Remembering the year that was…

This year was an amazing time of one adventure after another…as we made up for the Covid isolation period and two years of postponed trips. So many beautiful places, beautiful animals, beautiful landscapes, and amazing people that we met. Here’s a snapshot of the year in review.

(Note: if you’re interested in seeing more and perhaps better photos of any of the activities mentioned below, go to the main page of the blog: https://bybio.wordpress.com and there should be a pull-down menu for the Archives with months and years of the blog listed near the top right of the main page. Just click on the month of interest, and scroll down through the days to see more of what I have summarized here. IPhone and iPad users may have to scroll to the bottom of the main page to see the dialog boxes with the months listed.)

The highlight of a trip to northern Minnesota to photograph the winter avian residents there was watching a very cooperative Great Gray Owl get four mice (from under the snow) in just four attempts — 100% success!
We took the long-awaited, much postponed cruise down the west coast of Mexico and Central America through the Panama Canal, ending up in Florida. Birding from the ship turned out to be a big plus.
Photography buddy Debby invited us to stay at Hilton Head, SC for a week to marvel at the huge numbers of shorebirds and others that overwinter in this milder mid-Atlantic climate.
As a prelude to our birding adventure in Spain in April-May, we took ourselves sight-seeing in Portugal, with a few days birding and exploring Lisbon, a train ride to Porto, and a few days there before ending the prelude in Madrid (a much more beautiful city than I remembered).
Birding extravaganza in the plains, forests, shore, swamps, and even in old cities in the Extremadura region and Donana national park in southern Spain with Ruth Miller and Alan Davies — birders extraordinaire
The annual family hike in our favorite haunts of the Desolation Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California took place early this year (to avoid a repeat of the disastrous smoke and fire threat we faced last year on the hike in August). We were rewarded with 100% warm, sunny days and no bugs!
Some of the family rode an airplane home from the Sierra hike, but two grandsons were kind enough to keep their grandparents company on a road trip from California through Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and South Dakota on the way back to Minnesota. Sights were seen and adventures were had along the way.
Although tamer than the previous months of travel, the backyard did not disappoint in bringing wildlife and beautiful scenes for photography. I realize in writing this now that I forgot to include the visit from the kit fox and its mama in August.
We always make at least one trip out to the central Minnesota prairie during the summer, and this year we found ground squirrels and monarch butterflies at Fort Riley state park. The tom turkeys visited the front and the back yards often, but without their girl friends.
A trip to eastern Europe (the Balkan countries) was a premier highlight of the year. It was definitely a learning and discovery adventure since we knew nothing about this part of the world. Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Slovenia — all beautiful, all very interesting though with tragic stories from inhabitants, and all easy to travel around with lots of friendly folks that spoke English.
As always, the fall color spectacle in the Twin Cities did not disappoint. The colors remained vivid for a long time, even into November before the trees finally gave up with the snowfall that began late this year on Nov. 12.
The forest outside became a fairy land of white-encrusted branches after the first major dump of very wet snow in December. Inside the tree was decorated with lights, mementos, and presents. Happy holidays!!

the Monarch magnet

Meadow Blazing Star attracts butterflies like catnip attracts cats. They stay on the plants for hours, flying around the flowers, dipping into them, chasing each other, and just generally hanging out by the vibrant purple blooms. I highly recommend it for your garden.

Monarch butterflies are especially fond of this tall (about 5 feet) spike of purple-pink blooms that are so highly visible and last such a long time in the garden.
The individual flowers of meadow blazing star are densely packed on a very long stem. I don’t know if this species of Liatris has more nectar than other blazing star species, but there are so many flowers and such a long blooming time, it provides a stable nectar resource for all sorts of insects.
An occasional bumblebee might try to land on these flowers, but the Monarchs usually chase them off.
We found an isolated stand of meadow blazing star in a prairie area at Fort Ridgely State Park on the Minnesota River near New Ulm, and this stand too, was a magnet for the Monarch butterflies with more than a dozen of them flying around the flowers continuously.

These Monarchs are most likely the final generation of the summer — the individuals that will fatten up on rich nectar resources from blazing star and other flowers and then begin a 2-3,000 mile journey to their overwintering sites in montane forest areas of central Mexico. Flying about 50-100 miles a day, it will take them more than two months to complete their migration. They depend on finding more nectar resources as they travel south through the American midwest, then south to Texas, and on through northern Mexico — an amazing feat of stamina and navigation in order to return to their overwintering site.

Sierra hike 2022 – the way down

Continued from the previous post: what a treat to spend a day hiking between lakes without a heavy backpack, and through gorgeous green meadows lined with red fir trees on a fairly level trail!

Off we go for a morning hike, with lunches to eat at Lake Lois…
I never get tired of these gorgeous meadows, and using the Merlin bird app, we were able to figure out which birds were doing all the singing.
Back at the Lake Doris campsite in late afternoon, it was time to pack up and head over Rockbound Pass down to Lake Maud. My granddaughters wanted to rename this set of lakes to something less old-fashioned sounding. We climbed up a little ways to the low part of the pass, only losing the trail a couple of times in the snowfields.
The other side of Rockbound Pass is well-named — you must hike a long ways down a jumble of rocks, often separated by big steps down. This was one of the few places there was a “nice” trail.
And sometimes the trail looked like this — and you ask yourself, ”where is the trail”?
Our destination is in the distance, but it’s already early evening, and we’re still 2 miles away!
Surprisingly, the lower part of this dry, rocky trail was flush with beautiful wildflowers in full bloom.
Two, tired grandparents rolled into camp, downed a quick bite of food, and collapsed in the tent at sunset.
The next morning everyone felt perky again, but sad to leave the mountains.
Grandpa led the three oldest grandsons down the trail showing them how to identify the various trees and flowers, and then launching into a longer history of early California.
Leaving the wilderness —it’s only another mile or two to our cars. And thats the end of Sierra hike 2022.

A day late and a dove short

I should have posted this composite image of White-winged Doves coming to and leaving a perch yesterday — when it was National Pigeon/Dove day. Oh well….hence, the title of the post.

White-winged Doves are one of the most numerous birds in the desert southwest, and they are especially attractive in flight with their black and white accents.
Dun-colored plumage matches the background of the desert floor, but how about those beautiful orange eyes with their blue eye shadow!

These doves are native to central America and Mexico, but expand northward into southern most CA, AZ, NM, and TX during their breeding season. They time their arrival with the blooming and fruiting of the saguaro cactus, feasting on its nectar, pollen, flowers, and seeds. In fact, the tiny seeds of the saguaro are the only ones the doves will consume, because they are so easy to pick out of the cup-shaped fruit.

The saguaro cacti were just beginning to bloom in late May in southeastern AZ. This particular cactus was about 12 feet tall, with 3-inch flowers only on its top. The nectar and pollen in the flowers attracts bats, birds, and insects, ensuring lots of pollination and fruit set.

Many dove species are particularly successful in hot, dry desert environments — they are the only birds that can pump or suck up water with their bills immersed so they can rehydrate quickly, and they are strong flyers that can search for waterholes within a wide radius of their nest. Once well hydrated doves can evaporatively cool themselves by panting, even at air temperatures in excess of 120 degrees F (50 degrees C). Amazing survivors!

After the rains on the plains in Spain …

the wildflowers bloom in great abundance, making the plains south of Trujillo a carpet of color!

Yellow daisy like flowers as far as one can see. Nearby one male Great Bustard (sort of like a turkey) strutted up and down showing off his feathers.
A White Stork grazing in the middle of the wildflower carpet, looking for frogs, snakes, mice, insects — really anything edible will do.
Iberian lavender is in bloom everywhere in the plains of Spain.
The shoreline of this small reservoir near Trujillo was a mass of small blossoms barely two inches tall.
Red poppies and a Red-legged Partridge!

The high plains of Portugal

In northernmost Portugal near the Spanish border is its largest national park—Peneda-Gerez. Forests of native Maritime Pine and plantations of eucalyptus introduced for paper manufacture give way to a low growing grassland interspersed with granite outcrops. This 270 square mile wilderness created in 1971 still has some inholdings of farms and small hillside towns, which only adds to the unique character of the area.

Looking for spring birds on a chilly spring day in the ”plano alto” rocky barrens of Peneda-Gerez NP.
The heather was blooming, along with a very few wildflowers, but spring still hasn’t really taken hold here yet.
You would think you were at high altitude seeing this diminutive flora clinging to the edges of bare rock.
Small towns filled with a couple dozen red tile-roofed stone houses nestle in flatter areas in this montane landscape.
It’s old fashioned, low tech, labor intensive farming here, but the cows and horses look exceptionally healthy grazing on the pasture grass.
And after much searching for any birds at all, we finally spied the nest of a pair of White Storks on the stump remains of a tree right next to a well-traveled farm road. (nest is on the far right)
This pair of storks had decorated their nest with a piece of white plastic wrapping, which unfortunately obscured the incubating female from our view. However the male flew in and brought her some food, so we got to observe a little of their interaction.
The geography here reminds me of the moorland of Scotland…and its nothing like what I pictured northern Portugal would be.

Birds and blooms in the Tagus river estuary of Lisbon

We spent part of a day acquainting ourselves with the beautiful environs of central Lisbon and then took a birding tour of the variety of habitats in the Tagus river estuary the following day. This is the largest estuary system in western Europe, with an area of more than 80,000 acres where as many as 50,000 waterfowl overwinter.

We’re not in Kansas anymore — or in Minnesota! Spring wildflowers were in great abundance here in the meadows surrounding the salt marsh.
Red Poppies were a delight to find along roadsides and in parks. i have always loved the orange California poppies, but these are even more spectacular.
Unbelievable color!
The contrast of the very old structures that probably date back to 16th or 17th century with the modern constructions of wind farms and electrical utilities.
We saw a variety of birds still utilizing the estuary wetlands, but there were just a few representative examples left at the time in the spring. Flamingoes here are mostly white with pinkish tinges of color on their back and wings.
Dozens of Glossy Ibis grazed in wet meadows and marshes, but were very skittish and took off with the slightest disturbance.
At least 8 species of shorebirds foraged in the mud at low tide, moving from pool to pool en masse.
But the strangest sight we viewed on this trip was White Storks nesting communally on power structures everywhere — in urban, rural, and in natural settings.

In a little over three decades, the White Stork increased from around 1000 individuals in Portugal in 1995 to about 15,000 individuals today. And one of the reasons for this increase in the face of near extinction is the access that the storks have to foraging in landfills for the nutritious remains of fishermen hauls, restaurant leftovers, and household garbage. in fact, now White Storks will not try to nest farther than about 10-12 miles from the landfills.

Storks are rather handsome birds with black wingtips and long, red bills. They stand about 3 feet tall and weigh about 7-8 pounds. Their usual diet of small invertebrate and vertebrate species found in wetlands has been supplanted by the much easier to acquire landfill organic waste.
Storks are powerful flyers, which might be why this bird that likes to nest on chimneys and rooftops in urban areas was linked to folk tales about the delivery of babies. The storks apparently have great fidelity to the nest site where they raised last year’s chicks, but the pair do not stay together on their wintering grounds in tropical Africa. So they may or may not meet up in subsequent years to rear another batch of chicks.

a rare plant

I haven’t seen many rare plants outside of Hawaii, but there is one oak tree species (Englemann Oaks) that has an incredibly limited range in southern California, making it a very rare plant in the U.S. Englemann Oaks used to be found on dry grassland mesas up to 4,000 feet in southern California. But their preferred climate/vegetation zone is also where humans like to build houses, and thus, their distribution has shrunk drastically to a narrow strip along the foothills of southern California mountains from Pasadena into San Diego county.

We visited the Santa Rosa plateau, an almost 10,000 acre Nature Conservancy preserve near Murietta, CA to get a look at these rare oaks.

Englemann oaks are evergreen like live oaks, but with much longer, more leathery, gray-green leaves. It is a majestic looking tree, characterized by gnarled and twisted lower branches, shown here on the left.
Much longer and lighter leaves and small, stubby acorns on the Englemann oaks.
The landscape in the Santa Rosa plateau preserve is slightly rolling with open spaces of grassland (and native California grasses) interspersed with lower ravines of dense oaks and chaparral.
Englemann oaks line the trail here and probably provide welcome shade on hot summer days.

Despite there being a lot of oaks in this area, there were surprisingly few Acorn woodpeckers, and i only saw a handful of them flying from tree to tree. However, there were a few other typical chaparral birds present on this overcast, windy day.

A male Anna’s Hummingibrd…
A very cooperative male Wrentit, singing his bouncing ping pong ball song…
and a Scrub Jay or two, checking us out to see if we had something to offer.

Milestones

A fellow blogger reminded me that over the course of a year, or a decade, we write a lot of words about a lot of photos on our blogs. I have been writing this blog since July 2011, roughly a month after I retired. Somehow, I completely missed celebrating the 10th anniversary of “Backyard Biology” in July this year, and so after the end of 2021, I’m summarizing the highlights and milestones of the blog in this post.

This was the featured animal on the first ever Backyard Biology post — a Japanese beetle eating my raspberry plants.

Since that first entry, I have written 1689 posts, and the blog has had 415,000+ visitors (some just came once, some visited several to many times), with a total of more than 640,000 views during the past ten years. During that decade span I’ve written more than 307,000 words, which is about the equivalent of the word length of 4 novels, and I’m now finding that I am repeating myself, writing about the same topics in much the same way. And so the posts are more infrequent, and are now focused more on the natural history of the global backyard, rather than just my own backyard.

During the past 10 years, the post with by far the most views on one day (722) was on May 23, 2018, “Waterfall Extravaganza” in Hraufossar, Iceland, where there are 900 meters of continuous waterfalls streaming from a monster glacier and falling over impervious lava rock.

Every view in Iceland is spectacular, and I captured quite a few of them. But this post seemed to pique the most interest in readers. This is a very small section of a long ridge of waterfalls draining into the Hvita River in western Iceland.

The same three or four posts seem to generate the most interest every year, probably as a result of a Google search for an answer. The top three each year tend to be: “How many seeds in a sunflower seed head?”, “Gigantic black horse fly”, and “Scary-looking, big, black wasp alert”. The post on sunflower seed heads gets about 30,000 views a year. Inquiring minds want to know!

This 6.25 inch diameter sunflower seed head had 1080 seeds in it. The beautiful geometric pattern of spirals is the most efficient packing of seed material into the given space — where the numbers of seeds in a given clockwise and counter-clockwise spiral are consecutive Fibonacci numbers. This post is from September 30, 2012.

This year, the most viewed post (528 views on October 17) was “Reflections”, which included some photos of images reflected in rippling water, like this one of Bald Cypress in the Mobile-Tensaw river delta.

In fact, the posts from our Fall trip to Alabama, a unique environment I had never seen before, were the most viewed posts of the entire year. Lagging far behind in views (350) was the post I entitled “Apocalypse”, thinking that would really capture readers’ attention.

On August 17, winds drove the smoke from the Caldor fire in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains into Desolation Valley where we were camped at 8100 feet.

And now it’s time to find some new material to showcase on Backyard Biology, with adventures near and far in 2022. Happy reading!


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.