Favorite fall “fotos”

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.

Sometimes, the best photos are captured in places you’re not supposed to be — like the “park personnel only” roads in Fish Lake park, Maple Grove MN this fall. (But the local state patrolman was nice about it.)
Sandhill cranes at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of cranes gathered in October 2021.
Trumpeter Swans flying over Cloud Lake at sunset in the Porcupine Mts, MI, in October 2018 was a special treat.
I caught a special ray of sunlight streaming through basswood leaves at Roy Lake SP, SoDak, in October 2020.
The Wood Ducks on a local pond in Roseville, MN in October 2021 weren’t the only colorful things there that day — the colorful reflection from the woodland trees was amazing.
Fall color along the north shore of Lake Superior in MN is always spectacular. This shot was taken from about as far north as you can go in MN before you cross into Canada in October 2016.
Fall color along the rivers of the upper Midwest is usually equally spectacular. This shot from the Wolf River near Rhinelander WI was taken on a very cloudy day in October 2017, but the lack of sun didn’t diminish the vibrancy of the color.

Winter preparation

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 small seed-eating rodents scurry around the meadows in late summer, scarfing up as much seed as they can find. Most will be consumed and turned into body fat, and some may be stored in their burrows for an early spring snack.

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.

I think these might have been young of the year — they were quite slim and small. Adults typically fatten up and go into hibernation long before their offspring do.

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.

Rodents, like the ground squirrels, are one of the favorite prey in the diet of Northern Harriers. These long-winged raptors fly back and forth across grassy fields listening (not necessarily looking) for movements of small mammals as they fly. They are easily identified by the white rump patch in both the brown plumaged females and the grey plumaged males.
Northern Harriers have a round facial disk, similar to owls, that helps collect sound and transmit it to their asymmetrically placed ears so they can localize exactly where the sounds are coming from. (Photo by the Missouri Department of Conservation)
13-lined Ground Squirrels don’t seem particularly social; their burrows are not placed near each other, and they live and forage individually, unlike prairie dogs. These little squirrels seemed particularly naive and tolerated me approaching on foot, so they might well wind up in a Harrier’s gut sometime if they aren’t cautious.
It was interesting to watch how they handled the grass stems with their forepaws to harvest the seed.

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.

Road trip adventure conclusion — Utah and eastward

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.

The lake bed sediments that make up the hills here date back about 150 million years ago, to the Jurassic period of the Mesozoic era. Dinosaurs trapped in lake or river beds became entombed in rock that was later uplifted and tilted by mountain-building tectonic forces.
A beautiful campground on the banks of the Green River provides spectacular views of these dinosaur fossil-rich rocks.
We found a colony of Cliff Swallows nesting on the underside of some of the steep cliffs along the river.

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.

A huge enclosure over the original fossil bed quarry gives visitors a glimpse of what the early paleontologists might have seen as they excavated fossils. Hundreds of bones of different species sitting in close proximity to each other, with some having large portions of their skeletons almost completely intact.
The Utah Field House of Natural History in Vernal, Utah (near the monument) provided more information on the animals that roamed this area over 100 million years ago, and the boys enjoyed the “dinosaur garden” with life-sized replicas of the Jurassic beasts. Nothing better than a selfie with T.rex.

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.

One of the thousands of Mormon Crickets swarming the highway. The long protuberance on the rear of this individual is an ovipositor, which she will use to deposit her eggs in the soil.

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.

Yes, there really are “rabbit ears”- like rocks overlooking the pass, but we had to really search for them.
Driving on northeast toward Wyoming, we encountered this weird cloud formation near Cheyenne.
The day’s destination was Scottsbluff, Nebraska, making this a five state journey on this day! The bluff and the town was named for Hiram Scott, a clerk for the Rocky Mountain fur company who died here. It’s interesting that the misspelling of the bluff (without an apostrophe) was carried forward to the county and the city name without correction,

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.

It may not look it from this angle but Scotts Bluff is over 800 feet high. The boys didn’t think traveling by wagon train would be very comfortable, and in fact, there was no place to ride inside the wagons because they were piled high with provisions.

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.

In the “backyard” of the Panama Canal

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.

We began our journey through the Canal at 6 a.m., just as the sun was coming up.
A couple of female Frigate birds flew over to check us out. These are soaring specialists that cruise the oceans looking for fish and squid, and often steal a meal from other birds (like Boobies). They may follow large ships (i.e., frigates) which often scare up fish in their wake.
The Bridge of the Americas (which goes into Panama City) looms over the entry to the Canal. This is the main entry to both the new Panamax (super large ship canal) and the two older, original canals.

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.

One of the largest islands, Barro Colorado (circled in black on the map), was set aside as a nature reserve in 1923 and has been administered by the Smithsonian since then. With almost 100 years of climate and biological data, it is one of the most studied tropical forest systems in the world.
Small lakes on the sides of the main part of the canal serve as reservoirs for circulating water through the locks.
Drainage systems collect rainwater from the surrounding hills to channel it into the main waterway. Vegetation along the banks of the canal is sparse to allow water runoff, while the hills behind are more mature rainforest.
Larger islands in Lake Gatun have undisturbed tropical rainforest with an amazing biodiversity of plants and animals. The first census in 1982 recorded over 300 tree species in a 100 acre plot on Barro Colorado Island!

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.

Islands (really hilltops) in Lake Gatun dot the lake surface. It spans 164 square miles in all, and makes up about 20 miles of the length of the waterway from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Black Vultures soared over the hilltops of some of the islands in the far distance.
Plants growing on top of plants all the way down to the water’s edge — that’s tropical diversity! Imagine trying to hack your way through this forest from one end of an island to the other…

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.

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.