Hiking among the Pinnacles

The last stop on our recent CA adventure was the Pinnacles National Park, just southeast of San Jose. Aside from its natural beauty, two interesting things about this park are the massive and eroded spires of an extinct volcano (i.e., the pinnacles) and the California Condors that can often be seen on the High Ridge trail of the park in the winter. On this day, however, I had to settle for views of just the volcanic spires because the Condors had already left the park to breed elsewhere.

We were greeted on the trail by a Beechey’s Ground Squirrel
A Stellar’s Jay rested in the bushes along the trail

The Pinnacles are the eroded remnants of an extinct volcano that has been sheared in half by the movement of the San Andreas fault.  Its other half is located 150 miles to the south, in the desert of southern California, while the part we hiked in now resides within the coast range bordering the Salinas Valley.  The area is composed primarily of  exposed lava flows, paler volcanic rocks called rhyolite, and a type of conglomerate rock that looks like you threw rock chunks into cement and then stood the mass up on end to weather.

We chose the trail that climbed to the peaks through a series of caves along a stream, ducking our heads around rocks and squirming through narrow slits in rocks (in the dark).
This was the easy part of the trail.
Emerging from one cavern and about to enter another on our way up.

The caves here provide roosting and nesting spots for at least 13 different species of bats. In addition, the 26,000 acres of the park are home not only to the Condors, but attract the largest density of breeding Prairie Falcons in the U.S. A study done in 1990 found that the Pinnacles have the highest density of bees (per unit area) of anywhere in the world (for which there is similar data). Quite a unique and interesting place!

At last we completed the cave path and headed up the steep stairway up to a very nice lake.
A delightful sunny afternoon and a beautiful lake view was the reward for our climb.
The trail back to the parking lot was an easy walk with incredible views.
Lava outcrops along the trail were sometimes covered over with vegetation.
Silver Bush Lupine lined the side of the trail.
Sticky Monkeyflower can apparently grow right out of the rock.
A good example of the volcanic spires that loom over the trail.
Looking back at the parking lot (center white spot in the far distance) from the trail
Purple Chinese Houses — great name for a flower.
A striking yellow lily — member of the Triteleia genus
Indian Paintbrush and sunflowers were common along the trail
And so were Beechey’s ground squirrels.

Raptors, antelope, deer, and ducks at the Mexican border

We’re on the road again, sadly on our way back to Minnesota, where I’m hearing winter weather is raging. We’ve decided to try to visit as many new places as possible on the trip east.

Running from the Mexican border to the tiny burg of Arivaca in south central Arizona is a 117,000 acre grassland preserve — the Buenos Aires national wildlife refuge, where the deer and the antelope definitely roam in numbers. An occasional jaguar has even been sighted here. And it also seems to be a haven for wintering raptors.

Pronghorn Antelope leisurely crossed the road right in front of us. It looks like the male is wearing a radio collar. Pronghorn were reintroduced here, and are now considered to be a desert subspecies.

Buenos Aires NWR is a grassy, semi-desert landscape, but has some woodland features along the creeks and in draws. It supports quite a variety of large mammals (deer and antelope), and a great diversity of bird life that is attracted to the various water landscapes.

At another location on the refuge we discovered a much bigger herd of over a dozen antelope. I’m not sure if this group is composed of one male (antlered) and a harem of females, or the other antelope just haven’t regrown their horns yet.
I got too close to the antelope and they began to run away, Note the mule deer in the background that look like they’re wondering what all the fuss is about.
Buenos Aires has both White-tailed deer and Mule deer, shown here. They are easily recognized by their over-sized ears. These two were coming down from the wood thickets to drink at a pond.
Much of the refuge is a huge expanse of grass permeated by mesquite trees (now leafless), with an occasional cactus to remind us that this is a semi-desert area. This landscape will be even more beautiful when the trees leaf out and new grass is growing.
The most numerous raptor on the refuge is the Red-tailed Hawk, and most of the ones we saw were juveniles with light eyes and brown (not red) tails. The birds were amazingly tolerant of our presence, and let us drive right up next to them on the road.
The next most common raptor we saw were Northern Harriers, but all of them were females (brown plumage). The gray plumaged males may have been elsewhere on the refuge, or perhaps they don’t overwinter here at all.
In one of the wetland ponds, we found a few Green-winged teal (females) and a Sora foraging on the vegetation in the shallow water.
The male Green-winged Teal showed off his gorgeous head, lit up nicely in the morning sun.
This was the least shy Sora I have ever seen —usually I get only a glimpse of their body as they scuttle through waist high weeds. This one was out in the open, intent on finding something in the shallow water.
Loggerhead Shrikes were also seen frequently near the road. I have no idea what they could find to eat at this time of year when most insects and reptiles are dormant. Perhaps they can catch the small finches that forage for seeds by the side of the road.
A beautiful landscape, made more attractive by the absence of humans here.

Wild (and not so wild) life in Valley of Fire

A second day of exploring the Valley of Fire was even better than the first, with lucky encounters with lots of wildlife, especially a couple of tame Bighorn Rams that had no fear of approaching me on their way to find better forage.

We started the morning with good views of the black Cardinal of the desert — the Phainopepla, consumer of mistletoe berries and primary disseminator of its seeds.
A sweetly, but softly, singing Solitaire — another bird of dry places. This one was not solitary, it had a mate close by.
A pair of desert burros, basking in the morning sun, neither of which wanted to come closer or turn their heads for a better photo.
The female, disinterested in us and the male several yards away.
But suddenly, as we turned into fire canyon road, Bighorn Sheep appeared on both sides of the road, munching their way from place to place. They would have walked right up to me if I hadn’t moved.
They hardly ever raised their heads to chew, but just kept pulling vegetation from one plant to the next.
Finally, one lifted its head. Both sexes have horns throughout life, but those on the females never grow very large, nor do they curl around like those of the males.
In a different location, near the campgrounds, two large rams foraged along a rock wall. The two apparently keep the campers entertained every evening, but seem to be are completely separate from the rest of the herd.
The ram’s horns look like they have been trimmed and prevented from curling around. These weapons in a a mature ram 10-15 years old can weigh as much as 30 pounds,
That swelling on the ram’s forehead above its eyes and below the horns is probably the bony reinforcement designed to absorb the impact of from clashing heads with another ram during the rut.

On our hikes, I began seeing animal shapes in the rock formations.

A ram…
A dog…
And the famous Elephant rock, seen near the entrance to the park.
There are many petroglyphs in the park, depicting the animals native Americans saw living here—maybe they saw animal shapes in the rocks here too.

Coyotes in the backyard

I haven’t seen coyotes in the backyard for several years, and I’ve never seen a pair of them hunting together.

The pair of coyotes walked back and forth across the far end of the backyard with their noses to the ground — smelling for mice under the snow. Yes, they can smell that well! I noticed that the one in front was limping, and its walking posture was quite different from its mate.
The larger of the two might be the male. It has a flat back even when the head is lowered to the ground.
The presumed female has an injured right rear leg — it looks broken, but she still uses it to push off. Her hunting posture was hunched as a result of the injury.
The side view of the injured coyote shows how she holds the right rear leg up as she moves.
Her mate moves much more easily over the snow, never stopping to look around.

There are still a pair of foxes in the neighborhood here, although I don’t know where their den is. Usually, coyotes won’t tolerate foxes in their territory and will kill them or drive them away, so I hope this coyote pair decide to move on to another area — I like having the foxes visit with their kits in the spring.

Buck in the backyard

The deer herd has been running through the backyard frequently, but they don’t usually hang around — they’re always on the move…to somewhere else. But a few days ago, the big buck visited, sampled the greenery, and sat down for a nap.

A big, healthy looking male, accompanied by a much smaller “spike” boy who kept his distance.
This buck has at least 8 points, but I wonder if we will see him again next year.
The backyard is well covered by snow, what vegetation remains above the snow are inedible stems, so I guess deer resort to munching on evergreens at this time of year.
And after eating a little of those indigestible needles, it was time for a rest and some rumination. Big males like this one are probably in a nutritional deficit at this time of year, and may survive by catabolizing their own body mass slowly throughout the rest of the winter.

A little mid-winter tropical color

Who doesn’t need a shot of color during the mid-winter blah outdoor landscape of white, brown, and gray? After a monotonous week of fog and gray weather, it was time for a visit to the indoor tropical room of Como Conservatory in St. Paul, MN. Each time I go I find a few new species that have taken up residence there.

The Tropics Room with its mammoth-sized palms, deciduous trees, and pools houses a few exotic bird species, some huge and colorful tropical fish, turtles and tortoises, a monstrous python, a leaf cutter ant colony, poison dart frogs, and a two-toed sloth named Chloe.
What a surprise to find a Sun Bittern grooming itself on a stump overlooking the turtle pond– a spectacularly-feathered bird we saw along one of the rivers of the Pantanal that we cruised in Brazil in 2019. Though it looks plain when its wings are folded, Click here to see the amazing colors of this bird.
Blue-Gray Tanagers are common in the Tropics, and are probably the top of the pecking order among the birds in the Tropics Room. They are primarily fruit eaters, and love to hang out around fruit plantations in northern South America.
Saffron Finches are actually Tanagers, not finches, and are common in South American lowlands outside of the Amazon basin. These birds are cavity nesters, and I think we saw a pair carving out nest hole into the roof thatch on one of the little buildings. They seem to do quite well here in captivity.
The Violaceous Euphonia is a striking little bird about the size of a chickadee and is a true finch. But…its diet is primarily tiny fruits, instead of seeds, like other finches. It is native to forests and second growth (including plantations) in parts of eastern South America. (photo by Debbie Reynolds)
Honeycreepers get their name from their habit of sipping nectar as a primary food source, but the Green Honeycreeper here is more fond of fruit and seeds than nectar. It is also in the Tanager family and is native to Central and northern South America.
One of the permanent residents of this forest is Chloe, a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth. Of all the times I have visited the Tropics Room, I have only ever seen her awake once, when her keeper brought her some delectable vegetation to munch on. She is more than 30 years old, and prefers to be solitary on her tree stump — she apparently bit the male suitor they introduced to the tropics room, and he had to be removed for his own safety!
A rare glimpse of a smiling sloth…
Several rather large tortoises live on the ground floor of the Tropics Room at Como Conservatory. Apparently, they really like carrots, even if they don’t seem to have the right equipment to break them up into smaller pieces.

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!!

Short days and fat bears

What do these animals have in common during the fall months?

A Black Bear scrounging for goodies on the forest floor in the Grand Tetons, WY, in September 2016. Black bears consume prodigious quantities of food before retreating to their dens for their winter “sleep”.
One of my many chipmunk friends that live in the backyard. This one had its cheeks stuffed full of sunflower seeds and peanuts from the bird feeder — probably taking them down its burrow to add to the food stores for the winter.
A female (or juvenile) Yellow-rumped Warbler was chowing down on Juniper berries in late September. The berries are consumed whole, but the bird’s digestive tract will separate seeds from pulp and excrete the seeds, while cleaving off and digesting the waxy coating of the fruit for a few extra calories. High sugar and fat diets help these migrants put on body fat quickly before they migrate.
Not all Robins migrate — some stay here all winter. But those that do fly south seek out the high carb fruits like crabapples and service berries that allow them to build their fat stores up quickly.

The answer to the question above is that all of these (and many more bird and mammal species) exhibit excessive consumption of food in the fall, technically becoming hyperphagic.

There really are only a few viable solutions to surviving the long, cold winters of the far north: 1) get out of town — migrate! 2) build fat stores to last you several months and sleep as much as possible, and 3) stay active to search for what little food remains, tolerate the cold, but enter a starvation state by metabolizing a lot of of your muscle (when you run out of fat).

The temporary condition of hyperphagia is brought on by decreasing photoperiod — i.e., the continually declining number of daylight hours in the transition from late summer to fall — that triggers the change in an animal’s eating habits. Fortunately, this also happens to be when food is most abundant with the ripening of seeds, fruits, excess numbers of young, naive juvenile animals roaming the countryside, etc. So food is easy to come by and fattening is easily accomplished by overeating.

To take Black bears as a good example of this strategy, consider the following comparisons of its diet and caloric consumption from summer to fall.

In the summer Black bears consume about 5,000-8,000 kilocalories per day. If food and water are restricted at this time, they break down their muscles for energy, may accumulate too much nitrogenous waste in their blood, and may die. They cannot “hibernate” at this time.

In the fall, Black bears become voracious, begin consuming 15,000-20,000 kilocalories and drink gallons of water per day, excreting 1-2 gallons of urine as they metabolize all those calories into fat stores. Then, they stop eating and enter a lethargic, hypo-metabolic state of winter sleep, in which their resting heart rate of 80-100 beats per minute falls to less than 22 per minute and their breathing slows down to 2 or 3 times per minute. For the duration of their winter “sleep” they don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t break down any muscle, and females give birth to their cubs. It’s an amazing physiological transformation.

This is Alaskan brown bear #901 from Katmai National Park, a winner of the Fat Bear annual contest for most immense Fall season body mass. Photo from the New York Times, Oct. 2022.

But have you ever wondered if we humans exhibit a similar response to the waning photoperiod and colder days of fall weather? It’s true that humans cannot hibernate the way small rodents do, but could they increase their consumption of carbohydrates and fatten up in the fall and then decrease their daily activity and sleep more in the winter to conserve energy — like bears do? [Side note: carb craving in the fall is a real thing for me — how about you?]

Well, here is the answer, in an article from the New York Times written more than a hundred years ago, back in November 1906. (Click on the image to enlarge it to be readable.)

Apparently, it has been common practice in some cultures (in the past?) that face temporary periods of starvation in winter to prepare multiple loaves of substantially nutritious bread in the fall, prior to beginning a routine of reduced activity and increased bouts of sleeping during long winters. Sleeping with farm animals for warmth was encouraged, I guess.

Drawing from the British Medical Journal May 3, 2000.

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.

More (Zagreb) zoo faces

There were a few European or Eurasian representatives of the mammal fauna in the Zagreb zoo, but most of their mammals were native to Africa and Southern Asia. The zoo here has done an excellent job of providing as much natural habitat for the animals as possible, while still allowing them to be easily observed by zoo visitors. Enclosures with clean, clear glass facing zoo visitors allowed photographers up-close looks at the animals, and occasionally direct contact with them looking back at us. What a treat!

Gibbon females are usually blond-brown while the males are dark brown to black. They are native to Southeast Asia and Indonesia.
There were three gibbon females in this large enclosure that featured a diverse set of ropes and limbs for them to move about on — and they did, chasing each other from one end of the rope set to the other with incredibly graceful acrobatics.
Not quite the eye contact I wanted, but close.
Meerkats are a type of highly social mongoose that live in southern most Africa in open, arid habitats. As cooperative breeders, they split up parental care duties, sentry watch-dog duty for the colony, and burrow maintenance, while colony members forage for insects or small vertebrates to eat. No interest in posing in this group, though.
But this one, probably a sentry keeping an eye on nosy photographers posed very nicely for me.
Dwarf Mongoose is another highly social mongoose species, living in east and central Africa. They forage for insects in their arid desert habitat with the help of a couple of different hornbill (bird) species. The birds warn the mongoose about the presence of raptor predators and the mongoose stir up insects that the birds also can eat. A rather nice partnership!

While we walked around the zoo, we could hear a male lion roaring intermittently. When we finally found the lion enclosure, the male was sleeping next to an old rubber tire — not exactly the perfect pose for the king of the jungle.

When the male finally started his territorial roar again, he positioned himself under an acacia, completely out of the spectator’s view.
One of three females in the lion enclosure, all pretty unimpressed with the male.
Serval cats are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa except in rainforest. Though it doesn’t look like it in this image, they are medium-sized, slender cats with very long legs. They are solitary hunters, active both day and night, locating the presence of their prey by sound and then jumping high in the air to pounce on them.