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?

eye level

My neighbor called to tell me there was a big snapping turtle on his patio, so I went over to make friends.  It was indeed a big one, maybe a female looking for a soft garden spot to lay some eggs.  I decided to get down on turtle level to take some photos.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles often come up into our yards from the lake across the street. Sometimes they bring a collection of algae on their shells, but this turtle is remarkably clean.

They are called snapping turtles for a good reason. Those toothless jaws can produce a powerful pinch, strong enough to tear flesh.  And if they can’t nail you with a vicious bite, snappers will put a nasty gouge in your skin with those long, sharp toenails.  Beware of picking one of these up!

Snapping turtle

That’s eye level, for sure. Look at all that loose skin under the head, which allows them to stretch their head far out of the shell and take a good bite of something.  They can extend their neck and flex it perpendicular to their body, latching their jaws onto whatever is nearby.  I was a little surprised not to see leeches or some other ectoparasites clinging to the turtle’s skin.

Once the turtle got tired of watching me, it moved off the patio toward the garden, raising itself up on its toes to step over a hose. How does a beast whose eyes are at the top of its head know where it’s feet are in relation to an obstacle on the ground?  Obviously, snapping turtles have a wider visual field than you might think.

Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtle walks over kinked hose by rising up on its toes!

Waterfall extravaganza

There are lots of spectacular single waterfalls in Iceland, but Hraunfossar is a real waterfall extravaganza of 900 meters of water falling over rocks.  I’m standing in one spot, trying to capture the entire length of the waterfalls over the next three images.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Hraunfossar waterfalls form along a stretch of lava bordering the Hvítá River. 

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Water from the melting Langjökull glacier streams over a lava field formed when a volcano beneath the glacier erupted about 800 A.D., before Iceland was settled The lava field above the shrubby birches is quite visible in this shot.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Clear, filtered water from the glacier flows between lava layers and turns the river a lovely turquoise blue color. The glacier is just barely visible below the clouds in the distance.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

You can find close-up views of these waterfalls in most travel ads for Iceland, yet there were hardly any tourists here.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Another photo favorite of Iceland ads…

Redwing thrush, Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

The only birds we saw here were the Redwing thrushes, which had to sing really loudly to be heard over the roar of the waterfalls.

Lava field at Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

The lava flow is still bare rock in some places. In others, mosses and shrubby birches have covered the top of the lava field.

Hraunfossar waterfalls, Iceland

Further upstream, the lava gorge narrows, and the water thunders through in a giant roar, creating the waterfall known as Barnafosar, the children’s waterfall.

Barnafossar waterfalls, Iceland

The waterfall is named for two children who may have perished when they fell from an arch that used to span the Barnafossar waterfall. The story goes that the children’s mother had the arch destroyed so that no other children would suffer the same fate.

Barnafossar waterfalls, Iceland

The water here flows at an average of 80 cubic meters per second, but can reach 500 cubic meters per second when the river is in flood state. In comparison, the average flow of the upper Mississippi River out of its origin at Lake Itasca (a comparable sized stream) is 6 cubic feet per second (=0.17 cubic meters per second).

Birds, and more birds, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula of Iceland

Iceland may have an impoverished bird fauna, compared to what one can see in the U.K. or Europe, but it more than makes up for it with great numbers of the species that are present.  For the bird photographer, this makes it easier to get some good photos.

A really good place to see seabirds is at the cliffs at Arnarstapi on the southern side of the Snaefellsness peninsula.

Shag on a nest, Arnarstapi cliffs, Iceland

Shags weren’t very common here, but a couple of them had carved out some space low on the cliffs.

Kittiwake gull, Arnarstapi cliffs, Iceland

Kittiwakes are the only gull that nest on cliffs. They were typically found in great numbers lower on the cliff than the fulmars, which are bigger birds and are more aggressive toward everything that approaches their space.

Down on the shoreline below the cliffs were several species of shorebirds, foraging in the sand and rocks right at the edge of the water.

Iceland Gulls, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Iceland Gulls are rather small, with pink feet, and bright yellow bills. They actually don’t breed in Iceland, but instead in Greenland and arctic parts of Canada.  Apparently they are still fattening up for spring breeding before migrating.

Knots, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

A lot of Knots. These small birds look like every other shorebird in the winter, but have bright chestnut back and breast in their breeding plumage, which is why some call them “red knots”.  It’s another arctic breeder in Canada, Europe, and Russia.

Also foraging along the shoreline at other points along the Iceland coast were Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones, Purple Sandpipers, Ringed Plovers, and Red Shanks.  These species were exploring the seaweed that had washed up on shore, and the crevices between rocks along the shore, turning things over or probing into sand to find small invertebrates there.  They will all fly on from here to their arctic breeding sites in Europe and Russia.

Sanderlings and Ruddy Turnstone foraging at Akranes beach, Iceland

Sanderlings and a Ruddy Turnstone foraging at Akranes beach, Iceland

Purple Sandpipers, Akranes beach, Iceland

Purple Sandpipers, Akranes beach, Iceland

Ringed Plover, Akranes beach, Iceland

Ringed Plover, Akranes beach, Iceland

Red Shank, Budir, Iceland

Red Shanks are well named, as their red legs make them easy to spot.

Arctic Tern with fish

Arctic terms were flying overhead at Arnarstapi above the grassy meadows, some carrying fish.  This species is the longest distance migrator among all animals, flying from its Antarctic home in our winter to breed in the Arctic in our summer, and then back again, a round trip of about 44,000 miles.

Harlequin duck pair, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Harlequin ducks are at home in the open ocean, but they breed in cold, fast moving streams in northern North America, Iceland, and Greenland.  The outlandish color pattern of the breeding male gives the duck its name.

Harlequin duck pair, Iceland

Unfortunately, numbers of these handsome ducks are declining rapidly in North America, due to loss of habitat on cold, northern rivers and oil spills. I hope they fare better in Iceland.

The highlights of our bird sightings was finding a breeding pair of Red-throated Loons and Horned Grebe on some of the small lakes that dot the Iceland landscape.  Brilliant colors of these birds light up the infamously gray, cloudy, rainy landscape here.

Red-throated Diver (Loon), Iceland

A pair of Red-throated Divers (Loon) at rest on a small pond

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, Iceland

Slavonian (Horned) Grebe, photo by Debbie Reynolds.

A new vista

Farewell, Scotland.  Hello, Iceland — a new vista for us.  And what a unique and interesting place it is.  Here are a few of the vistas we’ve seen in the last two days.

River Hotel, Hella, Iceland

The view from our lodgings at the River Hotel in Hella, about 50 miles east of Reykjavík on the Ring road.

With 18 hours of daylight, who can sleep at 5 a.m.? The birds are up and active on the river at this hour, so I am too.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Iceland’s volcanic origin is evident wherever you go, especially at Thingvellir National Park, Iceland’s equivalent of Yellowstone.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

River runoff from the glaciers that cap the central portion of the island are numerous. Excellent fishing here, judging from the 3-foot mounted specimens on the walls of our lodge at the River Hotel.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Neat houses are tucked into hillsides and along waterways, usually far from each other. It’s a mostly deserted landscape, free of human influence…

Icelandic ponies

With lots of Icelandic ponies in open fields.

And of course, the birds — it’s nesting time in the arctic, and the birds are unusually active in these long daylight hours.  There are limited numbers of species breeding on this small island, but lots of individuals of those species present.

Whooper swans, Iceland

Not just one, but a whole herd of Whooper Swans, in the middle of a grassy field, lined up, pairing off? We’ve found big flocks of these huge birds in several areas on our drive around the south coast.

Puffins, puffins, everywhere

The Farne Islands off the coast of Seahouses, England are Puffin central at this time of year.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Puffins are solitary at sea most of the year, but return to favorite nesting areas like the Farne Islands on the northeastern coast of England to breed.  Here they number in the thousands, crowding grassy hillocks where they dig their burrow nests.

We met them swimming in the water fishing for their favorite sand eels (not eels), herring or sprats…

Atlantic Puffin

And we found them on rocky prominances, looking out over the sea below…

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

And we found them all over the grassy mounds in the center of the island where they congregated around burrow holes, and some kind of speed dating process was going on as pairs tried to match up with each other.

Puffins return to the same island, and may return to the same burrow they used the previous year.  They may reunite with the previous year’s partner or search for a new one, forming a monogamous pair bond for the duration of the breeding season.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Every now and then, groups would break up, with individuals flying around, joining up with other groups.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Puffins have very short wings for their stout body, and flap their wings many times per second to propel them through air. Consequently, they are really challenging to capture in flight.

it was fascinating to watch the pairing up rituals, which involved displays by the presumed male (chest puffing, wing flapping, head tilted back and forth), and some beak-to-beak interactions (billing) in and around their burrow.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Pairs form when birds are 4-7 years of age. Prior to breeding juvenile birds remain at sea, perfecting their fishing skills.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

“Billing” contact between the breeding pair is essential to building and maintaining the pair bond.

Atlantic Puffins, Inner Farne Island, England

One or both members of the pair improve the burrow by removing dirt with their webbed feet and adding grassy thatch, before the female lays her one egg, which takes 40-45 days of incubation to hatch.  Nestlings are fed a variety of fish for 35 to 50 days, depending on the food supply parents can provide, and then make their way to the open ocean to feed on their own.

Scenes from the Norfolk coast

The Norfolk coast features picturesque scenery, numerous hiking paths, and of course, loads of birds.  Our hike yesterday took us alongside coastal marshes and wide expanses of beach sand untouched by anything except one set of car tracks.  The coastal dunes are protected areas for breeding avocets and ringed plovers, of which we just barely caught a glimpse.

Marshes along the Norfolk coast

Marshes along the Norfolk coast; mustard blooming in the background.

Marshes along the Norfolk coast, UK

Small ponds are breeding habitat for the variety of ducks and geese that live here.

Graylag geese

Graylag geese flying over the marsh

Coastal dunes

Coastal dunes

Beach at Holkham gap, Norfolk, UK

Beach at Holkham gap in Norfolk. From here it’s a 3.5 mile walk back to our house. Dunes off to the left are protected breeding habitat for Ringed Plovers.

Ringed Plovers

Ringed Plovers facing off


Down in the mud

The Norfolk coast at Burnham Overy Staithe where we’re staying this week undergoes twice daily low tides that leave boats stranded and large areas of mud for the sea birds to explore.

Norfolk coast at Burnham Overy Staithe at low tide

Norfolk coast at Burnham Overy Staithe at low tide

Low tide seems to be a profitable time to harvest some juicy worms from the mud, as we saw Oystercatchers, Black-headed Gulls, and an assortment of shorebirds doing. These tidal mudflats are a rich source of fuel for migratory birds that pass through here on their way from Africa to northern latitudes in Europe.

Oystercatchers pulling worms from the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Oystercatchers pulling worms from the mud.  They don’t seem to mind getting their legs and bills immersed in the gooey stuff.

Oystercatchers pulling worms from the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Probe and pull, over and over. It seems to help if you have a long bill.

Black-headed Gulls hunting worms in the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Black-headed Gulls talking about hunting worms in the mud…

Black-headed Gulls hunting worms in the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Pulling the worms out of the mud requires some effort — they are kind of stuck in there.

Black-headed Gulls hunting worms in the mud on the Norfolk UK coast

Success at last

Several non-avians enjoyed the mudflats on this warm, balmy day as well, sliding, rolling, and throwing big globs of the gooey stuff at each other.

Mud bath on the Norfolk coast

Doesn’t that look like fun? (Photo by Debbie Reynolds)

River dolphins

The Amazon river is a vast and impressive highway, carrying people and goods to and from Ecuador to Peru to Brazil.  It is also home to hundreds of fish, amphibian, and caiman species, as well as the pink river dolphin.

Amazon river dolphin

A river dolphin breaks the water for a look around before diving back down

River dolphins in the Amazon are the largest of the fresh water dolphins, with males weighing up to 500 pounds and growing to almost 9 feet in length.  There is pronounced sexual dimorphism in this species, but unlike other whales and dolphins, the females are about one-third smaller than the males, instead of larger.

Amazon river dolphin

Unlike dolphins at Sea World, these dolphins did not exhibit any gymnastic leaps and flips for us.  Their heads barely broke the surface and we could barely see their dorsal fin and tails as they dove again.

Males have pinkish bodies and often show battle scars from competition with other males for females during the breeding season.

Amazon river dolphin

A bite out of the dorsal fin indicates this individual may have seen some battles with other males.

Amazon river dolphin-

Males get pinker with age, females and juveniles are gray.  Older dolphins may fade to white.  Photo from

The huge melon on their forehead is fatty tissue that helps them direct their sonar echolocating beam.  River dolphins emit a small amplitude click that helps them locate nearby objects and prey in the muddy Amazon water.  A longer beam like that emitted by oceanic dolphins would echo back too much confusing information in such a visually obstructed environment.

More than 53 species of fish, river turtles, and crabs are food for river dolphins, with an individual sometimes sharing food with another.  Dolphins may hunt with other species like river otters, putting increased pressure on their prey in a cooperative hunt, but dolphins and otters tend to specialize on different species in the hunt.