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: https://bybio.wordpress.com 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!!

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.