Stark! Cold! Lifeless (almost).

That was the North Shore of Lake Superior this weekend.  So much wind they closed the lifts at Lutsen mountain, and the outer doors of our motel blew right off their track.

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

There are some interesting ice formations on the frozen part of the lake.

Wind and cold temperatures make for a stark landscape.  It’s more attractive with some people in it — cold hikers!

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Lots of frozen waterfalls along the cliff walls of the lake.

Lake Superior, Tofte, MN

Glittering shards of ice litter the shoreline of the lake.

American crow

Crows and ravens always seem to be out hunting for food regardless of weather extremes.

crows feeding on roadkill

Most often the animals you might see are feasting on roadkilled deer.  Larger predators like wolves and coyotes arrive first, then eagles, ravens, and crows. We saw several of these feeding sites along the north shore highway.  Image from a Storyblocks Video. 

Just being out in this environment for a couple of hours at a time makes me marvel at the abilities of animals to survive in it.

Time for some real winter weather

Because it’s not cold or snowy enough in the Twin Cities (hah!), we drove north for a weekend of skiing in a blizzard in the hills above the north shore of Lake Superior.

Ice houses on Lake Superior in Duluth

Ice houses on Lake Superior in Duluth.  Local news says 75% of Lake Superior is frozen.  Wave and wind action breaks up ice and pushes it to shore, leaving huge crystal shards there.

Lake Superior north shore highway, MN

At sunset along the north shore highway.  We didn’t know this would be the nicest of the 3 days of the weekend trip.

Cross-country skiing, Sugar Bush, Tofte, MN

Temperatures in the 20s, not much wind, but a steady snowfall in our faces as we skied.

But then the blizzard began, and conditions were so much worse for outdoor activity.  I tried to photograph the lake shore, walking through hip-deep snow drifts, against high velocity winds.  Ugh, how do people live here in the winter?

Lake Superior ice at Tofte, MN

Lake ice under pressure from ice being pushed to shore turns blue.

Lake Superior ice at Todte, MN

This landscape can be so photogenic, but not really in a blizzard…

Snow Goose bonanza

Snow Geese may be overtaking the world; well, at least their Arctic breeding grounds.  And when they invade their winter headquarters, they dominate that landscape as well.  We thought there must be a thick layer of salt along the edge of the Rio Grande flood plain when we looked across the expanse of blue water.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

That’s not a line of salt crystals along the shoreline, it’s a dense pack of Snow Geese!  Ruddy Ducks are in the foreground.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

High densities of Snow Geese congregate in their select winter headquarters in the U.S. and eastern coast of Mexico.

There must have been tens of thousands of these medium sized geese, crowded together in the shallow water of the Rio Grande. They are described as “voracious herbivores”, eating any and all parts of a plant, ripping up roots and all, or just shearing off the tops of grasses, sedges, and other aquatic plants.  Digested food passes through their gut in just a couple of hours, so just imagine how much goose poop is going into this section of the river!  Their voracious foraging is what has been decimating their tundra breeding grounds, as more and more geeese arrive each year to raise their chicks.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Snow Geese come in two color phases: white- and dark-bodied. The dark form was once believed to be a separate species, called the Blue Goose.  

Color is controlled by a single gene, but the dark allele is dominant over the white variant (actually dark is Incompletely dominant, to be technically correct).  So, this raises the very obvious question:  if dark color is dominant, why are there so many white Snow Geese?

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

The amount of color is variable, depending on whether the individual has one or two dark alleles.  Of the 3 most prominent birds in this photo, the one on the right has no dark alleles, the one in the middle might have two dark alleles, and the one on the left with less dark coloration might have one dark and one light allele.

The Snow Geese put on quite a display for us, with massive numbers of them taking off, circling in front of us, and then settling back on the pond. You have to marvel at their ability to fly in such close quarters without running into each other.

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM


Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Coming closer…

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM

Right in front of us….

Snow Geese, Bosque del Apache, NM


What a spectacle!

The beautiful Sonoran desert

I love the varied topography and vegetation of the Tucson area, and especially up in the foothills of the Catalina mountains on the road to Oracle (what a great name). Here are some views of the mountain landscape from Catalina State Park at sunset today.

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Catalina Mountains, Tucson, AZ

Looking back on 2018 — oh, the places we’ve seen!

What a fabulous year of sight-seeing, from Peru to the U.K and Iceland, to the wilds of California and Minnesota, and scenic coastlines of northeastern North America. It’s so hard choose the favorites, so instead I chose representative ones that bring back fond memories.  I hope you enjoy the re-run of the previous year’s landscapes.

Llamas at Machu Picchu, Peru

Llamas at Machu Picchu, Peru.  The iconic mountain view looming over the city ruins with the iconic mammals of the region!

Peruvian village in the mountains near Pisac

Peruvian village in the rugged Andes mountains near Pisac.

Lake near Sillustani, city of the dead, Puno, Peru

What looks like a floating island in a lake near Sillustani, the city of the dead, Puno, Peru.

Crossing the Amazon, Peru

A typical scene of family crossing the Amazon, 50 miles upstream from Iquitos, Peru.

Coal house near Thornham Harbor, Norfolk, England

Coal house and ancient boat near Thornham Harbor, Norfolk, England

Loch near Tongue, Scotland

Typical view of northern Scotland Lochs and Mountains with the gorse in bloom (near Tongue, Scotland).

Seacliffs, Handa Island, Scotland

Sea cliffs with lots of breeding sea birds all along the coast of Scotland.  This was on Handa Island, off the northwest coast of Scotland

Black sand beach at Vik, Iceland

Black sand beach at Vik, Iceland, with its strange volcanic remnants and steep sea cliffs along the coast on a typical “spring” day (May).

On the road to Vik, Iceland

On the road to Vik, Iceland, lots of exposed lava, high mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers.  It’s the land of Ice and Fire (a la Game of Thrones).

Iceland’s waterfalls: Gullfoss

Iceland’s waterfalls: Gullfoss drains an enormous inland glacier.

Minnesota autumn colors

Autumn colors on one of Minnesota’s 10,000+ lakes.

Winter in rural Minnesota

This is the classic scene of winter in the upper midwestern U.S.: gray and white with blotches of brown. Dreary, cold, uninviting…but picturesque.

And now on to 2019…

Tiny mobsters

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

We got a good demonstration of just how many tiny birds were present in the woods alongside roads in Sax-Zim bog, when our guide (Clinton Nienhaus, head naturalist at the bog) briefly played the call of a Screech Owl.  Within a couple of minutes, dozens of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches appeared, calling continuously to sound the alert of a predator’s presence.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, one of about a dozen, sounding the alert in response to a Screech Owl call.

Weighing in at a whopping 10 grams (less than a fast-food packet of ketchup), tiny Red-breasted Nuthatches are just a bit smaller than Chickadees, but even a small bird with that sharp-pointed beak could do some damage at close range.  In any case, the point of the mob action is to pester the would-be predator enough that it eventually flies away.  Mobs of small birds may also attract larger birds like jays and crows to help drive off the predator.

Red-breasted Nuthatches mobbing fake owl

Red-breasted Nuthatches and chickadees flit from branch to branch looking for the owl.  Since I have only ever seen a single or a pair of nuthatches at one time, this was a real treat to see so many of them in action.

Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer coniferous woods, like the black spruce and tamarack of the bog.  In the spring and summer, they are highly insectivorous, but like the chickadees, in the winter they love the peanuts and suet found at bird feeders.  Even though they are one of the smaller birds at the feeder, their feisty, aggressive behavior often drives bigger birds away.  Like their cousins, the White-breasted Nuthatch, they will store some of the feeder largesse in tree crevices for a snowy, cold day.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Looking up, looking down….where is that owl?

Sax-Zim bog is one of the premier birding areas in Minnesota, attractive to a number of Canadian breeding species like the Great Gray Owls and Hawk Owls, as well as northern breeding finches during the winter.  The farm fields filled with hay bales seem to be filled with mice and voles, perfect for raptors, and the dense spruce-tamarack forest provides good cover.  The Friends of Sax-Zim bog have established a welcome center where one can get a map, advice on where to search for some of the more exotic species, and even guided field trips to help you spot those elusive birds.

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN.  We stopped here to check on the presence of Redpolls and other small finches.  Alas, only one Redpoll appeared, and only very briefly and far away.

For more information about the bog, visit their website (link above) or check out the photos and commentary of one of the founders of the organization, Sparky Stensaas at The Photonaturalist.

the creek

I am intrigued by the idea of a creek that runs through the heart of a dense urban area with mostly clear water and that supports a variety of wildlife along its riparian border.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Water levels may fluctuate, but there is always enough to support wildlife.

Los Gatos creek runs northward 24 miles from the Santa Cruz mountains through the once orchard-rich, now highly residential Santa Clara valley to join the Guadelupe River which eventually empties into the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Steep slopes along its course have been lined with sandbags or rocks to prevent the inevitable erosion of soft soils into the river that would dam its flow.

Along its length, the creek feeds two reservoirs and several small impoundments meant to recharge the ground water and prevent San Jose from subsiding as water is drawn from underground storage during urban development.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Creek water is aerated as it cascades over waterfalls and dams along its course.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

In places, the creek becomes a narrow channel, where water moves swiftly over rocks.

Hard to believe you’re in the middle of a major metropolis when you stand by the creek and watch a Coopers Hawk take down an errant little bird on the opposite shore.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Maples, oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods line the shore of the creek, creating colorful landscapes and providing cover for wildlife.

Walking north on the trail along the creek toward downtown San Jose, I came across an unusual painting on one of the many highway overpasses.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Was this creek a salmon run?

In the late 1800s, “speckled trout” (probably the steelhead, or pacific rainbow trout) were apparently so numerous in the creek, they could be caught by hand.  But agricultural development in the valley lowered the water table too much to sustain the salmon migration, until the reservoir and percolation pond system raised it.

Today tagged steelhead trout and Chinook salmon once again migrate up the Guadelupe River and Los Gatos creek from San Francisco Bay, which is a testament to the health of this urban riparian system.

Funny feet

I think of American Coots as very common, uninteresting birds, and so I never photograph them.  But I was intrigued by their diving maneuvers to obtain submerged vegetation, and stopped to watch them more closely on my walk along Los Gatos Creek in San Jose, CA the other day.

Juvenile American Coot

This juvenile Coot was very protective of a small patch of submerged vegetation a foot or so below the surface.

Coots seem to be very buoyant in the water; it takes work to submerge and they actively kick their feet against the water as they dive, quite unlike what Cormorants do.

American Coot diving

This is the intriguing part.  Look at those big feet/toes that the bird uses to propel itself down into the water.

Submerged American Coot

Using their lobed toes to propel them, Coots can get down to choice bites of vegetation.

Juvenile American Coot

Sometimes they bring up a large amount of vegetation that they bite off in chunks.

American Coot feet

A better look at those funny feet.   Photo from

Coots occupy a wide variety of wetland habitats throughout North and Central America, feeding on a variety of aquatic vegetation.  But they are not fussy and will eat seeds or invertebrates they find on land as well.  Typically, they forage in small groups, their lobed toes expanded to a web as they kick backward to propel them through the water, and then collapsing inward as they bring their foot forward again.

That lobed toe design comes in handy when Coots walk across muddy, marsh ground, preventing them from sinking down into it.  And they assist Coots in taking off from water, when they need to use their feet to help lift their chunky bodies into the air.

Pretty useful, those funny feet!

American Coot taking off from water (Audubon)

American Coot taking off from water (Audubon Guide to North American Birds).

Tiny birds

Some of the tiniest birds in the Avian taxonomic class (outside of the hummingbirds) live here in California, and in fact, are quite common in parks and urban areas.  I happened to find one the tiniest species on my walk along Los Gatos creek the other day.

American Bushtit, San Jose, CA

The American Bushtit is the sole representative of its primarily European and Asian family of Long-tailed Tits.  You can appreciate how small it is when you compare it to the leaf of a cottonwood tree.

Bushtits weigh in at a whopping 5.5 grams on average — that’s how much a nickel weighs and is only slightly more than an Anna’s Hummingbird weighs.  Yellow-rumped Warblers seen zooming through our yards on migration every year and Black-capped Chickadees weigh twice as much as a Bushtit.

American Bushtit, San Jose, CA

Usually found foraging in small groups, Bushtits move around so quickly, they make it hard to get a good photo.

Other than being tiny and dull gray, their chief distinguishing feature is a thin, longish, dark tail.  But observing them up close, you learn that Bushtits are very social: they forage in small groups, they huddle together at night to stay warm, and they have “helpers” at their nests that defend the breeding territory and feed the chicks.  Usually these helpers turn out to be lower status males that failed to attract a female or whose nesting attempt failed.  This type of social behavior is more often seen in species in the Jay and Crow family.

American Bushtit, San Jose, CA

This is a female Bushtit, distinguished by her pale iris. The iris changes color a short time after females hatch, making it easy to sex birds in a flock.

Their diminutive size enables them to search small crevices or hang from the flimsiest branches in search of small insects or spiders hiding there.  Bushtits do us a favor by hunting along drooping branches for the scale insects whose excretions leave a collection of sticky droplets on our cars.

American Bushtit, San Jose, CA

Like their Long-tailed Tit relatives in Eurasia, Bushtits weave a hanging nest from a thin tree branch, by using stretchy (and strong) spider web incorporated into plant fibers.  It might take a month for a pair of Bushtits to build the structure, after several trials to determine the best location.

Bushtit nest, WA, photo by Mike Hamilton

Bushtit on its nest, photo by Mike Hamilton, in Washington state.

Bushtits probably originated from Asian Long-tailed Tit species, spreading down the coast of western North America from Alaska to Mexico sometime after the Pleistocene glacial period. Their small size and group social dynamic may have been a key to their success in exploring a new niche in the “New World”.

a California fall day

Back in California for a couple of weeks, for a wedding and to enjoy prolonging lovely fall weather as long as possible.  It was a good day to hike along Los Gatos creek in Campbell (a small municipality in San Jose, CA) and enjoy the local wildlife.

Los Gatos Creek Park, Campbell CA

This pond along Los Gatos creek trail supports an amazing diversity of wildlife, from tame Mallards and Peking ducks, to breeding colonies of Cormorants, a pair of kingfishers. various Gull species, and of course, Canada Geese.

Los Gatos Creek Park, Campbell CA

There hasn’t been any rain here yet and most of the landscape is extremely dry except bordering the creek itself.

Common Bushtits, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose CA

Five little Bushtits looking for bugs on the dried wild anise. Can you find all of them? (I didn’t take the telephoto lens on my walk today.)

More on the Los Gatos creek wildlife in the next post….