bright spots in the gloom

“Raindrops keep falling on my head…” all week, as I eagerly await the next field trip outdoors to see what spring weather has brought us in Minnesota.  Meantime, trees and bushes are putting forth a variety of gorgeous blossoms.

Northern Lights Azalea-

Northern Lights Azalea will brighten up anyone’s spirits with its bright pink blossoms.

bleeding heart-

Long strings of Bleeding Heart flowers stand out against its dark green foliage.

raindrops-on-columbine-

Columbine flowers droop with all the heavy rain.

Transformations

Marked transformations of the landscape and its inhabitants occur daily now in the upper Midwestern U.S., as the weather is warming up.  I took an early morning walk around the settlement ponds beyond the backyard and found quite a few changes since the week before.

backyard pond

early morning reflection in one of the ponds

The trees have leafed out, the grass is greening up nicely, and wildlife has again taken up residence there.

canada geese-

A pair of geese claimed one end of the pond as theirs — encouraging another pair to move away.

great egret-

A Great Egret fished along the shore…this is the first one I’ve seen so far this year.

great egret-

They seem to love dining on miniscule fish fry they find on the edges of the pond. The bird caught three in quick succession.

male wood duck-

Only male Wood Ducks patrolled the pond’s edges; perhaps the females are all sitting on eggs somewhere.

And of course, a symphony of Chorus Frogs added their music to the landscape.

western chorus-frog-calling

Indvidual tiny Boreal Chorus Frogs emit incredibly loud calls, and together with the other 100s in the pond, their “symphony” is deafening.

Each day brings new surprises — stay tuned for next week’s report on the pond.

Woody builds a home

On a morning walk around Cave Creek ranch near Portal, Arizona, we happened upon a pair of Arizona Woodpeckers working on their nest hole.

Female Arizona Woodpecker

We saw the Female Arizona Woodpecker dart into the hole, and she poked her head out a few moments later.

Arizona Woodpeckers are unusual in that they are brown and white, instead of black and white, with the male having a small patch of red on the back of its head.  They are really inhabitants of the Mexican oak and pine forests, but make it into just the southeastern tip of Arizona in the Chiricahua mountains.

Male Arizona Woodpecker

The male of the pair seems to be the more energetic nest constructor, entering the hole for long periods and emerging with mouthfuls of sawdust.  Isn’t is amazing how they get that hole so round, like it was drilled with a 1-inch drill bit?

Male Arizona Woodpecker

Just exactly the right sized hole for this bird. They are about the size of Hairy Woodpeckers.  Those stiffened and pointed tail feathers are what help keep them propped up vertically on trees.

Although they are obviously good at drilling holes, these Woodpeckers forage primarily by flaking off the bark from oak, walnut, or sycamore trees to probe for insects or larvae under the outer layers of the bark.

Male Arizona Woodpecker

Spitting out all those wood chips must be difficult.

Male Arizona Woodpecker

A beautiful and rare (in the U.S.) bird.

Not a pig

what would you call this little animal?

Javelina, southeastern Arizona

It looks like a wild pig, right?

However, the pig family, all 16 some known species, are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Until humans brought them to North America, there were no pigs in the Americas.

But there is a group of four species that filled the pig role (niche) in the Americas, and that is the javelina, or peccary, shown above.  They comprise their own family, completely separate from the pig family, and are found primarily in central and South America.  Only one species, the javelina, or collared peccary, makes it into the southwestern U.S.

Javelina root around in the litter and soil, like a pig would, looking for tubers, seeds, insect larvae, etc., and are especially fond of prickly pear pads which they have learned to eat without getting spines up their noses.

Javelina, southeastern Arizona

Their eyesight is poor but their sense of smell is superb and leads them to find the buried delicacies in their diet.

Peccaries once had a world-wide distribution, and fossils of extinct peccaries can be found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, so why are they only found in the Americas today?  It is thought that competition with the later evolving members of the pig family in Europe, Africa, and Asia may have led to their extinction there, leaving the American species as the only representatives of the peccary family.

Guardians of the desert

South of Tucson, Arizona, Saguaro cactus dominate the landscape with their giant trunks and arms reaching up, like those wacky, inflatable tube men you see along the highways, advertising a big sale of some sort.

Saguaro cactus forest

Giant stems of Saguaro rise way above the rest of the vegetation, like giant sentinels.

Saguaro cactus

Life stages of the Saguaro shown here–from an early (25 yr old) barrel shaped youngster, to 75 year old cactus just growing its first arm, to a mature many-armed giant 200 or more years old, to the woody remains of a dead Saguaro.

Saguaro are not only a dominant plant form in the Sonoran desert, but an integral part of the life cycle of this community.  It’s flowers provide nectar and pollen to insects, birds, and mammals, and its fruits are sought after by humans as well as many other desert animals.

Saguaro flowers

Flowers appear on the tops of the cacti in April, remain open for less than 24 hours, but provide huge amounts of nectar and pollen to attract pollinators.

Saguaro flowers

The Saguaro flowers are loaded with pollen from the hundreds of stamen projecting out the floral tube. Bats and birds reach the nectaries at the base of the flower with their long tongues.

After Gila Woodpeckers have drilled out nest cavities in the dense wood of the Saguaro, a variety of other bird species may use the nest holes as protection from the sun’s heat and for their own nests.

A pair of Gila Woodpeckers nesting in Saguaro

A pair of Gila Woodpeckers nesting in Saguaro. Cactus Wrens and  Elf Owls might get a chance to use this nest hole once the Woodpeckers are finished with it.

And of course, they make wonderful subjects for aspiring photographers…

Sonoran desert landscape

Sonoran desert landscape

the bud eater

We think of Spring as a wonderful time of rejuvenation and regrowth, but until leaves and flowers actually start appearing on plants and grass begins to green up and grow, plant eaters are still faced with barely anything to eat.  Having eaten through their stored food and consumed anything that was half way edible over a long winter, animals could be faced with a starvation diet just as lakes are thawing, temperatures are warming, and days are getting longer.

But here’s the solution a little Red Squirrel found today — eating the buds of the buckeye tree outside my porch window.  I saw him nipping off buds and tearing into them, peeling back the outer layer and dining on the juicy interior of the little embryonic leaves within.  And he saw me watching him…

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yes, I see you eating those tree buds.

And then I watched as he nipped off another bud and devoured it as well.

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

He/she spots another delectable bud up above on the branch to the right (highlighted)

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yes, this one!

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Biting it right off — good thing the squirrel has those sharp teeth. Plant tissue can be tough.

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yum…

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

He/she is watching me watching him/her.

Young buds probably have higher nitrogen and mineral content per unit weight than more mature leaves would, nutrition meant of course for the development of new leaves.  So this is a pretty smart choice for a Red Squirrel that might be down to its last acorn in the larder.

Back to winter

We returned from wet, but very green California, to a very dry brown and gray Twin Cities landscape, but then immediately drove 100+ miles north to spend a long weekend in the Gull Lake area north of Brainerd for a return to a snowy winter landscape.

New snow, breezy point, MN

There is something especially attractive about freshly fallen snow clumped on tall pines, with beautiful blue sky and white clouds above.

New snow, breezy point, MN

I never thought I would say that I miss winter, but it’s true this year — during the winter that wasn’t.  Our weather columnist reports that “Twin Cities winters are now 5.4 degrees warmer than in 1970”.  True fact:  Minnesota’s climate is warming, making it more like Missouri than the Minnesota of 50 years ago.  True fact:  “February 2017 has set over 9800 records for warmth across the U.S., compared to just 250 new records for cold”.  (Star Tribune weather, Feb. 27, 2017))

new-snow-breezy-point-mn

Without snow cover and with record warm days, the ice is melting on MN lakes sooner now.

Last week, our newspaper reported that 500-1000 small pan fish (crappies) had succumbed when lake ice melted and near-shore water warmed, leaving the fish without adequate oxygen.   Great for local Bald Eagles, not so great for the fish populations in warming lakes.

As climates change, animals and plants get out of sync with their normal cycle; e.g., birds begin migrating and breeding before prey populations are present to support their offspring and plants bloom before or after their pollinators are present.  Climate changes are a challenge for all of us.

black-capped-chickadee-

Lots of singing going on in the backyard this week…seems a little early to me for the Chickadees, but maybe I’ve just been paying more attention to that lately.

More on this subject in an interesting article on Vox today:  “these maps show how early spring is arriving in your state”.

Raptor feast

Nothing attracts raptors, especially scavengers like vultures and Caracaras, like free food.  Within just a few minutes of spreading a banquet of frozen chicken on the ground in front of our blind at Laguna Seca near Edinburg, Texas, the Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures began circling overhead, and a couple of Caracaras made swooping passes over the carcasses.  Finally, they decided to test the meat.

Adult and juvenile Caracara

An adult (left) and juvenile Caracara were the first ones to sample the banquet.

Using their feet to hold the meat, Caracaras grab chunks of flesh or skin and tug on it until it rips free.  They might immediately swallow big chunks but often fly off to a safer location where they can eat without competition from other birds.

Juvenile Caracara flying off with a meal

Juvenile Caracara flying off with a meal

Turkey Vultures

Turkey Vultures were more timid about approaching the meat.  They usually wait until Caracaras have opened up the carcass before they start to feed.

Harris Hawk

A Harris Hawk took a look at the Caracara feeding frenzy and decided to join in.

Harris Hawk and juvenile Caracara

The Harris Hawk warned off an encroaching young Caracara several times, smacking it with its wings or threatening with its beak.

Juvenile White-tailed Hawk

A juvenile White-tailed Hawk landed on the feast table but must not have liked what it saw and took off. It’s a much larger bird and could have dominated the other species there for a free meal.

Black Vulture vs Turkey Vulture vs Caracara

Even though Black Vultures are larger than both Turkey Vultures and Caracaras, they didn’t try to dominate either of the other species. Two Black Vultures instead fed on the fringes of the crowd.

Competition for food inevitably leads to some conflicts between individuals.  Exactly what determines who gets to eat what and when may be influenced by the number of individuals of a particular species present, their size, age, and/or temperament.

In this mixed group of raptors species, the smaller Caracaras clearly had the edge, probably because of their numbers, although age didn’t seem to matter, with those aggressive juveniles badgering the adults for food.  Both Vultures species were lower on the pecking order, despite their larger size, and took a backseat to both the Harris Hawk and the Caracaras.  However, they stuck around to clean up the scraps after others had left the feeding area.

Caracara

After two hours of intense feeding, there was nothing left but tiny scraps for the mammalian scavengers to clean up.

Who’s the boss?

With limited resources (one feeder) for a highly desirable food (lard-peanut butter mix), there is bound to be a lot of competition and aggression at the feeder among the resident birds.  After a number of inter-species face-offs, and a few beakings, it was apparent that the Golden-fronted Woodpeckers were top dog, or big boss, or head honcho, as illustrated below.

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Red-winged blackbird

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Red-winged blackbird

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Great Kiskadee

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Great Kiskadee–no room on the feeder for the Kiskadee

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Green Jay

Golden -fronted Woodpecker vs Green Jay. The Jay landed, Woody turned his head and threatened with his beak, and the Jay crouched submissively.

What happens when two Woodpeckers confront each other?

Golden -fronted Woodpeckers

Female Golden -fronted Woodpeckers face off.

Golden -fronted Woodpeckers

Parrots in paradise

Four species of parrots come to roost each evening in Oliveira Park in Brownsville, Texas. Groups of 30-40 birds fly in, perch on bare branches or wires, calling continuously, and flitting from place to place before settling down.  Bird watchers and photographers congregate to admire the spectacle, and it is impressive!

Parrots in Brownsville, Texas

They time their fly-in so the light is just fading after sunset, making photography doubly challenging.

Parrots in Brownsville, Texas

Noisy chattering from a line-up of parrots on power lines…

Parrots in Brownsville, Texas

A lot of jostling for position among bare branches of mesquite trees…these are the red-crowned parrots, probably the most common species in this assemblage.

Red-lored parrot, Brownsville, Texas

A Red-lored parrot, with a red and yellow face, the next most common species in the large group.

Yellow-headed parrot, Brownsville, Texas

Yellow-headed parrots were far less common than the other two.  This shot looks like it was taken in mid-day, but the lightened exposure was actually taken at 6:30, long after sunset, with a little illumination from the lights over the soccer field.

White-fronted Amazon parrots also made an appearance, though it was too dark for me to photograph them.  Lilac-crowned Amazon parrots have also been seen in this mixed flock.

Why are so many parrots fond of this park in Brownsville, Texas?  Perhaps because there is a lot of fruit and produce grown here in the fertile Rio Grande valley, and the park trees make excellent cover for an overnight stay.  Some birds may be wild birds from points south in Mexico, but others are probably escaped pets that have since gone feral.

We finally gave up our observations when the sky looked like this….

Full moon