The teaser

The resident (and very territorial) male Anna’s Hummingbird in my mother-in-law’s backyard proved to be quite a challenge to photograph. He always sat with his back to me, singing his scratchy sing-song, and he preferred to hover in front of me with his back to the sun.  In fact he hovered above and around me for just seconds before dashing away to hide in the middle of the bottlebrush shrub.  What a tease!  You have to be really quick on the trigger (shutter) to catch these guys in prime light, and there were many more misses than successes with my attempts.

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

Male Anna’s Hummingbird

the amazing California Bay

The California Bay tree, also known as the California Bay Laurel or California Laurel, and a host of other names, is one of its kind, the only species in its own genus, and quite an interesting plant.  Bay trees are part of the coastal forest and unique to the California floristic province.

Huckleberry Botanical preserve, Oakland CA

Mixed oak-bay coastal forest at Huckleberry Botanical preserve in the Oakland hills.

Their leaves are more pungent than the Mediterranean bay used in cooking. My husband once stuffed a chicken with bay laurel leaves before cooking it on a Boy Scout camping trip and found it completely inedible.

Like some other coastal tree species, California bay have a swollen base of root crown called lignotuber which protects delicate buds that sprout when the central trunk has been damaged.

Stump sprouts in California bay laurel

Stump sprouts in California bay laurel shoot upward from the root crown.

The resultant growth of multiple stems emerging from the root crown makes this forest look like a dense jungle.

California Bay Laurel

Atypical growth form of the California is bay tree, where numerous sprouts have replaced the central stump that might have been damaged by fire or storm.

multiple stems of California bay laurel

Multiple stems of California bay laurel tower over the fern understory on the banks of a small creek.

California Live Oak, Huckleberry Botanical Preserve, Oakland CA

On the more southern-facing (I.e., sunnier and drier) side of the creek, the trees are predominantly California Live Oak, with noticeably fewer laurels and no fern understory.

What a difference the microclimate of this forest makes.  We wore our jackets while hiking through the dark, shady north facing laurel forest, and worked up a sweat climbing the sun-exposed hills of oak forest.

Mixed hardwood-coniferous forest at Huckleberry Botanical Preserve, Oakland CA

Mixed hardwood-coniferous forest in the Huckleberry Botanical Preserve is truly impressive.

Seven swans a-sleeping…

A scene from across Lake Vadnais in St. Paul called to me to get closer and try to photograph the group of Trumpeter Swans.

trumpeter swans

I haven’t seen any Trumpeter Swans up close since last winter, and here they were basking on the shore of one of the lakes that supply water to St. Paul.

So I hiked around the lake trying to figure out where on the trail they might be. However, it was bow season for deer that day, and so I couldn’t stray too far off the path into the woods.

By the time I found them, this is what I saw:  seven swans a-sleeping (well, one was alert).

trumpeter swans-2

It must have been a busy morning, and I’ve never seen them a bunch of swans so completely sacked out.

However, road noise woke a couple of them up, just for a few moments.

trumpeter swans

trumpeter swans

and then right back to napping.

I guess when you’re as big as an adult Trumpeter Swan, you don’t worry too much about photographers creeping up near by.  Even the Mallards were unperturbed.

color me beautiful

The Amur Maple forest has once again reached its full fall splendor.

amur-maple-forest-

The introduced Amur Maple is really more of a tall shrub, but it grows so densely along the roadside it forms an almost impenetrable forest.

Dense thickets of Amur Maple crowd out and shade out natives that might grow there —  really the only thing this species has going for it (in my opinion) is the brilliant color display of its fall leaves.  The ground cover beneath the trees looks like a collection of fallen leaves, but on closer inspection, it seems to be a mini-forest of Amur Maple seedlings, ready to bolt up as soon as a light gap appears in the forest overhead.

fall color - Amur Maple-

Bare branches above, lots of colorful leaves on the ground — right?

fall color - Amur Maple-

There are some fallen leaves here, but there are more tiny seedlings, each with just a few leaves, carpeting the ground and leaving no bare areas for anything else to invade.

fall color - Amur Maple-

It’s a very photogenic forest, and easy to walk through since there is no understory.

fall color - Amur Maple-

The birch in the background established itself first here, but the Amur Maple seedlings beneath the birch will make it impossible for birch seedlings to get established.

fall color - Amur Maple-

but what color!

fall color - Amur Maple forest

Another glorious Indian Summer day

Door county sights

The Door county peninsula that juts out into Lake Michigan north of Green Bay, Wisconsin seems to enjoy a different climate than the surrounding part of the state.  Stepping back a couple of weeks from the peak fall color of central Wisconsin, trees are just barely tinged with red and gold, and the weather is balmy instead of chilled.  Maybe it’s the lake effect.

We hiked along the limestone cliffs at Cave point county park on the eastern edge of the peninsula and marveled at the way the trees could seemingly grow right out of cracks in these 400 million year old rocks that have been polished smooth by glacial action.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Pounding waves undercut the limestone bluffs and create caves along the shoreline.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Water near the rocks is crystal clear and a beautiful jade green color.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

A mixed forest of white cedar, alder, beech, and maple is mostly stunted in its growth because of the lack of soil covering the limestone.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

Water runoff from waves or rain/snow fall removes a lot of what little soil accumulates, and most of the trail along the shoreline involves walking over exposed tree roots.

Cave point park, Jacksonport, WI

In a couple of weeks, the fall color here will be stunning, just as advertised in the Door county brochures.

Whitefish Dunes state park, Jacksonport, WI

Adjacent to Cave Point park is the much larger Whitefish Dunes state park, which runs the length of the sandy shoreline here.  Plant life here faces a different challenge than growing through cracks in limestone, namely establishing roots in a shifting surface of sand with little subsurface moisture.

but as always, wherever you go, life seems to find a way…

how to eat a juniper berry

The fall harvest season is on:  it’s time to pick pumpkins and apples, the last of the field corn and soybeans; and if you’re a bird and you like fruit, it’s time to feast on the berries of the eastern red cedar, commonly known as juniper.  Actually to be entirely correct, these “berries” are actually just fleshy cones that surround a few seeds within.  They are covered with a waxy coating, which is also digestible if a bird has the right pancreatic enzymes to break it down.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries

Yellow-rumped Warblers love these juicy “berries”, gobbling them up whole.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-3

Sometimes this large round nugget is a little hard to choke down, though, and the bird continually adjust the berry’s position in its mouth before swallowing.

Yellow-rumped Warbler eating juniper berries-5

Dark blue ones are the ripest, green ones the least ripe, and the birds seem to be quite choosy about which ones they take.  There are so many berries within reach, but this bird needs to stretch upside down to get the perfect one.

Robins eating juniper berries-4

Robins joined the feast, with three or four birds all foraging within a few feet of each other.

Robins eating juniper berries-2

Being a much larger bird than the warbler, the robins had no trouble downing the berries, one after the other.

Robins eating juniper berries-6

Robins toss their heads back as they swallow, and occasionally lose the berry in the process.

Catbird and juniper berries

A couple of catbirds got into the action as well, but they preferred to consume their berries in private, away from the camera lens.

Juniper berries are the only fruit/spice from conifers we use in cooking, and of course they give gin its characteristic flavor.  Beneath the waxy coating, green pulpy flesh surrounds a few seeds.  Fruit-eating birds normally quickly separate the pulp from the seeds in their gut, digesting the sugary pulp and converting it to fat stores rather quickly.  They then excrete the seeds as they fly off to other foraging areas, thus helping the plant spread into new locations.

But seed-eating birds might have a different strategy…

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-3

This female cardinal was systematically picking off berries and crushing them between her mandibles, squeezing the pulp and then discarding it.

Female cardinal eating juniper berries-5

It’s hard to tell whether she discards the pulp to get at the seeds, or discards the whole mass after squishing out berry juices.  

Seed-eating specialists probably have stronger gizzard muscles  that can crush the seeds to extract their nutrients, and seeds typically have higher fat and protein content than the sugary, pulpy mass that surrounds them.

Whatever the strategy, juniper berries provide a useful resource for migratory as well as non-migratory birds in the fall.

North Shore color

And so it begins, the slow march toward another winter.  But first we are gifted with the brilliant colors of fall.  We traveled to the north shore of Lake Superior to get our first glimpse of this year’s color show, and weren’t disappointed.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (2)

Arriving in the evening at Lutsen ski area, I wasn’t sure we would get any good views of the fall color on the hills.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (3)

But the weather cleared up for at least a couple of hours early the next morning.

And the hike around the trails on Oberg mountain was definitely rewarding.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (4)

Trails were muddy and slippery, but colorful.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (5)

View of Oberg Lake from the north side of the mountain trail, looking northwest where the color change was most evident.

Lake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (6)

Next to Oberg Lake was an enticing wetland area that should have had ducks, loons, or at least one moose.

ake Superior Oberg Mt-fall 2017 (9)

Lake Superior in the distance was overcast and gray instead of its usual brilliant blue which makes such a nice contrast with the orange and yellow of the hillsides.

With the recent rain just days before we arrived, the rivers and waterfalls were overflowing with rapidly rushing water.

Ray Bergland wayside park, Lutsen, MN-2

Even the smaller creeks had rapids. It’s easy to see how trees get swept downstream with high volumes of water flow that wash away the soil around their roots.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-4

Cascade Falls, south of Grand Marais always has impressive waterfalls, but their volume and noise level after recent rains was remarkable.  The water is coffee-colored from the leaching of leaf tannins in the wetlands upstream: the more extensive the drainage of wetlands, the darker the amber brown color of the water (and waterfall).

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN

One point in the waterfall trail gives you a view of three of the six or seven cascades in Cascade Waterfalls.

Cascade Falls, north shore drive, MN-2

Another view of the cascade with a slower shutter speed.

Mr. Not-so-beautiful

This is the time of year we see beautiful and dramatic color changes in the vegetation, but that is just one of many fall transformations.  Gaudy male ducks that shed those brilliant colors right after donating their sperm to the next generation last spring and became pale, cryptic versions of their previous selves have recently begun the transformation back to splendid technicolor.  It’s like a before and after makeover for Mallard Ducks at the local reservoir this week.

molting mallard ducks

In the summer, male Mallards look just like their females, with mottled brown plumage that blends in nicely with the dappled shade in which they spend the day.  The male of this pair (in the back) is just beginning to acquire the lustrous green feathers that will eventually cover his entire head.

Most ducks undergo two feather molts during the course of one year:  one in the spring/summer after breeding in which they replace all of their feathers, including flight feathers (resulting in the basic/female-type plumage); and one in the fall/winter in which they replace just the body feathers to regain the colors of the breeding (nuptial) plumage.

mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark

Mallard plumage sequence-illustration by Patterson Clark (Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2011).

This process of feather replacement ensures that birds acquire a new set of flight feathers before making short or long-distance migrations in fall or spring. More importantly, it ensures that gaudy male ducks, who would be conspicuous targets for aerial predators (like Bald Eagles) can protect themselves with better camouflage while they are flightless and molting a completely new set of wing feathers.

molting mallard ducks-

He’s sort of an ugly duckling at this stage of feather replacement, hence Mr. Not-so-beautiful…

Fueling this feather replacement not only demands additional energy intake per day, but a higher quality of protein in the diet, and so ducks will start feeding on more invertebrates and less pond scum, as they drop old feathers and grow in new ones.  It has been estimated that ducks need to ingest about 100 grams of protein to replace the 60+ grams of body feathers during a whole body feather molt.  That means they need to ingest more than 3 grams of protein per day over the 30 day molting period, and that translates to about 31,000 invertebrates eaten over the month!!!, according to the folks at Ducks Unlimited.

mallard-drakes-

Soon, the local ponds and lakes will have congregations of brightly colored males swimming around the few females (lower right corner) in attendance.

mallard-males-displaying-

And as spring rolls around again next year, the brightly colored male Mallards will begin to play “who’s the prettiest” again.

Wildlife vs. hurricanes

The devastation caused by two back-to-back hurricanes in the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. has been tragic for the people that live(d) in these areas, but we haven’t really heard much about the impact of Harvey and Irma on the wildlife there. The massive deforestation caused by record high winds and extensive flooding in low-lying areas leaves little habitat and forage for resident wildlife, and will certainly prove challenging for the migratory birds that make their way south through these areas this fall.

virginislands_hurricane Irma damage-2017

What was green tropical vegetation before the arrival of Irma on September 7 has turned to brown as leaves were stripped from trees and ocean water flooded the Virgin islands.  Photos from The Verge, September 11, 2017.

High winds and storm surge swamped the Florida Keys as well, where the diminutive Key Deer live.  These pint-sized relatives of the very common White-tailed Deer are endemic to the island chain, but exist there in relatively low numbers (700-1000 animals) on the Key Deer reserves on Big Pine and Little Torch Keys.

key-deer

Key Deer are about half the size of their full-grown White-tailed relative, and have adapted nicely to forage on a wide variety of wild and garden plants on the lower key islands in the Florida Keys.

You would think their small size might make them vulnerable to being swept away in hurricane winds and/or floods, but the Key Deer have inhabited these islands for the past 13,000 years and have somehow survived the worst of inclement weather there.  A story today in the Washington Post reports a sighting of 4 Key Deer crossing a local road, so at least some of the population has survived.  Low population numbers is a long-term concern, however, since increased inbreeding can lead to an accumulation of detrimental recessive genes, and result in reduced fitness and resilience to cope with weather disasters like the recent hurricanes there.

butterfly “bushes”

Late summer flowers are attracting an abundance of bees and butterflies to residential gardens now, but by far the most attractive flowers seem to be those of the succulent Stonecrop (Sedum species) and Violet butterfly bush (Buddleya species).  Late summer generations of American Painted Lady are passing through the area in great numbers, probably on their way south to warmer winter climates.

american painted lady-

A Painted Lady delicately inserts its proboscis into each open flower on a gigantic blooming head of Stonecrop.  They are easily recognized by the owl eyes on the underside of their hindwings and orange and white splotches of color on the topside of their forewings.  Newly emerged butterflies are brightly colored with entire margins of their wings intact. 

american painted lady-

Apparently they like the nectar of Zinnia flowers as well.

But it’s the butterfly bush (Buddleya species) that is the most popular with the butterflies.  The large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails have a size advantage and might try to monopolize a flower spike,

eastern tiger swallowtail-

This female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail looks a little beaten up with frayed hind wings. The eggs she will lay or has already laid will develop through the caterpillar stage and into pupae that overwinter as a chrysalis. These butterflies don’t migrate.

but the fast-darting American Painted Ladies just skip around and beneath them to feed.  You can tell this is a butterfly flower from the flatenned floral disk with a thin, elongate flower tube that likely has a nectar reward at its base.

eastern tiger swallowtail-feeding on butterfly bush (Buddleya species)

The swallowtail has inserted its proboscis deep into one of the flowers (I colored light blue) of the flower spike.  Long, thin floral tubes like this would exclude almost all of the bees and flies and are probably much too narrow for hummingbirds to utilize.  Thus — an exclusive butterfly resource.

silver spotted skipper-

A Silver-spotted Skipper tried to feed on the butterfly bush along with the other butterfly species, but seemed to be excluded or chased off. So, it settled for whatever the Hosta flowers had to offer.