on the edge

Tromping around Weaver Dunes, south of Wabasha MN, for 8 hours trying to identify every bird we could find was exhausting but rewarding, and what an absolutely beautiful day to participate in The Nature Conservancy’s bird blitz on May 12.

Cape May Warbler-

First bird of the day — Cape May Warbler, high in a leafy tree (bane of photographers — the tree, not the bird)

The spring migration was running a little behind schedule, but we managed to find (and identify) 58 species (which admittedly doesn’t sound like a lot for 8 hours of work).  We explored a variety of habitats, but the best places to look were edges between shrub and forest, or prairie and forest.

Yellowrump Warbler-

Yellow-rumped Warblers outnumbered other warbler species, and thankfully posed at much lower elevations in the trees.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak-

We only saw one Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and he was quite shy about coming out in the open to show off his raspberry bib.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows were more common than the warblers, flashing their white outer tail feathers as they flew. True to their name, their song is much more of a warble than a buzz — i.e., lark-like.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrows typically nest in shrubs and forage in grassy areas removed from the nest. They have the unusual habit of walking, instead of hopping.

Northern Waterthrush-

Down at the edge of a small pond, a Northern Waterthrush hunted for insects.

Northern Waterthrush-

A distinctive eyestripe and wagging tail made this large warbler easy to identify.

Brown Thrasher-

A Brown Thasher was very uncooperative about posing, and remained hidden in the dense foliage of trees in the grassy savannah.

Baltimore Oriole-

Orioles foraged high in leafy treetops, but were easy to find by listening for their characteristic song.

Gray-cheeked Thrush-

Another edge-lover found skulking among the low vegetation in the woods surrounding a pond was the Gray-cheeked Thrush, with its characteristic white eyering.

Our efforts were added to those of the birders walking other TNC properties throughout the tri-state region of MN, North Dakota, and South Dakota.  Together all observers on May 12 found over 200 different bird species, or approximately 50% of those known to reside or pass through MN on migration in May.  Not bad…it’s a nationwide competition, so we’ll see how MN bird numbers stack up with those elsewhere in the U.S.

Considering that our American birds have to navigate and survive stormy weather and drastic climate changes, glass windows and glass-covered buildings, marked habitat alterations, and depleted food supplies from all the pesticide and herbicide applications, it’s a wonder that we see the diversity that we do.

Not just another Nuthatch

Calls of familiar bird species sound quite different in the Arizona woodlands than they do in the Minnesota backyard, and there’s a good reason for that — the birds themselves are different.  Take White-breasted Nuthatches (WBN) for example.

In the eastern U.S. and Canada, we hear a nuthatch advertise its presence with its familiar, nasal “yaankk, yaankk” call.  But in more western forests, the call is fainter, faster, more repetitive, and higher — more like “yirr, yirr, yirr”.  Now this may be entirely too nerdy for consideration here, but the birds even look different.  Can you spot the differences?


A white-breasted-nuthatch-eastern form

white-breasted-nuthatch-western form

A white-breasted-nuthatch-Rocky Mountain form

Look at the amount of black on the top of the head, and the color in the feathers that cover the wings (called wing coverts).  The eastern, Carolina form of the WBN has black edging on the feathers that cover the wings; the Rocky Mountain form has none of that. The eastern form has a much wider black stripe on the top of its head, and less white between the black stripe and its eye than the Rocky Mountain form.

So what?  Well, these are the kinds of differences, including the differences in the call, that allow birds to discriminate more carefully about who they will or won’t mate with during the breeding season.  And there aren’t just two forms of WBN, but likely as many as four, according to the latest poll by ornithologists in the know.


Not just any nuthatch, but an Eastern, Carolina, White-breasted Nuthatch, thank you.

A key geological event that formed the basin and range regions of western North America is probably responsible for the differentiation of subspecies (forms) of many bird species, like the White-breasted Nuthatch.  Three distinct forest regions developed during glacial cycles in the U.S. and Canada in the past 14 million years, resulting in eastern (east of the Rockies), interior west (Rockies to the Sierras) and Pacific coastal (Sierra crest to the Pacific Coast) forests.  Geographic separation and then specializations by interbreeding populations in these regions have produced the distinct differences in the birds.

The differences might seem slight to some of us, but to the birds (and to the ornithologists that catalog them), they may be enough to separate them into three or four distinct species.

Colorful Northwoods in the borderlands

Even the dull gray skies couldn’t diminish the amazing color in the landscapes along the north shore of Lake Superior this week.  Although the maples had largely dropped their red and gold leaves throughout the inland forests, the golden glow of birch and aspen leaves more than made up for it.  You get a really good idea of just how dominant these trees really are in the total landscape when you see them highlighted against the evergreens.

colorful-northwoods-northeastern MN

Where the forest meets the shoreline of Lake Superior at the very tip of the arrowhead that makes up northeastern Minnesota. This scene is about 1 mile from the Canadian border.

colorful-northwoods-northeastern MN

The Pigeon River marks the boundary between the US and Canada in this part of Grand Portage State Park.  Across the river is Canada’s Pigeon River Provincial Park.

colorful-northwoods-northeastern MN

Hello Canada!  The Pigeon River may have moved its channel in this area, because a survey marker for the border was located not far from where my husband is sitting.

colorful-northwoods-northeastern MN

It’s quiet in the Northwoods as we hike along — nothing to distract us from noticing the colorful display around us as we hike.

colorful-northwoods-northeastern MN

Round birch leaves on the ground make it look like the hiking trails are paved with gold coins.


One of the many waves of migratory birds that has arrived in the Twin Cities area in the past couple of weeks was Robins — a bonanza of Robins — a “robinnanza”.  These are not your usual noisy, chattery backyard robins;  they are instead secretive, quiet, stealthy birds that fly silently through the forest and gang up together for bathing in small forest streams.


Big and beautiful, with their newly molted and bright-colored orange and gray plumage — about two dozen of them crowded in a small forest stream for a bathing party.


It’s a daily (or more often, perhaps) ritual for these birds, especially in this delightful babbling brook.  Cold water is no deterrent.


Now feeling so much cleaner…


Having gotten rid of all the dusty dirt under those brand new feathers, Mr. Beautiful hops up on a branch to dry.

Previously, I wrote a post querying why readers thought Robins bathed so much, and one reader suggested it was because they dig around in the dirty leaves so much.  Indeed, there was an ample display of that behavior near the stream bank, where Robins were furiously poking into and throwing leaves up in the air as they explored what lay beneath.

american robin

Tossing leaves in the air from the muddy ground probably deposits quite a bit of dirt on the thrower.

I poked at a few leaves myself, and found some spiders and mealy bugs crawling around under them, so no wonder the Robins have congregated in this rich hunting ground near a lovely bathing spot.


the forest stream last March in this same spot, just as the watercress was beginning to grow


Warm days, cool nights, sometimes rainy and blustery — that’s fall.  You never know what it’s going to be like because the weather changes day to day, or even from morning until evening.  But the combination of short daylength (less than 12 hrs of daylight) and very cool nights starts the color change in the vegetation that we love to see.  (For an explanation of how that color change happens — click here.)


Not all plants are as sensitive to the daylength and temperature cues — making the fall season a long and colorful display.


Maples and aspens are some of the first to show their fall colors, and oaks are one of the last, making the forest a kaleidoscope of green, yellow, red, and orange.


A few remaining flowers like this New England Aster can still be found in the prairie, but there are few insects around.


Milkweed pods open to disperse their airborne seeds.


Yellow-rumped Warblers are one of the more abundant migrant species, found and heard in almost every habitat — even the prairie.


Waves of warblers (like this Nashville Warbler) move through with the weather fronts in the fall. But these are wary little birds, and even harder to photograph in the fall when they are feeding ravenously to replenish their migratory fat supply than they were back in the spring when they came through on their way north.

a nifty smart phone feature

My Samsung phone has a magnifier, which is great for older folks who forget their reading glasses when they go out to a dimly lit restaurant.  But I discovered another use for the magnifier the other day when I was trying to photograph moss with a telephoto — a bad idea because of the lack of depth of field.

moss on rotted log

The telephoto shot had about 1/4 of the field of view in focus.  Even the phone camera couldn’t capture the sea of moss on the rotten log adequately.  This was about as close as I could get without blurring out part of the shot.

I turned on the magnifier function, held the phone next to the moss as steadily as possible, pressed “capture”, and then saved the image.  Wow — a super-sharp close-up with more magnification than the phone camera alone could produce.

moss sporophyte capsules

The beak-like things on long stalks above the moss “leaves” are the sporophyte capsules, which will release spores to further colonize the rotted log.  This is unedited — just as it came out of the phone camera.

Magical oak forest

There are more than 30 species of oaks from all over North America and parts of Europe at the Berkeley Botanical Garden on the University of California campus. Although many species are evergreen, most of the trees are bare of leaves right now, which lets us admire the bizarre twists and contorted shapes of their bare branches.  Click on any of the images to get a larger view of the magical forest.

oak forest-berkeley botanical garden-

It was a very gray, overcast day when I visited the Botanical Garden, and I decided to add a bit of Photoshop magic to the odd shapes I found among the oaks.  I thought this might made a great setting for a children’s story — now if only I could come up with one.

oak forest-berkeley botanical garden

Some of trees had cracks and knotholes in just the right places to imagine a tree face there. I wished there had been sunlight streaming through the forest instead of gray, dull light.  So I added some.

oak forest-berkeley botanic garden

I wonder what makes these branches twist and wind around this way…the branches seem to start off straight and then bend at will.  Gnarled, knotty trees like this were the inspiration for the forest in Walt Disney’s animation of Snow White.

Oaks are generally slow growing, laying down wood in dense, tight circles each year, making them ideal for building structures that can withstand a lot of stress.  In addition, its fine grain is sought after for its beauty and texture in furniture.  And, of course, oak has a star role in the festivals and rituals of many early cultures, including its use as a prediction for the coming planting season by the Druids.

The only plausible answer I could find as to why oak branches twist into such grotesque shapes is that it might distribute the weight of the heavy, dense wood more equitably, so that they are less likely to break off.  But I’m open to other suggestions if you have them.

Big color

Prolonged warm weather has stretched out the length of my favorite time of year and rewarded us with some spectacular views of fall foliage colors in Minnesota.  Click on any of the images below to get a larger (full-screen) view.

Mississippi River fall color

Vibrant reds along the Mississippi River on warm falls days that you wish would never end.

mississippi river woods-

Maples and birches on the bluffs lining the Mississippi River were brilliant with color.

white-tailed deer in fall leaves

The canopy of maple leaves closed over the trail in one of the Mississippi River ravines, making the whole scene golden.

oaks and maple-in morning light

A yellow flame (Norway Maple) in an oak forest in early morning light — what a contrast.

Fall — I wish it could go on and on.  What a treat for the eyes as we prepare ourselves mentally to face another winter.

the oaks

There is a sequence to the change in the fall color of the forest vegetation here — sumac and birch turning their brilliant reds and yellows first, followed by the maples, and finally the oaks.

fall color-red oak

A couple of overnight frosts have signaled the oaks to begin breaking down the chlorophyll in their leaves — the results are golden bronze, yellow-orange, and bright crimson red colors in the leaves of the various oak species.

fall color in oaks

A variety of oak trees ring the little lake just up the street from my house.

fall color

An inviting path through Reservoir Woods takes one right into the oak forest.

st paul reservoir-fall color

Oaks line the shore of the St. Paul reservoir and have almost reached their peak color, while most of the birches have lost all of their leaves.

fall color-fish lake in maple grove, MN

Some of the early-turning trees, like birch and maple have dropped their leaves by the time the oaks start turning.  But the prolonged sequence of trees going through this color change means more time for fall photography.

Would we ever get tired of seeing such color?  What if we had six months of this weather and this scenery…now that would be inspiring.

Majestic Tetons

The weather wasn’t particularly conducive to photography, but it was great for hiking around these gigantic, sawtooth Teton mountains.  A few shots of what we did today…

Tetons and Jackson Lake

The majestic Teton range and Jackson Lake

Wildflowers in the Tetons

Still lots of wildflowers blooming in the valleys below the peaks

Creek to Phelps Lake, Tetons

Rushing creeks and lush green vegetation along the hiking path

Indian Paintbrush

Indian paintbrush was particularly bright along the creek

Columbine at Ohelps Lake, Tetons

This area was once part of the estate of Laurence Rockefeller, and we surmise that the family adorned the trail with a few colorful varieties of Columbine, which have flourished and spread.