Unseen places — Montana ranches

We passed through a portion of south central Montana on our drive back to Minnesota, and stopped to drive around a beautiful ranch southwest of Bozeman.  Off the beaten track, it turned out to be a great place to see wildlife.

Looking up the canyon divide where the ranch property begins at Gallatin Gateway, Montana.

Turner Enterprises owns the 100,000 acre Flying D ranch, a haven for wildlife and for bison production.

The ranch runs between the Gallatin and Madison Rivers. I imagine there is some good fishing there.  Not a bad place to live either.

A couple of Sandhill Cranes called to us as we drove by.  The wildflowers were in bloom in the prairie areas.

A Hoary Marmot (relative of the woodchuck) called to us from atop his rock next to the road.

I’m not sure which grouse species this is, but this little hen really didn’t want to get off the road in front of our car.

From a high viewpoint on the ranch, we could just make out a scattered buffalo herd in the distance.  Was this what it looked like 150 or more years ago, when Native Americans scouted for buffalo?

Turner Enterprises conducts annual bison round-ups to select animals to harvest for the market. There are probably 5000 animals scattered through the ranch.

Elsewhere on Montana byways, along another ranch road, we watched a Red-tailed Hawk buzz a Bald Eagle sitting on a fence post.

The hawk (far upper right corner) made a couple of dives at the Eagle, but then circled overhead and left it alone.

This bird might have been sickly, because it’s feathers look shabby and it never moved while we drove right up next to it. Lead poisoning is not uncommon in raptors here, if birds scavenge deer or elk carcasses with lead shot fragments embedded in the flesh.

Utah’s glorious national parks: Bryce and Zion

Two parks in one day?  Well, really a day and a half.  It’s very hot, the grandkids are weary of all the driving and the setting up and taking down of camp, so we’re moving on to California after brief stops at the last two of Utah’s parks on our list of “must-sees”.

Wind and water have created a magical landscape of cliffs, hoodoos, and castles in the eastern wall of the high plateau that makes up Bryce Canyon.  The best way to appreciate it is to take a hike down in the canyon, but we’ll have to save that for next time when it’s cooler.  Even at almost 9000 feet, it’s 90 degrees here.

A closer look at the result of erosion in producing the arches and hoodoos in the amphitheater.

On to Zion, at lower elevation, and much hotter on this travel day.  Spectacular views through windows in the rock made the grandkids gasp, “wow”, as we entered the park from the east side through a long tunnel.

Striking red and buff-colored cliffs loom over us as we walk the trails at each of the tram stops in the park.

At places along the riverside walk up to the Narrows slot canyon, water runs through the rock rather than down through a more impervious layer. Ferns, moss, and a few wildflowers cling to the canyon walls.

At Weeping Rock…

I found a few Columbine flowers

The Virgin River that cut the canyon in Zion is a gentle stream today, but must have been torrential in previous eons to cut such a steep canyon.  Making hoodoos on the river rocks is a popular activity.

Eldest grandson tests his mechanical engineering skills to construct a tall hoodoo.

Ground squirrels are common on the riverside trail, and come right up to visitors to beg for food. The park service has instituted a $100 fine to prevent feeding of wildlife.

After a picnic lunch in the park, we’re headed for California, and the annual backpacking trip in the high Sierras.

Exploring Maplewood state park

We made a brief trip up north over the July 4 holiday to lovely Maplewood state park, about a 3-hour drive northwest of the Twin Cities.  Lakes, trails, great campsites, rental canoes and kayaks available, swimming beach, wildlife, and more.  What a beautiful place, and it must be even more so in the fall, when the maple-basswood forest has turned gold and red.

The view of upper and lower Lake Lida from Hallaway Hill must be spectacular in the fall.  Driving the man-made causeway west takes you out of the park.

The sumac was in full bloom, and honeybees were busy pollinating. In the fall, red plumes of sumac seeds will light up this hillside.

At the top of Hallaway Hill, we happened to be standing at the intersection of the territories of three Yellow Warbler males. If one male got too close to another male’s boundary, a brief aerial scuffle between them ensued. One of the resident males checked us out.

A pair of Trumpeter Swans fed on submerged vegetation on one of the lakes in the park.

Swan lake

Driving the grandkids back to their house, I spotted a pair of swans on a nest in a beautiful wooded lake surrounded by cattails. But unfortunately, I had a short focal length macro lens on the camera, instead of a telephoto, so this was the scene I could capture today.

I think there are a couple of newly hatched cygnets in the nest, but I’m too far away to tell.  (Click on the photo for a closer view)

I’ll have to return another day and hope they are still this close to the road.

Wonder flower — Peonies

What can you say about a plant that produces dozens of brilliantly colored, salad plate-sized flowers, except to call it a “wonder flower”.  It smells wonderful, blooms in brilliant shades of every color but blue, and has lush dark green foliage that survives benign neglect in the garden after its lovely blooms have disappeared.  Wonder, indeed.

Scarlet peonies, a feast for the eyes.

There are six main types of peonies we find in gardens, that seem to differ in how many petals they cram into the flower head.  Walking along the bike trail in front of my house, I found several different kinds of peonies in the roadside gardens.

The basic peony model is one of a simple row of petals surrounding the bisexual structures:  anthers (with their stamens full of pollen) and the central pistil containing the ovary (carpel) full of ovules and the stigma that receives the pollen.

A row of five petals surrounds the central reproductive structures, which are also brilliantly colorful.  Pink stigmatic structures protrude from the lime green carpels in the middle of a ring of bright yellow stamens.

Semi-double Peony flowers have multiple rows of petals, but still show a large concentration of stamens surrounding the brightly colored pistil in the center.

In Japanese Peonies, the stamens have been transformed into narrow petal-like structures, but they retain some of the pollen bearing structures at their tips. The female pistil structure is obvious in the center of the flower.

Some of the stamens and stigmas are transformed to rows of petals in the Double Peony, making it a much fuller, heavier flower. 

The Anemone type Peony has no male structures — they have been transformed into petals surrounding the central pistil structure with its multiple carpels topped with curved stigmas.

In the ball-shaped double peony flower, all of the stamens have been transformed into petal structures, and the flower produces no pollen.

Even though their vibrant blooms are rather short-lasting, peonies are one of the most sought-after garden plants, a welcoming introduction to the summer flower extravaganza.

Ants on the move

Whether it’s spring house cleaning or just colonizing new territory, the ants in my back yard are on the move.  After laying waste to large patches of lawn last summer…

Bare areas are evidence of ant nest destruction of back yard lawn in multiple locations.  The camera bag is a reference for size of old nests.

they have relocated to a shady hillside to do their nest building this summer, with predictable effects on the green sward I have been trying to cultivate.

Newly constructed ant nest on a hillside has multiple entrances to tunnels being dug out by the industrious swarm.

It’s fascinating to watch while minuscule creatures continuously bring up chunks of dirt and wood as they excavate.  I can only imagine how far into the hillside these tunnels go.

Black garden ant carrying a chunk of wood.  The ants are about 1/4 inch long.

These garden ants specialize in colonizing turf, leaving a small mounds of excavated dirt over the grass which then dies.  They consume seeds, grass roots, soil insects, nectar, fungi, and probably parts of our houses.

Some ants carry small pebbles…

and some carry relatively large boulders, probably up a long narrow tunnel to the surface where it is deposited right outside the hole.

Workers may be different sizes, but they do the same work, hour after hour, day after day without stopping.

Workers are essential to the health and maintenance of the nest, but their lifespan of weeks to months may be determined by food abundance.  In contrast queens can live for years, laying thousands of eggs over their lifetime.

It is truly impressive how much ants can excavate and how much they can carry, to say nothing of the organization it takes to perform such whole-scale nest engineering.  The wonders of the “hive mind” convert single individuals into a super-organism to build an elaborate system of tunnels and side chambers that ultimately forms a highly integrated city.

To demonstrate how complex the construction of an ant nest can be, a mammoth-sized leaf cutter ant nest was infiltrated with 10 tons of cement and excavated in Brazil. Scientists estimated that the millions of ants in the nest moved 40 tons of dirt in an area of 500 square feet that was excavated to a depth of 26 feet below the surface, as the video below shows.

Back in April

The great migration of songbirds is mostly over, and the “pretty birds” have moved on to their northern breeding grounds.  Several people have commented on what an amazing spring it was this year, with so many migrants congregating in backyards everywhere.

Swainson’s Thrush was almost a common backyard bird as they stopped off to search through the fallen leaf litter for something to eat.

Apparently the extreme cold weather and snow we had back in April stalled the migration, with birds piling up just south of us, waiting for better weather and northerly winds.  Elsewhere the migration stalled where extreme flooding occurred in Iowa, Missouri, and Nebraska.

As we returned north from Texas through the Plaines states in late April, we just missed the massive concentration of waterfowl that had briefly taken up residence in Loess Bluffs wildlife refuge in northwestern Missouri.  It wasn’t easy to get to the refuge because there was flooding with road closures all around it.  The refuge itself was also flooded, but we could still drive part way around it.

Redbuds were in bloom. Flooded pools that were full of migratory waterfowl two weeks earlier in the background.

Extensive wetlands attract a variety of waterfowl, especially Snow Geese.

May Apples were just about to bloom in the forests on the Loess Hills.

A month earlier, the refuge had an enormous population of Snow Geese stopover for refueling on their northward migration.  The Kansas City Star newspaper reported that on March 5, there were about 20 Snow Geese on the refuge, and a week later there were 1.3 MIllion!  Imagine the mess 1.3 million Geese would leave behind.  Maybe it’s a good thing the water levels were so high.

The scene on the refuge on March 15, 2019. Photo from the Kansas City Star.

There were still quite a few Snow Geese on the refuge (far away across the water in the background) in late April.  But what is of interest in this shot is the horde of Tree Swallows (small black dots on the cattails in the middle of the pond) spending a few nights in the marshes fattening up on insects.

We made a sunset drive through the refuge and spotted a few of the residents.

Lots of Great Blue Herons

Another GBH

Another GBH, in a scene looking like abstract art.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes moseying along the bank.

Turkey Vultures were congregated at the outlet of this large pond, where there was a bunch of stinky, dead fish.  The last golden rays of the setting sun almost made this bird attractive…

After reveling in the spring weather of northern Missouri, we headed home to MN, where the leaves were still in buds on the trees.

Breakfast toad

Filet of toad, a delicacy for a Red-Shouldered Hawk, was on the menu for one hawk that swooped down about 30 feet from me while I was photographing a couple of Redstarts (featured in the last post).

I saw the bird land silently and immediately spread its wings over its prey. This “mantling” behavior is done to conceal their kill from the eyes of others.

I thought the bird might have a mouse in its beak.  This is a juvenile bird, probably from last year’s brood.  You can just barely see the red shoulder patch, but it hasn’t acquired all of the adult’s distinctive barred striping on the breast.

Red-shouldered Hawks are forest or forest-edge birds, unlike their more open country counterparts, the Red-tailed Hawks.  These are usually the birds that we hear screaming at roosting owls in the forest in the daytime — owls that are likely to nab one of the hawk’s chicks right out of its nest.

Cropping in a little tighter, the supposed mouse does look like an amphibian with its webbed feet, most likely a toad, since frogs don’t usually venture this far from water.

Red-shouldered Hawks have a varied diet of small mammals, amphibians, snakes, as well as nestling birds.  They typically sit quietly in a tree just below the forest canopy, near water, and wait until something moves that looks edible, and then pounce, just as this bird did. Their phenomenal eyesight helps them detect the smallest quiver of grass or leaves that indicates a prey item.

The click of my camera’s shutter must have alerted the bird to my presence, because it suddenly turned, looked straight at me, and took off, flying straight toward my head and then over it.  I was too stunned to raise the camera and get a photo of it coming at me though.

I wonder if this was one of the offspring from the pair of Red-shouldered Hawks I photographed in my neighbor’s backyard last year, as they were being mobbed by crows.

The pair settling in to their nesting territory in early spring last year.

Later in the summer, I photographed the pair again, when they were defending their nest (and chicks) perhaps from an owl perched nearby.

Warblers in the woods

What a week it has been!  Rain, wind, cold weather, all combined to keep the migratory warblers hunting low in the vegetation.  And they were so frantic to find something to eat, they pretty much ignored the photographer stalking them.  Here are a few of the ones I saw in the back yard this week.

Dozens of female Redstarts flitted through the vegetation, barely pausing for a second to pose.  The yellow spots on the tail that are flicked often as the bird moves, makes her easy to spot.

Probably the most common birds seen in the backyard this week, male and female American Redstarts.

The second-most common Warbler in the backyard this week, the Chestnut-sided Warbler has a bright gold cap, and chestnut sides! They were everywhere, including the front lawn.

Chestnut-sided Warbler perched on a twig on the lawn, on the lookout for insects.

American Redstarts and Chestnut-sided Warblers may stay around this area to breed, or might move north to southern Canada, nesting in the deciduous forests in northern and northeastern U.S.

But others will be on the move much farther north. And since the early bird gets the best nesting spot, they will have to fuel up quickly on this stopover and continue north soon. Magnolia Warblers and Canada Warblers, like the Tennessee Warblers in the last post, migrate to the coniferous forests in northern Canada to nest.

It was really challenging to photograph this Magnolia Warbler who was on a mission to find something to eat, darting from branch to branch, in and out of the sun, never stopping.

Taking time out to sing, the Canada Warbler looks somewhat like a Magnolia Warbler but has a necklace of black without stripes down its breast and a beautiful yellow eye ring.

Wilson’s Warblers prefer the stream and forest edges in far northern Canada or mountainous areas of the U.S. and nest in low vegetation, unlike most of their warbler cousins. They are so ubiquitous across northern Canada in the summer that they are probably viewed migrating through almost all of the lower 48 states.

Wilson’s Warbler has a black cap on its yellow head, and moves much more slowly than Magnolia!

The great migration is about over, and spring wildflowers are finally on the way in greater numbers.  It’s been a cold start to the summer this year.

I wanted a photo of yellow birds on the yellow violets in the back yard, but it was not to be…

the nectar thief

Each year, the Ohio Buckeye tree outside my porch window puts out a prodigious number of flower spikes, which reliably attract a few pollinators and one clever nectar thief.

Pollination of these flowers is sufficient for the tree to produce copious quantities of nuts, which are harvested by the squirrels in the fall.

Hummingbirds, bumblebees, and orioles visit the Buckeye tree in the spring, along with a horde of Tennessee warblers.

Tennessee Warblers arrive just as the Buckeye tree is in full flower. How do they manage to time it just right?

Tennessee Warblers really have nothing to do with the state of Tennessee, but do migrate through there, where they were first seen and named way back in 1811.  Like many small insectivores they spend the winter in the tropics, eating insects and nectar, and breed in the Canadian spruce forests where they specialize on spruce budworm and are critical to controlling outbreaks of the moth there.

Though they do visit flowers to consume nectar, they do not perform much of a pollination service for the plants, because they use their sharp beaks to pierce the flower at its base to get at the nectar at the bottom of the flower tube, thus avoiding the pollen on the anthers sticking far out of the flower.

Note where the beak is positioned to the side of the flower at its base. Pollen might inadvertently stick to the bird’s head or breast as it bumps into the anthers, but it might be hit or miss in depositing the pollen on the stigma of another flower.

Their beak is slightly open as if they are biting the flower to open a small hole in its base.

They only visit for a few days each spring, so I guess this must be the peak of their migration through MN this year.  You can see a light dusting of pollen on this bird’s neck and breast.

The sugars in the nectar will be metabolized and stored as fat and should provide these tiny little birds (about 2/3 the size of a chickadee) with the fuel they need to get to the Canadian spruce forest to breed.

(these photos shot with the Sony RX10 iii bridge camera through my porch window — what an amazing little camera!)