Remembering the year that was…

This year was an amazing time of one adventure after another…as we made up for the Covid isolation period and two years of postponed trips. So many beautiful places, beautiful animals, beautiful landscapes, and amazing people that we met. Here’s a snapshot of the year in review.

(Note: if you’re interested in seeing more and perhaps better photos of any of the activities mentioned below, go to the main page of the blog: https://bybio.wordpress.com and there should be a pull-down menu for the Archives with months and years of the blog listed near the top right of the main page. Just click on the month of interest, and scroll down through the days to see more of what I have summarized here. IPhone and iPad users may have to scroll to the bottom of the main page to see the dialog boxes with the months listed.)

The highlight of a trip to northern Minnesota to photograph the winter avian residents there was watching a very cooperative Great Gray Owl get four mice (from under the snow) in just four attempts — 100% success!
We took the long-awaited, much postponed cruise down the west coast of Mexico and Central America through the Panama Canal, ending up in Florida. Birding from the ship turned out to be a big plus.
Photography buddy Debby invited us to stay at Hilton Head, SC for a week to marvel at the huge numbers of shorebirds and others that overwinter in this milder mid-Atlantic climate.
As a prelude to our birding adventure in Spain in April-May, we took ourselves sight-seeing in Portugal, with a few days birding and exploring Lisbon, a train ride to Porto, and a few days there before ending the prelude in Madrid (a much more beautiful city than I remembered).
Birding extravaganza in the plains, forests, shore, swamps, and even in old cities in the Extremadura region and Donana national park in southern Spain with Ruth Miller and Alan Davies — birders extraordinaire
The annual family hike in our favorite haunts of the Desolation Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California took place early this year (to avoid a repeat of the disastrous smoke and fire threat we faced last year on the hike in August). We were rewarded with 100% warm, sunny days and no bugs!
Some of the family rode an airplane home from the Sierra hike, but two grandsons were kind enough to keep their grandparents company on a road trip from California through Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and South Dakota on the way back to Minnesota. Sights were seen and adventures were had along the way.
Although tamer than the previous months of travel, the backyard did not disappoint in bringing wildlife and beautiful scenes for photography. I realize in writing this now that I forgot to include the visit from the kit fox and its mama in August.
We always make at least one trip out to the central Minnesota prairie during the summer, and this year we found ground squirrels and monarch butterflies at Fort Riley state park. The tom turkeys visited the front and the back yards often, but without their girl friends.
A trip to eastern Europe (the Balkan countries) was a premier highlight of the year. It was definitely a learning and discovery adventure since we knew nothing about this part of the world. Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Slovenia — all beautiful, all very interesting though with tragic stories from inhabitants, and all easy to travel around with lots of friendly folks that spoke English.
As always, the fall color spectacle in the Twin Cities did not disappoint. The colors remained vivid for a long time, even into November before the trees finally gave up with the snowfall that began late this year on Nov. 12.
The forest outside became a fairy land of white-encrusted branches after the first major dump of very wet snow in December. Inside the tree was decorated with lights, mementos, and presents. Happy holidays!!

Hiking in Croatia

Our next destination on this trip was the laid-back, small beach town of Opatija (pronounced o-pa-ti-a). We had a free day to explore some of the area, while others on our tour were sampling the wines of the Istrian region (northwest peninsula of Croatia). It was perfect weather for a hike in the Učka (pronounced ooch-kah) nature park, about a half-hour drive northwest of Opatija. Park personnel recommended we hike to the highest peak of the park, Mt. Vojak (vo-yak) for the stunning views of the coast. Fall color was almost at peak in the beech forest, so we followed a well-marked trail from the Učka nature park visitor center to the summit of Vojak — about a 1500 foot climb.

Our view of the seaside town of Opatija, on the northwest coast of Croatia, when we arrived the evening before the hike.
Starting up the trail, we found a wide, well-marked, not very steep path with lots of tall beech trees providing shade.
There were a few more rugged rocky sections, but the trail was just a steady climb without the high steps and boulders we usually encounter on the Sierra trails. And the lower altitude and lack of a backpack on this hike made it much more enjoyable!
We passed a few wide, level spots where a few different trails merged, but managed to stay on the correct one. There are chestnut trees in the forest here, and lots of nuts on he ground, but no rodents, that we saw, to eat them. We heard just a couple of birds, but the forest was mostly very quiet.
Finally at the top in about two hours, we found the lookout tower, which was originally built by an Austrian climbing club. The peak at 1401 meters was extremely windy and cool, so we didn’t stay long, except to take in the view.

Park personnel in the souvenir shop in the tower told us that Griffon vultures have nested in the park for the first time this year. Several pairs of the vultures (which are rare in the Balkans) have nested on a nearby island in last years, but park staffers make a concerted effort to rescue the fledglings that often fall into the bay and are not strong enough to fly out of the water.

Views looking southwest down toward Opatija were hazy. On a clear day you can see as far as Venice and the northeastern most coast of Italy. Trieste, Italy is just 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Opatija.
The descent down Mt. Vojak was far harder than the climb to the peak. Looking toward Italy at the top of this image. Note the small clearing at the bottom of the hill above my husband’s right arm.
The trail was very steep with many loose rocks to slip on. I wished I had my hiking poles!!
You can see the steep angle of this slope, where we probably lost 1000 of the 1500 feet we had climbed.
Only one group of hikers passed us on our way up the peak. But we passed quite a few hikers on our way down that were doing the steep uphill climb to the peak from the north side, rather than the more gentle climb we did from the south side.
Here is that clearing at the bottom of the hill that I pointed out in the image above. It’s a picnic area with a small labyrinth of rocks for those who need a little meditative exercise before the big climb.
And now the easy park of the hike along the contour lines of the mountain (instead of continually crossing them) back to our starting point.
Walking along through the yellow-orange color in the beech forest on a balmy fall day was truly one of the highlights of this trip.
An on to the end of the trail — where a half mile walk on the road brought us back to the visitor center.

Some very old walls

On a day trip to Montenegro from Dubrovnik, we drove and boated to the farthest reaches of the deepest inlet of the Adriatic Sea to the ancient town of Kotor, first officially recognized as a town in the Roman Empire during second century A.D.

Storm clouds hanging over the high mountains on either side of the long inlet of the Adriatic Sea made the “black mountains” especially dark.
More than 80% of the population of Montenegro live by the shore of the long Adriatic inlet, fishing and farming oysters and clams. There is precious little flat land for any agriculture in this part of Montenegro.
We made a brief stop in Perast, one of the many small towns along the inlet to briefly gawk at produce for sale (amazing varieties of olives), and to catch a boat ride to the terminus of the inlet where the city of Kotor has existed for almost two millennia.
Olives, galore!
One of the scenic attractions of Perast is the church of Our Lady of the Rocks, built on an artificial island constructed of rocks added over time to a bed of sunken ships. The tradition of throwing rocks into the bay began in the late 1400s and continues today as festival goers add their rocks to the current shoreline on which the church sits.
The small, walled city of Kotor was a jewel of the Venetian empire, and then subsumed into each of the kingdoms and empires that transformed the boundaries of southeastern Europe from 500-2000 A.D.
The Roman emperor Justinian added fortifications above the walled city to protect it from invading Goths in 6th century A.D. Adventurous hikers today can climb the 2000 ancient stone steps to the top-most fortress.
Inside the compact walled city, now a protected UNESCO site, all the facades of the buildings must be left untouched, to maintain their ancient appearance. The largest and most ornate of them is St. Tryphon’s cathedral, first consecrated in 1166. Several earthquakes in the area (including a severe 8.0 quake in Dubrovnik in 1667) damaged the structure several times, but it has been rebuilt and added to, with a new and taller bell tower added in 2016.
Even here, in the tiny walled city of Kotor, cats walk or lie about everywhere. This kitty was particularly unusual, with its part orange, part gray tabby coloration.

Road trip adventure conclusion — Utah and eastward

From Great Basin National Park in Nevada through central Utah’s magnificent canyons and mountains, we drove on to Dinosaur National Monument at the Utah-Colorado border.

The lake bed sediments that make up the hills here date back about 150 million years ago, to the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era. Dinosaurs trapped in lake or river beds became entombed in rock that was later uplifted and tilted by mountain-building tectonic forces.
A beautiful campground on the banks of the Green River provides spectacular views of these dinosaur fossil-rich rocks.
We found a colony of Cliff Swallows nesting on the underside of some of the steep cliffs along the river.

Paleontologists from the Carnegie museum discovered the fossil remains of huge sauropods here early in the 1900s, and the site was quickly designated a national monument in 1915 to preserve it for more exploration. Thousands of fossils of the giant herbivores (like Apatosaurus) and carnivores (like Allosaurus) were excavated and shipped back to the Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh.

A huge enclosure over the original fossil bed quarry gives visitors a glimpse of what the early paleontologists might have seen as they excavated fossils. Hundreds of bones of different species sitting in close proximity to each other, with some having large portions of their skeletons almost completely intact.
The Utah Field House of Natural History in Vernal, Utah (near the monument) provided more information on the animals that roamed this area over 100 million years ago, and the boys enjoyed the “dinosaur garden” with life-sized replicas of the Jurassic beasts. Nothing better than a selfie with T.rex.

The next day driving along the Yampa river, we saw hundreds of little black blobs crossing the highway. I thought they were rocks but the boys saw them moving, so we stopped to look.

One of the thousands of Mormon Crickets swarming the highway. The long protuberance on the rear of this individual is an ovipositor, which she will use to deposit her eggs in the soil.

These are the insects that decimated the crops of early Mormon settlers in Utah. They are not really crickets, but are related to katydids. As shown in the photo, they are flightless, but move quite quickly on the ground. Although these insects usually exist in low density, occasionally huge numbers are produced in the spring. As they develop into adults over the summer, they form a swarm (with densities of hundreds of individuals per square meter) that migrates over the land, consuming everything in its path to find new areas to colonize.

You know you’re entering the Midwest when you cross the Continental Divide, which we did several times as we descended the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, driving through some of the prettiest and greenest mountain meadows I’ve ever seen.

Yes, there really are “rabbit ears”- like rocks overlooking the pass, but we had to really search for them.
Driving on northeast toward Wyoming, we encountered this weird cloud formation near Cheyenne.
The day’s destination was Scottsbluff, Nebraska, making this a five state journey on this day! The bluff and the town was named for Hiram Scott, a clerk for the Rocky Mountain fur company who died here. It’s interesting that the misspelling of the bluff (without an apostrophe) was carried forward to the county and the city name without correction,

Scotts Bluff stands high above the surrounding plains and was a visible landmark for early travelers of the Mormon and Oregon trails. Later the Oregon trail went right through this pass, adding over 200,000 travelers to the westward expansion.

It may not look it from this angle but Scotts Bluff is over 800 feet high. The boys didn’t think traveling by wagon train would be very comfortable, and in fact, there was no place to ride inside the wagons because they were piled high with provisions.

The next two days were simply a push for home, through the sand hills of Nebraska, which were surprisingly green and wet, then through the unending landscapes of corn and soybean fields of Iowa, and finally into the Minnesota river valley and home.

Road trip adventures part 2 — eastern Nevada’s fabulous cave

Great Basin national park in east-central Nevada near the Utah border is a relatively new member (established in 1986) of the national park system. Named for its unique hydrology as a collection bowl that only drains internally: i.e., water flows into the Great Basin, pools briefly, then drains through the crust or evaporates, with no flow leaving the basin.

The bowl of the Great Basin extends from the Sierra Nevada range in the west to the Wasatch range of Western Utah in the east. Tectonic activities throughout the 200,000+ square mile area have created a series of low mountain ranges that have been likened to a “group of caterpillars crawling toward Mexico”. Great Basin national park is located just below the “a” of Great Basin on the map.
Among its exceptional features this park includes 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak and it’s assorted granite-lined valleys and alpine lakes, groves of the world’s oldest living trees — Bristlecone pines, and the amazing and varied formations of Lehman Caves.
While we waited for our cave tour to start, we drove up near Wheeler peak summit for a 3 mile hike through some alpine lakes. It was breath-taking! (Literally) scenery, and nice to hike without a pack.
There is a definite tree line on these steep mountains. Lack of water and cold temperatures create a very short growing season for these conifers, such as spruce, bristlecone, and limber pine.

But, Lehman cave was what we came to this park to see. The cave was discovered in the 1880s, was privately owned for a while, made into a national monument in 1922, and then incorporated into the much larger national park. Some of the most unique of all cave formations are found in abundance here —

Lehman Caves has such familiar cave formations as stalactitesstalagmitescolumnsdraperiesflowstone and soda straws. There are also some rarities such as shields, which consist of two roughly circular plates fastened together like fattened clam shells, often with graceful stalactites and draperies hanging from their lower plate. Lehman Caves is most famous for its abundance of shields. A shield called the Parachute and other formations make touring Lehman Caves an unusual and rewarding experience. Delicate helictites, small branching formations that defy gravity, and anthodites, small needle-like crystals of aragonite, are also found throughout the caves. Cave popcorn resembling the edible variety, adorns many walls.” (https://www.desertusa.com/grb/lehman.html)

Not just a stalactite meeting a stalagmite, but thick columns of calcium carbonate run floor to ceiling through the cavern.
Popcorn additions to cave structures are calcite or aragonite deposits.
An entire room full of fantastic shapes created by the slowly percolating, calcium-carbonate seepages through porous rock.
Delicate spires cover underlying mounds of calcium rich rock, creating unique shapes.
Rarely seen in most caves, there are numerous “shields” in Lehman cave that form from two halves that grow together to fit like a clam shell.

No flash photography is allowed in the cave, but the formations are well lit so that a camera phone can capture their beauty. Passageways are very narrow, with delicate formations right in the middle of the path that we had to carefully walk around without touching. The formations are wet, and water drips continuously from the ceiling, so the path is slippery in some places. Needless to say, our visit here was one of the highlights of the “road trip-2022”.

And next it’s on to the dinosaurs of Utah!

Road trip adventures 2022 – Nevada

The two youngest grandsons accompanied us from California back to Minnesota at the conclusion of the annual Sierra backpacking trip. Of course, it’s standard practice to stop at various geographic and geological wonders along the way to educate and entertain the youngsters (both teen-agers now). This sometimes results in ”misadventures” instead of just adventures, but there were no flat tires on this trip, unlike the previous summer’s trifecta of blown rubber.

Once again over the crest of the Sierras, we traveled on Hwy 50 (“the loneliest road in America”) across Nevada. Although most people avoid driving this road because of its supposedly monotonous features, we always find plenty to look at.

First stop was the hill we have always called “Wonderstone Mountain”, 10 miles southeast of Fallon. Although the location is just north of the highway, the myriad of roads that people drive through the desert makes it hard to find the right route. The boys quickly climbed the hill and began to look for the curiously marked “wonderstones”.
Colorful rocks and pebbles were probably formed as gaseous vents spewed minerals through the clay sediments of lake beds in this area millions of years ago.
The next stop was Ichthyosaur state park, where a 55 foot replica of the largest reptile of Mesozoic seas is mounted outside the museum. These creatures were the top marine predators of their time— air-breathing “whales” of the ancient oceans.
The museum houses the skeletons of at least six ichthyosaurs, still encased in stone. Scientists believe the huge animals may have beached themselves in shallow mud and died there, but their bones became separated and jumbled together when the area was buried in mudslides and subjected to uplift in several mountain building events.

The park is located near the once-booming, mining town of Berlin, 20 miles east of Gabbs, NV, in the foothills of the Shoshone Mountains. More than a ton of gold was mined here,- valued at $850,000 in 1890 prices ($20/ounce). The thriving town of about 300 miners, merchants, etc. was deserted when the ore vein ran out, but it never burned, so many of the original buildings and some of the equipment used still remain.

Nearby, Ione was an even more prosperous town in the mid 1800s when it attracted a population of 600. But failing mines caused people to drift away, so that by the 1890s, just a skeleton crew remained. However, unlike Berlin, the few that remained in Ione kept the town alive until the post office closed in the 1950s. Now, the town sees just a few tourists, fond of visiting the ghost towns of Nevada.

Sierra hike 2022 – the way down

Continued from the previous post: what a treat to spend a day hiking between lakes without a heavy backpack, and through gorgeous green meadows lined with red fir trees on a fairly level trail!

Off we go for a morning hike, with lunches to eat at Lake Lois…
I never get tired of these gorgeous meadows, and using the Merlin bird app, we were able to figure out which birds were doing all the singing.
Back at the Lake Doris campsite in late afternoon, it was time to pack up and head over Rockbound Pass down to Lake Maud. My granddaughters wanted to rename this set of lakes to something less old-fashioned sounding. We climbed up a little ways to the low part of the pass, only losing the trail a couple of times in the snowfields.
The other side of Rockbound Pass is well-named — you must hike a long ways down a jumble of rocks, often separated by big steps down. This was one of the few places there was a “nice” trail.
And sometimes the trail looked like this — and you ask yourself, ”where is the trail”?
Our destination is in the distance, but it’s already early evening, and we’re still 2 miles away!
Surprisingly, the lower part of this dry, rocky trail was flush with beautiful wildflowers in full bloom.
Two, tired grandparents rolled into camp, downed a quick bite of food, and collapsed in the tent at sunset.
The next morning everyone felt perky again, but sad to leave the mountains.
Grandpa led the three oldest grandsons down the trail showing them how to identify the various trees and flowers, and then launching into a longer history of early California.
Leaving the wilderness —it’s only another mile or two to our cars. And thats the end of Sierra hike 2022.

Sierra hike 2022 – the way up

Across the country again – this time for the annual Sierra Nevada backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. It’s been 34 years since we made the first backpacking foray into the Sierras and we have rarely missed a year since then. This year all 12 family members participated, although not all from the same starting point, but we all met up at Lake Doris, had a welcome day off from packing gear to yet another destination, and celebrated with a day hike sans backpack! That was more or less the end of the way up…

The view from Echo peak of the mountains behind Lake Aloha —our first destination.
Looking the other direction toward Lake Tahoe and little Fallen Leaf lake —the starting point of this group’s hike.
Hiking the trail up from Echo Lake (my group’s starting point), we remembered how black the sky was during the Caldor fire last year when we hiked here.
We met up with the first group and arrived at a lovely campsite on the southern shore of Lake Aloha for the first night.
The next day we said farewell to Lake Aloha, hiked over Mosquito Pass and down to Clyde Lake — a typical example of the granite-surrounded high lakes in the Desolation Wilderness.

One of the attractions of the Desolation Wilderness area is its glacially carved, clear lakes at the base of rugged granite peaks. Exceptionally clear water makes them excellent swimming holes, but at this time of year, it’s like swimming in melting ice water.

Here’s a 360 degree panorama of the scenery at Clyde Lake. Wind off the snowbanks and cold lake water made it somewhat chilly standing in the shade.
Flowering plants are dwarfed here — too cold and too dry.
We had two resident Yellow-bellied marmots in camp. The kids nick-named this one Buck and his friend, Chuck. It seems that marmots like to chew on the handles of hiking poles — especially the sweaty handholds. Mine got chewed on at this campsite, thanks to Buck or Chuck.
We squeezed the tent between a rock and a tree, which turned out to be helpful to keep it from blowing away without us in it.
Conference at breakfast the next morning over the next section of the hike that will take us down 1000 feet to China Flat and then back up 1000 feet to the north side of Rockbound Pass at Lake Doris.
And finally we met up with the third group of family members, as they made their way down from Rockbound Pass to our campsite at Lake Doris.

to be continued…

Ramsey Canyon — in an ecological crossroads

The whole of southeastern Arizona is really an ecological potpourri of fauna and flora where the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Mexico meet the southern Rockies of the U.S. and where the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts converge. The Huachuca mountains rise steeply from the desert floor (as discussed in the last post on Cave Creek Canyon), creating another “sky island” with a mix of species from all those varied habitats: like apache and chihuahuan pines (found in the Mexican deserts) and of course, my favorite — the Elegant Trogon along with several other unique endemics from Mexico described below.

Ramsey Canyon (a Nature Conservancy preserve) is an elongate creek bed lined with shady sycamores, oaks, and maples and steep hillsides lined with pines, cacti, and yucca. It has the added attraction of a very nice bed and breakfast right next door to the preserve.

Naturally, we took in the highlights of the unique flora and fauna here with a couple of hikes up the canyon from our B&B.

Photography buddy, Debbie, posed in front of one of the tiny cabins that are apparently still used by some of the owners that preceded the Nature Conservancy. Shade makes all the difference in this very warm, sunny place in the late spring.
Among the many local residents in Ramsey Canyon are the diminutive white-tailed deer subspecies, called Coues deer, found only in southwestern U.S. mountain ranges. They are less than 3 feet tall at the shoulder and usually weigh less than 100 pounds. Lush grass like this next to the creek sustain them in the spring but dry out quickly in the hot summer when they will retreat to higher elevations to find food.
One of the common, but locally endemic inhabitants of these canyons is Yarrow’s spiny lizard which is found only in the canyons of extreme southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, but is more commonly found in central Mexico. They are often referred to as “blue-bellies” from the blue stripes that run down their ventral surface.
As a year-round resident of the canyons of southeastern Arizona, these lizards face both hot and cold extremes, with a short period of “nice weather” during which they are active. Like other species of this genus (Sceloporus) that live in montane habitats, Yarrow’s spiny lizard are viviparous, giving birth to live young every couple of years.
Further up the trail we discovered several of the round, leafy nests of Plumbeous Vireos, in this case, with a bird sitting quietly in the nest while we walked by. These are common residents of the southeastern canyons of Arizona.
Another unique resident of the southwestern U.S. is the Arizona Woodpecker, the only one with brown plumage. These are primarily a Mexican species found only in this part of southeastern Arizona and extreme southwestern New Mexico.
Yellow-eyed Juncos, a different species from our common Slate-colored Juncos, are another primarily Mexican species that frequents just the southeastern Arizona canyons. That striking yellow eye makes them immediately recognizable. They can be found in montane areas in the spring and summer but move to lower elevations in the winter to find seed and water.

Chiracahua beauty

The Chiracahua mountains of southeastern Arizona offer a multitude of scenic vistas, as well as a bounty of incredible wildlife to see.

There are a lot of canyons formed by rivers running down from the peaks of these 6-8,000 foot mountains. This is the entrance to Cave Creek canyon, one of our favorite places to stay and explore.
Rock formations and cliff faces line the sides of the canyons. You can easily see the altitudinal changes in vegetation as you ascend to mountain peaks.

The Chiricahua Mountains rise more than 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them “islands in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along a gradient from hot, dry desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, which means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity. 

We found a giant meadow of blue flag iris at Rustler Park, up at 8200 feet. Lots of butterflies and Anna hummingbirds flitted around these flowers sipping their nectar.
I think this might be the Western Pygmy Blue butterfly on the iris. These are one of the smallest of the southwestern butterflies, only 1/2 to 3/4 inch across. They can be found right out on the desert floor, as well as in the canyons and mountains. The caterpillars manage to survive on a diet of desert saltbush in the most arid desert conditions — amazing!
On the other end of the size spectrum were these gigantic Two-tailed Swallowtail butterflies, with a wingspan ranging from 3-6 inches, making it the largest Swallowtail in western North America. This species is the state butterfly of Arizona.
Adults only live 7-14 days and feed only on nectar, but the caterpillars prefer chokecherry or poplar leaves, and are a striking orange color with a big eyespot on their rear end to deter predators.
The Swallowtail I was photographing suddenly took off — and here’s the reason why. An aggressive little male Anna’s hummingbird, about the same size as the swallowtail just buzzed in for a drink of iris nectar.