Eat and/or be eaten

Sometimes you’re the predator, sometimes you’re the prey…

I walked around a small reconstructed cabin at Fort Ridgley state park wanting to peer in the windows at the back and see what the interior looked like.

A nice old log cabin — but what’s of interest here?

In the process I almost stepped on a leopard frog sitting in the grass near the sidewalk. The frog jumped to the base of the cabin, scaring a grasshopper (that I presume had been sitting on the sidewalk) to jump higher on the wall to avoid the frog.

It’s doubtful that the leopard frog will be able to grab this grasshopper for a meal now — sorry.

But then I noticed a “pack” of garter snakes creeping toward the corner of the cabin near the frog.

The snakes emerged from cracks between the stones at the base of the cabin.
Garter snake on the prowl — can it “taste” the frog waiting around the corner with those special receptors at the end of their tongues?

Local Minnesota photographer Paul Sundberg captured just such an event on a recent canoe trip in the Boundary Waters when he spied a garter snake engulfing an American Toad. Once consumed, the toad made quite a large bulge in the snake’s body.

Sometimes you’re the predator — sometimes you’re the meal! And so on up the food chain.

Red-shouldered Hawk chowing down on a snake, from the Everglades FL. Photo from the NPS

the Monarch magnet

Meadow Blazing Star attracts butterflies like catnip attracts cats. They stay on the plants for hours, flying around the flowers, dipping into them, chasing each other, and just generally hanging out by the vibrant purple blooms. I highly recommend it for your garden.

Monarch butterflies are especially fond of this tall (about 5 feet) spike of purple-pink blooms that are so highly visible and last such a long time in the garden.
The individual flowers of meadow blazing star are densely packed on a very long stem. I don’t know if this species of Liatris has more nectar than other blazing star species, but there are so many flowers and such a long blooming time, it provides a stable nectar resource for all sorts of insects.
An occasional bumblebee might try to land on these flowers, but the Monarchs usually chase them off.
We found an isolated stand of meadow blazing star in a prairie area at Fort Ridgely State Park on the Minnesota River near New Ulm, and this stand too, was a magnet for the Monarch butterflies with more than a dozen of them flying around the flowers continuously.

These Monarchs are most likely the final generation of the summer — the individuals that will fatten up on rich nectar resources from blazing star and other flowers and then begin a 2-3,000 mile journey to their overwintering sites in montane forest areas of central Mexico. Flying about 50-100 miles a day, it will take them more than two months to complete their migration. They depend on finding more nectar resources as they travel south through the American midwest, then south to Texas, and on through northern Mexico — an amazing feat of stamina and navigation in order to return to their overwintering site.

Chiracahua beauty

The Chiracahua mountains of southeastern Arizona offer a multitude of scenic vistas, as well as a bounty of incredible wildlife to see.

There are a lot of canyons formed by rivers running down from the peaks of these 6-8,000 foot mountains. This is the entrance to Cave Creek canyon, one of our favorite places to stay and explore.
Rock formations and cliff faces line the sides of the canyons. You can easily see the altitudinal changes in vegetation as you ascend to mountain peaks.

The Chiricahua Mountains rise more than 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them “islands in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along a gradient from hot, dry desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, which means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity. 

We found a giant meadow of blue flag iris at Rustler Park, up at 8200 feet. Lots of butterflies and Anna hummingbirds flitted around these flowers sipping their nectar.
I think this might be the Western Pygmy Blue butterfly on the iris. These are one of the smallest of the southwestern butterflies, only 1/2 to 3/4 inch across. They can be found right out on the desert floor, as well as in the canyons and mountains. The caterpillars manage to survive on a diet of desert saltbush in the most arid desert conditions — amazing!
On the other end of the size spectrum were these gigantic Two-tailed Swallowtail butterflies, with a wingspan ranging from 3-6 inches, making it the largest Swallowtail in western North America. This species is the state butterfly of Arizona.
Adults only live 7-14 days and feed only on nectar, but the caterpillars prefer chokecherry or poplar leaves, and are a striking orange color with a big eyespot on their rear end to deter predators.
The Swallowtail I was photographing suddenly took off — and here’s the reason why. An aggressive little male Anna’s hummingbird, about the same size as the swallowtail just buzzed in for a drink of iris nectar.

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.

Early bird catches “worm”

A little Spotted Sandpiper had the entire beach of Vadnais reservoir to itself and moved slowly along the shoreline probing now and then in the mud and under leaves as I stood quietly and watched.

It’s a rather plain looking, medium-sized, chunky-bodied shorebird, missing the spots for which it is named in its winter or juvenile plumage (can’t tell which). But the bird is instantly recognizable as it bobs its tail up and down as it walks, earning it the nickname of “teeter-bob” or “teeter-peep”.
Here and there, the bird probes its bill part way into the mud testing for the presence of buried larvae.
I’m not sure what this behavior is — did the bird hear something, or see something and tilted its head to localize the cue? Spotted Sandpipers hunt primarily by sight, looking for insects or crustaceans in the debris along muddy shores, but they also probe likely looking nooks and crannies where invertebrates may be hiding.
The bird has found something here — it takes a couple of minutes of probing up and down to extract it.
It pulls some yellow and black-striped “worm” from the muddy substrate. The prey might be the larva of a large stone fly or caddisfly.
It looks tantalizing (to a sandpiper) — why not gobble it up?
Nope, have to wash it off — thoroughly! Two or three dunks and swishes should do it.
Now, it’s edible.

Spotted Sandpipers are likely the most widespread breeding sandpiper in North America, nesting from northern most Alaska to the mid-continental U.S. along rivers, lakes, and streams.

And their breeding system is particularly interesting because they exhibit a sex role reversal compared to most other bird species. Instead of the typical female role of incubation and hatchling care, Spotted Sandpiper females “collect” multiple males, laying a clutch of eggs in each male’s nest, which he will then incubate. After they hatch, the male is in charge of protecting and providing food for the chicks, while the female goes off to find another male to mate with.

Female Spotted Sandpipers arrive first on the breeding ground, establish their territory, and then compete with each other for males to mate with. Since females can store sperm from multiple matings for up to a month, the male may be incubating and tending to chicks that are not his offspring! This breeding strategy, called polyandry, is rare among birds but is found in several shorebird species, in Northern Jacanas, occasionally in Acorn Woodpeckers, and in Harris Hawks.

Fields of gold

Prairie parkland landscapes are at their peak golden color now. The fall landscape is transforming daily, and with the nice fall weather lately, it’s a glorious time to be out walking around. I’ve given up trying to find the migrating birds at this points and am just enjoying the golden colors everywhere.

The prairie at Tamarack park in White Bear Lake looks golden with stems drying Big Blue Stem and Indian grass, as well as a healthy crop of Showy Goldenrod. Leaves of a few of the maples and ashes have begun to change color also.
There is a similar scene in the restored prairie at Reservoir Woods in St. Paul where the low vegetation is a solid mass of several species of Goldenrod, with a few purple and blue asters and the stems of Indian Grass mixed in.
Bright yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod rise above the rest of the vegetation in this landscape. And the flowers are a major attraction for honeybees and bumblebees by the dozens.
I don’t think I’ve seen this many honeybees in a native landscape for quite some time. Goldenrod and Asters are the late blooming plants in the fall that bees depend on to stock their larders with pollen over the winter.
Stiff Goldenrod with its erect, rigid stems and fat, almost succulent looking leaves is also in full flower not, but is not nearly as attractive to the bees as the Showy Goldenrod.
Stiff Goldenrod flowers seem larger and more attractive to my eyes, but not to the bees.
Canada Goldenrod has already bloomed and is putting out seeds that the migrating sparrows and finches will appreciate.
Earlier in the fall the American Goldfinches began harvesting the seedheads of the Meadow Blazingstar and led their newly fledged offspring over to the seedheads of the Canada Goldenrod.
What new things will I see on tomorrow’s walk?

it’s feeling fallish

We spent a beautiful morning walking along the St. Croix river at Afton State Park recently, and I noticed that it seems more like fall weather now, and a lot less like summer. What a difference a couple of weeks makes in the climate here.

The beach along the Minnesota side of the St. Croix river is deserted…just the way I like it. There are a few warblers around, geese are flocking up in preparation for migration, and the last of the summer wildflowers are holding onto their blooms, just a little longer.
A somewhat bedraggled Great Spangled Fritillary was foraging on the Sneezeweed flowers — just about the only wildflowers left along this shoreline of the river. This is one of the largest, and longest lived butterflies here in MN. It mates in June but doesn’t lay eggs until August and September, somewhere near a patch of violets, on which its larvae will feed in the spring.
Cedar Waxwings were acting like flycatchers as they perched and then sallied out to catch whatever insects were flying by their perch.
And the ever-present and numerous Canada Geese are now gathering in large flocks to prepare for migration. Here they come downriver right at us…
They fly so closely together you would think their wings would get in the way of each other. In fact, so close that two birds on the right side of the photo look like one bird with four wings!
Nothing symbolizes fall in Minnesota like these flights of Canada Geese.
Fall may be my favorite season, even though it leads into my most dreaded season of bitter winter. But I love the fall weather and color as the landscape begins to glow.

Blooms in the backyard

In the Minnesota backyard, some of the summer blooms are in their full glory, particularly the purple coneflower. Butterflies and bees are drawn to these flowers…

A Great Spangled Fritillary stopped by…
And examined each of the disk flowers in the flower head intensively.
I caught the approach of one of the honeybees buzzing the coneflowers.
And was able to zero in on the bee when it landed.
Even the Goldfinches were checking on the flower heads, I suppose to see if they had made any seed yet. But these flowers have just opened up in the last few days.

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.

Flowers of the desert

Although we have been a little early in some places and a little late in others, we still have seen some of the spring wildflower show as we travel.

One of the most exotic flowers we saw were on this claret cup cactus, actually an endangered species found only at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico — which is exactly where we were when we saw it. The plant puts out brilliant scarlet flowers on cylindrical stems that mound together into a cactus clump.
The color of the flowers suggests it might be pollinated by hummingbirds, although the shape of the flower is wrong. However, the “flower” is actually the outer sepals and petals combined, and the nectar reward for the hummingbird pollinators is in the central chamber surrounded by hundreds of thready stamens.
Cylindrical flowers of the Ocotillo are the more typical hummingbird floral type, but a number of other birds enjoy these flowers for their nectar, as well as the insects they attract.
Why bother probing into the flower for nectar when you can just rip the flower off the stem and eat the whole thing, as this male Pyrrhuloxia is doing?
Looking for insects on unopened Ocotillo buds? A male Gila Woodpecker might enjoy both a nectar and an insect reward from these flowers.
A female Rufous Hummingbird foraged on a bunch of Penstemon flowers in the early morning at Cave Creek ranch in Portal Arizona.
A Clear-wing Moth and Pygmy Blue butterfly foraged on the bush lupine right outside our room at Cave Creek ranch in Portal Arizona. This plant had so many flowers and apparently so much nectar, it was constantly moving with the all the butterflies and bees swarming on it.
The Southern California deserts didn’t receive enough rain this year to produce much of a wildflower show, but the Desert Agave still bloomed here, along with many Ocotillo plants, giving this desert in Anza Borrego State Park some color. The Agave plants only send up one flower spike in their lifetime, as tall as the plant’s energy resources will allow, to attract bats to pollinate them.