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.

Mystery footprints?

On a morning hike after a much needed rain the other day, I came across some strange “prints” on the trail.

What’s going on here? As I scuff the “prints” with my shoe tip, I feel something woody beneath the raised “rootlets”
Truly strange-looking formations…

Were these tree roots exposed by recent rain having washed away soil? Was it a result of moss colonies that had dehydrated and died in the long drought during June and July? I really had no idea why these formations were here in the middle of this part of the trail. But in the first photo, you can see ferns on both sides of the trail, making me wonder if there was some connection between the density of ferns in this particular location and the strange “footprints”. So I kept looking…

Aha! There are indeed ferns growing out of some of the formations.
Ferns reproduce by sending up leaves from their rhizome (root-like structure) or from spores on the under side of their leaves.

I’m guessing these formations might be fern rhizomes exposed by recent rain. Do any of my readers know if this is correct?

the warbler that acts like a nuthatch

Black and white Warblers are bark specialists, moving up and down or around the trunks and major branches of trees as they look for spiders, insect larvae and bark-inhabiting insects of all kinds. In their search, they often resemble Nuthatches that may travel upside down along tree trunks and branches.

A female (or juvenile) B&W Warbler checks the topside of the branch before searching the underside.
What else might be hiding underneath?
Special long toes on this warbler’s feet help them cling to a branch upside down.
As they work down a tree trunk, their posture looks just like a Nuthatch, with whom they might compete for bark-loving prey. But this style of foraging is unique for a warbler.

a last clear day

At last finally getting a cell signal and an update on the growing Caldor fire southwest of Lake Tahoe, we decided to cut the hike short and head for our exit trailhead. And we were treated to one more clear, beautiful day, just to remind us of how this area usually looked in non-smoky years.

Sunrise on Lake Susie with one grandson still asleep in his hammock.
Breakfast at the campsite before packing up.
On a last day hike to Half Moon lake we got a view of the peaks of Desolation Valley, looking so much clearer than just 24 hours before.
Half Moon lake was low, with a lot of marshy vegetation around its edge. The steep talus slope down to the lake was where we mistakenly tried to take a short cut two years previously — another scary adventure.
Talus slopes of broken rock are absolute ankle breakers and no fun to traverse. The kids made it through this terrain easily a couple of years ago, but not so for the elder generation.

Nine miles and a lot of downhill steps on broken rock later, we exited the Glen Alpine trailhead at the end of what will be an ever memorable 2021 Sierra backpack hike with all limbs intact!

Ash fall

Day 2 of the Apocalypse of the Caldor fire near Lake Tahoe featured a fallout of white ash and black soot. The landscape looked like it was bathed in dense fog, not of moist air but of dry, choking smoke that even KN95 masks couldn’t keep out of your airways.

Gray skies on the morning of ash fall. There are supposed to be 10,000 foot mountains in the background.
Not too happy campers wait for the group to get ready to begin hiking the length of Lake Aloha on our way to clearer (we hope) air.
You can just barely see the mountain peaks in the background…
Compared to the landscape at Lake Aloha in previous years.
Air quality improved somewhat on the hike northeast out of the Aloha basin.
Along the way we found other remnants of the fire, like intact, charred oak leaves.
t The end of the day looked quite a bit better than the start at our campsite at Lake Susie.
And the next morning, we were treated to spectacular sunrise reflections in Lake Susie and enjoyed an entire day of clear weather and beautiful hiking!


We didn’t intend to get such an up close look at the latest Caldor fire in California but it actually exploded behind the mountain peak where we were camped in the Desolation Wilderness area of the Sierras.

The day dawned brilliantly clear after an equally sparkling night of stars and views of the Milky Way. The previous two days had been overcast with smoky haze from the Dixie fire northeast of Lake Tahoe.

The view of Pyramid peak (on the left) at 6 a.m.
Pyramid peak at 7:20 that morning as we were eating breakfast at camp. That cloud got blacker and denser by the minute and was moving very quickly over the southern end of Desolation Valley.
The view in the opposite direction toward the sunrise began to quickly change as well.
High winds kept the smoke cloud away from the valley floors and even the mountain top which remained clear the entire day.
Continual dense billows of black smoke filled the southern end of the valley. This view is from half way up the 10000 foot peak. Being completely off the grid we had no idea where the fire was or which direction it was moving. However we felt pretty safe from flames because Desolation Valley is mostly granite with little forest timber or ground fuel.

Later we learned that the Caldor fire had started about 90 minutes drive south of Lake Tahoe and had gained momentum due to high winds burning 60,000 acres in the El Dorado Forest in about 48 hours with zero containment. Conditions change quickly in the Sierras in the summer!


I watched a lone Caspian Tern hunt for fish in one of the small percolation ponds near Los Gatos creek in San Jose, CA, and was impressed with its success in grabbing small fish from the shallow water, as it hovered over a patch of still water and then suddenly dove head first into it.

The tern came up with a small fish in its bill about two out of three dives. Unlike Pelicans, Ospreys, and Kingfishers, this tern dove at an angle rather than head-first straight down.
Caspian Terns are the largest in the world (up to 24 inches long and up to 2 pounds in weight). Their 4-foot long wings help them stay motionless aloft, with their head down while searching and hovering over a spot in the water where fish are making ripples.
Caspian Terns can be found in fresh or salt water, in inland lakes or on the coast in most parts of North America, except the Rockies. They are also found in parts of Eurasia, especially around the Caspian Sea, the area for which they are named. They are pretty much fish specialists in all habitats.
Apparently, learning how to fish is a real challenge for young terns who remain with and are fed by their parents for most of their first year, even on their southerly wintering grounds.

At the creek

Los Gatos creek is an oasis in a sea of yelllow and russet-brown vegetation. The California landscape is dry, dry, dry, except where there is a little water, and there it is lush and verdant green —making a sharp line of demarcation.

The marshy edges of the creek are perfect for coots, mallards, a few Great Egrets stalking frogs or fish. Twenty feet from the edge of the marsh, vegetation has died or become dormant.
Looking at the creek from this direction, you wouldn’t know this was such a hot, dry place in the summer.
A little Bewick’s Wren was happily chirping his song over and over in the willows next to the creek.
Mom (or dad) Pied-billed Grebe and youngster swam leisurely by me.
A male and female (or juvenile) Anna’s hummingbird foraged for insects in a huge sycamore tree on the bank of the creek.
A juvenile Great Blue Heron posed statue-like as I walked by, without even a twitch. This bird will eventually become just as wary and skittish as his parents, flying away before a photographer gets within 100 feet.
The shallow creek water makes it ideal for “fisher-birds” like this Caspian Tern to spot their prey below.

There is always lots to see along the Campbell Trail in San Jose, one of my favorite places for a morning walk.

Reflections of a heron

I’ve rarely gotten so close to a Great Blue Heron, especially as it took off right in front of me. I think this might have been a juvenile heron, one a little less leery of human presence. There were three of them chasing each other around a settlement pond at Campbell Park in San Jose CA the other day, and the heron’s reflection in the shallow water seemed very artsy.

When Great Blue Herons get ready to take off, you can really appreciate their immense wingspread (more than 5 feet!) and the perfect contour of every one of their many feathers. No wonder they spend so much time preening to keep all those feathers looking good.
Lift-off seems effortless as this almost 4.5 foot tall bird rises into the air. Hollow bones and economy of internal organ mass reduce the bird’s weight to just 5-6 pounds, so once it spreads its wings and catches some air currents, the bird can easily neutralize gravity.
Each of the outer (primary) wing feathers can be manipulated to generate propeller-like power, or stiffen to produce a gliding surface. Slow wing flaps produce enough power for graceful forward motion.
This heron wasn’t going far, and its neck is still outstretched. But in powerful forward flight, the neck will be tucked back so the head is barely ahead of the wings, which reduces the drag on its body moving through the air.
Coming in for a landing, birds increase the drag to slow their forward momentum by tilting wings back, and erecting feathers to “catch” the air. You’ve probably looked at an airplane wing at touchdown and seen the same thing happening there.