Crossing America — Utah

It’s a short drive down the Lincoln Highway from Evanston, WY to Salt Lake City, and what a scenic drive through a gorgeous red canyon it is.

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

What could be prettier than white snow, red cliffs, and juniper and sage?

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

As we descend from the higher elevation Wyoming plateau, the cliffs get higher, and the topography more rugged.

Lincoln Highway to Salt Lake City, UT

Canyons with aspen and cottonwood meander back into the niches between cliffs. This must be glorious in the fall.

The Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest transcontinental routes for car travel from New Jersey to California, traversing 13 states.  Now that would be a real cross section of America, instead of this abbreviated picture I’m presenting here.

Having driven through sparkling, crystal clear landscapes from western most Wyoming, I had big expectations of the sight that would greet us as we broke through the cliffs into the Great Salt Lake flats.  But, a dense inversion layer of  smog greeted us in Salt Lake City, and instead of mountains, city, and lake landscape, we saw this.

Great Salt Lake smog

Ugh! I think there are supposed to be mountains on Antelope and Stansbury Islands visible from the southern lake shore as we drive along I-80.

If I have matched up google images correctly with our stop for lunch on the southern shore of the lake, it should have looked something like this.

Great Salt Lake, Salt Lake Tours

A summer time view, when the air is cleaner and clearer. Courtesy of Salt Lake Tours

But the best view of this amazing body of water was still ahead of us at the  Bonneville salt flat, where the salt-laden earth has dried into a hardened concrete and land speed records are set (currently 622 mph in a rocket-powered vehicle).  Imagine the g-forces the driver of that car withstands as he rockets (literally) down the 10 mile speedway.

Bonneville Salt Flat, Great Salt Lake, UT

I had to use a lot of dehaze filter to cut through the thick layer of smoky, foggy air. The reflection of the distant mountains is best seen when the water is just a few inches deep. When this area dries up in the summer, it will be a completely flat and extremely hard surface.

The drive through the rest of the salt desert went by quickly, and soon we were greeted by Wendover Will at the Nevada border.  My husband claims he always looked forward to seeing cowboy Will greet them on their trips from California to Nebraska in the summer.  It’s good to know that some things don’t change over 50-60 years in the west.

Wendover Will on the border of Nevada and Utah

the creek

I am intrigued by the idea of a creek that runs through the heart of a dense urban area with mostly clear water and that supports a variety of wildlife along its riparian border.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Water levels may fluctuate, but there is always enough to support wildlife.

Los Gatos creek runs northward 24 miles from the Santa Cruz mountains through the once orchard-rich, now highly residential Santa Clara valley to join the Guadelupe River which eventually empties into the southern end of San Francisco Bay.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Steep slopes along its course have been lined with sandbags or rocks to prevent the inevitable erosion of soft soils into the river that would dam its flow.

Along its length, the creek feeds two reservoirs and several small impoundments meant to recharge the ground water and prevent San Jose from subsiding as water is drawn from underground storage during urban development.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Creek water is aerated as it cascades over waterfalls and dams along its course.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

In places, the creek becomes a narrow channel, where water moves swiftly over rocks.

Hard to believe you’re in the middle of a major metropolis when you stand by the creek and watch a Coopers Hawk take down an errant little bird on the opposite shore.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Maples, oaks, sycamores, and cottonwoods line the shore of the creek, creating colorful landscapes and providing cover for wildlife.

Walking north on the trail along the creek toward downtown San Jose, I came across an unusual painting on one of the many highway overpasses.

Los Gatos creek, Campbell Park, San Jose, CA

Was this creek a salmon run?

In the late 1800s, “speckled trout” (probably the steelhead, or pacific rainbow trout) were apparently so numerous in the creek, they could be caught by hand.  But agricultural development in the valley lowered the water table too much to sustain the salmon migration, until the reservoir and percolation pond system raised it.

Today tagged steelhead trout and Chinook salmon once again migrate up the Guadelupe River and Los Gatos creek from San Francisco Bay, which is a testament to the health of this urban riparian system.

Funny feet

I think of American Coots as very common, uninteresting birds, and so I never photograph them.  But I was intrigued by their diving maneuvers to obtain submerged vegetation, and stopped to watch them more closely on my walk along Los Gatos Creek in San Jose, CA the other day.

Juvenile American Coot

This juvenile Coot was very protective of a small patch of submerged vegetation a foot or so below the surface.

Coots seem to be very buoyant in the water; it takes work to submerge and they actively kick their feet against the water as they dive, quite unlike what Cormorants do.

American Coot diving

This is the intriguing part.  Look at those big feet/toes that the bird uses to propel itself down into the water.

Submerged American Coot

Using their lobed toes to propel them, Coots can get down to choice bites of vegetation.

Juvenile American Coot

Sometimes they bring up a large amount of vegetation that they bite off in chunks.

American Coot feet

A better look at those funny feet.   Photo from

Coots occupy a wide variety of wetland habitats throughout North and Central America, feeding on a variety of aquatic vegetation.  But they are not fussy and will eat seeds or invertebrates they find on land as well.  Typically, they forage in small groups, their lobed toes expanded to a web as they kick backward to propel them through the water, and then collapsing inward as they bring their foot forward again.

That lobed toe design comes in handy when Coots walk across muddy, marsh ground, preventing them from sinking down into it.  And they assist Coots in taking off from water, when they need to use their feet to help lift their chunky bodies into the air.

Pretty useful, those funny feet!

American Coot taking off from water (Audubon)

American Coot taking off from water (Audubon Guide to North American Birds).

Drying time

If you’re a busy Cormorant that’s been diving for fish all morning on Los Gatos creek, you need to spend some time drying off before flying on to the next destination.

juvenile Double -crested Cormorant, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose, CA

Diving Cormorants sit very low in the water, all the better to quickly submerge in search of prey.

The reason for the “drying time” requirement is because Cormorants do not water-proof their feathers with an oily secretion as other birds do, which makes it easier for them to stay submerged, dive, and “fly” through the water.

juvenile Double -crested Cormorant, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose, CA

This juvenile Cormorant spotted a potential drying off place, and began to raise itself up to get on the branch.

juvenile Double -crested Cormorant, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose, CA

Even wet feathers can lift the bird a little ways up in the air…

juvenile Double -crested Cormorant, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose, CA

Lots of wing flaps begin the process of drying off…

juvenile Double -crested Cormorant, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose, CA

Really vigorous wing flaps may shake the water off those feathers, but somehow the bird doesn’t lift off the log.

juvenile Double -crested Cormorant, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose, CA

The more typical Cormorant “drying off” pose. This works best where there is a little sun and some wind, neither of which this site on the creek provides.

juvenile Double -crested Cormorant, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose, CA

Finally satisfied with the dryness of its wing feathers, the youngster relaxes and looks around. It is unperturbed by my presence only 20 feet away. I wonder why?

Now it’s easier to see the difference in coloration between this juvenile bird, with its pale throat and chest and brown head, and an adult bird.

Adult Double-crested Cormorant

An adult bird in breeding plumage sports a set of white-tinged crests on either side of its very black head.

a California fall day

Back in California for a couple of weeks, for a wedding and to enjoy prolonging lovely fall weather as long as possible.  It was a good day to hike along Los Gatos creek in Campbell (a small municipality in San Jose, CA) and enjoy the local wildlife.

Los Gatos Creek Park, Campbell CA

This pond along Los Gatos creek trail supports an amazing diversity of wildlife, from tame Mallards and Peking ducks, to breeding colonies of Cormorants, a pair of kingfishers. various Gull species, and of course, Canada Geese.

Los Gatos Creek Park, Campbell CA

There hasn’t been any rain here yet and most of the landscape is extremely dry except bordering the creek itself.

Common Bushtits, Los Gatos creek park, San Jose CA

Five little Bushtits looking for bugs on the dried wild anise. Can you find all of them? (I didn’t take the telephoto lens on my walk today.)

More on the Los Gatos creek wildlife in the next post….

Autumn reflections

Back in Minnesota, the trees are putting on their fall color extravaganza after losing their chlorophyll to unmask those other, colorful leaf pigments. Whether you’re looking up at the tree tops or down into a reflected pool of color in the lake, the brilliance of leaf hues is impressive (and kind of inspiring, if I was artistic).

Fall color reflection, MN

Sunny days are wonderful for capturing the brilliant reflected color in the Lake water.

Fall color reflection, MN

Amur maples yield a whole variety of shades.

Fall color reflection, MN

Leaves reflected in the pond in the back yard look like a painting by Monet.

Even on cloudy, foggy days, the fall color reflections are still beautiful.

Fall color reflection, MN

Fog mutes the colors, but the contrast with leaves in the foreground is interesting.

Fall color reflection, MN

A perfect reflection in the fog and still water on a bay of Lake Owasso.

Fall color reflections, MN

I wonder what the Canada Geese think of the fall color spectacle…

Birding in a Florida salt marsh

What a pleasant surprise to find such a rich and interesting wildlife refuge just an hour north of Cape Canaveral — Blackpoint Drive, a 7 mile road along dikes in a salt marsh that is part of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A typical scene along the dike roads of mangroves and pools in the salt marsh.

Here’s how the Fish and Wildlife Service describe this unique area.

Imagine a broad, flat expanse of salt marsh stretching from where your car is parked to the Indian River, a distance of about 1 mile. The only obstruction is an occasional hammock of palms or a mangrove-rimmed pond, and behind you, on higher ground, slash pines. Marsh streams gracefully wind through the marsh and provide a thoroughfare for microscopic plants and animals, shellfish and fish. Egrets and herons are poised along the stream edge, like spearfishermen patiently awaiting a meal. Secretively, sparrows search for insects in the chest-high grass. Occasionally, tides aided by a strong wind flood the marsh, and on the ebb, nutrient-laden waters are exported to the river. The marsh and river are one.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

An island of palmetto on higher ground stands behind the sea of grass in the salt marsh.

Although we were visiting before the big influx of winter migrants arrived, there was still plenty to see, which is why a 7 mile drive took us more than 3 hours. Butterflies, lizards, lots of birds, alligators, and even a errant manatee that wasn’t supposed to be in this area of the salt marsh crossed our path.

Tri-colored Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Tri-colored Herons were common in the shallow pools lined by mangroves.

Tri-colored Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

This one was pretty tame, and walked right up to us.

Greater Yellowlegs, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Greater Yellowlegs foraged in the shallow mudflats.

Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A few flocks of small dabbling ducks floated in the deeper pools, but quickly took cover in the mangroves when they spotted us.

Alligator, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Floating in some of those same deep pools were alligators of various sizes, from small like this one to very large.

Little Blue Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

A solitary Little Blue Heron stalked its prey.

Great Blue Heron, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Mangroves make useful perching spots for both Great Blue Herons and Great (White) Egrets.

Yellow-dumped Warbler, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Yellowthroat and Yellow-rumpled Warblers were frequently seen foraging in the low bushes and mangroves along the water’s edge.

Juvenile and adult Common Moorhens, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

Common Moorhens must have raised their brood in these pools lined by mangroves. This juvenile bird is flanked by two adults in the background.

Manatee, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge, Titusville FL

The manatee was swimming along the edge of a small stream, squeezing itself through culverts that connected waterways. Apparently they are restricted from this area because they get stuck and have to be rescued and removed by wildlife biologists.

Black Vultures, Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge visitor center

We found Black Vultures resting in the shade on the lawn of the visitor center 2 miles up the road from the wildlife refuge. It was close to 90 degrees and very humid, so no wonder they took refuge here.

What an amazing area, the last remnant of the natural salt marshes that probably lined the eastern coast of Florida before it was extensively developed. Not only is it a haven for wildlife, but it’s a natural barrier to storm surge and salt water intrusion inland.

Why are some egrets and herons white?

More specifically, why are juvenile (first year) Little Blue Herons white when their parents are such a dark slate blue color?

These and many other perplexing questions arose as we walked around Blackpoint Drive wildlife refuge in Cape Canaveral, Florida last week, at the end of our 11-day cruise from Montreal to Florida through the St. Lawrence seaway and Maritime provinces of Canada.

First, the startling contrast between juvenile and adult Little Blue Herons:

Adult Little Blue Heron, St. Croix Island

Adult Little Blue Heron, taken on St. Croix Island, distinguished by its slate blue legs and plumage, slightly purplish head feathers, and strongly bi-colored bill with a black tip.

Juvenile Little Blue Heron

Juvenile Little Blue Herons have the same bi-colored bill as the adults, but an all-white plumage and gray-green legs and feet.

What is the advantage of being white, or is there an advantage, especially in this species?

Juvenile Little Blue Heron

Juvenile Little Blue Herons resemble Snowy Egrets, or Cattle Egrets, or even Great (White) Egrets, so you have to look carefully to see which species they are.

Considering the natural history of the bird gives us some clues:  Little Blue Herons (LBHs) can be found year-round along the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean islands, they winter in Mexico and Central America, and breed in marshy areas throughout the southeastern U.S., usually in exposed, full sun locations.  In other words, they hang out in some hot, humid places, where being white is an advantage.  And in fact, white-colored birds reflect about 80% of the incoming radiation, which helps them stay cool in these hot habitats.  So, thermoregulation is one advantage of being white for the juvenile LBHs.

But here is another advantage:

Little Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets, and White Ibis, Cape Canaveral, FL

Juvenile Little Blue Herons like to hang out with similar-sized Snowy Egrets and White Ibis.  Foraging techniques of the other two species scare crustaceans and small fish toward the usually solitary, patiently waiting predators, the LBHs.  In this location, a juvenile LBH on the right is being chased away by an adult LBH while Snowy Egrets and White Ibis forage in the shallows on the left.

Safety in numbers is certainly an advantage for white birds of mixed species, but so is being able to capitalize on all the critters fleeing from other wading predators.  Some studies have shown that inexperienced juvenile LBHs enjoy as much success in their foraging attempts as adult birds who typically forage by themselves.

Adult Little Blue Heron, St. Croix Island

Little Blue Herons are usually solitary, sit and wait hunters.  They stand, neck outstretched, head down, or walk very slowly through shallow water or marshy puddles to find their prey.

Foraging studies on wading birds have determined that more active pursuers like Snowy Egrets encounter more prey, but have lower capture efficiency than stalkers like the LBH.

For Little Blue Herons, there are several advantages for being white, especially in their first year of life.  A better question might be, why are the adults so dark?  Any thoughts?

Here’s a possible hint:

Adult Little Blue Heron driving off a juvenile LBH

The adult Little Blue Heron driving off a juvenile casts a very dark shadow on the water…

From steel mill spoils to prairie

What to do on a rainy day in Sydney, Nova Scotia, the biggest little city on Cape Breton Island?  Not enough time to drive all the way to Cape Breton Park, so we opted for a walk in Open Hearth Park, formerly a hazardous waste area created by runoff of coke sludge from the large steel manufacturing plant in Sydney.  The transformation completed in 2013 is impressive, with a clear, fresh water stream flowing through wide expanses of prairie grasses and forbs.

Muggah Creek in Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Muggah Creek was once clogged with tar pits that formed from the runoff of coke sludge from the steel mill.  Tailings of coal mines are still visible along the creek.

Sydney produced great quantities of steel for England bound convoys in both WW1 and WW2, but the steel mill finally ceased production in 2001.

Muggah Creek in Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Replanted evergreen, birch, and prairie plants has changed the landscape here dramatically.

New England aster at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Several species of aster were blooming in Open Hearth Park.

Prairie flowers at Open Hearth Park in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Wildflowers at Open Hearth Park

Canada Geese in Sydney, Nova Scotia

Canada Geese where they belong…in Canada

Black Duck, Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Black Ducks are rarely seen in MN, but are common here.  They look like Mallards but have yellow instead of orange bills, and a black eye stripe.

Muggah Creek estuary, Open Hearth Park, Sydney, Nova Scotia

Muggah Creek is a tidal estuary, largely salt water here at its mouth on the Atlantic shore.

Mid-summer scenes

Mid-summer, it’s the time when fruits are ripening, profusions of flowers light up backyards and prairies, and we see lots of birds, butterflies, and bees everywhere.  It might be hot and sticky, but this is the time we’ve been thinking about on those cold winter days.

Monarch butterfly on Shasta daisy

Monarchs have made it to Minnesota by July, and begin laying the generation of butterflies that may be the ones to migrate south in a couple of months.

Lake water warms up, and mats of water lilies and duck weed clog the shorelines.

Fish lake, Cedar Creek nature preserve, MN

Warm summer days, scenic Minnesota lakes, one of the more than 10,000.

Butterfly weed with Monarch and Fritillary butterflies

Butterfly milkweed is in full bloom, attracting butterflies and bees.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes may have chicks following them around through the prairie meadows, and occasionally you see and hear them fly overhead.

Fruiting smooth sumac

Fruiting heads of smooth sumac light up the green forest of sumac shrubs. Did you know that the seed heads are high in vitamin C? Crush them in water to make sumac-ade!

Black morph, Tiger Swallowtail butterfly

The black morph of the Tiger Swallowtail butterfly has been visiting the backyard garden this week. It must be relatively newly emerged, with no bites in its wings yet.

Minnesota backyard in summer

What’s not to love about mid-summer days in the Minnesota backyard?