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.

Amazing sand beaches of Dauphin Island

We took a car ferry to Dauphin Island which sits at the mouth of Mobile Bay, and then drove west to Pelican Point beach for a (hot) walk in the late morning sun. The beaches along the gulf coast of this part of Alabama are composed of finely ground, minuscule particles of quartz that originated in the Appalachian mountains, were ground down by erosion and river action before being transported to the gulf, where minerals were further reduced in size by wave action over tens of thousands of years. The result is an eye-blinding, fine, white sand that actually squeaks as you walk over it.

It’s hard to decide which is whiter — the sand or the puffy cumulus clouds. Little islands of sea oats grasses and herbaceous perennials help stabilize the dunes. But this is harsh habitat for these plants that have few mineral nutrients and precious little fresh water resources and must deal with a lot of salt water spray.
Farther away from the ocean, more perennial grasses can establish mats of vegetation.
In salt water pools behind the beach, one might find a few shorebirds foraging for food. We were surprised to find a tiny Least Sandpiper poking around in the vegetation at the water’s edge.
Even farther away from the ocean, the vegetation is much thicker and more diverse with all kinds of perennial grasses and forbs growing on the sandy matrix. I surprised a Great Blue Heron and Black-bellied Plover as I came around the corner of this small pond.
A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds (all females and immature males) were feasting on the sea oats.
The Dauphin Island fishing pier ends far short of the ocean now, due to sand buildup between Pelican Point (which used to be an island) and Dauphin Island.
Looking toward the interior of Dauphin Island, you can see the successive ridges of white sand dunes deposited over time, and colonization first by grasses, then various species of shrubs, and finally dense stands of pines and oaks, the species best adapted to growing in dry, sandy conditions.
In the interior of the island, you can find huge, old live oak trees, covered with mosses and epiphytes, and surrounded by saw palmetto and a variety of flowering plants. These are impressive giants, both in their size and in their survival in a climate of intense heat, periodic drought, and occasional hurricane landfall.

Alabama’s gulf shores are an ecological wonder!

Fishing contest

I watched adult and juvenile Ring-billed Gulls fish for minnows in a shallow area of the Vadnais reservoir the other day. Their acrobatic flights over the water scoping out the potential fish prey was impressive, as was the success rate of their dives. Either the fish were numerous in this area or these gulls are much better dive predators than I appreciated before. During the time I watched them they were successful in grabbing a fish about 50% of the time.

Ring-billed Gulls have surprisingly long wings and are adept at gliding over a patch of water to scope out what might lurk beneath the surface.
Like terns, these gulls will suddenly fold their wings while cruising 50-100 feet over the water, drop quickly to the surface, and enter head first with their beak open to grab an unsuspecting fish. This particular attempt was a failure as the gull came up with nothing.
But this bird was successful, following a full immersion after its dive. The bird took several minutes to position the fish correctly before swallowing, and taking off again.
This youngster grabbed a smaller fish, but immediately flew off with it before swallowing. An adult was fishing nearby, so maybe it flew off to avoid getting robbed by another gull.
Fishing success may have been good here this morning, but the Ring-billed Gull diet usually consists of only about 30% fish, with the remainder made up of crayfish, worms, and a variety of insects from both marshy edges as well as land. Unfortunately, they have become all too used to humans and are frequent scavengers at garbage dumps.
Ring-billed Gulls are one of the most common gulls in the Great Lakes region, breeding in the lower Great Lakes north into mid-latitude Canadian lakes, and then returning to the coastal areas and the southern U.S. and Mexico to overwinter.

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.

Mystery footprints?

On a morning hike after a much needed rain the other day, I came across some strange “prints” on the trail.

What’s going on here? As I scuff the “prints” with my shoe tip, I feel something woody beneath the raised “rootlets”
Truly strange-looking formations…

Were these tree roots exposed by recent rain having washed away soil? Was it a result of moss colonies that had dehydrated and died in the long drought during June and July? I really had no idea why these formations were here in the middle of this part of the trail. But in the first photo, you can see ferns on both sides of the trail, making me wonder if there was some connection between the density of ferns in this particular location and the strange “footprints”. So I kept looking…

Aha! There are indeed ferns growing out of some of the formations.
Ferns reproduce by sending up leaves from their rhizome (root-like structure) or from spores on the under side of their leaves.

I’m guessing these formations might be fern rhizomes exposed by recent rain. Do any of my readers know if this is correct?

a last clear day

At last finally getting a cell signal and an update on the growing Caldor fire southwest of Lake Tahoe, we decided to cut the hike short and head for our exit trailhead. And we were treated to one more clear, beautiful day, just to remind us of how this area usually looked in non-smoky years.

Sunrise on Lake Susie with one grandson still asleep in his hammock.
Breakfast at the campsite before packing up.
On a last day hike to Half Moon lake we got a view of the peaks of Desolation Valley, looking so much clearer than just 24 hours before.
Half Moon lake was low, with a lot of marshy vegetation around its edge. The steep talus slope down to the lake was where we mistakenly tried to take a short cut two years previously — another scary adventure.
Talus slopes of broken rock are absolute ankle breakers and no fun to traverse. The kids made it through this terrain easily a couple of years ago, but not so for the elder generation.

Nine miles and a lot of downhill steps on broken rock later, we exited the Glen Alpine trailhead at the end of what will be an ever memorable 2021 Sierra backpack hike with all limbs intact!

Ash fall

Day 2 of the Apocalypse of the Caldor fire near Lake Tahoe featured a fallout of white ash and black soot. The landscape looked like it was bathed in dense fog, not of moist air but of dry, choking smoke that even KN95 masks couldn’t keep out of your airways.

Gray skies on the morning of ash fall. There are supposed to be 10,000 foot mountains in the background.
Not too happy campers wait for the group to get ready to begin hiking the length of Lake Aloha on our way to clearer (we hope) air.
You can just barely see the mountain peaks in the background…
Compared to the landscape at Lake Aloha in previous years.
Air quality improved somewhat on the hike northeast out of the Aloha basin.
Along the way we found other remnants of the fire, like intact, charred oak leaves.
t The end of the day looked quite a bit better than the start at our campsite at Lake Susie.
And the next morning, we were treated to spectacular sunrise reflections in Lake Susie and enjoyed an entire day of clear weather and beautiful hiking!

Then and now

Views of Lake Tahoe in August 2012 (then) contrasted with views in August 2021 (now) as smoke from the enormous Dixie fire northeast of us continues to pollute the air. The once crystal clear landscape has disappeared.

in August 2012, the view looking west toward the mountains at Pope Beach on the south end of Lake Tahoe looked like this.

The mountains are crystal clear and the water level at the shoreline is far higher than in the photo below.
Same view, August 15, 2021, 50 feet of shoreline rocks exposed that were covered when the lake was much higher in 2012.
At Pope beach, the view looking east toward the marina and the mountains is crystal clear in August 2012.
The view to the eastern mountains is obscured by the smoky air in August 2021.

Will these current images of this once pristine and beautiful area be the new normal?