It’s a particularly busy time of year for prairie bird parents — all those open mouths to fill. And it doesn’t stop when they fledge and leave the nest because the youngsters just follow the parents around and continue begging for food.
It’s not your usual Fourth of July today, so I looked at what the Backyard Biology blog posts for previous years showed. Here’s a post from 2014 that is appropriate for today’s world.
For those of you who might have wondered why red, white, and blue were chosen for the U.S. flag, here’s the description from USFlag.org:
The colors red, white, and blue did not have meanings for The Stars and Stripes when it was adopted in 1777. However, the colors in the Great Seal did have specific meanings. Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, reporting to Congress on the Seal, stated:
“The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America; White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice.”
Perseverance in pursuing justice might be something to keep in mind from this holiday going forward in 2020…
When I was looking up information on the Blue Grosbeak (previous post), I was surprised to discover it was a member of the Cardinal family, which turns out to be quite a large and diverse, but extremely colorful set of bird species. It also turns out that I have blogged about this before, when I have photographed some of the other North American species in this family (short memory!).
The Cardinalidae family consists of Buntings, Grosbeaks, Tanagers, Chats, Seedeaters, and Cardinals, 14 species of which can be found in North America at some time of the year — so far, I’ve managed to photograph 12 of the 14. Although the species look very different from one another and live in very different places, they are all medium-sized, stocky birds that use their somewhat overly large bill to consume seeds, fruits, and insects of all sizes. As a group, the males exhibit bright coloration and females are more muted in color.
the Buntings — make liberal use of blue structural coloration, in addition to several other bright pigments in their plumage.
the Tanagers (most of the Tanagers are in their own family — but ornithologists have decided several of them are more closely related to the Cardinalidae.)
the Grosbeaks (well-named for their overly large seed-crushing bill)
the Cardinals (only two members in North America)
lastly, the Dickcissel — not a member of any group
Grasses are slowly waking up out on the Minnesota prairies, and a few birds have arrived to set up territories. Grasslands are havens for sparrows that mostly look alike to me, but they have distinctive songs that help one identify them. Recently we encountered two buzzers — Grasshopper and Clay-colored Sparrows, and two singers — Field and Lark Sparrows.
Even though the grass isn’t tall yet, these sparrows are very small, and their tendency to stay down at the base of the grass looking for food, makes them really difficult to spot. Spring is the best time to look, because they usually perch a little higher to sing.
One of the benefits of trying to get close enough to photograph these small birds is prolonged exposure to their songs, which I hope I won’t forget the next time I go looking for them.
Still looking for migrants and finding a few, we trek through bushes, grassy fields, along lake paths, and scour the backyard for recent arrivals. We came home with a few new birds photographed for the challenge … and some ticks.
And so the chase goes on…day to day, sometimes twice a day, as we try to add to the list of first-seen, spring migrants.
Even though the skies are dumping another few inches of snow on us today, there are still signs of the earth coming alive after a winter sleep: the grass is greening up, the buds on the trees are swelling, and on warm afternoons, the chorus frogs and wood frogs are chirping away in the wetlands beyond the backyard. Each day I find a new bird friend, freshly arrived from down south, looking for the best place to set up housekeeping to raise the next generation.
So, in the spirit of all this rebirth of life — Happy Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Hana Matsuri (Buddhism), Hanuman Jayanti (Hindu), or whatever you celebrate at this time of year.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.