A cruise on the Delta

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.

Wild rice and Phragmites reeds grow along the edges of the river, almost closing off the small waterways in the labyrinth of corridors throughout the delta.
A variety of snails colonize the floating vegetation in the swampy bogs.
Clumps of rice seed fell into the bottom of the boat as we passed through narrow canals. A Yellow Warbler might not be interested in the seed, but there are plenty of insects in this vegetation.
We must look carefully on the river banks before stepping out of the boat — there are plenty of alligators in the delta waters.
Cruising up the Tensaw river we entered a cypress swamp where the trees grow right in the water, completely independent of any land surface.
Cypress forests are a haven for all kinds of birds — small migratory warblers as well as large waders like a Great Blue Heron.
In the Spring, these waterways are lined with brilliant flowers.
Spanish moss hangs from the Cypress’ lower branches, and odd vertical stumps arise from the tree’s roots. Their function is not certain, but they might assist in collecting more sediment to buttress the tree roots in the soft, muddy river bottom.
Honeybee nests can be found where large branches have broken away from the trunk. This is a “honey” tree.
Not only is there great diversity of vertebrate animals in the delta, but there are hundreds of species of insects as well. And some are really big — like the praying mantis..
and this 4-inch lubber grasshopper (which is not fully mature yet).

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.

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!


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.

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.

The Big Trees

We hiked through the cool, majestic big redwoods of the Forest of Nisene Marks in the Santa Cruz mountains the other day. I’m always impressed with the immense change in microclimate that these big trees produce, growing along the coast and trapping cool, moist air from the ocean each morning. The light filters through dense branches high above the trail, and only a few scattered sunbeams actually make it to the forest floor. So photography is a bit challenging under dim light conditions.

This tract of almost 10,000 acres of coastal redwood forest was once clear-cut once to provide lumber for the growing towns of central California. The land was donated to the state by the family of Nisene Marks, a passionate nature lover.
Wildflowers, like this delicate Trillium, were in abundance on the forest floor.
But the forest was really quiet, except for the trilling warble of a few Pacific Wrens. This is not a place to find a lot of birds, but it is a serene wilderness with lots of beautiful hiking trails to traverse.
This Pacific Wren was elusive at first and then hopped up into plain view. Its song is similar to our Midwestern House Wren, and it pierces the quiet of the redwood forest stillness.
One of the interesting creatures of the redwood forest is the Banana Slug, so named for its resemblance to said fruit. This shell-less mollusk looks vulnerable because it stands out with its bright color on the dark forest floor, but only a very few predators can tolerate the tongue-numbing, viscous slime it secretes to retard dehydration.
Two pairs of tentacles on its head help the banana slug navigate its environment. The upper pair contain light-receptive cells on long, protruding stalks. The lower pair are used to sense certain chemicals in the forest litter so the slugs can locate their favorite food: tiny mushrooms. They also consume and recycle the vital nutrients in animal droppings and dead plant material, leaving behind rich fertilizer.
Other decomposers, like these fungi that resemble our Midwestern “Turkey tails”, add to the forest nutrient cycle. Redwoods that can live for thousands of years are resistant to decomposition, unlike the pine or deciduous trees present in this forest.
Looking up at the Big Trees, towering above us in the redwood forest.

Boreal birds

The Boreal Forest (also known as the taiga) is a harsh place, dominated by snowy landscapes, primarily coniferous trees, extremely cold and long winters and short-lasting, cool summers, but it is the largest land biome circling the high northern latitudes of the globe. In North America that includes most of inland Canada and Alaska.

Boreal forests are dominated by conifers, and usually have an understory of moss or lichen. The coniferous forests of northern Minnesota aren’t really part of the boreal biome, being warmer year round and having many fruit- and seed-bearing plants in the understory. This is an important difference for boreal-dwelling birds.

Over 300 species of birds breed in the boreal biome during its short summers with almost continuous daylight and abundant supply of insects, but only about 30 bird species stay for the rest of the year. In years when food resources are scarce during the winter, some boreal-dwelling bird species “irrupt” and make short migrations south to the northern coniferous forests in Minnesota and other parts of the U.S. These irruptions are irregular both in timing and location, but we can usually find a few boreal species in the spruce-tamarack forest of Sax-Zim bog.

Boreal Chickadees are one of the species that may desert their boreal habitat in search of food in coniferous forests further south. Some years they are never seen during the winter at Sax-Zim bog in northcentral MN, and some years they can be found in abundance. This year, there seemed to be just one Boreal Chickadee hanging out at this particular feeder.
Boreal Chickadees look very similar to our familiar Black-capped Chickadees, but they have a brown cap, gray cheeks, and rustier sides, and their calls are distinctly different. Besides being geographically separated by occurring further north than the Black-caps, Boreal Chickadees prefer to spend their time at foraging at the top of spruce trees, while chickadees forage much lower and in a variety of conifer or deciduous trees. However, their ranges do overlap in the boreal forest, and there is at least one report of a hybrid produced by interbreeding of the two species.
Pine Grosbeaks breed in the farthest northern reaches of the boreal biome across northern Canada, but may retreat to the southern parts of the biome and northern coniferous forests in MN for the winter where they dine on a variety of seeds from feeders and from the understory vegetation of the forest.
These large-bodied, colorful finches are entirely vegetarian: they crush large seeds and fruits in their bills or may nip the tips of the needles off pines or firs. The birds vary in color and even in size throughout their range, which extends around the globe in the boreal biome. Males are pink to rosy red in color and the females have variable amounts of copper color on the head and breast.
Evening Grosbeaks are another large-bodied finch that breeds in the boreal region, and like Pine Grosbeaks, they retreat south during the winter, often in large flocks. Their irruptive movements during the winter are unpredictable and irregular, and they might be found as far south as Texas.
Evening Grosbeaks consume seed in the winter, but are ferocious consumers of insects in the summer, especially spruce budworm. Males in their bright black and yellow plumage really stand out in the gray winter landscape. Females sort of resemble the smaller Goldfinch females with their black and white wing feathers.
Canada Jays (well named because they are found almost entirely in just Canada, unlike the Canada Goose!) stay in their boreal homes year-round, tolerating whatever the climate throws at them. They are well-adapted to the cold, with dense plumage, short beaks, and even feathers that insulate their nostrils!
The best way for Canada Jays to survive the boreal climate is to eat whatever they can find: berries, insects, small mammals, nestlings of and sometimes adult small birds like chickadees, carrion, even fungi. Like some other coniferous forest residents, they store food year-round securing it under bark and in crevices with their sticky saliva. Canada Jays adapt to human presence easily, making use of their food stores (like a hanging deer carcass) and inspiring colloquial names like “camp-robber” and “whiskey-jack”. Do they really sample the alcohol?

Other notable “irruptive” species one might find in the northern coniferous forests of MN like the White-winged or Red Crossbills, Bohemian Waxwings, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, Common or Hoary Redpolls, Pine Siskins, as well as Snowy Owls and Great Gray Owls, all make winter excursions “up north” an exciting adventure in bird watching.

Jays of the forest

Hiking into cool evergreen forests in the outer coast range near San Jose CA, you immediately meet up with the “jays of the forest”, the Steller’s Jay. We hear them before we see them, and they really are stellar to look at with their vivid black and deep blue plumage.

Like its eastern cousin the Blue Jay, Steller’s Jays have a crest, and like Blue Jays and Scrub Jays, they are intensely curious, especially of photographers creeping up on them, This bird played hide and seek with me, dodging behind tree stumps and hiding in thick brush as I tried to get a better angle on it.

Steller’s Jays are found only in the western North and Central America, typically in montane forests, like the coast range. In the U.S., they are found in coastal montane areas from Alaska through Canada to California and in the Rocky Mountains, where they barely overlap with the range of their closest cousin, the Blue Jay.

The hike along Steven’s Creek park in Cupertino was cool and rather dark with all the evergreen vegetation over the trail. Finding birds in the dense vegetation is challenging, and there isn’t much light to work with.
Steller’s Jays prefer the mixed deciduous and coniferous forests of the coast range of California. In the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains, they are usually found in coniferous forest at low to mid altitudes.
“can you see me now?” Darn bird, hiding in the sticks.
I had never noticed before that Steller’s Jays have turquoise eyebrows running vertically up their crest. They can also flare their crest forward or flatten it down, depending on their mood.
Their curiosity makes them adept at finding new food sources, so Steller’s Jays are quick to find bird feeders, or new eggs or nestlings in another bird’s nest, or a source of acorns they can cache for later. And they seem to have excellent memories for where they have hidden their food treasures.

Life on a restored prairie

The restored prairie at Tamarack Park in White Bear Lake is teeming with mid-summer activity.  Part of the restoration has included planting a very large 20 acre field with Big Bluestem grasses and other native forbs, and the grass “as high as an elephant’s eye” right now.  It’s amazing how much you can see in just an hour’s walk in such a place.

The Big Bluestem is already about 2 feet over my head. The park has cut paths through the prairie in places so you can see what being in the middle of a tall grass prairie is really like.

Most of Minnesota is part of the prairie-forest ecotone (the area where the two biomes intersect), and this photo is typical of that sort of vegetation.  Regular prairie fires, started by lightning or by native Americans, maintained the grasses and kept the woody vegetation from invading.  Trees competed better in wetter areas near lakes where prairie fires typically stopped burning.

Dozens of wildflower species are at or just past their peak, and add color to all the green.

Tall spikes of purple Blazing Star and yellow Tickseed and Black-eyed Susans stood out in the sea of green.

Several Goldenrod-Soldier Beetles were happily pollinating some of the Rudbeckia species plants.

Hundreds of dragonflies were flitting over and through the tall prairie grasses, hunting insects or perhaps a mate.

Halloween Pennant dragonflies (named for their orange and dark brown color) perched on the tallest vegetation in the prairie (on Mullein plant here) while they waited for something tempting to fly by.

Several male Widow Skimmer dragonflies were flitting around in the low grass near the edge of the path. These are mosquito specialists, so I like to see lots of them around.

Young fledgling birds were trying out their newly acquired hunting strategies to feed themselves.

A couple of young Bluebirds were eating fruit and looking for caterpillars. One was successful and immediately flew off with it — I guess to protect it from being stolen.

Two young Phoebes (with squeaky voices) were hunting by a small pond — competing with the dragonflies for flying insects.

Chipmunks, squirrels, and 13-lined Ground Squirrels scurried around, already storing up food for the long winter to come.

You don’t often see these 13-lined ground squirrels out in the open — and this one made a made dash for cover when he spotted me photographing him.

Life is busy on this prairie, and the only slow movements are those of the humans strolling along admiring all this beauty.

I could hear (but not see) frogs calling in the pond, and dragonflies were busy hunting along its edge. I love the clouds reflected in the clear water of a prairie pond.

Hawk nest hunt

Every spring and summer, Red-shouldered Hawks make their presence known in the backyard.  They soar over the cottonwood trees in the wetland just beyond the backyard and occasionally stop to perch on the trees in the backyard to see if there is anything worth eating in my yard.

One of a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks that were mobbing an owl (that I couldn’t find) last summer.

They have been particularly noisy this spring soaring overhead, calling to each other with plaintive cries, and mating in full view in the cottonwoods in the wetland (far away and behind many sticks).  So, this week while I have been walking out in the wetland photographing woodpeckers and wood ducks, I’ve been searching the tops of the trees for the Red-shouldered Hawk nest, and finally found it yesterday with the help of a neighbor.

It was across the wetland high up in a tree, probably much more visible from the street in front of the houses.

I could just see the top of the hawk’s head (and eye) with my binoculars and the zoom of the camera lens.

Trekking through the muddy wetland and across to the other side, another neighbor told me that this was a new nest this year, and that their former nest in his yard had fallen down with a heavy snowfall this past winter.  Eureka! — this might the pair that have been soaring and screeching over the wetlands in previous years.

One of the effects of this pandemic “stay home” restriction is that neighbors are outside socializing from driveway to driveway in the middle of the afternoon, and are happy to point out the wildlife they have seen in their backyard.  And the neighbor in whose tree the hawks built their nest kindly opened his backyard gate and let me to photograph the nest.

I got there just as there was a nest exchange and the sitting hawk flew off when its partner arrived and sat on the edge of the nest.  The nest doesn’t look particularly well-built, with loose sticks woven into the fork of the tree where four branches come together.  But perhaps they will add on if they are successful rearing chicks here.

A better view of the Red-shouldered Hawk adult with its obvious red shoulder patch, lightly barred rusty-colored breast feathers, and black tail with narrow white stripes.  The tail (along with the red shoulder patch and rusty barred breast feathers) helps distinguish this bird from its similar-sized, but more open country inhabitant, the Red-tailed Hawk. (Note I edited out the branches in front of the bird for a better look.)

The fact that one of the hawks was sitting down in the nest cup probably means there are some eggs there already, and I hope this pair successfully rears a couple of chicks so that I can return to photograph this spring and summer.