Looking back at 2021

Another year of Covid prohibitions on activities, but not such a bad year for seeing new places and new species. The highlights month by month look like this:

January: a trip to Sax-Zim bog in north central Minnesota, and an exciting afternoon shooting Great Gray Owls diving for mice in the snow.
Great Gray Owls blend in so well with the tree stumps they are sitting on, you might drive right by them on the forest roads in north central MN.
February: Yes, the most memorable highlight of February was winning the vaccine lottery and getting my first vaccine shot — after waiting in line for almost 2 hours with 1000 other anxious people.
March: hiking with adventurous grandkids at frozen (well, mostly frozen) Minnehaha Falls in downtown Minneapolis. Caves behind the falls are fun to explore when you’re steady on your feet.
Also in March — Great Horned Owlets are growing up fast and almost ready to leave their nest hole to perch on tree branches.
April: the great Road Trip of April and May netted us over 160 species (many new and never seen before), after visiting over 40 parks and driving over 6800 miles). Some of my favorites were the ever-amazing hummingbirds, like this composite of a Broad-billed Hummer coming into a feeder in southeastern Arizona.
We visited many beautiful places on our long April-May adventure, but we keep coming back to this place deep in the Chiricahua mountains of southeastern Arizona — Cave Creek ranch, where exotic birds and gorgeous scenery captivate.
May: On the way back to Minnesota in May, we stopped at Antelope Island in Salt Lake City, where grazing bison and antelope are abundant and the mountain landscapes behind the city are spectacular.
June: another Road Trip — this time with the grandkids camping across the western U.S. on our way to the mountain cabin near Lake Tahoe.
My favorite bird highlight from June was this Western Tanager male in all his bright breeding finery — the jewel of the Sierra.
July: with almost all the grandkids and missing one son-in-law (who had to work), the rest of us gathered for the 4th of July at the cabin near Lake Tahoe.
August: surreal landscapes in the back country of Desolation Valley in the CA Sierras on our backpacking trip, as the Caldor Fire literally burst upon us one morning.
September: fall migration began with the arrival of a dozen or more warbler species, along with assorted vireos, flycatchers, finches, blackbirds, etc. Mr. Magnolia Warbler was not quite as beautiful as he was in the Spring, but nevertheless, is a handsome bird.
October: a trip to Alabama to see the birds of Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island and its pristine white quartz sand.
Fall color was unusually bright and long-lasting in October this year. A pleasant surprise after a somewhat hot, dry summer.
November: foxes and turkeys passed through the backyard frequently, but there was little snowfall this month. Very unusual.
December: at last it looks like winter, but a warm-ish spell right before Christmas melted all this lovely stuff.

Beautiful eastern Nevada

Camping in a new spot, never visited before, in the Ruby Mountains of northeastern Nevada. Serene and peaceful, with wide expansive views of peaks, in the middle of an aspen grove, and surrounded by meadow of wildflowers — what’s not to love about this place.

The Ruby range — we will climb into the foothills of these mountains to our campsite at Angel Creek.
Setting up camp in the aspen grove
There was lots of woolly mule’s ears in the aspen meadows showing off their bright yellow flowers.
Dense stands of showy lupines dotted the rocky hillsides.
A large patch of blue iris under the aspens had just finished blooming.
Spotted Towhees were common in camp, singing continuously to us all evening and the next morning.
House Wrens were noisily advertising their territories in early morning — kind of an unwelcome alarm clock actually.

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.

on Antelope Island

I’ve always wanted to visit this 42 square mile Utah state park that is connected to Salt Lake City by a long isthmus. And we hit a magnificent, sunny day with dramatic clouds over the lofty Wasatch mountains to drive around it.

Antelope Island is the largest of 10 islands in the Great Salt Lake. The first non-natives to visit were John C. Fremont and Kit Carson in their exploration of the area in 1845, and they named it for the large number of Pronghorn Antelope they saw there. Native Americans had probably been living in the area for 10,000 or more years.
The 15 mile-long Island consists has extensive, shallow mudflats leading into the hyper saline lake, with sagebrush and short grass prairie above the shoreline. The most common birds we saw along the coast were California Gulls, the Utah state bird.
A central mountain ridge runs the length of the island, providing a variety of habitats for wildlife at different elevations. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore the montane area. Maybe next time….
The Fielding Garr ranch on the south end of the island was established in 1848, and the homestead was operated by the LDS church to raise money to bring Mormon immigrants from Europe to settle in Utah. The home still stands, and the presence of fresh water and orchard trees at the ranch attract a number of migratory and resident birds.
Bison were introduced in the 1890s, and they do very well on the island’s native grassland. Some of the herd have been used to stock other parks with native grazers.
We saw small herds of what were probably bison cows and youngsters, but the huge bulls were usually by themselves, and very sedentary.
A Pronghorn Antelope buck rested under a bush while his harem of females grazed nearby.
These usually skittish animals that typically run from photographers who see them from a distance along busy highways, were uncommonly calm and allowed us to get within 100 feet of them.
What a pleasure to see (and hear) so many Western Meadowlarks calling from the short grass prairie. They seemed to be staking out territories about every 50 feet or so.
We had hoped to see a lot of shorebirds here, but they were far, far in the distance. However the mountain reflections in the tidal flats were nice
There are some incredible landscapes with views of mountains, an intensely blue salt lake, clouds, and weather on Antelope Island in Salt Lake City, UT!

Mountain-scapes

Ah, the mountains — there’s no place quite so peaceful, yet inspiring as the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. I guess I’ll always be a California girl at heart. We had just a short stay at Lake Tahoe but still managed to see some dramatic scenery and new bird species.

Lily Lake in South Lake Tahoe is one of our favorite trailheads for entering the incredibly scenic Desolation Valley Wilderness Area.
Run-off from snow melt was exiting the lake via a fast-moving river to a waterfall below that we could hear from the parking lot.
We had never seen this before — it must be a spring-only occurrence because there is nothing but a tiny creek here when we visit in late summer.
From the waterfall to another rushing creek, as water heads down to Fallen Leaf lake and then into Lake Tahoe. This photo should be captioned “how do trees survive” growing out of a chiseled rock face with torrents of water washing over their exposed roots?

Visiting Lake Tahoe gave us a chance to add a few more montane birds to our growing list of species seen on the cross-country adventure. In addition to the Mountain Chickadee and Black-billed Magpie featured in the last post, here are a few other cool climate, high altitude, pine forest specialists.

Diminutive Pygmy Nuthatches, smaller than a chickadee, hang out in Ponderosa Pines, hunting for insects and seeds. They are gregarious little birds and utilize previous years’ chicks as “helpers” at the nest to keep their current crop of nestlings fed.
The bird you’re supposed to see in the mountains — a Mountain Bluebird (one of which decided to overwinter in St. Paul this winter and survived a week of double digit negative temperatures). Bluebirds add “cerulean sparkle” (says Cornell’s All About Birds website) to the mountain landscape. With brilliant blue backs and breasts, the Mountain species of Bluebird is easily distinguished from its eastern and western cousins. With good nest sites at a premium for this species, the female seems to be more interested in the quality of the nest site and nest hole than in how much her mate sparkles or sings. That’s different from most birds!
A mid-elevation campsite wouldn’t be the same without a couple of noisy Steller’s Jays around. This is a truly western bird, found in montane coniferous forests from Alaska to Central America. Monogamous pairs patrol campgrounds making their presence known to other Jays, but they normally are omnivorous and forage on insects, seeds, berries, etc. Unfortunately, like other Jay species, they also have a reputation for raiding other birds’ nests to prey on nestlings.

a walk in the park…

Literally, it was that easy to get close-up photos this week of some of my favorite spring migrants at one of the local parks in the Twin Cities. These particular birds were not fazed by humans walking by them, continued to sing in our presence, and gave us great looks for photography.

The melodious Rose-breasted Grosbeak, singing from the same perch on two successive days.
Eye level with a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak! How often does that happen?
A somewhat nervous male Harris Sparrow, stretching to his full height… to intimidate us?
The same bird, showing off his beautiful black bib and the black streaking along his sides. This is a close relative of the White-throated and the White-crowned Sparrows.
Not the most cooperative Baltimore Oriole, but he did make a close enough approach for a good photo.
And…he’s a great singer, too.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a good birding day without a Yellow Warbler singing in the willows!

the three amigos

We had our own personal boat tour of the Elkhorn Slough, a 7-mile long tidal estuary on Monterey Bay that was the first estuarine sanctuary in the U.S. It began with a 60-acre purchase by The Nature Conservancy in 1971, and has grown to over 800 acres today. The entire 1.5 square mile marine reserve provides critical habitat for a variety of mammals (discussed in the next post), more than 300 species of birds, and a host of invertebrates and plant species on which the birds and mammals depend.

By some strange coincidence, a number of the bird species we saw on our boat tour had arranged themselves in groups of three — thus, I labeled the trios “the three amigos”. This is the time of year when bachelor groups of males break up and mated pairs are more often seen together, so seeing groups of three was somewhat odd.

White Pelicans are still hanging out in large flocks at the slough, but three loners were standing together. Male and female White Pelicans look alike, so we don’t know whether this was a group of just bachelor males or not.
These Eared Grebes swam together, dove together, and posed together, as they hunted for small crustaceans and fish in the rich estuary waters. The sexes look alike, so one or more could be female. Eared Grebes nest in dense colonies, so it’s not unexpected to find them in small groups together.
Pigeon Guillemots (relatives of Puffins) are handsome black and white birds with red legs and feet. The sexes look alike and are similar size, although in California, the female Guillemot has a slightly larger bill. Although they may be enjoying the largess of the estuary, they will soon set up nesting territories on steep cliffs all along the west coast of North America.
A trio of Brandt’s Cormorants had settled on some rotting pier posts to establish their nests. They seem to be sitting on eggs already in the estuary; they would have to be tolerant (or good friends) to nest this closely together. Brandt’s are the largest Cormorant in North America and are easily distinguished by their vivid, cobalt blue throat and eyes.
“I’m so pretty…”

The Big Trees

We hiked through the cool, majestic big redwoods of the Forest of Nisene Marks in the Santa Cruz mountains the other day. I’m always impressed with the immense change in microclimate that these big trees produce, growing along the coast and trapping cool, moist air from the ocean each morning. The light filters through dense branches high above the trail, and only a few scattered sunbeams actually make it to the forest floor. So photography is a bit challenging under dim light conditions.

This tract of almost 10,000 acres of coastal redwood forest was once clear-cut once to provide lumber for the growing towns of central California. The land was donated to the state by the family of Nisene Marks, a passionate nature lover.
Wildflowers, like this delicate Trillium, were in abundance on the forest floor.
But the forest was really quiet, except for the trilling warble of a few Pacific Wrens. This is not a place to find a lot of birds, but it is a serene wilderness with lots of beautiful hiking trails to traverse.
This Pacific Wren was elusive at first and then hopped up into plain view. Its song is similar to our Midwestern House Wren, and it pierces the quiet of the redwood forest stillness.
One of the interesting creatures of the redwood forest is the Banana Slug, so named for its resemblance to said fruit. This shell-less mollusk looks vulnerable because it stands out with its bright color on the dark forest floor, but only a very few predators can tolerate the tongue-numbing, viscous slime it secretes to retard dehydration.
Two pairs of tentacles on its head help the banana slug navigate its environment. The upper pair contain light-receptive cells on long, protruding stalks. The lower pair are used to sense certain chemicals in the forest litter so the slugs can locate their favorite food: tiny mushrooms. They also consume and recycle the vital nutrients in animal droppings and dead plant material, leaving behind rich fertilizer.
Other decomposers, like these fungi that resemble our Midwestern “Turkey tails”, add to the forest nutrient cycle. Redwoods that can live for thousands of years are resistant to decomposition, unlike the pine or deciduous trees present in this forest.
Looking up at the Big Trees, towering above us in the redwood forest.