San Francisco has an extensive bay, and several islands within it. A trip to Alameda Island proved to be good entertainment for the grandkids, and grandma as well (photographing the kids).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…
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.
Next on to Wyoming…
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.
And now on to 2019…
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who built this house and how long ago? The population of nearby Meadowlands, MN has been relatively stable at 100+ individuals since the 1930s.
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?
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.
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…
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.