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: 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!!

Thank the trees

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.

Forest of Nisene Marks, Aptos CA
Oak forest, University of California Berkeley

…for vast tracts of unending vegetation that pump oxygen into our atmosphere and remove carbon dioxide, helping to manage the climate.

Tropical rainforest of the Panama Canal
Temperate forest of the Porcupine Mountains, Michigan

…for forests and other vegetation that filter runoff to maintain clean water in lakes and rivers and prevent soil erosion

Wolf river near Rhinelander WI
Grass lake slough, Shoreview MN

…for trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife (and food and building materials for us)

My front yard apple crop
A fanciful look at forest animals (composite of many images)

…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.

Central Park, New York city (photo from Architectural Digest)

this post dedicated to daughter Becky, an ecosystem services specialist.

Hiking in Croatia

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.

Our view of the seaside town of Opatija, on the northwest coast of Croatia, when we arrived the evening before the hike.
Starting up the trail, we found a wide, well-marked, not very steep path with lots of tall beech trees providing shade.
There were a few more rugged rocky sections, but the trail was just a steady climb without the high steps and boulders we usually encounter on the Sierra trails. And the lower altitude and lack of a backpack on this hike made it much more enjoyable!
We passed a few wide, level spots where a few different trails merged, but managed to stay on the correct one. There are chestnut trees in the forest here, and lots of nuts on he ground, but no rodents, that we saw, to eat them. We heard just a couple of birds, but the forest was mostly very quiet.
Finally at the top in about two hours, we found the lookout tower, which was originally built by an Austrian climbing club. The peak at 1401 meters was extremely windy and cool, so we didn’t stay long, except to take in the view.

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.

Views looking southwest down toward Opatija were hazy. On a clear day you can see as far as Venice and the northeastern most coast of Italy. Trieste, Italy is just 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Opatija.
The descent down Mt. Vojak was far harder than the climb to the peak. Looking toward Italy at the top of this image. Note the small clearing at the bottom of the hill above my husband’s right arm.
The trail was very steep with many loose rocks to slip on. I wished I had my hiking poles!!
You can see the steep angle of this slope, where we probably lost 1000 of the 1500 feet we had climbed.
Only one group of hikers passed us on our way up the peak. But we passed quite a few hikers on our way down that were doing the steep uphill climb to the peak from the north side, rather than the more gentle climb we did from the south side.
Here is that clearing at the bottom of the hill that I pointed out in the image above. It’s a picnic area with a small labyrinth of rocks for those who need a little meditative exercise before the big climb.
And now the easy park of the hike along the contour lines of the mountain (instead of continually crossing them) back to our starting point.
Walking along through the yellow-orange color in the beech forest on a balmy fall day was truly one of the highlights of this trip.
An on to the end of the trail — where a half mile walk on the road brought us back to the visitor center.

Sierra hike 2022 – the way up

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…

The view from Echo peak of the mountains behind Lake Aloha —our first destination.
Looking the other direction toward Lake Tahoe and little Fallen Leaf lake —the starting point of this group’s hike.
Hiking the trail up from Echo Lake (my group’s starting point), we remembered how black the sky was during the Caldor fire last year when we hiked here.
We met up with the first group and arrived at a lovely campsite on the southern shore of Lake Aloha for the first night.
The next day we said farewell to Lake Aloha, hiked over Mosquito Pass and down to Clyde Lake — a typical example of the granite-surrounded high lakes in the Desolation Wilderness.

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.

Here’s a 360 degree panorama of the scenery at Clyde Lake. Wind off the snowbanks and cold lake water made it somewhat chilly standing in the shade.
Flowering plants are dwarfed here — too cold and too dry.
We had two resident Yellow-bellied marmots in camp. The kids nick-named this one Buck and his friend, Chuck. It seems that marmots like to chew on the handles of hiking poles — especially the sweaty handholds. Mine got chewed on at this campsite, thanks to Buck or Chuck.
We squeezed the tent between a rock and a tree, which turned out to be helpful to keep it from blowing away without us in it.
Conference at breakfast the next morning over the next section of the hike that will take us down 1000 feet to China Flat and then back up 1000 feet to the north side of Rockbound Pass at Lake Doris.
And finally we met up with the third group of family members, as they made their way down from Rockbound Pass to our campsite at Lake Doris.

to be continued…

“The” Bird

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.

We did find the correct tree, but not the correct hole. We were told by others who had seen both the male and female at this location that the nest hole was at the lower highlighted spot — it actually was much higher up in the tree (top highlight).

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.

A very pretty bird, even if not garishly colored like her mate. These birds are very silent when they swap places in the nest, sharing the duties of incubating the 2 or 3 eggs the female has laid there. Male and female trade off regularly during the day (females usually incubate overnight) for the three week incubation period.

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.

Two hours later, the female popped her head out of the nest hole, as if to say, ”time to switch”. She peered around, didn’t see her mate, and retreated to the hole again. More waiting…but this time we knew there was a pretty good chance the male was going to show up.

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!

This bird is well-named — Elegant, he is, with his brilliant emerald green and bright orange colors. Trogons perch rather high and have a very upright posture. To catch that beautiful eye, you need to wait until they look down.
After perching for a few minutes, the male called out his greeting with a series of what sounded like a barking dog. The female exited the nest, sat for a few minutes on a different branch, and the male flew over to the nest hole.
He’s a beauty from the front or the back, with his emerald back and coppery-colored tail.

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.

Dazzling Tanagers of Costa Rica

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”.

Here is the aptly named Bay-headed Tanager
The well-named Speckled Tanager

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.

Also appropriately named Silver-throated Tanager
A Common Bush Tanager—no fancy moniker for this one
Blue-Gray Tanagers seem to be mostly shades of blue.
This one used to be called Scarlet-rumped Tanager, but the Pacific coastal birds don’t breed with the Caribbean slope birds, so they are now two separate species, and this boy’s name is Cherrie’s Tanager.
And last, not to be out-classed by all the Tanagers, this is a Green Honeycreeper that used to be classified with the Tanagers, but now has its own family.

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.

This was the featured animal on the first ever Backyard Biology post — a Japanese beetle eating my raspberry plants.

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.

Every view in Iceland is spectacular, and I captured quite a few of them. But this post seemed to pique the most interest in readers. This is a very small section of a long ridge of waterfalls draining into the Hvita River in western Iceland.

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 6.25 inch diameter sunflower seed head had 1080 seeds in it. The beautiful geometric pattern of spirals is the most efficient packing of seed material into the given space — where the numbers of seeds in a given clockwise and counter-clockwise spiral are consecutive Fibonacci numbers. This post is from September 30, 2012.

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.

On August 17, winds drove the smoke from the Caldor fire in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains into Desolation Valley where we were camped at 8100 feet.

And now it’s time to find some new material to showcase on Backyard Biology, with adventures near and far in 2022. Happy reading!

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.