the Flint Hills

Explorer Zebulon Pike coined the term “flint hills” for the rocky, flinty limestone-rich tall grass prairie that runs north to south down the eastern 1/3 of Kansas into Oklahoma.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

Rolling prairie as far as the eye can see, dotted with cattle.

Early settlers found the ground much too rocky to farm, but it made good cattle pasture. Today, the prairie is managed by regular burning, which returns the previous year’s nutrients to the soil, and creates a lush green carpet.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

The contrast of green, previously burned and yellow-brown, unburned prairie is obvious on opposite sides of the highway.  We just barely outran the thunderstorm that was moving east as we drove south.

Flint hills near Bazaar cattle ranch, Kansas

The Flint Hills are the most dense coverage of tall grass prairie in all of North America. Imagine what this must have looked like in the early 1800s when huge herds of buffalo roamed the prairie.

Why is this extensive formation here, you might wonder?  Because 250 million years ago, this area and much of the Midwest was covered by a shallow sea, where silt and sand, as well as the carbonates from the rich invertebrate fauna in the sea, were deposited in layers.  Erosion of softer materials over time left the rocky, flint- Continue reading

Buried treasure

April blizzards create new challenges for wildlife, already limited by the diminished resources available.  Can squirrels really remember where they hid some buried treasure last fall?  Apparently so.

After the blizzard, gray squirrels ventured out in the deep snow, digging holes down to the dirt surface in search of their buried treasures.
This shot begs for a clever caption. Got any ideas?

It looks like the squirrel found what it was searching for — a dried up walnut.

I wonder if they can smell nuts under snow cover?

Deer in the meadow

How picturesque, stumbling onto a mule deer herd in Calero county park east of San Jose, CA, as they munched their way through the spring wildflowers.

Mule deer herd in Calero County Park, San Jose CA

Mule deer herd in Calero County Park, San Jose CA

Mule deer herd in Calero County Park, San Jose CA

Yes, picturesque.

Tom Turkey displaying

Tom Turkey was displaying energetically, but the two hens present ignored him.

Ah, spring! So green!

It may be a while before Minnesota takes on such a green glow!

How far can a gray squirrel jump?

If you google that question, you’ll find that gray squirrels can jump at least 4 feet straight up in the air, and at least 9 feet horizontally.  I’ve had a peanut feeder hanging in the buckeye tree about 7 feet from the trunk of the tree all winter, and just today a gray squirrel finally figured out how to get to the feeder. (Shot through the window looking into the afternoon sun with a terrible reflection.)

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

This is a composite of two attempts wth the same flight path.  My camera could only capture two images per jump.  Note how this trajectory gets the squirrel to the feeder instead of colliding with the protective dome.  Click on the image to enlarge it to full screen.

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

But this is where this particular leap took the squirrel before I scared it off.

The momentum of the landing creates a violent swing in the feeder, which can dislodge the squirrel that might be just hanging on with its toes.

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

This might be categorized hanging on by your (toe)nails.

After several failed attempts involving collisions with the plastic dome over the feeder,

Gray squirrel jumping to a peanut feeder

Misjudged the landing on this attempt…

the squirrel successfully launched itself from just the right height on the tree trunk, with just the right trajectory arc, to land most of its body on the side of the feeder.

Athletic and smart, that’s the gray squirrel key to success.

Snowy portrait

A great surplus of the fluffy white stuff has been accumulating in the backyard this past week, and there are predictions of more to come.  Squirrels have been busy excavating in the snow looking for fallen seed.  Every now and then, they seem to take a break and just hang out on a branch.

Red squirrel in snowfall

Red squirrels are usually dashing around the backyard, scurrying up branches, hopping from limb to limb. This one stopped for a short rest.

Red squirrel in snowfall

The more typical view of red squirrels, i.e., just before making a mad dash up a branch.

I don’t know what this frantic chasing up and down branches is all about, but I did notice that the red squirrels run toward birds in these same branches that have just come back from the feeder with a seed or a peanut.  Maybe they are hoping the birds will drop whatever they are eating and fly off, leaving the tidbits for the squirrels to find?

How do birds predict the weather?

I’ve noticed that the frenzied feeding activity at bird feeders (see yesterday’s post on “finch feeding frenzy“) usually coincides with a precipitous drop in temperature the next day, but I’ve wondered what enables birds to predict that occurrence.

house finches and goldfinches

Sure enough, the day after I photographed the finch feeding frenzy, the overnight temperature dropped from 20 F above zero to -10 F below. Moderate winds added to the chill making the effective temperature for us humans about -30 F!  No birds visited this feeder the next morning until later in the afternoon when the sun had warmed the air up to just about zero degrees F.

Cardinals, Blue Jays, Nuthatches, Chickadees, Slate-colored Juncos, House Finches, and Goldfinches all made an appearance at the bird feeder during the morning hours the day before the frigid temperature drop.

cardinal and goldfinch-

Mr. Cardinal didn’t stay long — the finch mob must have scared him off.

white-breasted nuthatch-

Nuthatches zoom into the feeder, pick out a peanut treat, and zoom off, while the finches just sit and gobble up sunflower seeds.

But it’s not the temperature drop the birds are predicting, it’s the drop in barometric pressure. Low barometric pressure in one area means there will be air movement from a higher pressure area, and in the winter, that usually means Minnesota will receive a big blast of frigid Canadian air.

And the data bear this out:  barometric pressure reached a low point at noon on the day of frenzied finch feeding and increased almost 30 mm by midnight the next day, bringing with it bright sunny weather but a 30 degree drop in air temperature.

It seems that birds are the only land vertebrates (with a couple of exceptions) that possess a paratympanic (i.e., next to the ear drum in the middle ear) barometric sense organ, and it is derived from the same hair cells in sharks and their relatives that provide those fish with information about their jaw movement relative to the prey they intend to gobble up.

black-capped chickadee-

Chickadees and Nuthatches go for the high energy peanut treats in preparation for a blast of cold weather.

So, is a 30 mm change in barometric pressure (a little over 1 inch) enough to trigger such a feeding response in my backyard finches?  Yes, it is.  Experimental data on White-throated Sparrows showed that they could detect a pressure change of as little as 10 mm:  when barometric pressure was decreased artificially in a chamber holding migratory sparrows, they immediately began feeding when the lights were turned on; when the pressure was higher (and normal), they became active, preening and hopping around in the chamber, but not feeding.

And why is it just the birds that have evolved this magnificently sensitive sensor?  In addition to predicting weather fronts, the barometric sensor is most useful for maintaining level flight at a particular altitude during migration.

What about mammals, especially humans?  Can we detect changes in barometric pressure?

gray squirrel foraging in a snow bank

Gray Squirrels were out in numbers looking for seed scattered in the snow by the finch mob.  Did they know what was coming the next day?

Only one species of bat possesses a physical sense organ that detects barometric pressure, but mammals, including humans, can sense changes in pressure in their ears, sinuses, sometimes joints, but there is no specific receptor for the sensation.  Rather it is changes in pressure within a confined cavity that elicits the sensation, and not in everyone.

Mammals in the living desert

Although it is far easier to find birds in the southwestern deserts, more than 100 mammal species live there too, a few in some of the harshest and most challenging environments.  Most are usually active only at night or in the twilight that precedes sunrise or follows sunset.  Why?  Because daytime temperatures can be very hot, water is limited so keeping cool by evaporation is dangerous, and there aren’t very many places to retreat to cool shade.

Sonoran desert at Palm Desert, CA

No place to hide from the heat in this leafless, spiny forest of cactus, unless you’re a small, burrowing rodent.

Mammals cope with the heat by avoiding it, storing it, unloading it, or offsetting it by consuming the water-filled bodies of their prey.  Here are a few examples of these strategies in mammals of the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, CA.

Avoiding the heat: bats, rodents, kit fox, coyote, mountain lion, bobcat

Big carnivores need to retreat to sheltered crevices or caves during the hot daytime hours, while mice can keep cool in underground burrows.  Their dense fur is an adaptation to keep them warm on clear, cold desert nights, and in the winter.  In addition, water lost by panting to keep cool can be replaced by the body water in their prey.  Their home range might even include a water source like a spring or pool.

Mountain Lion, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Bobcat, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Coyote, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Storing the heat: pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep

Large-bodied herbivores can’t escape the heat, so they tolerate it by storing it in their large body mass, and allowing their body temperatures to fluctuate several degrees over the course of the day.  Heat gained during the daytime can be unloaded by radiation or convective cooling at night.  Bighorn sheep can withstand dehydration for several days (to a level that would kill a human) and can replenish all of their body water immediately upon drinking.

Pronghorn Antelope, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA Bighorn Sheep, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Unloading the heat:  jackrabbits, mule deer

Both deer and rabbits seek shade during the day, but use their very large and well vascularized ears to radiate heat away from their body.

Mule deer, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA Jackrabbit, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

Fennec foxes from Saharan and Arabian deserts use a similar strategy to unload heat from highly vascularized, over-sized ears. Apparently the large surface area of their ears also helps them hear prey moving around under ground.  It’s interesting to see such convergence of strategies in unrelated animals from different continents.

Fennec, Fox, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

And what about the unlovely Javelina?

Javelina, Living Desert Zoo, Palm Desert, CA

They look ill-suited to be desert dwellers with their short extremities, stocky bodies, and bristly hair.

Their solution to the challenges of desert life?  Live near the water and stay in the shade, for example, under a trailer!

“elephants” on the beach

We hiked about a mile and a half out to the sand dunes at Año Nuevo state park, and were excited to find the giant forms of sleeping Elephant Seals there.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

One of several inter-dune spots we visited where mostly male Elephant Seals congregate to wait for arriving females. A single female nursing her newborn pup in the center foreground.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Males arrive first (November to March) to establish their territories; females (short-nosed individual in the center) arrive later, giving birth after their 11 month gestation within about 5 days of their arrival.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

There is a lot of machismo on display, and mock battles take place between all ages of males. Although they are sexually mature at 5 or 6 years, they usually can’t maintain a harem of females until they are big and strong enough at 11-12 years.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

What’s the big nose for? Likened to an elephant trunk, which is how these seals got their name, their proboscis grows in length, can be inflated with air, and gives their low-pitched staccato vocalization a deeper and more threatening tone.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Males might try to have their way with females even as they emerge from the sea, but females hold their own, and remain unreceptive until after they have given birth.  This female is expressing her displeasure with a male’s advances with sharp barks and open mouth gape.  

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Mature males reach about 14 feet in length and might weigh more than 2 tons. Females are much smaller, 10 feet in length and reaching about 1500 pounds max. Elephant seals are the largest seals and far outweigh potential terrestrial predators like the grizzly bear.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Mature males collect a harem of females which they defend from other males, by engaging in vocalizing, assuming threat postures, or in actual fights. Once the females have their pups, they become sexually receptive, allow males to fertilize them, and the next cycle of gestation begins while they are still nursing the current year’s pup.  In this harem, I count at least 5 pups.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Pups are born with black coats, which eventually are replaced with the light brown fur. They gain about 10 pounds per day, but are nursed for just one month, reaching about 250 pounds before their mothers return to the sea to feed.  They are on their own to learn how to swim and to find food!

Elephant seals don’t eat or drink while on land, instead subsisting on the fat stores acquired during their many months at sea.  When they leave the breeding beaches, males and females take differ routes to feeding grounds either along the coast (males) or open ocean (females), but both feed at extreme depths, up to 5000 feet deep in dives lasting almost 2 hours.  (There are some special adaptations for that activity, to be discussed later). Preferred foods are usually benthic forms like rays, bottom-dwelling sharks, squid, hagfish, etc.

Elephant seals at Año Nuevo state park, CA

Bearing the scars of many battles on his thickened neck skin, this giant bull elephant seal looks passive at rest.  But watch what the bulls can do to each other in the video below.

From David Attenborough’s “life in the freezer”


a dog and her ball

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix For those following the travelog, yes we made it to California, just an hour before a major winter snowfall hit Donner Pass.  Cars were delayed 17 hours on I-80 and chains we didn’t have were required after 36 inches of snow fell on the Sierras over the weekend.

The grandkid cousins had a chance to play together and exercise the McNab border collie that lives here in CA.  She’s great entertainment for the kids, and gave me a chance to practice my high speed (and she is definitely a high-speed chaser) photography.

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

Look at that take-off!

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

my ball!!

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

Granddaughter thought she could try to keep up with the dog…hah!

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

In most fleet-footed chasers, the flexion of the spine and extension of its entire length is what makes the animal gain a lot of ground in one stride, and if they can flex and extend quickly, they can achieve great speed and distance covered.  

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

Look at the extension as she grabs for the ball.

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

Eye on the ball…

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix

McNab border collie-Australian shepherd mix


Crossing America — Wyoming

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.

Eastern Wyoming highway

Eastern Wyoming open spaces

Snow makes this landscape completely homogeneous. There’s a tiny house/farm in the distance.

Eastern Wyoming open spaces

There is a lot of open space here, miles and miles of monotonous sameness.  Oh look, a mountain ridge in the view adds a little variety to the landscape.

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.

Mule deer, Sybille Canyon, Wheatland, WY

Two mule deer does just as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

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.

Wyoming sunset

Wyoming 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.

a Wyoming farm

Nearest neighbor…25 miles?

Wyoming cliffs near Rock Springs

Bald Eagle over cliffs near Green River, WY

Flying over the cliffs near Green River, a Bald Eagle glided slowly toward the river. That was one of 4 raptors we saw that day.

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!