Down in the meadow

Looking back over this year’s photos, I found some gems I had overlooked at the time they were taken. During our birding explorations of southern Spain in April-May of 2022, we visited La Dehesa de Abajo (literally, the meadow down below).

The abundance and diversity of wildflowers that carpeted the meadow here was really eye-catching. The building in the background is a “hide” or blind for watching the shorebirds out in the lagoon.

The Dehesa is a nature reserve just 15 miles southwest of Seville located within the greater 52 square miles of the Donana national park and nature park system.

Among the many wonderfully different birds we saw at the Dehesa, the European Bee-eaters were the most colorful and interesting (to me) to watch. These vibrantly colored, slender birds are distant relatives of Kingfishers, but are only found in southern and central Europe, parts of northern Africa and western Asia during the spring and summer. After breeding there, they migrate to tropical Africa for the winter.

You rarely see Bee-eaters individually — especially at this time of year. But just wait…
Not a minute later, the first bird was joined by (I suppose) its mate.

Pairs were actively foraging for insects among the flush of wildflowers in the meadow, with males often bringing food to females, and perching near them. In fact, couples were perched everywhere — often next to each other in small groups.

And then, two more Bee-eaters decided this post made a good resting spot between foraging bouts.

European Bee-eaters are highly gregarious and nest colonially in sandy banks, into which they excavate 5-foot long tunnels for their nest. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the 5-8 offspring to fledgling. Once out of the nest, adult and juvenile Bee-eaters roost communally in long lines of birds huddled closely together.

Despite their name (and they do eat a lot of bees, wasps and hornets), male Bee-eaters catch larger items like dragonflies and butterflies to feed to their mates during courtship. We watched a pair of Bee-eaters in this ritual for a few minutes as the male made several trips to feed his mate. The first image is a composite of his flight in. The second image shows him bringing a dragonfly to her (barely visible in his beak), and the third composite image shows his departure on another foraging trip.

Although Honeybees do make up 60-80% of their diet, their collective impact on the bees in an area is minimal; studies found that they ate less than1% of the worker bees from a particular hive. Bee-eaters do remove the sting from the bee before swallowing by bashing it against a tree limb or fence post.

Such gorgeous little birds, and such fun to watch. But there is much more to see in this richly diverse area of Donana, Europe’s largest national park. More on this topic later.

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!!

Thank the trees

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I renew my gratitude for the special people in my life. But I usually don’t remember to give thanks for many of the things I just take for granted. So this year, I’m thankful for trees…for the many ecosystem services they provide — for FREE.

…for forests that enrich our lives and uplift our moods as we wander their winding paths.

Forest of Nisene Marks, Aptos CA
Oak forest, University of California Berkeley

…for vast tracts of unending vegetation that pump oxygen into our atmosphere and remove carbon dioxide, helping to manage the climate.

Tropical rainforest of the Panama Canal
Temperate forest of the Porcupine Mountains, Michigan

…for forests and other vegetation that filter runoff to maintain clean water in lakes and rivers and prevent soil erosion

Wolf river near Rhinelander WI
Grass lake slough, Shoreview MN

…for trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife (and food and building materials for us)

My front yard apple crop
A fanciful look at forest animals (composite of many images)

…for forests that improve our urban landscape by providing shade, lowering the air temperature nearby, buffering noise, air, and light pollution, as well as providing a mental and physical escape from the urban jungle.

Central Park, New York city (photo from Architectural Digest)

this post dedicated to daughter Becky, an ecosystem services specialist.

Favorite fall “fotos”

My favorite season of the year is almost gone now, but we did manage to see a part of the glorious color changes come through the Minnesota woods this fall. In addition to this year’s contribution (below) to my fall color postings, I wanted to share some of my past favorites as well.

Sometimes, the best photos are captured in places you’re not supposed to be — like the “park personnel only” roads in Fish Lake park, Maple Grove MN this fall. (But the local state patrolman was nice about it.)
Sandhill cranes at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of cranes gathered in October 2021.
Trumpeter Swans flying over Cloud Lake at sunset in the Porcupine Mts, MI, in October 2018 was a special treat.
I caught a special ray of sunlight streaming through basswood leaves at Roy Lake SP, SoDak, in October 2020.
The Wood Ducks on a local pond in Roseville, MN in October 2021 weren’t the only colorful things there that day — the colorful reflection from the woodland trees was amazing.
Fall color along the north shore of Lake Superior in MN is always spectacular. This shot was taken from about as far north as you can go in MN before you cross into Canada in October 2016.
Fall color along the rivers of the upper Midwest is usually equally spectacular. This shot from the Wolf River near Rhinelander WI was taken on a very cloudy day in October 2017, but the lack of sun didn’t diminish the vibrancy of the color.

Picturesque Lake Bled

In the northwest corner of Slovenia, the city of Bled has one of the most picturesque, postcard-worthy lakes in Europe, complete with its own tiny island (the only island in the entire country)! Like many cities founded in the Middle Ages, Bled has a castle dating to the 11th century that towers above the city on an imposing cliff. According to some, this is the oldest castle in Slovenia, and one of the most popular tourist attractions. Doubly fortified walls surround two courtyards (an upper and lower) providing beautiful views of the lake, the city, and the countryside.

Scenic view of Lake Bled and the island from the lower courtyard of the castle.
City of Bled from the Castle wall. The Austrian border is about 60 miles to the north.
Additional outer fortifications were added to the castle in the 16th century after an earthquake damaged much of the buildings.
View of the lower courtyard and the Romanesque-style tower that was part of the original castle design.
View of the upper courtyard with its small chapel (left) and museum rooms with exhibits of castle history and various armaments.

After walking around the castle for a while, we boarded a small boat (gondola) to row out to the island. Motors are not allowed on Lake Bled, because apparently it is easily polluted. Lack of good water turnover from the few streams flowing in and out coupled with the lack of wind that could cycle water from the bottom to the top surface could make the lake water stagnant. Like some other glacial lakes formed in mountainous areas, Lake Bled is protected from wind by the surrounding mountain ranges.

At a distance, we could appreciate how difficult it must have been to build the castle on that sheer cliff. With its surroundings of high mountains (the Julian alps) and beautiful blue-green lake water, the Bled castle looks like a setting for a fantasy movie.
The flat-bottomed Pletna boat design dates back to the 12th century; each hand-crafted boat is powered by the muscles of the oarsman as he rows with his two,16-foot oars from a standing position in the rear of the boat.
The tiny wooded island has several buildings on it, including a church and a free-standing 170 foot bell tower, which sadly has NO view from its top because of the wire mesh over the windows.

Only 99 steps up to the central courtyard where the church and bell tower are located. If a couple wishes to get married in the church, the groom must carry the bride up the step and into the church in order to ensure a long and happy life together.
In addition to the beautiful and ornate interior, the church has a wishing bell. But wishes are only granted to those who can ring the bell three times with a single pull, and who truly believe in God. (Photo from Fine Stay Slovenia)

Hiking in Croatia

Our next destination on this trip was the laid-back, small beach town of Opatija (pronounced o-pa-ti-a). We had a free day to explore some of the area, while others on our tour were sampling the wines of the Istrian region (northwest peninsula of Croatia). It was perfect weather for a hike in the Učka (pronounced ooch-kah) nature park, about a half-hour drive northwest of Opatija. Park personnel recommended we hike to the highest peak of the park, Mt. Vojak (vo-yak) for the stunning views of the coast. Fall color was almost at peak in the beech forest, so we followed a well-marked trail from the Učka nature park visitor center to the summit of Vojak — about a 1500 foot climb.

Our view of the seaside town of Opatija, on the northwest coast of Croatia, when we arrived the evening before the hike.
Starting up the trail, we found a wide, well-marked, not very steep path with lots of tall beech trees providing shade.
There were a few more rugged rocky sections, but the trail was just a steady climb without the high steps and boulders we usually encounter on the Sierra trails. And the lower altitude and lack of a backpack on this hike made it much more enjoyable!
We passed a few wide, level spots where a few different trails merged, but managed to stay on the correct one. There are chestnut trees in the forest here, and lots of nuts on he ground, but no rodents, that we saw, to eat them. We heard just a couple of birds, but the forest was mostly very quiet.
Finally at the top in about two hours, we found the lookout tower, which was originally built by an Austrian climbing club. The peak at 1401 meters was extremely windy and cool, so we didn’t stay long, except to take in the view.

Park personnel in the souvenir shop in the tower told us that Griffon vultures have nested in the park for the first time this year. Several pairs of the vultures (which are rare in the Balkans) have nested on a nearby island in last years, but park staffers make a concerted effort to rescue the fledglings that often fall into the bay and are not strong enough to fly out of the water.

Views looking southwest down toward Opatija were hazy. On a clear day you can see as far as Venice and the northeastern most coast of Italy. Trieste, Italy is just 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Opatija.
The descent down Mt. Vojak was far harder than the climb to the peak. Looking toward Italy at the top of this image. Note the small clearing at the bottom of the hill above my husband’s right arm.
The trail was very steep with many loose rocks to slip on. I wished I had my hiking poles!!
You can see the steep angle of this slope, where we probably lost 1000 of the 1500 feet we had climbed.
Only one group of hikers passed us on our way up the peak. But we passed quite a few hikers on our way down that were doing the steep uphill climb to the peak from the north side, rather than the more gentle climb we did from the south side.
Here is that clearing at the bottom of the hill that I pointed out in the image above. It’s a picnic area with a small labyrinth of rocks for those who need a little meditative exercise before the big climb.
And now the easy park of the hike along the contour lines of the mountain (instead of continually crossing them) back to our starting point.
Walking along through the yellow-orange color in the beech forest on a balmy fall day was truly one of the highlights of this trip.
An on to the end of the trail — where a half mile walk on the road brought us back to the visitor center.

Limestone and waterfalls in Plitvice Park, Croatia

Croatia’s largest national park, located in roughly the center of the country, features sheer limestone cliffs that tower above emerald green water and a bounty of large and small waterfalls and cascades that rush down a series of about 16 lakes.

A series of boardwalks at the park takes you around a few of the lakes and waterfalls where you can appreciate the amazing natural processes that create this landscape.

A view from the top of the canyon — you can just barely see the fine white line of the boardwalk trail at the base of the distant limestone cliff face. The highest waterfall in the park is on the right side of the image.
The map of the Plitvice Lakes shows the natural (i.e., not man-made) dams that block the river flow to create the lakes. However, the contours and even placement of the lakes change gradually over time, as the location of dams changes.
Rainfall leaches calcium carbonate from the soft limestone rock and creates channels through the rock to feed an underground river that bubbles up into small ponds and lakes when it reaches harder rock.
The water becomes saturated with calcium carbonate which gets deposited on everything over which the water flows. Vegetation growing along the shore of the lake as well as algae and moss growing at the edge of the lake get a coating of calcium carbonate on them, forming stony barriers to water movement — i.e., dams.
Water flowing over the dams creates cascades and waterfalls that carry the calcium-carbonate rich water further downstream.
More calcium carbonate is deposited on the plants and bacterial colonies creating yet another set of dams and pools above them.
Dams are impermanent structures, because the rushing water dissolves them, only to deposit the minerals elsewhere in slower moving water.
The type of algae that bloom in the calcium carbonate rich waters of the lakes contribute to the unique color of these lakes, which actually change from aqua-colored to teal-colored depending on the season, the temperature, and the algal population bloom.
The lakes are especially beautiful in the fall when the teal green water color contrasts with the rich golds and reds of the forest vegetation.

Sights of Sarajevo

Our Balkan adventure continued with a journey from Dubrovnik, Croatia north over rugged mountains and overgrazed valleys in Bosnia and Herzegovina to Sarajevo, the cultural, financial, and political capital of this country. The contrast between the two countries is quite stark.

Towns in Bosnia-Herzegovina that sustained damage in the Balkan War in the early 1990s had new construction next to buildings destroyed in the war that were never rebuilt, either because the owners had died or simply walked away to restart their lives elsewhere.

Throughout its history, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been a melting pot of religions and ethnicities — catholic Croats, orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosnians — mostly living together in cooperative tolerance of each other, with many inter-faith marriages and mixed families. In our walk through the old part of the city we found a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox Church, a mosque, and a Jewish temple within just a few blocks of each other.

The enormous Serbian orthodox cathedral was completed in 1868, and is one of the largest orthodox churches in the Balkans.
The Sacred Heart catholic cathedral was completed in 1887 and was damaged but not destroyed in the Balkan war.
Down the street from the cathedrals is one of the 100 mosques that can be found in Sarajevo.
There are many old and stately buildings along the river that runs through Sarajevo, almost all of which suffered substantial damage from shelling in the Balkan war. Most have been reconstructed but pock marks from shrapnel dot their exterior walls in some cases.
The main shopping street is pedestrian only, lined with apartments above and small shops on the ground floor.
Further east on this street, the high rises give way to specialty areas like the leather street, the coppersmith street, and many small restaurants serving “fast” and “slow” food. Leisurely strolling while looking is the favorite past time here.

Sarajevo was the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, when the independent Balkan countries of today were united as Yugoslavia. Life was good, productivity was high, and people felt they had good lives following 40 years of rule by their benevolent dictator Josep Tito.

And then things fell apart as the influence of communism waned, Balkan countries began to assert their independence, and Serbia made an attempt to pull it all back together. Their troops surrounded the jeweled capital of Bosnia in early 1992, and began to pound away with shells and mortars fired from tanks that lined the hills above the city for more than 1400 days, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. The Serbs were successful in cutting off water, gas, power, and food, and more than 14,000 people were killed in the city, one third of them children before the siege ended in early 1996. In addition to the shelling from the tanks, snipers picked off civilians as they attempted to forage for food, wood, water, etc.

Photos from a museum illustrate how people gathered the supplies they needed, often walking long distances to get just a small bag of grain. Food was exorbitantly expensive and so people often traded their jewelry or other valued possessions for what they needed.
The bold red line indicates the position of the Serbian army that surrounded Sarajevo from 1992-1996. The brown smudge at the narrowest constriction of the Serbian line was the airport which was guarded by UN peacekeeping forces.

Bosnian army soldiers began constructing a tunnel from houses in the Olympic village area (asterisk below arrow) under the airport runway to a village on the other side of the airport outside Serbian forces in spring 1993 in order to bring food and supplies into the city and as an escape route for some to leave the city.

The 900 meter “tunnel of hope” was completed in 3 months in 1993. It was lined with wood, had electrical and gas lines as well as a ventilation shaft and rails for sliding carts along its entire length. But it was only about 5 feet high, which made carrying heavy sacks in a stooped posture over the almost 1 kilometer distance even harder.

A view of the farm fields and airport today, where the tunnel was dug 30 years ago.

When the war ended, the solution to representative governance of this mixed population in Bosnia-Herzegovina was the election of not one but three concurrent presidents (one Croat, one Serb, and one Muslim) who would rotate in the position every 8 months for four years, along with 14 parliaments and 136 ministries. A confusing solution to the problem of equal representation of all religious/ethnic affiliations to say the least!

Some very old walls

On a day trip to Montenegro from Dubrovnik, we drove and boated to the farthest reaches of the deepest inlet of the Adriatic Sea to the ancient town of Kotor, first officially recognized as a town in the Roman Empire during second century A.D.

Storm clouds hanging over the high mountains on either side of the long inlet of the Adriatic Sea made the “black mountains” especially dark.
More than 80% of the population of Montenegro live by the shore of the long Adriatic inlet, fishing and farming oysters and clams. There is precious little flat land for any agriculture in this part of Montenegro.
We made a brief stop in Perast, one of the many small towns along the inlet to briefly gawk at produce for sale (amazing varieties of olives), and to catch a boat ride to the terminus of the inlet where the city of Kotor has existed for almost two millennia.
Olives, galore!
One of the scenic attractions of Perast is the church of Our Lady of the Rocks, built on an artificial island constructed of rocks added over time to a bed of sunken ships. The tradition of throwing rocks into the bay began in the late 1400s and continues today as festival goers add their rocks to the current shoreline on which the church sits.
The small, walled city of Kotor was a jewel of the Venetian empire, and then subsumed into each of the kingdoms and empires that transformed the boundaries of southeastern Europe from 500-2000 A.D.
The Roman emperor Justinian added fortifications above the walled city to protect it from invading Goths in 6th century A.D. Adventurous hikers today can climb the 2000 ancient stone steps to the top-most fortress.
Inside the compact walled city, now a protected UNESCO site, all the facades of the buildings must be left untouched, to maintain their ancient appearance. The largest and most ornate of them is St. Tryphon’s cathedral, first consecrated in 1166. Several earthquakes in the area (including a severe 8.0 quake in Dubrovnik in 1667) damaged the structure several times, but it has been rebuilt and added to, with a new and taller bell tower added in 2016.
Even here, in the tiny walled city of Kotor, cats walk or lie about everywhere. This kitty was particularly unusual, with its part orange, part gray tabby coloration.

Crossroads of the Adriatic

We are currently visiting Dubrovnik, southern-most major city of Croatia, across the gulf of the Adriatic Sea from the boot heel of Italy. This small once-principal republic in its own right is surrounded by Bosnia-Herzegovina to the north and Montenegro to the south, and only connects to the rest of Croatia by a newly opened bridge.

Croatians wanting to drive north from Dubrovnik used to have to cross into and out of a small piece of Bosnia-Herzegovina to go north into the rest of their own country. Now they can drive on the new bridge and avoid the long lines of customs and immigration at the Bosnian border.

Dubrovnik is an ancient walled city, dating from the 7th century. During its history , it has always been a pre-eminent center of trade and diplomacy in southeastern Europe. Because of its importance in maritime trade, and despite its defensive construction of walls around the city, it was continually over run by invaders and incorporated into their empires: first Venetians, and later Napoleon, then Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, then as part of the kingdom of Yugoslavia, and finally at the conclusion of the Balkan war in 1995, into the independent republic of Croatia.

Exterior as well as interior walls have been reconstructed to their approximate heights and locations prior to 20th century devastation.
More than 100 churches still remain in the Old City, but none are as large as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. This building rests on the remains of several earlier churches dating back to the 7th century. Funds for one of the cathedral builds supposedly came from King Richard, the Lion-hearted who may have passed through this area during his Crusade.
Limestone blocks were used throughout the walled city, as paving stones as well as wall construction. In the doorway at the end of the path here —one of the many cats that roam freely throughout the city.
We took a walk along the walls to look down on the Old City and get a better view of its perch on the cliff side above the sea.
It’s hard to imagine how such an inaccessible site could be captured by invaders.
Castle fortifications were placed at strategic locations along the walls. And yes, the Adriatic really is this blue!
Cats freely roam the old city and are found everywhere on the walled portion as well.
In a walled city built of stone, there isn’t much greenery, and there isn’t much wildlife. But there are always pigeons, and here they are making good use of the new roof tiles added to many buildings since the end of the Balkan war.

The first bombs fell on the communication tower above the old city on October 1, 1991, cutting off water and electricity to all inhabitants. More than 5000 shells fell on Dubrovnik during just one night in early 1992, and intermittent shelling continued until 1995, with partial or complete destruction of almost every building. Reconstruction cost more than $500 million and has been completed in almost all areas of the walled old city.

Some ruins of former buildings and houses have not been reconstructed— and may never be finished, to show the extent of damage from 20th century warfare.