Just passing by

Every now and then, a red fox runs through the far back of the backyard, usually too quickly to get a photo. But today a red fox trotted right in front of my porch window where I was sitting admiring the snowfall in the backyard…and my camera was close by.

The fox never stopped, just trotted by the window and hopped the fence into the neighbor’s yard. Too much telephoto to get the whole fox in the photo.
A beautiful animal, moving effortlessly through the snow. I have noticed fewer gray squirrels under the bird feeders this winter, so maybe this animal’s presence is the reason.

Squirrels on notice!

There are not one, but two mammalian predators looking for the squirrels in my backyard. One of the red foxes stopped by the other day, furtively sneaking along the fence line between backyards, pausing under some evergreens for a look at the bird feeders, and then hiding next to a shed in my neighbor’s yard.

The squirrels were smart enough to avoid this red fox, an infrequent visitor to my backyard this winter.

But the next day, a coyote lingered in the backyard, hunting along the edge between the grass and the forest for unsuspecting squirrels.

This particular coyote had a foxy-looking face, and some reddish fur on its head and ears, so I was confused at first glance. But it was noticeably bigger than a fox.
The head doesn’t look quite right for a coyote, but the body fur is definitely not fox. This animal was also smaller and less husky than the coyote that visited several years ago.
Coyote in the backyard, December 15, 2013. Usually coyotes will displace red foxes from an area, either by intimidation or by attacking and killing them. So I’ll have to see which one sticks around for the rest of the winter.

White on white

They are hard to see against a backdrop of fresh snow, except for the large, dark black eyes, and the black tip at the end of their tail.

Meet Herman, the ermine, who is in the winter fur phase. Herman had just been feeding on part of a carcass left out for the overwintering birds at Sax-Zim bog, and the tip of his nose is bright red from the bloody meat. This little Short-tailed Weasel has been hanging out at the Visitor Center for several days, and shows up regularly every morning (and evening) for a snack.
It’s a cold day to be running around on the snow, and these ferocious little predators have huge appetites to keep their metabolic furnaces going. They need to consume about 30% of their body weight daily. Deer carcasses are for weasels what bird feeders are to our feathered friends — a ready source of rich nutrients in times of need.

The long, thin bodies of weasels are a great adaptation for hunting rodents in their burrows, but they are a disadvantage in the winter climate because thin cylindrical bodies lose heat much faster than more spherical-shaped ones do.

Weasels are excellent climbers, so this part of the carcass hung in a tree is no problem for Herman to get to. Time for a little fat to add to the meaty part of the meal consumed earlier.

Weasels usually retreat to a burrow, perhaps of some animal they have recently eaten, when they are not active, and they will often cache extra food there to tide them over on days when prey are scarce.

This is what Herman looked like last summer — but molting the summer hair to all white coat in the winter serves two purposes: being less conspicuous to prey they are stalking, and being less visible to predators that focus on the black tip of the tail instead of the head of the animal that is white on white against the snow.

What determines when weasels molt into their white fur? It’s thought that declining hours of daylight in the fall are the primary cue, just as it is for migratory birds to begin their preparation to fly south. Molting from brown to white fur coat takes about three weeks, but a drop in temperature can hasten the molt, and unseasonably warm fall weather can slow it. Usually the molt to the all-white ermine phase is completed just about the time of the first snowfall, so the animal is perfectly camouflaged.

Sky Islands and flat tires

We were 3 miles from our destination at Cave Creek Ranch in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona when a rear tire on our Highlander went flat (note to self: avoid driving on gravel roads!). And although this was a major inconvenience for my husband who had to drive 60 miles to the nearest Walmart to get a new tire, it meant we could stay at the ranch an extra day.

We had a nice view of the mountains from our room at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. The golden-leafed Sycamores were just past their prime color, but still added vibrancy to the landscape.

The Chiricahua Mountains rise 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them an “island in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along the gradient from hot dry, desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, and this means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity. And like animals on oceanic islands, Sky Island animals are restricted to their mountain environment, and may become locally endemic, not mixing or interbreeding with the rest of their parent species.

Chiricahua mountain oak and sycamore forests, often riparian, give way to higher elevation juniper and pinyon pines in the Cave Creek area.

Such”sky islands” occur in a number of locations in North America, but this one in the Chiricahuas is particularly interesting because it attracts more southern-distributed Mexican and Central American species like Trogons, Mexican Jays, coatis (raccoon relatives), Jaguars, Mexican wolves, javelinas, and some endemic races of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.

Coues Whitetail deer is a diminutive subspecies of the eastern Whitetail that stands less than 3 feet at the shoulder. Large surface area of its ears helps it dissipate heat, but the deer stay primarily in the oak and sycamore woods and nearby grasslands at middle elevation in the mountains of southeastern Arizona and ranging south into Mexico. Their elfin size may be an adaptation to limited food supply in their range.
Similarly, Gould’s Turkey is a subspecies of the eastern wild Turkey, found only in the Chiricahuas and parts of southwestern New Mexico, but its range extends south into montane parts of Mexico. Gould’s Turkey is the largest of the 7 subspecies of wild Turkey, with longer legs, bigger feet, and all white tail feathers, compared to eastern wild turkeys. That must be a spectacle during the breeding season!
There are at least 5 subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos, whose coloration varies among their geographic locations. This little bird, however, is a separate species of Junco — the yellow-eyed Junco, found ONLY in the Chiricahua Sky Island and the Mexican montane region. This is a good example of “island speciation”, in which its restricted Sky Island range cut off gene flow to other North American Junco populations.
Mexican Jays lack the crest of feathers seen in Blue Jays and Steller’s Jays, and resemble Scrub Jays but are much larger than their California cousins. They inhabit the oak woodlands in mountain regions of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and central Mexico, where they form large, loosely familial flocks searching for acorns, pinyon nuts, and small vertebrates for dessert.
Broad-billed Hummingbirds are another example of primarily Mexican-distributed birds that will nest as far north as the Chiricahua mountains, but they migrate back south to central Mexico mountains in the winter. Maybe this handsome male found enough nectar and insects at Cave Creek Ranch to stick around a little longer after the breeding season.
The Bridled Titmouse is another primarily Mexican montane bird that just makes it into the U.S. in the Chiricahua mountains. There are actually three Titmouse/Chickadee species in the Chiricahuas, and they divide up the habitat by their preference for trees on which they forage: Juniper Titmice on junipers, Bridled Titmice on oaks and sycamores, and Mexican Chickadees on higher elevation pines.

Quite a diverse place, those Sky Islands of Arizona!


As we were pulling into the parking lot at Catalina State Park north of Tucson, my husband suddenly stopped and pointed at a badger working its way along the roadside snuffling in the weeds. I jumped out of the car and caught up with the badger for a few quick photos.

It appears to be a young badger, maybe half-grown, and it’s completely unafraid of me, actually walking right up to me! Badgers are short squat animals with powerful forelimbs specialized for digging. Notice the sharp claws! Although it was nearly sunset, I was surprised to see the badger in daylight because they are usually nocturnal.
Another view of those claws. Nose to the ground, the badger sniffed and periodically dug in a few places, sometimes immersing half its body in the hole it created. But no meals resulted. The animal has quite an attractive coat of hair that stands out in the sunlight. They were once hunted for their pelts which were used to make men’s shaving brushes.
In the shade its striped coat blends in well with the vegetation. What is most noticeable is its frequent stops to dig in the loose soil. Badgers are consummate consumers of animals that hide in underground burrows, like gophers, ground squirrels, marmots (woodchucks), prairie dogs, wood rats, etc. They can quickly excavate tunnels to their prey’s underground chambers and pull them out of their holes.
A sort of cute face, but these animals can be aggressive and ferocious. Not today though — just a quiet ramble in the desert brush.

Great Sand Dune

Down the road to the west of Vermejo Park Ranch on the eastern edge of the San Luis valley in south central Colorado lie the tallest sand dunes in North America, now protected in Great Sand Dune National Park.

Compared to the 13,000 foot peak behind them, the dunes don’t look all that tall, but the Star Dune (which is still growing) tops out at 750 feet. In all, the dunes cover about 31 square miles with mounds of sand derived from a previous lake bed thousands of years ago blown by desert winds up against the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
A creek runs between the dunes and the short grass prairie and junipers for most of the spring and summer, so there is a small riparian strip that attracts animal life in this otherwise desolate environment.
Thick mat of tall grasses carpet what you would think would be dry desert sand.
Aspens and cottonwoods grow along the edge of the stream bed. The fall color must have been beautiful here a month ago.
Only when humans get out on the dunes can you appreciate just how big and extensive they are. Can you see the tiny person (on the left) standing half way up on a dune? For a small fee, you can rent a board to “sled” down the dune, which is popular in the summer, but sand temperatures can reach 150 F, so you wouldn’t want to fall off your sled.
A couple of hawks circled over the dunes, gaining altitude as they flew around each other,
A mixed flock of Mountain Chickadees and Common Bushtits foraged in the dry rabbit brush. It looked like they were after seeds, but perhaps there were some tiny insects in the seed heads.
Common Bushtits don’t sit still very long, but this little female (with a pale iris) posed just long enough.
A couple of chipmunks scampered about hunting seeds for their winter den. They will be underground soon, for their long winter nap.
The sand dunes are a harsh place to eke out a living, but like Ian Malcolm said in “Jurassic Park”…”life will find a way”.

Vermejo Park Ranch

We had an opportunity to explore some of the almost 600,000 acre mega-ranch at Vermejo Park, near Raton, New Mexico. This magnificent expanse of private lands stretches from Great Plains short grass prairie up in elevation through pinyon-juniper woodland and ponderosa woodland, into mixed coniferous forest and finally alpine tundra near the crest of the Sangre de Cristo mountains — altogether an area 3/4 the size of Rhode Island!

You immediately appreciate the size of the ranch when you see that the park boundary is 35 miles from park headquarters. Here, the prairie is dominated by short stature grasses, perennial shrubs, and a strange looking Gambel Oak, which in this arid environment, is a short shrub.
Short Grass prairie is prime habitat for grazing the approximately 1400 bison at Vermejo ParkRanch.
Shrubby Gambel Oaks completely carpet the rocky hillsides above the prairie.

The ranch was part of a very large Mexican land grant, made to landholders in 1814, and since then it has passed through various owners, including some Hollywood mega-stars, until it was purchased by Ted Turner in the 1990s for managing wildlife, including the native bison that once roamed these prairies. Today the multiple goals of the Vermejo Park Ranch include bison production, luxury wildlife tourism, and hunting, with the overall goal of managing wildlife conservation sustainably in a large landscape.

Mule deer, elk, pronghorn, antelope, and big horn sheep roam the short grass prairies and conifer woodlands. The ranch is also home to mountain lions, bobcats, black bears, but at present, no wolves.
Mule deer bucks stare at us (instead of running away) in a ponderosa pines woodland.
The Castle Rock formation stands out in a meadow parkland, with Ash Mountain in the background.
The 13,000 foot peaks of the Sangre de Cristo mountains loom over the high elevation mixed coniferous forest on the western edge of the ranch.
More than 20 lakes, some natural, some man-made provide breeding habitat for waterfowl, and a peaceful place to contemplate nature or enjoy a few hours of fishing.
Vermejo ranch has already had its first winter snow of 20 inches. The songbirds have left for warmer climates, the small mammals are hibernating, the bison have been moved to lower elevation, and I assume the elk are hiding from the hunters. But the grandeur of this wide-open landscape was captivating.

A prairie dog town

On our drive to New Mexico to see one of Ted Turner’s mega-ranches, we stopped at Prairie Dog State Park in northwestern Kansas, a 1000 acre park with campsites clustered on a lake shore, and featuring its own prairie dog town. Interestingly, when the park was first established, there were no prairie dogs living there, and multiple attempts to introduce them all failed. A few years later, however, a pair of prairie dogs wandered into the park, and they successfully established their lineage, which now numbers over 300 animals.

Burrows dot the landscape in one smallish area of the park. Prairie dogs tolerate drive-by sightings but get anxious and disappear down their burrows if you get out of the car.

Prairie dogs are considered a keystone species in the short grass prairies of the central plains because of their impact on so many other species that live there. Their burrows are used by a variety of other species, including the black-footed ferrets that eat them, their incessant digging turns over the soil releasing nutrients for flowering annuals and perennials, and their foraging habits selectively remove taller grasses and seedling shrubs, thereby promoting the short grass prairie landscape.

The vegetation is dry and crunchy, but that doesn’t bother the prairie dogs, whose gut is well adapted to extract every bit of nutrition from winter’s dry thatch as well as the lush green summer forage.
Sentinels that stand on alert sound an alarm (sort of a yipping bark) when the colony is threatened.
It would be easy to stay and watch these interesting little animals for hours, but the road to New Mexico beckons.

America’s grasslands

Grasslands once covered about one-fifth of North America, and although they are but a small fraction of that now, you can still get a sense of what it was like to stand in a “sea of prairie grass” at The Nature Conservancy’s Samuel Ordway Preserve near Leola, South Dakota.

This chunk of native grassland is at the bottom end of a vast 135,000 acre swath of largely unplowed, native prairie that extends northward into North Dakota, and is the center of North America’s “Duck Factory”, i.e., the undisturbed prairie-pothole lake region that provides protected breeding sites for thousands of ducks.

The Ordway Prairie Preserve is 7600 acres (about 12 square miles) of rolling hills of grasses and pothole lakes that are refuges for breeding ducks in the summer and home to a wide diversity of plant and animal life.
Pothole lakes were carved by the glaciers that moved over this landscape in the Wisconsin glaciation about 12,000 years ago. The tiny dots on the lake surface are ducks and coots.

Driving the perimeter road around the preserve, we came upon some of the wildlife that inhabits the native prairie.

A coyote moved away from the road as we drove up, but was in no real hurry to get away. There are probably lots of mice, voles, and rabbits here for the coyotes to dine on.
We flushed almost a dozen Sharp-tailed Grouse that were feeding by the side of the road, but one stayed put for a quick photo, before taking off.
Showing off its white striped underside, which contrasts with the mottled camouflage plumage on its back — this was the only frame I got with the whole bird in the photo. Grouse are burst flyers, able to take off suddenly and quickly, so quickly that predators and photographers are startled into missing their shot.
This is the way we usually see Sharp-tailed Grouse!
Further down the road, a mixed flock of Savannah Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows were feeding on grass seeds. These two birds sat together for a while, but didn’t seem pleased by each other’s presence.
A juvenile Meadowlark sat patiently waiting for us to finish photographing it before flying off.
A Grasshopper Sparrow sat quietly and posed while we tried to figure out what this bird was. None of us recognized it without hearing its distinctive buzzy call.
“Glamping” at the bunkhouse/office of the Ordway Prairie Preserve. No campfire, but nice to sit around, watch the sunset over the prairie, and sip some wine after a “hard day” of birdwatching.

another first

While walking along the bank of the Minnesota River south of Lac Qui Parle, we spotted a slender brown mammal scurrying between the large rocks and foliage.

Less than a foot long, but faster than a warbler flitting through the trees, this weasel was a first-ever sighting for me.

But which weasel is it? According to the “ecology center“, of the three possibilities that it could be in North America, this one is most likely a Short-tailed Weasel, otherwise known as the Stoat in Europe and Asia.

The black tip on its tail means this animals is either a Short or a Long-tailed Weasel. Short-tailed Weasels are 7-13 inches long, Long-tailed Weasels are 11-22 inches long, and our weasel is definitely on the shorter side. In addition, Long-tailed Weasels have tails as long as their body, and this weasel’s tail is about 1/2 the length of its body, thus confirming our guess as a Sh0rt-tailed Weasel. Drawing from the Ecology Center.
With its large, forward-pointing eyes and ears and a long nose loaded with olfactory sensors, this small-bodied member of the Mustelid family, which includes badgers, ferrets, minks, otters, martens, and wolverines, is a highly energetic, ferocious predator of rodents, rabbits, bird eggs, frogs, fish, and hens in a hen house.

Short-tailed Weasels are relatively recent immigrants to the Americas, arriving during a period when there was an ice-free land bridge between North American and Asia about 2 million years ago. Since then they have spread throughout all of the Americas, even down to the tip of South America.

I don’t know what this weasel was hunting, but it crossed back and forth across the rocks multiple times, probing into cracks between the rocks, looking for prey.

Prior to that time, about 5-7 million years ago when northern temperate forests were slowly being replaced by temperate grasslands, a weasel ancestor crossed another land bridge between the continents, giving rise to the Stoat of Eurasia on that continent, and a look-alike Long-tailed Weasel in North America. Other than their body size differences, the two species are remarkably alike in looks and behavior. And both molt their brown fur to pure white in the winter in north temperate climates, making them almost undetectable in snow.

Stoat, or Short-tailed Weasel, or Ermine — in its winter fur. Photo from Britannica.com