A little mid-winter tropical color

Who doesn’t need a shot of color during the mid-winter blah outdoor landscape of white, brown, and gray? After a monotonous week of fog and gray weather, it was time for a visit to the indoor tropical room of Como Conservatory in St. Paul, MN. Each time I go I find a few new species that have taken up residence there.

The Tropics Room with its mammoth-sized palms, deciduous trees, and pools houses a few exotic bird species, some huge and colorful tropical fish, turtles and tortoises, a monstrous python, a leaf cutter ant colony, poison dart frogs, and a two-toed sloth named Chloe.
What a surprise to find a Sun Bittern grooming itself on a stump overlooking the turtle pond– a spectacularly-feathered bird we saw along one of the rivers of the Pantanal that we cruised in Brazil in 2019. Though it looks plain when its wings are folded, Click here to see the amazing colors of this bird.
Blue-Gray Tanagers are common in the Tropics, and are probably the top of the pecking order among the birds in the Tropics Room. They are primarily fruit eaters, and love to hang out around fruit plantations in northern South America.
Saffron Finches are actually Tanagers, not finches, and are common in South American lowlands outside of the Amazon basin. These birds are cavity nesters, and I think we saw a pair carving out nest hole into the roof thatch on one of the little buildings. They seem to do quite well here in captivity.
The Violaceous Euphonia is a striking little bird about the size of a chickadee and is a true finch. But…its diet is primarily tiny fruits, instead of seeds, like other finches. It is native to forests and second growth (including plantations) in parts of eastern South America. (photo by Debbie Reynolds)
Honeycreepers get their name from their habit of sipping nectar as a primary food source, but the Green Honeycreeper here is more fond of fruit and seeds than nectar. It is also in the Tanager family and is native to Central and northern South America.
One of the permanent residents of this forest is Chloe, a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth. Of all the times I have visited the Tropics Room, I have only ever seen her awake once, when her keeper brought her some delectable vegetation to munch on. She is more than 30 years old, and prefers to be solitary on her tree stump — she apparently bit the male suitor they introduced to the tropics room, and he had to be removed for his own safety!
A rare glimpse of a smiling sloth…
Several rather large tortoises live on the ground floor of the Tropics Room at Como Conservatory. Apparently, they really like carrots, even if they don’t seem to have the right equipment to break them up into smaller pieces.

Naughty bird

Of course I love watching birds in the backyard, but I don’t especially love what some of them do to my house. The woodpeckers are at it again, drilling holes into the redwood siding of the house and the garage. The little Downys do a lot of damage by themselves, but this morning the local Pileated Woodpecker got into the action, and started hammering on the garage with some serious blows.

Incoming male Pileated Woodpecker. There has always been a resident pair of Pileated Woodpeckers in the far backyard, and they are frequent winter visitors near the house to check out the bird feeders.
He looks around, doesn’t see what he wants at the bird feeders, and moves on to the garage. The male has a red mustache (this bird), while the female’s is black.
The little holes in the siding were made by the Downy Woodpeckers, but the much bigger chisel bill of the Pileated could make short work of tearing out huge chunks of the siding. So, I had to chase him off.

Why do we love birds?

A rhetorical question to ask on this — National Bird Day. They are colorful, sing some pretty (if repetitive) songs, perform amazing aerial tricks, are delicate, fierce, strong, bold, and relatively easy to find and see. Plus there is an amazing diversity of them. They are all around us and we take them for granted, but the world would be a sad place without them. This day was created to raise awareness of the difficulties many avian species face because of loss of habitat, climate changes that put them out of sync with their food supply, lethal chemical added to their environment, etc. The list of perturbations to their normal existence is long and is taking its toll on their numbers. So to honor the Birds, I showcase some of them taken from this year’s photos (some of which were sadly lost in the masses of photos that I took!).

Great Gray Owl, northern Minnesota
Great Egret flying over a pond at Hilton Head, SC.
The elusive and much sought-after male Elegant Trogon, Portal AZ
European Raven from Extremadura region, Spain
Roadrunner attacking a lizard, Green Valley AZ
Speckled Tanager, Costa Rica
Rufous (or Allen’s) Hummingbird, Batiquitos Lagoon, CA
Black Kite, Extremadura region, Spain
Hooded Oriole, Green Valley AZ
Female, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, first bird seen in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Brown Boobies, seen somewhere along the Pacific coast of Central America
Snowy Egrets in Huatulco, Mexico
Serin finch, Extremadura region, Spain
Red Kites, Extremadura region, Spain
the rare Iberian Magpie, Doñana National Park, Spain. One of the birds most threatened by climate change.
Black-necked Stilt, Alameda Island, CA
Breeding plumes of the male Great Egret, Hilton Head, SC
Scarlet-rumped Toucanet, Cartagena, Colombia
Griffon Vulture, Extremadura region, Spain

Down in the meadow

Looking back over this year’s photos, I found some gems I had overlooked at the time they were taken. During our birding explorations of southern Spain in April-May of 2022, we visited La Dehesa de Abajo (literally, the meadow down below).

The abundance and diversity of wildflowers that carpeted the meadow here was really eye-catching. The building in the background is a “hide” or blind for watching the shorebirds out in the lagoon.

The Dehesa is a nature reserve just 15 miles southwest of Seville located within the greater 52 square miles of the Donana national park and nature park system.

Among the many wonderfully different birds we saw at the Dehesa, the European Bee-eaters were the most colorful and interesting (to me) to watch. These vibrantly colored, slender birds are distant relatives of Kingfishers, but are only found in southern and central Europe, parts of northern Africa and western Asia during the spring and summer. After breeding there, they migrate to tropical Africa for the winter.

You rarely see Bee-eaters individually — especially at this time of year. But just wait…
Not a minute later, the first bird was joined by (I suppose) its mate.

Pairs were actively foraging for insects among the flush of wildflowers in the meadow, with males often bringing food to females, and perching near them. In fact, couples were perched everywhere — often next to each other in small groups.

And then, two more Bee-eaters decided this post made a good resting spot between foraging bouts.

European Bee-eaters are highly gregarious and nest colonially in sandy banks, into which they excavate 5-foot long tunnels for their nest. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the 5-8 offspring to fledgling. Once out of the nest, adult and juvenile Bee-eaters roost communally in long lines of birds huddled closely together.

Despite their name (and they do eat a lot of bees, wasps and hornets), male Bee-eaters catch larger items like dragonflies and butterflies to feed to their mates during courtship. We watched a pair of Bee-eaters in this ritual for a few minutes as the male made several trips to feed his mate. The first image is a composite of his flight in. The second image shows him bringing a dragonfly to her (barely visible in his beak), and the third composite image shows his departure on another foraging trip.

Although Honeybees do make up 60-80% of their diet, their collective impact on the bees in an area is minimal; studies found that they ate less than1% of the worker bees from a particular hive. Bee-eaters do remove the sting from the bee before swallowing by bashing it against a tree limb or fence post.

Such gorgeous little birds, and such fun to watch. But there is much more to see in this richly diverse area of Donana, Europe’s largest national park. More on this topic later.

Remembering the year that was…

This year was an amazing time of one adventure after another…as we made up for the Covid isolation period and two years of postponed trips. So many beautiful places, beautiful animals, beautiful landscapes, and amazing people that we met. Here’s a snapshot of the year in review.

(Note: if you’re interested in seeing more and perhaps better photos of any of the activities mentioned below, go to the main page of the blog: https://bybio.wordpress.com and there should be a pull-down menu for the Archives with months and years of the blog listed near the top right of the main page. Just click on the month of interest, and scroll down through the days to see more of what I have summarized here. IPhone and iPad users may have to scroll to the bottom of the main page to see the dialog boxes with the months listed.)

The highlight of a trip to northern Minnesota to photograph the winter avian residents there was watching a very cooperative Great Gray Owl get four mice (from under the snow) in just four attempts — 100% success!
We took the long-awaited, much postponed cruise down the west coast of Mexico and Central America through the Panama Canal, ending up in Florida. Birding from the ship turned out to be a big plus.
Photography buddy Debby invited us to stay at Hilton Head, SC for a week to marvel at the huge numbers of shorebirds and others that overwinter in this milder mid-Atlantic climate.
As a prelude to our birding adventure in Spain in April-May, we took ourselves sight-seeing in Portugal, with a few days birding and exploring Lisbon, a train ride to Porto, and a few days there before ending the prelude in Madrid (a much more beautiful city than I remembered).
Birding extravaganza in the plains, forests, shore, swamps, and even in old cities in the Extremadura region and Donana national park in southern Spain with Ruth Miller and Alan Davies — birders extraordinaire
The annual family hike in our favorite haunts of the Desolation Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California took place early this year (to avoid a repeat of the disastrous smoke and fire threat we faced last year on the hike in August). We were rewarded with 100% warm, sunny days and no bugs!
Some of the family rode an airplane home from the Sierra hike, but two grandsons were kind enough to keep their grandparents company on a road trip from California through Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and South Dakota on the way back to Minnesota. Sights were seen and adventures were had along the way.
Although tamer than the previous months of travel, the backyard did not disappoint in bringing wildlife and beautiful scenes for photography. I realize in writing this now that I forgot to include the visit from the kit fox and its mama in August.
We always make at least one trip out to the central Minnesota prairie during the summer, and this year we found ground squirrels and monarch butterflies at Fort Riley state park. The tom turkeys visited the front and the back yards often, but without their girl friends.
A trip to eastern Europe (the Balkan countries) was a premier highlight of the year. It was definitely a learning and discovery adventure since we knew nothing about this part of the world. Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Slovenia — all beautiful, all very interesting though with tragic stories from inhabitants, and all easy to travel around with lots of friendly folks that spoke English.
As always, the fall color spectacle in the Twin Cities did not disappoint. The colors remained vivid for a long time, even into November before the trees finally gave up with the snowfall that began late this year on Nov. 12.
The forest outside became a fairy land of white-encrusted branches after the first major dump of very wet snow in December. Inside the tree was decorated with lights, mementos, and presents. Happy holidays!!

Happy holidays, dear readers

We’re enjoying (?) an old-fashioned, super-white, super cold holiday season here in the upper Midwest. I hope your holiday season is cheery and bright, shared with loved ones and friends, and that the New Year brings you even more joy than this past year did.

Feed the birds…they need all the help they can get!

Short days and fat bears

What do these animals have in common during the fall months?

A Black Bear scrounging for goodies on the forest floor in the Grand Tetons, WY, in September 2016. Black bears consume prodigious quantities of food before retreating to their dens for their winter “sleep”.
One of my many chipmunk friends that live in the backyard. This one had its cheeks stuffed full of sunflower seeds and peanuts from the bird feeder — probably taking them down its burrow to add to the food stores for the winter.
A female (or juvenile) Yellow-rumped Warbler was chowing down on Juniper berries in late September. The berries are consumed whole, but the bird’s digestive tract will separate seeds from pulp and excrete the seeds, while cleaving off and digesting the waxy coating of the fruit for a few extra calories. High sugar and fat diets help these migrants put on body fat quickly before they migrate.
Not all Robins migrate — some stay here all winter. But those that do fly south seek out the high carb fruits like crabapples and service berries that allow them to build their fat stores up quickly.

The answer to the question above is that all of these (and many more bird and mammal species) exhibit excessive consumption of food in the fall, technically becoming hyperphagic.

There really are only a few viable solutions to surviving the long, cold winters of the far north: 1) get out of town — migrate! 2) build fat stores to last you several months and sleep as much as possible, and 3) stay active to search for what little food remains, tolerate the cold, but enter a starvation state by metabolizing a lot of of your muscle (when you run out of fat).

The temporary condition of hyperphagia is brought on by decreasing photoperiod — i.e., the continually declining number of daylight hours in the transition from late summer to fall — that triggers the change in an animal’s eating habits. Fortunately, this also happens to be when food is most abundant with the ripening of seeds, fruits, excess numbers of young, naive juvenile animals roaming the countryside, etc. So food is easy to come by and fattening is easily accomplished by overeating.

To take Black bears as a good example of this strategy, consider the following comparisons of its diet and caloric consumption from summer to fall.

In the summer Black bears consume about 5,000-8,000 kilocalories per day. If food and water are restricted at this time, they break down their muscles for energy, may accumulate too much nitrogenous waste in their blood, and may die. They cannot “hibernate” at this time.

In the fall, Black bears become voracious, begin consuming 15,000-20,000 kilocalories and drink gallons of water per day, excreting 1-2 gallons of urine as they metabolize all those calories into fat stores. Then, they stop eating and enter a lethargic, hypo-metabolic state of winter sleep, in which their resting heart rate of 80-100 beats per minute falls to less than 22 per minute and their breathing slows down to 2 or 3 times per minute. For the duration of their winter “sleep” they don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t break down any muscle, and females give birth to their cubs. It’s an amazing physiological transformation.

This is Alaskan brown bear #901 from Katmai National Park, a winner of the Fat Bear annual contest for most immense Fall season body mass. Photo from the New York Times, Oct. 2022.

But have you ever wondered if we humans exhibit a similar response to the waning photoperiod and colder days of fall weather? It’s true that humans cannot hibernate the way small rodents do, but could they increase their consumption of carbohydrates and fatten up in the fall and then decrease their daily activity and sleep more in the winter to conserve energy — like bears do? [Side note: carb craving in the fall is a real thing for me — how about you?]

Well, here is the answer, in an article from the New York Times written more than a hundred years ago, back in November 1906. (Click on the image to enlarge it to be readable.)

Apparently, it has been common practice in some cultures (in the past?) that face temporary periods of starvation in winter to prepare multiple loaves of substantially nutritious bread in the fall, prior to beginning a routine of reduced activity and increased bouts of sleeping during long winters. Sleeping with farm animals for warmth was encouraged, I guess.

Drawing from the British Medical Journal May 3, 2000.

Zoo faces

Zagreb, capital of Croatia, is a bustling city of old and new — ornate buildings dating to its boom period as part of the Austria-Hungary empire and sleek high-rise skyscrapers built after the Balkan War. There is a lot to explore in Zagreb, and many unique dishes to try, but yesterday afternoon was the time to explore the Maksimir Park Zoo. The zoo exhibits were spacious, nicely landscaped areas with glass separating animals from humans, which allowed me to get some good close-ups. Birds from Europe and Africa were pretty well represented.

Hooded Crows are one of the most numerous birds in Balkan cities. They forage in flocks in open areas, garbage dumps, and gardens — not finicky eaters!
Gray Herons can be found throughout mid-latitude Europe as far east as the Ural mountains. They are the size of North American Great Blue Herons and seem to be the apex predators in European aquatic ecosystems, where they eat anything they come across including baby ducks.
Gray Herons are certainly well-named with all those gray feathers to ruffle and preen.
Eurasian, or Common Cranes are one of four crane species that are not currently endangered. They are about the same size as Sandhill Cranes, and like that species, they breed at higher Eurasian latitudes but migrate to overwinter in more southerly Mediterranean habitats.
White Storks, which we saw a lot of on our spring adventures in Spain, are found in eastern and southeastern (Balkan countries) Europe in the summer, but migrate to central and Southern Africa to spend the winter. They are notable for their rooftop nest creations that may get so large, they encompass entire chimneys.
This poor, bedraggled peafowl male had lost his glorious tail, but still had some spectacular iridescent color in his neck and body feathers. He wandered around in the zoo, free to forage in any penned area he could get into.
Eurasian Spoonbills are common and widespread across Central Europe and Asia, found anywhere there is a good supply of shelled and unshelled invertebrates to feed on. They are not as pretty as their North American cousins, the Roseate Spoonbill, but forage in a similar manner by moving their spatulate bill slowly through the water to “feel” for small fish, crustaceans, etc. swimming nearby that they then scoop up.
I thought these two African (or Gray) Crowned Cranes were the stars of the zoo birds in Zagreb. They are Central African, not Eurasian birds, but their golden crowns, light blue eyes, and red accents on the head and neck make them popular attractions at zoos.
Like other crane species, Crowned Cranes are good dancers during their courtship. I thought this pair might entertain us with some dance moves, but alas, it was just a little chase activity instead.

Blog break — photos I wish I had taken

Backyard Biology is on a break until the end of August, but I highly recommend you visit the following website to enjoy the amazing photography of Grand Marais, MN photographer Paul Sundberg, as he chronicles life in a Robin’s nest from egg to fledging. What a treat!

https://www.paulsundbergphotography.com/Photo-of-the-Week/Photo-of-the-Week-2022/August-21-2022/

As the worm turns…into baby birds.

Road trip adventure conclusion — Utah and eastward

From Great Basin National Park in Nevada through central Utah’s magnificent canyons and mountains, we drove on to Dinosaur National Monument at the Utah-Colorado border.

The lake bed sediments that make up the hills here date back about 150 million years ago, to the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era. Dinosaurs trapped in lake or river beds became entombed in rock that was later uplifted and tilted by mountain-building tectonic forces.
A beautiful campground on the banks of the Green River provides spectacular views of these dinosaur fossil-rich rocks.
We found a colony of Cliff Swallows nesting on the underside of some of the steep cliffs along the river.

Paleontologists from the Carnegie museum discovered the fossil remains of huge sauropods here early in the 1900s, and the site was quickly designated a national monument in 1915 to preserve it for more exploration. Thousands of fossils of the giant herbivores (like Apatosaurus) and carnivores (like Allosaurus) were excavated and shipped back to the Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh.

A huge enclosure over the original fossil bed quarry gives visitors a glimpse of what the early paleontologists might have seen as they excavated fossils. Hundreds of bones of different species sitting in close proximity to each other, with some having large portions of their skeletons almost completely intact.
The Utah Field House of Natural History in Vernal, Utah (near the monument) provided more information on the animals that roamed this area over 100 million years ago, and the boys enjoyed the “dinosaur garden” with life-sized replicas of the Jurassic beasts. Nothing better than a selfie with T.rex.

The next day driving along the Yampa river, we saw hundreds of little black blobs crossing the highway. I thought they were rocks but the boys saw them moving, so we stopped to look.

One of the thousands of Mormon Crickets swarming the highway. The long protuberance on the rear of this individual is an ovipositor, which she will use to deposit her eggs in the soil.

These are the insects that decimated the crops of early Mormon settlers in Utah. They are not really crickets, but are related to katydids. As shown in the photo, they are flightless, but move quite quickly on the ground. Although these insects usually exist in low density, occasionally huge numbers are produced in the spring. As they develop into adults over the summer, they form a swarm (with densities of hundreds of individuals per square meter) that migrates over the land, consuming everything in its path to find new areas to colonize.

You know you’re entering the Midwest when you cross the Continental Divide, which we did several times as we descended the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, driving through some of the prettiest and greenest mountain meadows I’ve ever seen.

Yes, there really are “rabbit ears”- like rocks overlooking the pass, but we had to really search for them.
Driving on northeast toward Wyoming, we encountered this weird cloud formation near Cheyenne.
The day’s destination was Scottsbluff, Nebraska, making this a five state journey on this day! The bluff and the town was named for Hiram Scott, a clerk for the Rocky Mountain fur company who died here. It’s interesting that the misspelling of the bluff (without an apostrophe) was carried forward to the county and the city name without correction,

Scotts Bluff stands high above the surrounding plains and was a visible landmark for early travelers of the Mormon and Oregon trails. Later the Oregon trail went right through this pass, adding over 200,000 travelers to the westward expansion.

It may not look it from this angle but Scotts Bluff is over 800 feet high. The boys didn’t think traveling by wagon train would be very comfortable, and in fact, there was no place to ride inside the wagons because they were piled high with provisions.

The next two days were simply a push for home, through the sand hills of Nebraska, which were surprisingly green and wet, then through the unending landscapes of corn and soybean fields of Iowa, and finally into the Minnesota river valley and home.