Sea-going Peregrines

A couple of Peregrine falcons rode with us down the Carolina coast for about 100 miles, using the ship’s air wake (if there is such a thing) to effortlessly coast back and forth along the lee side of the ship.  When they tired of that, they perched on the bowsprit mast.  This went on for several hours, and the birds gave us numerous opportunities to photograph them.

Juvenile Peregrine falcon on bowsprit of cruise ship

It turns out this was not a breeding pair, but an adult Peregrine and a juvenile (pictured here) bird.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine falcons perched on bowsprit of cruise ship

Adult falcon at the top, juvenile below on the bowsprit of our cruise ship.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon

The juvenile bird is browner than the adult, with vertical brown stripes on its breast, and less black on the face and head, but with the characteristic peregrine falcon black tear drop below its eyes.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon

Adult Peregrine Falcon

The adult Peregrine has horizontal black stripes on its breast and a much darker black head and face.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

The falcons rarely flapped, but maneuvered with the wind by altering the position of their wings for more lift.  Both birds continuously moved their heads, searching downward into the ocean, as well as looking toward the ship.

What were these falcons doing here, 100 miles or more off the Carolina coast, coasting back and forth along the side of the ship?  One passenger let me know that these birds catch fish, so they were probably fishing.  I told her they hunt birds almost exclusively, but then had to eat my words when I saw one of the falcons stoop on a flying fish that leaped out of the water to avoid the ship.  And it also turns out that we had picked up a few other avian free-loaders in our last port — there were a couple of catbirds (mockingbird relatives) and house sparrows flitting around the topmdecks of the ship.  So perhaps the falcons were checking them out as well.

Adult Peregrine Falcon

Both falcons flew off right at sunset…

Most likely the falcons were migrating south for the winter, although this species is known to wander, and is probably the most wide-spread bird in the world, ranging from the tundra to the tropics, and absent only from New Zealand.  Bon voyage, sea-going Peregrines!

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.

the beginning of the end…of summer

It’s down to the asters and goldenrods, among the last of the blooms for pollinators to visit before it’s too cold to visit anything.

Bumblebees sleeping in asters

A couple of very cold bumblebees must have spent the night in these asters. They were pretty comatose on this chilly morning.

Hoverflies on goldenrod

The yellow jacket mimicry of these very large hoverflies was so good, I almost walked away from this Stiff Goldenrod plant to avoid them.

Bumble bees on showy goldenrod

Later in the day, a hoard of bumblebees attacked the few remaining flowering stems of Showy Goldenrod. It’s a last chance to harvest nectar and pollen to store away for the winter.

All this work, and then what happens to these insects?

The bumblebee queen who founded her colony in the spring (the old queen) and all of the workers she produced will likely die in the first freezing weather of the winter.  All their work over the summer and fall was to ensure that new queens would be born and survive the winter to found new colonies the following spring.  New queens hatched during the summer feed voraciously on nectar and pollen in the fall to lay down fat stores that will carry them through the winter in their underground nest.

Bumblebees on dahlias

Dahlias keep producing their glorious blooms well into the fall until the first hard frost, another good source of nutrition for young queens.

Hoverflies (depending on the species) might overwinter as adults or as late-stage, fully grown larvae, by taking shelter in protected nooks and crannies of  tree roots or bark.  In Minnesota, they will have to withstand freezing solid, as temperatures drop well below zero.  Individuals that overwinter as adults (probably females) are the ones we see flying around in the spring looking for aphid-infested plants on which to lay their eggs before they die.  When the larvae hatch, they have a food source waiting for them. A second wave of hoverflies join the party after warmer temperatures have spurred them through the pupal stage to emerge as adults.

Hoverfly on New England aster

Hoverflies slurp up nectar from fall flowers to build up their fat reserves. Some of the fat will be used to produce a glycerol anti-freeze compound so that their cells can tolerate freezing without damage from ice crystal formation.

Fall harvest gone wild

This should be called the year of the fantastic nut crop: acorns by the ton, walnuts carpeting the lawn, and buckeyes remaining unharvested because there is a food surplus in the backyard like never before.

Ohio buckeye nuts

The Ohio Buckeye tree is loaded with nuts, which the squirrels should have harvested by now.

Why is this happening?  I don’t remember there being great spring weather; oh wait, I was in the UK during spring.  The summer was the usual blend of hot and humid interspersed with cold and rainy, so it must have been perfect for growing a huge nut crop.  But why have all the oak trees in the backyard gone crazy with acorn production?

Oak acorns

The forest floor has become crunchy with fallen acorns. This is just what the squirrels leave behind.

We are experiencing a “mast year” in oak tree production of acorns, which happens irregularly, every two to five to seven years.  And it’s happening in not just one species of oak, but simultaneously in the three most common Minnesota oak species — the northern pin oak, the northern red oak, and the bur oak.

Bucks eating acorns, photo by Charles Alsheimer

In a normal year of acorn production, animals consume or store most of the acorn crop, leaving little chance that the nuts could sprout into seedling oaks. Photo by Charles Alsheimer.

In a recent post (September 12), I discussed how trees “talk” to each other, and this synchronous boom production of acorns is a good example of the result of that communication, which can occur not only locally within a forest, but over broad distances.  Basically, mast production of acorns is the trees’ combined strategy of satiating the acorn consumers so that the leftovers can develop into seedlings.

The oaks must have been talking to the walnuts in the backyard as well, and the squirrels are just not able to keep up with the bounties of this fall harvest.

Gray squirrel husking a walnut

Bring all your friends, Mr. Squirrel, I’ve already raked up a garbage can full of walnuts.

The perfect response to this enormous fall bounty — “stop, I’m full already”.

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images

National Geographic funny animal photos, 2018, Photo by Mary McGowan, CWPA, Barcroft Images.

What’s all the commotion?

I could hear two Red-shouldered hawks screeching at each other in the backyard, so I went out to investigate (with camera, of course).  As they flew back and forth between the tall oak trees, still vocalizing quite noisily, I caught a glimpse every now and then.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawks have a distinctive call, more of a shrill scream, actually, “kee-yeear” uttered repeatedly with a downward inflection.

This commotion went on for about 15 minutes, and I have no idea what it was about, whether they were fighting over territory or a prey item or mobbing something I couldn’t see.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Both were adult birds, perhaps a breeding pair that used the way backyard forest and ponds to raise their young this summer.

Red-shouldered Hawks are a forest bird in eastern North America, and eastern-most Minnesota seems to be the western limit of their breeding range.  But they are not permanent residents here, where snow-cover limits their ability to find their favorite food — voles, chipmunks, frogs, toads, and crayfish, which are all dormant in the winter.

Red-shouldered Hawk

It’s easy to see why the scientific name of this bird is Buteo lineatus, with its finely striped, rusty-colored breast stripes.

Red-shouldered Hawk

One last pose among the branches before taking off…

Red-shouldered Hawk

Jumping for joy?

When visiting the Minnesota Zoo with the grandkids the other day, I was fascinated with what was going on in the Dhole (pronounced with a silent “h”), or Asiatic wild dog pen. What I think might have been the male Dhole was doing a jump-dance step in one corner of his circuit around his pen.  It looked like this, but had no vocalization with it.

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole, Asian dog

The jump-dance step was repeated several times, so it might have been part of a display for the female in the pen, or it might have been some type of aberrant displacement behavior, an artifact of being bored in its captive environment.

Dhole, Asian dog

Was he showing off for his mate?

Dhole (Cuon alpinus) are native to central, south, and Southeast Asia, but are not members of the familiar Canis genus that includes domesticated dogs, coyotes, wolves, African jackals, and even Australian dingoes.  They have shorter legs, different dentition, and differences in skull anatomy that distinguish them from members of the dog genus.

Dhole, Asian dog

Dhole are highly social animals, living in large clans of related individuals, but they lack the strong social hierarchy of wolves. They are typically diurnal hunters, going after medium and large-sized hoofed mammals and their young. Small groups of 3-5 individuals hunt cooperatively to bring down their much larger prey, much like African hunting dogs do. Although Dhole seem docile and non-aggressive in their clan in the wild, efforts to tame them have failed, as captive youngsters have remained shy or become vicious to handlers.  Dhole — an interesting dog “cousin”.


Wolves doing what they do best at the Minnesota Zoo…enhanced for dramatic effect with a little photo editing.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

My attempt to make this very handsome gray wolf in its semi-natural Zoo enclosure look every bit of the dominant animal that it is.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

Wolffish greeting. I didn’t realize that wolves have such long thin legs, more apparent in their summer fur.

Gray wolves, Minnesota Zoo

The social hierarchy seems to be well established in this small pack: subordinate animals lower their heads in the presence of more dominant animals.

Gray wolf, Minnesota Zoo

the “leader of the pack”…

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Chameleon spider

When I was out picking raspberries the other day the other day, I found a pretty little white spider waving its long front legs at me.

Flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

This little crab spider waving its front legs should look like a tempting morsel to a bird.

Getting closer, I see that this is a crab spider, an ambush predator that sits and waits for prey to come near and then reaches out to snare them with its long front legs.

Flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

Crab spider in ambush mode with front appendages spread to snare unsuspecting prey.

Flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

Spines or spurs at the ends of those long appendages help snare the unsuspecting prey.  Maybe a Japanese beetle will land close by;  there are plenty of them on these raspberry plants.

Japanese beetles eating raspberry leaves

There are plenty of these little beasts chewing up my raspberry bushes, but I don’t know if the spider is even interested in them.

I’m intrigued by the strawberry colored marking on the sides of this little spider, which should make it easy to identify.

Flower crab spider, Misumena vatia

A Google image search suggests this is a flower crab spider, or goldenrod crab spider.

Usually, these flower crab spiders are well camouflaged by matching the color of the flower, yellow or white, on which they are sitting.  The white-flowered raspberries have finished blooming, however, so this crab spider stands out against green leaves and red fruit.  Time for it to move to the back yard and start hunting on the yellow oxeye, black-eyed susans, and yellow coneflowers.

Goldenrod crab spider capturing a wasp.  From Wikimedia Commons

Goldenrod crab spider capturing a wasp. From Wikimedia Commons.

In its yellow form, the crab spider blends perfectly with its background on the flower, but how does a white spider turn yellow?  By secreting yellow pigment from the top layer of cells in its outer covering into the white, pigment-containing cells below, flower crab spiders can be chameleon-like, changing gradually over a period of 10-20 days from white to yellow.  Yellow spiders that move to white flowers excrete their yellow pigment and transform into white spiders in a mere 6 days.

Flower crab spider, white morph, Photo from Wikipedia

Flower crab spider, Photo from Wikipedia, by Luc Viatour,

Visual input is highly important in stimulating and achieving the spider’s color matching to its background; spiders whose “eyes” were painted over lost the ability to change color.

Apparently, only the females are the chameleons of this species; males which are a small fraction of the size of the females, are yellow-brown and cannot change color.

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?

This time, last year: a foxy morning

The usual suspects have returned to the back yard this summer, but one of my favorites is still missing, the pretty little red foxes.  So, here’s a glimpse of their visit to the backyard last year.

June 30, 2017:  What a delight to see my favorite canids lounging in my Minnesota backyard this morning.

red fox-

In addition to brief, one minute naps, there was quite a lot of scratching and grooming going on.

red fox-

And when they stopped digging at their own fleas or whatever was itchy, they groomed each other.

red fox-

must be some good stuff inside the other fox’s ear…

I watched these two foxes for several minutes, but can’t figure out if they are a male-female pair, or two youngsters, or what.  Male foxes are usually noticeably bigger then females, and these two seem to be identical in size. They do seem a bit small and skinny, so maybe they are younger, but this year’s kits would not be this big yet, having been born in late March, and just out of their den in early May.  It’s a mystery.

red fox-

Shot through the not very clean porch window at 500 mm —