My favorite season of the year is almost gone now, but we did manage to see a part of the glorious color changes come through the Minnesota woods this fall. In addition to this year’s contribution (below) to my fall color postings, I wanted to share some of my past favorites as well.
It’s too early for us (humans) to start thinking about winter with its short days, cold temperatures, and blah landscapes. But not too early for the 13-lined ground squirrels that live out on the short grass meadows and prairies near Fort Ridgley state park. For them, it’s a race to eat enough to fatten up so they can hibernate in their deep burrows before cold weather arrives and the grasses dry up and their seeds disperse.
These ground squirrels are aptly named for the 13 dark brown and white stripes that line their backs. They can be found anywhere there are grassy meadows in the central part of the North America from Texas to southern Canada. But you’ll only find them above ground for about six months of the year. The rest of the time they are hibernating (deep sleep) in a deep burrow beneath the prairie plants.
The coloration is apparently good camouflage for them as they run through blotchy patterns of grasses heavy with dark stripes of seed heads, and the striped pattern may help reduce their visibility to their number one predator – the Northern Harrier.
Sometime in October all the ground squirrels will disappear underground to sleep away the winter cold in a state of torpor in which respiration is profoundly depressed from 100-200 breaths per minute during activity to one breath every 5 minutes in deep torpor. In addition, they usually do not eat or drink for almost all of the hibernation period, but survive in a very low metabolic state by oxidizing their fat stores.
From Great Basin National Park in Nevada through central Utah’s magnificent canyons and mountains, we drove on to Dinosaur National Monument at the Utah-Colorado border.
Paleontologists from the Carnegie museum discovered the fossil remains of huge sauropods here early in the 1900s, and the site was quickly designated a national monument in 1915 to preserve it for more exploration. Thousands of fossils of the giant herbivores (like Apatosaurus) and carnivores (like Allosaurus) were excavated and shipped back to the Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh.
The next day driving along the Yampa river, we saw hundreds of little black blobs crossing the highway. I thought they were rocks but the boys saw them moving, so we stopped to look.
These are the insects that decimated the crops of early Mormon settlers in Utah. They are not really crickets, but are related to katydids. As shown in the photo, they are flightless, but move quite quickly on the ground. Although these insects usually exist in low density, occasionally huge numbers are produced in the spring. As they develop into adults over the summer, they form a swarm (with densities of hundreds of individuals per square meter) that migrates over the land, consuming everything in its path to find new areas to colonize.
You know you’re entering the Midwest when you cross the Continental Divide, which we did several times as we descended the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, driving through some of the prettiest and greenest mountain meadows I’ve ever seen.
Scotts Bluff stands high above the surrounding plains and was a visible landmark for early travelers of the Mormon and Oregon trails. Later the Oregon trail went right through this pass, adding over 200,000 travelers to the westward expansion.
The next two days were simply a push for home, through the sand hills of Nebraska, which were surprisingly green and wet, then through the unending landscapes of corn and soybean fields of Iowa, and finally into the Minnesota river valley and home.
After 10 days of ship travel, at last we reached the entrance to the Panama Canal and our passage to the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean. It took almost 12 hours to transit the 50 miles of the canal, through three sets of locks on the Pacific side, into huge Lake Gatun, and then through three sets of locks on the Atlantic side.
I was particularly interested in getting a look at the islands in Lake Gatun, which was formed by damming the Chagras River at a narrow point near its mouth on the Atlantic side (see map below near Gatun locks) back in 1913. When dammed, the river then flooded a once wide valley forming a large lake with just the mountain tops projecting up forming a series of small and large islands in the lake.
This area of Panama receives about 100 inches (i.e., 8 feet!) of rain annually, but almost all comes during the rainy season. During the dry season between December and April, less than 3 inches of rain falls and many of the island streams dry up. The soil becomes so dry, large cracks develop in it. Flowers and insects disappear, trees stop producing fruit, and animals on the island become food limited.
As a result of changes in the forest structure with limited island land surface and the size of the islands themselves, species diversity of animals, and especially birds, is markedly lower than that of intact rainforest on the hillsides of the canal — as you would expect. Researchers have found smaller numbers of under-story bird and mammal species, and there are no large mammalian carnivores to control the herbivore populations. But food is a limiting factor here.
National Geographic produced an interesting video featuring some of the work that has been done on Barro Colorado Island in 2007: Panama Wild — Rainforest of Life. If you like nature videos and want to know more about this area of the world — click on the video below.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Was it just the weather on this day in early May, or is Wyoming a really cold, desolate place in the Spring?
Springtime in Wyoming — definitely not in May this year.