Looking back on 2018 — oh, the places we’ve seen!

What a fabulous year of sight-seeing, from Peru to the U.K and Iceland, to the wilds of California and Minnesota, and scenic coastlines of northeastern North America. It’s so hard choose the favorites, so instead I chose representative ones that bring back fond memories.  I hope you enjoy the re-run of the previous year’s landscapes.

Llamas at Machu Picchu, Peru

Llamas at Machu Picchu, Peru.  The iconic mountain view looming over the city ruins with the iconic mammals of the region!

Peruvian village in the mountains near Pisac

Peruvian village in the rugged Andes mountains near Pisac.

Lake near Sillustani, city of the dead, Puno, Peru

What looks like a floating island in a lake near Sillustani, the city of the dead, Puno, Peru.

Crossing the Amazon, Peru

A typical scene of family crossing the Amazon, 50 miles upstream from Iquitos, Peru.

Coal house near Thornham Harbor, Norfolk, England

Coal house and ancient boat near Thornham Harbor, Norfolk, England

Loch near Tongue, Scotland

Typical view of northern Scotland Lochs and Mountains with the gorse in bloom (near Tongue, Scotland).

Seacliffs, Handa Island, Scotland

Sea cliffs with lots of breeding sea birds all along the coast of Scotland.  This was on Handa Island, off the northwest coast of Scotland

Black sand beach at Vik, Iceland

Black sand beach at Vik, Iceland, with its strange volcanic remnants and steep sea cliffs along the coast on a typical “spring” day (May).

On the road to Vik, Iceland

On the road to Vik, Iceland, lots of exposed lava, high mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers.  It’s the land of Ice and Fire (a la Game of Thrones).

Iceland’s waterfalls: Gullfoss

Iceland’s waterfalls: Gullfoss drains an enormous inland glacier.

Minnesota autumn colors

Autumn colors on one of Minnesota’s 10,000+ lakes.

Winter in rural Minnesota

This is the classic scene of winter in the upper midwestern U.S.: gray and white with blotches of brown. Dreary, cold, uninviting…but picturesque.

And now on to 2019…

Tiny mobsters

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Forest walk, Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

We got a good demonstration of just how many tiny birds were present in the woods alongside roads in Sax-Zim bog, when our guide (Clinton Nienhaus, head naturalist at the bog) briefly played the call of a Screech Owl.  Within a couple of minutes, dozens of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches appeared, calling continuously to sound the alert of a predator’s presence.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch, one of about a dozen, sounding the alert in response to a Screech Owl call.

Weighing in at a whopping 10 grams (less than a fast-food packet of ketchup), tiny Red-breasted Nuthatches are just a bit smaller than Chickadees, but even a small bird with that sharp-pointed beak could do some damage at close range.  In any case, the point of the mob action is to pester the would-be predator enough that it eventually flies away.  Mobs of small birds may also attract larger birds like jays and crows to help drive off the predator.

Red-breasted Nuthatches mobbing fake owl

Red-breasted Nuthatches and chickadees flit from branch to branch looking for the owl.  Since I have only ever seen a single or a pair of nuthatches at one time, this was a real treat to see so many of them in action.

Red-breasted Nuthatches prefer coniferous woods, like the black spruce and tamarack of the bog.  In the spring and summer, they are highly insectivorous, but like the chickadees, in the winter they love the peanuts and suet found at bird feeders.  Even though they are one of the smaller birds at the feeder, their feisty, aggressive behavior often drives bigger birds away.  Like their cousins, the White-breasted Nuthatch, they will store some of the feeder largesse in tree crevices for a snowy, cold day.

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Looking up, looking down….where is that owl?

Sax-Zim bog is one of the premier birding areas in Minnesota, attractive to a number of Canadian breeding species like the Great Gray Owls and Hawk Owls, as well as northern breeding finches during the winter.  The farm fields filled with hay bales seem to be filled with mice and voles, perfect for raptors, and the dense spruce-tamarack forest provides good cover.  The Friends of Sax-Zim bog have established a welcome center where one can get a map, advice on where to search for some of the more exotic species, and even guided field trips to help you spot those elusive birds.

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN

Field trip Sax-Zim bog, Meadowlands MN.  We stopped here to check on the presence of Redpolls and other small finches.  Alas, only one Redpoll appeared, and only very briefly and far away.

For more information about the bog, visit their website (link above) or check out the photos and commentary of one of the founders of the organization, Sparky Stensaas at The Photonaturalist.

the creek

I am intrigued by the idea of a creek that runs through the heart of a dense urban area with mostly clear water and that supports a variety of wildlife along its riparian border.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Water levels may fluctuate, but there is always enough to support wildlife.

Los Gatos creek runs northward 24 miles from the Santa Cruz mountains through the once orchard-rich, now highly residential Santa Clara valley to join the Guadelupe River which eventually empties into the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Steep slopes along its course have been lined with sandbags or rocks to prevent the inevitable erosion of soft soils into the river that would dam its flow.

Along its length, the creek feeds two reservoirs and several small impoundments meant to recharge the ground water and prevent San Jose from subsiding as water is drawn from underground storage during urban development.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Creek water is aerated as it cascades over waterfalls and dams along its course.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

In places, the creek becomes a narrow channel, where water moves swiftly over rocks.

Hard to believe you’re in the middle of a major metropolis when you stand by the creek and watch a Coopers Hawk take down an errant little bird on the opposite shore.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Maples, oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods line the shore of the creek, creating colorful landscapes and providing cover for wildlife.

Walking north on the trail along the creek toward downtown San Jose, I came across an unusual painting on one of the many highway overpasses.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Was this creek a salmon run?

In the late 1800s, “speckled trout” (probably the steelhead, or pacific rainbow trout) were apparently so numerous in the creek, they could be caught by hand.  But agricultural development in the valley lowered the water table too much to sustain the salmon migration, until the reservoir and percolation pond system raised it.

Today tagged steelhead trout and Chinook salmon once again migrate up the Guadelupe River and Los Gatos creek from San Francisco Bay, which is a testament to the health of this urban riparian system.

Funny feet

I think of American Coots as very common, uninteresting birds, and so I never photograph them.  But I was intrigued by their diving maneuvers to obtain submerged vegetation, and stopped to watch them more closely on my walk along Los Gatos Creek in San Jose, CA the other day.

Juvenile American Coot

This juvenile Coot was very protective of a small patch of submerged vegetation a foot or so below the surface.

Coots seem to be very buoyant in the water; it takes work to submerge and they actively kick their feet against the water as they dive, quite unlike what Cormorants do.

American Coot diving

This is the intriguing part.  Look at those big feet/toes that the bird uses to propel itself down into the water.

Submerged American Coot

Using their lobed toes to propel them, Coots can get down to choice bites of vegetation.

Juvenile American Coot

Sometimes they bring up a large amount of vegetation that they bite off in chunks.

American Coot feet

A better look at those funny feet.   Photo from http://naturemappingfoundation.org/natmap/facts/american_coot_712.html

Coots occupy a wide variety of wetland habitats throughout North and Central America, feeding on a variety of aquatic vegetation.  But they are not fussy and will eat seeds or invertebrates they find on land as well.  Typically, they forage in small groups, their lobed toes expanded to a web as they kick backward to propel them through the water, and then collapsing inward as they bring their foot forward again.

That lobed toe design comes in handy when Coots walk across muddy, marsh ground, preventing them from sinking down into it.  And they assist Coots in taking off from water, when they need to use their feet to help lift their chunky bodies into the air.

Pretty useful, those funny feet!

American Coot taking off from water (Audubon)

American Coot taking off from water (Audubon Guide to North American Birds).

Tiny birds

Some of the tiniest birds in the Avian taxonomic class (outside of the hummingbirds) live here in California, and in fact, are quite common in parks and urban areas.  I happened to find one the tiniest species on my walk along Los Gatos creek the other day.

American Bushtit, San Jose, CA

The American Bushtit is the sole representative of its primarily European and Asian family of Long-tailed Tits.  You can appreciate how small it is when you compare it to the leaf of a cottonwood tree.

Bushtits weigh in at a whopping 5.5 grams on average — that’s how much a nickel weighs and is only slightly more than an Anna’s Hummingbird weighs.  Yellow-rumped Warblers seen zooming through our yards on migration every year and Black-capped Chickadees weigh twice as much as a Bushtit.

American Bushtit, San Jose, CA

Usually found foraging in small groups, Bushtits move around so quickly, they make it hard to get a good photo.

Other than being tiny and dull gray, their chief distinguishing feature is a thin, longish, dark tail.  But observing them up close, you learn that Bushtits are very social: they forage in small groups, they huddle together at night to stay warm, and they have “helpers” at their nests that defend the breeding territory and feed the chicks.  Usually these helpers turn out to be lower status males that failed to attract a female or whose nesting attempt failed.  This type of social behavior is more often seen in species in the Jay and Crow family.

American Bushtit, San Jose, CA

This is a female Bushtit, distinguished by her pale iris. The iris changes color a short time after females hatch, making it easy to sex birds in a flock.

Their diminutive size enables them to search small crevices or hang from the flimsiest branches in search of small insects or spiders hiding there.  Bushtits do us a favor by hunting along drooping branches for the scale insects whose excretions leave a collection of sticky droplets on our cars.

American Bushtit, San Jose, CA

Like their Long-tailed Tit relatives in Eurasia, Bushtits weave a hanging nest from a thin tree branch, by using stretchy (and strong) spider web incorporated into plant fibers.  It might take a month for a pair of Bushtits to build the structure, after several trials to determine the best location.

Bushtit nest, WA, photo by Mike Hamilton

Bushtit on its nest, photo by Mike Hamilton, in Washington state. https://www.birdnote.org/show/bushtits

Bushtits probably originated from Asian Long-tailed Tit species, spreading down the coast of western North America from Alaska to Mexico sometime after the Pleistocene glacial period. Their small size and group social dynamic may have been a key to their success in exploring a new niche in the “New World”.

a California fall day

Back in California for a couple of weeks, for a wedding and to enjoy prolonging lovely fall weather as long as possible.  It was a good day to hike along Los Gatos creek in Campbell (a small municipality in San Jose, CA) and enjoy the local wildlife.

Los Gatos Creek Park, Campbell CA

This pond along Los Gatos creek trail supports an amazing diversity of wildlife, from tame Mallards and Peking ducks, to breeding colonies of Cormorants, a pair of kingfishers. various Gull species, and of course, Canada Geese.

Los Gatos Creek Park, Campbell CA

There hasn’t been any rain here yet and most of the landscape is extremely dry except bordering the creek itself.

Common Bushtits, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose CA

Five little Bushtits looking for bugs on the dried wild anise. Can you find all of them? (I didn’t take the telephoto lens on my walk today.)

More on the Los Gatos creek wildlife in the next post….

Fruit feast

Trees and shrubs are dripping with fruit and berries this fall, and the robins are loving it.  A migratory wave of the feisty chirppers arrived this past week to attack the crab apple crop.

American Robin in a crabapple tree

With this many fruits to choose from, this Robin must be overwhelmed with the sea of red.  

But not all fruits on the crabapple tree are equal, and Robins prove to be quite choosy about which fruits they select.

American Robin in a crabapple tree

This one?

American Robin in a crabapple tree

Nope, this one instead. Notice it’s kind of shriveled and wrinkled looking.

American Robin in a crabapple tree

Down it goes, and the search for the next (ripe?) fruit begins.

The firm, plump red crabapples area definitely not the desirable ones. Are the wrinkled ones sweeter, or are they a little fermented, more like crab apple wine?

Autumn reflections

Back in Minnesota, the trees are putting on their fall color extravaganza after losing their chlorophyll to unmask those other, colorful leaf pigments. Whether you’re looking up at the tree tops or down into a reflected pool of color in the lake, the brilliance of leaf hues is impressive (and kind of inspiring, if I was artistic).

Fall color reflection, MN

Sunny days are wonderful for capturing the brilliant reflected color in the Lake water.

Fall color reflection, MN

Amur maples yield a whole variety of shades.

Fall color reflection, MN

Leaves reflected in the pond in the back yard look like a painting by Monet.

Even on cloudy, foggy days, the fall color reflections are still beautiful.

Fall color reflection, MN

Fog mutes the colors, but the contrast with leaves in the foreground is interesting.

Fall color reflection, MN

A perfect reflection in the fog and still water on a bay of Lake Owasso.

Fall color reflections, MN

I wonder what the Canada Geese think of the fall color spectacle…

Birding in a Florida salt marsh

What a pleasant surprise to find such a rich and interesting wildlife refuge just an hour north of Cape Canaveral — Blackpoint Drive, a 7 mile road along dikes in a salt marsh that is part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A typical scene along the dike roads of mangroves and pools in the salt marsh.

Here’s how the Fish and Wildlife Service describe this unique area.

Imagine a broad, flat expanse of salt marsh stretching from where your car is parked to the Indian River, a distance of about 1 mile. The only obstruction is an occasional hammock of palms or a mangrove-rimmed pond, and behind you, on higher ground, slash pines. Marsh streams gracefully wind through the marsh and provide a thoroughfare for microscopic plants and animals, shellfish and fish. Egrets and herons are poised along the stream edge, like spearfishermen patiently awaiting a meal. Secretively, sparrows search for insects in the chest-high grass. Occasionally, tides aided by a strong wind flood the marsh, and on the ebb, nutrient-laden waters are exported to the river. The marsh and river are one.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

An island of palmetto on higher ground stands behind the sea of grass in the salt marsh.

Although we were visiting before the big influx of winter migrants arrived, there was still plenty to see, which is why a 7 mile drive took us more than 3 hours. Butterflies, lizards, lots of birds, alligators, and even a errant manatee that wasn’t supposed to be in this area of the salt marsh crossed our path.

Tri-colored Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Tri-colored Herons were common in the shallow pools lined by mangroves.

Tri-colored Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

This one was pretty tame, and walked right up to us.

Greater Yellowlegs, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Greater Yellowlegs foraged in the shallow mudflats.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A few flocks of small dabbling ducks floated in the deeper pools, but quickly took cover in the mangroves when they spotted us.

Alligator, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Floating in some of those same deep pools were alligators of various sizes, from small like this one to very large.

Little Blue Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A solitary Little Blue Heron stalked its prey.

Great Blue Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Mangroves make useful perching spots for both Great Blue Herons and Great (White) Egrets.

Yellow-dumped Warbler, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Yellowthroat and Yellow-rumpled Warblers were frequently seen foraging in the low bushes and mangroves along the water’s edge.

Juvenile and adult Common Moorhens, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Common Moorhens must have raised their brood in these pools lined by mangroves. This juvenile bird is flanked by two adults in the background.

Manatee, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

The manatee was swimming along the edge of a small stream, squeezing itself through culverts that connected waterways. Apparently they are restricted from this area because they get stuck and have to be rescued and removed by wildlife biologists.

Black Vultures, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge visitor center

We found Black Vultures resting in the shade on the lawn of the visitor center 2 miles up the road from the wildlife refuge. It was close to 90 degrees and very humid, so no wonder they took refuge here.

What an amazing area, the last remnant of the natural salt marshes that probably lined the eastern coast of Florida before it was extensively developed. Not only is it a haven for wildlife, but it’s a natural barrier to storm surge and salt water intrusion inland.

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!