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

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…



The Big Trees

We hiked through the cool, majestic big redwoods of the Forest of Nisene Marks in the Santa Cruz mountains the other day. I’m always impressed with the immense change in microclimate that these big trees produce, growing along the coast and trapping cool, moist air from the ocean each morning. The light filters through dense branches high above the trail, and only a few scattered sunbeams actually make it to the forest floor. So photography is a bit challenging under dim light conditions.

This tract of almost 10,000 acres of coastal redwood forest was once clear-cut once to provide lumber for the growing towns of central California. The land was donated to the state by the family of Nisene Marks, a passionate nature lover.
Wildflowers, like this delicate Trillium, were in abundance on the forest floor.
But the forest was really quiet, except for the trilling warble of a few Pacific Wrens. This is not a place to find a lot of birds, but it is a serene wilderness with lots of beautiful hiking trails to traverse.
This Pacific Wren was elusive at first and then hopped up into plain view. Its song is similar to our Midwestern House Wren, and it pierces the quiet of the redwood forest stillness.
One of the interesting creatures of the redwood forest is the Banana Slug, so named for its resemblance to said fruit. This shell-less mollusk looks vulnerable because it stands out with its bright color on the dark forest floor, but only a very few predators can tolerate the tongue-numbing, viscous slime it secretes to retard dehydration.
Two pairs of tentacles on its head help the banana slug navigate its environment. The upper pair contain light-receptive cells on long, protruding stalks. The lower pair are used to sense certain chemicals in the forest litter so the slugs can locate their favorite food: tiny mushrooms. They also consume and recycle the vital nutrients in animal droppings and dead plant material, leaving behind rich fertilizer.
Other decomposers, like these fungi that resemble our Midwestern “Turkey tails”, add to the forest nutrient cycle. Redwoods that can live for thousands of years are resistant to decomposition, unlike the pine or deciduous trees present in this forest.
Looking up at the Big Trees, towering above us in the redwood forest.

The Rock

it juts right out of the ocean, a lone, huge boulder of a rock, standing 580 feet high. Morro Rock is one of the “nine sisters of San Luis Obispo County”, a series of volcanic plugs that rose into softer rock about 20 million years ago. The Rock is part of the state park and is closed to hikers and climbers so that Peregrine Falcons, Western Gulls, and Brandt’s Cormorants (among many other bird species) have a protected place to breed and raise their chicks.

Almost 500 feet above us, a group of Brandt’s Cormorants have established nest sites on a shelf of the rock face (arrow— you may be able to see them if you click on the photo to enlarge it). Western Gulls have staked out their favorite nest sites on the various rock ledges as well. The minute dots of birds against the rock face gives you a sense of just how massive this rock is.
Along the shore you can find plenty of shorebirds, as well as some great views.
Western Gulls are plentiful, and they quickly hone in on what the humans around them are eating for lunch on the beach.
Left-over French fries…yes, they love them.
Gulls don’t bother the napping Harbor Seals, but this one looks surprised by the fly-by.
A pair of California Thrashers were setting up housekeeping along one of the hiking trails in the park. Like other members of the Mimid family (mockingbirds and catbirds), thrashers are notable songsters. Thrashers construct complex songs that contain phrases from many other songbirds, strung together in long series with few repeats, often lasting 3-5 minutes. One study found almost 3,000 phrases in a single California Thrasher song.
They may be plain-looking but friendly little California Towhees are easy to find in California chaparral vegetation and are sort of an indicator species of the California scrublands. They scratch around the base of plants for hidden seeds, the same way Fox Sparrows do in the Midwest.
Red -shouldered Hawks have a strange distribution in North America. They are mostly an eastern bird of the forests, but a limited western population occurs west of the Sierra Nevada mountains from Northern California to northern Baja California. We were fortunate to see one of the birds fly into the tree where the other hawk perched, just as we were leaving the state park.

Flowers of the desert

Although we have been a little early in some places and a little late in others, we still have seen some of the spring wildflower show as we travel.

One of the most exotic flowers we saw were on this claret cup cactus, actually an endangered species found only at the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico — which is exactly where we were when we saw it. The plant puts out brilliant scarlet flowers on cylindrical stems that mound together into a cactus clump.
The color of the flowers suggests it might be pollinated by hummingbirds, although the shape of the flower is wrong. However, the “flower” is actually the outer sepals and petals combined, and the nectar reward for the hummingbird pollinators is in the central chamber surrounded by hundreds of thready stamens.
Cylindrical flowers of the Ocotillo are the more typical hummingbird floral type, but a number of other birds enjoy these flowers for their nectar, as well as the insects they attract.
Why bother probing into the flower for nectar when you can just rip the flower off the stem and eat the whole thing, as this male Pyrrhuloxia is doing?
Looking for insects on unopened Ocotillo buds? A male Gila Woodpecker might enjoy both a nectar and an insect reward from these flowers.
A female Rufous Hummingbird foraged on a bunch of Penstemon flowers in the early morning at Cave Creek ranch in Portal Arizona.
A Clear-wing Moth and Pygmy Blue butterfly foraged on the bush lupine right outside our room at Cave Creek ranch in Portal Arizona. This plant had so many flowers and apparently so much nectar, it was constantly moving with the all the butterflies and bees swarming on it.
The Southern California deserts didn’t receive enough rain this year to produce much of a wildflower show, but the Desert Agave still bloomed here, along with many Ocotillo plants, giving this desert in Anza Borrego State Park some color. The Agave plants only send up one flower spike in their lifetime, as tall as the plant’s energy resources will allow, to attract bats to pollinate them.