Coyotes in the backyard

I haven’t seen coyotes in the backyard for several years, and I’ve never seen a pair of them hunting together.

The pair of coyotes walked back and forth across the far end of the backyard with their noses to the ground — smelling for mice under the snow. Yes, they can smell that well! I noticed that the one in front was limping, and its walking posture was quite different from its mate.
The larger of the two might be the male. It has a flat back even when the head is lowered to the ground.
The presumed female has an injured right rear leg — it looks broken, but she still uses it to push off. Her hunting posture was hunched as a result of the injury.
The side view of the injured coyote shows how she holds the right rear leg up as she moves.
Her mate moves much more easily over the snow, never stopping to look around.

There are still a pair of foxes in the neighborhood here, although I don’t know where their den is. Usually, coyotes won’t tolerate foxes in their territory and will kill them or drive them away, so I hope this coyote pair decide to move on to another area — I like having the foxes visit with their kits in the spring.

Buck in the backyard

The deer herd has been running through the backyard frequently, but they don’t usually hang around — they’re always on the move…to somewhere else. But a few days ago, the big buck visited, sampled the greenery, and sat down for a nap.

A big, healthy looking male, accompanied by a much smaller “spike” boy who kept his distance.
This buck has at least 8 points, but I wonder if we will see him again next year.
The backyard is well covered by snow, what vegetation remains above the snow are inedible stems, so I guess deer resort to munching on evergreens at this time of year.
And after eating a little of those indigestible needles, it was time for a rest and some rumination. Big males like this one are probably in a nutritional deficit at this time of year, and may survive by catabolizing their own body mass slowly throughout the rest of the winter.

A little mid-winter tropical color

Who doesn’t need a shot of color during the mid-winter blah outdoor landscape of white, brown, and gray? After a monotonous week of fog and gray weather, it was time for a visit to the indoor tropical room of Como Conservatory in St. Paul, MN. Each time I go I find a few new species that have taken up residence there.

The Tropics Room with its mammoth-sized palms, deciduous trees, and pools houses a few exotic bird species, some huge and colorful tropical fish, turtles and tortoises, a monstrous python, a leaf cutter ant colony, poison dart frogs, and a two-toed sloth named Chloe.
What a surprise to find a Sun Bittern grooming itself on a stump overlooking the turtle pond– a spectacularly-feathered bird we saw along one of the rivers of the Pantanal that we cruised in Brazil in 2019. Though it looks plain when its wings are folded, Click here to see the amazing colors of this bird.
Blue-Gray Tanagers are common in the Tropics, and are probably the top of the pecking order among the birds in the Tropics Room. They are primarily fruit eaters, and love to hang out around fruit plantations in northern South America.
Saffron Finches are actually Tanagers, not finches, and are common in South American lowlands outside of the Amazon basin. These birds are cavity nesters, and I think we saw a pair carving out nest hole into the roof thatch on one of the little buildings. They seem to do quite well here in captivity.
The Violaceous Euphonia is a striking little bird about the size of a chickadee and is a true finch. But…its diet is primarily tiny fruits, instead of seeds, like other finches. It is native to forests and second growth (including plantations) in parts of eastern South America. (photo by Debbie Reynolds)
Honeycreepers get their name from their habit of sipping nectar as a primary food source, but the Green Honeycreeper here is more fond of fruit and seeds than nectar. It is also in the Tanager family and is native to Central and northern South America.
One of the permanent residents of this forest is Chloe, a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth. Of all the times I have visited the Tropics Room, I have only ever seen her awake once, when her keeper brought her some delectable vegetation to munch on. She is more than 30 years old, and prefers to be solitary on her tree stump — she apparently bit the male suitor they introduced to the tropics room, and he had to be removed for his own safety!
A rare glimpse of a smiling sloth…
Several rather large tortoises live on the ground floor of the Tropics Room at Como Conservatory. Apparently, they really like carrots, even if they don’t seem to have the right equipment to break them up into smaller pieces.

Naughty bird

Of course I love watching birds in the backyard, but I don’t especially love what some of them do to my house. The woodpeckers are at it again, drilling holes into the redwood siding of the house and the garage. The little Downys do a lot of damage by themselves, but this morning the local Pileated Woodpecker got into the action, and started hammering on the garage with some serious blows.

Incoming male Pileated Woodpecker. There has always been a resident pair of Pileated Woodpeckers in the far backyard, and they are frequent winter visitors near the house to check out the bird feeders.
He looks around, doesn’t see what he wants at the bird feeders, and moves on to the garage. The male has a red mustache (this bird), while the female’s is black.
The little holes in the siding were made by the Downy Woodpeckers, but the much bigger chisel bill of the Pileated could make short work of tearing out huge chunks of the siding. So, I had to chase him off.

Why do we love birds?

A rhetorical question to ask on this — National Bird Day. They are colorful, sing some pretty (if repetitive) songs, perform amazing aerial tricks, are delicate, fierce, strong, bold, and relatively easy to find and see. Plus there is an amazing diversity of them. They are all around us and we take them for granted, but the world would be a sad place without them. This day was created to raise awareness of the difficulties many avian species face because of loss of habitat, climate changes that put them out of sync with their food supply, lethal chemical added to their environment, etc. The list of perturbations to their normal existence is long and is taking its toll on their numbers. So to honor the Birds, I showcase some of them taken from this year’s photos (some of which were sadly lost in the masses of photos that I took!).

Great Gray Owl, northern Minnesota
Great Egret flying over a pond at Hilton Head, SC.
The elusive and much sought-after male Elegant Trogon, Portal AZ
European Raven from Extremadura region, Spain
Roadrunner attacking a lizard, Green Valley AZ
Speckled Tanager, Costa Rica
Rufous (or Allen’s) Hummingbird, Batiquitos Lagoon, CA
Black Kite, Extremadura region, Spain
Hooded Oriole, Green Valley AZ
Female, Black-cheeked Woodpecker, first bird seen in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Brown Boobies, seen somewhere along the Pacific coast of Central America
Snowy Egrets in Huatulco, Mexico
Serin finch, Extremadura region, Spain
Red Kites, Extremadura region, Spain
the rare Iberian Magpie, Doñana National Park, Spain. One of the birds most threatened by climate change.
Black-necked Stilt, Alameda Island, CA
Breeding plumes of the male Great Egret, Hilton Head, SC
Scarlet-rumped Toucanet, Cartagena, Colombia
Griffon Vulture, Extremadura region, Spain

Down in the meadow

Looking back over this year’s photos, I found some gems I had overlooked at the time they were taken. During our birding explorations of southern Spain in April-May of 2022, we visited La Dehesa de Abajo (literally, the meadow down below).

The abundance and diversity of wildflowers that carpeted the meadow here was really eye-catching. The building in the background is a “hide” or blind for watching the shorebirds out in the lagoon.

The Dehesa is a nature reserve just 15 miles southwest of Seville located within the greater 52 square miles of the Donana national park and nature park system.

Among the many wonderfully different birds we saw at the Dehesa, the European Bee-eaters were the most colorful and interesting (to me) to watch. These vibrantly colored, slender birds are distant relatives of Kingfishers, but are only found in southern and central Europe, parts of northern Africa and western Asia during the spring and summer. After breeding there, they migrate to tropical Africa for the winter.

You rarely see Bee-eaters individually — especially at this time of year. But just wait…
Not a minute later, the first bird was joined by (I suppose) its mate.

Pairs were actively foraging for insects among the flush of wildflowers in the meadow, with males often bringing food to females, and perching near them. In fact, couples were perched everywhere — often next to each other in small groups.

And then, two more Bee-eaters decided this post made a good resting spot between foraging bouts.

European Bee-eaters are highly gregarious and nest colonially in sandy banks, into which they excavate 5-foot long tunnels for their nest. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the 5-8 offspring to fledgling. Once out of the nest, adult and juvenile Bee-eaters roost communally in long lines of birds huddled closely together.

Despite their name (and they do eat a lot of bees, wasps and hornets), male Bee-eaters catch larger items like dragonflies and butterflies to feed to their mates during courtship. We watched a pair of Bee-eaters in this ritual for a few minutes as the male made several trips to feed his mate. The first image is a composite of his flight in. The second image shows him bringing a dragonfly to her (barely visible in his beak), and the third composite image shows his departure on another foraging trip.

Although Honeybees do make up 60-80% of their diet, their collective impact on the bees in an area is minimal; studies found that they ate less than1% of the worker bees from a particular hive. Bee-eaters do remove the sting from the bee before swallowing by bashing it against a tree limb or fence post.

Such gorgeous little birds, and such fun to watch. But there is much more to see in this richly diverse area of Donana, Europe’s largest national park. More on this topic later.

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!!

Thank the trees

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around, I renew my gratitude for the special people in my life. But I usually don’t remember to give thanks for many of the things I just take for granted. So this year, I’m thankful for trees…for the many ecosystem services they provide — for FREE.

…for forests that enrich our lives and uplift our moods as we wander their winding paths.

Forest of Nisene Marks, Aptos CA
Oak forest, University of California Berkeley

…for vast tracts of unending vegetation that pump oxygen into our atmosphere and remove carbon dioxide, helping to manage the climate.

Tropical rainforest of the Panama Canal
Temperate forest of the Porcupine Mountains, Michigan

…for forests and other vegetation that filter runoff to maintain clean water in lakes and rivers and prevent soil erosion

Wolf river near Rhinelander WI
Grass lake slough, Shoreview MN

…for trees that provide food and shelter for wildlife (and food and building materials for us)

My front yard apple crop
A fanciful look at forest animals (composite of many images)

…for forests that improve our urban landscape by providing shade, lowering the air temperature nearby, buffering noise, air, and light pollution, as well as providing a mental and physical escape from the urban jungle.

Central Park, New York city (photo from Architectural Digest)

this post dedicated to daughter Becky, an ecosystem services specialist.

Short days and fat bears

What do these animals have in common during the fall months?

A Black Bear scrounging for goodies on the forest floor in the Grand Tetons, WY, in September 2016. Black bears consume prodigious quantities of food before retreating to their dens for their winter “sleep”.
One of my many chipmunk friends that live in the backyard. This one had its cheeks stuffed full of sunflower seeds and peanuts from the bird feeder — probably taking them down its burrow to add to the food stores for the winter.
A female (or juvenile) Yellow-rumped Warbler was chowing down on Juniper berries in late September. The berries are consumed whole, but the bird’s digestive tract will separate seeds from pulp and excrete the seeds, while cleaving off and digesting the waxy coating of the fruit for a few extra calories. High sugar and fat diets help these migrants put on body fat quickly before they migrate.
Not all Robins migrate — some stay here all winter. But those that do fly south seek out the high carb fruits like crabapples and service berries that allow them to build their fat stores up quickly.

The answer to the question above is that all of these (and many more bird and mammal species) exhibit excessive consumption of food in the fall, technically becoming hyperphagic.

There really are only a few viable solutions to surviving the long, cold winters of the far north: 1) get out of town — migrate! 2) build fat stores to last you several months and sleep as much as possible, and 3) stay active to search for what little food remains, tolerate the cold, but enter a starvation state by metabolizing a lot of of your muscle (when you run out of fat).

The temporary condition of hyperphagia is brought on by decreasing photoperiod — i.e., the continually declining number of daylight hours in the transition from late summer to fall — that triggers the change in an animal’s eating habits. Fortunately, this also happens to be when food is most abundant with the ripening of seeds, fruits, excess numbers of young, naive juvenile animals roaming the countryside, etc. So food is easy to come by and fattening is easily accomplished by overeating.

To take Black bears as a good example of this strategy, consider the following comparisons of its diet and caloric consumption from summer to fall.

In the summer Black bears consume about 5,000-8,000 kilocalories per day. If food and water are restricted at this time, they break down their muscles for energy, may accumulate too much nitrogenous waste in their blood, and may die. They cannot “hibernate” at this time.

In the fall, Black bears become voracious, begin consuming 15,000-20,000 kilocalories and drink gallons of water per day, excreting 1-2 gallons of urine as they metabolize all those calories into fat stores. Then, they stop eating and enter a lethargic, hypo-metabolic state of winter sleep, in which their resting heart rate of 80-100 beats per minute falls to less than 22 per minute and their breathing slows down to 2 or 3 times per minute. For the duration of their winter “sleep” they don’t eat, don’t drink, don’t break down any muscle, and females give birth to their cubs. It’s an amazing physiological transformation.

This is Alaskan brown bear #901 from Katmai National Park, a winner of the Fat Bear annual contest for most immense Fall season body mass. Photo from the New York Times, Oct. 2022.

But have you ever wondered if we humans exhibit a similar response to the waning photoperiod and colder days of fall weather? It’s true that humans cannot hibernate the way small rodents do, but could they increase their consumption of carbohydrates and fatten up in the fall and then decrease their daily activity and sleep more in the winter to conserve energy — like bears do? [Side note: carb craving in the fall is a real thing for me — how about you?]

Well, here is the answer, in an article from the New York Times written more than a hundred years ago, back in November 1906. (Click on the image to enlarge it to be readable.)

Apparently, it has been common practice in some cultures (in the past?) that face temporary periods of starvation in winter to prepare multiple loaves of substantially nutritious bread in the fall, prior to beginning a routine of reduced activity and increased bouts of sleeping during long winters. Sleeping with farm animals for warmth was encouraged, I guess.

Drawing from the British Medical Journal May 3, 2000.

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.