Uff-da, it’s cold

That’s what we say in the MN northland, when the temperatures drop below 0F. The other day when I ventured out in the early morning, it was -17F (-27C). When I got back in the early afternoon, it had made it all the way up to -3F (-19C), which is just barely tolerable if the sun is out and there is no wind.

And the wildlife aren’t enjoying the cold temperatures any more than I am. Little birds don’t show up at the feeders until mid-morning, and the squirrels (both gray and red) are usually found huddled next to the tree trunk with tails curled over their backs, or basking along the trunk to soak up warmth in the early morning hours.

Sitting against a background of evergreen trees, you would never know the outside temperature was sub-zero, except for this gray squirrel’s curled up posture and hyper-fluffed tail.
Fluffing out his fur and tail makes this little red squirrel look pretty chunky, but that is the way it can maximize its insulation in extreme cold. This little guy was actively shivering, as his forearm paws and tail vibrated with each breath.

For those animals (and humans) that can afford to do so, the best solution to surviving cold temperature extremes is to fire up the metabolic furnace.  No one enjoys standing out in the cold shivering intensely, but that and the physical exertion of exercise are the first line of defense in staying warm.  The trick is to preserve the heat inside the body by improving insulation with a nice layer of subdermal fat, a thick fur coat, and minimizing the surface area exposed to the air.

Another strategy for staying warm in mammals (but rarely in birds) is metabolizing brown fat, which is a special kind of adipose tissue located along the vertebral column, heart, and kidneys. Brown fat is highly vascularized and contains lots of heat producing mitochondrial organelles. The heat produced by a process of non-shivering thermogenesis in the central core of the body can then be circulated to other parts of the body.

Newborn and hibernating mammals utilize brown fat thermogenesis to warm up. Other small mammals use the heat produced by brown fat as a supplement to shivering thermogenesis. Diagram from McMillan Higher Ed publications.

So, bundle up and think warm thoughts — the days are getting longer and the sun is getting higher in the sky each day. Winter won’t last too much longer.

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.

The truth about Santa’s reindeer

Some misconceptions to the usual assumptions of what powers Santa’s sleigh need to be addressed:

Santa’s reindeer are all female (click on the link to read the article)

Fact #1: those antlered reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh are all females. How do we know this? Fact #2: both male and female reindeer have antlers — although the males’ antlers are usually much bigger. And Fact #3: male reindeer shed their antlers in late fall, so that by December, they are antler-less. Ergo — the powerful ones pulling the sleigh are the girls.

Reindeer (i.e., caribou) at the Minnesota Zoo in the summer. It’s easy to pick out the male because of his size: bigger body and much larger antlers than the four females grazing with him.

And this leads inquiring minds to wonder — a) why do female reindeer have antlers at all? (other female members of the deer family do not), and b) why do they have them all winter, only to drop them after their calves are born in the spring?

It would seem to be a great advantage for females to keep those antlers over the winter as they gestate next year’s offspring. They need energy for reproduction, and the food is buried under the snow. Antlers would certainly be useful for removing snow so the reindeer can get to the forage. Larger-bodied males can withstand periods of low food availability better, and need to start re-growing antlers immediately in the spring so they will be ready to compete for mates in the summer and fall.

Now — about that red-nosed leader of Santa’s team. Rudolph, created by Robert May in 1939, is also pictured with antlers, so we must assume he is a she, as well as the rest of the team. But why make such a big deal about the red nose? Is there such a thing as a red-nosed reindeer?

Yes, indeed, reindeer have red-ish noses, and for a good reason, as explained in an article from Smithsonian magazine in 2012.

The rosy pink nose of reindeer in the winter is due to high blood flow to the nasal area, which warms the nasal cavity, and thus the warms up the frigid air reindeer breathe in before it goes to the lungs. In addition, flushing the nasal cavity and head with blood from the central core of the reindeer’s body helps keep the animal’s brain warm. I suspect if we did the same thing when eating a slushy drink (like Jamba juice), we wouldn’t get an ice-cream headache.

So, let your kids and grandkids in on the real power behind Santa’s trip around the world on Christmas eve — female reindeer!

the good morning fox

The backyard has been really quiet the past couple of weeks, as colder weather sets in and the daylight hours get shorter and shorter. Some days the birds don’t start visiting the feeders until after 9 a.m. Even the squirrels are quiescent, having long ago dug holes all over the backyard to store their walnuts.

But the red foxes make regular treks through the backyard early in the morning, looking for whatever they can find — which apparently isn’t much because they don’t stay more than a minute and then move on to the wetland area in back of the backyard.

There is rarely a pause in the action, unless they need a good scratching.
Nose to the ground, hoping to catch the scent of an unlucky squirrel, trotting through my backyard on their way to someone else’s. It’s just barely daylight, so the photos through the porch windows are not the greatest.
Success in the hunt! A few years ago, this was the scene that greeted me at breakfast early one morning.

Still hanging on…

Not only are the leaves stubbornly clinging to the trees, but the lovely Fall weather just hasn’t given into Winter cold yet. And we are grateful because the last of the colorful, balmy (?) days are perfect for exploring outdoors.

The color in Reservoir Woods was somewhat dulled in past peak days, but was still spectacular to walk around in.
A big buck went dashing through these aspen right before I managed to get out my phone to take a photo.
The last of the maple leaves have almost all dropped off the trees now.

The progression of activity in the backyard in the Fall is somewhat predictable. This is the time of year the turkeys and deer visit the backyard more often, looking for the best edibles.

Does with and without fawns make themselves comfortable on the lawn while digesting the morning feast.
Hen turkeys gather in flocks in the Fall along with their offspring and parade through the neighborhood completely at ease with the car and people traffic on the roads.

Playtime in the backyard

Just as the daylight was fading in the backyard, I spied a young fox chasing a very immature, small rabbit around the backyard. This young fox wasn’t interested in eating the rabbit, but certainly seemed to enjoy the chase. All the better to hone its predatory skills. The rabbit did what prey instinctively do when threatened — sat as still as a stone, until the fox turned its head, at which point the rabbit tried to escape. It was quite comical to watch!

Half-grown fox dares the bunny to hop while it is spread-eagled next to it.
Maybe if I poke the bunny…”
“Maybe I’ll just ignore the bunny…”
C’mon, let’s play chase…”

Home on the range

We’re back at Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska, this time with grandkids to enjoy the sights and the wildlife. With three visits in the past two years, I’m beginning to feel like this place is “home”.

Sunset drives are always full of surprises… bison and pronghorn were grazing in the still-green pastures on some of the 22,000 acres of the park.

More wildlife was spotted near the road the next morning on our drive through Smiley Canyon in the park.

The spring wildflowers were abundant in the grassy meadows as well: a purple Penstemon, the white of the Yucca flowers, and small orange Globe Mallow flowers brought a lot of color to the green pastures.

Springtime (?) in Wyoming

Continuing our journey east in early May, back to what we hoped would be lovely Spring weather in Minnesota, we drove through southern Wyoming to stop at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge near Green River. On the way we passed a little wildlife, posing by the side of the road.

Pronghorn Antelope love the sage brush-grasslands of Wyoming, and there were quite a few of them clustered in small groups on the backroads near Kemmerer.
This antelope didn’t even move when we slowed down to photograph it as it walked along the railroad track.
Pronghorn are North America’s only living antelope-like mammal (they are in their own family, unrelated to African antelope species).

As a species, they survived the Pleistocene glaciations (ice ages), the massive extinction of North American land mammals 10-15,000 years ago, and so far, the habitat and climate changes that have occurred with settlement of the western prairies. This unique ungulate (four-footed herbivore) can run 60+ miles per hour (fastest of any land mammal in North America), but it can’t jump, so it must crawl under fences.

We got a quick look at a couple of moose hiding in the tall vegetation near the river, but they went into a hasty retreat to disappear from view.
On a cold, windy day, Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge was an uncomfortable environment to go looking for Sharp-tailed Grouse. There were only a few ducks on the Green River, and just a few songbirds in the grassy areas.
A Redhead Duck (left) and his mate (foreground) paddled along with a pair of Greater Scaup in one area of the river, but this was not the mecca of migratory waterfowl that we had expected. Spring had definitely not come to this area yet.
Horned Larks foraged for wind-dispersed seed in the gravel parking lot. This is a species you can always count on finding under the most harsh conditions: hot, cold, dry, rocky, high altitude– they are tough little birds that actually prefer sparsely vegetated, dry, barren areas.
Juncos are common throughout North America, but this one was special — it’s the “pink-sided” race of Dark-eyed Junco, distinguished by its lighter gray head, dark area in front of the eyes, and pinkish-tan plumage on its sides and flanks. It’s found in the Rocky Mountains from Alberta to southern Wyoming, and may disperse north or higher in altitude from its winter range to summer breeding areas.
Another new encounter was a couple of White-tailed Prairie Dogs, a different species than the common Black-tailed Prairie Dog seen in the grasslands and prairies east of the Rockies. The white-tailed species is much paler in color, has a much smaller range (Wyoming and parts of eastern Utah and western Colorado) and occurs only in higher altitude grasslands (5-10,000 feet)

Was it just the weather on this day in early May, or is Wyoming a really cold, desolate place in the Spring?

Climbing the South Pass road over the Rockies at the southern end of the Wind River range was a trip back to winter, with snow covered hills and deep drifts of snow in the ravines. South Pass is notable because it is the lowest place (7400 feet) to cross the Rocky Mountains, making it a key destination along the Oregon Trail during the westward expansion of the U.S.
Coming down from South Pass, the climate wasn’t much better on the eastern side of the mountains, and it looked like Spring weather was at least a few weeks off.

Springtime in Wyoming — definitely not in May this year.

on Antelope Island

I’ve always wanted to visit this 42 square mile Utah state park that is connected to Salt Lake City by a long isthmus. And we hit a magnificent, sunny day with dramatic clouds over the lofty Wasatch mountains to drive around it.

Antelope Island is the largest of 10 islands in the Great Salt Lake. The first non-natives to visit were John C. Fremont and Kit Carson in their exploration of the area in 1845, and they named it for the large number of Pronghorn Antelope they saw there. Native Americans had probably been living in the area for 10,000 or more years.
The 15 mile-long Island consists has extensive, shallow mudflats leading into the hyper saline lake, with sagebrush and short grass prairie above the shoreline. The most common birds we saw along the coast were California Gulls, the Utah state bird.
A central mountain ridge runs the length of the island, providing a variety of habitats for wildlife at different elevations. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the montane area. Maybe next time….
The Fielding Garr ranch on the south end of the island was established in 1848, and the homestead was operated by the LDS church to raise money to bring Mormon immigrants from Europe to settle in Utah. The home still stands, and the presence of fresh water and orchard trees at the ranch attract a number of migratory and resident birds.
Bison were introduced in the 1890s, and they do very well on the island’s native grassland. Some of the herd have been used to stock other parks with native grazers.
We saw small herds of what were probably bison cows and youngsters, but the huge bulls were usually by themselves, and very sedentary.
A Pronghorn Antelope buck rested under a bush while his harem of females grazed nearby.
These usually skittish animals that typically run from photographers who see them from a distance along busy highways, were uncommonly calm and allowed us to get within 100 feet of them.
What a pleasure to see (and hear) so many Western Meadowlarks calling from the short grass prairie. They seemed to be staking out territories about every 50 feet or so.
We had hoped to see a lot of shorebirds here, but they were far, far in the distance. However the mountain reflections in the tidal flats were nice
There are some incredible landscapes with views of mountains, an intensely blue salt lake, clouds, and weather on Antelope Island in Salt Lake City, UT!

You “otter” see this!

We didn’t expect to see so many sea otters on our boat tour of the Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay. Several were in sight at any one time, almost every one with a youngster riding on top as the adult paddled along on its back.

Sea Otters propel themselves with their hind feet while floating on their backs. This mama has a small youngster curled up on her chest, its head tucked under its body.

Sea Otters were once very abundant in the coastal marshes and estuaries of western North America, but extensive hunting up until the early 1900s culled their numbers to just a couple thousand animals. Conservation efforts have increased their numbers somewhat, but they are only found in part of their original range. Sea Otters are an important part of the coastal ecosystem because they prey on the sea urchins that ravage the kelp beds and keep the herbivore numbers in check.

The Sea Otter diet is largely made up of shelled invertebrates like mussels, abalone, snails, and sea urchins. Otters are unusual in carrying and using a tool, a good-sized rock that they can tuck into a fold of skin, to pound on shells to break them apart. They can also open some shells with their incisors.

Sea Otters bring their prey to the surface, and consume it while floating on their backs. Naturally, some of the food drops onto their fur as they eat, so they continuously roll over while eating to dislodge food fragments. In addition, they meticulously groom their fur to keep it clean and fluffy (i.e., with lots of air pockets).

The density of otter fur is one of their most important adaptations to marine life. It is extremely thick, with about 1 million hairs per square inch! Multiple layers of fur shed water and trap air, enhancing their ability to float on the surface and keep a dry layer of fur next to their skin. Young otters have an extra layer of inner fur to trap air which gives them extra buoyancy. While grooming them, their mother may actually blow air into their fur, making them so buoyant, they float like corks.
Long vibrissae on their noses help them detect prey under the water. Sea Otters apparently also have an excellent sense of smell, and their eyesight is as good above water as below the surface. When they dive, otters can close their nostrils and ears to water entry.

Otters breed at all times of the year, and pregnancy usually lasts about 4 months, but females can delay the implantation of the single embryo until conditions are best for the pup’s development. Pups stay with the mother 6-8 months, before venturing out on their own, when they are almost full adult size.

This little otter won’t be with its mom much longer…