Utah’s glorious national parks: the amazing Arches

There is no place like it in the world, with a concentration of several thousand arches of red and buff sandstone, weathered by wind and water.

Great walls of sandstone, eroded by the action of wind and water on layers differing in hardness, stand like monuments on a rolling plain.

In places, all but a slender column of rock is left. And here, a balanced rock rests on such a pillar. Estimates put the weight of that balanced rock equivalent to more than a 1000 cars!

The arches form continually in the long fins of exposed sandstone, with softer materials scooped out or falling out over time to form first, holes, and then finally arches of stone.  Click on the photo to see the tiny humans standing in the hole in the rock to appreciate just how big the structure is.

Wind and water sculpting is converting this sandstone fin into multiple arches. The one on the far left is actually a double arch.

But the pride of Arches National Park is Delicate Arch, a single monolith surrounded by a sculpted basin of rock.  To appreciate its size, note the tiny human standing by the right leg of the arch in the photos below.

Delicate Arch stands by itself in a huge amphitheater.  The 3 mile, 500 foot elevation gain hike just before sunrise one morning was well worth it.

But erosion is slowly weakening this arch, removing chunks from the left arch base and forming cracks in the dome. Its existence is fragile and limited.

Some of the structures have names, like this one that the grandkids are trying to mimic. Its official name is “the three gossips”, but the kids could see that there was a fourth figure hiding just behind the other three.

the color Purple

As I look around at flower gardens in my backyard and in my neighborhood, I see a lot of purple.  Where the first flowers of spring seemed to be largely pink in color, the first flowers of summer seem to be mostly purple, a color that is not all that common in plants.  Why so much purple, and why now?

The intensely violet color of spiderwort flowers is on one end of the purple spectrum.

False Indigo flowers are another example of intensely dark purple color.

Purple is for the bees, and especially the solitary bees which are the most abundant and hearty pollinators we see in cool spring and early summer weather, before honeybees and butterflies have become active.  Bee eyes can detect light wavelengths in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, and it seems that plants have adapted their floral displays to guide the bees right to the places on the flower where their search for nectar or pollen will do the flower the most good (i.e., pollination).

Streaks on the landing platform petal of the iris are probably visible to bees in the ultra-violet range.

One study with bumblebees in Germany showed that naive bees were highly attracted to flowers in the ultra-violet to blue range of wavelengths, and those flowers tended to produce more nectar or nectar with higher sugar concentrations than flowers of other colors.  Purple flowers that attract solitary bees tend to have the highest sugar concentration in their nectar (20-50% sugar), compared to yellow and red hummingbird and butterfly flowers that average around 20-22% sugar in the nectar.

The bell flower petals look homogeneously lilac to our eyes, but what do they look like to bees?

The variation in “purple-ness” of early summer flowers is due to the proportion of anthocyanin pigment in the flower in response to the pH of the soil environment.  In the presence of acid (or hydrogen ion), the pigment is red (or pink), whereas in the presence of nitrogen base the pigment is blue, and in the presence of aluminum, it is violet.   So, you can change the colors of your hydrangea or forget-me-nots by what you put in their soil.

Magenta-colored clematis flowers are the result of a redder expression of anthocyanin in a more acid cellular environment.

Flowers of this penstemon are pink-purple, based on the reaction of the anthocyanin in a more acid pH.

Bachelor’s Buttons, native of Europe, grows best in basic soils, which accounts for its deep blue color, and the bees seem to love it.

Purple is a coveted color in the garden, because of its rarity, and the ephemeral nature of purple flowers.  Looking back in our own history, we find that limited resources and the labor-intensive process used to create the color purple made it an expensive luxury, indulged in only by the most wealthy or by royalty.  Regardless of expense, its calming (blue overtones), yet energizing (red hues) make purple a favorite color.

Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma

Oklahoma is flat, right?  Except for a chunk of interesting geography called the Wichita mountains in southwestern OK near Lawton.  The rocky 2000 foot promontories here are the result of a failed continental rift that filled with granite 500 million years ago, was covered with sediments of the inland sea, and was pushed up late in the Paleozoic.

Sediment erosion has exposed the granite tops of the Wichita Mountains.

A variety of wildlife, including bison (originally from the Jackson Hole herd) and elk, both of which had gone extinct here in the 1800s from hunting pressure, roam this almost 60,000 acre national wildlife refuge.

Buffalo mix in with Longhorn Cattle, also introduced to this refuge. They seem to get along amicably and don’t hybridize.

Even though they were a long way from the road, these cow elk were in a big hurry to get away from us.

We managed a few hours stopover here on our way south to Texas.  The wildflowers were blooming everywhere, especially the Indian Paintbrush and lupine, prairie dogs were sunning their new-born pups, and Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers were busily setting up territories.

Indian Paintbrush

The prairie was abloom.

Beautiful scenery here in the Wichita mountains.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are quick, and don’t slow down to let you photograph them.

Scissor-tailed Flycatchers seem to like the view from the fences, as they search for errant insects.

Mama prairie dog must have quite a few pups!

The pups scurry to their burrow for some reassurance from mom when nosy photographers come around.

Frosty pane

It’s -21F (-29C) and the temperature is still dropping. My kitchen window is completely covered with “fern feathers”.  The ice crystals have grown from single stalks to full fledged sheets of ice as the temperature outside the window drops.

frosty pane

Initial formation of crystals enlarges quickly in the intense cold.

frosty pane

The ice crystals sort of resemble palm fronds that have fallen to the ground.

frosty pane

Pelicans on the pond

We spent a lovely sunny afternoon at Ano Nuevo state park watching the elephant seals, but on the way to marvel at these gigantic beasts, we passed a pond with some Brown Pelicans, flying from fresh water to the nearby ocean.  It was too good an opportunity to photograph these majestic flyers to pass up.

Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA

It’s hard to see the pelicans flying up from the pond.  How many do you see.

Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA

Brown Pelicans at Ano Nuevo state park, CA

The coastline at Ano Nuevo state park

New camera, new subjects

Now and then I get in a rut.  Time to try something new, with the added bonus of trying out the latest camera technology (a mirrorless camera) and a chance to reduce the weight of camera plus telephoto lens package.  What better time for experimentation than a parade down a local street for the “Slice of Shoreview” celebration.  Here are the results of the experiment, using the newly released Sony a7iii model with a Canon 24-105 mm lens.

Drummers in the parade

I like the way the camera handles the extreme contrast of light and shadow.

Bagpiper in the parade

The colors are vibrant, and the images are sharp without using photo editing software.

Gymnasts in the parade

There was a little of everything in the parade: gymnasts, dancers, bagpipers, tractors, politicians running for office, horses…

Dancers in the parade

Tractors in the parade

Bagpipers in the parade

Horses in the parade

Girl in the parade

Kids passing out balloons and candy

haunted house monsters in the parade

Even some bona fide scary monsters from the fright farm…

Wow, Sony’s focusing system is fast and accurate; there are lots of features to assist the process, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of what the camera has to offer.  So, I’ve got new motivation to get out in the backyard for more photo shoots with the new system.

Oh, the people you’ll meet…

One of the wonderful things about our trip to Peru was the interesting people we met everywhere we went (“oh, the people you’ll meet”… to copy from Dr. Seuss).

Peru is home to over 30 million people, the largest group of which (over 50%) are a Mestizo blend of native Indian and European (mostly Spanish). The next largest group (about 30%) is comprised of the indigenous AmerIndians, mainly the Quechua and Aymara people of the Andes, and the dozens of Indian tribes who still live in the Amazon basin.  Immigrants from Europe, Africa, and Asia make up the remainder of people currently living in Peru.  The population is a multiethnic blend of ancient and recent inhabitants that look quite different from each other, depending on where in the country you are.  You would think with all the internal migration that goes on from rainforest village to city, and Andean highlands to coastal lowlands, there would be less distinction between sites — and of course, I had to wonder why that was.

Yagua Indians, Peru Amazon

About 30 communities of Yagua Indians live near the major rivers of the Amazon basin.  Their lives changed dramatically when Spanish and later European conquests invaded the rainforest to harvest timber.  Yagua are known for their ability to hunt with blowguns, and are able to accurately hit the center of a small target at 30 feet or monkeys far up in the tops of trees with their poison darts.

Yagua Indians, Peru Amazon

The Yagua ladies wore their native clothes for our benefit, but their everyday clothing is western wear.  Here, they are cooking brunch of fish soup, corn patties, fruits and vegetables, one of their two daily meals (no cooking after dark).  These people are short in stature, but generally rather slender.

Yagua communities are often remote, deep in the rainforest away from the main tributaries of the Amazon.  They live on what the forest provides, fruit, game, roots and seeds, fish from the rivers, and grow some crops for their own consumption but do little trading with others living on the rivers.

River people, Amazon basin, Peru

A grandma and her granddaughter.  The people living right along the major tributaries of the Amazon are more likely to be Mestizo than indigenous, and their daily lives are quite different from the indigenous people.

River house, Amazon basin, Peru

Houses of riverside villagers are built on stilts, to keep their living space above the level of the river when it rises in the rainy season.

River people, Amazon basin, Peru

Only the upper floor of river houses is finished space, with one area for sleeping, and another area for everything else.

Like the Yagua, riverside villagers harvest fish from the river and game, fruit and nuts from the forest, but they expect to grow and harvest more produce than they can consume so they can take it to local markets to sell in exchange for what they need to buy.  There is not enough electricity in riverside homes to run a refrigerator, so fresh food must be harvested or bought each day.

Market day, Indiana village, Amazon, Peru

A wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, spices, and sundries is available at markets like this one at Indiana village, 50 miles down river from Iquitos. It’s best to get there very early in the morning (when this photo was taken) while the food is fresh and supplies are unlimited.

Six hundred miles south and 9-10,000 feet up in the mountain villages of the Andes, people look and dress quite a bit differently, partly because it is much colder here and because their diet is quite different as well.  The early inhabitants of this area of Peru were the Quechua (northern Andes) and Aymara (southern Andes) people, some groups of which traded with indigenous people in the Amazon basin.  So, even though there might be genetic mixing of lowland and highland inhabitants, their different outward appearances may be more strongly influenced by diet.

The Andes plateau is the home of the potato, and over 4000 (not a typo) varieties are grown in Peru.  Prepared and even preserved in a number of ways, this is a primary staple of the highland diet.

Market day in Ollantaytambo, Peru

Aisles and aisles of all kinds of potatoes can be found in the huge outdoor markets, like this one in Ollantaytambo.

Quinoa field, near Chinchero, Peru

The other primary staple of the highland diet is quinoa, which is grown in large quantities for sale in markets, and also in smaller home gardens for family consumption.

A high starch diet (potato, quinoa, and corn) with less meat and fruit than is typically consumed by people living in the Amazon basin produces a characteristic body type in Andean residents, especially in women, with weight concentrated in the central core.

Andean lady and her son, near Puno, Peru

Andean lady and her son, near Puno, Peru

And the change in body shape begins in childhood…

Aymara girl, near Puno, Peru

Aymara girl, near Puno, Peru, in the decorative outfit that indicates her tribal affiliation.

Aymara Indians, Puno, Peru

Aymara women are quite short, about 5 feet tall, and typically quite stocky.  Braids and small hats perched on top of their head are characteristic of Andean women.  Particular colors and patterns in hats, skirts, and vests are unique to each village.

Lunch at an Aymara village, Puno, Peru

Lunch at an Aymara village near Puno consisted of (from bottom to top of image) quinoa soup, several kinds of quinoa bread, boiled potatoes (white), two kinds of cheese, preserved, dried potatoes (black), and spicy peppers.  We ate on plates with silverware, but the Aymara preferred to nosh from a communal plate by dipping in with their fingers.

floating village, Uros island, Puno, Peru

The diet of the people from the floating villages on Uros island in Lake Titicaca seems to be largely starchy roots, potatoes, and quinoa.  They catch tiny 3 inch fish from the lake for protein.

Interestingly, even with such high starch diets that drastically change body composition, Aymara people show low incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  A medical journal article published in 2016 found that 69% of their 276 study subjects were overweight or obese, yet only 18% exhibited hypertension and only 7% were diagnosed diabetic. Lack of refined sugar in their diet and perhaps a higher level of physical activity might contribute to the reduced risk of disease in these people.

Looking back

Another year draws to a close, and I’m looking back at the highlights through the “back yards” we visited this year.

Texas-Mexico border, Brownsville

A feeding frenzy of Brown Pelicans at the Texas-Mexico border, near Brownsville, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf in January.  An escape from the Minnesota winter…

northern Minnesota-February

Northern Minnesota in February – who goes north for more snow and cold weather in the winter?

Lake sunset, St Paul, March

Sunset on the ice in March at a local lake

Grand Canyon - April sunset

Sunset in the Grand Canyon in April

farmhouse in Teremiski, Poland

A farmhouse in Teremiski, Poland in June

Abisko national park, Sweden

Hiking in Abisko national park, Sweden, in June, where it’s light 24 hours a day

fireworks, July 4

Fireworks at the local park on July 4

Trail from Saddlebag Lake, Sierra Mountains

Trail from Saddlebag Lake, into the back country of the Sierra Nevada mountains in August

Bodie, Nevada

Mock funeral procession for the city founder in Bodie, Nevada in August

Amur maple fall color

Amur maple fall color in September at a local park


Fall color along the Wolf River in central Wisconsin in October


Deer herd in the snow, back to winter again, in December

A busy year of photographing the wonders of the global “back yard”, and a promise of more exciting stuff to come in 2018.

the beauties of 2017

The backyard is quiet again, as the snow falls, temperatures drop, and the wildlife roam less far and wide (meaning, less likely to be seen in my backyard at least).  So, I’ve dug through the collection of “best birds of 2017” to bring you my 12 favorites from our treks around the U.S. this year.

Texas (near Brownsville)

Crested Caracara, Alamo TX

Adult Crested Caracara, Alamo TX

Harris Hawk-Alamo, Texas

Adult Harris Hawk diving down to get its piece of frozen chicken-Alamo, Texas

Great Kiskadee, Alamo TX-

Great Kiskadee, Alamo TX-

Red-winged Blackbirds-Alamo, TX

Male Red-winged Blackbirds behaving badly, Alamo, TX

Tri-colored Heron, Padre Island, TX

Tri-colored Heron, Padre Island, TX

Long-billed Dowitchers-Laguna Vista TX-

Long-billed Dowitchers, Laguna Vista, TX

South-eastern Arizona (Tucson and Portal areas)

Painted Redstart (or Whitestart), Portal AZ

Painted Redstart (or Whitestart), Portal AZ

Phainopepla-Tucson, AZ

Phainopepla-Tucson, AZ

Vermillion Flycatcher-Tucson AZ

Vermillion Flycatcher-Tucson AZ

Magnificent Hummingbird-Santa Rita Lodge, AZ

Magnificent Hummingbird-Santa Rita Lodge, AZ. The light was just off to the side so his brilliant iridescence is dulled.

Cactus wren-Tucson, AZ

Cactus wren-Tucson, AZ, in its elements of thorns and spiny plants

Gila Woodpeckers at their nest, Tucson, AZ

Gila Woodpeckers at their nest, Tucson, AZ

You don’t really have to go too far to see some special birds, not found in your own backyard.  The trick is not just finding them, but getting them to cooperate for a photograph!