Thank the trees

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I renew my gratitude for the special people in my life. But I usually don’t remember to give thanks for many of the things I just take for granted. So this year, I’m thankful for trees…for the many ecosystem services they provide — for FREE.

…for forests that enrich our lives and uplift our moods as we wander their winding paths.

Forest of Nisene Marks, Aptos CA
Oak forest, University of California Berkeley

…for vast tracts of unending vegetation that pump oxygen into our atmosphere and remove carbon dioxide, helping to manage the climate.

Tropical rainforest of the Panama Canal
Temperate forest of the Porcupine Mountains, Michigan

…for forests and other vegetation that filter runoff to maintain clean water in lakes and rivers and prevent soil erosion

Wolf river near Rhinelander WI
Grass lake slough, Shoreview MN

…for trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife (and food and building materials for us)

My front yard apple crop
A fanciful look at forest animals (composite of many images)

…for forests that improve our urban landscape by providing shade, lowering the air temperature nearby, buffering noise, air, and light pollution, as well as providing a mental and physical escape from the urban jungle.

Central Park, New York city (photo from Architectural Digest)

this post dedicated to daughter Becky, an ecosystem services specialist.

Baby dragons in Postojna cave, Slovenia

I’ve visited quite a few famous caves in the U.S., but the amazing caverns carved from karst limestone near Postojna in southwestern Slovenia are the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. They are definitely one of the Wonders of the Natural World.

We walked over the Pivka river bridge and uphill to the cave. This is the river that carved the caverns millions of years ago.
From this unassuming entrance a complex of caverns and passageways runs 24 kilometers (14.4 miles) underground. There are actually four caves, interconnected by the Pivka river, which drains through them.
5 km of the cave is open to the public, the first 3.5 of which is covered by train. The rail system was first installed in 1872, and electric lighting shortly after that. The cave became a tourist destination as early as 1819 with Archduke Ferdinand’s visit, but the cave has graffiti dating to the 1200s!
We followed a very well maintained path up and down through numerous passageways and huge ballrooms over a 1.5 km track to view a huge variety of cave formations. One such ballroom is noted for its exceptional acoustics and is so large it can hold 10,000 people. Symphony orchestras sometimes perform there.
Some of the massive rooms were several stories tall, decorated with all shapes, sizes, colors, and varieties of cave structures. The bridge in this photo was constructed by Russian POWs during WW1.
This is not an effect of multiple colored lights on the cave structures, but are multi-colored columns of stalactites and stalagmites that have fused together over centuries as mineral-laden water seeped through the porous limestone.
Pale white formations are pure calcium carbonate, and darker stained formations have manganese in them.
I thought this collection of stalagmites looked like little people.
A pure white column (called “the Brilliant”) stands right next to a chocolate brown column with thin rods that have gradually fused together. It’s fascinating to think about how the water must have dripped through here to create these shapes.

The Postojna cave system is notable because of all the animal life found there. Over 100 species have managed to survive in the dark, cold (45-50 F), mineral-rich water, including a cave beetle species, a jelly fish relative, crustaceans, pseudo scorpions, and a cave spider species. But the largest and most remarkable cave dweller in Postojna cave is the “baby dragon” or cave salamander or Olm (Proteus anguinus).

The Olm reaches 8-12 inches in length, with a worm-like body, feeble forelegs, and a short tail. It has bright pink, frilly external gills, and basically resembles the aquatic, larval stage of salamanders even when sexually mature (a condition called neoteny). They are completely blind (eyes covered by skin) but have sound and vibration detectors in their elongate head, as well as smell and taste receptors in their nose that help them find prey. (Photo from CNN travel, Dec 2021)

There was some excitement among the cave biologists several years ago when one of the large Olms began to lay eggs. It took quite a while but she eventually laid more than 50 eggs, about 20 of which hatched in about 5 months. The youngsters had normal eyes, but they regressed in size and skin eventually grew over them. When presented with small worms, Olms immediately go on the attack, hoovering them up (like a vacuum cleaner) with their elongate snout.

Photos of a few of other inhabitants of Postojna cave, from CNN travel, Dec, 2021.

In the “backyard” of the Panama Canal

After 10 days of ship travel, at last we reached the entrance to the Panama Canal and our passage to the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. It took almost 12 hours to transit the 50 miles of the canal, through three sets of locks on the Pacific side, into huge Lake Gatun, and then through three sets of locks on the Atlantic side.

We began our journey through the Canal at 6 a.m., just as the sun was coming up.
A couple of female Frigate birds flew over to check us out. These are soaring specialists that cruise the oceans looking for fish and squid, and often steal a meal from other birds (like Boobies). They may follow large ships (i.e., frigates) which often scare up fish in their wake.
The Bridge of the Americas (which goes into Panama City) looms over the entry to the Canal. This is the main entry to both the new Panamax (super large ship canal) and the two older, original canals.

I was particularly interested in getting a look at the islands in Lake Gatun, which was formed by damming the Chagras River at a narrow point near its mouth on the Atlantic side (see map below near Gatun locks) back in 1913. When dammed, the river then flooded a once wide valley forming a large lake with just the mountain tops projecting up forming a series of small and large islands in the lake.

One of the largest islands, Barro Colorado (circled in black on the map), was set aside as a nature reserve in 1923 and has been administered by the Smithsonian since then. With almost 100 years of climate and biological data, it is one of the most studied tropical forest systems in the world.
Small lakes on the sides of the main part of the canal serve as reservoirs for circulating water through the locks.
Drainage systems collect rainwater from the surrounding hills to channel it into the main waterway. Vegetation along the banks of the canal is sparse to allow water runoff, while the hills behind are more mature rainforest.
Larger islands in Lake Gatun have undisturbed tropical rainforest with an amazing biodiversity of plants and animals. The first census in 1982 recorded over 300 tree species in a 100 acre plot on Barro Colorado Island!

This area of Panama receives about 100 inches (i.e., 8 feet!) of rain annually, but almost all comes during the rainy season. During the dry season between December and April, less than 3 inches of rain falls and many of the island streams dry up. The soil becomes so dry, large cracks develop in it. Flowers and insects disappear, trees stop producing fruit, and animals on the island become food limited.

As a result of changes in the forest structure with limited island land surface and the size of the islands themselves, species diversity of animals, and especially birds, is markedly lower than that of intact rainforest on the hillsides of the canal — as you would expect. Researchers have found smaller numbers of under-story bird and mammal species, and there are no large mammalian carnivores to control the herbivore populations. But food is a limiting factor here.

Islands (really hilltops) in Lake Gatun dot the lake surface. It spans 164 square miles in all, and makes up about 20 miles of the length of the waterway from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Black Vultures soared over the hilltops of some of the islands in the far distance.
Plants growing on top of plants all the way down to the water’s edge — that’s tropical diversity! Imagine trying to hack your way through this forest from one end of an island to the other…

National Geographic produced an interesting video featuring some of the work that has been done on Barro Colorado Island in 2007: Panama Wild — Rainforest of Life. If you like nature videos and want to know more about this area of the world — click on the video below.

Looking back at 2021

Another year of Covid prohibitions on activities, but not such a bad year for seeing new places and new species. The highlights month by month look like this:

January: a trip to Sax-Zim bog in north central Minnesota, and an exciting afternoon shooting Great Gray Owls diving for mice in the snow.
Great Gray Owls blend in so well with the tree stumps they are sitting on, you might drive right by them on the forest roads in north central MN.
February: Yes, the most memorable highlight of February was winning the vaccine lottery and getting my first vaccine shot — after waiting in line for almost 2 hours with 1000 other anxious people.
March: hiking with adventurous grandkids at frozen (well, mostly frozen) Minnehaha Falls in downtown Minneapolis. Caves behind the falls are fun to explore when you’re steady on your feet.
Also in March — Great Horned Owlets are growing up fast and almost ready to leave their nest hole to perch on tree branches.
April: the great Road Trip of April and May netted us over 160 species (many new and never seen before), after visiting over 40 parks and driving over 6800 miles). Some of my favorites were the ever-amazing hummingbirds, like this composite of a Broad-billed Hummer coming into a feeder in southeastern Arizona.
We visited many beautiful places on our long April-May adventure, but we keep coming back to this place deep in the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona — Cave Creek ranch, where exotic birds and gorgeous scenery captivate.
May: On the way back to Minnesota in May, we stopped at Antelope Island in Salt Lake City, where grazing bison and antelope are abundant and the mountain landscapes behind the city are spectacular.
June: another Road Trip — this time with the grandkids camping across the western U.S. on our way to the mountain cabin near Lake Tahoe.
My favorite bird highlight from June was this Western Tanager male in all his bright breeding finery — the jewel of the Sierra.
July: with almost all the grandkids and missing one son-in-law (who had to work), the rest of us gathered for the 4th of July at the cabin near Lake Tahoe.
August: surreal landscapes in the back country of Desolation Valley in the CA Sierras on our backpacking trip, as the Caldor Fire literally burst upon us one morning.
September: fall migration began with the arrival of a dozen or more warbler species, along with assorted vireos, flycatchers, finches, blackbirds, etc. Mr. Magnolia Warbler was not quite as beautiful as he was in the Spring, but nevertheless, is a handsome bird.
October: a trip to Alabama to see the birds of Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island and its pristine white quartz sand.
Fall color was unusually bright and long-lasting in October this year. A pleasant surprise after a somewhat hot, dry summer.
November: foxes and turkeys passed through the backyard frequently, but there was little snowfall this month. Very unusual.
December: at last it looks like winter, but a warm-ish spell right before Christmas melted all this lovely stuff.

Reflections

It is snowing this morning, and the yucky weather here in southern Minnesota means the wildlife has deserted the backyard (temporarily, I hope). Even the chickadees are absent from the feeders this morning!

So, it’s a good time to reflect back on the adventures of the summer — to warmer times and prettier views. I found a lot of photos from Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge north of San Jose CA that I had never posted. That’s a good excuse to go back a couple of months to October and revisit the marshy pools in southern San Francisco bay

Shorebirds are abundant here in spring, fall, and winter. Even late summer is a good time to catch migrants moving through these shallow pools, which apparently provide enough sustenance to attract a great diversity and abundance of birds.
The reflections of these Dowitchers (type to be determined in later images) were mirrored perfectly in the still water.

Dowitchers are medium-sized chunky shorebirds that use their very long bills to probe deep into the mud of shallow pools to find insect and crustacean larvae and small molluscs, as well as seeds and even vegetation that is buried there. Extremely sensitive tactile receptors in the tips of those long bills help them discriminate what is animal, vegetable, and mineral. Their continuous up-and-down motion as they probe the mud has been likened to the action of a sewing machine needle moving through cloth.

Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers are common (often seen) to abundant (very numerous) in these pools during spring, fall, and winter. But how to tell which species this is? I am always confused by these birds and wanted to find some characteristic I could use to more easily identify them.

Unfortunately, despite their names, bill length is not a definitive characteristic! Long-billed Dowitchers are mostly found in fresh water, and the Short-billed species is mostly found in salt water, but the pools here are full of a mix of salt and fresh water depending on the tides in the bay. And in their drab, non-breeding plumage, all their distinctive coloration is missing, so one must rely on their different calls to determine the species. However, I have no memory of what they sounded like, so what else can I use to tell them apart?

Fortunately, “how to tell long-billed from short-billed dowitchers” is a frequently asked question on Google. And one website clued me in to differences in the black and white barring pattern in the tail feathers, which can be seen on the bird on the left. Long-billed Dowitchers have more black than white in their tail barring — that’s the answer. These are Long-billed Dowitchers.

Not all of the shorebirds are so difficult to identify. Two species of long-legged wading shorebirds stand out: avocets and stilts.

Avocets are easily recognized by their long, up-turned bills. It wasn’t particularly cool on this morning, but the birds seem to be conserving heat by standing on one long leg at a time. The long bill of this bird is used as a sieve rather than a deep probe. The birds swish their bill side-to-side in shallow water to filter out small prey suspended in the water.
Black-necked Stilts really are on stilts. They have the second longest legs in proportion to their body size — Flamingos having the longest stilts. As they wade through the muck, with water levels sometimes reaching up to their breast, they peck at and seize small crustaceans, amphibian larvae, snails, or even tiny fish swimming in the shallow water.
Such attractive birds with their stark black and white plumage, long pink legs, red eyes, and rounded forehead.

Prime time

This past week has been prime time for Fall color in the Twin Cities area. Frosty overnight temps coupled with sunny, warmish days have really brought out the brilliant red and gold colors of the oak trees, in particular. For a more in-depth explanation of how these changes take place in plants at this time of year, please click here.

Quiet, still mornings created the best reflections of leaf color in the local lakes and ponds.
I wonder if the birds enjoy this colorful time of year as much as humans do…
The oak trees at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge an hour north of the Twin Cities were spectacular this weekend, displaying every possible hue of yellow, orange, and red. Aspens in the background were vivid gold as well.
Two lone White Pelicans swam in a small pond at the refuge, surrounded by gold and red colors of the fall leaves.

at the beach

It seems like when we’re not in the mountains, we’re at the beach. That’s the wonderful thing about California — the variety of places to explore. This time it was the beautiful sands of Pajaro Dunes, where the gently sloping shore allows you to walk far out into the waves and not even get your knees wet.

The grandkids enjoyed the ocean and the bird life, and especially skipping rope with a giant piece of brown kelp.

Running with the Ring-billed Gulls
This is good practice for jumping creeks in the Sierras later this summer.
Brown Pelicans catching an updraft from the wave action.
Digging for clams — it was fun finding them, but this was strictly catch and release.
As soon as the clam was placed back on the sand, its muscular foot began digging it back under the surface again.
In just a few moments, the clam had almost completely required itself (note sand spray from its “foot” at the bottom of the image).
Grassy vegetation on the dunes holds some of the sand in place. These dunes were a lot taller than they appear, and the sand was quite deep. A single stand of brown kelp provided many minutes of entertainment…

High mountain lakes

We took a drive from our campsite in the Ruby Mountain foothills up to Angel Lake about 2000 feet above. The saturated colors of green meadows, bushes, and grass, and deep blue color of the water were stunning.

Climbing the steep grade to the lake we could look down on our campsite below.
The view on the other side of the road featured some crop circles near the town of Wells, Nevada.
View of Lake Angel from the waterfall that cascades down the Ruby mountain cliffs.
Grandkids taking in the view…

Home on the range

We’re back at Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska, this time with grandkids to enjoy the sights and the wildlife. With three visits in the past two years, I’m beginning to feel like this place is “home”.

Sunset drives are always full of surprises… bison and pronghorn were grazing in the still-green pastures on some of the 22,000 acres of the park.

More wildlife was spotted near the road the next morning on our drive through Smiley Canyon in the park.

The spring wildflowers were abundant in the grassy meadows as well: a purple Penstemon, the white of the Yucca flowers, and small orange Globe Mallow flowers brought a lot of color to the green pastures.

Where in the world is this waterfall?

Because the temperature will be 20 degrees above normal today (98 F!!), I’m thinking about places where I could be relaxing in cool water. So, it’s time for a summer quiz on the location of significant waterfalls in the state, the U.S., and the world. If you’re a traveler, you may have been to one or more of these locations — if you haven’t visited them, maybe it will give you some ideas of places to visit in the future.

Give yourself one point for each correct name and then tell me how you did in the comments to this post. You can check your answers by clicking on the image which will open in a new window and then click on or hover your mouse over the URL at the top of the new window.

Minnesota Waterfalls

  1. A highly recognizable waterfall on the north shore of Lake Superior named for its multiple falls. Many Minnesota waterfalls have a coffee color due to the oak tannins in the water.

2. Another easily recognized waterfall located in the Twin Cities, where it’s fun to explore behind the falls in the winter to see the beautiful blue color of the ice.

3. This is one of the large waterfalls (about 50 feet total drop) in the southern part of Minnesota, and if you’re a FB friend, you’ll recognize this from a recent post.

Well-known waterfalls in the U.S.

4. Another easily identified waterfall from the first national park in the U.S. This is just one of the many unique highlights of this national park.

5. One of many waterfalls in this extremely popular western National Park, and a favorite of John Muir. It’s actually a double waterfall, but difficult to capture in one photo. (Hint: it’s named for the park.)

6. This beautiful double waterfall is one of many that can be viewed by car or by train when driving through the Columbia Gorge in Oregon. The scenic beauty in this area makes it the most popular destination in the Pacific Northwest.

Famous waterfalls of the world

7. There are dozens of waterfalls on this island nation, but this is the biggest and most famous one. Approximately 5000 cubic feet per second rush down the falls, draining from a massive glacier. You can get an impression of its size compared to the tiny people standing on the rocky shoreline.

8. Another massive waterfall located on the Zambezi River at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe in southern Africa, first explored by David Livingstone. Nicknamed “the smoke that thunders” for the mist and roar made by the falling water. The photo captures only a portion of the entire falls.

9. This is one of two famous waterfalls in South America, located on the border of Brazil and Argentina. The combined cataracts of the multiple waterfalls here make up the largest waterfall in the world. The river that feeds the falls flows through Brazil, but most of the waterfalls are in Argentina. Although I have visited Brazil twice and Argentina once, I have never been here — so it’s on my bucket list. (Photo from https://www.contiki.com/six-two/iguazu-falls-side-choose/)

How did you do on the quiz?