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…

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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!


Badger!

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.