Coyotes in the backyard

I haven’t seen coyotes in the backyard for several years, and I’ve never seen a pair of them hunting together.

The pair of coyotes walked back and forth across the far end of the backyard with their noses to the ground — smelling for mice under the snow. Yes, they can smell that well! I noticed that the one in front was limping, and its walking posture was quite different from its mate.
The larger of the two might be the male. It has a flat back even when the head is lowered to the ground.
The presumed female has an injured right rear leg — it looks broken, but she still uses it to push off. Her hunting posture was hunched as a result of the injury.
The side view of the injured coyote shows how she holds the right rear leg up as she moves.
Her mate moves much more easily over the snow, never stopping to look around.

There are still a pair of foxes in the neighborhood here, although I don’t know where their den is. Usually, coyotes won’t tolerate foxes in their territory and will kill them or drive them away, so I hope this coyote pair decide to move on to another area — I like having the foxes visit with their kits in the spring.

Chiracahua beauty

The Chiracahua mountains of southeastern Arizona offer a multitude of scenic vistas, as well as a bounty of incredible wildlife to see.

There are a lot of canyons formed by rivers running down from the peaks of these 6-8,000 foot mountains. This is the entrance to Cave Creek canyon, one of our favorite places to stay and explore.
Rock formations and cliff faces line the sides of the canyons. You can easily see the altitudinal changes in vegetation as you ascend to mountain peaks.

The Chiricahua Mountains rise more than 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them “islands in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along a gradient from hot, dry desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, which means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity. 

We found a giant meadow of blue flag iris at Rustler Park, up at 8200 feet. Lots of butterflies and Anna hummingbirds flitted around these flowers sipping their nectar.
I think this might be the Western Pygmy Blue butterfly on the iris. These are one of the smallest of the southwestern butterflies, only 1/2 to 3/4 inch across. They can be found right out on the desert floor, as well as in the canyons and mountains. The caterpillars manage to survive on a diet of desert saltbush in the most arid desert conditions — amazing!
On the other end of the size spectrum were these gigantic Two-tailed Swallowtail butterflies, with a wingspan ranging from 3-6 inches, making it the largest Swallowtail in western North America. This species is the state butterfly of Arizona.
Adults only live 7-14 days and feed only on nectar, but the caterpillars prefer chokecherry or poplar leaves, and are a striking orange color with a big eyespot on their rear end to deter predators.
The Swallowtail I was photographing suddenly took off — and here’s the reason why. An aggressive little male Anna’s hummingbird, about the same size as the swallowtail just buzzed in for a drink of iris nectar.

An Andalusian village that is more than just a tourist stop

El Rocío is a very unusual town in the Andalusian region of southern Spain where the streets are wide, sandy, and unpaved, and hitching posts are provided in front of every home, hotel, and restaurant to tie up your horse(s). This quaint town in the center of Spain’s (and Europe’s) largest natural reserve, Doñana, is renown not only for its unusual buildings and streets but as the destination of the annual pilgrimage that takes place each year in June.

This assemblage of horse riders and carriages was right outside the cafe where we ate dinner. But this was just a weekend warm-up before the mega-festivities that begin in June during the Pilgrimage. Up to a million riders and walkers from near and far congregate here on the first Sunday of Pentecost.
The street in front of the Hermitage church, home of a much venerated wooden statue of “la Virgen del Rocío” would probably be a plaza in a different city, but during the Pilgrimage, all the riders and horse carriages need plenty of room to assemble. After paying tribute to the Virgin, groups will assemble in the various cafes and houses to eat, sing, and celebrate the season.
Part of the crowd assembled before the Hermitage as they carry the wooden state of the Virgin into the church. Photo from
Side streets are lined with row houses, all painted white with gold trim, and having the requisite posts out front for securing the horses. Each of the houses here bears a plaque or wall carving indicating its owners, the various Brotherhoods or religious confraternities. They serve as the headquarters for each of the primary pilgrim groups that come from nearby cities and town; many of these Hernandads or brotherhoods date to the 1600s when the first pilgrimages were made.
Even our hotel was constructed in keeping with the style of the rest of El Rocío’s white buildings.
A boardwalk on the edge of the large lagoon (Charco de la Boca) on the south side of El Rocío made a scenic spot for a sunset stroll and an excellent birding site in the morning to observe many different kinds of wading birds.

Celebrating Earth Day in Madrid gardens

It’s definitely Spring in Madrid, and flowers are popping up all over the garden spaces in the city. I know its still cold and dreary in Minnesota, so I’m doubly glad to be traveling here now.

Azaleas in a variety of colors.
Chestnut trees are loaded with huge spikes of flowers
Rows and rows of colorful tulips to gaze upon
Peonies are just beginning to bloom

Glorious spring…when Earth reminds us how beautiful it can be.

the lesser known biology behind the Panama Canal construction

I have wanted to see the Panama Canal from the “inside” for some time. My great uncle, a railroad civil engineer from Iowa, went to work there in the early 1900s, to assist John Stevens (who was appointed by Teddy Roosevelt to oversee the whole canal project) with completing the railroad that would carry tons of dirt away from the canal construction.

Modern day construction of the Panamax canal was approved by Panamanian voters in 2006 and used the same principles that Stevens established in construction of the original two canals a century earlier. The much wider Panamax Canal accommodates “super-ships”, i.e., large cruise ships and container ships that would not fit through the smaller, original locks.

The U.S. took over the Canal project from France in 1904, and within a decade had engineered one of the most difficult and dangerous constructions ever undertaken — a canal to connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans through a narrow isthmus of land in Panama. Instead of engineering a flowing river between the two oceans (which are actually 22 cm different in height), Stevens envisioned moving ships through a series of locks to raise ships up from the Pacific to a reservoir and then lower them again to the Atlantic side.

First of the two Miraflores locks from the Pacific. The third (Pedro Miguel) lock is located above Miraflores lake, and ships pass from there through the narrow channel of the Culebra Cut, another engineering feat that created a channel through the mountains of the Continental Divide, and on into one arm of Lake Gatun. See map below.
Approaching the first lock we could see the rail system on which the “mules” that assist ships through the lock travel. In the distance on the right is the 4-story building housing the Visitor Center for the Canal.
Water drains into the first lock to raise the ship to the level of the second lock in just a few minutes, at which point the gates in front of the ship fold back into the sides of the canal — as seen below.
The forward “mule” attached to the bow of the ship by two cables runs in exact tandem with one on the other side, helping to keep the ship in the center of the canal. The ship’s aft thrusters propel it slowly through the lock. There was only a couple of inches between the ship and the side of the canal in this lock.
Looking back (aft) at our passage through the lock and the Bridge of the Americas at the opening to the Canal. Ships can pass in both directions through the two side-by-side canals, but it requires precise programming for the many ships moving east and west. Reservations must be made months in advance. Transit is not cheap and is determined by size and weight of the vessel — it cost $375,000 for our ship to go through the entire passage. To move a private yacht through the canal might cost $2000, and even swimmers must pay a cost — one was charged $.36! Heavily laden container ships can off-load their cargo at the canal entrance and move the containers by rail in order to avoid the high cost of transit on the canal.
Map of the lock system of the Panama Canal by By Thomas Römer/ (OpenStreetMap data, CC BY-SA 2.0), Everything you ever wanted to know about the Panama Canal passage — elevation profile, lock placement, and route of ships through the passage.

But it isn’t the engineering feats that I want to showcase here. The canal could never have been completed without solving the real dangers of working in this part of Panama: yellow fever and malaria, which killed tens of thousands of French and Americans in the early stages of canal construction.

Colonel (Dr.) William Gorgas, the scientist who saved the Canal project by eliminating mosquito-borne disease from the Canal Zone. (Photo from his Wikipedia page)

Along with Stevens, Teddy Roosevelt appointed Colonel William Gorgas (a physician by training) as chief sanitation officer, with the charge of eradicating yellow fever and controlling malaria in the nearly 500 square miles of dense canal-zone jungle. Fortunately, Gorgas knew from previous research on these diseases that they were a result of mosquito-borne infections, and not transmitted person to person through the air like a flu. His campaign enlisted 4,000 workers in “mosquito brigades” to clean up mosquito breeding areas by draining swamps and spreading oil on the surface of standing water, installing window screens and tight-fitting doors in living areas, fumigating living and working areas with pyrethrum insecticide and sulfur, and establishing protocols for administration of anti-malaria medication.

Aedes aegypti, the “yellow fever mosquito” also transmits West Nile Virus, Dengue, and Zika virus. Hundreds of years of trade between Africa and the Americas, especially the transport of slaves, brought these mosquitoes and their virus parasites to the New World. (From “Mosquito of the Month”, VDCI)

Two years after establishing intensive sanitation protocols, the two diseases had nearly been eliminated, and the productive construction of waterways and locks began. Gorgas was as much a hero of the Panama Canal construction as Stevens and the engineers who followed him on the project. Obviously, without controlling the disease and protecting the health of canal workers, the project could never have been completed.

After a long 12 hours of slow progress through locks and Gatun lake, we exited the Canal through the Gatun locks, passing under the Atlantic bridge and on into the Caribbean Sea of the Atlantic Ocean. A long but fascinating process, including all the history and appreciation of the science and engineering that went into it to make the Panama Canal what it is today.

a rare plant

I haven’t seen many rare plants outside of Hawaii, but there is one oak tree species (Englemann Oaks) that has an incredibly limited range in southern California, making it a very rare plant in the U.S. Englemann Oaks used to be found on dry grassland mesas up to 4,000 feet in southern California. But their preferred climate/vegetation zone is also where humans like to build houses, and thus, their distribution has shrunk drastically to a narrow strip along the foothills of southern California mountains from Pasadena into San Diego county.

We visited the Santa Rosa plateau, an almost 10,000 acre Nature Conservancy preserve near Murietta, CA to get a look at these rare oaks.

Englemann oaks are evergreen like live oaks, but with much longer, more leathery, gray-green leaves. It is a majestic looking tree, characterized by gnarled and twisted lower branches, shown here on the left.
Much longer and lighter leaves and small, stubby acorns on the Englemann oaks.
The landscape in the Santa Rosa plateau preserve is slightly rolling with open spaces of grassland (and native California grasses) interspersed with lower ravines of dense oaks and chaparral.
Englemann oaks line the trail here and probably provide welcome shade on hot summer days.

Despite there being a lot of oaks in this area, there were surprisingly few Acorn woodpeckers, and i only saw a handful of them flying from tree to tree. However, there were a few other typical chaparral birds present on this overcast, windy day.

A male Anna’s Hummingibrd…
A very cooperative male Wrentit, singing his bouncing ping pong ball song…
and a Scrub Jay or two, checking us out to see if we had something to offer.

Thanksgiving birds

Have you ever wondered why the turkey is the target of our Thanksgiving meal and not squirrel or deer or rabbit? I’m always glad to see them stroll through the backyard, but sad that we produce so many of their cousins just to celebrate a holiday.

on this day of Thanks, I want to thank my many blog readers for their interest and insights. I hope you have a wonderful holiday and celebrate birds in one way or another!