Utah’s glorious national parks: Bryce and Zion

Two parks in one day?  Well, really a day and a half.  It’s very hot, the grandkids are weary of all the driving and the setting up and taking down of camp, so we’re moving on to California after brief stops at the last two of Utah’s parks on our list of “must-sees”.

Wind and water have created a magical landscape of cliffs, hoodoos, and castles in the eastern wall of the high plateau that makes up Bryce Canyon.  The best way to appreciate it is to take a hike down in the canyon, but we’ll have to save that for next time when it’s cooler.  Even at almost 9000 feet, it’s 90 degrees here.

A closer look at the result of erosion in producing the arches and hoodoos in the amphitheater.

On to Zion, at lower elevation, and much hotter on this travel day.  Spectacular views through windows in the rock made the grandkids gasp, “wow”, as we entered the park from the east side through a long tunnel.

Striking red and buff-colored cliffs loom over us as we walk the trails at each of the tram stops in the park.

At places along the riverside walk up to the Narrows slot canyon, water runs through the rock rather than down through a more impervious layer. Ferns, moss, and a few wildflowers cling to the canyon walls.

At Weeping Rock…

I found a few Columbine flowers

The Virgin River that cut the canyon in Zion is a gentle stream today, but must have been torrential in previous eons to cut such a steep canyon.  Making hoodoos on the river rocks is a popular activity.

Eldest grandson tests his mechanical engineering skills to construct a tall hoodoo.

Ground squirrels are common on the riverside trail, and come right up to visitors to beg for food. The park service has instituted a $100 fine to prevent feeding of wildlife.

After a picnic lunch in the park, we’re headed for California, and the annual backpacking trip in the high Sierras.

Utah’s glorious national parks: Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef is a major buckle in the earth’s crust in southeastern Utah — a huge and eroded uplift only six miles wide running almost 100 miles south to Lake Powell.

Erosion and weathering have exposed multiple layers of deposited sediments, the oldest (and lowest) of which forms the top of the Grand Canyon (Kaibab limestone).

East-west travel across the reef (i.e., barrier to land travel, like an ocean reef would be to sea travel) is difficult in this terrain, and only one major road crosses the spine of this ridge.

Some of the peaks in the reef are capped with whitish sandstone, which reminded early settlers of the white domes of Capitol buildings, and hence its name — Capitol Reef.

This area is a hiker’s paradise because of all the narrow slot canyons that have formed in the longitudinal reef over time.

We drove down into one of the slot canyons one evening, amazed at the formations carved into the walls by wind and water.

Walls of the narrow slot canyon tower hundreds of feet above us.

We arrived in the middle of a heat wave in Utah, but our national park service campground was relatively cool because it was in the middle of an irrigated orchard.

Fruita campground is an oasis in the desert, with orchards planted originally by the Mormon settlers, and maintained today by the national park service.

You can pick and eat as much fruit as you wish in Fruita campground, but must pay by the pound if you want to take it with you out of the camp. Apricots were ripe and falling off the trees when we visited, but the mule deer preferred the still unripe apples.

Should have stayed in Arizona!

Minnesota’s weather for the coming week is why I should have stayed in Arizona.

Weather forecast

I could be looking at this landscape.

Catalina State Park, Tucson

Catalina State Park, Tucson

Catalina State Park, Tucson

And enjoying some different sorts of birds like this…

Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker on mesquite.  This is a smallish woodpecker that hunts insects on cactus and low shrubs as well as in pinyon pine and juniper at higher elevation.  It pays to be a little smaller and more agile in the desert where the bird has to navigate various cactus spines and bush thorns in its search for prey.

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow, aptly named, but often referred to as the desert sparrow,  because it is the typical sparrow seen in the most arid of desert scrubland where it finds enough seeds and insects to sustain itself.

Vermillion Flycatcher

Male Vermillion Flycatcher, a diminuitive flash of color in arid desert greenery.  They can be found in riparian areas in the southwestern U.S., and southward through Mexico, often sitting on a favorite flycatching perch waiting for a juicy bug to fly by. 

Minnesotans love to joke about their weather.  A friend posted this on Facebook the other day…

Minnesota weather in “minnesotan”

Minnesota weather in “minnesotan”

Mammals in the living desert

Although it is far easier to find birds in the southwestern deserts, more than 100 mammal species live there too, a few in some of the harshest and most challenging environments.  Most are usually active only at night or in the twilight that precedes sunrise or follows sunset.  Why?  Because daytime temperatures can be very hot, water is limited so keeping cool by evaporation is dangerous, and there aren’t very many places to retreat to cool shade.

Sonoran desert at Palm Desert, CA

No place to hide from the heat in this leafless, spiny forest of cactus, unless you’re a small, burrowing rodent.

Mammals cope with the heat by avoiding it, storing it, unloading it, or offsetting it by consuming the water-filled bodies of their prey.  Here are a few examples of these strategies in mammals of the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, CA.

Avoiding the heat: bats, rodents, kit fox, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat

Big carnivores need to retreat to sheltered crevices or caves during the hot daytime hours, while mice can keep cool in underground burrows.  Their dense fur is an adaptation to keep them warm on clear, cold desert nights, and in the winter.  In addition, water lost by panting to keep cool can be replaced by the body water in their prey.  Their home range might even include a water source like a spring or pool.

Mountain Lion, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Bobcat, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Coyote, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Storing the heat: pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep

Large-bodied herbivores can’t escape the heat, so they tolerate it by storing it in their large body mass, and allowing their body temperatures to fluctuate several degrees over the course of the day.  Heat gained during the daytime can be unloaded by radiation or convective cooling at night.  Bighorn sheep can withstand dehydration for several days (to a level that would kill a human) and can replenish all of their body water immediately upon drinking.

Pronghorn Antelope, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA Bighorn Sheep, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Unloading the heat:  jackrabbits, mule deer

Both deer and rabbits seek shade during the day, but use their very large and well vascularized ears to radiate heat away from their body.

Mule deer, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA Jackrabbit, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Fennec foxes from Saharan and Arabian deserts use a similar strategy to unload heat from highly vascularized, over-sized ears. Apparently the large surface area of their ears also helps them hear prey moving around under ground.  It’s interesting to see such convergence of strategies in unrelated animals from different continents.

Fennec, Fox, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

And what about the unlovely Javelina?

Javelina, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

They look ill-suited to be desert dwellers with their short extremities, stocky bodies, and bristly hair.

Their solution to the challenges of desert life?  Live near the water and stay in the shade, for example, under a trailer!

Birds in the living desert

On our way back now to Minnesota, staying as far south for warmth and sunshine as we can, we found a very nice exhibit of Sonoran desert plants and animals at the Living Desert Zoo and botanic garden in Palm Desert, Southern California.  All the typical animals were on display, as well as the many types and forms of desert adapted plants, which kept us busy walking the trails of this 1000 acre preserve for several hours.

Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Vegetation varied between very dry cacti gardens, somewhat wetter acacia and palo verde forests, and palm oases.

Unfortunately, it was a chilly, overcast morning, and the wildlife was sparse, very quiet, and somewhat lethargic.

Verdin, Palm Desert, CA

Chilly weather doesn’t slow down busy little insectivores, like Verdins, though.  Read more about these tiny, but highly successful desert birds at https://bybio.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/the-sonoran-desert-chickadee/

Roadrunner, Palm Desert, CA

The Roadrunner looked miserable, fluffing its meager feathers out and hunching up to conserve warmth. When Roadrunners get cold, they like to bask in the sun, spreading their back feathers to let the sun shine directly on the black skin on their backs. Alas, no sun today!

Mockingbird, Palm Desert, CA

Even the Mockingbird looked cold, and was reluctant to move, even when we crept up quite close.

juvenile White-crowned Sparrow

Small flocks of juvenile (like this bird) and adult White-crowned Sparrows foraged for seeds beneath the cacti.


It’s always fun to find the “black cardinals” in the tree tops. On a gray day like this one, all you can usually see is a silhouette. A brief glimpse of the sun helped light up this male.  Phainopepla are members of the silly flycatcher family (i.e., not a cardinal at all) and are usually found in desert oases in the tropics.  The northern edge of their range extends into the Central Valley of California.

Male Costa’s Hummingbird

The great variety of flowering perennials present in the Living Desert should have attracted quite a few hummingbirds. Curators of the park thought it might be too cold for them to be out today.  We found this one bright male Costa’s Hummer at a nectar feeder.

Female Costa’s Hummingbird

Meanwhile, a female Costas’s Hummingbird fed on the nectar of tiny purple flowers of a shrubby mint.

Mug shots — take 2

Birds and mammals seem to sense when you’re staring at them, willing them to stare back so you can get a great portrait with the glowing eyes looking right out of the frame.  It’s hard to achieve though, and mammals in particular resist eye contact, as that often is interpreted as a threat to them.  This is where telephoto magnification is essential, but even when I am quite a distance away, mammals just as often turn away as I raise the lens to focus.  Obviously their eyesight is a lot better than mine.

Common Loon-

A Common Loon emerged from a dive right in front of me providing a unique close-up of the detail in its feathers.

female Pileated Woodpecker

This female Pileated Woodpecker was so busy drilling into the tree, she didn’t notice (?) me walking closer to get my best shot.

european forest buffalo (wisent)-

A European forest buffalo (wisent) intent on eating and with no interest whatsoever in raising its head to make eye contact. I can see that they have long golden eyelashes though…


Young Javelina crossing the road in front of our car near Portal, Arizona. Hairy beasts with long snouts, beady eyes, and stubby legs, not at all related to pigs (which evolved in Eurasia), but convergent in looks and habits.

mule deer-

Mule deer look like White-tailed deer (a different species) but have enormous ears, darker (blackish) tails, and darker gray fur. Usually found only in western North America plains, deserts, mountains, grasslands, etc.  Deer don’t see as well in the daytime as some more diurnal animals, and they often stare motionless for a few moments before bounding away or turning their back on the camera.

white-tailed buck-antler growth

Antler growth begins in the spring in White-tailed bucks. This looks like the start of what will grow into a large rack, and I wonder if this guy is the same animal as the one in the next photo.  I kept waiting for this guy to turn around and face me, but no…all I got was a side view.

white-tailed buck-antlers-

I’m behind a glass door and across two backyards from big buck, but he raises his head to look toward me when I tap on the window.

mexican wolf-at the Sonora desert museum, Tucson

A Mexican Wolf just barely raised its glance toward observers as it strolled through its pen in the Sonora desert museum in Tucson.  This is a subspecies of the Gray Wolf, but is on the verge of extinction in its native habitats in the southwestern U.S. and northwestern most Mexico due to loss of open hunting areas and predator removal.  Their fur coat has accents of black and white on the back and their under hair is yellower than that of the Gray Wolf.

mountain lion-

Big cats overheat quickly in the desert sun, as this one did pacing in its pen at the Sonora desert museum. Back in its cooler cave, panting, the puma/cougar/mountain lion finally raised its head and looked in my direction. Pumas are usually found in the mountains, but will venture into grasslands and even more arid desert habitat if there is sufficient game.

Old friends in new places

Cave Creek ranch in the Chiricahua mountains near the New Mexico border is an idyllic haven for birders and hikers.  The scenery is pretty incredible too.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

The view from my porch looks out over the creek and up into the rocks.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

We’re set for an early morning hike up Cave Creek, to see if we can find some new birds we haven’t seen before.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

Like the creek in Madera Canyon, sycamores line the banks of Cave Creek, stretching their limbs far and wide to create wonderful shade.

Sycamores can grow to be giants, but occasionally a limb snaps off, and we find animals taking advantage of the nook created by the amputated limb.

Great Horned Owl

This Great Horned Owl created a nest cavity in one of the huge clefts left after a limb dropped.  We also found a western Screech Owl seeking refuge during the daytime in a similar cavity in another sycamore.

Desert animals are often pale in comparison to others of their kind in other climates, as this Great Horned Owl is.  But there is more to the story than just differences in color.

Animals in this part of the U.S. seem to be entirely different geographic races of their parent species, and the extent of differences in their DNA, their color, their song, and their behavior have led scientists to begin splitting the southwestern desert species off from their representatives in other parts of the U.S. and Mexico.  That’s great for birders that like adding species to their life lists!

Coue's white-tailed deer

The white-tailed deer are much smaller than their relatives in my backyard in MN. In fact, they are technically known as Coue’s white-tailed deer, a dwarfed race, or is it a different species?

Hairy woodpecker, Cave Creek, AZ

Here’s a familiar bird, a male Hairy Woodpecker, but it looks quite different from the MN variety, as it lacks the spots on the wings, and has a broad white stripe down its back.  Would a MN female Hairy Woodpecker refuse to mate with this bird?  If so, then they would be considered separate species.

Brown Creeper, Cave Creek, AZ

Brown Creepers have been divided into four groups now, one in Mexico, and three others in the U.S. divided into eastern, Rocky Mt, and Pacific races.  Differences in song and plumage have been known for some time, but recent DNA analysis has confirmed the separations.

We met some new friends along the Cave Creek trail, but apparently our “old friends” may be new as well.

Guardians of the desert

South of Tucson, Arizona, Saguaro cactus dominate the landscape with their giant trunks and arms reaching up, like those wacky, inflatable tube men you see along the highways, advertising a big sale of some sort.

Saguaro cactus forest

Giant stems of Saguaro rise way above the rest of the vegetation, like giant sentinels.

Saguaro cactus

Life stages of the Saguaro shown here–from an early (25 yr old) barrel shaped youngster, to 75 year old cactus just growing its first arm, to a mature many-armed giant 200 or more years old, to the woody remains of a dead Saguaro.

Saguaro are not only a dominant plant form in the Sonoran desert, but an integral part of the life cycle of this community.  It’s flowers provide nectar and pollen to insects, birds, and mammals, and its fruits are sought after by humans as well as many other desert animals.

Saguaro flowers

Flowers appear on the tops of the cacti in April, remain open for less than 24 hours, but provide huge amounts of nectar and pollen to attract pollinators.

Saguaro flowers

The Saguaro flowers are loaded with pollen from the hundreds of stamen projecting out the floral tube. Bats and birds reach the nectaries at the base of the flower with their long tongues.

After Gila Woodpeckers have drilled out nest cavities in the dense wood of the Saguaro, a variety of other bird species may use the nest holes as protection from the sun’s heat and for their own nests.

A pair of Gila Woodpeckers nesting in Saguaro

A pair of Gila Woodpeckers nesting in Saguaro. Cactus Wrens and  Elf Owls might get a chance to use this nest hole once the Woodpeckers are finished with it.

And of course, they make wonderful subjects for aspiring photographers…

Sonoran desert landscape

Sonoran desert landscape

A birdie morning

Walking around the Sonoran desert in early morning with the local wildlife  inhabitants, we came across quite a few new friends.  A small sampling of what we saw…

Phainopepla, Sonoran desert

Phainopepla, the silky flycatcher, looking somewhat like a black cardinal, dart around bushes and cacti hawking for insects.

White-winged dove

White-winged doves, the largest doves in this desert, are quite common.  The distinctive blue patch around the eye is a sure sign this dove is ready to mate.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are quite a bit smaller than Chickadees and move three times as fast. Their buzzy call gives away their presence, but even so they are hard to spot.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wrens are everywhere, buzzing from the tops of the Saguaro as well as skulking through the bushes looking for insects, or even fledgling House Sparrows to feast upon!

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Orioles look a lot like the Altimira Oriole I saw in south Texas, easy to spot with that bright orange color and typical Oriole chatter.

More to come in the next few days, if the internet connection holds up. Continue reading

butterflies in the desert?

Even though the landscape looks (and feels) arid, southern Arizona seems to be a mecca for butterflies, perhaps because of the diversity of vegetation and flowers there.  Although we were busy photographing birds, the colorful four-winged flyers demanded our attention as well.


The Queen butterfly is a close relative (same genus) of the Monarch.


Adults sip nectar from a wide variety of flowers, but the larvae usually feed on a species of milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) that contain toxic chemicals that the adult butterfly retains, making them distasteful to predators.


Painted Lady butterflies were one of the most numerous species in the gardens at Ventana Canyon Lodge in Tucson.


The Texan Crescentspot butterfly is a small, narrow-winged butterfly found in Mexico and throughout the southern U.S. Its distinctive crescent moon-shaped spots on the hind-wings make it easy to spot.


Before I looked closely, I thought this was just another checkerspot butterfly but the distinctive antennae and large eyes make this a type of skipper — a white-checkered skipper.


Another butterfly with a distinctive name: this is the Southern Dogface, one of the many species of sulfur butterflies. I assume the black pattern on the top side of the wings gives it the distinctive name.


The Tailed Orange butterfly grows its “tail” (a pronounced point on the lower edge of the wing) in the late summer/fall months. Earlier in the year, this butterfly was a more brilliant orange, with distinctive black markings on the topside of the wings, and no “tail”.  


There were so many of these tailed orange butterflies feeding on this late blooming Salvia, they almost looked like dead leaves hanging down from the vegetation.  The species is unique in having not only two sexual morphs (male and female black patterns on the top side of the forewings), but two seasonal morphs (one with and one without tails) as well.

Another good reason to visit beautiful southern Arizona!