The teaser

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.

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Ridges and Swales

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.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The entrance walkway to the Sanctuary crossing over a swale, with the shoreline lighthouse at the end.

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.

Map of The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Map of the Ridges Sanctuary, showing the parallel rows of beach ridges separated by low-lying wet swales.  Black lines are the trails through the area.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The most recent beach ridge on the shoreline is being colonized by 3-foot tall conifers and grasses, which will slowly add humus to the sandy matrix, improving conditions for further growth.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Between each of the Ridges, is a low, wet area (the swale) where sedges thrive, and assorted moisture-loving plants, like orchids thrive.

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

Raised walkways guide hikers across the swales and provide views of wildlife and exotic plant species along the edges of the ridges.

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.

Fringed Gentian, Ridges Sanctuary, Door County , WI

Fringed Gentian is one of the 500+ plant species to be found in this diverse ecosystem.  Summer blooms include at least 25 species of native orchids, along with bog species like pitcher plant and sundew.

Fringed Gentian, Ridges Sanctuary, Door County , WI

The Ridges Sanctuary, Baileys Harbor, Door County, WI

The ridge furthest from the coast begins to look more like mature coniferous forest, with tall red pine, white cedar, and fir trees. The path here is spongey, needle duff rather than sandy gravel.

The Ridges Sanctuary was founded in 1937, becoming Wisconsin’s first land trust, designed to protect the state’s most biologically diverse ecosystem.

very busy bees

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.

bumble bees-on-new-england-aster-

But on closer inspection, I saw a number of smaller bees that were sharing the pollen and nectar resources as well.

bees-on-new-england-aster-

The Common Eastern Bumblebee dwarfs the tiny metallic Green Sweat Bee, but there are so many flowers blooming now, there is little interference from competitors.

With the help of my trusty macro lens, I tried to zoom in on what these tiny bees were doing.

small carpenter bee Ceratina spp.-

Miniscule Small Carpenter Bees were the perfect size to get their head and tongue into the tiny crevices in the disc flowers of Rudbeckia flowers.

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.

(Halictus) Dark Sweat Bee

A Dark Sweat Bee and an unidentified, slightly out of focus bee with very long antennae and a very fuzzy thorax shared one flower head.

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.

Agopostemon sp.-

I followed one of the metallic Green Sweat Bees (an Agopostemon species) around the patch of New England Aster as it inserted its incredibly long tongue deep into the aster flowers.  Males have a yellow and black striped abdomen (mimicking a wasp?), while the female is a glossy green all over.

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.

Agopostemon sp.- closeup of tongue

It looks like this sweat bee has a leg coming out of its mouth, but that is its long, flexible tongue being pulled out of one floret.  When it is not feeding, the tongue folds down on its ventral surface. Notice that this male’s body and legs are relatively pollen free, unlike the female in the next shots.

Green Sweat bee (Halictidae)-

I don’t know if this female Green Sweat Bee is the same species as the male in the previous photo, but this shows how different the two sexes are in coloration.  And unlike the case of sexual dimorphism in bird or mammal species, the female Green Sweat Bee is hardly drab or well camouflaged.

Sweat bee (Halictidae)-

Her hind legs and head are covered with pollen, unlike the male in the photo above.  She buried her head deeply into each flower as she foraged, transferring pollen as she went.

honeybees-on-new-england-aster

It’s possible someone that lives near me has some honeybee hives, because their numbers are way up this year. But there are still far fewer of them present on these early fall blooms than the Eastern Bumblebees and the small Sweat and Carpenter bees that swarm over these flowers.

a beautiful riverside wildflower garden

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.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

There were hundreds of individual Cardinal flower stems growing here in the semi shade and moist forest soil along the St. Croix river.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

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.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower-1

Shot earlier in my backyard wildflower garden, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do love this plant.

white cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis

Among the hundreds of individual plants, there was one genetic mutant, a white form of the Cardinal flower.

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.

Blue Lobelia - Lobelia siphilitica-

Another Lobelia species, the Blue Lobelia, was also growing in the riverside wildflower garden, although in much lower density.

Obedient plant - Physostegia virginiana-

I spotted just a few individuals of Obedient plant in this “garden”, although this plant is usually an aggresive colonist of open spaces in my backyard wildflower garden.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Prairie Ironweed seems to like the wet river bottomland as well as it does the open prarie habitat. It’s large flowerheads were particularly attractive to honeybees.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

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.

What it takes to be a giant

On a walk around the San Jose neighborhood, I encountered a single absolutely giant sunflower in a sidewalk garden.

giant sunflower

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?”).

giant sunflower

Seeds are precisely arranged in spiral rows to maximize packing.

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!

Natural Wonders

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.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.

Fireweed

Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.

Pinedrops

You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

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.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.

Blue lakes, purple flowers, and pink snow

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.

Saddlebag Lake

The water is quite chilly, but the fishing seems to be good on Saddlebag Lake

Saddlebag Lake

Wild flowers are still in their full, blazing glory. It was a late summer this year because of all the snow. I think the purple flowers might be Monk’s Hood, a showy plant containing highly toxic alkaloids.

Saddlebag Lake

You couldn’t ask for a better trail. Unfortunately, it ended quite a ways before climbing into the pass over the ridge just below the pointed peak, and the way up looked much too rocky a traverse to take young hikers (or old grandparents, for that matter).

Ridge between McCabe lakes and Saddlebag Lake

End of our good trail…these lakes are above 10,000 feet and only recently free of ice and snow.

Pink snow

What?! Pink snow?

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).

Pink snow

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.

Scouting for the hike

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.

Sonora pass

At Sonora pass, 9624 feet, it looks like most of the trails should be show free. Still plenty of it around though, and the creeks are running fast and full.

Sonora pass

Late melting snows mean we get to enjoy a super abundance of gorgeous wild flowers.

Sonora pass

And beautiful vistas

6th bloggiversary

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.

japanese-beetle-on-coneflower

Japanese Beetles make their appearance every year in the backyard (and in the front yard as well) in late June, and eat their way through my plants and flowers for the next 6 weeks.

Once again, they have made swiss cheese out of my raspberry plants, sometimes even mating and/or feeding on the fruit as well.

japanese beetle-damage

They’re pretty as insects go, but I hate seeing them on my fruit-producing plants.

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.

raspberries-

Midsommer in Sweden’s archipelago

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:

Sweden archipelago islands

View from the ferry to Üto island, pronounced nothing like it is spelled.

Sweden archipelago islands

The best way to get around the island from the ferry landing, on bikes.

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

Sailing and swimming are top priorities on a warmish weekend in midsummer.

Sweden archipelago islands

Sweden archipelago islands

We pass cute farm houses…

Poppies, Sweden archipelago islands

And flowers (red poppies)

Bell flower, Sweden archipelago islands

And bell flowers…

Lupine, Sweden archipelago islands

And lupines…

Sweden archipelago islands

And something I don’t recognize…

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

And finally come to the beach at the far end of the island.

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

Crashing waves and cold water, perfect for swimming, but not for me.

Lupine, Sweden archipelago islands

Good bye Sweden, I hope to return some day.