Spring thaw

It’s officially spring, and with the change in seasons comes a change in the state of water — from solid to liquid form.

Spring floods

This is nothing compared to what is currently going on in Nebraska and Iowa, merely an inconvenience here in MN.

But open water in this frozen northland is a signal to the wildlife that another winter has passed, and it’s time to get on with the rituals of spring time: namely singing up a storm, strutting the feather finery for the ladies, and getting started with the production of the next generation.

Mallard pair

Mr. Mallard is looking ever so handsome as he courts a winsome female.

spring thaw

Mallards can be found on every little patch of open water in this early part of spring.  Soon (I hope) they will be joined by a flood of migratory ducks.

Stark! Cold! Lifeless (almost).

That was the North Shore of Lake Superior this weekend.  So much wind they closed the lifts at Lutsen mountain, and the outer doors of our motel blew right off their track.

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

There are some interesting ice formations on the frozen part of the lake.

Wind and cold temperatures make for a stark landscape.  It’s more attractive with some people in it — cold hikers!

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Lots of frozen waterfalls along the cliff walls of the lake.

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Glittering shards of ice litter the shoreline of the lake.

American crow

Crows and ravens always seem to be out hunting for food regardless of weather extremes.

crows feeding on roadkill

Most often the animals you might see are feasting on roadkilled deer.  Larger predators like wolves and coyotes arrive first, then eagles, ravens, and crows. We saw several of these feeding sites along the north shore highway.  Image from a Storyblocks Video. https://www.videoblocks.com/video/common-raven-and-some-carrion-crows-feeding-on-carcasses-ystozgp 

Just being out in this environment for a couple of hours at a time makes me marvel at the abilities of animals to survive in it.

Time for some real winter weather

Because it’s not cold or snowy enough in the Twin Cities (hah!), we drove north for a weekend of skiing in a blizzard in the hills above the north shore of Lake Superior.

Ice houses on Lake Superior in Duluth

Ice houses on Lake Superior in Duluth.  Local news says 75% of Lake Superior is frozen.  Wave and wind action breaks up ice and pushes it to shore, leaving huge crystal shards there.

Lake Superior north shore highway, MN

At sunset along the north shore highway.  We didn’t know this would be the nicest of the 3 days of the weekend trip.

Cross-country skiing, Sugar Bush, Tofte, MN

Temperatures in the 20s, not much wind, but a steady snowfall in our faces as we skied.

But then the blizzard began, and conditions were so much worse for outdoor activity.  I tried to photograph the lake shore, walking through hip-deep snow drifts, against high velocity winds.  Ugh, how do people live here in the winter?

Lake Superior ice at Tofte, MN

Lake ice under pressure from ice being pushed to shore turns blue.

Lake Superior ice at Todte, MN

This landscape can be so photogenic, but not really in a blizzard…

Should have stayed in Arizona!

Minnesota’s weather for the coming week is why I should have stayed in Arizona.

Weather forecast

I could be looking at this landscape.

Catalina State Park, Tucson

Catalina State Park, Tucson

Catalina State Park, Tucson

And enjoying some different sorts of birds like this…

Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Female Ladder-backed Woodpecker on mesquite.  This is a smallish woodpecker that hunts insects on cactus and low shrubs as well as in pinyon pine and juniper at higher elevation.  It pays to be a little smaller and more agile in the desert where the bird has to navigate various cactus spines and bush thorns in its search for prey.

Black-throated Sparrow

Black-throated Sparrow, aptly named, but often referred to as the desert sparrow,  because it is the typical sparrow seen in the most arid of desert scrubland where it finds enough seeds and insects to sustain itself.

Vermillion Flycatcher

Male Vermillion Flycatcher, a diminuitive flash of color in arid desert greenery.  They can be found in riparian areas in the southwestern U.S., and southward through Mexico, often sitting on a favorite flycatching perch waiting for a juicy bug to fly by. 

Minnesotans love to joke about their weather.  A friend posted this on Facebook the other day…

Minnesota weather in “minnesotan”

Minnesota weather in “minnesotan”

Snow Goose bonanza

Snow Geese may be overtaking the world; well, at least their Arctic breeding grounds.  And when they invade their winter headquarters, they dominate that landscape as well.  We thought there must be a thick layer of salt along the edge of the Rio Grande flood plain when we looked across the expanse of blue water.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

That’s not a line of salt crystals along the shoreline, it’s a dense pack of Snow Geese!  Ruddy Ducks are in the foreground.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

High densities of Snow Geese congregate in their select winter headquarters in the U.S. and eastern coast of Mexico.

There must have been tens of thousands of these medium sized geese, crowded together in the shallow water of the Rio Grande. They are described as “voracious herbivores”, eating any and all parts of a plant, ripping up roots and all, or just shearing off the tops of grasses, sedges, and other aquatic plants.  Digested food passes through their gut in just a couple of hours, so just imagine how much goose poop is going into this section of the river!  Their voracious foraging is what has been decimating their tundra breeding grounds, as more and more geeese arrive each year to raise their chicks.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Snow Geese come in two color phases: white- and dark-bodied. The dark form was once believed to be a separate species, called the Blue Goose.  

Color is controlled by a single gene, but the dark allele is dominant over the white variant (actually dark is Incompletely dominant, to be technically correct).  So, this raises the very obvious question:  if dark color is dominant, why are there so many white Snow Geese?

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

The amount of color is variable, depending on whether the individual has one or two dark alleles.  Of the 3 most prominent birds in this photo, the one on the right has no dark alleles, the one in the middle might have two dark alleles, and the one on the left with less dark coloration might have one dark and one light allele.

The Snow Geese put on quite a display for us, with massive numbers of them taking off, circling in front of us, and then settling back on the pond. You have to marvel at their ability to fly in such close quarters without running into each other.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Take-off…

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Coming closer…

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Right in front of us….

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Overhead!

What a spectacle!

Sunset at Bosque del Apache

Bosque del Apache (literally “woods of the Apache”) is a 3800 acre wildlife refuge in the floodplain of the Rio Grande River in southern New Mexico that was set aside in the late 1930s as a wintering spot for waterfowl.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

One can look down on the flood plain of the Rio Grande River from an overlook a couple of miles away.  We had no idea how many thousands of birds were concentrated there.

And thousands of birds do congregate here from November to March. Snow Geese by the tens of thousands (more on them later), dozens of ducks of all kinds, and of course, the one we had come to see, hundreds, if not thousands of Sandhill Cranes.  Fortunately we arrived just as the light was turning golden, and developing into a beautiful sunset. (Click on the photos below to view them full screen and use the back arrow to return to the blog.)

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

The Snow Geese don’t seem to mind that Sandhill Cranes walk through and over them.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Hundreds of birds congregated in a shallow lake right next to the road through the refuge, completely unperturbed by all the photographers lined up on the shore about 100 feet away.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

As is usually the case with Sandhill Cranes, they continually vocalize as new birds fly in, landing often in the middle of a clump of others.

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

Sandhill Crane, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico

The beautiful Sonoran desert

I love the varied topography and vegetation of the Tucson area, and especially up in the foothills of the Catalina mountains on the road to Oracle (what a great name). Here are some views of the mountain landscape from Catalina State Park at sunset today.

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

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.