Birding in a Florida salt marsh

What a pleasant surprise to find such a rich and interesting wildlife refuge just an hour north of Cape Canaveral — Blackpoint Drive, a 7 mile road along dikes in a salt marsh that is part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A typical scene along the dike roads of mangroves and pools in the salt marsh.

Here’s how the Fish and Wildlife Service describe this unique area.

Imagine a broad, flat expanse of salt marsh stretching from where your car is parked to the Indian River, a distance of about 1 mile. The only obstruction is an occasional hammock of palms or a mangrove-rimmed pond, and behind you, on higher ground, slash pines. Marsh streams gracefully wind through the marsh and provide a thoroughfare for microscopic plants and animals, shellfish and fish. Egrets and herons are poised along the stream edge, like spearfishermen patiently awaiting a meal. Secretively, sparrows search for insects in the chest-high grass. Occasionally, tides aided by a strong wind flood the marsh, and on the ebb, nutrient-laden waters are exported to the river. The marsh and river are one.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

An island of palmetto on higher ground stands behind the sea of grass in the salt marsh.

Although we were visiting before the big influx of winter migrants arrived, there was still plenty to see, which is why a 7 mile drive took us more than 3 hours. Butterflies, lizards, lots of birds, alligators, and even a errant manatee that wasn’t supposed to be in this area of the salt marsh crossed our path.

Tri-colored Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Tri-colored Herons were common in the shallow pools lined by mangroves.

Tri-colored Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

This one was pretty tame, and walked right up to us.

Greater Yellowlegs, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Greater Yellowlegs foraged in the shallow mudflats.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A few flocks of small dabbling ducks floated in the deeper pools, but quickly took cover in the mangroves when they spotted us.

Alligator, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Floating in some of those same deep pools were alligators of various sizes, from small like this one to very large.

Little Blue Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A solitary Little Blue Heron stalked its prey.

Great Blue Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Mangroves make useful perching spots for both Great Blue Herons and Great (White) Egrets.

Yellow-dumped Warbler, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Yellowthroat and Yellow-rumpled Warblers were frequently seen foraging in the low bushes and mangroves along the water’s edge.

Juvenile and adult Common Moorhens, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Common Moorhens must have raised their brood in these pools lined by mangroves. This juvenile bird is flanked by two adults in the background.

Manatee, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

The manatee was swimming along the edge of a small stream, squeezing itself through culverts that connected waterways. Apparently they are restricted from this area because they get stuck and have to be rescued and removed by wildlife biologists.

Black Vultures, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge visitor center

We found Black Vultures resting in the shade on the lawn of the visitor center 2 miles up the road from the wildlife refuge. It was close to 90 degrees and very humid, so no wonder they took refuge here.

What an amazing area, the last remnant of the natural salt marshes that probably lined the eastern coast of Florida before it was extensively developed. Not only is it a haven for wildlife, but it’s a natural barrier to storm surge and salt water intrusion inland.

Jumping for joy?

When visiting the Minnesota Zoo with the grandkids the other day, I was fascinated with what was going on in the Dhole (pronounced with a silent “h”), or Asiatic wild dog pen. What I think might have been the male Dhole was doing a jump-dance step in one corner of his circuit around his pen.  It looked like this, but had no vocalization with it.

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

The jump-dance step was repeated several times, so it might have been part of a display for the female in the pen, or it might have been some type of aberrant displacement behavior, an artifact of being bored in its captive environment.

Dhole, Asian dog

Was he showing off for his mate?

Dhole (Cuon alpinus) are native to central, south, and Southeast Asia, but are not members of the familiar Canis genus that includes domesticated dogs, coyotes, wolves, African jackals, and even Australian dingoes.  They have shorter legs, different dentition, and differences in skull anatomy that distinguish them from members of the dog genus.

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole are highly social animals, living in large clans of related individuals, but they lack the strong social hierarchy of wolves. They are typically diurnal hunters, going after medium and large-sized hoofed mammals and their young. Small groups of 3-5 individuals hunt cooperatively to bring down their much larger prey, much like African hunting dogs do. Although Dhole seem docile and non-aggressive in their clan in the wild, efforts to tame them have failed, as captive youngsters have remained shy or become vicious to handlers.  Dhole — an interesting dog “cousin”.

Wolfishness

Wolves doing what they do best at the Minnesota Zoo…enhanced for dramatic effect with a little photo editing.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

My attempt to make this very handsome gray wolf in its semi-natural Zoo enclosure look every bit of the dominant animal that it is.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

Wolffish greeting. I didn’t realize that wolves have such long thin legs, more apparent in their summer fur.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

The social hierarchy seems to be well established in this small pack: subordinate animals lower their heads in the presence of more dominant animals.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

the “leader of the pack”…

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Morning visitors

It’s that time of the year again, when the bugs and the deer discover all the tasty plants in my garden.  While the Japanese beetles ravage the leaves of the apple trees and raspberries, the deer fawns chow down on the wildflowers.  I don’t mind them, though, they are pretty cute, and very shy.

White-tailed deer fawns

Breakfast at the wildflower garden buffet

White-tailed deer fawns

The twin is completely hidden underneath the giant cup plants.

White-tailed deer fawn

Hyssop must not taste good to deer; they left it for the bumblebees.

This time, last year: a foxy morning

The usual suspects have returned to the back yard this summer, but one of my favorites is still missing, the pretty little red foxes.  So, here’s a glimpse of their visit to the backyard last year.

June 30, 2017:  What a delight to see my favorite canids lounging in my Minnesota backyard this morning.

red fox-

In addition to brief, one minute naps, there was quite a lot of scratching and grooming going on.

red fox-

And when they stopped digging at their own fleas or whatever was itchy, they groomed each other.

red fox-

must be some good stuff inside the other fox’s ear…

I watched these two foxes for several minutes, but can’t figure out if they are a male-female pair, or two youngsters, or what.  Male foxes are usually noticeably bigger then females, and these two seem to be identical in size. They do seem a bit small and skinny, so maybe they are younger, but this year’s kits would not be this big yet, having been born in late March, and just out of their den in early May.  It’s a mystery.

red fox-

Shot through the not very clean porch window at 500 mm —

Back yard visitors

It’s nice to see familiar wildlife in the backyard.  These were my first (vertebrate) visitors since returning from May travels.

A singleton fawn (no twin around?)

Single fawn without doe

No mom around either…maybe it’s just exploring on its own.

Tom Turkey

Tom Turkey came to visit because I finally filled the bird feeders again.

Tom Turkey displaying

His display was half-hearted (no tail fan), but his gobble was pretty loud.

Tom Turkey

A beautiful bird, with a homely face.

now if only the fox family would come to visit…

A walk in the forest

Rothiemurchas forest in the Cairngorm National Park of Scotland was once the center of the great 12th century Caledonian pine forest, and some of its patriarchal trees may still stand.

Old Scotch pine, Grantown-on-Spey, Scotland

Rothiemurchas forest near Aviemore has some of the oldest and largest Scotch pine in the U.K.  

We found some new (to us) birds here, as well as some familiar ones, but one of the surprises was all the red squirrels in this part of the forest. They are about the size of the North American gray squirrel, but with much bushier tails, and ear tufts. In many places these native squirrels have been displaced by the introduced gray squirrels.

Red squirrel, ScotlandRed squirrel, Scotland

Rothiemurchas forest near Grantown-on-Spey, Scotland

The forest here is a mixture of very young and very old pine, along with dense stands of birch, and remarkably little undergrowth.

Although most of the birds were found high in the tree tops, a few cooperated by flying in close.

Coal tit

Coal tits are close to the same size as Black-capped Chickadees, and resemble them in looks and behavior.

Siskin, Scotland

European Siskin look like a combination of American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin. The males are bright yellow, with paler females that look very much like the American Siskin.

Ewe and lambs, Scotland

This is lambing season in Scotland. Twins scamper over to their dams for reassurance and a drink when we get near to take their photos.

Favorite scenes from Peru

Everywhere we went in Peru, there was another beautiful landscape.  It’s a rich country for archaeologists as well as outdoor enthusiasts, and certainly for photographers.  Here are my favorite scenes: (best viewed by clicking on an image to view full screen in your browser)

Indiana village, Amazon

Market day at Indiana village, on the Amazon, at sunrise

Crossing the Amazon river

Crossing the Amazon river

Waiting for the boat taxi on the Amazon river

Waiting for the boat taxi on the Amazon river

Machu Picchu

Exploring the ruins of the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, right before the rainstorm descended.

Terraces of Pisac, Peru

Terraces of Pisac overlooking the Urubamba river in the Sacred Valley

Cusco

View of Cusco from Sacsayhuamán ruins

La Raya pass, road to Puno, Peru

View from La Raya pass, on the road to Puno, Peru, at 14,300 feet

Llamas grazing in the Altiplano, Andean plateau

Llamas grazing in the Altiplano, Andean plateau

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca

Along the shore of Lake Titicaca

Island in Umayo lake, near Puno, Peru

Island in the clouds: an island vicuña reserve in Umayo lake, near Puno, Peru

Lake Titicaca

Lake Titicaca

 

Not a pet…

Guinea pig (cuy, in Peru) is a much prized delicacy in Peru, eaten on special occasions, such as parties, celebrations, or festivals, or even as a treatment for a particular malady. Our tour guide repeatedly emphasized to us, “you turned our food into your pets; we did not turn your pets into our food”.  In fact, wild guinea pigs, which can be still be found in farm fields in the Lake Titicaca area, and I suspect elsewhere in Peru also, were a favorite food item of the Incas back in the 1400-1500s.

Peruvian woman preparing guinea pig for her family

A Peruvian woman gets ready to prepare fresh guinea pig for her guests — us! After humanely euthanizing the animal, she removes the hair and the guts, then places it in the frying pan on her wood-fired stove to cook.

Peruvian woman preparing guinea pig for her family

Divided among about 16 people, there is not much more than a mouthful of prepared guinea pig to taste, but it proves to be quite mild — just like chicken!

Guinea pigs are farmed in Peru today, much like you would raise chickens.  They sometimes occupy the attic of a house, or larger numbers are raised in guinea pig barns, provided with fresh greens from the field daily, and their manure collected to fertilize gardens.  They are not related to pigs, but are rodents native to the South American Andes area.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

We visited a farmer who started with 25 guinea pigs and now has a population of 300 he is raising to market in the barn built just for this purpose.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

In the interior of the guinea pig barn, pens separate individual families and weaned offspring from each other so there is minimal fighting.  The guinea pigs are provided with fresh greens daily, but don’t seem to require water in their diet.

Guinea pig barn, Peru

Farm-raised guinea pigs are white, tan or brown, or brown and white, with very soft fur, although their wild ancestor has more of a hoary, grizzled coat of rough hair.  They reach market size at about 3 months of age.

Wild guinea pig, Peru

Wild guinea pig from lake Titicaca.  Note the difference in the fur and eye color.  Selective breeding has changed the appearance of the animal.

Guinea pig farming provides a good income for farmers; the animals might sell for $8-10 a piece, are marketed to restaurants as far away as Lima, thus raising the farmers’ monthly income substantially.

The preferred preparation of guinea pig is roasted in a wood-fired oven, but families without oven facilities can bring their meats to a “Baker” whose large capacity wood-fired oven can handle baking breads, meats, etc. to order on a daily basis.

Peruvian baker with roasted guinea pig

A third generation “Baker” with an order of fresh roasted Guinea pig ready for pick up.  

Guinea pig is so popular, you can even find it for sale on street corners in larger towns.

roast guinea pig for sale in Peru

A young girl advertising roast guinea pig available at a local restaurant hopped on our bus briefly.

An unwanted invader

The European Hare is one of the most widespread mammals on earth, due not only to its ability to thrive and reproduce in a wide variety of habitats, but also to its intentional introduction to new geographical areas by humans.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

We saw this European hare in a small farming community on the shore of Lake Titicaca, Peru.

For example, 36 hares were intentionally released in central Argentina in 1888 and just 20 years later, they were so widespread in Argentina, they were considered a major agricultural pest. Another intentional release of hares in southern Chile in 1896 may be the source of animals that have subsequently invaded Bolivia, and more recently, the southern tip of Peru, where they were first discovered as recently as 2002.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

A dozen or so hares scampered through the brushy fields intermixed with small crops, fleeing as soon as they saw us.

The mixed grassy field-small crop production areas, broken up by thickets and stone walls are perfect for this little invader, which seems to do well from sea level to high altitude zones.  The only barrier to its rather rapid rate of dispersal in South America so far is the humid and complex tropical Amazon region and densely populated urban areas.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

It’s brown, tan, black and white blotchy fur pattern blends well with rocky areas of the same color, giving the hare some ability hide in plain sight.

The spread of European hares in these small farming communities where plowing, planting, and harvesting is all done by hand on small plots would have a great impact on farmers’ yields.

Mixed vegetable crops on the shore of lake Titicaca, Peru

Mixed vegetable crops on the shore of lake Titicaca are ripe for harvest by fast multiplying European hares.

In Argentina, hares are a favorite prey of Puma (cougar), but top cat predators are absent in this area of Lake Titicaca.  It’s possible that avian predators in this area might take young hares, but adults are large, long-legged, fast runners with great endurance for escaping predators.

European hare, Lake Titicaca, Peru

Run, rabbit, run…

So for now, the European hare has an open niche to exploit, from coastal to high altiplano farms and fields in Peru.