Milestones

A fellow blogger reminded me that over the course of a year, or a decade, we write a lot of words about a lot of photos on our blogs. I have been writing this blog since July 2011, roughly a month after I retired. Somehow, I completely missed celebrating the 10th anniversary of “Backyard Biology” in July this year, and so after the end of 2021, I’m summarizing the highlights and milestones of the blog in this post.

This was the featured animal on the first ever Backyard Biology post — a Japanese beetle eating my raspberry plants.

Since that first entry, I have written 1689 posts, and the blog has had 415,000+ visitors (some just came once, some visited several to many times), with a total of more than 640,000 views during the past ten years. During that decade span I’ve written more than 307,000 words, which is about the equivalent of the word length of 4 novels, and I’m now finding that I am repeating myself, writing about the same topics in much the same way. And so the posts are more infrequent, and are now focused more on the natural history of the global backyard, rather than just my own backyard.

During the past 10 years, the post with by far the most views on one day (722) was on May 23, 2018, “Waterfall Extravaganza” in Hraufossar, Iceland, where there are 900 meters of continuous waterfalls streaming from a monster glacier and falling over impervious lava rock.

Every view in Iceland is spectacular, and I captured quite a few of them. But this post seemed to pique the most interest in readers. This is a very small section of a long ridge of waterfalls draining into the Hvita River in western Iceland.

The same three or four posts seem to generate the most interest every year, probably as a result of a Google search for an answer. The top three each year tend to be: “How many seeds in a sunflower seed head?”, “Gigantic black horse fly”, and “Scary-looking, big, black wasp alert”. The post on sunflower seed heads gets about 30,000 views a year. Inquiring minds want to know!

This 6.25 inch diameter sunflower seed head had 1080 seeds in it. The beautiful geometric pattern of spirals is the most efficient packing of seed material into the given space — where the numbers of seeds in a given clockwise and counter-clockwise spiral are consecutive Fibonacci numbers. This post is from September 30, 2012.

This year, the most viewed post (528 views on October 17) was “Reflections”, which included some photos of images reflected in rippling water, like this one of Bald Cypress in the Mobile-Tensaw river delta.

In fact, the posts from our Fall trip to Alabama, a unique environment I had never seen before, were the most viewed posts of the entire year. Lagging far behind in views (350) was the post I entitled “Apocalypse”, thinking that would really capture readers’ attention.

On August 17, winds drove the smoke from the Caldor fire in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains into Desolation Valley where we were camped at 8100 feet.

And now it’s time to find some new material to showcase on Backyard Biology, with adventures near and far in 2022. Happy reading!


Looking back at 2021

Another year of Covid prohibitions on activities, but not such a bad year for seeing new places and new species. The highlights month by month look like this:

January: a trip to Sax-Zim bog in north central Minnesota, and an exciting afternoon shooting Great Gray Owls diving for mice in the snow.
Great Gray Owls blend in so well with the tree stumps they are sitting on, you might drive right by them on the forest roads in north central MN.
February: Yes, the most memorable highlight of February was winning the vaccine lottery and getting my first vaccine shot — after waiting in line for almost 2 hours with 1000 other anxious people.
March: hiking with adventurous grandkids at frozen (well, mostly frozen) Minnehaha Falls in downtown Minneapolis. Caves behind the falls are fun to explore when you’re steady on your feet.
Also in March — Great Horned Owlets are growing up fast and almost ready to leave their nest hole to perch on tree branches.
April: the great Road Trip of April and May netted us over 160 species (many new and never seen before), after visiting over 40 parks and driving over 6800 miles). Some of my favorites were the ever-amazing hummingbirds, like this composite of a Broad-billed Hummer coming into a feeder in southeastern Arizona.
We visited many beautiful places on our long April-May adventure, but we keep coming back to this place deep in the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona — Cave Creek ranch, where exotic birds and gorgeous scenery captivate.
May: On the way back to Minnesota in May, we stopped at Antelope Island in Salt Lake City, where grazing bison and antelope are abundant and the mountain landscapes behind the city are spectacular.
June: another Road Trip — this time with the grandkids camping across the western U.S. on our way to the mountain cabin near Lake Tahoe.
My favorite bird highlight from June was this Western Tanager male in all his bright breeding finery — the jewel of the Sierra.
July: with almost all the grandkids and missing one son-in-law (who had to work), the rest of us gathered for the 4th of July at the cabin near Lake Tahoe.
August: surreal landscapes in the back country of Desolation Valley in the CA Sierras on our backpacking trip, as the Caldor Fire literally burst upon us one morning.
September: fall migration began with the arrival of a dozen or more warbler species, along with assorted vireos, flycatchers, finches, blackbirds, etc. Mr. Magnolia Warbler was not quite as beautiful as he was in the Spring, but nevertheless, is a handsome bird.
October: a trip to Alabama to see the birds of Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island and its pristine white quartz sand.
Fall color was unusually bright and long-lasting in October this year. A pleasant surprise after a somewhat hot, dry summer.
November: foxes and turkeys passed through the backyard frequently, but there was little snowfall this month. Very unusual.
December: at last it looks like winter, but a warm-ish spell right before Christmas melted all this lovely stuff.

Looking toward the light

Photographers usually try to shoot with the sun behind them, but occasionally the scene may be more dramatic when shooting directly into the light. That was the case the other day when I was walking in Reservoir Woods and came upon a field of Indian grass and Showy Goldenod seedheads that shimmered in the backlit afternoon light.

Here, the sun is just off to the right, and the golden seedheads stand out dramatically from the rest of the vegetation.
Here, I’m looking directly into the sun, which throws a glare of bright light into the center of the image.

Look at the difference in this scene when I turn around and shoot with the sun directly behind me. The seedheads of the grasses and goldenrod disappear into a monotonous expanse of yellow stems.

There’s an important lesson here — don’t always follow the rules because you might miss some of the drama in nature.

Moonrise

It was a day or two past the full moon stage, but nevertheless a beautiful moonrise on a crystal clear night. I learned two things from this exercise. The moon rises in the northeast in November at 45 degrees north latitude (not the east), and its shape is distorted (sort of squashed and oblong) when first seen just above the horizon. And of course, the moon appears much bigger and more orange close to the horizon due to atmospheric interference. (Please click on the image to see the full view.)

Full-ish moon and lights from houses reflected in Lake Owasso, Roseville, November 2021.

The Gathering

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes are currently staging for a few weeks in the wet meadows of wildlife refuges in central Minnesota and Wisconsin –fattening up for migration and hanging out with each other in the beautiful fall colors of October.

They are a very social bunch at this time of year, crowding together at night in the more remote places of the refuge and flying off in large groups to feed in agricultural fields in the daytime where they consume what is left from the corn, wheat, sorghum or other crop harvests.

Sandhill Cranes pair for life, and the partners stick pretty close together when they are foraging, even though they may be part of a very large group of 100 or more birds feeding in a particular area. Although it doesn’t look like it in the photo, this is a wet meadow with some bare, marshy areas that might have the insects, snails, berries, or even small mammals they are looking to eat.

After a cold, dreary few hours of driving around Crex Meadows wildlife area looking for the wildlife (and finding scarcely any), the sun suddenly appeared in the late afternoon, and the cranes began flying into a wet meadow we had just happened to stop by to take in the view. From our overlook we saw several flights of dozens of cranes come right over us to land about 1/4 mile (or more) away.

It’s so helpful that they announce their presence with their eerie-sounding rattling trumpet call long before we see them, so we can get the cameras ready!
They flew in small groups…
or very large ones, always calling as they flew over.
Gradually, over the course of about half an hour, the meadow began to fill up with Cranes.
Incoming fights of cranes circled the group in a wide arc, gradually descending with legs down, heads and neck erect, as they kind of floated down to the ground.

I assume this might be where they will spend the night, and it might be where they congregate every night, until early morning when the most restless ones among them signal that it’s time to take off again and fly out to get breakfast. Don’t you wonder which birds are those early starters who set off all the others? Is it always the same ones? Inquiring minds want to know!

A cruise on the Delta

Five rivers feed into the 200,000+ acres of wetlands that make up the second largest river delta system in the U.S. just north of Mobile Bay in southern Alabama. The Mobile-Tensaw delta’s expanse of swamp, bog, natural rice paddies, canals, and rivers makes this area of Alabama a real biodiversity hotspot where you can find more species of fish, turtles, snails, crayfish, and oak trees than anywhere else in North America. Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson has called it North America’s Amazon, and so it was a real treat to venture out on a small boat to explore some of the smaller waterways of the delta for ourselves.

Wild rice and Phragmites reeds grow along the edges of the river, almost closing off the small waterways in the labyrinth of corridors throughout the delta.
A variety of snails colonize the floating vegetation in the swampy bogs.
Clumps of rice seed fell into the bottom of the boat as we passed through narrow canals. A Yellow Warbler might not be interested in the seed, but there are plenty of insects in this vegetation.
We must look carefully on the river banks before stepping out of the boat — there are plenty of alligators in the delta waters.
Cruising up the Tensaw river we entered a cypress swamp where the trees grow right in the water, completely independent of any land surface.
Cypress forests are a haven for all kinds of birds — small migratory warblers as well as large waders like a Great Blue Heron.
In the Spring, these waterways are lined with brilliant flowers.
Spanish moss hangs from the Cypress’ lower branches, and odd vertical stumps arise from the tree’s roots. Their function is not certain, but they might assist in collecting more sediment to buttress the tree roots in the soft, muddy river bottom.
Honeybee nests can be found where large branches have broken away from the trunk. This is a “honey” tree.
Not only is there great diversity of vertebrate animals in the delta, but there are hundreds of species of insects as well. And some are really big — like the praying mantis..
and this 4-inch lubber grasshopper (which is not fully mature yet).

The southeastern U.S., and the Mobile delta in particular, was a refuge for species driven south during the ice ages of the Pleistocene glaciation. Warm temperatures year-round and plenty of rainfall (averaging 70 inches per year) ensure the most equitable conditions for life to survive, and so it has in this cradle of biodiversity.

Amazing sand beaches of Dauphin Island

We took a car ferry to Dauphin Island which sits at the mouth of Mobile Bay, and then drove west to Pelican Point beach for a (hot) walk in the late morning sun. The beaches along the gulf coast of this part of Alabama are composed of finely ground, minuscule particles of quartz that originated in the Appalachian mountains, were ground down by erosion and river action before being transported to the gulf, where minerals were further reduced in size by wave action over tens of thousands of years. The result is an eye-blinding, fine, white sand that actually squeaks as you walk over it.

It’s hard to decide which is whiter — the sand or the puffy cumulus clouds. Little islands of sea oats grasses and herbaceous perennials help stabilize the dunes. But this is harsh habitat for these plants that have few mineral nutrients and precious little fresh water resources and must deal with a lot of salt water spray.
Farther away from the ocean, more perennial grasses can establish mats of vegetation.
In salt water pools behind the beach, one might find a few shorebirds foraging for food. We were surprised to find a tiny Least Sandpiper poking around in the vegetation at the water’s edge.
Even farther away from the ocean, the vegetation is much thicker and more diverse with all kinds of perennial grasses and forbs growing on the sandy matrix. I surprised a Great Blue Heron and Black-bellied Plover as I came around the corner of this small pond.
A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds (all females and immature males) were feasting on the sea oats.
The Dauphin Island fishing pier ends far short of the ocean now, due to sand buildup between Pelican Point (which used to be an island) and Dauphin Island.
Looking toward the interior of Dauphin Island, you can see the successive ridges of white sand dunes deposited over time, and colonization first by grasses, then various species of shrubs, and finally dense stands of pines and oaks, the species best adapted to growing in dry, sandy conditions.
In the interior of the island, you can find huge, old live oak trees, covered with mosses and epiphytes, and surrounded by saw palmetto and a variety of flowering plants. These are impressive giants, both in their size and in their survival in a climate of intense heat, periodic drought, and occasional hurricane landfall.

Alabama’s gulf shores are an ecological wonder!

Fishing contest

I watched adult and juvenile Ring-billed Gulls fish for minnows in a shallow area of the Vadnais reservoir the other day. Their acrobatic flights over the water scoping out the potential fish prey was impressive, as was the success rate of their dives. Either the fish were numerous in this area or these gulls are much better dive predators than I appreciated before. During the time I watched them they were successful in grabbing a fish about 50% of the time.

Ring-billed Gulls have surprisingly long wings and are adept at gliding over a patch of water to scope out what might lurk beneath the surface.
Like terns, these gulls will suddenly fold their wings while cruising 50-100 feet over the water, drop quickly to the surface, and enter head first with their beak open to grab an unsuspecting fish. This particular attempt was a failure as the gull came up with nothing.
But this bird was successful, following a full immersion after its dive. The bird took several minutes to position the fish correctly before swallowing, and taking off again.
This youngster grabbed a smaller fish, but immediately flew off with it before swallowing. An adult was fishing nearby, so maybe it flew off to avoid getting robbed by another gull.
Fishing success may have been good here this morning, but the Ring-billed Gull diet usually consists of only about 30% fish, with the remainder made up of crayfish, worms, and a variety of insects from both marshy edges as well as land. Unfortunately, they have become all too used to humans and are frequent scavengers at garbage dumps.
Ring-billed Gulls are one of the most common gulls in the Great Lakes region, breeding in the lower Great Lakes north into mid-latitude Canadian lakes, and then returning to the coastal areas and the southern U.S. and Mexico to overwinter.

Fields of gold

Prairie parkland landscapes are at their peak golden color now. The fall landscape is transforming daily, and with the nice fall weather lately, it’s a glorious time to be out walking around. I’ve given up trying to find the migrating birds at this points and am just enjoying the golden colors everywhere.

The prairie at Tamarack park in White Bear Lake looks golden with stems drying Big Blue Stem and Indian grass, as well as a healthy crop of Showy Goldenrod. Leaves of a few of the maples and ashes have begun to change color also.
There is a similar scene in the restored prairie at Reservoir Woods in St. Paul where the low vegetation is a solid mass of several species of Goldenrod, with a few purple and blue asters and the stems of Indian Grass mixed in.
Bright yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod rise above the rest of the vegetation in this landscape. And the flowers are a major attraction for honeybees and bumblebees by the dozens.
I don’t think I’ve seen this many honeybees in a native landscape for quite some time. Goldenrod and Asters are the late blooming plants in the fall that bees depend on to stock their larders with pollen over the winter.
Stiff Goldenrod with its erect, rigid stems and fat, almost succulent looking leaves is also in full flower not, but is not nearly as attractive to the bees as the Showy Goldenrod.
Stiff Goldenrod flowers seem larger and more attractive to my eyes, but not to the bees.
Canada Goldenrod has already bloomed and is putting out seeds that the migrating sparrows and finches will appreciate.
Earlier in the fall the American Goldfinches began harvesting the seedheads of the Meadow Blazingstar and led their newly fledged offspring over to the seedheads of the Canada Goldenrod.
What new things will I see on tomorrow’s walk?