The Gathering

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes are currently staging for a few weeks in the wet meadows of wildlife refuges in central Minnesota and Wisconsin –fattening up for migration and hanging out with each other in the beautiful fall colors of October.

They are a very social bunch at this time of year, crowding together at night in the more remote places of the refuge and flying off in large groups to feed in agricultural fields in the daytime where they consume what is left from the corn, wheat, sorghum or other crop harvests.

Sandhill Cranes pair for life, and the partners stick pretty close together when they are foraging, even though they may be part of a very large group of 100 or more birds feeding in a particular area. Although it doesn’t look like it in the photo, this is a wet meadow with some bare, marshy areas that might have the insects, snails, berries, or even small mammals they are looking to eat.

After a cold, dreary few hours of driving around Crex Meadows wildlife area looking for the wildlife (and finding scarcely any), the sun suddenly appeared in the late afternoon, and the cranes began flying into a wet meadow we had just happened to stop by to take in the view. From our overlook we saw several flights of dozens of cranes come right over us to land about 1/4 mile (or more) away.

It’s so helpful that they announce their presence with their eerie-sounding rattling trumpet call long before we see them, so we can get the cameras ready!
They flew in small groups…
or very large ones, always calling as they flew over.
Gradually, over the course of about half an hour, the meadow began to fill up with Cranes.
Incoming fights of cranes circled the group in a wide arc, gradually descending with legs down, heads and neck erect, as they kind of floated down to the ground.

I assume this might be where they will spend the night, and it might be where they congregate every night, until early morning when the most restless ones among them signal that it’s time to take off again and fly out to get breakfast. Don’t you wonder which birds are those early starters who set off all the others? Is it always the same ones? Inquiring minds want to know!

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.

Fields of gold

Prairie parkland landscapes are at their peak golden color now. The fall landscape is transforming daily, and with the nice fall weather lately, it’s a glorious time to be out walking around. I’ve given up trying to find the migrating birds at this points and am just enjoying the golden colors everywhere.

The prairie at Tamarack park in White Bear Lake looks golden with stems drying Big Blue Stem and Indian grass, as well as a healthy crop of Showy Goldenrod. Leaves of a few of the maples and ashes have begun to change color also.
There is a similar scene in the restored prairie at Reservoir Woods in St. Paul where the low vegetation is a solid mass of several species of Goldenrod, with a few purple and blue asters and the stems of Indian Grass mixed in.
Bright yellow plumes of Showy Goldenrod rise above the rest of the vegetation in this landscape. And the flowers are a major attraction for honeybees and bumblebees by the dozens.
I don’t think I’ve seen this many honeybees in a native landscape for quite some time. Goldenrod and Asters are the late blooming plants in the fall that bees depend on to stock their larders with pollen over the winter.
Stiff Goldenrod with its erect, rigid stems and fat, almost succulent looking leaves is also in full flower not, but is not nearly as attractive to the bees as the Showy Goldenrod.
Stiff Goldenrod flowers seem larger and more attractive to my eyes, but not to the bees.
Canada Goldenrod has already bloomed and is putting out seeds that the migrating sparrows and finches will appreciate.
Earlier in the fall the American Goldfinches began harvesting the seedheads of the Meadow Blazingstar and led their newly fledged offspring over to the seedheads of the Canada Goldenrod.
What new things will I see on tomorrow’s walk?

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.

Pine Ridge hills of Nebraska

Cutting a slice through the northwest corner of Nebraska is a ridge of sedimentary rocks that jut upward from the prairie flatland. Ponderosa Pine are the primary colonists of this ridge, which makes it a very scenic contrast to the rolling grasslands below.

The pine ridge cuts a 100 mile swath through northwestern Nebraska, but may be only 4 miles wide at some points. Its almost like a mountain island in a sea of prairie.
Crumbling rock formations at the summit of the pine-covered hills are composed of shale, limestone, sand and gravel as well as some volcanic ash.
But the hills are quite steep and more rugged than you might think when viewed up close.

This area is atypical of the rest of Nebraska, and its ecology resembles the flora and fauna of the Black Hills in South Dakota. It is also an important site in American history, as it was the setting of the end of the Lakota Indian Wars in the 1860s.

This is a great place to find Mountain Bluebirds perching on low pine branches while hunting for their next meal.
Showy male Bluebirds stand out in the pine vegetation; females blend in for protection from predation.
Pygmy Nuthatches are also very fond of Ponderosa Pines as a good place to nest and find food. These tiny little bundles of energy are very social — they forage in small flocks, they use helpers at the nest to raise a brood of chicks, and they huddle together on cold nights to save energy.
Out on the prairie flats, one can find bison, elk, and mule deer. The Pine Ridge hills are one of two places in Nebraska where Bighorn Sheep can be found.
Eastern Meadowlarks were abundant in the grasslands.
As were Red-winged Blackbirds, in some of the wetter areas.

Springtime (?) in Wyoming

Continuing our journey east in early May, back to what we hoped would be lovely Spring weather in Minnesota, we drove through southern Wyoming to stop at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge near Green River. On the way we passed a little wildlife, posing by the side of the road.

Pronghorn Antelope love the sage brush-grasslands of Wyoming, and there were quite a few of them clustered in small groups on the backroads near Kemmerer.
This antelope didn’t even move when we slowed down to photograph it as it walked along the railroad track.
Pronghorn are North America’s only living antelope-like mammal (they are in their own family, unrelated to African antelope species).

As a species, they survived the Pleistocene glaciations (ice ages), the massive extinction of North American land mammals 10-15,000 years ago, and so far, the habitat and climate changes that have occurred with settlement of the western prairies. This unique ungulate (four-footed herbivore) can run 60+ miles per hour (fastest of any land mammal in North America), but it can’t jump, so it must crawl under fences.

We got a quick look at a couple of moose hiding in the tall vegetation near the river, but they went into a hasty retreat to disappear from view.
On a cold, windy day, Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge was an uncomfortable environment to go looking for Sharp-tailed Grouse. There were only a few ducks on the Green River, and just a few songbirds in the grassy areas.
A Redhead Duck (left) and his mate (foreground) paddled along with a pair of Greater Scaup in one area of the river, but this was not the mecca of migratory waterfowl that we had expected. Spring had definitely not come to this area yet.
Horned Larks foraged for wind-dispersed seed in the gravel parking lot. This is a species you can always count on finding under the most harsh conditions: hot, cold, dry, rocky, high altitude– they are tough little birds that actually prefer sparsely vegetated, dry, barren areas.
Juncos are common throughout North America, but this one was special — it’s the “pink-sided” race of Dark-eyed Junco, distinguished by its lighter gray head, dark area in front of the eyes, and pinkish-tan plumage on its sides and flanks. It’s found in the Rocky Mountains from Alberta to southern Wyoming, and may disperse north or higher in altitude from its winter range to summer breeding areas.
Another new encounter was a couple of White-tailed Prairie Dogs, a different species than the common Black-tailed Prairie Dog seen in the grasslands and prairies east of the Rockies. The white-tailed species is much paler in color, has a much smaller range (Wyoming and parts of eastern Utah and western Colorado) and occurs only in higher altitude grasslands (5-10,000 feet)

Was it just the weather on this day in early May, or is Wyoming a really cold, desolate place in the Spring?

Climbing the South Pass road over the Rockies at the southern end of the Wind River range was a trip back to winter, with snow covered hills and deep drifts of snow in the ravines. South Pass is notable because it is the lowest place (7400 feet) to cross the Rocky Mountains, making it a key destination along the Oregon Trail during the westward expansion of the U.S.
Coming down from South Pass, the climate wasn’t much better on the eastern side of the mountains, and it looked like Spring weather was at least a few weeks off.

Springtime in Wyoming — definitely not in May this year.

the beautiful California Grasslands

Driving south from the Pinnacles National Park, just east of Monterey Bay, we encountered a small valley within the inner coast range of mountains with beautiful pastoral scenes of the oak savanna for which California is well-known.

The valley floor was once carpeted with native grasses that remained green in summer heat (like those in the Midwest), but European grasses introduced as forage for grazing cattle have taken over the pastures. This green landscape will soon turn gold-colored as the grasses dry out.
The grassy meadow gives way to oak savanna or oak woodland on the hillsides where soil is even drier and where cattle can retreat during the mid-summer heat.
Yellow-billed Magpies are endemic to the coastal and Central Valley grasslands of California from which their close relatives, the Black-billed Magpies, seem to be restricted. Competitive exclusion between the two species does not account for the strict boundaries between them, but one research study did show that Yellow-billed Magpies can tolerate (and breed in) the higher temperatures and drier conditions of the valley grasslands during the summer. Black-billed Magpies are found only at high elevations in cooler, wetter habitats in California (like the Sierras).
Blackbirds follow cattle around on the grasslands, waiting for the cattle to stir up insects as they move.
But this flock weren’t the Red-winged or Brewer’s Blackbirds we expected. They were the locally endemic, rarely seen Tri-colored Blackbirds, with red and white wing epaulets. Unlike their Red-winged cousins, Tri-colored Blackbird prefer to nest in huge colonies in wet marshes, placing their nests close together, with some colonies containing hundreds of thousands of birds (in the mid 1900s). Their population has declined markedly in the past 50 years with conversion of wet marshes to agricultural fields in the Central Valley.
It was wonderful to see so many Western Meadowlarks as we drove through the short grass prairies of the western U.S. and California grasslands. Their sweet song fills the meadows, and we notice how many more of them we see perched on fence posts as we drive, unlike a similar drive through backroads of our Midwestern grasslands.

Roadside finds

Wending our way through the small towns and narrow roads of the central Plains States south, we came across some notable discoveries — things we would never see on busy interstate highways.

A female Prairie Chicken, foraging right alongside the road and unperturbed by our car backing up to get a better view of her.
We almost drove right by this little piece of prairie as we took a sharp curve on a road out of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Her family home is nicely preserved in town.
At a park in Red Cloud, we found a pair of Cooper’s Hawks perched in the trees near the bathroom. One of them was munching on a recent kill.
McAllister Park in Lubbock, Texas looks arid and deserted of life, but turns out to be a birding hotspot in the middle of busy freeway traffic! Black-tailed Jackrabbits were abundant, and boldly hopping around out in the open, so I guess there were no Great Horned Owls around.
Also found at McAllister Park were several pairs of Burrowing Owls, perched on the edge of burrows originally constructed by the Prairie Dogs there.
Right at the edge of the road leading up to Carlsbad Caverns were a pair of young male Bighorn Sheep munching on what looked pretty inedible. The Chihuahuan Desert here in southern New Mexico is really bleak looking, without a shred of green visible except for the Juniper needles. How these animals survive here in this hot, arid place is truly amazing.

Cranes in the cornfield

We spent a dark gray, occasionally rainy afternoon looking for Sandhill Cranes near Grand Island, Nebraska. We missed the massive numbers of Cranes seen last week — 250,000 over a 70 mile stretch of the Platte River had dwindled to a mere 38,000 this week. But we managed to find a few birds.

They are such stately birds, but sound and look prehistoric.
Some birds engaged in mating displays, but most were more intent on foraging, head down, looking for whatever there was to eat.
The Cranes seemed restless; it was late in the afternoon, the wind was blowing more than 20 mph, and the temperature with wind chill was pretty arctic. Time to call it a day and retreat to a quiet, protected place on the river.
Long “Vees” of Sandhill Cranes filled the sky as they flew from field to field looking for the last bits of grain or some juicy invertebrates to build up their fat stores before starting north again.

Great Sand Dune

Down the road to the west of Vermejo Park Ranch on the eastern edge of the San Luis valley in south central Colorado lie the tallest sand dunes in North America, now protected in Great Sand Dune National Park.

Compared to the 13,000 foot peak behind them, the dunes don’t look all that tall, but the Star Dune (which is still growing) tops out at 750 feet. In all, the dunes cover about 31 square miles with mounds of sand derived from a previous lake bed thousands of years ago blown by desert winds up against the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
A creek runs between the dunes and the short grass prairie and junipers for most of the spring and summer, so there is a small riparian strip that attracts animal life in this otherwise desolate environment.
Thick mat of tall grasses carpet what you would think would be dry desert sand.
Aspens and cottonwoods grow along the edge of the stream bed. The fall color must have been beautiful here a month ago.
Only when humans get out on the dunes can you appreciate just how big and extensive they are. Can you see the tiny person (on the left) standing half way up on a dune? For a small fee, you can rent a board to “sled” down the dune, which is popular in the summer, but sand temperatures can reach 150 F, so you wouldn’t want to fall off your sled.
A couple of hawks circled over the dunes, gaining altitude as they flew around each other,
A mixed flock of Mountain Chickadees and Common Bushtits foraged in the dry rabbit brush. It looked like they were after seeds, but perhaps there were some tiny insects in the seed heads.
Common Bushtits don’t sit still very long, but this little female (with a pale iris) posed just long enough.
A couple of chipmunks scampered about hunting seeds for their winter den. They will be underground soon, for their long winter nap.
The sand dunes are a harsh place to eke out a living, but like Ian Malcolm said in “Jurassic Park”…”life will find a way”.