Sea-going Peregrines

A couple of Peregrine falcons rode with us down the Carolina coast for about 100 miles, using the ship’s air wake (if there is such a thing) to effortlessly coast back and forth along the lee side of the ship.  When they tired of that, they perched on the bowsprit mast.  This went on for several hours, and the birds gave us numerous opportunities to photograph them.

Juvenile Peregrine falcon on bowsprit of cruise ship

It turns out this was not a breeding pair, but an adult Peregrine and a juvenile (pictured here) bird.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcons perched on bowsprit of cruise ship

Adult falcon at the top, juvenile below on the bowsprit of our cruise ship.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon

The juvenile bird is browner than the adult, with vertical brown stripes on its breast, and less black on the face and head, but with the characteristic peregrine falcon black tear drop below its eyes.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon

Adult Peregrine Falcon

The adult Peregrine has horizontal black stripes on its breast and a much darker black head and face.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

The falcons rarely flapped, but maneuvered with the wind by altering the position of their wings for more lift.  Both birds continuously moved their heads, searching downward into the ocean, as well as looking toward the ship.

What were these falcons doing here, 100 miles or more off the Carolina coast, coasting back and forth along the side of the ship?  One passenger let me know that these birds catch fish, so they were probably fishing.  I told her they hunt birds almost exclusively, but then had to eat my words when I saw one of the falcons stoop on a flying fish that leaped out of the water to avoid the ship.  And it also turns out that we had picked up a few other avian free-loaders in our last port — there were a couple of catbirds (mockingbird relatives) and house sparrows flitting around the topmdecks of the ship.  So perhaps the falcons were checking them out as well.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Both falcons flew off right at sunset…

Most likely the falcons were migrating south for the winter, although this species is known to wander, and is probably the most wide-spread bird in the world, ranging from the tundra to the tropics, and absent only from New Zealand.  Bon voyage, sea-going Peregrines!

Beautiful Bar Harbor

Another cloudy day, but Mt. Desert island (pronounced “dessert”) did not disappoint.  The Acadia National Park service shuttles in the park had ceased operation 4 days ago, which made sight-seeing without a car difficult, but we found a 2 hour tour of park highlights that was all I could have wished for.  The fall color was spectacular everywhere, even through cloudy, rainy fog.

a few of the highlights of our tour…

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor, ME

View of Bar Harbor harbor area from the top of Cadillac Mt. 45 mph wind up here!

Lobster traps, Bar Harbor, ME

Lobster traps in the bay

Islands off Bar Harbor, ME

The sun came out just as we were leaving the area!

Fall harvest gone wild

This should be called the year of the fantastic nut crop: acorns by the ton, walnuts carpeting the lawn, and buckeyes remaining unharvested because there is a food surplus in the backyard like never before.

Ohio buckeye nuts

The Ohio Buckeye tree is loaded with nuts, which the squirrels should have harvested by now.

Why is this happening?  I don’t remember there being great spring weather; oh wait, I was in the UK during spring.  The summer was the usual blend of hot and humid interspersed with cold and rainy, so it must have been perfect for growing a huge nut crop.  But why have all the oak trees in the backyard gone crazy with acorn production?

Oak acorns

The forest floor has become crunchy with fallen acorns. This is just what the squirrels leave behind.

We are experiencing a “mast year” in oak tree production of acorns, which happens irregularly, every two to five to seven years.  And it’s happening in not just one species of oak, but simultaneously in the three most common Minnesota oak species — the northern pin oak, the northern red oak, and the bur oak.

Bucks eating acorns, photo by Charles Alsheimer

In a normal year of acorn production, animals consume or store most of the acorn crop, leaving little chance that the nuts could sprout into seedling oaks. Photo by Charles Alsheimer.

In a recent post (September 12), I discussed how trees “talk” to each other, and this synchronous boom production of acorns is a good example of the result of that communication, which can occur not only locally within a forest, but over broad distances.  Basically, mast production of acorns is the trees’ combined strategy of satiating the acorn consumers so that the leftovers can develop into seedlings.

The oaks must have been talking to the walnuts in the backyard as well, and the squirrels are just not able to keep up with the bounties of this fall harvest.

Gray squirrel husking a walnut

Bring all your friends, Mr. Squirrel, I’ve already raked up a garbage can full of walnuts.

The perfect response to this enormous fall bounty — “stop, I’m full already”.

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images.

A short history of apples

This is a rewrite of a post from September 2015, during the first fall harvest of my “apple orchard” (four dwarf trees).

This is apple harvest time in Minnesota, home of the Honeycrisp variety of apples, so loved by everyone who has tried one.

honeycrisp apples-

My honeycrisp apple trees are so loaded with apples, the branches are bending down to the ground.

It seems to be a Fall for bumper crops of all types of apples, from crabapples to honeycrisp, judging from the loaded branches of the apple trees on my street.

apple tree-loaded with fruit

An apple tree loaded with fruit awaits harvest. Squirrels take one bite and spoil a perfect apple, and the deer finish them off when they fall to the ground. 

Originally native to Kazakhstan, this highly productive forest tree has spread around the globe, even though the original progenitor was a small, sour, shriveled fruit that probably was more often used for a fermented beverage than eating.  After all, its genus name is Malus which is Latin for “bad”, as in bad-tasting.

michael-pollan-apple-origin

Quote from Michael Pollan on the origin of apples in his book, The Botany of Desire

From Kazakhstan, the seeds of better-tasting and fleshier types of apples were dropped by traders along the Silk Road to Asia and to Europe, and eventually made their way to North America with the early colonists who planted apple orchards, spreading the apple genes throughout the northeast, and eventually throughout the U.S.

apple harvest-Kazakhstan

Apple harvest-Kazakhstan marketplace. At its center of origin, there are 56 species of the wild Malus species, only 30 of which have been semi- or wholly domesticated for apple production.

But apples, like humans, do not produce carbon copies of themselves in their seeds, so each seed in an apple is as different from another seed in that same apple or from another seed in an apple on the same tree, as children are different from each other and from their parents.  And this is where the human-apple tree mutualism becomes important in the spread of apples to every corner of the globe.

We humans perform much the same service that bees do in pollinating the apple’s flowers, by selective breeding for appealing varieties and then growing new trees of that variety from grafts merged onto hearty root stock.  In return, like the nectar and pollen the tree supplies to its pollinators, the apple tree repays its dispersers (animal and human alike) with crisp, sweet fruit that lasts several months when stored properly at cool temperatures.

What is it that makes apples so delicious and so appealing to us humans?

cross section of apple-

A cross section of a Honeycrisp apple (which I ate while writing this) shows the star-shaped endocarp housing the seeds. Each of the 5 chambers houses 1-2 seeds. The total number of seeds per apple (5-10) depends on the energy resources of the tree.

Around the star-shaped seed capsules are ten yellow-green dots that are the remnants of the flower stamens. The sepals (that surround the petals of the flower) are at one end of the apple, and the flower stem (now a fruit stem) is at the other. In between is the greatly expanded floral cup that grows up and around the ovary housing the soon-to-be seeds, and is filled with starch granules synthesized by the leaves over a summer’s worth of sunlight.  At the end of the summer as the skin takes on its rosy blush, those starch granules begin to break down to individual sugar molecules — and voila, sweet, juicy, crisp Fall apples are ready to be harvested.

honeycrisp apples

A sample of the harvest from just one of my dwarf honeycrisp trees. 

The Honeycrisp apple is an invention (!) of the University of Minnesota’s Agricultural Experiment Station Horticulture Research Center (quite a mouthful — pun intended).  As an experimental variety, it was almost cast aside because the tree was not cold tolerant and couldn’t survive Minnesota winters.  But the fruit was exceptionally pleasant, with large cells with stiff cell walls that stored great quantities of starch and water and a relatively thin skin that made biting into its crisp sweetness a gustatory delight.  Moving a few genes around to introduce cold heartiness made the next version of the Honeycrisp a winner — to markets and palates everywhere.

Can trees talk to each other?

How do trees talk to each other

Is this artists’ conception of tree communication real?  https://albertonrecord.co.za/182186/enviro-monday-trees-talk-via-wood-wide-web/

My apple trees are well synchronized with each other, so I have bumper crops of all 4 trees in alternate years.  Of course I want them to flower at the same time, so there is ample pollen for cross pollination of the different varieties.  However, this year, the trees were unusually productive…

Apple tree fruit production

There are hundreds of apples on my 4 trees, much more than can fit into my canning jars and refrigerator for long term storage.

Honeycrisp apples

Honeycrisp apples are reaching maximum ripeness, and attract passers by as well as the squirrels, birds, and deer that wander by for a sample.

Is it just coincidence that these trees are so well synchronized or do they somehow communicate with each other about their status?  A quick google search led me to a terrific article in Smithsonian magazine from March 2018 on this very question.

One way that trees, and plants in general, can communicate with each other is by way of the mutualistic fungi that entwine their combined roots.

How do trees talk to each other

Exchange of sugar (Carbon) and nutrients between fungi and roots and between trees.  https://albertonrecord.co.za/182186/enviro-monday-trees-talk-via-wood-wide-web/

The fungal strands search out and transport various nutrients that the plants need (nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, etc.) from the soil to the rootlets, and the trees pass photosynthesized sugars from the rootlets to the fungi in a very cooperative relationship.  But it goes beyond just the interaction between plant and fungi.

Research by Suzanne Simard (in a very interesting TED talk) has shown that individual trees in the forest are connected in a dense underground web of overlapping and intermingling roots and fungal associations, and this web consists not only of a “mother tree” and its seedlings, but trees of all ages of other species as well. Through these connections trees exchange carbon and other nutrients, paying a small tax to the fungi along the way.

Web of connection between forest trees, Beiler et al. 2010

A diagram of potential connections of forest trees (Beiler et al. 2010).  Large dark green circles are the busiest hubs (mother trees), sending carbon to other smaller trees, as well as their own seedlings (yellow dots) which may be growing in deep shade.

Not only are trees sharing resources in this busy underground network, but they are communicating with each other through secretion of plant hormones and volatile secondary compounds as well.  For example, Giraffes that munch on the leaves of one acacia tree will stimulate the production of distasteful tannins not only in the other leaves of that tree, but in its acacia neighbors as well.  In fact giraffes have learned to forage on the acacias that are downwind in a clump of trees to avoid this kind of response to the volatile chemicals released by the injured tree.

oak forest, Berkeley botanical garden, CA

Oak trees also produce chemical messages when under attack from herbivores, so that nearby oaks get a head start on ramping up tannin content of their leaves. I might have enhanced the “face” on the mother tree a little.  Photo from the Berkeley Botanical Garden, in a Backyard Biology post on Magical Oak Forests.

This kind of changes the way we look at forests, or even small patches of prairie, or garden plants, or shrubs growing together in our backyards.  These plants aren’t as much competitors as they are collaborators, existing side by side, in a mutual quest for light, water, and nutrients.  We could learn a lot from plants about cooperative existence!

Beautiful, but deceitful and poisonous!

What is beautiful, but deceitful and poisonous?  This blog usually focuses on things biological, so it must be an animal or a plant, and perhaps it could be either.  In this case it is the oleander shrub that fits that description.

Nerium oleander flowers

Beautiful pink flowers of the highly poisonous oleander 

Oleander is such a popular addition to roadside plantings and gardens that it now occurs world-wide in warm, wet Mediterranean type climates where its long-lasting profusion of white, pink, or red flowers brighten up the landscape.  It is remarkably drought-tolerant and protects itself from being munched by herbivores by sequestering toxic cardiac glycosides in its tissues, from its roots to the tips of its leaves.  No wonder it’s the dominant plant along freeways in California.

Large milkweed bug on Nerium oleander flowers

An indicator of oleander’s toxicity is the presence of insects, like the large milkweed bug, with warning coloration feeding on flower parts and seeds.

Oleander is, in fact, one of the more poisonous plants, but mammals, especially humans seem to be more sensitive to its toxins than birds.  However, folk tales about drifters during the Dust Bowl years dying from having stirred their stew with oleander twigs are probably false.

Clearly, oleander is beautiful and poisonous, but what about being deceitful?  How can a plant be deceitful?

Nerium oleander flowers

Oleander flowers are brightly colored, sometimes fragrant, with a central opening meant to entice pollinators to explore.

But oleander flowers produce no nectar, and thus there is no reward for pollinators to keep exploring the profusion of flowers on the plant.  It’s false advertising and deceptive on the part of the plant.  But does it work, that is, does enough pollination occur to allow seeds to be produced?

flowers and seed pods of Nerium oleander

How many flowers with no nectar reward will a pollinator visit before it gives up and moves on?

Apparently, insects that pollinated this oleander explored many of the flowers in a cluster, moving enough pollen to produce several seed pods.  But the number of seed pods on the entire plant is scanty.

flowers and seed pods of Nerium oleander

Only a single pod was produced in this group of flowers

The only good news for bee pollinators is that the lack of nectar in the flowers means they would not contaminate their honey with cardiac glycoside poisons.

Surrounded by granite

Nothing impresses you like hiking up to an immense wall of granite, and immediately feeling very small and insignificant in the greater scheme of earth’s history.

Cathedral lake, Sierra Nevada, CA

Entering a huge granite bowl from a flat meadow landscape, you stumble upon beautiful, pristine-looking Cathedral Lake.

Cathedral lake, Sierra Nevada, CA

Turning just slightly clockwise from the previous view brings the Lake into focus.

There is something pure and almost spiritual about being at high elevation (maybe it’s the lack of oxygen) surrounded by sheer, steep granite.  The landscape begs you to just stand in awe.  How long has it been here, how has it changed over time?  How many people have stood here and wondered?

Cathedral lake, Sierra Nevada, CA

Mirrored reflection of granite peaks makes the landscape, especially the granite, loom even larger.

Sunset at a sunrise Lake, Yosemite, CA

Changing light at sunset adds a new dimension to the granite landscape.

Sunset, Glen Aulen High Sierra Camp, Yosemite, CA

A vast landscape of rock that goes on forever…

alpenglow at moon rise on Cathedral Lake, Yosemite

Alpenglow at moon rise on Cathedral Lake, Yosemite

30 years of hiking in the Sierras

We started a family tradition back when elder daughter was 12, hiking for a week in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California.  Every year about the time of her birthday, we have embarked on another excursion into the wilderness, usually with family along.

High Sierra hike

Now elder daughter introduces her own kids to the scenic wonders of the Sierra back country.

This year, the 30th anniversary of the first trip, and about an equal number of such excursions (meaning we only missed a couple of years when we didn’t hike there), we hiked the High Sierra Camp loop around Cathedral peak from Tuolomne Meadows in Yosemite.

High Sierra hike

The Sierra meadows are very dry this year. Creeks coming down from the mountain peaks that we normally would rely on for water were dry and made the hike a little challenging this year.

We felt very fortunate to have clear, sunny, smoke-free weather, with gorgeous scenic vistas of sharp mountain peaks as we hiked the 30+ mile loop.

High Sierra hike

Cathedral peak (left) in the distance was the primary landmark of the trip, seen even from long distance.  The grandkids were really impressed with the scenery, and loved it when the trails finally flattened out to make for easy hiking.

High Sierra hike

The reward at the end of a hard day’s hike was wading/swimming in the creeks or lakes in the midst of an amazing landscape.

High Sierra hike, Cathedral lake

Our last morning at our Cathedral Lake campsite

Our last campsite, at Cathdral Lake, might be one of the prettiest of all the lakes we have visited over these past 30 years.

Sunrise, Cathedral Lake, High Sierra

Sunrise reflection at Cathedral Lake

(all photos by Chris Mickelson with his fantastic iPhone!).

Mid-summer scenes

Mid-summer, it’s the time when fruits are ripening, profusions of flowers light up backyards and prairies, and we see lots of birds, butterflies, and bees everywhere.  It might be hot and sticky, but this is the time we’ve been thinking about on those cold winter days.

Monarch butterfly on Shasta daisy

Monarchs have made it to Minnesota by July, and begin laying the generation of butterflies that may be the ones to migrate south in a couple of months.

Lake water warms up, and mats of water lilies and duck weed clog the shorelines.

Fish lake, Cedar Creek nature preserve, MN

Warm summer days, scenic Minnesota lakes, one of the more than 10,000.

Butterfly weed with Monarch and Fritillary butterflies

Butterfly milkweed is in full bloom, attracting butterflies and bees.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes may have chicks following them around through the prairie meadows, and occasionally you see and hear them fly overhead.

Fruiting smooth sumac

Fruiting heads of smooth sumac light up the green forest of sumac shrubs. Did you know that the seed heads are high in vitamin C? Crush them in water to make sumac-ade!

Black morph, Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

The black morph of the Tiger Swallowtail butterfly has been visiting the backyard garden this week. It must be relatively newly emerged, with no bites in its wings yet.

Minnesota backyard in summer

What’s not to love about mid-summer days in the Minnesota backyard?

Pollinators, large and small

The purple flowers are blooming in my garden: spiderwort, weedy creeping charley, iris, bellflower, mountain cornflower, and lovely blue wild indigo. And there are a few bees around, doing their best on the limited amount of nectar and pollen available so early in the summer.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

This queen(?) common eastern bumblebee approaching a flower of the false wild indigo is faced with the task of getting to the nectar at the base of the flower through what appears to be closed “doors” (lateral petals) of the flower.  She is really too big to fit.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

Her weight is sufficient to separate the wings (lateral petals) of the flower, so she can poke her head (and tongue) deep into the base of the flower where there is nectar.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

The two halves of the keel petals at the bottom of the flower also separate under her weight, exposing the anther pollen and the bright, orange-yellow, three-pronged stigma (female receptive surface). Pollen she carries on her legs and body from another flower will stick to the stigma and travel down its tube to fertile ovules in the flower ovary to make seeds.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

Pulling away from the flower before flying to the next one, you can see the contact between bee and pollen.

Lady Bumble made the rounds of the newer flowers at the top of the raceme, working her way from oldest at the bottom to newest opened at the top, and then on to a different spike of flowers.  But the small solitary bee working these flowers had an entirely different strategy.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

You can see how tiny this little bee is in comparison to the flower.  It preferred visiting the older flowers, whose petals were drooping and not fitting as closely together as in the younger flowers. 

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Now, how to get inside the flower to reach the pollen? Squeeze through the tiny crack between petals.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Crawling inside finally, the bee disappears for a few minutes before crawling out and making its way to another, older flower.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Older flowers may not produce much nectar, But smaller bees don’t require as much as large bumblebees anyway. And perhaps pollen collection was of more interest to this tiny bee.