Getting to know you…

“getting to know all about you” — that’s what we often see in the synchronized displays of paired birds that mate for life.  It’s more commonly seen in the spring resurgence of pre-breeding behaviors, but often, mated pairs renew their bond in the fall before migrating to warmer climates with open water.

Trumpeter Swans pairs exhibited their neck bowing and chest-to-chest-wing flap and trumpet greetings with each other on Lake Vadnais yesterday with gusto.

Trumpeter Swan courtship behavior

Neck bowing behavior, up and down, from fully extended to completely bowed, repeated several times, both while swimming in parallel and while facing each other.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Because these birds often don’t breed until they are 4-6 years old, cementing their partnership early is integral to their eventual breeding success, in defending their nest territory as well as protecting their offspring, which single individuals cannot do alone.  Their synchronized neck bowing behaviors occasionally escalated to more vigorous displays of wing flapping and chest bumping (kind of remniscent of football players in the end zone after a touchdown).

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Muted trumeting accompanied the wing flap face-off between these partners.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

But then, one swan seemed to be trying out a couple of different partners as it first performed the neck bowing sequence with one individual and then took-off flying and pursued another individual, bowing and wing-flapping with it, and then eventually settling down to feed side by side.  I wonder if this is the equivalent of swan dating?

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Swan in the lead with partner #1, performing the head bowing behavior as they swim

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Suddenly the lead swan takes off, trumpeting, chasing another swan into flight. Huge webbed feet paddling against the surface of the water help these large-bodied birds get aloft.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Once landed in the same area, vigorous wing-flapping and trumpeting occurs for several seconds, following by neck bows, and finally feeding side by side.

I might have thought this was one male chasing another, except for the behavior that followed.

trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior trumpeter swan courtship behavior

Just another day in the lives of the Trumpeter Swans, even if confusing to us human observers.

Tired is a state of mind

Hiking at high altitude is hard work. Carrying a pack more than 1/4 of your body weight at high altitude is seriously hard work. Hiking uphill with said pack on your back at high altitude is not recommended unless you have a deep desire for hurt. So, when engaging in this unthinkable activity, I have to believe that feeling tired is just a state of mind…

Tired hikers

which can be relieved in a number of ways when that tired feeling hits during a long, hard uphill climb.

Camping at high altitude

Each day there is a new and beautiful place to sleep and rejuvenate.

High Sierras, Hoover Wilderness

We are alone in this vast wilderness…at least it feels like it. I love that feeling of smallness in this vast expanse.

High Sierras, Hoover Wilderness

There is a new vista to explore around every corner.

Family hike, High Sierras

Below 9000 feet, we can have campfires. What a difference in your mood a campfire makes! (That’s me on the far right)

Family hike, High Sierras

The pains of a hard hike are shared, and we keep each other going.

Family hike, High Sierras

Remembering these antics around the fire keeps me going all the next day.

Family hike, High Sierras

We made it! Shoes got wet, but we crossed another rushing river.

photos by Becky Chaplin-Kramer

Natural Wonders

Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.

Fireweed

Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.

Pinedrops

You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail.  The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.

Bodie days

It only happens once a year, the celebration of the life of the founder of the infamous ghost town, Bodie, California, a once, prosperous, if a bit unlawful, mining town in the eastern Sierras.  And what a celebration — complete with a funeral procession to honor the bones of the man who gave the town its name but didn’t live to see prosperity boom there, people dressed in period costume, acting out their various roles in the town, an historical museum full of artifacts of the period, and a big crowd ready to take it all in.

Bodie, California

Bodie boasted a population of 7-8,000 in the 1880s, when gold was finally discovered there after about 20 years of prospecting for it. The town had 65 saloons, two churches, and a jail.

Bodie, California

The industrial side of town contained the stamp mills that crushed the raw ore, and smelting furnaces to separate out the precious metals. Gold, silver, mercury, and other metals were mined here, but the boom lasted less than 10 years.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Bodie days celebrants lined Main Street waiting for the “funeral procession” and listened to speakers talk about the life of WS Bodey, the town founder.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

First came the musicians

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Then the hearse, pulled by a pair of beautiful black horses.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Followed by an assortment of wagons and riders in a long parade of original equipment.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Ladies in costume posed in front of the dress shop. This building must have been built much later in the towns history, because it was composed almost entirely of men during boom mining days.

Bodie days, August 12, 2017

Riders in period costumes with cell phones!

Life in Bodie was fast and furious, but the town suffered a population decline in the late 1800s as mining booms in Montana, Utah, and Arizona drew the “strike it rich” young men away.

Now Bodie is a designated national historic landmark, and a popular tourist destination for those who want to see what life was like back in gold rush days.

Bodie hills

What the Bodie hills looked like before the mining boom here in the 1860s.

Blue lakes, purple flowers, and pink snow

Our scouting trip to find a pass over a ridge between two sets of lakes was unsuccessful, but we encountered some gorgeous scenery on the almost 8 mile hike around Saddlebag Lake on the Tioga pass road over the Sierras of California.

Saddlebag Lake

The water is quite chilly, but the fishing seems to be good on Saddlebag Lake

Saddlebag Lake

Wild flowers are still in their full, blazing glory. It was a late summer this year because of all the snow. I think the purple flowers might be Monk’s Hood, a showy plant containing highly toxic alkaloids.

Saddlebag Lake

You couldn’t ask for a better trail. Unfortunately, it ended quite a ways before climbing into the pass over the ridge just below the pointed peak, and the way up looked much too rocky a traverse to take young hikers (or old grandparents, for that matter).

Ridge between McCabe lakes and Saddlebag Lake

End of our good trail…these lakes are above 10,000 feet and only recently free of ice and snow.

Pink snow

What?! Pink snow?

Yes, it really is pink snow, colored not by leaching minerals but by the growth of the green alga (yes, it really is green under the microscope), Chlamydomonas nivalus. If there is one thing we have learned about life on earth, it’s that microbes can thrive just about anywhere, and here’s proof of life on the ice.

The algae are actually in a metabolically quiescent state, awaiting appropriate conditions, like lake water, to begin growing.  But to protect themselves (and their chlorophyll) from the damage of intense radiation at high altitude, they synthesize a protective sunscreen of carotenoid pigments (yes, the same ones that make Cardinals a bright cheery red).

Pink snow

And so, these green, but appearing red due to carotenoids, algae slide down  the snow banks toward fresh water to begin a new cycle of growth.

Scouting for the hike

We are back in California about to embark on the annual family trek through the high Sierra back country.  With all the snow the mountains received last winter and this spring, we were concerned about getting snow-bound in still frozen high meadows, so we are scouting some of the trail before the rest of the family joins us.

Sonora pass

At Sonora pass, 9624 feet, it looks like most of the trails should be show free. Still plenty of it around though, and the creeks are running fast and full.

Sonora pass

Late melting snows mean we get to enjoy a super abundance of gorgeous wild flowers.

Sonora pass

And beautiful vistas

On a trek for a Trogon

In the cool canyons above the desert floor, riparian woodlands thrive along the banks of streams flowing down from the mountains.

Madeira Canyon

We stopped at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon southeast of Tucson for a few days and enjoyed finding some unique birds flitting in the sycamores that line the creek.

Madera Canyon

Sycamores trees along the banks of the creek are a valuable resource for forest birds; their soft wood makes drilling holes easy for Woodpeckers and sapsuckers, and branches that drop in windy weather leave gaping holes for nests of rare birds like the Elegant Trogon that we set out to find on this trail along the creek.

As we hiked up the canyon, keeping our ears and eyes alert to signs of Trogon, we were rewarded with a couple of other birds unique to this part of Arizona.

Painted redstart

The first of these Painted Redstarts we saw played cat and mouse with us, making me really work to get its photo. Then as we hiked higher along the trail, we saw them everywhere.

Painted Redstarts aren’t that closely related to our American Redstart, though they have the same annoying habit of calling continually from hidden locations.  They are only found in parts of southeastern Arizona and south western New Mexico, and are members of the group of Whitestart warblers (named for their habit of flashing white tail feathers as they fly) that inhabit Mexico and Central Mexico.

Painted redstart

Another visitor from Mexico was found probing the litter beneath the trees, the Yellow-eyed Junco. It looks just like our Northern Juncos, but what a standout with the bright yellow eye!

Yellow-eyed Junco

These are not common here, but whenever we heard scratching noises on the forest floor, it was usually a junco.

And the bird we came to see, the one that frequents these trails in montane riparian woodlands, the one sighted just days before 50 yards from a bench overlooking the creek, the one we brought two cameras with big telephoto lenses to capture in all its splendor —  was nowhere to be seen (or heard).

Elegant Trogon

Elegant Trogon from Friends of Madera Canyon.com

On the road again…

at the Grand Canyon for an overnight (who does just one night?), but we’re on the road to elsewhere…stay tuned.

Grand Canyon vista

Vista in late afternoon of Tonto plateau point overlooking the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch on the floor of the canyon.

Grand Canyon vista

Grand Canyon vista. Yes, that is a person out there on that far pinnacle.

Sunset on the Grand Canyon, Bright Angel trailhead

Sunset on the Grand Canyon, Bright Angel trailhead.

humans and wildlife

There’s no doubt that wildlife attracts human spectators.  Sometimes we seem to love the wildlife encounter a little too much, placing ourselves (and the animals) in danger by getting too close.

failure to read the sign

Like this guy, who just couldn’t get close enough with his smart phone to get a good photo of this buffalo’s eye. Yeah, he got yelled at by a ranger, but he could just as easily have been flattened by Mr. Bison.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds, who was shocked that anyone could be this stupid.

For the most part, the animals at Yellowstone National Park, however, seem to ignore the humans and go on about their normal lives in the midst of huge long lines of traffic that clog the narrow roads.

bighorn-sheep crossing a busy road in Yellowstone

Cars slowed down, but didn’t stop for this female Bighorn Sheep crossing the road.

bighorn-sheep-Yellowstone National Park

The bighorn sheep don’t seem to be too stressed out to continue eating along side a busy road.

However, I suspect quite a few sheep, pronghorn antelope, and elk may get hit by cars with all the traffic they encounter daily. To combat this problem of high roadkill deaths of Pronghorn, Wyoming has installed a few wildlife corridors over busy highways where these antelope migrate between Yellowstone and southern Wyoming (read about migratory antelope here).

elk-gardiner-montana-

I’m not sure what the elk find so alluring about “downtown” Gardiner, Montana, but they lay around on the grassy lawns near the visitor center and wander through backyards of local residents without a seeming care in the world.

It’s certainly more exciting to find and photograph wildlife in their natural settings, free of artificial structures, and that’s a challenge with so many visitors to national parks all seeking that same experience.

pronghorn-antelope-

Unless you go out at times of day or in conditions that most people avoid, like a snow storm.

bull elk

Or in the evening when the light is just about gone. This bull elk had a harem of females he was protecting, and he’s massive compared to the town elk above.  Look at that neck!

elk-herd

Get along there ladies, get away from those pesky human photographers.

Channeling Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams introduced us to the grandeur of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains in his early photography in the 1920s and 30s, but his famous capture of the light on the Grand Tetons and Snake River was made about the time he invented the 10-point zone system of tonal contrast (varying from pure white to pure black) in the early 1940s.

anseladams_snakeriver_framed_1024x1024

The winding path of the Snake River draws one’s eyes right to the dramatic peaks that stand out so starkly and definitively in black and white.  Adams added some additional contrast to the sky to bring out the drama of the clouds and weather in this location.

It’s hard to reproduce that scene today, because the vegetation has changed quite a bit — in fact, the trees have grown so much they obscure part of the view of the river.

Grand Tetons-in-fall

Our view was marred by smoke from the Yellowstone fire, as well as low fog and haze.  The hill on the left lined with evergreens still dips toward the river, and the river’s path is about the same, although not obvious through the trees.

On another day (with better air clarity), we got a good sense of the rugged texture of those famous peaks, punctuated with a little fall color from the yellow aspens.

Grand Tetons-in-fall

The clouds constantly drifted by the peaks, uncovering various new aspects of them over time.

Landscape photography with Rick Sammon

This was going to be a 5 minute photo stop for the group of photographers in this Rick Sammon workshop, but turned into an hour long session, as the clouds drifted over the peaks presenting amazing new views.

This location provided an opportunity to try to “channel Ansel Adams”, for some dramatic Black and White photography.  So, here’s my rendition of the Grand Tetons a la Ansel Adams.

Grand Tetons

Voila!

What a location for landscape photography, to say nothing of the wildlife we saw as well.