Wildlife vs. hurricanes

The devastation caused by two back-to-back hurricanes in the Caribbean and southeastern U.S. has been tragic for the people that live(d) in these areas, but we haven’t really heard much about the impact of Harvey and Irma on the wildlife there. The massive deforestation caused by record high winds and extensive flooding in low-lying areas leaves little habitat and forage for resident wildlife, and will certainly prove challenging for the migratory birds that make their way south through these areas this fall.

virginislands_hurricane Irma damage-2017

What was green tropical vegetation before the arrival of Irma on September 7 has turned to brown as leaves were stripped from trees and ocean water flooded the Virgin islands.  Photos from The Verge, September 11, 2017.

High winds and storm surge swamped the Florida Keys as well, where the diminutive Key Deer live.  These pint-sized relatives of the very common White-tailed Deer are endemic to the island chain, but exist there in relatively low numbers (700-1000 animals) on the Key Deer reserves on Big Pine and Little Torch Keys.

key-deer

Key Deer are about half the size of their full-grown White-tailed relative, and have adapted nicely to forage on a wide variety of wild and garden plants on the lower key islands in the Florida Keys.

You would think their small size might make them vulnerable to being swept away in hurricane winds and/or floods, but the Key Deer have inhabited these islands for the past 13,000 years and have somehow survived the worst of inclement weather there.  A story today in the Washington Post reports a sighting of 4 Key Deer crossing a local road, so at least some of the population has survived.  Low population numbers is a long-term concern, however, since increased inbreeding can lead to an accumulation of detrimental recessive genes, and result in reduced fitness and resilience to cope with weather disasters like the recent hurricanes there.

losing their spots

Signs of fall are beginning to appear as a few maple trees show some red and gold color in their leaves, the squirrels are busy collecting nuts off the trees, Canada Geese fly in V-formation overhead, and a few of the wildlife start growing their winter coats.  I first noticed the latter when the fawns suddenly appeared in the backyard without their spots.

White=tailed fawns-fall molt-

Just a trace of spots linger on the flanks of one of the twin fawns that have ravaged my wildflower garden all summer long.

White-tailed fawn - winter molt

The tawny brown coat with white spots is slowly being overgrown by the longer gray brown winter fur, which provides the deer with much needed insulation to survive the cold.

White-tailed fawns - winter molt

Not all of the fawns have started growing their winter coat, though.  It’s interesting that in these twins, one is clearly well ahead of the other in development of the winter fur — which lends further proof to the observation that twin fawns are usually fraternal, not identical.

What this tells me is that there have been at least two sets of twin fawns that have been eating up the backyard garden — and I thought it was just one hungry pair that had been doing all the damage.

butterfly “bushes”

Late summer flowers are attracting an abundance of bees and butterflies to residential gardens now, but by far the most attractive flowers seem to be those of the succulent Stonecrop (Sedum species) and Violet butterfly bush (Buddleya species).  Late summer generations of American Painted Lady are passing through the area in great numbers, probably on their way south to warmer winter climates.

american painted lady-

A Painted Lady delicately inserts its proboscis into each open flower on a gigantic blooming head of Stonecrop.  They are easily recognized by the owl eyes on the underside of their hindwings and orange and white splotches of color on the topside of their forewings.  Newly emerged butterflies are brightly colored with entire margins of their wings intact. 

american painted lady-

Apparently they like the nectar of Zinnia flowers as well.

But it’s the butterfly bush (Buddleya species) that is the most popular with the butterflies.  The large Eastern Tiger Swallowtails have a size advantage and might try to monopolize a flower spike,

eastern tiger swallowtail-

This female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail looks a little beaten up with frayed hind wings. The eggs she will lay or has already laid will develop through the caterpillar stage and into pupae that overwinter as a chrysalis. These butterflies don’t migrate.

but the fast-darting American Painted Ladies just skip around and beneath them to feed.  You can tell this is a butterfly flower from the flatenned floral disk with a thin, elongate flower tube that likely has a nectar reward at its base.

eastern tiger swallowtail-feeding on butterfly bush (Buddleya species)

The swallowtail has inserted its proboscis deep into one of the flowers (I colored light blue) of the flower spike.  Long, thin floral tubes like this would exclude almost all of the bees and flies and are probably much too narrow for hummingbirds to utilize.  Thus — an exclusive butterfly resource.

silver spotted skipper-

A Silver-spotted Skipper tried to feed on the butterfly bush along with the other butterfly species, but seemed to be excluded or chased off. So, it settled for whatever the Hosta flowers had to offer.

a beautiful riverside wildflower garden

What a surprise to find a lush wildflower garden growing in the damp soil at the edge of the St. Croix river at the Arcola Bluffs trail.  A trail along the river’s edge led me through dense clumps of Cardinal flower, Blue Lobelia, Obedient plant, and Prairie Ironweed.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

There were hundreds of individual Cardinal flower stems growing here in the semi shade and moist forest soil along the St. Croix river.

cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis-

With this many attractive red flowers, you would expect to see hummingbirds, and sure enough they showed up right as I began noticing the dense flower patch.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower-1

Shot earlier in my backyard wildflower garden, but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do love this plant.

white cardinal flower-Lobelia cardinalis

Among the hundreds of individual plants, there was one genetic mutant, a white form of the Cardinal flower.

White mutants of brightly colored animals or plants are usually genetic recessives, and are rare in the population. I imagine hummingbirds might skip over the nectar resources in this plant (wrong color to attract them), so it might not set much seed, which further contributes to its rarity.

Blue Lobelia - Lobelia siphilitica-

Another Lobelia species, the Blue Lobelia, was also growing in the riverside wildflower garden, although in much lower density.

Obedient plant - Physostegia virginiana-

I spotted just a few individuals of Obedient plant in this “garden”, although this plant is usually an aggresive colonist of open spaces in my backyard wildflower garden.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Prairie Ironweed seems to like the wet river bottomland as well as it does the open prarie habitat. It’s large flowerheads were particularly attractive to honeybees.

Prairie Ironweed - Veronia fasiculata-

Has this lovely wildflower garden always been here? Did I just happen to hit it during its peak flowering? Other wildflower enthusiasts have reported lush blooms of cardinal flower along the backwaters of the Mississippi and St. Croix recently (late July-early August), so maybe I have just never discovered these little patches of colorful diversity along the rivers.

Tired is a state of mind

Hiking at high altitude is hard work. Carrying a pack more than 1/4 of your body weight at high altitude is seriously hard work. Hiking uphill with said pack on your back at high altitude is not recommended unless you have a deep desire for hurt. So, when engaging in this unthinkable activity, I have to believe that feeling tired is just a state of mind…

Tired hikers

which can be relieved in a number of ways when that tired feeling hits during a long, hard uphill climb.

Camping at high altitude

Each day there is a new and beautiful place to sleep and rejuvenate.

High Sierras, Hoover Wilderness

We are alone in this vast wilderness…at least it feels like it. I love that feeling of smallness in this vast expanse.

High Sierras, Hoover Wilderness

There is a new vista to explore around every corner.

Family hike, High Sierras

Below 9000 feet, we can have campfires. What a difference in your mood a campfire makes! (That’s me on the far right)

Family hike, High Sierras

The pains of a hard hike are shared, and we keep each other going.

Family hike, High Sierras

Remembering these antics around the fire keeps me going all the next day.

Family hike, High Sierras

We made it! Shoes got wet, but we crossed another rushing river.

photos by Becky Chaplin-Kramer

Natural Wonders

Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.

Fireweed

Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.

Pinedrops

You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail.  The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.

Blue lakes, purple flowers, and pink snow

Our scouting trip to find a pass over a ridge between two sets of lakes was unsuccessful, but we encountered some gorgeous scenery on the almost 8 mile hike around Saddlebag Lake on the Tioga pass road over the Sierras of California.

Saddlebag Lake

The water is quite chilly, but the fishing seems to be good on Saddlebag Lake

Saddlebag Lake

Wild flowers are still in their full, blazing glory. It was a late summer this year because of all the snow. I think the purple flowers might be Monk’s Hood, a showy plant containing highly toxic alkaloids.

Saddlebag Lake

You couldn’t ask for a better trail. Unfortunately, it ended quite a ways before climbing into the pass over the ridge just below the pointed peak, and the way up looked much too rocky a traverse to take young hikers (or old grandparents, for that matter).

Ridge between McCabe lakes and Saddlebag Lake

End of our good trail…these lakes are above 10,000 feet and only recently free of ice and snow.

Pink snow

What?! Pink snow?

Yes, it really is pink snow, colored not by leaching minerals but by the growth of the green alga (yes, it really is green under the microscope), Chlamydomonas nivalus. If there is one thing we have learned about life on earth, it’s that microbes can thrive just about anywhere, and here’s proof of life on the ice.

The algae are actually in a metabolically quiescent state, awaiting appropriate conditions, like lake water, to begin growing.  But to protect themselves (and their chlorophyll) from the damage of intense radiation at high altitude, they synthesize a protective sunscreen of carotenoid pigments (yes, the same ones that make Cardinals a bright cheery red).

Pink snow

And so, these green, but appearing red due to carotenoids, algae slide down  the snow banks toward fresh water to begin a new cycle of growth.

Scouting for the hike

We are back in California about to embark on the annual family trek through the high Sierra back country.  With all the snow the mountains received last winter and this spring, we were concerned about getting snow-bound in still frozen high meadows, so we are scouting some of the trail before the rest of the family joins us.

Sonora pass

At Sonora pass, 9624 feet, it looks like most of the trails should be show free. Still plenty of it around though, and the creeks are running fast and full.

Sonora pass

Late melting snows mean we get to enjoy a super abundance of gorgeous wild flowers.

Sonora pass

And beautiful vistas

morning at the marsh

It’s amazing how much you can see early in the morning before the cyclists and hikers have hit the trails around the local marsh.  And it always amazes me to find such a diversity of wildlife inhabiting a small wild oasis in the urban landscape! I’m sure if I had spent more time on this hot, humid morning, I would have seen even more.

floating island-

Dense mats of cattails float around the marsh propelled by the prevailing water flow.  They attract a wide variety of wildlife that may hunt from their edges, nest in their stalks, and hide within small crevices from the peeping eyes of photographers.

great blue heron-

Great Blue Herons are often found along the shoreline, usually obscured by the vegetation.

great blue heron-

Another heron was making its way down toward the shoreline — perhaps the mate of the other one?

great egret-

I can always count on seeing a Great Egret or two foraging near the edge of the marsh.

green heron-

What else is hiding here in this vegetation near the shore? A Green Heron pops up to see if I’m a dangerous predator.

green heron-

A less nervous juvenile Green Heron hunted in the shallows.

common loon-

Out in the water, a Common Loon swam by.

double crested cormorant-

Nearby, a double-crested Cormorant surfaced from its dive, and took a look around.

I spotted something white way out in the middle of the marsh, swimming quickly away from me, and grabbed a quick shot of a Trumpeter Swan family with their two, seemingly newly hatched, cygnets.

trumpeter swan family-

It’s a bit late to find these newly hatched chicks; perhaps the first nesting failed and these are result of a second nesting attempt. The chicks have a lot of growing to do before they reach the body size of the adults which can weigh more than 20 lb.

trumpeter swan family-

Double trouble

The deer really like my backyard:  they eat my plants, they bed down in the wildflower garden leaving big depressions in the vegetation, they rest right under the bird feeder, and believe it or not, the half-grown fawns chase the foxes right out of the yard.  But I enjoy watching them parade through, so I just keep replanting the garden.

white-tailed fawns-

Make yourself comfortable…

white-tailed fawn-

By all means, help yourself to the garden perennials. This shrub rose may not recover, but oh well…

white-tailed fawns-

Yes, please do eat the buckthorn. I didn’t want that to spread in the backyard.

And where do these two learn where the best places to forage are?

white-tailed doe

From mom and dad, of course.

white-tailed buck-

This one has developed a taste for hostas.