Wildlife extravaganza at Whitewater Draw

Northeast of the copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona and west of the Chiricahua mountains in the southeastern corner of the state is the Sulphur Springs valley, which has recently become a birding hotspot because of the huge numbers of overwintering cranes, geese, ducks, waterbirds of all kinds, and assorted other small passerines.

Looking toward the western mountains, Snow Geese rested on a small pond.

Originally this area was a cattle ranch with springs and runoff from a part of the Chiricahua mountains that run through the middle of the valley and eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico. But since the late 1990s, the land has been managed by Arizona Fish and Game and is designated a state wildlife IBA (important birding area). Tens of thousands of Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese spend the winter here foraging in nearby crop fields and wading in the 1500 acres of streams, marshes, and ponds.

Looking toward the south, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were flying in to join others resting in a crop field.
Cranes were doing a lot of flying on this day — back and forth from field to marsh, providing numerous opportunities to photograph them in flight.
I almost think the amount of flying, often in formation, might be their “practice runs” to get in shape for spring migration. Migration is kind of like a marathon race for birds, and they must build muscle strength and endurance just like human long-distance runners do before setting off to the north.
Despite the long wingspan, which is great for gliding, these birds are powerful flyers with deep wing strokes, and they can power by you very quickly. They average 25-35 mph during migration, but can fly up to 50 mph, and can cover 300-500 miles per day during migration.
Coming in for a landing, lowering the landing gear (legs), as they glide to a stop.
Motionless gliding…
The same two birds as above, just about to land.

You can see some variation in the amount of red on the forehead of the cranes. The forehead is actually bald, devoid of feathers, and the red color is due to blood flow in this area. In territorial disputes or during courtship, the forehead may be flushed with blood and be a much bigger area with brighter color.

Getting a drink of muddy water, after all that flying around.

The Snow Geese were unusually quiet on this morning, resting on a small pond, rarely making a sound, and just sitting or sleeping. Perhaps they were digesting their early morning meal.

The darker morph of the Snow Goose used to be considered a different species (the Blue Goose), but in fact is just a rare color variant.
A pair of American Widgeons swam by. The male has a striking white stripe down his forehead (which looks like it might be a bald spot—but isn’t), and a bright green-bronze patch of feathers above his eyes.
A pair of Gadwall were also in the same pond. The male looks plain until you see the beautiful steel gray pattern of feathers on his breast.
I saw many male Shoveler ducks but rarely any females who might have been foraging elsewhere.
American Coots on the bank — this one showing off his lobed toes which are great for propelling the bird through water. But on land, coots walk like humans do when they are wearing snorkel fins, with exaggerated lifting of their feet in order to step forward.
A beautiful little Vermillion Flycatcher was hunting bugs in the weeds next to the pond.

What an incredible morning of birding. It was amazing to see how many people knew about this place and were walking slowly around admiring the birds.

Raptors, antelope, deer, and ducks at the Mexican border

We’re on the road again, sadly on our way back to Minnesota, where I’m hearing winter weather is raging. We’ve decided to try to visit as many new places as possible on the trip east.

Running from the Mexican border to the tiny burg of Arivaca in south central Arizona is a 117,000 acre grassland preserve — the Buenos Aires national wildlife refuge, where the deer and the antelope definitely roam in numbers. An occasional jaguar has even been sighted here. And it also seems to be a haven for wintering raptors.

Pronghorn Antelope leisurely crossed the road right in front of us. It looks like the male is wearing a radio collar. Pronghorn were reintroduced here, and are now considered to be a desert subspecies.

Buenos Aires NWR is a grassy, semi-desert landscape, but has some woodland features along the creeks and in draws. It supports quite a variety of large mammals (deer and antelope), and a great diversity of bird life that is attracted to the various water landscapes.

At another location on the refuge we discovered a much bigger herd of over a dozen antelope. I’m not sure if this group is composed of one male (antlered) and a harem of females, or the other antelope just haven’t regrown their horns yet.
I got too close to the antelope and they began to run away, Note the mule deer in the background that look like they’re wondering what all the fuss is about.
Buenos Aires has both White-tailed deer and Mule deer, shown here. They are easily recognized by their over-sized ears. These two were coming down from the wood thickets to drink at a pond.
Much of the refuge is a huge expanse of grass permeated by mesquite trees (now leafless), with an occasional cactus to remind us that this is a semi-desert area. This landscape will be even more beautiful when the trees leaf out and new grass is growing.
The most numerous raptor on the refuge is the Red-tailed Hawk, and most of the ones we saw were juveniles with light eyes and brown (not red) tails. The birds were amazingly tolerant of our presence, and let us drive right up next to them on the road.
The next most common raptor we saw were Northern Harriers, but all of them were females (brown plumage). The gray plumaged males may have been elsewhere on the refuge, or perhaps they don’t overwinter here at all.
In one of the wetland ponds, we found a few Green-winged teal (females) and a Sora foraging on the vegetation in the shallow water.
The male Green-winged Teal showed off his gorgeous head, lit up nicely in the morning sun.
This was the least shy Sora I have ever seen —usually I get only a glimpse of their body as they scuttle through waist high weeds. This one was out in the open, intent on finding something in the shallow water.
Loggerhead Shrikes were also seen frequently near the road. I have no idea what they could find to eat at this time of year when most insects and reptiles are dormant. Perhaps they can catch the small finches that forage for seeds by the side of the road.
A beautiful landscape, made more attractive by the absence of humans here.

Hidden gems

Amidst the vast expanse of California’s breadbasket of agricultural production in its Central Valley there are numerous “refugia” for wildlife. I was surprised to find that there are dozens of wildlife refuges scattered near the main artery of Interstate-5 in the Central Valley. We made a brief stop at one of these, the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, on our way north to the Bay Area, two weeks ago.

It was a very overcast day, and windy and cool as well. But the wildlife was abundant here, especially water birds of all sorts. A couple of hawks rested in the tree surveying for potential prey below them.

Kern NWR is at the south end of what was once a huge (at least 625,000 acres) wetland complex in the Tulare Lake Basin that was inhabited by hundreds (if not thousands) of migratory water birds during the winter. Today, 11,250 acres are protected in this area just north of Bakersfield, and visitors can drive a loop road around much of the open wetland areas.

A juvenile (light eye color) Red-tailed Hawk sat quietly while we drove past it.
Northern Shoveler ducks were one of the most common ducks here. This male is ready already decked out in his beautiful breeding plumage.
A little Pied-billed Grebe dived in the pond in front of us.
I think these were Violet-green Swallows, diving and swooping en masse over the surface of the water. Perhaps there was an insect swarm there.
A flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows were finding some luscious seeds among the early spring grasses.
This Western Meadowlark male was digging around in a litter pile, and finally found a grub of some sort.

But the most exciting find of the morning was the male Northern Harrier that we found coursing over the tops of some orchard trees along the roadside. We followed it along the road for quite a way, and I got several shots of the bird in flight.

What a beautiful little oasis among the crop fields. I would come back here (on a sunnier day)!

A sunset spectacle

We drove from Guymon, Oklahoma to Socorro, New Mexico with the sole purpose of visiting Bosque del Apache around sunset to see the multitudes of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese assemble for the night on the marshes of the reserve. Luckily for us, we stumbled on said assemblage while driving the north loop of the wildlife drive.

The cranes were much farther away than the last time we visited here, but it was easier to capture them flying into the marsh to join the others.

Here’s a link to the post from a previous visit to this area three years ago.

Long wings, lots of effortless gliding in golden light.
A few cranes were vocalizing, making their ancient-sounding rattle call, announcing that this is the place to settle for the night.

By far the most abundant birds in this marsh are the Snow Geese, which seem to gather in the thousands to feed, and fly off in the dozens to hundreds. I rarely saw them in small groups.

With barely enough light left for photography, another huge flock took off from the marsh to go elsewhere for the night.
and the sun sets on the marshes of Bosque del Apache…

Remembering the year that was…

This year was an amazing time of one adventure after another…as we made up for the Covid isolation period and two years of postponed trips. So many beautiful places, beautiful animals, beautiful landscapes, and amazing people that we met. Here’s a snapshot of the year in review.

(Note: if you’re interested in seeing more and perhaps better photos of any of the activities mentioned below, go to the main page of the blog: https://bybio.wordpress.com and there should be a pull-down menu for the Archives with months and years of the blog listed near the top right of the main page. Just click on the month of interest, and scroll down through the days to see more of what I have summarized here. IPhone and iPad users may have to scroll to the bottom of the main page to see the dialog boxes with the months listed.)

The highlight of a trip to northern Minnesota to photograph the winter avian residents there was watching a very cooperative Great Gray Owl get four mice (from under the snow) in just four attempts — 100% success!
We took the long-awaited, much postponed cruise down the west coast of Mexico and Central America through the Panama Canal, ending up in Florida. Birding from the ship turned out to be a big plus.
Photography buddy Debby invited us to stay at Hilton Head, SC for a week to marvel at the huge numbers of shorebirds and others that overwinter in this milder mid-Atlantic climate.
As a prelude to our birding adventure in Spain in April-May, we took ourselves sight-seeing in Portugal, with a few days birding and exploring Lisbon, a train ride to Porto, and a few days there before ending the prelude in Madrid (a much more beautiful city than I remembered).
Birding extravaganza in the plains, forests, shore, swamps, and even in old cities in the Extremadura region and Donana national park in southern Spain with Ruth Miller and Alan Davies — birders extraordinaire
The annual family hike in our favorite haunts of the Desolation Wilderness of the Sierra Nevada mountains of California took place early this year (to avoid a repeat of the disastrous smoke and fire threat we faced last year on the hike in August). We were rewarded with 100% warm, sunny days and no bugs!
Some of the family rode an airplane home from the Sierra hike, but two grandsons were kind enough to keep their grandparents company on a road trip from California through Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and South Dakota on the way back to Minnesota. Sights were seen and adventures were had along the way.
Although tamer than the previous months of travel, the backyard did not disappoint in bringing wildlife and beautiful scenes for photography. I realize in writing this now that I forgot to include the visit from the kit fox and its mama in August.
We always make at least one trip out to the central Minnesota prairie during the summer, and this year we found ground squirrels and monarch butterflies at Fort Riley state park. The tom turkeys visited the front and the back yards often, but without their girl friends.
A trip to eastern Europe (the Balkan countries) was a premier highlight of the year. It was definitely a learning and discovery adventure since we knew nothing about this part of the world. Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Slovenia — all beautiful, all very interesting though with tragic stories from inhabitants, and all easy to travel around with lots of friendly folks that spoke English.
As always, the fall color spectacle in the Twin Cities did not disappoint. The colors remained vivid for a long time, even into November before the trees finally gave up with the snowfall that began late this year on Nov. 12.
The forest outside became a fairy land of white-encrusted branches after the first major dump of very wet snow in December. Inside the tree was decorated with lights, mementos, and presents. Happy holidays!!

Favorite fall “fotos”

My favorite season of the year is almost gone now, but we did manage to see a part of the glorious color changes come through the Minnesota woods this fall. In addition to this year’s contribution (below) to my fall color postings, I wanted to share some of my past favorites as well.

Sometimes, the best photos are captured in places you’re not supposed to be — like the “park personnel only” roads in Fish Lake park, Maple Grove MN this fall. (But the local state patrolman was nice about it.)
Sandhill cranes at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of cranes gathered in October 2021.
Trumpeter Swans flying over Cloud Lake at sunset in the Porcupine Mts, MI, in October 2018 was a special treat.
I caught a special ray of sunlight streaming through basswood leaves at Roy Lake SP, SoDak, in October 2020.
The Wood Ducks on a local pond in Roseville, MN in October 2021 weren’t the only colorful things there that day — the colorful reflection from the woodland trees was amazing.
Fall color along the north shore of Lake Superior in MN is always spectacular. This shot was taken from about as far north as you can go in MN before you cross into Canada in October 2016.
Fall color along the rivers of the upper Midwest is usually equally spectacular. This shot from the Wolf River near Rhinelander WI was taken on a very cloudy day in October 2017, but the lack of sun didn’t diminish the vibrancy of the color.

Limestone and waterfalls in Plitvice Park, Croatia

Croatia’s largest national park, located in roughly the center of the country, features sheer limestone cliffs that tower above emerald green water and a bounty of large and small waterfalls and cascades that rush down a series of about 16 lakes.

A series of boardwalks at the park takes you around a few of the lakes and waterfalls where you can appreciate the amazing natural processes that create this landscape.

A view from the top of the canyon — you can just barely see the fine white line of the boardwalk trail at the base of the distant limestone cliff face. The highest waterfall in the park is on the right side of the image.
The map of the Plitvice Lakes shows the natural (i.e., not man-made) dams that block the river flow to create the lakes. However, the contours and even placement of the lakes change gradually over time, as the location of dams changes.
Rainfall leaches calcium carbonate from the soft limestone rock and creates channels through the rock to feed an underground river that bubbles up into small ponds and lakes when it reaches harder rock.
The water becomes saturated with calcium carbonate which gets deposited on everything over which the water flows. Vegetation growing along the shore of the lake as well as algae and moss growing at the edge of the lake get a coating of calcium carbonate on them, forming stony barriers to water movement — i.e., dams.
Water flowing over the dams creates cascades and waterfalls that carry the calcium-carbonate rich water further downstream.
More calcium carbonate is deposited on the plants and bacterial colonies creating yet another set of dams and pools above them.
Dams are impermanent structures, because the rushing water dissolves them, only to deposit the minerals elsewhere in slower moving water.
The type of algae that bloom in the calcium carbonate rich waters of the lakes contribute to the unique color of these lakes, which actually change from aqua-colored to teal-colored depending on the season, the temperature, and the algal population bloom.
The lakes are especially beautiful in the fall when the teal green water color contrasts with the rich golds and reds of the forest vegetation.

Sierra hike 2022 – the way down

Continued from the previous post: what a treat to spend a day hiking between lakes without a heavy backpack, and through gorgeous green meadows lined with red fir trees on a fairly level trail!

Off we go for a morning hike, with lunches to eat at Lake Lois…
I never get tired of these gorgeous meadows, and using the Merlin bird app, we were able to figure out which birds were doing all the singing.
Back at the Lake Doris campsite in late afternoon, it was time to pack up and head over Rockbound Pass down to Lake Maud. My granddaughters wanted to rename this set of lakes to something less old-fashioned sounding. We climbed up a little ways to the low part of the pass, only losing the trail a couple of times in the snowfields.
The other side of Rockbound Pass is well-named — you must hike a long ways down a jumble of rocks, often separated by big steps down. This was one of the few places there was a “nice” trail.
And sometimes the trail looked like this — and you ask yourself, ”where is the trail”?
Our destination is in the distance, but it’s already early evening, and we’re still 2 miles away!
Surprisingly, the lower part of this dry, rocky trail was flush with beautiful wildflowers in full bloom.
Two, tired grandparents rolled into camp, downed a quick bite of food, and collapsed in the tent at sunset.
The next morning everyone felt perky again, but sad to leave the mountains.
Grandpa led the three oldest grandsons down the trail showing them how to identify the various trees and flowers, and then launching into a longer history of early California.
Leaving the wilderness —it’s only another mile or two to our cars. And thats the end of Sierra hike 2022.

Flamingos (dancing birds?) of the Spanish Marshes

Where the confluence of two rivers, Tinto and Odiel, empty into the Atlantic in southern Spain, a huge coastal marsh system has developed over tens of thousands of years. Ancient civilizations, like the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans recognized the rich fishing grounds and mudflats that supported such a wealth of diversity of life, including wading birds, shorebirds, raptors, hare, deer, wolf, and lynx, and they built hunting lodges and port cities on the edge of the marshes. Today, the bustling Andalusian city of Huelva (claimed to be the oldest city in Europe) lies in the center of more than 17,000 acres of marsh protected in the Odiel Biosphere Reserve.

Las Marismas (marshes) of the Odiel and Tinto rivers are renewed twice a day as the high tides return to bring nutrients inland from the sea. This is what nourishes the more than 300 species of both resident and migratory birds that stop over here on their way from Africa to breed in Europe. (Map from “Nature-watching in Europe“)

Rare European Spoonbills were discovered to be breeding here in large numbers in the 1970s, and this led to the declaration of the area as a UNESCO reserve in 1983. As a result, the Odiel marshes have become one of the premier wetland habitats for European birds, but the area is more than just marsh. It features salt pans (natural and man-made), lakes, forest, heathland, sandy shore, tidal channels, and of course, the rivers — diverse habitat for a multitude of species.

Odiel marshes are the perfect habitat for these European (white) Spoonbills that use their long flattened beak to sweep the shallow waters for crustaceans, mollusks, worms, and tiny fish.
In addition to the iconic Spoonbills and a wide variety of shorebirds feasting on mud-dwelling invertebrates, the Greater Flamingos breed here in great abundance. The shallow salt pans are filled with brine shrimp which forms the bulk of their diet. The commercial salt mining operation here actually provides more habitat for birds to use for foraging in a set of about 16 rectangular pools, some of which you can see in the background.
Flamingos are filter-feeders. They turn their heads upside down in the water, pushing the water in and out with their tongues over their overly large lower bill that is lined with horny plates that trap the tiny shrimp.
Greater Flamingos are actually white birds with accents of pink (unlike the Americas variety). But the extent of pink coloration is determined by the carotene in the shrimp in their diet, and there is plenty of that here.
Our guide, Manu Mojarro, showed us how prolific the brine shrimp are in these salt pan waters where the salinity is many times more concentrated than sea water.
In order to separate the shrimp from the salt water, flamingos pump water over the plates of their lower mandible about 20 times per second, and must consume about 270 grams of food per day (approx 1/2 pound). Their shrimp diet is supplemented with fly larvae, mollusks, crabs, and small fish, which they stir up by swishing their feet around in the mud.

Greater Flamingos gather in the hundreds to breed in these marshes on a small island where they build their mud mound nests right next to each other–like the ones in the photo below from Algeria.

View of the Greater Flamingo colony at Ezzemoul, northern Algeria, from a paper by Samroui and Laid, 2013 in Avian Biology Research.

Finding a mate in a dense crowd of hundreds or thousands of individuals must be challenging, but flamingos are noted for their dancing skills and the collective group ballet that is used to pair individuals up. Older flamingos with longer necks might have an advantage here, but the entire group performs a synchronized dance to rev each other up for the grand finale.

Sir David Attenborough narrates the action…

The word Flamingo in Spanish is “flamenco” — is it just coincidence that the flamenco dancer’s moves strongly resemble that of the bird’s during its mating dance?

Birds and blooms in the Tagus river estuary of Lisbon

We spent part of a day acquainting ourselves with the beautiful environs of central Lisbon and then took a birding tour of the variety of habitats in the Tagus river estuary the following day. This is the largest estuary system in western Europe, with an area of more than 80,000 acres where as many as 50,000 waterfowl overwinter.

We’re not in Kansas anymore — or in Minnesota! Spring wildflowers were in great abundance here in the meadows surrounding the salt marsh.
Red Poppies were a delight to find along roadsides and in parks. i have always loved the orange California poppies, but these are even more spectacular.
Unbelievable color!
The contrast of the very old structures that probably date back to 16th or 17th century with the modern constructions of wind farms and electrical utilities.
We saw a variety of birds still utilizing the estuary wetlands, but there were just a few representative examples left at the time in the spring. Flamingoes here are mostly white with pinkish tinges of color on their back and wings.
Dozens of Glossy Ibis grazed in wet meadows and marshes, but were very skittish and took off with the slightest disturbance.
At least 8 species of shorebirds foraged in the mud at low tide, moving from pool to pool en masse.
But the strangest sight we viewed on this trip was White Storks nesting communally on power structures everywhere — in urban, rural, and in natural settings.

In a little over three decades, the White Stork increased from around 1000 individuals in Portugal in 1995 to about 15,000 individuals today. And one of the reasons for this increase in the face of near extinction is the access that the storks have to foraging in landfills for the nutritious remains of fishermen hauls, restaurant leftovers, and household garbage. in fact, now White Storks will not try to nest farther than about 10-12 miles from the landfills.

Storks are rather handsome birds with black wingtips and long, red bills. They stand about 3 feet tall and weigh about 7-8 pounds. Their usual diet of small invertebrate and vertebrate species found in wetlands has been supplanted by the much easier to acquire landfill organic waste.
Storks are powerful flyers, which might be why this bird that likes to nest on chimneys and rooftops in urban areas was linked to folk tales about the delivery of babies. The storks apparently have great fidelity to the nest site where they raised last year’s chicks, but the pair do not stay together on their wintering grounds in tropical Africa. So they may or may not meet up in subsequent years to rear another batch of chicks.