummingbirds, bumblebees, and orioles visit the Buckeye tree in the spring, along with a horde of Tennessee warblers.

Tennessee Warblers arrive just as the Buckeye tree is in full flower. How do they manage to time it just right?

Tennessee Warblers really have nothing to do with the state of Tennessee, but do migrate through there, where they were first seen and named way back in 1811.  Like many small insectivores they spend the winter in the tropics, eating insects and nectar, and breed in the Canadian spruce forests where they specialize on spruce budworm and are critical to controlling outbreaks of the moth there.

Though they do visit flowers to consume nectar, they do not perform much of a pollination service for the plants, because they use their sharp beaks to pierce the flower at its base to get at the nectar at the bottom of the flower tube, thus avoiding the pollen on the anthers sticking far out of the flower.

Note where the beak is positioned to the side of the flower at its base. Pollen might inadvertently stick to the bird’s head or breast as it bumps into the anthers, but it might be hit or miss in depositing the pollen on the stigma of another flower.

Their beak is slightly open as if they are biting the flower to open a small hole in its base.

They only visit for a few days each spring, so I guess this must be the peak of their migration through MN this year.  You can see a light dusting of pollen on this bird’s neck and breast.

The sugars in the nectar will be metabolized and stored as fat and should provide these tiny little birds (about 2/3 the size of a chickadee) with the fuel they need to get to the Canadian spruce forest to breed.

(these photos shot with the Sony RX10 iii bridge camera through my porch window — what an amazing little camera!)

A busy day at the rookery

April and May are busy months at Smith Oaks Audubon Sanctuary on High Island, east of Houston.  Great Egrets and a variety of other long-legged waders nest in high density on an island in the middle of a rather large pond.

Some nests are almost within pecking distance of each other. Great Egrets and Roseate Spoonbills are among the earliest nesters here.

The Island is surrounded by water, patrolled by alligators, which keeps potential coyote and raccoon predators from predating the chicks.

Great Egrets are still sporting their breeding plumes, which flair out with the wind,  and are used to attract a mate with an elaborate display.  Unfortunately, thousands of these birds used to be shot each year to collect the decorative plumes to adorn ladies’ hats.

Great Egrets are the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was initially founded to protect birds from being killed for their feathers.

It looks like this pair are incubating eggs, which have to be turned in the nest every so often to ensure optimal development of the embryos.

The Great Egrets are well into their nesting phase, with some birds standing over their half-grown chicks and others still sitting on eggs.  Males build a large nest platform that may be as much as 3 feet across.  Once he attracts a mate to his nest site, the couple work together to finish the nest, adding a foot-thick layer of sticks to make the nest cup.

There are at least two, very vigorous chicks in this nest, which were beating up in each other until one parent interceded.

These birds typically lay more than 2 eggs, but begin incubating right away. This means the last egg laid in a clutch of 4, for example, hatches four days after the first egg laid, and the youngest chick will be a a great disadvantage in trying to compete with its larger nest mates.  In years when there is plenty of food, it might survive, but its larger siblings might steal its food or pick at it with their sharp beaks, and often this runt doesn’t survive.

Typical sibling rivalry…

A royal courtship

The East Beach of Galveston Island seems to be an attractive hangout for shorebirds trying to fatten up on the easily caught fish in the shallow bays.  But there was more than eating on the minds of the Royal Terns congregating there among the Brown Pelicans, Laughing Gulls, Skimmers, and other small shorebirds.

What is going on with those crown feathers that look like mohawks on the two Terns on the right? Is that just wind, or some kind of social signal to other Terns?

There are definitely some preliminaries to courtship going on between the three terns in the foreground.

Terns doing a sort of funky high-step dance…

Now this is getting a little more serious, with a presumed male offering a freshly caught fish to a presumed female.

She is going to make him work for it, as she walks off, exhibiting her lack of interest in him, or the fish. Perhaps she just ate?

Courtship feeding is common in many bird species and is supposed to demonstrate to the female what a great hunter and provider the male is.  In some cases, it may provide females with the extra protein and fat they need to produce a clutch of eggs after the energy drain of migration.  However, in this case it may be that many suitors and many fish equals a disinterested partner.

[Note added:  In cases where females have refused a fish, it was because it was too small!]

The objective of the ritual of courtship is to attract a compliant female to accept his gift of sperm. But not to attract a crowd of onlookers, like Laughing Gulls.

And so another foraging trip, to pick up another fish, as the Royal (Tern) courtship proceeds.

Shooting at eye (or foot) level

Most of the time I have photographed birds that were above or below my head, and it’s hard to get an accurate representation of their body shape and they way they move in their environment that way.  In photographing some shorebirds in our bird photography workshop we tried to get down at their eye level, sitting low or lying on our stomach.

This Clapper Rail, usually a secretive bird hidden in tall marsh grass, was lured over to a speaker playing rail calls on the side of the road.

Patience, grasshopper, the bird will eventually come out of the marsh grass.

Some of us could get lower than others.  The danger in getting too low is that the bird’s feet might be hidden from view. I (on the right) opted to sit higher and shoot with the camera in a lower position using the flip screen and live view on my camera.

Down on the gulf shore, we sat in the sand and photographed shorebirds coming to some bait left on the beach.

Sanderlings were uninterested in the bait, and never paused while probing in the sand continuously for small invertebrates buried just below the surface.

A Ruddy Turnstone, however, picked up some of the shrimp left on the beach.

A Willet walked over to a crab left on the beach but was put off by the Turnstone’s defensive posture.

But then a couple of herons realized there was free food available and wandered over, coming within 20 feet of where we sat in the sand.

What a pose! And what enormous feet.

And here came the Black-crowned Night Heron to check out the bait.  Sitting low really paid off getting a shot of the feet on the bird’s approach.

Do you think this bird has seen bait buckets before?

Yes, it has.