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?

on Antelope Island

I’ve always wanted to visit this 42 square mile Utah state park that is connected to Salt Lake City by a long isthmus. And we hit a magnificent, sunny day with dramatic clouds over the lofty Wasatch mountains to drive around it.

Antelope Island is the largest of 10 islands in the Great Salt Lake. The first non-natives to visit were John C. Fremont and Kit Carson in their exploration of the area in 1845, and they named it for the large number of Pronghorn Antelope they saw there. Native Americans had probably been living in the area for 10,000 or more years.
The 15 mile-long Island consists has extensive, shallow mudflats leading into the hyper saline lake, with sagebrush and short grass prairie above the shoreline. The most common birds we saw along the coast were California Gulls, the Utah state bird.
A central mountain ridge runs the length of the island, providing a variety of habitats for wildlife at different elevations. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the montane area. Maybe next time….
The Fielding Garr ranch on the south end of the island was established in 1848, and the homestead was operated by the LDS church to raise money to bring Mormon immigrants from Europe to settle in Utah. The home still stands, and the presence of fresh water and orchard trees at the ranch attract a number of migratory and resident birds.
Bison were introduced in the 1890s, and they do very well on the island’s native grassland. Some of the herd have been used to stock other parks with native grazers.
We saw small herds of what were probably bison cows and youngsters, but the huge bulls were usually by themselves, and very sedentary.
A Pronghorn Antelope buck rested under a bush while his harem of females grazed nearby.
These usually skittish animals that typically run from photographers who see them from a distance along busy highways, were uncommonly calm and allowed us to get within 100 feet of them.
What a pleasure to see (and hear) so many Western Meadowlarks calling from the short grass prairie. They seemed to be staking out territories about every 50 feet or so.
We had hoped to see a lot of shorebirds here, but they were far, far in the distance. However the mountain reflections in the tidal flats were nice
There are some incredible landscapes with views of mountains, an intensely blue salt lake, clouds, and weather on Antelope Island in Salt Lake City, UT!

along the lakeshore

Not the Minnesota lakes, but back to the 2021 cross-country adventure and the beautiful shoreline vistas of Lake Tahoe in the California Sierra Nevada mountains. Noting that this was primarily a birding adventure, nevertheless, this area provides some stunning scenery!

We usually see this lake from above as we hike into the mountains, but this time our quest for new species of montane birds took us to Upper Truckee marsh, along the south shore of the lake.
With the lake at our backs, the view of marsh and mountains is equally stunning. Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal were swimming in the marsh and Marsh Wrens were teasing us with their rattling call from the cattails.
A Black-billed Magpie cruised the beach looking for something good to eat and posed quietly, even as I walked within 10 feet of it. These are ubiquitous birds in montane areas, and especially near camping areas where there might be spilled left-overs from picnics.
Tiny Mountain Chickadees probed the buds of willows and bushes that were just beginning to open. There might be a stray insects in there…

But the real excitement was on the lake itself, where an Osprey circled several times looking down as it flew. We hoped there might be some action if the bird spotted any fish below, and our patience in following its flights was rewarded with the following succession of images of its successful dive and capture — which I put together in a string from right to left.

What a sight seeing the Osprey line itself up for the plunge and then fold its wings back with legs lowered to strike a fish that must have been just below the surface. The bird struggled a bit trying to hang on to the fish and get itself out of the water. This was not an easy plunge and go, but required a lot of flapping effort to get airborne again.

You “otter” see this!

We didn’t expect to see so many sea otters on our boat tour of the Elkhorn Slough in Monterey Bay. Several were in sight at any one time, almost every one with a youngster riding on top as the adult paddled along on its back.

Sea Otters propel themselves with their hind feet while floating on their backs. This mama has a small youngster curled up on her chest, its head tucked under its body.

Sea Otters were once very abundant in the coastal marshes and estuaries of western North America, but extensive hunting up until the early 1900s culled their numbers to just a couple thousand animals. Conservation efforts have increased their numbers somewhat, but they are only found in part of their original range. Sea Otters are an important part of the coastal ecosystem because they prey on the sea urchins that ravage the kelp beds and keep the herbivore numbers in check.

The Sea Otter diet is largely made up of shelled invertebrates like mussels, abalone, snails, and sea urchins. Otters are unusual in carrying and using a tool, a good-sized rock that they can tuck into a fold of skin, to pound on shells to break them apart. They can also open some shells with their incisors.

Sea Otters bring their prey to the surface, and consume it while floating on their backs. Naturally, some of the food drops onto their fur as they eat, so they continuously roll over while eating to dislodge food fragments. In addition, they meticulously groom their fur to keep it clean and fluffy (i.e., with lots of air pockets).

The density of otter fur is one of their most important adaptations to marine life. It is extremely thick, with about 1 million hairs per square inch! Multiple layers of fur shed water and trap air, enhancing their ability to float on the surface and keep a dry layer of fur next to their skin. Young otters have an extra layer of inner fur to trap air which gives them extra buoyancy. While grooming them, their mother may actually blow air into their fur, making them so buoyant, they float like corks.
Long vibrissae on their noses help them detect prey under the water. Sea Otters apparently also have an excellent sense of smell, and their eyesight is as good above water as below the surface. When they dive, otters can close their nostrils and ears to water entry.

Otters breed at all times of the year, and pregnancy usually lasts about 4 months, but females can delay the implantation of the single embryo until conditions are best for the pup’s development. Pups stay with the mother 6-8 months, before venturing out on their own, when they are almost full adult size.

This little otter won’t be with its mom much longer…

.

.