The resident (and very territorial) male Anna’s Hummingbird in my mother-in-law’s backyard proved to be quite a challenge to photograph. He always sat with his back to me, singing his scratchy sing-song, and he preferred to hover in front of me with his back to the sun. In fact he hovered above and around me for just seconds before dashing away to hide in the middle of the bottlebrush shrub. What a tease! You have to be really quick on the trigger (shutter) to catch these guys in prime light, and there were many more misses than successes with my attempts.
It might sound like this is about a fashionable department store, but beach ridges and the shallow, watery swales between them are natural features of the Great Lakes shorelines. We hiked at one example of this complex ecosystem at the Ridges Sanctuary in Bailey’s Harbor on the eastern side of the Door peninsula.
Ridges and swales are most likely to develop where coastal land is uplifted or where lake levels fall, which is probably what has been happening here in the past 10,000 years since the last glacial recession. Sediments are deposited with gentle wave action against the shoreline in a protected harbor, leaving behind a low hill of sand and gravel in which hearty colonists establish themselves.
The variation in environment from dry to wet, or coastal to inland makes this an extremely diverse ecosystem, home to more than 500 species of plants, 60 some species of birds, and more than a dozen mammals.
The Ridges Sanctuary was founded in 1937, becoming Wisconsin’s first land trust, designed to protect the state’s most biologically diverse ecosystem.
The number of bees in the backyard has quadrupled (or more) since New England Asters and Yellow Oxeye Daisy have begun blooming. On warm days the bumblebees and honeybees swarm over the flowers, probing quickly and moving on.
But on closer inspection, I saw a number of smaller bees that were sharing the pollen and nectar resources as well.
With the help of my trusty macro lens, I tried to zoom in on what these tiny bees were doing.
Small Carpenter Bees, like their larger cousins, are good at chewing their way into plant stems, constructing nesting chambers in the central pith for their larvae.
Sweat Bees were supposedly named for their attraction to moist, salty sweat on exposed skin of humans. Species in this very large bee family are typically small, often less than an inch in length, may be eusocial (with a queen and worker castes), and are one of the most important pollinators of commercial crops, like squash, legumes, sunflowers, watermelons, apples, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes and peppers, as well as native flora appearing in all seasons in in woodlands and fields.
They are a challenge to photograph because their head is usually buried in the flower, and they pause only very briefly on a flower, dipping deeply into it, before moving on.
What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail. A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.
With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.
White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.
Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.
On a walk around the San Jose neighborhood, I encountered a single absolutely giant sunflower in a sidewalk garden.
I admired the size of the flower head, which was about 16 inches across and probably weighed 10 pounds, wondering how many seeds must be packed in so very tightly and mathematically precisely (see an earlier post on “how many seeds in a sunflower seed head?”).
But then I got to thinking about what it takes to produce that giant flower head and develop all those seeds. Supported by enhanced woody fibers in the stalk and fed by photosynthetic machinery in huge, oversized leaves and an elongated, deep taproot reaching deep into the soil for water and nutrients, the enormous reproductive output of this plant has the potential to be record-breaking.
But alas, a quick google search confirmed that Hans-Peter Schaffer holds the Guinness record for sunflower height (30 feet, 1 inch), mine was probably just over 8 feet. The giant Mongolian sunflowers routinely grow to 16-18 feet and sport 18-24 inch flower disks, so my giant wasn’t really record breaking at all. Still impressive for an herbaceous plant, though!
Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.
Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.
Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail. The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.
Our scouting trip to find a pass over a ridge between two sets of lakes was unsuccessful, but we encountered some gorgeous scenery on the almost 8 mile hike around Saddlebag Lake on the Tioga pass road over the Sierras of California.
Yes, it really is pink snow, colored not by leaching minerals but by the growth of the green alga (yes, it really is green under the microscope), Chlamydomonas nivalus. If there is one thing we have learned about life on earth, it’s that microbes can thrive just about anywhere, and here’s proof of life on the ice.
The algae are actually in a metabolically quiescent state, awaiting appropriate conditions, like lake water, to begin growing. But to protect themselves (and their chlorophyll) from the damage of intense radiation at high altitude, they synthesize a protective sunscreen of carotenoid pigments (yes, the same ones that make Cardinals a bright cheery red).
And so, these green, but appearing red due to carotenoids, algae slide down the snow banks toward fresh water to begin a new cycle of growth.
We are back in California about to embark on the annual family trek through the high Sierra back country. With all the snow the mountains received last winter and this spring, we were concerned about getting snow-bound in still frozen high meadows, so we are scouting some of the trail before the rest of the family joins us.
Six years, almost 1200 posts, lots of photos, and it seems that each year about this time, I write something about the same critter — the dreaded Japanese beetle.
Once again, they have made swiss cheese out of my raspberry plants, sometimes even mating and/or feeding on the fruit as well.
But this year, thousands of beetles descended on my Honeycrisp apple trees, and have decimated more than 50% of the leaves. Ugh! It’s easy enough to pick them off the raspberries or spray the plants with soapy water, but apple tree leaves are out of reach. Instead of spraying the trees with some bee-killing insecticide, we used a bacteriocidal solution, combined with an oil spray. End result — it didn’t work.
Thanks to the drenching the raspberries received from a few thunderstorms this summer, there were plenty of extra leaves for the beetles to consume, and I still got a nice crop of raspberries from the plants for my annual jam-making. But the fate of the apple crop is yet to be determined.
More than 44,000 islands make up the archipelago off Sweden’s east coast, and they are a popular destination, especially during Midsommer festivities. A ferry trip to one of the most distant islands, Üto — site of one of Sweden’s oldest iron mines — was a great way to end our European tour. Some of the sights included: