Pollinators, large and small

The purple flowers are blooming in my garden: spiderwort, weedy creeping charley, iris, bellflower, mountain cornflower, and lovely blue wild indigo. And there are a few bees around, doing their best on the limited amount of nectar and pollen available so early in the summer.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

This queen(?) common eastern bumblebee approaching a flower of the false wild indigo is faced with the task of getting to the nectar at the base of the flower through what appears to be closed “doors” (lateral petals) of the flower.  She is really too big to fit.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

Her weight is sufficient to separate the wings (lateral petals) of the flower, so she can poke her head (and tongue) deep into the base of the flower where there is nectar.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

The two halves of the keel petals at the bottom of the flower also separate under her weight, exposing the anther pollen and the bright, orange-yellow, three-pronged stigma (female receptive surface). Pollen she carries on her legs and body from another flower will stick to the stigma and travel down its tube to fertile ovules in the flower ovary to make seeds.

bumblebee nectarine on false wild indigo

Pulling away from the flower before flying to the next one, you can see the contact between bee and pollen.

Lady Bumble made the rounds of the newer flowers at the top of the raceme, working her way from oldest at the bottom to newest opened at the top, and then on to a different spike of flowers.  But the small solitary bee working these flowers had an entirely different strategy.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

You can see how tiny this little bee is in comparison to the flower.  It preferred visiting the older flowers, whose petals were drooping and not fitting as closely together as in the younger flowers. 

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Now, how to get inside the flower to reach the pollen? Squeeze through the tiny crack between petals.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Crawling inside finally, the bee disappears for a few minutes before crawling out and making its way to another, older flower.

Solitary bee on false wild indigo

Older flowers may not produce much nectar, But smaller bees don’t require as much as large bumblebees anyway. And perhaps pollen collection was of more interest to this tiny bee.

a rare beauty

Lady’s Slipper Orchid may be one of the slowest growing plants in the world, taking 6 to 11 years to reach the size when it first flowers.  But when it does, we rarely fail to notice, and marvel at its color and structure.  All this from a minuscule seed the size of a speck of dust!

(Yellow) Lady’s Slipper Orchid

I was quite excited when my neighbor showed me the Lady’s Slipper Orchids growing in his back yard.

(Yellow) Lady’s Slipper Orchid

The name, of course, comes from its shape, the swollen labellum appearing to be a dainty shoe for a pixie-sized lady.

Like many showy flowers, orchids are dependent on pollinators to transfer pollen from one plant to another.  But Lady’s Slippers and another 40 percent of the 20-30,000 orchid species of the world attract their pollinators with color, fragrance, or even by mimicking the shape of a female pollinator of the same species, and offer no nectar reward.  How do they get away with “cheating” their pollinators and still ensuring pollination success?

By “inviting” them in, trapping them momentarily, and then providing a narrow escape route that forces the pollinator to squirm by sticky pollen sacs on the anther as they exit.  Here’s how it works.

One way route through the (Yellow) Lady’s Slipper Orchid

It’s a one way route through the flower, in through the enticing, colorful and fragrant labellum, and out through the slit in the back, top of the flower.  When they visit the next Lady’s Slipper flower, they rub the acquired pollen onto that flower’s stigma.  Voila, Pollination!

Bumblebees are too large to fit through the narrow slit at the top of the flower, so they exit the way they came in.  Smaller bees land on the hairy pad at the back of the inside surface of the labellum, crawl toward the light showing at the top, and squeeze themselves through the slit, as shown on the video below.

Practicing this deception seems risky, especially since bees are less prevalent today than they once were.  This rare beauty, once found throughout North America, Europe, and Asia is in decline world-wide.  It suffers from being over-collected, loss of habitat, and now —perhaps, a decline in the numbers of its pollinators.

Puffins, puffins, everywhere

The Farne Islands off the coast of Seahouses, England are Puffin central at this time of year.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Puffins are solitary at sea most of the year, but return to favorite nesting areas like the Farne Islands on the northeastern coast of England to breed.  Here they number in the thousands, crowding grassy hillocks where they dig their burrow nests.

We met them swimming in the water fishing for their favorite sand eels (not eels), herring or sprats…

Atlantic Puffin

And we found them on rocky prominances, looking out over the sea below…

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

And we found them all over the grassy mounds in the center of the island where they congregated around burrow holes, and some kind of speed dating process was going on as pairs tried to match up with each other.

Puffins return to the same island, and may return to the same burrow they used the previous year.  They may reunite with the previous year’s partner or search for a new one, forming a monogamous pair bond for the duration of the breeding season.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Every now and then, groups would break up, with individuals flying around, joining up with other groups.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Puffins have very short wings for their stout body, and flap their wings many times per second to propel them through air. Consequently, they are really challenging to capture in flight.

it was fascinating to watch the pairing up rituals, which involved displays by the presumed male (chest puffing, wing flapping, head tilted back and forth), and some beak-to-beak interactions (billing) in and around their burrow.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Pairs form when birds are 4-7 years of age. Prior to breeding juvenile birds remain at sea, perfecting their fishing skills.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

“Billing” contact between the breeding pair is essential to building and maintaining the pair bond.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

One or both members of the pair improve the burrow by removing dirt with their webbed feet and adding grassy thatch, before the female lays her one egg, which takes 40-45 days of incubation to hatch.  Nestlings are fed a variety of fish for 35 to 50 days, depending on the food supply parents can provide, and then make their way to the open ocean to feed on their own.

Scenes from the Norfolk coast

The Norfolk coast features picturesque scenery, numerous hiking paths, and of course, loads of birds.  Our hike yesterday took us alongside coastal marshes and wide expanses of beach sand untouched by anything except one set of car tracks.  The coastal dunes are protected areas for breeding avocets and ringed plovers, of which we just barely caught a glimpse.

Marshes along the Norfolk coast

Marshes along the Norfolk coast; mustard blooming in the background.

Marshes along the Norfolk coast, UK

Small ponds are breeding habitat for the variety of ducks and geese that live here.

Graylag geese

Graylag geese flying over the marsh

Coastal dunes

Coastal dunes

Beach at Holkham gap, Norfolk, UK

Beach at Holkham gap in Norfolk. From here it’s a 3.5 mile walk back to our house. Dunes off to the left are protected breeding habitat for Ringed Plovers.

Ringed Plovers

Ringed Plovers facing off


From here to there

Left this scene…

Turkeys in the snow

Turkeys in the snow — my winter landscape of white and shades of brown.

To enjoy a brief respite of color and warmth in sunny California

Magnolia in bloom

Magnolia just ready to bloom

Spring green

The hummingbird visited these jasmine flowers after I had put the camera away — of course.

Winter rains have brought on a flush of new green in the California landscape, my favorite color.

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 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