the top of the world

You probably associate summer solstice with warm, sunny days conducive to lying about on beaches soaking up the sunshine.  Not so here at the northern tip of Sweden, on the road to Narvik, Norway.  Spring hasn’t even made an appearance here yet, and it’s mid-summer!

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park, some lakes still have ice, and the vegetation hasn’t recovered from winter.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

Prime beach front just waiting for the defrost…I assume these cottages probably house avid fishermen.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

We think these are reindeer pens, used periodically by the nomadic Sami herders to pen their animals during the spring or fall, in between migrating between summer and winter grazing areas.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

Summer cottages, idyllic havens far from city life. No roads to them, no phone, electricity, water or indoor plumbing, and far away from the neighbors. Plenty of fresh water nearby though.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

There are some small towns on this long stretch from Abisko to Narvik, Norway. The mountains in the background make this a very scenic drive.

Narvik, Norway

The bus trip ends in Narvik, one of many towns in Norway on a long, deep fjord. On this side of the coastal mountains, there is more rain, milder temperatures due to Gulf stream influence, and much lusher and taller vegetation than we saw on the eastern side of the mountains in Sweden.

Spring poppies, Narvik, Norway

and spring flowers! Poppies, lilacs, flowering trees, tall birches with large leaves, a welcome sight, after all that snow and ice.

City of contrasts — old and new

Russia!! More specifically, St. Petersburg, what a gorgeous and hospitable city.  A two-day, whirlwind tour of palaces, gardens, city sights, museums, etc., but no biology, unfortunately.  What contrasts from new, modern skyscrapers and malls to old Soviet style offices and huge apartment complexes to 18th century or earlier palace constructions.  It’s definitely spring here, and we hit two of the 9 sunny days they average here each summer.

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg , what a contrast after looking at city dwellers residences.  The interior is covered with thousands of square feet of mosaics depicting the life of Christ.

Canals in St Petersburg

Canals in St Petersburg connect the dozens of islands that make up the city.

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg is one of four museums of art and antiquities that make up the Hermitage. Only 20% of the more than 3million acquisitions are displayed at any one time.

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg. Summer residence of Peter the Great, on the Gulf of Finland

Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg

Catherine’s Palace, St. Petersburg, ornate and lavish with its own set of art treasures

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

an unexpected visitor

Back when we had sunny days a couple of weeks ago, I found a lone Pelican resting at the edge of the Grass Lake marsh.  What was it doing here, all by itself?  Why was it so sedentary, just sitting for hours on the dead cattails?  I guess I’ll never know, but the bird has since disappeared.  Other visitors speculated that it was sitting on a nest — nope, I verified that when it stood up.  Some thought it might be injured and couldn’t fly away. That’s possible, since it was so sedentary, and it did look like one wing was sort of droopy.

White Pelican-

Just sitting, enjoying the early morning sun

White Pelican-

Yawning, stretching, and finding a new sitting position. No nest under its body, and I wouldn’t think the Pelican would try to nest out in the open like this all by itself.

White Pelicans, once rare here, now choose the shallow prairie pothole lakes in western and southwestern Minnesota to breed.  They have rebounded dramatically from a complete absence of nesting birds over the period from 1878 to 1968 to over 20,000 nesting pairs in Minnesota currently, largely due to the conservation and management efforts of the non-game wildlife staff in the MN Department of Natural Resources.

White Pelicans typically migrate from their winter headquarters in the gulf to Minnesota lakes in early spring (March).  It’s a welcome sight to see them in formation overhead, white bodies and wings outlined with black wing tips soaring overhead.

white-pelicans flying-

white-pelican-flying

white-pelicans-flying-

White Pelicans at Pelican Lake, Minnesota photographed in April 2014.

Pelicans are highly social and nest in large aggregations.  They live and hunt communally, using teamwork to scare up and harvest fish from the surface of the water. A single Pelican foraging for itself, like the one I found at Grass Lake, might be far less effective in gathering food.  I hope it recovered and flew off to join its friends somewhere on a distant lake.

Old friends in new places

Cave Creek ranch in the Chiricahua mountains near the New Mexico border is an idyllic haven for birders and hikers.  The scenery is pretty incredible too.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

The view from my porch looks out over the creek and up into the rocks.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

We’re set for an early morning hike up Cave Creek, to see if we can find some new birds we haven’t seen before.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

Like the creek in Madera Canyon, sycamores line the banks of Cave Creek, stretching their limbs far and wide to create wonderful shade.

Sycamores can grow to be giants, but occasionally a limb snaps off, and we find animals taking advantage of the nook created by the amputated limb.

Great Horned Owl

This Great Horned Owl created a nest cavity in one of the huge clefts left after a limb dropped.  We also found a western Screech Owl seeking refuge during the daytime in a similar cavity in another sycamore.

Desert animals are often pale in comparison to others of their kind in other climates, as this Great Horned Owl is.  But there is more to the story than just differences in color.

Animals in this part of the U.S. seem to be entirely different geographic races of their parent species, and the extent of differences in their DNA, their color, their song, and their behavior have led scientists to begin splitting the southwestern desert species off from their representatives in other parts of the U.S. and Mexico.  That’s great for birders that like adding species to their life lists!

Coue's white-tailed deer

The white-tailed deer are much smaller than their relatives in my backyard in MN. In fact, they are technically known as Coue’s white-tailed deer, a dwarfed race, or is it a different species?

Hairy woodpecker, Cave Creek, AZ

Here’s a familiar bird, a male Hairy Woodpecker, but it looks quite different from the MN variety, as it lacks the spots on the wings, and has a broad white stripe down its back.  Would a MN female Hairy Woodpecker refuse to mate with this bird?  If so, then they would be considered separate species.

Brown Creeper, Cave Creek, AZ

Brown Creepers have been divided into four groups now, one in Mexico, and three others in the U.S. divided into eastern, Rocky Mt, and Pacific races.  Differences in song and plumage have been known for some time, but recent DNA analysis has confirmed the separations.

We met some new friends along the Cave Creek trail, but apparently our “old friends” may be new as well.

On a trek for a Trogon

In the cool canyons above the desert floor, riparian woodlands thrive along the banks of streams flowing down from the mountains.

Madeira Canyon

We stopped at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon southeast of Tucson for a few days and enjoyed finding some unique birds flitting in the sycamores that line the creek.

Madera Canyon

Sycamores trees along the banks of the creek are a valuable resource for forest birds; their soft wood makes drilling holes easy for Woodpeckers and sapsuckers, and branches that drop in windy weather leave gaping holes for nests of rare birds like the Elegant Trogon that we set out to find on this trail along the creek.

As we hiked up the canyon, keeping our ears and eyes alert to signs of Trogon, we were rewarded with a couple of other birds unique to this part of Arizona.

Painted redstart

The first of these Painted Redstarts we saw played cat and mouse with us, making me really work to get its photo. Then as we hiked higher along the trail, we saw them everywhere.

Painted Redstarts aren’t that closely related to our American Redstart, though they have the same annoying habit of calling continually from hidden locations.  They are only found in parts of southeastern Arizona and south western New Mexico, and are members of the group of Whitestart warblers (named for their habit of flashing white tail feathers as they fly) that inhabit Mexico and Central Mexico.

Painted redstart

Another visitor from Mexico was found probing the litter beneath the trees, the Yellow-eyed Junco. It looks just like our Northern Juncos, but what a standout with the bright yellow eye!

Yellow-eyed Junco

These are not common here, but whenever we heard scratching noises on the forest floor, it was usually a junco.

And the bird we came to see, the one that frequents these trails in montane riparian woodlands, the one sighted just days before 50 yards from a bench overlooking the creek, the one we brought two cameras with big telephoto lenses to capture in all its splendor —  was nowhere to be seen (or heard).

Elegant Trogon

Elegant Trogon from Friends of Madera Canyon.com

A birdie morning

Walking around the Sonoran desert in early morning with the local wildlife  inhabitants, we came across quite a few new friends.  A small sampling of what we saw…

Phainopepla, Sonoran desert

Phainopepla, the silky flycatcher, looking somewhat like a black cardinal, dart around bushes and cacti hawking for insects.

White-winged dove

White-winged doves, the largest doves in this desert, are quite common.  The distinctive blue patch around the eye is a sure sign this dove is ready to mate.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are quite a bit smaller than Chickadees and move three times as fast. Their buzzy call gives away their presence, but even so they are hard to spot.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wrens are everywhere, buzzing from the tops of the Saguaro as well as skulking through the bushes looking for insects, or even fledgling House Sparrows to feast upon!

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Orioles look a lot like the Altimira Oriole I saw in south Texas, easy to spot with that bright orange color and typical Oriole chatter.

More to come in the next few days, if the internet connection holds up. Continue reading

On the road again…

at the Grand Canyon for an overnight (who does just one night?), but we’re on the road to elsewhere…stay tuned.

Grand Canyon vista

Vista in late afternoon of Tonto plateau point overlooking the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch on the floor of the canyon.

Grand Canyon vista

Grand Canyon vista. Yes, that is a person out there on that far pinnacle.

Sunset on the Grand Canyon, Bright Angel trailhead

Sunset on the Grand Canyon, Bright Angel trailhead.

the bud eater

We think of Spring as a wonderful time of rejuvenation and regrowth, but until leaves and flowers actually start appearing on plants and grass begins to green up and grow, plant eaters are still faced with barely anything to eat.  Having eaten through their stored food and consumed anything that was half way edible over a long winter, animals could be faced with a starvation diet just as lakes are thawing, temperatures are warming, and days are getting longer.

But here’s the solution a little Red Squirrel found today — eating the buds of the buckeye tree outside my porch window.  I saw him nipping off buds and tearing into them, peeling back the outer layer and dining on the juicy interior of the little embryonic leaves within.  And he saw me watching him…

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yes, I see you eating those tree buds.

And then I watched as he nipped off another bud and devoured it as well.

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

He/she spots another delectable bud up above on the branch to the right (highlighted)

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yes, this one!

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Biting it right off — good thing the squirrel has those sharp teeth. Plant tissue can be tough.

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

Yum…

red squirrel eating buckeye buds

He/she is watching me watching him/her.

Young buds probably have higher nitrogen and mineral content per unit weight than more mature leaves would, nutrition meant of course for the development of new leaves.  So this is a pretty smart choice for a Red Squirrel that might be down to its last acorn in the larder.

Waiting…

We’re in a holding pattern here in the upper midwestern U.S., waiting for spring to burst upon us.  Buds are swollen on the tips of branches, needing that extra bit of rain and warm weather to make them swell and open.  The sap is running, judging from the gallons of flow I see in the buckets hanging on maple trees up the street.  Cardinals and chickadees sing lustily every morning, and a few of the Woodpeckers are drumming on anything that resonates.  I’ve even seen Mr. Tom Turkey strutting his finest feather display in the backyard.  Robins and Juncos frequent the birdbath, which I can now safely fill with fresh water since nights are generally above freezing.

But the color of the landscape remains stubbornly brown, gray, and tan.  Everything is just waiting…

Mirror reflection on a pond

The lakes and ponds are finally ice free, and still water makes wonderful mirrors.

ducks that go ice “fishing”

What is a duck to do when the lake ice refreezes? If they can’t find open water, at least they might find some weak spots in the ice where a few pokes of the bill can open up a channel to water below.

mallard ducks ice -fishing

Mallards “fishing” through small holes in the ice for the algae lying below.  Frankly, it looked slimy and completely unappetizing.

mallard ducks ice -fishing

Seems to be a successful strategy.   When one of a pair finds a good hole, they took turns sampling the slime.

mallard ducks ice -fishing

And there are plenty more holes to try…