Crossing America — Nevada

From Elko to Winnemucca along I-80, we cruise up and down the mountains and valleys that run like long fingers north to south.  A blanket of snow and scattered clouds filtering the early morning light make this usually monotonous landscape very photogenic.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

The mountain passes are over 6000 feet, the valley floors are dominated by sagebrush in this high desert.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

The valleys are typically self-draining (rather than running out to the Pacific ocean) making the soil unsuitable for much plant life except those that are salt-tolerant.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

Mountain peaks and canyons often have more lush vegetation, even pine forests, and creeks running from them may have fish and a variety of bird and mammal life.  The valley floors are a mecca for insectivorous lizards and a few adventurous birds and small mammals.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

Nevada means snow-covered, as the landscape exhibits in this winter scene, but most of the Great Basin here is in the rain-shadow of the Sierra mountains of California, and thus the annual precipitation is less than 10 inches.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

Towns are few and far between, often located at the base of some scenic peak, rather than out on the valley floor.

I-80 from Elko to Winnemucca, NV

Broiling hot in the summer and chilling in the winter, this is a place for really hearty people to live.

West of Winnemucca, the valley basins are more expansive, merging into one gigantic bowl, the Great Basin sink. Water from rivers draining the eastern side of the Sierra mountains eventually makes its way into the Great Basin, some of it collecting in temporary or even permanent lakes.  This is the only source of water for agriculture in western Nevada.

and now we will climb the eastern side of the Sierras, hopefully in advance of the giant snowstorm headed there.

Crossing America — Utah

It’s a short drive down the Lincoln Highway from Evanston, WY to Salt Lake City, and what a scenic drive through a gorgeous red canyon it is.

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

What could be prettier than white snow, red cliffs, and juniper and sage?

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

As we descend from the higher elevation Wyoming plateau, the cliffs get higher, and the topography more rugged.

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

Canyons with aspen and cottonwood meander back into the niches between cliffs. This must be glorious in the fall.

The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental routes for car travel from New Jersey to California, traversing 13 states.  Now that would be a real cross section of America, instead of this abbreviated picture I’m presenting here.

Having driven through sparkling, crystal clear landscapes from western most Wyoming, I had big expectations of the sight that would greet us as we broke through the cliffs into the Great Salt Lake flats.  But, a dense inversion layer of  smog greeted us in Salt Lake City, and instead of mountains, city, and lake landscape, we saw this.

Great Salt Lake smog

Ugh! I think there are supposed to be mountains on Antelope and Stansbury Islands visible from the southern lake shore as we drive along I-80.

If I have matched up google images correctly with our stop for lunch on the southern shore of the lake, it should have looked something like this.

Great Salt Lake, Salt Lake Tours

A summer time view, when the air is cleaner and clearer. Courtesy of Salt Lake Tours

But the best view of this amazing body of water was still ahead of us at the  Bonneville salt flat, where the salt-laden earth has dried into a hardened concrete and land speed records are set (currently 622 mph in a rocket-powered vehicle).  Imagine the g-forces the driver of that car withstands as he rockets (literally) down the 10 mile speedway.

Bonneville Salt Flat, Great Salt Lake, UT

I had to use a lot of dehaze filter to cut through the thick layer of smoky, foggy air. The reflection of the distant mountains is best seen when the water is just a few inches deep. When this area dries up in the summer, it will be a completely flat and extremely hard surface.

The drive through the rest of the salt desert went by quickly, and soon we were greeted by Wendover Will at the Nevada border.  My husband claims he always looked forward to seeing cowboy Will greet them on their trips from California to Nebraska in the summer.  It’s good to know that some things don’t change over 50-60 years in the west.

Wendover Will on the border of Nevada and Utah

Crossing America — Wyoming

Take the vast, open prairie of South Dakota, and remove the cows and farms, add some bunch grasses, sage brush, and pockets of stunted juniper, along with a few rolling hills, and you have Eastern Wyoming.

Eastern Wyoming highway

Eastern Wyoming open spaces

Snow makes this landscape completely homogeneous. There’s a tiny house/farm in the distance.

Eastern Wyoming open spaces

There is a lot of open space here, miles and miles of monotonous sameness.  Oh look, a mountain ridge in the view adds a little variety to the landscape.

Somehow on our way from I-90 to I-80 in eastern Wyoming, we got off the beaten track and stumbled across a road through a picturesque canyon right before sunset.  One of those construction signs with lighted messages warned us, “wildlife next 10 miles”.  This was quite exciting because we had seen a total of exactly one hawk the entire day.  Sure enough around one corner, there were three mule deer standing next to the road, but they quickly scurried away.

Mule deer, Sybille Canyon, Wheatland, WY

Two mule deer does just as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

We spotted a raven or two as we drove along the smaller roads, but the winter landscape in this part of Wyoming seems devoid of wildlife: few hawks, no coyotes, no antelope, no jack rabbits, no cattle, no people.  It might as well be the Gobi desert.

In the twilight we negotiated our way back to I-80 and were treated with a glorious sunset.

Wyoming sunset

Wyoming sunset

The next day, following I-80 west from Rawlings to Evanston and then into Utah, the Wyoming landscape got more and more interesting, as rolling hills of sagebrush gave way to rocky cliffs, deep canyons, and taller juniper interspersed with a few pines.  But the sparseness of human settlement did not change. This is land for the very rugged, independent, individualists of us, who really enjoy their alone time.

a Wyoming farm

Nearest neighbor…25 miles?

Wyoming cliffs near Rock Springs

Bald Eagle over cliffs near Green River, WY

Flying over the cliffs near Green River, a Bald Eagle glided slowly toward the river. That was one of 4 raptors we saw that day.

Wyoming is challenging, and mystifying, and interesting, and welcoming.  Towns have unusual names like Winner (where you introduce yourself by saying you’re a Winner-ite), Chugwater (how do you suppose it got that name?), and Guernsey (are there actual cows there?).  Friendly hotel and restaurant personnel provide wonderful service, with nary a country twang in their speech.  And I bet they are strong enough to throw a hay bale up on a pickup!

Crossing America — South Dakota

It’s bleak season in Minnesota, so we’re on the road again, this time across country to Northern California.  So I’ve decided to take my readers along on a photo journey crossing a part of America.

South Dakota, like it’s northern neighbor is flat as a pancake along the I-90 corridor.  It’s the land of big skies, because there is no relief in the land.  It’s the land where buffalo roamed, chowing down on those nutritious mixed, native grasses.  It’s sparsely populated away from urban areas, one farm per several road miles.  And it’s dotted with black cows and hay bales.  A few of the scenes we encountered…

Wind turbines near Chamberlain, SD

Wind turbines near Chamberlain, SD at sunset.  

Wind turbines near Chamberlain, SD

With so much sky, you get great sunsets!

SouthDakota prairie farm

South Dakota prairie farm

SouthDakota prairie farm

You see what I mean about FLAT landscape?

SouthDakota prairie farm

And lots of very black cows…

South Dakota

Closer to the Black Hills in the western part of the state, the landscape becomes more rolling.

near Wall, SD

The monotony of the flat landscape is broken up by humorous advertisements for places to eat and drink in Wall and Rapid City.

One advertisement for Firestone Winery in Rapid City read: “in wine there is wisdom, in water there are bacteria”.  Wall, SD got its name from the literal wall of bluffs running north from the badlands to its terminus at I-90 where a town grew up, and it got its fame from an enterprising young pharamcist and his wife who offered free ice water to thirsty travelers making their way west.  And thus a popular tourist attraction was born.

Black Hills, SD

The Black Hills of western SD are an isolated mountain building event that produced an inner core of hard igneous material surrounded by softer and earlier-formed sediments.

Black Hills looking toward Cheyenne river bottom

Coming around and over the bottom of the Black Hills, you descend to the Great Plains of Wyoming and the Cheyenne river bottom.

Next on to Wyoming…

Looking back on 2018 — oh, the places we’ve seen!

What a fabulous year of sight-seeing, from Peru to the U.K and Iceland, to the wilds of California and Minnesota, and scenic coastlines of northeastern North America. It’s so hard choose the favorites, so instead I chose representative ones that bring back fond memories.  I hope you enjoy the re-run of the previous year’s landscapes.

Llamas at Machu Picchu, Peru

Llamas at Machu Picchu, Peru.  The iconic mountain view looming over the city ruins with the iconic mammals of the region!

Peruvian village in the mountains near Pisac

Peruvian village in the rugged Andes mountains near Pisac.

Lake near Sillustani, city of the dead, Puno, Peru

What looks like a floating island in a lake near Sillustani, the city of the dead, Puno, Peru.

Crossing the Amazon, Peru

A typical scene of family crossing the Amazon, 50 miles upstream from Iquitos, Peru.

Coal house near Thornham Harbor, Norfolk, England

Coal house and ancient boat near Thornham Harbor, Norfolk, England

Loch near Tongue, Scotland

Typical view of northern Scotland Lochs and Mountains with the gorse in bloom (near Tongue, Scotland).

Seacliffs, Handa Island, Scotland

Sea cliffs with lots of breeding sea birds all along the coast of Scotland.  This was on Handa Island, off the northwest coast of Scotland

Black sand beach at Vik, Iceland

Black sand beach at Vik, Iceland, with its strange volcanic remnants and steep sea cliffs along the coast on a typical “spring” day (May).

On the road to Vik, Iceland

On the road to Vik, Iceland, lots of exposed lava, high mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers.  It’s the land of Ice and Fire (a la Game of Thrones).

Iceland’s waterfalls: Gullfoss

Iceland’s waterfalls: Gullfoss drains an enormous inland glacier.

Minnesota autumn colors

Autumn colors on one of Minnesota’s 10,000+ lakes.

Winter in rural Minnesota

This is the classic scene of winter in the upper midwestern U.S.: gray and white with blotches of brown. Dreary, cold, uninviting…but picturesque.

And now on to 2019…

Tiny mobsters

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

We got a good demonstration of just how many tiny birds were present in the woods alongside roads in Sax-Zim bog, when our guide (Clinton Nienhaus, head naturalist at the bog) briefly played the call of a Screech Owl.  Within a couple of minutes, dozens of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches appeared, calling continuously to sound the alert of a predator’s presence.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, one of about a dozen, sounding the alert in response to a Screech Owl call.

Weighing in at a whopping 10 grams (less than a fast-food packet of ketchup), tiny Red-breasted Nuthatches are just a bit smaller than Chickadees, but even a small bird with that sharp-pointed beak could do some damage at close range.  In any case, the point of the mob action is to pester the would-be predator enough that it eventually flies away.  Mobs of small birds may also attract larger birds like jays and crows to help drive off the predator.

Red-breasted Nuthatches mobbing fake owl

Red-breasted Nuthatches and chickadees flit from branch to branch looking for the owl.  Since I have only ever seen a single or a pair of nuthatches at one time, this was a real treat to see so many of them in action.

Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer coniferous woods, like the black spruce and tamarack of the bog.  In the spring and summer, they are highly insectivorous, but like the chickadees, in the winter they love the peanuts and suet found at bird feeders.  Even though they are one of the smaller birds at the feeder, their feisty, aggressive behavior often drives bigger birds away.  Like their cousins, the White-breasted Nuthatch, they will store some of the feeder largesse in tree crevices for a snowy, cold day.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Looking up, looking down….where is that owl?

Sax-Zim bog is one of the premier birding areas in Minnesota, attractive to a number of Canadian breeding species like the Great Gray Owls and Hawk Owls, as well as northern breeding finches during the winter.  The farm fields filled with hay bales seem to be filled with mice and voles, perfect for raptors, and the dense spruce-tamarack forest provides good cover.  The Friends of Sax-Zim bog have established a welcome center where one can get a map, advice on where to search for some of the more exotic species, and even guided field trips to help you spot those elusive birds.

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN.  We stopped here to check on the presence of Redpolls and other small finches.  Alas, only one Redpoll appeared, and only very briefly and far away.

For more information about the bog, visit their website (link above) or check out the photos and commentary of one of the founders of the organization, Sparky Stensaas at The Photonaturalist.

Frosty winter mornings

The northern Minnesota landscape in winter can be bleak, in its unrelenting whiteness, but it can also be very photogenic in the right light.  The birds were too dark to photograph at first daylight, but the corn field at sunrise was dramatic.

Cornfield at sunrise, sax-Zim bog, MN

Then sun is barely above the trees, and it’s after 8 a.m.    Corn rows left standing like this provide winter food for deer, and good hiding places for mice and voles.

Rural landscapes like this usually have an abandoned barn or house that helps set the mood of the winter scene.  They are useful for more than just storing hay bales, as small mammals could use their interior for shelter and barn owls might roost or nest in their rafters.

Abandoned homestead, Meadowlands, MN

Someone homesteaded here, using this small house and barn for a residence in Meadowlands, MN.  I can only imagine how cold they were on a Minnesota winter day like this one (7 degrees F).

Who built this house and how long ago?  The population of nearby Meadowlands, MN has been relatively stable at 100+ individuals since the 1930s.

Abandoned homestead, Meadowlands, MN

Abandoned homestead, Meadowlands, MN

Across the highway is another, equally photogenic barn in a similar state of decay.

The barn looks inviting in warm afternoon light, but we can change the mood by converting an image to black and white.  Which version do you like better?

Abandoned homestead, Meadowlands, MN

…not a creature was stirring…

North of the Twin Cities of Minnesota about three hours drive is a vast boggy patchwork of black spruce-tamarack forest and open prairie/cropland that is the winter home of some of the raptors that breed in the Canadian tundra.  We visited there over the weekend hoping to see a few Snowly Owls and Rough-legged Hawks, the chief avian predators of the open fields between the swampy areas of Sax-Zim bog.

Birch-aspen forest in Sax-Zim bog, MN

We had high expectations of seeing our target species in these open fields on a frosty morning, when the thermometer hovered around 7 degreees F and the tips of the trees were covered in hoar frost.

Hoar frost

What little moisture is in this frigid winter air condenses into icy coatings on exposed branches when temperatures dip below the dew point at 7 degrees F.

Cropland in Sax-Zim bog, MN

Looking high in the trees for the hawks and low on the hay bales for the owls, we traversed the bog and crop lands searching for raptors. A Snowy Owl should be perched on one of the hay bales…

Cropland in Sax-Zim bog, MN

But not a creature was stirring. In fact, there were no birds of any sort flitting about. It was unnaturally still!  Rough-legged Hawks should be perched in one of the trees lining the open fields searching for mice…

Alas, a four-hour search turned up just one hawk, seen at a distance of about 1/4 mile, and no owls.  But there was a lot of photogenic scenery along the way (more on that next time…)

The next day we did find a Rough-legged Hawk perched right by the side of the road, overlooking a farm field of corn stubble, but the bird flew off as we drove up.  It would have been a nice photo op, something like this…

Rough-legged Hawk, Wikimedia Commons, photo by dfaulder

Rough-legged Hawk, (Wikimedia Commons, photo by dfaulder).

Heavily streaked with brown and sporting flashy white tail feathers and densely feathered legs to keep those toes warm in the frigid winter temperatures, these medium-sized hawks hunt for mice in the open fields.  But they will attack most any bird or mammal prey they find, including rabbits and weasels, snow buntings and tree sparrows, even other raptors from whom they may steal the food.  If live food is lacking, the hawks will feed on carrion.

Voles and lemmings make up the bulk of their diet, and there is some evidence that Rough-legged Hawks can actually see the scent marks left in the vole urine which is visible in the UV.  Imagine the hawk’s eyes following trails of blue fluorescing across the snow to where a mouse hides just under the crust.  Bam!  Dinner.