What’s up with this weather?

We have been in the grip of a prolonged vortex of cold air from our northern neighbors since February 4 with daytime highs in the negative digits (F) and nighttime lows dipping well below -10 F (e.g. last night was -21 F). Just for something to inspire me mentally (?), I added up the last 10 nights of low temperatures and came up with a grand total sum of -95 degrees. Now that’s arctic! Needless to say it’s difficult for my fingers to work camera buttons at these temperatures, let alone get outdoors for a walk in the backyard.

But, in the spirit of Valentine’s Day and to commemorate a time when I was braver about venturing out in -15F weather, here are a few photos of the Trumpeter Swans on the Mississippi River at Monticello, MN, engaging in courtship displays to cement their pair bond — love is in the air for these swans, most of which mate for life.

Even in the warmth of a beautiful sunrise, this landscape looks unforgivingly cold. And it was about -12F on February 9, 2014,
Trumpeter Swans pair up about the age of 3 or 4 years. Each year, there is a lot of “conversation” between members of the pair as they go about their ritual of preparing for the next breeding season.
Head bowing is an important part of the ritual — always done in synchrony.
The iconic heart-shape formed by the arches of their necks as they face each other during a part of the courtship ritual. This shot is always a popular Valentine’s Day image.
The swan pair stay together all year long. In the winter they spend the night on the water, then fly off together in the morning to forage in fields where there might be some left over grain. They will remain together, rearing a clutch of 2-5 or even 6 goslings each year, until one or both of them die — some as long as 25 years.
Some males that have lost their mates never find another female to form a new pair bond with and remain bachelors the rest of their lives. Hiking along a creek on a cold February day in 2016, I found one lone swan accompanied only by Mallards.

Thinking of warmer days ahead, I wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day, 2021.

the things you find in the woods

It’s pretty quiet in the backyard these days, and even the deer aren’t stopping by. But a walk in Reservoir Woods the other day produced some surprises, even if the wildlife weren’t cooperating.

I hadn’t visited this area since last spring when the warblers were here, and I didn’t notice this fir tree then, but with its bright Christmas decorations against the white snow, it’s hard to miss. I photographed the tree 8 years ago, when it was barely head high — and look how it’s grown.
Apparently, it’s become a tradition to decorate this little tree each year, and where the tree was decorated with mostly natural products like sumac seed heads and goldenrod flowers in 2012, now it has a wide variety of bulbs and home-made trinkets donated by what must have been dozens of individuals.

Continuing on down the trail, I found a variety of forts had been built around some of the cottonwoods and oaks in the forest. Some were simple constructions that might fit one pre-teen sized kid inside…

But one was a mammoth collection of sticks and logs, measruing about 30 feet long and 15-20 feet wide, with multiple niches inside for shelter.
Entry to the “fort”. I wonder if fort building is part of the P.E. program at virtual school now — at least it seems some kids (and maybe adults) are spending a lot of time outdoors during our covid quarantine.

But this next find was the real gem of my 4 mile stroll through Reservoir Woods.

This one made me chuckle, and I had to explore what was behind the little red door in the woods.
It seems to be Merlin’s Cave and it still has a present inside.

Even with all the very bad experiences that 2020 brought us, there are also quite a few pleasant surprises. People who take time to decorate a lonely little fir tree and who bring a moment of joy to a walker with their humorous construction are just a few of the “benefits” of time away from our usual busy routine to think more creatively, to get out and enjoy the natural world, maybe leaving a little piece of ourselves to bring joy to others.

Woods of the Apache

Preparations for the Christmas holiday delayed my final post of the November-December journey to the west coast and back. But in moving photos from one computer to another, I rediscovered our final wildlife encounter of the trip back to Minnesota at Bosque del Apache in south-central New Mexico. From there it was an arduous two-day long drive back home, so this was a final chance to get out and enjoy the spectacular wildlife and scenery.

This wetland formed from intermingling streams of the Rio Grande river is one of the premier stop-overs for migratory waterfowl as well as songbirds in both spring and fall. The river channels are wide and shallow, making it attractive to thousands of Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and several duck species that congregate there at night for a couple of months in the late fall-early winter.

Tall cottonwood trees line the banks of the river channels, providing cover for a variety of songbirds that migrate through this area. It is this riparian forest that gives the area its name, “forest of the Apaches”, a site where the local Apache Indians gathered to hunt the wildlife during peak times of migration. However, the area was initially settled more than 700 years ago by Pueblo-building Piro Indians that farmed the fertile, flooded regions around the Rio Grande. They were eventually driven out of the area by Apache raiding parties and Spanish explorers/colonists.

Two one-way loop roads (north and south) branch off from the main road into the Bosque del Apache national wildlife refuge. We made frequent pull-overs and stops to see what might be hiding in the water.
Pintail (with brown and white necks) and Widgeon ducks were plentiful along the roadside, swimming in the narrow channels between sections of the river.
But these were the birds we had come here to see, the majestic and prehistoric-sounding Sandhill Cranes. We found a small flock of birds hiding in a backwater channel. Most were foraging intensively but a few were calling, strutting, and showing off.
Hundreds of cranes and Canada Geese were spread out along the shallow channel, beaks deep in the mud, foraging for something.
Parent and a mostly fully grown chick (no red on the top of its head)foraged together just a few yards away, while dozens of other cranes foraged on the other side of the channel.

We have seen many more Sandhill Cranes here in mid-January, so perhaps the bulk of the migrants from northern-most parts of North America have not arrived yet, or perhaps some cranes that might stop here prefer to overwinter further south in Mexico. (Click here to see a video of the cranes coming in to roost on the river at Bosque del Apache in January.)

The Cranes probably won’t stop here on their way north again in the spring, but will congregate in huge numbers in March and April in Grand Island, Nebraska on the Platte River — and that is a sight to behold!

Sandhill Cranes taking off right at sunrise on the Platte River in Nebraska, March 18, 2015. They fly to nearby corn fields to forage and then return each night to the river. This is a major refueling point for Cranes that will migrate up to northern Canada and Alaska to breed.

Out in the middle

The last couple of sunny days I have walked out on the lake across the street right before sunset and found quite a number of people also enjoying the lake amenities: ice for ice skaters and hockey players, snow for the skiers and snowmobilers, and quite a nice ice road around the perimeter of the lake for the walkers. You can appreciate the size of this lake when you get out in the middle and turn in a circle, seeing shorelines in the far distance all around.

Lake Owasso is a long, relatively shallow, 374 acre lake with a couple of deep spots (35+ feet) popular with the ice fishermen. The total shoreline is just under 6 miles, so if you walked the ice road perimeter you would get a pretty good work-out. Out in the middle, the houses along the shoreline seem far away.
On my hike around the lake, I saw dog walkers…
and lots of tents and shacks for ice fishing, although on this relatively warm, sunny day, most fishermen were sitting outside instead of inside.
Ice fishermen haul their gear including an auger to drill through the ice, a fish finder radar, something to sit on, bait, poles, buckets, etc. on a sled, and then make a series of holes and drop a very short length rod with a line and bait down the hole near the bottom. Most of the lake is about 5-10 feet deep, but here the bottom was 17 feet and they fisherman told me there were lots of little fish swimming around near the bottom.
By far the most popular recreation on the lake is skating, and most of the skaters are hockey players. It seemed like every other house had shoveled out a nice patch of ice for some friendly competition.
And not all the hockey players are kids!
Cross-country ski tracks criss-cross the lake everywhere. There are lights strung up for night-time hockey practice at this shoreline rink.
Just another day of winter recreation in snow country Minnesota.

a walk at sunset

The sun came out this afternoon to give us a brief reprieve from the gray gloom that set in after the recent snow. I thought the new snow might look pretty in sunset colors, so I took a walk through the woods in the backyard.

It’s only 3:40 p.m., and the sun is just about to set behind the trees that border the big pond in the backyard. A week past the winter solstice, we have gained 2 min of daylight but the sun is only 6 degrees above the horizon at this time of day.
10 minutes later my walk down the woodland trail gives me a view over a marshy wetland of the sunset.

Somehow, I changed the settings on my camera without trying, and took a few photos using the “watercolor” picture effect. This might be a nice start to a watercolor painting, if I knew how to do that.

My camera never fails to surprise me with what it can do.

Sky Islands and flat tires

We were 3 miles from our destination at Cave Creek Ranch in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona when a rear tire on our Highlander went flat (note to self: avoid driving on gravel roads!). And although this was a major inconvenience for my husband who had to drive 60 miles to the nearest Walmart to get a new tire, it meant we could stay at the ranch an extra day.

We had a nice view of the mountains from our room at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. The golden-leafed Sycamores were just past their prime color, but still added vibrancy to the landscape.

The Chiricahua Mountains rise 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them an “island in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along the gradient from hot dry, desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, and this means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity. And like animals on oceanic islands, Sky Island animals are restricted to their mountain environment, and may become locally endemic, not mixing or interbreeding with the rest of their parent species.

Chiricahua mountain oak and sycamore forests, often riparian, give way to higher elevation juniper and pinyon pines in the Cave Creek area.

Such”sky islands” occur in a number of locations in North America, but this one in the Chiricahuas is particularly interesting because it attracts more southern-distributed Mexican and Central American species like Trogons, Mexican Jays, coatis (raccoon relatives), Jaguars, Mexican wolves, javelinas, and some endemic races of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.

Coues Whitetail deer is a diminutive subspecies of the eastern Whitetail that stands less than 3 feet at the shoulder. Large surface area of its ears helps it dissipate heat, but the deer stay primarily in the oak and sycamore woods and nearby grasslands at middle elevation in the mountains of southeastern Arizona and ranging south into Mexico. Their elfin size may be an adaptation to limited food supply in their range.
Similarly, Gould’s Turkey is a subspecies of the eastern wild Turkey, found only in the Chiricahuas and parts of southwestern New Mexico, but its range extends south into montane parts of Mexico. Gould’s Turkey is the largest of the 7 subspecies of wild Turkey, with longer legs, bigger feet, and all white tail feathers, compared to eastern wild turkeys. That must be a spectacle during the breeding season!
There are at least 5 subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos, whose coloration varies among their geographic locations. This little bird, however, is a separate species of Junco — the yellow-eyed Junco, found ONLY in the Chiricahua Sky Island and the Mexican montane region. This is a good example of “island speciation”, in which its restricted Sky Island range cut off gene flow to other North American Junco populations.
Mexican Jays lack the crest of feathers seen in Blue Jays and Steller’s Jays, and resemble Scrub Jays but are much larger than their California cousins. They inhabit the oak woodlands in mountain regions of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and central Mexico, where they form large, loosely familial flocks searching for acorns, pinyon nuts, and small vertebrates for dessert.
Broad-billed Hummingbirds are another example of primarily Mexican-distributed birds that will nest as far north as the Chiricahua mountains, but they migrate back south to central Mexico mountains in the winter. Maybe this handsome male found enough nectar and insects at Cave Creek Ranch to stick around a little longer after the breeding season.
The Bridled Titmouse is another primarily Mexican montane bird that just makes it into the U.S. in the Chiricahua mountains. There are actually three Titmouse/Chickadee species in the Chiricahuas, and they divide up the habitat by their preference for trees on which they forage: Juniper Titmice on junipers, Bridled Titmice on oaks and sycamores, and Mexican Chickadees on higher elevation pines.

Quite a diverse place, those Sky Islands of Arizona!

Arizona sunset time

What can you see in just a couple hours time in the Sonoran desert north of Tucson? Quite a lot it turns out! We bagged (photo-wise) a badger and a roadrunner in the first 15 minutes after getting out of the car at Catalina State Park, and thought we were off to a good start finding animals we hadn’t yet seen on the trip.

Crossing the dry wash and climbing the adjacent hill we found a few old friends:

A flock of Gambel Quail scurrying through the brush. This is the desert equivalent of the more mesic chaparral inhabitant, the California Quail.
A very photogenic little Hermit Thrush that was poking about in the dry leaf litter. I was surprised to see this bird here because I associate it with the much wetter temperate forest where it breeds. But apparently they can adapt to desert aridity well.
On the dry hillside, a Cactus Wren greeted us with its scolding chatter.
The late afternoon sun really shows off the red eye of the Phainopepla!
It’s amazing how much you can find in this diverse habitat, with deciduous trees in and along the dry wash, and a variety of cacti on the hillsides.
A beautiful place we want to visit again and again.
But we ran out of daylight, so until next time…

Cousins out for a hike

The adult cousins wanted to take their kids on a hike in the Sierra Azul open space preserve, so we tagged along to see what there was to see in this very large semi-wild area in the foothills of the outer coast range mountains south of San Jose, CA.

Maples were glowing in full color, and the kids were so busy talking or playing a game, they didn’t even notice the long walk uphill (which was just around the corner from here).
Small ranchitos were tucked into the hillsides, and we could see quite a few vineyards.
Although the trail was mostly up, there were several places to stop and gaze at the view across the valley.
On a fairly clear day in San Jose we could see all the way across the valley to the inner coast range of hills. Crossing those takes you to the broad and long Central Valley, California’s agricultural capital.

Another beautiful fall day

We should be having rain in California now, but I am grateful for a succession of warm, sunny days and walks along one of the several creeks that run through the city of San Jose.

The trail that runs along the Los Alamitos creek in the Almaden valley is lined with sycamores that glow yellow-orange in the late afternoon light.
Fall color is at its peak in the city, with boulevard trees showing various hues of red, orange, and yellow and riparian vegetation dominated by the yellow-orange hues of the giant sycamores that line the banks of the creek.
The Los Alamitos creek trail runs about 5 miles along this creek, with an asphalt walking/biking path on both sides, and numerous foot/horse trails nearer the creek.

How fortunate local residents are to have this scenic natural area to explore as often as they wish, especially during this delightful fall weather.

New favorites

One (positive) thing about restricted travel in the Age of Covid is finding new places to hike/bird watch within a few miles of places you have visited many times before. And so it happened that a new friend took us on a drive to the San Leandro reservoir part of the East Bay watershed, just 20 minutes from my daughter’s house. And now I have a new favorite hunting ground for bird photography!

Hillsides of oak savanna and chaparral surround the long arm of the reservoir. The shallow water at one end is a perfect place to find ducks and shorebirds.
Several species of ducks, herons, egrets, Kildeer, and even a couple of Snipe were working the shoreline of the reservoir as we walked past.
A trail winds in and out of contours in the hillside along the reservoir.
A forest of valley oak lead downhill to the water.
At points along the trail, a hiker may be inundated with the wonderful aroma of California Bay trees.

The landscapes definitely held my interest, but that’s not why we were here either. It was for the birds, of course, and they didn’t disappoint.

Here’s a teaser, and I’ll post more on the bird life of Valle Vista Staging Area next time.

My new favorite bird, the White-tailed Kite!

When I see a new bird, I have to take a couple hundred photos of it, just to make sure I get one that is decent. This particular kite was hovering over a field looking for mice or frogs or something, and stayed in one spot, hovering and riding the wind, making it very easy to get lots of good photos.