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.)
Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I renew my gratitude for the special people in my life. But I usually don’t remember to give thanks for many of the things I just take for granted. So this year, I’m thankful for trees…for the many ecosystem services they provide — for FREE.
…for forests that enrich our lives and uplift our moods as we wander their winding paths.
…for vast tracts of unending vegetation that pump oxygen into our atmosphere and remove carbon dioxide, helping to manage the climate.
…for forests and other vegetation that filter runoff to maintain clean water in lakes and rivers and prevent soil erosion
…for trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife (and food and building materials for us)
…for forests that improve our urban landscape by providing shade, lowering the air temperature nearby, buffering noise, air, and light pollution, as well as providing a mental and physical escape from the urban jungle.
this post dedicated to daughter Becky, an ecosystem services specialist.
Our next destination on this trip was the laid-back, small beach town of Opatija (pronounced o-pa-ti-a). We had a free day to explore some of the area, while others on our tour were sampling the wines of the Istrian region (northwest peninsula of Croatia). It was perfect weather for a hike in the Učka (pronounced ooch-kah) nature park, about a half-hour drive northwest of Opatija. Park personnel recommended we hike to the highest peak of the park, Mt. Vojak (vo-yak) for the stunning views of the coast. Fall color was almost at peak in the beech forest, so we followed a well-marked trail from the Učka nature park visitor center to the summit of Vojak — about a 1500 foot climb.
Park personnel in the souvenir shop in the tower told us that Griffon vultures have nested in the park for the first time this year. Several pairs of the vultures (which are rare in the Balkans) have nested on a nearby island in last years, but park staffers make a concerted effort to rescue the fledglings that often fall into the bay and are not strong enough to fly out of the water.
Across the country again – this time for the annual Sierra Nevada backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. It’s been 34 years since we made the first backpacking foray into the Sierras and we have rarely missed a year since then. This year all 12 family members participated, although not all from the same starting point, but we all met up at Lake Doris, had a welcome day off from packing gear to yet another destination, and celebrated with a day hike sans backpack! That was more or less the end of the way up…
One of the attractions of the Desolation Wilderness area is its glacially carved, clear lakes at the base of rugged granite peaks. Exceptionally clear water makes them excellent swimming holes, but at this time of year, it’s like swimming in melting ice water.
This was my fourth trip to southeastern Arizona — each time we have visited hoping to see the Elegant Trogon that nests in the canyons of the Chiricahua mountains near Portal, AZ. What is so special about this bird, you might wonder? This is the only Trogon species found north of Mexico — a tropical visitor bearing the brilliant colors of the Tropics. Sometimes we have visited too early before they arrive, sometimes we are too late, arriving after the breeding season. But this time was perfect — the Trogons were already nesting, and other people were seeing them, and especially the male regularly. We had three days to accomplish the task, and dutifully went out early in the morning and late in the afternoon and early evening in search of Trogons to photograph.
Day 1 – find a nest (we had heard about from another photographer)
Trogons are hole nesters, using sites originally excavated by woodpeckers and flickers who have the appropriate equipment (chisel-like bills) to create cavities in the soft wood of the sycamores that line Cave Creek. This mid-elevation pine-oak forest with sycamores lining the creek is the perfect habitat for these birds to find nest sites and feast on the insects and fruit in the area.
Day 2 – another long wait at this nest site right on the road. We did find the female sitting on a branch near the nest — but no sign of the male, and no vocalizations from him indicating his presence even nearby. Trogons sit quietly and inconspicuously (even the brightly colored male) on high branches, twisting their heads about, looking for insects or fruit.
Day 3 – We were feeling a little desperate by now, since this would be our last day at Cave Creek, and gave up on the roadside nest after seeing the male fly away down the canyon about 7 a.m. So we hiked a mile or so up the canyon to another nest we had heard about, found the nest hole and sat down on some rocks to wait for the occupants of this territory to show themselves.
At last, he arrived, and it was worth the wait! We estimated we had spent about 8 hours over the three days trying to photograph one of these birds. Persistence pays!
Elegant Trogons are a real draw for birding enthusiasts and photographers, and interest in them has spurred local birders in this region to survey their population during the breeding season. Currently, it is estimated that about 50 pairs breed in southeastern Arizona.
Fruit-loving Tanagers, the second largest bird family with almost 400 species, live in the neotropics of the Americas, especially the tropical forests of Costa Rica. On the day we visited our Costa Rican port city, we bussed for a couple of hours from the port to an eco-adventure park featuring canopy walks, trails, waterfalls, zip lines, etc. and were treated to a dazzling display of bird life at the papaya fruit station. The brilliant plumage of these birds is a delight to color-starved North Americans still suffering through “the winter blues”.
Most Tanagers are omnivorous and may eat fruit, seeds, flower parts, nectar, or act like flycatchers hawking insects. Often the bill is specialized for a particular food resource, but in the Costa Rican cloud forest, all of these birds eagerly devoured the papaya.
Bird classification underwent a huge revision with the advent of molecular analysis of bird DNA in the 1990s. As a consequence there are North American birds with Tanager in their name, like the Scarlet Tanager and Western Tanager, which are now placed in the Cardinal family rather than with the other neotropical Tanagers.
A fellow blogger reminded me that over the course of a year, or a decade, we write a lot of words about a lot of photos on our blogs. I have been writing this blog since July 2011, roughly a month after I retired. Somehow, I completely missed celebrating the 10th anniversary of “Backyard Biology” in July this year, and so after the end of 2021, I’m summarizing the highlights and milestones of the blog in this post.
Since that first entry, I have written 1689 posts, and the blog has had 415,000+ visitors (some just came once, some visited several to many times), with a total of more than 640,000 views during the past ten years. During that decade span I’ve written more than 307,000 words, which is about the equivalent of the word length of 4 novels, and I’m now finding that I am repeating myself, writing about the same topics in much the same way. And so the posts are more infrequent, and are now focused more on the natural history of the global backyard, rather than just my own backyard.
During the past 10 years, the post with by far the most views on one day (722) was on May 23, 2018, “Waterfall Extravaganza” in Hraufossar, Iceland, where there are 900 meters of continuous waterfalls streaming from a monster glacier and falling over impervious lava rock.
The same three or four posts seem to generate the most interest every year, probably as a result of a Google search for an answer. The top three each year tend to be: “How many seeds in a sunflower seed head?”, “Gigantic black horse fly”, and “Scary-looking, big, black wasp alert”. The post on sunflower seed heads gets about 30,000 views a year. Inquiring minds want to know!
This year, the most viewed post (528 views on October 17) was “Reflections”, which included some photos of images reflected in rippling water, like this one of Bald Cypress in the Mobile-Tensaw river delta.
In fact, the posts from our Fall trip to Alabama, a unique environment I had never seen before, were the most viewed posts of the entire year. Lagging far behind in views (350) was the post I entitled “Apocalypse”, thinking that would really capture readers’ attention.
And now it’s time to find some new material to showcase on Backyard Biology, with adventures near and far in 2022. Happy reading!
Five rivers feed into the 200,000+ acres of wetlands that make up the second largest river delta system in the U.S. just north of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama. The Mobile-Tensaw delta’s expanse of swamp, bog, natural rice paddies, canals, and rivers makes this area of Alabama a real biodiversity hotspot where you can find more species of fish, turtles, snails, crayfish, and oak trees than anywhere else in North America. Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson has called it North America’s Amazon, and so it was a real treat to venture out on a small boat to explore some of the smaller waterways of the delta for ourselves.
The southeastern U.S., and the Mobile delta in particular, was a refuge for species driven south during the ice ages of the Pleistocene glaciation. Warm temperatures year-round and plenty of rainfall (averaging 70 inches per year) ensure the most equitable conditions for life to survive, and so it has in this cradle of biodiversity.
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.
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.
it’s always a treat to see one of these bright, flame-colored birds, especially close-up!
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.